The Wales-born director talks to Screen about the challenges of working in Indonesia, the American remake and The Raid sequel Berandal.
Since its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, where it picked up the Midnight Madness award, Gareth Evans’ action title The Raid has been one of the most critically acclaimed and buzziest titles on the festival circuit, recently winning two awards at the Dublin International Film Festival - best film and audience award - along with a standing ovation at both that screening and its UK premiere closing the FrightFest strand of the Glasgow Film Festival.
Little surprise then that there’s already an English-language remake in the works - Screen Gems president Clint Culpepper will oversee the project which XYZ Films will produce with Evans serving as executive producer - and Evans has already announced the sequel Berandal - which starts shooting in January next year - with rights sold to Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions for the US, Latin America and Spain, Alliance Group for the UK and Canada, Koch Media for German-speaking territories, Korea Screen for South Korea and HGC for China.
Ahead of its theatrical roll-out — including a US release on March 23 through Sony Pictures Classics and a UK release on May 18 through Momentum — Evans spoke to Screen about the origins of The Raid and his relationship with lead actor Iko Uwais.
Can you tell us a little bit about how The Raid came about?
We’d finished Merantau [Evans’ first feature with Uwais] and I was developing something else which they wanted it to be bigger and more elaborate with more aggressive action scenes, but the financial situation in Indonesia, for film financing especially, was just shitty. We were trying to get this money in place but everyone kept turning us down, nobody wanted to do it. So we’d been spending a year and a half trying to get the money for a film we couldn’t get off the ground and suddenly we’re in a position where Iko [Uwais] hadn’t done anything and I hadn’t done anything and I was sick of sitting in the office waiting.
That’s why we decided ‘Okay, let’s do this one, it’s smaller budget, we can contain it all in one location so we don’t get interrupted by the rain and we can just shoot and deliver it at, like $1.1m.’ That was the impetus for it then and The Raid was a plan B, it was a back-up project and it’s helped us a lot now obviously. The way it’s performed and the response it’s been getting has made it so now we can do the next film which was our previous project.
Your relationship with Iko started when you filmed him for a documentary (The Mystic Arts of Indonesia: Pencak Silat). Was it hard to persuade him to become an actor?
Actually it was a weird thing, it was hard for him to believe me. When we finished the documentary, I’d gone back to the UK to pack up and move to Indonesia, so I said to him ‘Look, I’m going to come back out here and at some point, I’m going to make a film with you’. He just thought I was full of shit, lying through my teeth. When we got back out to Indonesia, I did a screen test for him where we did some choreography in a gym somewhere with a bunch of other fighters. If I look at it now, the quality of it was shit, but at the time it was reassuring, we didn’t know why but we felt it could be good.
Then we just started developing it more and Merantau became a real project and we were in the situation where I was ready to do this film with him and said ‘Look, come and work with us now, quit your job and we’ll do this film’. He said to me today actually that he still didn’t believe me until the first day of production so he must have thought the whole pre-production process was one big prank, an elaborate joke on him.
And did you notice any changes between Iko on The Raid compared to Merantau?
He’s grown a lot more now. In Mernatau, we didn’t do much to change his appearance, we just treated him as he was — all we did was just grow his hair a bit. On The Raid, we cut his hair short, so that’s one thing we changed! We also made him bulk up and gain five or six kilograms in weight and go to the gym more and work on his upper body strength. So we pushed him in those different areas and we wanted him to look more mature this time. He still had to fit the bill as a rookie though.
For The Raid, it was this process of making him look more mature and give him a character who’s less ideal, because in Merantau, he was an idealist little kid. This was someone who knew violence, who had to come into this world and would be more aggressive and direct in the choreography as well. There was a lot more challenges for him on this one than there was the previous one.
Were there any particular challenges when it came to production? Presumably the script written in English?
I write everything in English so when you read the subtitles, that’s my script. It’s the only time my script gets seen. It’s devastating because I write that script for four or five months and then spend months working on it, trying to get the dialogue right, and I know then that somebody’s going to translate it into Indonesian and it’s not going to be my script anymore; it’s going to be slightly different. Indonesian’s much more direct as a language, we play around a lot more in English with the way we say things.
I tend to give the actors a lot of flexibility and freedom as well to make sure it feels right to them because I can’t read the Indonesian script and know it’s 100% right. It’s only when I see it performed, I can raise questions about certain things. It’s a weird process at the moment. I think it’s one side of our films that an Indonesian audience will probably see as a negative because it’s really hard to do an accurate translation of your work to another language.
I learned a lot more Indonesian with the guys but they all spoke English as well, they all accommodate me a lot and I felt guilty after the first film. So after that I was like ‘I’ve gotta learn your language, I’ve got to be able to give instructions’. There’d be like a day on the shoot where for a couple of hours I’d say ‘OK, I’m only going to talk Indonesian’. Then it gets harder and harder to do my job so I revert back to English again. I try to kind of be there for them.
How important was it to make sure Iko’s character doesn’t get it all his own way in the fight scenes?
The vulnerability is essential. It’s something that connects the audience with that person and what they’re going through. When you do these fight sequences, there are moments where Iko is facing off against people who are not as skilled as him and he just storms through them, like the knife fight and the stick fight, he doesn’t get a scratch. When he faces the machete guys, they beat the shit out of him. He gives them as much as they give him but he’s not coming out of it unscathed, so when we’re doing that scene, once he’s walking down the corridor and he’s battered and bruised, anyone comes out, that’s the end of the film for him.
