Indonesian action cinema burst back onto the screen kicking and screaming in 2009 with the release of the full blooded martial arts movie Merantau (released in certain territories as Merantau Warrior).
The film introduced the world to a new martial arts hero in the form of the very talented iko Uwais, and came to the screen courtesy of Weslh writer/director Gareth Evans who had fallen in love with the Indonesian martial arts style known as Silat, while shooting a documentary a few years earlier. The film was well received both at home and internationally, and Evans began developing a second movie that would reunite most of the cast and crew for the movie which would become The Raid or The Raid: Redemption.
The film has been picked up for North American release by Sony Pictures, and various distributors for the rest of the world and there’s an English language remake in the works already and the film hasn’t been released in Indonesia yet! Force of Geek’s Man from Hong Kong Mike Leeder talks to the film’s director about the project.
THE RAID: REDEMPTION
In Conversation with
FOG!: Give us the quick pitch for The Raid?
Gareth Evans: The Raid is an all out action film about an elite SWAT team that enters a building long considered a no-go zone for the Cops to bring down its owner, a drug baron named Tama. When they are spotted they come under attack from every room and every floor, and have to battle their way out level by level in the hope of surviving.
What was the genesis of The Raid? I know you were originally planning a very different movie as your follow up to Merantau. What kind of films were an influence on this project?
After Mareantau, I’d begun developing a movie called Berandal, it was supposed to be a standalone flick, a prison/gangster movie that show a tougher edge to iko and our choreography. We had everything prepared, the script was ready, the choreography was designed, a lot of our cast and crew were attached, all we needed was to get the finance in place.
We spent close to 18 months trying to get it running but because the scope and size of the project was much more complex and expensive than Merantau, it left us with a budget range that priced us out of almost all of our investors.
We felt that a good deal of time had passed since our first film, and that we needed something to fall back on, a project that we could afford to bankroll alongside an investor willing to cement Iko’s growing reputation as one of the most exciting new talents to emerge in Asian action cinema.
So I dusted off an old synopsis I had, and we worked very fast to get it up and running ready for productions, and that’s how THE RAID came to be.
The initial concept came from having read the synopsis to the Chow Yun-Fat film Peace Hotel when I was a teen, I’d seen the poster but had no idea of how the film played out. I really loved the idea of a safe house for criminals and wanted to make something more contained, it wasn’t really until after I was in pre-production that I finally got to see Peace Hotel, and thankfully it was substantially different from what my imagination had built over the years.
The films biggest influences came from single location action films like Die Hard, Assault on Precinct 13, and Escape from New York, with riffs on Romain Gavras music video M.I.A: Born Free, the REC films and of course District 13. During development I started toying with the idea of creating a link between it and Berandal, so now it fits in nicely as a sequel that continues the story of the surviving characters from The Raid.
How did you go about assembling your cast and crew for the sequel?
I used almost 90% of the same team that we worked with on Merantau as crew for this one. That shoot was so long we all became one big family, so I was eager to maintain as many of the relationships as possible. It was also very helpful that they understood my shooting style and the way I work so to have that support and understanding was key.
In terms of casting, we used some people from Merantau, Iko and Yayan return of course, as both performers and choreographers, but we also cast Donny Alamsyah again who had a smaller role in Merantau, this time giving him the chance to throw more than just a couple of punches and kicks this time. The Raid, is much more action orientated than Merantau was, so the majority of cast is made up of fighters and stunt guys.
We conducted a national search for fighters and from around 400 auditions we cast almost 80 of them for The Raid. We also added key cast members such as Joe Taslim (a national Judo champion) to play the role of the SWAT team sergeant, with Ray Sahetapy and Pierre Gruno adding their wealth of experience to the film.
The film is very much a huge leap forward in terms of directing and action choreographing. It’s a lot more in your face, a lot more brutal and visceral, while still giving us the opportunity to see the beauty in the action.
Yes! A huge part of the process when designing any choreography is to understand the psychology of the character and the situation that he or she is in at that time. It won’t work if it’s just tonally more violent, it has to come from somewhere, to tell some story.
In Merantau, the choreography is nowhere near as aggressive as it is in The Raid, for the simple reason that Iko’s character in that film is a far more pure peace-seeking innocent young man who is also on a spiritual quest.
In that film, he would defend himself to a point while looking for the nearest exit from the situation, it lent itself to the choreography for Iko to parry hits and strike back fast and brief before attempting to ‘avoid’ the fight. As the film developed and the situations became more serious, it called for a tonal shift in the choreography as Iko’s character started to bring the fight to his attackers. There was a character arc in place for the choreography.
What makes The Raid a different experience entirely is that it is designed in such a way that the situation presented to the characters is a ‘kill or be killed ‘psychology, add to that that these are all men trained in lethal combat and you’re left with a very clean cut idea of how aggressive the choreography will be.
