Fantastic Fest: Gareth Evans on Shaping the Mythology and Action of ‘Apostle’

We chat with the director about leaving the safety of The Raid and entering the hell of occult horror.

Apostle Dan Stevens
Netflix

Having accomplished two of the most brutal, and entertaining action films of the modern era, Gareth Evans felt compelled to shift not only genres but also period and location. Apostle goes back to the turn of the century. A man in ruins (Dan Stevens) is forced to halt his slow suicide by laudanum addiction, to hunt down a sister stolen away on a British aisle run by a mysterious religious cult. Disguised as one of the devout, Stevens infiltrates the culture and uncovers a dark evil rooted more in humanity than anything supernatural.

Evans was not interested in attacking belief. Instead, he wanted to probe how men manipulate faith to control the flock. Don’t worry though, those looking for Raid-level ultra-violence will be rewarded with plenty of bits of savage gore. Apostle takes its time, but once unleashed, the nightmares are awash in red.

I spoke with Evans in the Inferno karaoke room atop the Highball bar attached to the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar. Apostle had screened the night before to an incredibly vocal Fantastic Fest audience, and the director was riding high from the reaction. Sitting on a bench below a giant pentagram and goat head, Evans discussed the influences that fed his mythology and the challenges of shooting in Wales versus Indonesia.

Here is our conversation in full:

Where did Apostle’s mythology come from?

It was one of those things where each sort of individual piece kind of came from making certain choices. I knew I wanted to do something with period horror performance. I remember saying to my manager and my agents, I was like “I’m gonna do a horror film. I wanna make a horror film.” So then they were like “Great. That’s commercial. Horror film.” And my first sentence is like “1905.” They go, “Okay, it’s one of those.” But they were super supportive, by the way. But it was like this thing of it being… we were looking at different elements. I knew I wanted to do something that talked a little bit about faith and about politics and about how those things mix and the danger of those things mixing.

The manipulation of religion to sway control over people.

Exactly. For me, it was never gonna be an attack on religion. It’s not what I was interested in. It’s more of an attack on man’s ability to use religion and abuse it in order to further political gain. So I knew I wanted to discuss something like that. So we started looking up different time periods. I knew I wanted it to be a period setting. We looked at what could be Thomas’s backstory. So we started looking at this. What would he be fleeing from? What could be the thing that could have made him lose belief in his faith and we kind of landed on that thing about the Peking Boxer Rebellion? That tied in timeline wise with this idea that, okay, if he experienced that, he managed to escape from that and come back to London, a man who was almost atheist in terms of his loss of faith and delves into the vice of it. He’s considered to be dead by his immediate family. They don’t know that he’s come back and survived. It made sense that it would be 1905 in terms of the period setting.

So that started to give us a sense, like in the very early seed idea of things, that was sort of the start of it. I started working on figuring out what this community would be like. How would they work? What would be the tenants of their beliefs? We started playing on the idea that it would very, very early drafts of Communism. So that would be Malcolm’s ideology. It would be his political leaning. Then his realization of that is nothing to do with Communism. There’s a hierarchy. There’s a police state element to the community that it almost flies in the face of what he believes in. So he’s a hypocrite in terms of that. So all of those things started to feed into the sort of gradual world building.

But the mythology itself, correct me if I’m wrong, it’s wholly unique. Birthed from your brain.

Yeah.

So how do you go about establishing it? How do you go about creating this goddess figure to worship?

Well, I mean for like that stuff, it was a combination of trying to figure out if I wanted to use the meta form of these people using religion for their political gain, what’s the best way to do that? I thought well, what if it’s a case of, they discover this island, this is their community they live on and when they get there they find someone that is essentially a goddess. She’s essentially a Mother Nature almost. She’s the power that keeps that place going. She’s the life-blood of that island. What do they do? Instead of reveal her, instead of worship her, they enslave her and they use her in order to be able to gain control. From Malcolm’s perspective, he can turn around and say, “I’m the prophet for this island. I have direct communication with this god.” They don’t think that someone really existed there. Also Katherine sees it all. The followers of that are kind of believing in and have devotion to a god-like presence but then the reality is that, yeah this guy is enslaving that and using it to be a man of power.

For me, it originated from that in order to create that volume. To be honest, there’s no on method that kind of solves all. It was just picking away at different elements of it. Trying to find what would be the interesting parts of it. Working with the production designer to figure out the overall look and feel of this place, knowing that it was an island that didn’t have any kind of built-in infrastructure in there. What the houses would look like. So then approximately what the barns should look like. What the tools and everything. So all of that became about more rustic wood than sort of metal.

I think when you read the plot description of Apostle, as a film fan, you immediately go to The Wicker Man as an influence.

Yeah.

