As someone who lives and breathes for the genre, I think it’s fair to say that action movies have gone soft. Well, that is, American, big studio action films have gone soft. The fight sequences are mostly shot in tight close-up with a volley of cuts that dilute all semblance of impact. Thankfully, foreign filmmakers are still bloodying their knuckles and breaking their backs to bring us action films that leave us as bruised and fighting for air as the sundry characters lying demolished on the floor by the time credits roll. One such actionteur is Welsh director Gareth Evans. That’s right, one of the burgeoning authorities on martial arts action films is from Wales.
In 2009, Evans brought us Merantau, the heroic tale of a young man on a journey of self-discovery…who kicks plenty o’ ass along the way. Filmed in Indonesia, with a local cast, the film utilizes the fighting style Silat, indigenous to the island nation. But if we thought we’d seen the full extent of Evans’ talent with Merantau, we were so very, very wrong. This week, Evans will unleash his latest film The Raid upon unsuspecting audiences nationwide. I when I say it will be unleashed, I mean that the intensity and relentless pacing of its violent fight sequences will have you reevaluating the value of human life. The Raid, after garnering huge buzz during Toronto and Sundance, has now been picked up by Sony for both theatrical distribution and remake rights. It’s also been saddled with the unfortunate supplementary title “Redemption.” That does little however to curb the unceasing onslaught of murder-punches and otherwise inventive deathening that is The Raid. Yes, it’s so spectacularly brutal that it forces me to fabricated words.
Once the dust of its SXSW screening had settled, and our jaws were politely reattached to our lower heads, we had the chance to sit down with Gareth to discuss his 100-minute whirlwind of bloodletting. Also joining us are the incomparable Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park and Fort Minor and Joe Trapanese, the exceedingly talented composer who collaborated with Daft Punk to produce the celebrated score for Tron: Legacy. These two musical mavericks were tasked with crafting a brand new score for The Raid in time for its theatrical run.
I can’t guarantee that any of us will make it out of this interview alive.
Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. I watch a lot of martial arts movies, and the one thing that struck me, you know, you watch Thai action movies and you get a sense that maybe life is kind of cheap in Thailand by the way they handle the stunts. And then you watch The Raid and it kinda makes it look like Thailand has universal healthcare by comparison. I was really blown away by that. So was the genesis of this movie basically that you thought that death was being too kind to people in action films? Where did the idea start?
Gareth Evans: That’s a really good question. When we finished wrapping Merantau…it was a different film first; a must bigger budget. We spent like a year and a half trying to get the money up for it. We couldn’t get it. We just couldn’t get that one made. A year is too long, being idle, like too long not being in the office…just being stuck in the office. So The Raid was like a plan B project; it was like a backup thing. It was something that was born out of the need to do something with a lower budget. So that was kind of [our] leaping off point from it. And that low budget informed how we would shoot, it informed the idea that it should be contained in one building. Once those things kind of presented themselves from the production side of it, like the cost of it, then I started to take the different influences from different films. So we watched Die Hard, Assault on Precinct 13, Escape from New York, District B13, [REC] and [REC] 2, everything.
And yet, I guess, to a certain extent, the ramping up of the aggression and the choreography, it was twofold. One was that the psychology of the film meant it had to have aggressive choreography. In Merantau we had a main character who was a good person at heart in extraordinary circumstances, but at the beginning of the film the fights still ended not feeling like they were life or death. So it was kind of punch, punch, punch, push, and then he tried to run away. He tried to escape; he tried to evade the fight. It wasn’t until shit got worse in that movie that he started to take the fight to them, then it became more aggressive. Whereas in The Raid, that entire setup, as soon as they enter that building, as soon as they are being told that if they get killed that the other people get to stay rent free, that’s it, gloves off. It’s kill, kill, kill from the beginning to the end.
So it informed how aggressive that choreography was going to be. But I think a large part of the sort of slightly extra aggressive approach to it; maybe it came from a response to like how Merantau was received, because a lot of people saw it as being quite soft. Like, they didn’t see the action being that direct or that aggressive. You know, you get comments all the time and you shut them out, you ignore them, but of course they play on your conscious after a while. So, you know, we’d hear people say, “Iko Uwais is a fucking pussy compared to Tony Jaa” and stuff like that.
