Director Gareth Evans takes us through the movies and memories that inspired The Raid.
Few journeys are as unlikely as the one that took Gareth Evans to Indonesia. Born and raised in a small village on the outskirts of Swansea, South Wales, he grew up watching kung-fu movies on VHS with his friends. He didn’t bother dreaming of Hollywood – it was over too many horizons.
His wife had family and contacts in Indonesia. She hooked Evans up with a job shooting a documentary about silat, the country’s native martial art. So they upped sticks to Southeast Asia, only for the six-month sabbatical to turn into permanent residence.
Liberated by a film industry poised to follow in the footsteps of Hong Kong and Thailand, and invigorated by the discovery of Iko Uwais, a screen fighter in the mould of Tony Jaa, in 2009 Evans made the leap into full feature production with Merantau.
Just as Heat wouldn’t have existed without Michael Mann’s earlier TV version, LA Takedown, Merantau laid the groundwork for The Raid, its older, ballsier cousin. Evans swung by LWLies HQ back in February to talk us through the movies and memories that inspired his latest martial arts riot.
LWLies: We know how you got from Wales to Indonesia as you’ve spoken about it a lot. When you got to Indonesia, how then did you find your way into the film industry?
Evans: First of all back in the UK I worked on an independent film called Footsteps, which was self-financed and literally like a crew of three or four of us together, friends of mine that helped me out on it. We made that, it was a feature-length film but we didn’t really do enough with it. We managed to get small DVD distribution in the US but beyond that we didn’t really push enough with the film. I kept myself too localised and I didn’t do enough to get myself noticed in the UK film industry. So what happened then was that I went back to my Monday-to-Friday nine-to-five job and I’d got married recently and my wife was living with me in Swansea and we were both really happy to be there in our house in that location, but we hadn’t really settled in terms of our work life. So then she put in a few phone calls back in Indonesia and she managed to get me work doing a documentary out there. So first of all it was just a freelance directing gig – six months out there and then come back to the UK. It was a very easy decision to make then – that kind of opportunity, we just snapped it up.
I went out there for six months and throughout that time it was one of those things whereby I’d always watched martial arts films and was always fascinated by Jackie Chan films and Bruce Lee films but I never thought I would make something within that scale. It never really stood out as something I could do at that point. So I knew all about kung-fu and muay thai and things like that, but I’d never heard of silat, the Indonesian martial art. That’s what we were filming in the documentary. So when we went out to do the documentary, I started becoming more and more obsessed with the traditions out there, the cultures, and then also silat. Then I met Iko [Uwais]. After that documentary was finished me and my wife kind of spoke about it, her family are from Indonesia anyway, so making that decision to move out there wasn’t that big a deal. It wasn’t that big a thing – it was just something that felt quite natural to us.
So we went out there and first of all I worked on TV. I went out there with a job to do television work. But the TV industry there is very, very different from back here. Productions are so fast and my lack of Indonesian knowledge, especially the language, was one of the things that set me back from really being able to do anything there. So after about five months or six months of doing that, I decided I had to do something different. So my wife set up the film company with myself and she went off and found the money to make the film and I basically was the creative side of it. But through working with that TV company I managed to meet a bunch of guys I could bring in to work with me on the production then. So I got my line producer from the TV company, my actual producer who was in the field throughout the shoot, he was from the TV company. In terms of building a crew I had to rely on them a lot then, so my producer had a lot of experience working with TV commercials crews, and a lot of them work with foreign directors so the crew ended up being mostly from a 'TVC' background.
What was the biggest shock for a Swansea boy landing in Indonesia?
It’s a weird one because for me it wasn’t so much a culture shock in terms of how things are different in both countries. Indonesia is a very friendly place to be – everyone’s treated me nicely and with respect. The big difference was making that leap from doing stuff on a very, very low-budget independent level and then suddenly having a film where… The first film we did the crew was 150 people, before that I’d only ever done something with four or five. It was a huge leap up in terms of the size of the production and I still hadn’t realised then how unrealistic some of my ideas were in terms of what we could achieve in a certain amount of time. I was in the mindset like I was on the first film, 'Oh we can shoot this film in no time at all. It’ll be done really quick. We can shoot super fast.' Then all of a sudden I was on a film set, but a professional film set, where things move a lot more slowly and there’s a lot more different elements that kind of need to be prepared and planned beforehand. On that first film, it was a four-month shoot, it was almost like I was blagging my way through it. I was learning a lot as I went along and I was figuring out how to maintain a sense of control on the shoot. But at the same time inside I was freaking out because of how long it took to shoot the thing.