In an attack situation, the SWAT team have no option than to make sure their opponents are left either writhing in pain on the floor with no way of getting back up, or simply dead on the ground.
Our shooting style changed significantly, we substituted the very long takes from Merantau, with a more intimate selection of shots, with the editing tightened to really showcase the choreography in its best light. The importance of maintaining the performers speed and power was a major factor in that decision and even though we were shooting in very restrictive, claustrophobic locations, I wanted to maintain a distance from the camera and the fighters.
The choreography team spent a long time developing and staging the fight sequences featured in the film, so it’s my responsibility to make sure that we are showcasing each and every decision, not only in a shot wide enough to see the choreography in motion but also from the right angle to best accentuate each movement and each strike.
Now with the film taking place primarily in one location, the tenement block, with I guess the main set being redressed repeatedly as the team progress through the building, how did you set out to keep the action and pacing building, to keep things fresh?
Our art director Moti, did a superb job in mixing both real locations with studio sets so they would connect together seamlessly. One of our most basic ‘cheats’ was to write the room numbers on the doors in chalk, this way if suddenly needed to shift to a different floor, all we had to do was change the first number from 503 to 603 etc. We’d add some extra props and dressing, and designed the corridor so it could easily switch from a T-section design to an L-section and then also one long straight hallway.
These changes are only minor, but they were important in helping us find new challenges and options for the choreography.
The same way for the room designs, we didn’t stick to one basic box like structure.
We gave each its own specific shape and character, then for the 14th floor we treated it as one open plan drugs lab which gave us a little respite from the claustrophobia of the other floors, and allowing us enough space to run and spread out the choreography. We also built some two story sets with a set of rooms and also an atrium/courtyard-all of this was specifically designed to accommodate some of the choreography we had in place before we finalized our locations.
It was very important for the film to remain visually interesting without losing that feeling of each room belonging to the same building.
What was your shooting schedule? What were you shooting with, how did you find using HD for action?
We shot for just under three months, one month less than we had on Merantau.
The shoot was pretty intense, our shortest day was probably around 16 hours, and the longest was 26 hours, that was a pretty horrible day. We shot using the Panasonic AF100, it’s a DSLR style camera that has been developed to reduce and remove most of the pitfalls associated with the DSLR’s that are currently available. We used the AF100 with PL mounts so that we could use Zeiss 35mm Ultra Primes. In order to maintain a higher bit rate and 4.2.2 colour space we output from the cameras HD-SDI port into a Nanoflash external recorder. It’s a great camera and we really put it through a lot of tough low-light conditions.
We worked out some bugs and issues along the way, and by the end we were really happy with the results we were getting. Shooting action in HD for us is essential, being able to quickly transfer the files and edit the fights in full HD is such a valuable asset. It allows us to check each shot and each edit to tidy up as much as possible, to see if there are any clunky shots or jarring edits before we move onto our next scene or location. It also helps that we were only dealing with data storage which is relatively cheap, if we were using film stock, the amount of takes we do would cripple our budget. We went through over 8000 slates on this film.
What was the toughest sequence to shoot and why?
Every day! This was an exhausting shoot, with so many different challenges that presented themselves each day. On Merantau, it was a way to learn how to shoot a fight scene, but in all honesty we kept things pretty basic.
On The Raid, it was an opportunity to try out new techniques and improve upon our previous work with martial arts sequences, but this time we also added gunplay, pyrotechnics, explosions and more complex stunts than last time. I think also on Merantau, there was a certain naivety that saw me through it, it was my first professional film and I blagged my way through it learning as I went along.
The Raid was completely different, that naivety was gone and in its place was a certain level of expectation. Our remit was to push everything to be ten times better than the last film, so it made for a physically and mentally demanding shoot.
With so much action, were there any accidents on set?
We had a few accidents, thankfully nothing major although some could have easily been much worse than they turned out.
We had a stunt guy get stabbed in the cheek with a soft wooden prop knife, it may not sound so bad at first, but when you realise it was barely an inch from his eye, it doesn’t matter if it’s soft wood or a real blade. During one of the big falls, one of our stuntmen veered face first into a wall, leaving a horrible friction burn that tore the skin on his forehead.
Another stunt guy was supposed to be thrown from a balcony and land one floor below, but there was a mistake with the sling that sent him bouncing away from the crash mats only for him to land five meters down onto a not so soft concrete floor.
Thankfully, none of the above resulted in any serious injuries, a couple of days rest, a few cups of tea and then everybody was back on set ready to go again. As horrible as it might sound, sometimes on an action film, no matter how much you prepare and plan, these things happen. But we always have a team of paramedics and an ambulance crew on standby for each day that we shoot an action/stunt sequence.