So The Raid was the visual equivalent of, “Oh, yeah?”
Gareth: It was like this, I’d softened what Silat (See-Lat) could do for the purposes of Merantau. And I knew Silat could be fucking aggressive. It had potential to be very strong. So The Raid was this thing were like, “All right, let’s show them what Silat can do as well.”
Gotcha. You brought up Silat, which, thank you, because I could not figure out how to pronounce that to save my life. Can you just briefly touch on how that differs from other martial arts styles?
Gareth: I think all martial arts tend to share a similar thing. There’s only so many ways you can punch and kick someone or lock someone’s wrists. But it’s the package and the way you get from point A to point B that makes each one different. It’s like dancing; there’s only so many steps, but it’s the way you move, it’s the way you present it that what makes it unique. What I love about Silat is that it’s very adaptable. So you can be in a tight, confined space or a big wide open space, have a lot of people attack you, go one-on-one, and there’s ways to deal with each situation. And also, I love the fact that, for a lot of the styles, they have a low center of gravity. So we could be fighting eye-to-eye and I come down and take your legs straightaway. And they do it in an instant as well. So it’s very fluid. It lends itself to street performances as well. So, some martial arts it’s a little bit clunky, it’s hard to showcase it in film. Silat’s got like a grace to it that, at the same time, has brutal hits and throws as well.
Cool, thank you. I was a little confused about how that broke down.
Gareth: No problem.
Mike, first of all, I’m a huge Linkin Park fan, and I also really enjoy the work you’ve done with Fort Minor. And Joe, I know you’ve worked with Daft Punk, another band that I absolutely love. I really dug the score you guys did, but then I didn’t get a chance to hear the original. So could you explain how your approach differed from the score that was initially there and why you made those changes?
Mike Shinoda: We didn’t really know much about the original score. One of the points in time when we got the most direction as far as where to go with this, the spotting sessions towards the beginning of the relationship with this film, and that means it didn’t have anything to do with that meaning. So it was more like just making decisions based on what was going on, on the screen. As far as the editing goes, it was finished. So we were working kind of within the confines of what already existed.
Joe Trapanese: When I view a film that I’m going to be scoring, I try to view it as kind of like a hyper-sensitized viewer, because I want to try to get the simplest ideas from it that any viewer can grab. I want to get that, but I’m also looking moment to moment, like, what exactly the filmmaker is doing to achieve those emotions. Where is the camera placed? What angles? Is it handheld or is it a dolly shot? I’m trying to be hyper in tune with what the filmmaker is doing, and then kind of step back and try to apply that approach to my composition.
There’s a very distinct style to the music and obviously you each brought in styles from your own backgrounds. How important was it for you guys to underscore what was happening without taking attention away from it? I feel like there are great soundtracks out there that, despite how great they are, do kind of pull focus away from what’s happening on the screen.
Mike: Going into it, they came to me with this offer to score a film, and they had cited a couple of examples of my work, one of them being Fort Minor, as you mentioned, and the other remixes that I had done. And all of those things were things that I did for fun. So add to that the fact that I had an interest in scoring for a long time. I had been very busy with the band and I kind of didn’t know how this would fit in. I brainstormed a way to make it work, because once I started seeing things from the film, I thought it was something I didn’t want to miss, an opportunity I didn’t want to miss. That’s when I started looking at partnering with somebody on the film; bringing somebody else in. I think that one of the things that might have been different about that is, usually when I get approached, it’s like, “We want Linkin Park…” You know, “We want you to come in and do a little bit of the Linkin Park thing and we want to put your name really big on the poster.” But really, what they want is somebody else to score the movie.
For me, that is not as appealing, simply because, number one, fans who come to a movie, if they are a Linkin Park fan or a Fort Minor fan, they come expecting to hear that and then they hear, a generic score with somebody who is trying to do what I do, and then me actually making it more authentic. That sucks. That is a horrible experience for everybody and I would never want to put anybody through that. So leading the charge, going in, I said, “This is what I want to do.” Once I talked to Joe, I knew he could see eye-to-eye with me on it, and he got the vision. We both saw it naturally, there was no teaching required. Joe just gets it. The work he did on Tron is excellent. I mean I love that score.