When you first laid eyes on Iko while filming the doc, was it instantly a case of a lightbulb pinging on above your head? In a room full of silat experts, how did you know he was the one?
When we were looking for people for the film, for screen fighters, there’s a big difference between people who are really, really good at martial arts and people who are good at screen fighting. You can have a master who is the most amazing martial artist in the world on a technical level, he can win every fight and go into tournaments and never ever lose, but he can be the worst screen fighter you’ll ever see because it’s almost like… Iko comes from studying silat all of his life but then he’s also done demonstrations and those demonstrations are like choreography. It’s all about timing and precision and sell a feeling of aggression or impact, so then when it comes to… The biggest thing with screen fighting is selling aggression but also selling the reaction when you get hit. A lot of times, real serious fighters they tend not to have that skill set. What they do is, they brace themselves like they can really take the hit, but when you brace yourself your body gets stiff. When the hit lands, the audience doesn’t feel like there’s any impact there, so it actually ends up being a negative. But with Iko, because of his background, he was much, much better and much more adaptable with that.
Why he stood out is that while we were doing the documentary and filming the full group working together, his way of performing silat is very cinematic. He had a screen presence even then. You’re never not aware of how brutal the moves are and how violent it is, but he packages them in a way that looks almost, kind of, beautiful too. There’s a fluidity to the movement that I really responded to and felt like, way back then even, that he had the potential to do something big
What do you think makes silat different on screen than other stuff we’ve seen before?
I think, like, all martial arts tend to share the same technique – there’s only so many ways you can punch and kick someone. There’s only so many ways you can lock someone or twist their arm. The pressure points are limited. But it’s how they’re packaged is what makes them look different. What’s cool about silat is that it’s very adaptable to different situations, different locations and things. If we’re in a big, wide open space and there’s multiple attackers, or if there’s a confined space, there’s methods and techniques that deal with every situation. One of the things I really like about it as well is that you can shift your approach to a fight on an instant. Like, we could be fighting eye-to-eye but then all of a sudden he’ll come down super fast and take your legs from you. There’s a low centre of gravity as well in some of the fighting styles. There’s so much that I haven’t actually explored yet in silat. In Indonesia we have over 200 styles and they all borrow from different animal styles and stuff like that.
How do you learn to shoot martial arts? You can do test shots, but it’s so rapid and brutal it’s not like you can do 50 takes.
We do a lot of takes actually! One of the things we did for the first film, and we carried it over into the second, was this thing of pre-viz video storyboards. What we do there is for the first three months, even before pre-production, it’s just me, Iko and Yayan [Ruhian], who’s the guy that played Mad dog in the film. The three of us will just stay in a room with a bunch of crash mats and a Handycam, and we design every fight scene from the beginning until the end. While designing those fight scenes we also end up doing the video storyboard, which is… Once we’re locked with all the fight scenes, we go back through it, pick every single shot and do a full edit like we would for the final version of the film. Then we’re able to see where the edits work and where they don’t work. And it costs us nothing – it’s just the three of us in a room and that’s all it is. Then we’re able to have… It’s like a safety net for us because we’re new to this. We’re in our infancy when it comes to action cinema. Hong Kong and Thailand have had decades to perfect their style, so what we wanted to do is have something which felt different from them. It came out of necessity really to have that amount of preparation so we’d know exactly how we were going to shoot the action scenes.
