Of all of the movies I saw at SXSW, The Raid: Redemption got by far the best response (including Cabin in the Woods, a movie I loved). The movie, about an elite police squad’s real-time raid on a drug lord’s stronghold, is everything you would want in an action film: shoot outs, hand to hand combat, last minute rescues and some serious Metal Gear Solid-style stealth moments. I didn’t see one person in the SXSW screening that wasn’t losing their minds for this movie. It is a visceral, incredible experience that has really stayed with me. But you don’t have to just take my word for it. Brent Moore wrote up his review of the film last week.
Before the film’s U.S. release this weekend, The Raid: Redemption director Gareth Evans spoke with me over the phone about making the film, choreographing its amazing fight scenes and the difference between The Raid and his first film Merantau, a movie I discovered after having it recommended to me by Moriarty comic book writer Daniel Corey during an episode of Geekscape last year! This is what he had to say:
So tell me a little bit about how you got involved in the film. Where did you guys shoot it?
We shot it all in Indonesia. I’ve been living out there for about 4 years now. My wife is Indonesian Japanese. And basically what happened was, she got me a gig out there filming a documentary and that was sort of the starting point. That was the thing that got me introduced to Silat (the Indonesian traditional martial art featured in The Raid), and the traditions and the culture out there. It also got me introduced to Iko (Uwais), the star of the two films we’ve made so far.
And you made Merantau?
Yeah. I made Merantau as well. Yeah.
I discovered Merantau off of the recommendation of a friend of mine about 9 months ago and was totally blown away. Merantau’s phenomenal.
Thank you so much. I really appreciate that.
But there’s a huge design difference between the films. What were the differences between making Merantau and The Raid?
I think that when we made Merantau, a large part of it was the idea that we were trying to introduce a lot of new elements to it. I wanted introduce Silat. I wanted to introduce elements of Indonesian tradition and culture. And Iko was a new action star. So in Merantau we required a lot more for the audience to be patient before we got to the action sequences. Because of the design of the story, we couldn’t have Iko fight anyone within the first five minutes because it just wouldn’t make sense.
Right. He’d be beating up his own village.
Yeah. Exactly! So as a result of that, some people saw Merantau as having a much slower pace, which is true. After Merantau, we wanted to make a different film first, and this film was going to be a much bigger production. The finance situation in Indonesia for film was looking pretty shitty at the time so we couldn’t get the money at all. Every investor we talked to said they’d be willing to invest X amount but only if it was worth 50% of the budget. But that X amount was only ever worth 20% of what we needed for Merantau, for this other big film. And so after a year and a half of trying and failing to get that budget in place, I decided “well, let’s do something smaller. Let’s do something more controlled that we can bring in on a tighter budget.” And so that’s how The Raid came about. It was a Plan B. It was a backup project!
And it was one of those things where I said from the beginning “okay, we’ve introduced Silat. We’ve introduced the culture. We’ve introduced the practices and the traditions. We’ve introduced Iko already. We don’t need to do all that again. So let’s do something that just comes out of the blocks really fast and aggressive and a movie that would be fun for me to make then and enjoyable to watch as well. It came out of that frustration of that year and a half of not doing anything and just wanting to come out and go crazy with something.
Well, the movie goes off like a rocket. I’m recommending it to the entire audience, and they’ve got to see it in theaters. I’ve never seen an audience respond in a theater like this. They went crazy that Sunday night at SXSW.
That was right up there with Toronto as far as reactions. It was just insane. I was so happy that the audience took to it as they did.
And the movie just forces you to get involved, even on a physical level. I found myself surprisingly shouting out at the screen. What I love about the style of this movie is that it is a guttural fight style and that you guys shot it and choreographed it in a way that really maximizes what the fighting is about.
What we decided to do was kind of use Merantau as a reference point of comparison. In Merantau, a lot of the fights in the early stages are kind of more playful, a bit more gentle, because Iko’s character is kind of this nice kid trying to evade the violence. He’s trying to avoid the fight. So he’ll knock someone to the floor and then run. He doesn’t want to injure them, but just escape from it. Whereas in The Raid the psychology is so different. Every situation in that building is kill or be killed. That sort of informed us as we were designing the fight scenes as to how we would design the violence aspect of the film.
Another thing we wanted to do is ground our fights in a sense of reality as well. We don’t want people to think that there’s too much style to it, even though the kills are kind of creative. But they feel like they come from a logical point. It was important not to go too overboard with stuff, you know? The only exaggeration is that the fights go on as long as they do, the idea that Mad Dog can take so many hits and slams to the head and not be dead yet. That’s the only thing that we stretched in terms of reality, was in the duration of the fights. But we wanted the audience to think that if they studied Silat for a long period of time that they’d be able to do those moves too. It’s not about acrobatics. It’s about skill in a real fight.
How much did you guys shoot in an apartment and how much of it was on a set?
We were in a set for about 85% of the film, so the corridors and all of the rooms and the atrium were all in a studio and then the drug lab and the stairwells are in a real building.
Did you guys just destroy everything that you built in the film?
We couldn’t afford to destroy everything! Because with the walls- when we built the corridor room, our budget was so low that after we shot the corridor room, that wood was used to build the atrium.
We were very eco-friendly filmmakers on this shoot!
What are some of the challenges of shooting in Indonesia?