That Tron score plays on constant rotation in my office when I’m working, outstanding work. Joe, you mentioned being hyper aware and keeping track of things like dollies and tracking shots. Thank you for doing my segues for me, because, Gareth, that actually leads to a question I wanted to ask you. You see a lot of action movies these days that look like they were edited on a sewing machine; they’re just constant cuts, and everything is really close, and you don’t know who’s who or who’s fighting. In The Raid there are a lot of long, unbroken shots and steady-cam shots. One, in particular, where it seems like your camera man jumped out a window, I still can’t quite figure out how you did that. But how important was it to you to not be so close quarters with the fighting?
Gareth: When were kind of figuring out the whole film, it takes place in one day. It’s like one event. It’s not even a full day; it’s like 10, 11 hours.
It’s almost in real time.
Gareth: It almost is, yeah. I wanted it to feel like we were going along for the ride with the SWAT team. We were in there almost like a semi-documentary style, so we’re almost like almost over their shoulder; we are experiencing everything the same as they are. So that kind of lent itself to that idea of having the camera that felt like it was going to float around with them. So wherever they went, we followed. So even when we go like through the hole, the camera would go through that hole with them and come down into the next room. I didn’t want to do the whole typical method of just a cut to show him drop down, and then suddenly the camera is at the bottom and we see him fall. I wanted that dynamic, sort of, like, style of the shooting so that we would feel like we were always around them.
But, again, the need for clarity in the action scenes comes from the fact that my love of action cinema is from 80s-early 90s Hong Kong. That is like the golden age when it comes to making martial arts films, and I don’t think that we have reached that height again. Those films are great and there was so much detail. And what’s important to me, stealing things from like John Woo and Sam Peckinpah, is that idea that there’s this amount of spatial awareness. So that it doesn’t matter where you are, it doesn’t how much claustrophobic the setting or how big the space, you are always aware of where you are in that room. You’re aware of where you are in that scene, and where every attack comes from. When it lands, and when it gets blocked, all of those things have to be there. Because if you watch John Woo film, he’ll have a character doing a strafe fire with a machine gun. You’re going to see every place where that bullet hits. It’s not going to be just carnage, it’s going to be dit, dit, dit, dit, dit and you would see it. You would feel it, there’s a rhythm to it, too.
And usually doves as well.
Gareth: Yeah, doves. They’re everywhere!
They’re like pigeons in the park. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, and I may be way off base, but you, yourself, are not Indonesian.
[He very fortunately laughs at my risky joke]
Gareth: That’s wrong. Incorrect. I’ve lived there all my life. Clearly I’m Indonesian.
What is it about doing foreign language films that appeals to you? Obviously, you have The Raid, and before that Merantau, but even one of your early short films was a Japanese language film.
Gareth: Well, yeah, I mean it’s just that’s what’s happened with the documentary of the two films, is they happened to be in a foreign language. But that Japanese language short film I did, I was doing a scriptwriting course for my M.A. I was doing that and I was writing something for about six months. The dissertation was you had to write a feature film. So I had spent six months writing this thing, and it was a super personal script. It was really intense, emotional feelings. But after two months of writing it, I stopped feeling that way. So for the next four months I was faking it. And my lecturer called bullshit on it and said, “You don’t feel this way anymore. I can sense it. I can feel it.” So he kinda told me to just think of something new, write something different. I spent six months, I had to finish a script. That had never happened to me before. I so was nervous about producing a script from beginning, middle, to end.
So I wrote the short film just because, before I started the next project I wanted to know I could finish something. So the short film, I was like, you know, I’m not going to make it. I’ve got no limitations. I’ll just write anything. So I wrote this samurai story, a short film about a samurai. Then I was learning Japanese from a student that taught at the university at the time. I told her, “Oh, I wrote this samurai short film.” She took it, showed it to her friends, and then all of a sudden I got a fucking cast for it. My mom was making these fake kimono things on her sewing machine. I was buying swords off Ebay. And all of a sudden we were shooting this thing in the forest. It was just one of those things in which shit presented itself to me and I was like, “OK, well I’m never going to get this opportunity again. I’ll do it.” I guess, to a similar extent, that’s what happened with Silat. All of those things came together and presented themselves to me. Like, I didn’t go off and look for it. It just came. I just felt really, really lucky, because Indonesia has given me my career, without a doubt. So I feel like I owe it to them to continue to make stuff there.