But then you watch the movie and it’s really nothing like The Wicker Man. What influences were in your head when putting this all together? Movies, literature –

Mostly cinematic, if I’m honest. And British folk horror. It was massively important to me and massively influential. I mean so yeah The Wicker Man is obviously an influence, but not more so than something like Witchfinder General or Ken Russell’s The Devils and then more recently Ben Wheatley’s films like Kill List or A Field in England. Like in A Field in England there was a shot of Reece Shearsmith, when he comes out from the tent, it was a really long slo-mo shot just looking maniacal, like he’s lost something and he’s just changed.

Looks like madness trapped in a nightmare painting.

It’s so insane. I’ve never seen anything like it. It just chilled me to the bone. So I watched those films to try to kind of learn the aesthetics, to learn the feel of it, learn what it was about the sound or the performances or the world-building. Because there’s something slightly askew with those films. There’s enough that feels grounded so you can believe in it, and then there’s these little sharp right turns and left turns that kind of just throw you. You’re forced to be like “Where are we in the world right now?” That for me was what was so interesting about tapping this kind of genre.

But the film eventually does deliver on your signature action shots. Cameras fixed alongside falling bodies and the like.

Yeah.

How did you and your DP –

Matt Flannery.

How do you establish 1905, but also prepare an audience for a very modern, climactic violent free-for-all?

Myself and Max, we grew up together in university. I’ll say that we should have already been grown up by then, but in terms of our experience in this industry, it came from us working together in uni. We met each other in uni and became close friends. Then we watched a ton of films together. Our influences are quite varied, you know? It was just the martial arts action genre fed us in a way. In a really beautiful way and it was wonderful to do The Raid one and two. But we have always had a massive appreciation for all types of cinema. So for me then, it was kind of like this thing of, let’s do something different. I think those shots, those feelings, it’s less about it being sort of like oh the style of The Raid, but maybe a little of our DNA as filmmakers in a way. So we knew that for the opening so 40 to 50 minutes, we wanted it to be a little more classically composed in terms of our composition. In terms of the way we would shoot. Also in terms of the way I would edit. Then we set up all those dominoes in line for back-end, once we tipped our first domino then that’s sort of that composure of cinematography starts to kind of shift with the pace of the film. So you have to start to become a bit more frenetic, a bit more aggressive in terms of that.

You’re one of the rare director/editors. How does knowing that you’re going to edit the film influence your shooting style?

It helps. There’d be certain moments, certain scenes where we were really up against it in terms of time. This was one of big learning curves of doing The Raid and Raid 2. In Indonesia, you film until you finish a scene. In the UK, you finish your day and it finishes on time. So you’re just like, “How many hours do we have left to finish this scene?” They’d be like “You have 45 minutes.” Oh okay, alright. Interesting. So it’s a different thing. So being my own editor, there’s a sequence where Dan is being stitched up on the table. That whole sequence there. I had about 25 shots there how I wanted to play that scene out. Then I was like oh crap how are we gonna do it? ‘Cause we didn’t have enough time to get it in. It was like thrown into one of our days and we had about two or three hours to shoot that scene and so I was like how are we gonna do this? I spoke to Max and we talked about our approach to shooting it.

We went for a freewheeling handheld approach. I want you to do one take where you follow this way and go around with Lucy and you come back to him. Then you stay on Dan. Then you do one where you go off to Michael. Then you do where you come back to Lucy. Then do one where you go off to Mark. All these different characters. Thankfully I got the actors to do a thing that was almost a bit of like live theater like where they could play the whole scene out in one go. ‘Cause I’m watching the monitor, I’m seeing what I’m getting. I’m making notes. I can cut that. That can cut with this. This can cut with that. Now I’m just ready to do inserts. That made that process a lot easier to digest.

And because you’re the editor and you’re thinking along these lines, is your confidence in what you’re getting on the day sharper?

Yeah, much much more. I know if I’ve got it or not. Nine times out of ten I’m using… for an action sequence or something like that, nine times out of ten it’s the last take of every shot. ‘Cause that’s when I know I’ve got it. I don’t need to do another take.

I don’t want to leave without talking about your cast really quick. What a gift it was to have Dan Stevens.

Amazing.

What brought you to him?

I knew Dan from The Guest, which was an incredible film. I knew Simon Barrett for a while and Adam Wingard. I was introduced to Dan through that. We talked about a different project first and basically, in the end, I talked about this. He took a real interest in the project. And what was great about him was that he brought a fearlessness to that character. He wasn’t afraid to dirty down. He wasn’t afraid to scruff himself up and not play the hero which was important to us because he could more vulnerable, he could be more… Sorry, I’ve used this throughout the day, so it’s like the 20th time.

(Laughter) Sure, sure, go with it.

He wasn’t in this film walking around like Bogart. Now his character thinks he is, but deep down he’s a guy that’s dependent on drugs, that isn’t necessarily the best person for the job, he is not a fighter and so he’s gonna endure an awful lot of punishment in order to succeed or not succeed in his mission. So that was what was real and that brought all of that energy and all that willingness to play against type to play against what people are expecting of his character going into that village.


Apostle hits Netflix on October 12th.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.