Let’s be honest, the golden era of action movies and action movie stars has long since past. Back in the day, some of the best high-octane films were made with actual martial artists; meaning, people who actually knew how to beat someone up. Guys like Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, and Steven Seagal were all champion martial artists before they were actors.
Nowadays, though, it seems that Hollywood’s recipe for creating action content is to take someone who’s a big name movie star first, teach them how to throw a few punches and kicks, and then edit the crap out of the scenes until they look realistic. We haven’t seen an innovative and pulse-pounding action flick with actual martial artists pummeling the crap out of one another in a really long time. Gareth Huw Evans, the Welsh-born writer/director of The Raid: Redemption (in select New York and Los Angeles theaters this Friday), apparently felt that we’ve all waited long enough.
The Raid: Redemption is a balls-out, bone-shattering symphony of brutal fight sequences, balletic gun play and heart-thumping tension. The film’s fight scenes are hands down some of the most savage and well-choreographed action set-pieces in the history of cinema. Both the The Raid’s protagonist (played by the seriously impressive Iko Uwais) and the film’s fiercest villain (Yayan Ruhian) are both incredibly skilled, life-long practitioners of the lesser known Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. They worked tirelessly with Evans for months to make the fights seem as brutal and realistic as possible.
The movie’s plot is simple enough: A highly trained SWAT team is dispatched to a dilapidated high rise in the slums of Jakarta to remove the owner of the building; inside, there’s a despicable gangland chief named Tama (Ray Sahetaphy), who has evaded capture for many years. The twist is that the building is also home to numerous drug dealers, murderers and lowlifes who are under his protection. Throughout The Raid’s 100-minute run time, the SWAT members shoot, punch, kick, stab, and chop their way through floor after floor of murderous bad guys while searching for the building’s owner. The fights are so intense and in-your-face that you’ll not only find yourself questioning, “How did they do that?” but also wondering if some of the actors aren’t actually being hurt or killed.
If you’re a fan of the genre, not only should you run to see The Raid: Redemption, but you might as well clear some space on your DVD shelf right now for this guaranteed cult classic. Complex recently sat down with Evans to talk about the process of making what is, in our opinion, one of the best action movies of all time.
Interview by Ryan Wick (@WickInABox)
You not only wrote, directed and edited The Raid, but you also worked on the action choreography. What was the most difficult part of the process for you?
Coming up with the ideas isn’t the hard part—it’s executing them in the actual production. It’s not even down to anything to do with our directing or choreography or anything else. It’s more about being up against it with the time factor. And having a lot of different people working with you with different skill sets in terms of their martial arts abilities. Not just the martial artists, either—it’s the screen fighters, as well.
There’s nothing more frustrating then when you have someone who’s a little bit stiff and you have to ease them into the shoot. When you’re dealing with large groups of people, like if you have a fight with 18-20 people and like 5 of those are a little bit stiff, that process of trying to ease them in and be patient and encourage them is hard. You can’t just shout at them. [Laughs.] That’s the really hard part.
Before The Raid, you had been working on a documentary about Pencak Silat back in 2007; when did you first become interested in the art of Silat?
I’ve known a lot of different martial arts before I came to know Silat. Growing up either from classes or watching movies I knew, of course, about kung fu, karate, aikido, Muay Thai... But the first time I saw Silat was when I was working on that documentary—the first time I properly saw it. I was just struck by the fact that it looks so different from other martial arts.
Every martial art shares similiar things. There’s only so many ways you can throw a punch and a kick but the way you package it, the way you present it...that’s what makes each one unique. I just thought that Silat had this fluidity to it and this grace to it but also a really aggressive side, as well. So the way you get to a move is beautiful but the response and the reaction after that is kind of aggressive and I really like that kind of juxtaposition. So I was interested to see how can I bring this to cinema. How can I explore this in film?
So in that respect, do you hope that this film helps propagate the art of Silat to a wider audience?
