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)