I have a question for all of you. Have you noticed a specific difference in the reaction to the film here in Austin as opposed to other fests? I know Toronto is another town that is really into genre. I’ve heard people who have gone to Sundance and also gone to the Austin film festivals talk about what a different experience it is crowd-wise. What has been your reaction to the reaction here in Austin?
Mike: The first time I saw it with an audience was in Park City. So the reaction there was astonishing and it was really big. I think the theater is one of those situations where it was like a high school gymnasium. So it wasn’t my favorite place to watch a movie. It was a makeshift thing. Especially having done the music, I felt like a proper theater sound system, there’s just such a big difference between what Sundance was and that. But it was really big. It was really exciting. And then we had seen it a couple other ways—a smaller room than that, and then yesterday, which was very…I mean just a very quality experience for me. I thought that yesterday was really electric. The people last night were really vocal. I love watching this kind of a movie where the crowd is going to clap and groan and cheer and be part of the experience.
Joe: What I felt was awesome about last night, one of my favorite parts of the film is the scene where [one of the bad guys is killed off]. Everyone in each one of the screenings I’ve been to is basically on their feet shouting and applauding at that point. But what was really cool about last night in Austin is that as that fight was about to begin, it’s like they’re slowly getting into position, that’s when the crowd actually started to cheer. They knew it was about to happen and they had been waiting this whole time for it and really got into that moment also. So that was a super cool difference for me last night watching the film.
From what I’m hearing last night, the reaction was kind of similar to the way people would react to a slasher film. People were losing their minds in the big, violent moments.
Joe: It’s kind of interesting what happens. Because the film is so simple, and you know what you are going in for—there’s going to be tons of violence, tons of martial arts—it allows you to focus on other things, like some of the really interesting kills that Gareth came up with in his really sick brain.
[Again, Gareth burst out laughing]
Joe: But it allows you to really just kind of let yourself go a little bit more, which is I think why the audience has been OK with being so vocal. They’re not like, “Oh, what’s going to happen in this film?” No. They are just going to open up.
There is a staggering lack of stuffiness in this movie.
Gareth: Also, it’s one of those things whereby we designed it to play like a roller coaster, like a carnival atmosphere in a way. This film would almost suck if the audience stayed quiet. You need that communal atmosphere in order for it to really kind of kick off and become memorable.
Mike: We have a screening set up for some press and, actually, the Linkin Park fan club. They let us put a screening together just for our fan clubs. I told them in both cases make sure there’s a bar.
[We laughed, the irony that we were currently sitting in a bar not lost on us]
Mike: I’m not joking! Regardless of whether people drink or don’t drink, at least the vibe and the atmosphere is there and they know we’re here to have fun. We’re going to let loose a little bit. This isn’t a case of go to a movie and sit there and be quiet. This is like yesterday.
You’re taking the pretension out of it by saying, “Here’s the open bar. Get ready for this fucking awesome movie.”
You guys keep doing my segues for me, which is awesome. Gareth, with all of this crazy, violent amazingness in the movie, were you conscious of the fact as you were going through that you still had to develop characters and make the audience care about them. I mean, they can’t just be cannon fodder for more violence.
Gareth: Yeah. I mean we joke around about it being sick. It’s a very straightforward film, and it’s very streamlined. But, at the same time, if you don’t give a shit about anyone in the film, then it doesn’t work. Those are the important building blocks to kind of put in there at the beginning to kind of build that sympathy. There are certain things we do that happen throughout the film which kind of reinforce that sympathy you have for the main characters. So yeah, I spent a long time to kind of work that in there. The difficulty for this film was the fact that we knew it had to be streamlined, but to put enough in there, not to tip the balance. If there’s too much then it will be all over the place; it wouldn’t work as well. So we put just enough in there to hook the audience in.