I guess our approach to shooting action films is to treat it… In a lot of films they tend to shoot a lot of wide shots and then over shoulders and a lot of close-ups and then just cut it in post-production and figure out how it’s going to work then. But what we want to do is treat every single movement like it has a specific camera movement for that pinch or that kick. So we’re always looking for the perfect angle to get each piece of that choreography done. Every shot becomes a jigsaw piece and they all have to fit together perfectly. That’s why we end up doing so many takes and stuff, because we have so many shots and the in and out points have to be spot on. So once they go wrong in that section of the shot we have to go again and again and again until it’s done. The most amount of takes on The Raid was 40-44 takes in one shot.
And that’s full-on physical action?
That shot when we did 44 takes, it was only three movements. Sometimes the most simple shot can take so long. When we started The Raid… We had this joke because on Merantau, the very first shot we did of that production was a two-minute steadicam fight scene all in one shot, and that took us about 56 takes to get done. That was one of those nightmare shoots and we all joked around and said to the guys, 'Okay, on The Raid we’re not going to do 56 takes we’re just going to do 40.' I remember when we started shooting The Raid, on the first day there was this one fight scene and we had the first three or four shots and it was only, like, two or three takes, two or three takes and that was it. We got so excited everyone started thinking, 'Oh, shit, it’s going to be different this time. We’re going to be good now, we’re going to get it done fast.' Then all of a sudden everything started to go wrong and it was, like, 10-15 takes; 15-20 takes… Usually we’d get it within 12-15 – that tends to be our quota at the moment.
Do you have a Health & Safety officers on set? Because it doesn’t look like it.
We don’t have a specific health and safety department but… What we do is, we design the stunts ourselves but then we design them with the stunt coordinator as well, we make sure that what looks on screen to you guys when you watch it as being incredibly dangerous and violent is actually done with a large degree of safety behind it. There’s a lot of stuff that’s not seen on camera which are outside the frames for the stunt guys’ safety. So we make it look a lot worse that it is. But yeah, just as a back-up, whenever we shoot anything, even the slightest, smallest piece of action, we always have a paramedics team and ambulance on standby. It’s one of those things – we did people falling from windows and falling off walls, and yeah we had one or two accidents along the way with those – but you also get accidents when it’s just a person being punched in the face. Who’d have thought?!
Why does Toys R Us have a thank you credit?
It’s not Toys R Us! It’s 'Toysaurus'. It’s an Indonesian company who very cleverly changed the name slightly. It’s Toysaurus and basically we… In order to get all the weapons for the film, we didn’t have the budget to use real blank-firing guns so we used gas blowback BB guns. All throughout the film, all the weapons are gas blowback guns. And Toysaurus is one of the sales companies that sold the guns to us and gave us a nice fat discount on them. So thanks to them!
I’m interested in what the script to a film like this looks like. Is it a couple of lines of dialogue with <insert awesome action scene here>?
Yeah, um, writing the fight scene in an action sequence, we don’t tend to put too much detail into the script. If you’re going to write down every punch and every kick it’s unreadable and no one understands it except for you. But when it came to those fight sequences, like, we workshopped them but I’d give the structure to the guys. So they’d fill in the blanks in terms of the punches and kicks and stuff, but the general structure comes from the script, it comes from me.
For instance, when Iko is carrying his friend on his shoulders and he’s got the stick and the knife, all of that is in the script. And the idea that people will come from left, right, behind and in front, and every time they swing at him he has to shift the guy’s body around, that’s all in the script. The idea of momentum and having to keep him upright and so on, that’s all in there. So that’s all part of the design. So the script will start with that, give a brief description of what’s happening, but then further on in it will be 'At this point he loses his knife… At this point he loses the baton… At this point he picks his friend back up and they walk down the corridor,' you know? There’s little… What we say is that in the script it’s more like an action scene in bullet points. You give a feeling of tone and atmosphere and the key things that need to happen for the plot to progress, and then let them fill in the blanks with punches and stuff.
I want to get into the influences on you as a filmmaker. Are there specific martial artists who you want to honour with the film?