That’s part of the mission statement of our company. In Indonesia, when we were making our first movie, Merantau, we tried to pitch the idea of doing a Silat film to a number of people and a lot of people didn’t want to do it. A lot of people just thought it was ridiculous, because the way Silat has been portrayed in television, at least in Indonesia, is kind of almost like a joke. It’s like people flying around turning into panthers. Taking a shit and their will be a fireball or something. [Laughs.] There’s all this bad, cheesy stuff, which is just bullshit.
That’s kind of the problem, then. People’s perception of Silat was, Oh, it’s that ridiculous stuff you see on TV with cheap production values. Or it’s this antiquated, old style of demonstration. So what happened was, when I was preparing to do the film, I spoke with the guys on the choreography team and said, “You know, the purpose of this film, beyond the commercial reasons, is to reclaim Silat,” and that’s why we ground every single movement in a reality base. We don’t introduce acrobatics at all.
We know that Hong Kong and Thailand have kind of perfected that so we need to do something different otherwise we’ll just end up imitating them and we won’t do it as well. So we thought, ok, every fight has to be grounded in reality. Every movement has to be logical and a real life application of how you would use Silat.
You met Iko Uwais (the star of both The Raid and Merantau) while filming a documentary on Silat years ago. What is your working relationship like, and how do you two go about designing the fight scenes?
For the fight scenes, there are three of us involved. Myself, Iko (Rama) and Yayan (Mad Dog) will get together in a room and for three months we design all the fight scenes from beginning to end; that will involve doing a video storyboard, as well. We shoot every single shot and then we figure out every edit in pre-production. So it’s just me, them, a room full of crash mats, and a handi-cam. After that, we have another three months of rehearsal time where they practice with the fighters and we do all the basic pre-production with the art department and lighting and everything else. Then when it comes to the shoot then, we have three months of shooting for the film.
So, from before, we already have a video template as a guide. That sits on the laptop and so we know shot for shot what we’re going to do. We know how the fight is going to look, so then, when we finish shooting the real version, we drop every shot into the timeline. We see it build up and we know pretty much how it’s going to look in the final version. Usually it ends up being about 95% the same. Some stuff will go wrong whether it’s camera position or a performance isn’t quite right. But then the benefit of doing that is that it works like a safety net.
We’re still very much in our infancy of making action films so we can see where things went wrong while we’re still on location so we don’t have to pay for another day to shoot. We just say, “OK, let’s go get a shot to fix this little edit here.” That gets done, then we’re like, boom, the scenes OK now.
Silat isn’t the only martial art in the film—there are quite a few actually. What was the process of deciding what art to use and when? And how did you cast the fighters?
When we’re designing the choreography, it tends to be more Silat-orientated, but we do mix it up a little bit. Rather than be specific to a martial arts discipline, we have people on different skill levels as the opponents. We’ll be like, “OK, this guy’s more of a street fighter style,” so we’ll give him a more loose approach. Or, “This guy can’t fight for shit,” so he’s just going to swing terribly and you’re going to beat the crap out of him. We create a different range sometimes.
If we cast someone and they come from a different martial arts background, then we look to incorporate that so we’ll shift the choreography to best suit their needs. For example, we have Joe Taslim, who plays Jaka—he’s a national Judo champion. And so if you have a national Judo champion and you’re making him do Silat for the entire fight, then you’re not getting the best out of him. And I want everyone to look their best. So for Joe, I said, “OK, I’m going to use you’re upper body strength.” The size difference between him and Yaya was so big, that I was like, “It’s all upper body for you.” Throws, pushes, aggressive pick ups and dumps, stuff like that. It’s an evolving process once we cast people.
When casting, do you primarily look for martial artists and then teach them how to act, or do you cast actors and train them in martial arts?
When we filmed Merantau, Iko had to go for drama lessons. We sent him off for, like, a three-month course in acting. For Yayan, we were very lucky with him because we cast him very late on; he did an audition and he’s just a very naturally gifted actor. So for The Raid, I thought, OK, fuck it, I’m going to really push him and just create this really horrible, sadistic character. And he’s just been game to do it all.