When we’re doing these films, it’s important to have that feeling that no one is safe and even though everyone knows in the back of their head ‘oh he’s the hero, he’s going to survive’, it just puts that little bit of doubt in there and makes you side with him more. It’s like the John McClane moment where he breaks down and cries, he’s relatable and I think that’s a large part is what makes Jackie Chan so great. He takes a beating, he’s never fully in control of the fight scene.
Was there any room for improvisation during the fight sequences?
There’s occasionally the odd shot or the odd movement where when we tried to execute it on set, it didn’t look that good or we might come up with a better idea. There were a couple of moments in the Mad Dog two-on-one fight at the end where we were running out of time to shoot a certain amount of choreography, we thought ‘OK, let’s put a throw in there instead’; little things like that where we have this one throw where we improvise completely because we needed to get to another section of the choreography. What happens though is the pre-vis that we do in pre-production, that video storyboard is usually 90-95% as it is at the end of the film.
How involved in the post-production were you?
In terms of post-production, I do the offline edit myself. I edit the film and then the sound design, I worked with the guys closely on that. They would send me stuff and I’d come back to them with ideas and we always bounce ideas back and forth. The only aspect I don’t get involved in much is the online digital effects because I haven’t got a fucking clue how he does them, but my guy is really great and he works so hard to get all these shots done right.
There’s a lot of CG [in The Raid]. We didn’t have real blank firing guns at all, we were using BB guns with gas blowback stuff. So my guy - poor bastard - every time somebody fired a gun, he had to animate bullet shells. We prepared things to make it a little easier as well, like whenever people were shooting the AK47s at the cops, we had these welding guns that we could create sparks from so we had real light bouncing off the walls.
All these little DIY tricks, low-budget tricks which we knew we could do, but without it being DIY too much, it would be enhanced by our really good CG guy. He’d also do a lot of the blood effects like when the guy gets pushed onto the floor and he gets stabbed six times, it’s all CG blood, he even had to do the stain on the t-shirt. He wanted to kill me after that because we gave him nothing to work with, no markers, nothing.
What was behind the decision to record a new soundtrack - created by Mike Shinoda (of American rock band Linkin Park) and Joe Trapanese - for the American release of the film?
Basically that was a decision made before we’d even finished the film. I had a phone call from [Sony] and one of the first things they said was we want to do a new soundtrack with one of our artists. It wasn’t a case of they heard the original and wanted to change it.
I just finished the original version with my guys and we were pretty deep into that at that point and when I spoke to Mike and Joe about their version, they asked if I had any notes and I didn’t want to give any notes because everything would have been the same as I told my guys. They gave me this outline of ‘OK, we want to have more of a classical background to it, a real score, not a collection of songs’ and everything they told me was just reassurance and I was like ‘just go ahead and do this now because you sound like you’re on the right page’.
I’m so proud of my guys and their work is brilliant and in a perfect world, for me, the best version of the score is a mix between the two. It sounds horribly diplomatic but there are certain things that Mike and Joe had done which are fantastic and there are certain things my guys have done where they nailed it. Mike’s one is very reminiscent of ’80s John Carpenter stuff, there’s this retro feel to it.
Are you apprehensive about the American remake?
I’m flattered by it. It’s like there are people in America that like the film enough to make them want to remake it and spend a lot of money doing it. There are so many original ideas out there but they chose to do that.
A lot of time when it comes to these types of deals, a lot of people tend to think of it as the evil studio that doesn’t think of the original but that’s not the case on this one. The original is getting pushed big, it’s getting a decent release and they’re really going out there to get it known in the community in all media. The guys responsible for [the remake], one of the things they demanded was that Iko and Yayan [Ruhian] do the choreography so that shows such a sign of respect for their work and the fact it’ll contain elements of silat in it as well.
I’m involved as an executive producer on it but my involvement is minimal in a way and the reason why is that I feel that remake would benefit from having a fresh pair of eyes. I’ve done my ‘contained in a building’ film, I’ve got nothing new to give it, no more ideas to bring to the table but I’m super excited to see whoever they get to direct it, what they bring to it.
Can you tell us a bit about the sequel Berandal? Any major differences?
We’re expanding the story, it’s not contained this time. We’re going outside of the building and we’re going to meet all of the gangsters that allowed that boss to have that building. It’s more about exposing the corruption as well and Iko’s character becomes obsessed with capturing these guys and it’s about that obsession potentially harming the relationships that he has. There’s more of a moral complexity to Iko’s character this time. In The Raid it’s all about that one event, but now it’s about a number of different moments that could change his life for the worse basically.
I’m being super vague about it but there’s more at stake at this one as well. We’ve got much bigger action sequences on this one as well. The hardest one we’re going to do is we have a four-on-one fight, Iko’s going to fight against four guys but in a moving car on a motorway. Me and my DoP [Matt Flannery], my poor DoP, we’re trying to figure out how we’re going to shoot that.
Finally, what are you able to take from The Raid into Berandal?
Every project we learn a lot of different mistakes that we made and how to better those. We drew up a list of things that we wanted to do differently from The Raid for Berandal and we drew that up before we screened the film to anywhere. The key to it is to know that even though we’ve had a great response and a great reaction to the film, those problems that existed on the first film, they’re still problems.
In terms of making the sequel, I’m trying to approach it without having that idea of too much pressure or expectation of how you follow the previous film and I said to Iko earlier, ‘look it doesn’t matter if people don’t like the sequel as much as they do the first’. It would be almost ridiculously arrogant of us to expect the same reaction. There’s a big chance people are not going to like it as much but the important thing is we continue to make that film the way we made the first which was to rely on our gut instinct and not think too much about what other people want to see in the film. As soon as we do that, then we stop making it for ourselves and as soon as we stop making it for ourselves, we’re not the right people to make it.
I just hope that Berandal stays true to what I want to do and think about the consequences later.