With this being my second time directing an action film, I can’t express how important they are, and how much respect we have for our stunt teams. They risk their health each and every day, sometimes for no more than a few seconds worth of footage. That’s a lot to put on the line, just to give the audience a brief ‘wow’ moment. It’s a disgrace that stuntmen aren’t properly awarded by the Academy Awards for their work.
Now the film is produced by Todd Brown (head honcho of www.twitchfilm.net) and XYZ Films, how much involvement did they have in the film and in what areas?
The guys at XYZ Films, including Nate, Nick, Aram and of course Todd were involved from the very beginning. Todd was a major part of why Merantau had the success it did, helping us find the right sales agent and strategizing its festival run.
I had a great working experience with Todd on Merantau, and it was something I want to continue on our future projects. Initially we came together with XYZ while trying to get Berandal off the ground, but after that fell through I pitched them The Raid, and it was a unanimous decision to go ahead and make it.
They were with us from the design of the concept and I would send drafts of the script for feedback, video storyboards of fight sequences and more, to keep them as involved as they could be despite our geographical distance. During production we handled the execution while they set up the deals and sales with Celluloid Nightmares in Cannes, but in post production we collaborated a lot more closely with me sending rough cuts of the film for feedback, and Todd actually going to the effort of sending revision edits for me to see.
This was really an incredible working process because he would be brutal in his cuts, and while I would say to him “for every five minutes you cut, I will most likely only cut one minute myself’, it absolutely helped me get a fresh perspective of the film so I could trim away as much of the fat as possible.
The film was picked up for North American release during shooting by Sony, was that a great boost to you in terms of confidence?
We sent footage to the Cannes Film Market through our sales agents and executive producers, Celluloid Nightmares and XYZ Films. We sent a few offline edits of fight sequences from the film, no Foley, no music, still without any FX work. All we hoped for was to generate interest in the film, but suddenly we started selling territories on the strength of that footage and once Sony picked up the US rights, it started something of a chain effect.
We were still in production at the time, I was shooting an execution scene and throughout almost every take, my phone would start buzzing and it would be an update from Todd telling us more about the deals going through.
Then came the call from Sony and it became very hard to keep focused. It was a huge boost to the crew who by then had been working flat-out for two months, we were all running pretty much on empty by then, so the sales news really served as a validation that what we were doing was worthwhile. If there was anything negative to take from it, it would be that for the remaining month of the shoot it added a little more pressure for me personally.
Suddenly I’m delivering a film to a major studio, and I found myself in a place where I would over think certain elements and scrutinize each shot and performance even more than normal. Every filmmaker love and defends their work from outside criticism, but on the inside we’re also the most pessimistic about it.
The film debuted to a very positive audience reception at Toronto, something that’s been duplicated at various other festivals and screenings, and there’s also the news of not only an English language remake of the film, but also a sequel to the film. What can you tell us about the way you felt when the audience responded so well and about the remake/sequel?
The screening at Toronto and everything that has followed since, has just been the most amazing experience. We had been told going in that the Midnight Madness audience has a tendency to be wild, but I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the reaction the film got.
As a filmmaker all you want is for the audience to get a kick out of your film and for certain beats to work, so to hear the cheers and applause was a deeply moving and rewarding experience. Their reaction really elevated the film, making that screening something special and thankfully that seems to have continued with reviewers responding so positively to the film also. There are talks of a remake but at this moment I don’t really want to discuss that too much.
Personally I have no problem with a remake being in the works, the original still exists and it opens up the possibility of even more people learning about the film. I’ve been asked if I’m interested in directing it, but I personally feel that The Raid is such a stripped down concept that it lends itself more to a new voice. I’ve already had my shot at the story and I’ve done all that I can do with the location, the setup, the story and the action design.
Sure, there are things I couldn’t do because of our budget level, but that’s life!
Maybe I can execute some of those ideas in different projects, new storylines. I think it’s far more exciting to let someone else take a run at it. I can’t wait to see what they come up with and the direction they take it in.
What’s next for Gareth Evans?
Berandal is my immediate future I think. We invested a lot of time and effort into the project already, the choreography design, the script, the casting, the majority of locations, that’s already 90% done! All we were waiting for was the finance to put it into production, hopefully now as a response to the success of The Raid, it will mean we can get enough interest from investors so that we can move into production on that sooner rather than later. It’s an itch I’ve wanted to scratch for a long time!
I’m also developing a couple of other projects including something in Indonesia for Joe Taslim to star in, while looking for a project to direct myself either in the UK or US. I’ll always return to Indonesia, it’s been my home for the last few years and has gifted me with so much including my career, so you can expect a lot more kicks and punches to the face from me & Iko!
Since the interview was conducted, the film has received even more positive feedback on the festival circuit and been given a slight rename to THE RAID: REDEMPTION, which is explained by Evans himself on the film’s official blog which features plenty of behind the scenes information and video.