For the rest of the fighters, then, sometimes it’s gut instinct; it will be like the look of someone whether you think you’re going to give them a shot or not. For example, the guy who plays the leader of the machete gang, he’s great in the film. He has this charisma and this character about him and he’s terrifying. But he’s such a nice guy in reality and he’s not an actor. He’s never been in a film before; he’s an architect in real life.
I do tend to rely a little bit on gut instinct sometimes, if they just feel right for the role then.With Joe, who played Jaka, he actually contacted me on Facebook. He had seen Merantau and really liked it and he said he just wanted to find out what I was doing next and if he could be apart of it. I looked on his profile page and I didn’t know who I was going to cast for Jaka yet. I had a few ideas but they were more “stars” rather than guys who could definitely do the fighting. When I saw his profile it said, he had done Judo so I thought, OK, he’s got a basic martial arts background. Then there was a photo of him wearing like a swat team uniform, like a military sort of outfit and I was like fuck, that’s cool.
And it was just one of those things that like planted that seed in my head, so when we did the audition with him, we did like two auditions. One was like a drama audition and one that was like a fight audition. And so that gut instinct I had from looking at his profile page had me like wishing he would be good enough for it. Thankfully, he rose to the challenge and he was really great then.
The film has been getting rave reviews on the festival circuit, and Sony Pictures Classics bought the rights for an American remake. When you were making it, did you think it was going to be such a huge success?
Truthfully, The Raid was a plan B project. It wasn’t meant to be the film I did next and it was a much lower budget than ,Merantau, so in my head I was seeing it as a step down. We were pushing to make it the best we could and we pushed and pushed and pushed to make the action better, but our goal was to actually make something ten times bigger than Merantau.
In my head, I was like, “I’m working on a smaller budget, a smaller project like this is a step down slightly. “ When we finished post-production, me and my producer were both kind of pessimistic about it. Because we were so into it and the post-production process was so stressful and so intense that we were pulling 20-hour days. We were sleeping in this kitchen area of the post lab and then going back to editing in the mixing room after 2-3 hours of sleep.
When we actually did the final check print it was one week before the Toronto Film Festival. We were watching it and instead of watching what was going on on-screen, we’d be looking at that one spot in the corner where the picture breaks up a little bit or the one scene where we wanted to fix the audio a little bit more. So we came into it not really expecting anything other than maybe a few quotes for the poster.
Everything that’s happened since that Toronto screening has been way overwhelming. It’s been a really sort of humbling experience. We’ve been sort of blown away by it. We’re trying to do this thing where even though the critic and the audience response has been so good so far, we’re trying to keep our feet on the ground a little bit. There are things that we did wrong and there are things that we made mistakes on and there are things that we need to fix for the next one. I’ve been saying this to Iko and Yayan, you know, let’s not think we did something perfect here because we didn’t. Let’s not get carried away by the response.
Aside from making the sequel ten times bigger than The Raid: Redemption, are there any other details you can tell us about the next film?
Well, we have a 4-on-1 fight inside a moving car with Iko fighting against two guys in the back, one in the front, and the driver. And we’re going to be kicking people out through windows, forcing the car to crash into other cars and stuff like that. If we can do it the way I want it to be done, it will be pretty great.
What are your thoughts on Sony Pictures Classics doing an American remake?
I mean, I understand the reaction about it. Before I made these films, I owned four copies of Ichi The Killer on DVD. I own four Blu-rays of Hard Boiled... So I come to it from a fan background. I understand that whole thing of when a remake is happening and how fans of the original will feel, but now, being on the other side of the fence with it, it’s really kind of flattering that it happens.
And to be honest with you, for The Raid, the story is so streamlined—there’s a lot of room for improvement there. There’s things that can be ramped up, things I wanted to do in that version that I couldn’t because of budget, and those things could be done in the remake. You never know. As long as whoever gets hired to direct it gets the same creative freedom that I had on mine, then they could do something pretty special with it. Also, it raises awareness of the original. Plus, you know, it’s not like the remake is getting done for free. [Laughs.] So some of that is going to pay for the sequel, as well.
Interview by Ryan Wick (@WickInABox)