For me it’s kind of hard to answer because the only stuff I’ve done outside of Indonesia has been very low budget, independent based. I guess the only thing I can really say is positives really. I don’t really have challenges there. I have a great crew that support me throughout. They work their ass off and are really committed to it because we do really long days and it was a long production as well on this film. And I guess if anything as a sort of comparison note, if I can say anything, is how different the film experience has been for me, because I’ve had to adjust and learn along the way because each production has been a bit of a learning curve for me.
So before I moved out to Indonesia I had this unreasonable idea of how long it would take to shoot something. Like I had an idea of “I can get through an X amount of scenes in one day”. I was used to working on low budget and just sort of powering through stuff. And then all of a sudden you’re on a film set and I’d gone from being on a low budget independent feature in the UK with 5 crew to suddenly being in Merantau and having 100 to 150 people a day. And so it’s a big step up and a big challenge as well. On Merantau I almost felt I had to brag my way through it each day and learn to be a filmmaker that way.
And what was the process of putting that first film together?
Basically we’d decided that we wanted to do something with Silat, we wanted to do something with Iko. That was our initial hitting off point. The guys were masters of Silat and the guys who worked on the choreography team, they were sick of the way that Silat was represented in television. In television it’s represented as if it’s kind of a joke. It’s guys who morph into panthers and shoot fireballs out of their ass.
Why is that?
It’s just been like that. It’s been like that for years. People just never saw potential in it for it to be a legit martial art for cinema. And so when we were pitching the idea for Merantau the first time around, and we were telling people we were doing a Silat film, everyone kind of laughed at it. No one really took it seriously. And so I said to the choreographers “look, we’re going to do this properly and we’re going to keep it grounded in reality and we’re going to reclaim Silat in the media.” And that’s kind of been the mission for the company. Beyond being commercially successful with our films, our goal, our mission statement, is to popularize Silat on an international level.
Do you practice it yourself?
Before the first film I did about 10 months of practice with Silat, just so that I could be involved with the choreography. I wanted to come to it with a certain degree of knowledge with it. I didn’t want to suggest certain movements or ideas that didn’t have anything to do with the martial arts that they were doing. I needed to come from a certain knowledge point. Since then I haven’t really had a chance to go back to it. But I’ve been picking up tricks and ideas from the guys from watching them design choreography for 2 to 3 films now.
And how do you go about piecing together the choreography for these fight scenes? Low angles. High angles. Moving camera. Because you do use the full extent of the space and the fight choreography. The economy of it is awesome.
The way that we approach it is that there’s 3 months- at the beginning, before we even start pre-production- there’s 3 months were it’s just me, Iko and Yayan- Yayan played Mad Dog. And it’s just the three of us in a room with a handi-cam and some crash mats and we design all of the fight scenes then. We go through it one scene at a time. And once we’re done designing it, we’ll shoot the whole thing as if we’re shooting the real film. So we’ll do like a video storyboard where we can get every angle and every edit in our head locked down. So then we know what’s required from the film. We know what it’s going to look like in the finished product. And the reason we do that is as a sort of safety net. So when we’re in production everybody knows what’s required of every single shot. And as we’re getting those shots in production we can drop them down into the edit timeline. We can gradually see the scene come together. If anything’s wrong with the edit- if any of the shots didn’t cut nicely- we’re still on location. We don’t have to pay for an extra day. We can just go in and get the shot and fix it. So it was more born out of necessity because we felt we were shooting nice long scenes of action cinema.
So all those things, like the movements of the shots, they are very specific to the action choreography. I don’t tend to shoot fight scenes where we shoot for coverage. We never do the wide masters and then the closeups and over shoulders. We never do it like that. We design every shot to be like a jigsaw piece so it’s that one specific shot that we use for the finished version of the film. It’s designed specifically for that one movement in the choreography. And so it gets to that point where we do take after take after take because we got to get that shot right from beginning, middle and end. It has to be exact. It’s a tough process but we feel as though it has a benefit in terms of presenting the action in a different way from what’s become the norm now.
The results show that the work is worth it. People were losing their minds watching this film. It really is something you should watch in a communal setting like a movie theater because everyone gets really invested. And I think that’s a credit to you guys building dynamic fights that have unique builds instead of the standard master shots of old Kung Fu movies where the audience watches the performers from an objective angle. You’re actually injecting us into the fights with the way you guys shoot them. You feel it when someone gets tossed out a window or thrown off a balcony.
Exactly! Yeah. I think people can relate to pain more than they can to other things so… yeah! <laughs>
Has Hollywood been calling you guys about doing something over here?
I’m looking to do the sequel in Indonesia first. That’s kind of my goal. The sequel is that movie that we couldn’t get the money for in the first place. That film has kind of become the sequel to The Raid now. Now whether I’m in a position to do that- I’m going to try and do that and that’s the priority. But after that? I’d be open to doing something in the U.S. But it’s gotta be the right project, the right timing and everything else. I’m not going to rush in to be plugged into some kind of franchise or anything. I want to take the decision on my own terms and make sure that they’d want me for the films that I’d make not just to fill some column space.
We look forward to it! When does The Raid come out in the States?
It comes out March 23rd in New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington and then expands the following weeks.
I’m excited. I think everyone in our audience should see this movie. It’s just a real time, kick ass action film from the beginning. It’s just awesome.
Thank you so much!
The Raid: Redemption opens this weekend in select cities courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics and expands over the next few weeks. Check the official website for screenings. You’ve got to see this movie in a theater.