Our main influences come from works like Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung, and then also Panna Rittikrai in Thailand. Those guys have pioneered martial arts cinema since the '70s through to the '80s and up until now as well. What we borrowed from Jackie Chan was the idea that there’s a certain vulnerability in the lead role, in the main character. That’s something that we really wanted to bring into Iko’s character. We wanted the audience when they were watching to feel like he wasn’t just a killing machine. There’s moments in the film when he’s so beaten up and so bruised, if anyone came out and attacked him, that’s it, that’s the end of the film for him then. That was one of the main influences from Jackie Chan – bringing that layer of vulnerability into the character so that the audience really relates to him, so that they see him as an everyday guy as well and never doing anything too fantastical or anything. We had to keep our action scenes and our character grounded in a certain sort of heightened reality.
In terms of the choreography design, the level of brutality and the aggression came from Sammo Hung and from Panna because their work is hard-edged and its tough and aggressive but what I really love is that there’s a certain roughness to the quality sometimes as well. You’ll get these clearly complex pieces of choreography, but you’ll get these take-downs or throws that look like they’ve come out of sheer desperation. And that was one of the things that we really wanted to do as well so that the final fight – the two-on-one fight – you have these graceful moments of choreography, but every now and then they just get savage, they get raw with the throws and stuff.
How about videogames? I can see weapon pick-ups, respawning enemies, Crysis 2, etc.
One of the things that we wanted to do… When people talk about the film saying it feels 'like a videogame' it’s a weird thing because a lot of people say that to me with, 'I don’t mean it as disrespect', but I never take it as disrespect because it’s, like, absolutely it feels like a videogame. Some of the design of the bad guys was done to be like that. As we progress throughout the film, the end of level bosses get harder and harder, and we set up a few characters… Like, there’s the guy in the beginning who pulls out the machete from under the table and we set him up like he’s going to be some guy who plays a prominent part later but then we kill him off with one of the other bad guys who’s even more badass and more of a challenge and more of a threat. So yes, definitely there’s this feeling of it taking a certain kind of inspiration from videogames. And also the trajectory to go all the way up to where the big bad guy is, and the structure is there like that.
Did you have any specific titles in mind at all?
I have favourite games. I’m a big fan of things like Call of Duty and Battlefield, and they play a little part in terms of how we were trying to figure out the gun play of the film, but mostly when it came to the style of action – whether it was gun play or whether it was martial arts – it came more from films than videogames. But the general structure – that idea of climbing up – was a videogame feeling.
Are there other filmmakers who aren’t maybe in the action genre but just other film influences in general?
The biggest influences for the action is films like Hard Boiled, for sure, without doubt. For me that’s the absolute pinnacle of action cinema. And then things like The Wild Bunch. What influenced me with those was that there’s a degree of clarity when it comes to the action that we don’t tend to have that much these days. The idea that you can see everything and get a feeling, a clear spatial awareness wherever you are in the location. And detail, in terms of – it sounds bad – but who’s getting shot, how many times and where. Nowadays it tends to be a hail of bullets and people just stagger around and then fall, but in the John Woo films and the Sam Peckinpah films, it was treated like it was something poetic and horribly beautiful at the same time. That’s something I wanted to at least try and aspire to reach in The Raid.
Do you play music on set?
When we designed the choreography, what we tend to do is we design it with rhythm in mind. We treat it as if every block and every hit is like percussion. Tat harks back to Jackie Chan as well – if you watch the fight in Armor of God where he’s fighting against all the monks and you listen to the music playing beneath and the punches and the blocks, they’re almost in rhythm with each other. Every punch and every block is a drumbeat. When we were doing the choreography for The Raid, we’d be there in the room and when we were trying to figure out how many punches or how many kicks there should be, we’d do a clap. Dum-da-dum-dum-dum and that’s when the punch would come in. Even down to things like… In the red band trailer people have seen the guy get shot three times in the face – he doesn’t get it three times in the face because it’s gruesome and violent he gets shot three times in the face because that was the rhythm. We tried doing one shot – bam – didn’t feel right. We tried bam-bam – two shots – didn’t feel right. And then bam-bam-bam and it felt, like, okay that’s right. Graphic, but right. So it’s rhythm not violence.
What about individuals beyond film? There have been film martial artists who inspired you, but what about real martial artists?