If you don’t care about the characters, it’s all shock and no awe.
Gareth: Exactly. I am a big fan of martial arts films, but I really don’t like it when I am watching a martial arts film and then the second time I watch it, I skip to the fights. That’s the worst thing. If you are watching a film and you are just doing the “best of” bits, it kinda sucks then. So I wanted to treat it like you could watch that film from beginning to end and it would work just the same way the second, or the third, or the fourth time. You don’t have to start pressing chapter forward all the time. There’s enough going on in there to keep you entertained. That was kind of my goal.
So in your opinion, outside of The Raid, what’s the best fight you guys have ever seen in a film?
Mike: I thought you were going to say in person.
Yeah, sure, in person. Maybe outside of the Paramount Theater, were two people are arguing about the movie and came to fisticuffs?
Gareth: I saw a fight in a rugby match one when I was a kid…
Rugby, that’s like Cricket, right?
[Again, a risky joke, but Gareth again took it in stride]
Gareth: (sighs) Rugby is like American football without all the fucking helmets and the padding. Where we actually slam into one another.
Gareth: There was a rugby match where a fight broke out and both teams were going apeshit on each other. This one guy grabbed one of the opposite team members and he punched them in the face, but kept running back with him. And he ran him the entire length of the field—punch, punch, punch. It was like a theater show. He reached the touchline on the other side and then he just, like, punch, and knocked him to the floor.
Mike: It sounds like a WWF fight! It sounds scripted!
It sounds like something we’ll see in The Raid 2. Mike, Joe, what about you guys? If you had to think of the best fight sequence you’ve seen in a movie, what would immediately jump to mind?
Joe: Neither of us are as well versed as Gareth in that stuff.
Mike: I would say it’s…is it Drunken Master or…
Gareth: …or Drunken Master 2?
Mike: I don’t know. What was the one where he’s like…I think he’s upstairs at like a…
Gareth: It’s a restaurant scene. With the bamboo?
Mike: Yeah, bamboo!
Gareth: That’s Drunken Master 2
Mike: Oh god, it’s incredible.
Gareth: Non-martial arts, the best fight scene for me: Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David in They Live.
[Had to high five Gareth for this outstanding selection]
Awesome. That was a great choice. Obey!
Gareth: “Put the fucking glasses on.”
“Put the fucking glasses on!” So, Mike and Joe, the experience of scoring this movie, has it inspired you guys to want to do more of this kind of thing and collaborate on something else again?
Mike: Huh, upcoming plans for me? Linkin Park takes up a lot of time. So the next scoring project I take on, and I do intend to keep doing this, I’ll be working it in between things that are going on with Linkin Park. We have a new album coming out in the middle of this year. So it will be sometime after that that I might get started on something else. For me, I never know what it could be, but I think I’d be interested in something cerebral. Probably not action so that it doesn’t have to compete with this. First of all, I don’t know if it could. So yeah, something else, a different direction, because I do like to keep things fresh.
Joe: What attracted me to The Raid at the beginning was not only the simple premise, but how Gareth was able to make some really cool, bold, interesting decisions. It’s a great film to watch in film school in the sense that there’s a lot of basic stuff that he does right. But then, beyond that, there’s some really interesting stuff that somebody might not choose to do, or something that you can’t necessarily do in certain budgets. So it’s really cool. I’m a big fan of being a part of projects where there are those bold, creative decisions, but there’s still a sense of really strong undercurrent and strong character development. It’s so cool to be able to take a genre that I love, like action, and combine that with, “Oh, I actually care about these characters,” and “Oh, there’s a lot of interesting ways to die.” [laughs] So, all of that together in one. That’s awesome. I loved doing that.
Well, thanks a lot, guys. I really do appreciate you taking the time to talk to us. Mike, we’ll be looking forward to the new album. Gareth, we’ll be looking forward to whatever you do next.
Gareth: More ways to kill people with a doorframe.
Yeah, let’s work on that. If you need any ideas, shoot me an email and I’ll be doing extensive research on that.
The Raid is currently open in select theaters.