Yeah but I think that comes more as an influence on the work that Iko and Yayan bring to the film. When they’re designing the choreography with me, at weekends they’ll go off and see their masters, they’ll speak to people that they practice with, people that they know and they’ll get different ideas of different movements they can do. So then, yeah, they borrow influences from those guys as well. With the first movie, Merantau, we stuck to a specific style of silat, but in The Raid, it’s like a mix – it’s more of a universal style of silat. Different styles mixed in together. So there’s a lot of people behind the scenes that we’ve consulted and asked for advice from.
You’ve said that you were quite influenced by your dad and the films you saw on VHS. We're very much the VHS generation – that’s how we were educated in cinema, through sneaking a look at VHS tapes our dads had rented. Is that how you got your grounding in martial arts film in Swansea?
When we were growing up as kids we lived in a little village. We had two video shops – and they had a good collection – then there was another video shop from a local town that would send a video van – you don’t get that these days – a video van that would come to the top of the street and I used to go in their and there’d be a collection of films. I just remember, back then it was super exciting to be able to find something new, that I hadn’t seem before and that was from Asia. It was so unheard of, and you’d get a bunch of Bruce Lee films and a couple of Jackie Chan films, then these really obscure titles that would slip through like Chinese Hercules and stuff like that.
I guess throughout my childhood my dad was very much a big part in shaping the films I’d watch. For him and us in the house every weekend there was nothing too highbrow, nothing too low-grade. If it was something that by the end we’d all enjoyed, that was all; that counted. I watched Commando religiously throughout my childhood. Commando is one of the great action films as well because it starts within the first few minutes and it just doesn’t stop – there’s not a single step back in the entire film, it’s just forward all the time. So that was another influence on the film.
He introduced me to Jackie Chan. He’s the one that rented Police Story and Armour of God… Tell a lie, Magnificent Bodyguards is the first Jackie Chan film I ever saw. My mum was so aggressively against it because there was a scene in which a guy got skinned, so she was like, 'You’re not having Jackie Chan films anymore'. Then after that Armour of God came into the house and that was much more playful so she was like, 'Okay, maybe we can watch some of his films'. It just went from there – Police Story, I searched high and low to get that film, we rented it almost every month and I watched it 14, 15 times, then finally being able to find an ex-rental copy that you could buy, it was incredible to get that kind of film. I miss the VHS days a little bit in a way. You felt like you were finding something no one else had. Now everybody gets everything straight away so now everything is great and everything sucks.
The best films where you were young were those you could watch and then play them in the garden after.
Me and my friends used to make films when we were kids and one of the things that me and my friends used to do is we’d always plan to remake films. We were always planning to remake Police Story, Big Trouble in Little China, all these films. None of us had video camera thank god so there’s no footage of any of us dicking around in the back garden wearing plimsolls and vests pretending we were Bruce Lee.
Talking about sneaking into a film – Hard Boiled when it came out on VHS, dubbed first of all through Tartan, maybe when I was 12 or 13, I remember we’d rented out and my dad specifically said, 'You’re not to watch this until I’ve seen it first,' because he knew it would be aggressive but he wanted to check. Because my dad had no problem with playful violence, but sadistic violence he had a real problem with it. So he was, like, 'Okay, if it’s sadistic I want to watch it with you and tell you why it’s wrong.' I remember coming home, because he was a school teacher, so when I came home I was always maybe 45 or 50 minutes earlier than him. And I remember getting off that bus and just running back to the house just to watch the first 45, 50 minutes of Hard Boiled before he came home, rewind it and just pretend like I’d been good and hadn’t seen it. And I got to see the tea house shootout, I got to see the warehouse shootout, when they were both facing each other with guns pointed at each other’s heads I had to stop.
Then once I’d stopped the videotape it was one of those things where I just couldn’t wait to watch it. I wanted another hour’s worth of footage, I needed the rest of that film. But I had to wait for him to watch it overnight, then the next morning he was like, 'Okay, you can watch it, but there’s one scene that I want to keep an eye on you for,' and it was the scene where Anthony Wong shoots all the patients in the hospital. When that came up he was like, 'Okay, now that’s wrong.' And that was it! That was the moral teaching. And I was like, 'Yeah I get it, it’s not nice to shoot innocent people.' But the rest of the film just kicked so much ass. It was so fun.