Timo Tjahjanto and Joe Taslim on Unleashing Action Movie Hell in ‘The Night Comes For Us’

We chat with the maniacs that conceived one of the most violent and intense action films of the year.

The Night Comes For Us
Fantastic Fest/Waytao Shing

Limbs looking to remain attached to the body need not apply. The Night Comes For Us is a revelation of blood-soaked action violence, and maybe the most exhilarating theatrical experience I’ve had this year, but one most folks will have to settle for a home-watch on Netflix. That’s ok. Get on your bat-phone; call up a dozen of your friends, and crack open a few six-packs. This film will get you screaming.

Director Timo Tjahjanto found inspiration from Grand Theft Auto IV and was determined to transplant the video games’ sandbox experience to the cinematic medium. Joe Taslim is dropped into Jakarta, and he has to slaughter his way out. You’ve seen this type of gangster plot before but never executed with such a vicious display of viscera. The timid best guard their eyes.

I spoke to Timo and Joe just before they premiered the film to a riotous Fantastic Fest audience. We discuss the freedom of shooting action in Indonesia versus the safe sets of Star Trek Beyond and Mile 22. Timo details his philosophy of violence, and how horror films fuel the desire for buckets of blood. And yeah, he talks about his healthy (but utterly real) competition with The Raid director Gareth Evans.

Here is our conversation in full:

I just wanted to talk about what was the influence on the film? What got you to this story of The Six Seas organization?

Timo: Okay. Alright. Alright. (Points to Joe) He’s the first guy to mention the Six Seas, so that’s cool. I really love the idea of anti-heroes. Like the world of scumbags and villains.

Here’s the thing, I do play games occasionally, and the very genesis of the film comes from the fact that I played Grand Theft Auto, Four, I think, the one with the Niko Bellic character. And I was thinking, when I’m done playing it, ‘Hey. You know what would be great? If we create a sandbox in the city.’ That’s something applicable to Jakarta. What if you make a sandbox filled with characters that meet each other, and it all leads to one night where things clash. So that’s the genesis of the story. But title wise, have you seen the film Where the Day Takes You?

I don’t think so.

Timo: Will Smith playing a handicap guy?

Oh yeah. Yeah. Okay. Nope. Still haven’t seen it.

Timo: It’s from that. It’s a mix match of all things. The Six Seas is a myth that I always liked, this idea of people who are faceless. For a lot of Western films, the cool mysterious guy sometimes is the guy who sits behind a leather sofa with a suit, but for me, the most dangerous people are the guys who are sitting behind a kiosk and just smoking and eating noodles. These guys are the real sort of dogs, so that’s where the inspiration comes from.

Hearing the thought of sandbox, it really clicks for me. But it also seems incredibly intimidating to construct a film. Do you build straight from the set pieces? How do you even write this?

Timo: Okay. Alright. This project comes from the fact that I want to do a trilogy, so I actually have a story from point A to Z in the beginning, and then I kind of split them in three. So this story of Iko is meant to be the first part of what’s going to be the long journey where we’re sort of unraveling the Six Seas and all that element, which is not necessarily just set in Jakarta. I want to do an exploration of crime, drugs, and gun smuggling, wrapped in a martial arts film and explore these characters in South East Asia.

So you’re going to pick up immediately after the final shot of this film and go right into another one?

Timo: Yeah, there’s one female character that’s, I think, going to bring a lot of question like ‘Who is she?’ And What does she do?’ Her story is supposed to start in the second film.

I imagine there has to be a tremendous amount of preparation to shoot a film like this. A lot of training, a lot of choreography. What’s that experience?

Joe: All the credits for choreography, I think, goes to Iko Uwais and his team. They design all the fights, the structures. He would jump in to give his ideas to shape the fights, to freshen up the tone of the movie and stuff. This movie was supposed to happen actually in 2014 and something happened so it has to be in a coma.

Timo: It was sleeping.

Joe: Yeah, slept for a couple of years and thanks to Netflix and this crew with the movie and then Timo we can make this.

So you had time to prepare?

Joe: So we trained actually three, four years ago for the movie, we refreshed the training but we changed a little bit of the choreography.

Timo: Some aspects of it. Yeah. Cuz Iko is the new addition of the film, you see. Originally, Iko was supposed to be just the choreographer, but having Iko available, he just finished shooting another film, and then we saw he was available and we were like “Hey, what if we have Iko in the film, in a way people have never seen before?” So, there you go.

I recently watched Mile 22, where he has a tiny role in it, (Timo & Joe laugh at each other). Well, I mean not tiny…but he’s not Mark Walhberg, right? I’m not here to disparage other filmmakers, but the editing there, that American choppy action style – gosh, I don’t even get to see him fight in that film. But in The Night Comes For Us, I see the dance, I see the choreography, I see the intensity that results from that training.

Timo: Alright, back to the original idea, I realized I’m very conscious that I’m working with a lot of people who are so underrated. Raid one and Raid two, from a technical perspective-, Gareth is just a genius, I got to admit that much. I fucking hate the guy, but I love the guy. He’s my friend, he’s my brother. I know I could never compete with him but where I come from if you know me – my very core of filmmaking is based on my love for horror so that’s where I can come in and sort of put an extra something that’s gonna differentiate the approach that Gareth used in The Raid films, to mine.

When it comes to making a fluid choreography and all that stuff, I like what you said about Mile 22, there’s an interesting aspect to it but I also understand that with American Hollywood filmmaking it’s a different approach, there’s time, there’s an efficiency that they’re using that I know is sometimes a necessity. With us we can approach things from first hugging it out together, we approach things as friends, like “Hey guys, hey Julie, hey Joe, hey Iko, lets hurt each other and not be pissed off about it, so what we’re gonna do is shoot it as if you guys are fighting for real, so bruises, cuts, kicks and all that stuff is included in it,” and that was the best way to approach it.

Then we do a video board so I already know what I want to shoot and I try not to stray far away from that, therefore if something doesn’t work, lets not fix it by the time we’re shooting but let’s try to fix it here. My approach has always rn, if I see Julie fighting, or if I see Joe fighting I don’t wanna see him from the back I always wanna see him from the front so I know they are contacting for real and therefore let’s not use six or seven cameras rolling at the same time, let’s use one camera but we already know – okay this is where it should be.

Right, I mean, I don’t see a lot of stunt switch-outs.

Timo: No, definitely, definitely. Plus these guys, they don’t want stunts, I was like “Guys come on, if something happened to you guys it’s trouble,” but these guys, him and Iko definitely, are so close they’re probably spooning each other by night, but they have that trust that amazes me. In their fight which we shot for a crazy-ass nine days, sometimes real contact happens and somebody really gets bruises and “Guys, are you okay? Are you guys gonna kill each other?” And they just hug it out then “let’s do this.”

Joe: Trust is the most important thing when you’re doing action because there’s no easy way, there’s no way you fake the pain. There’s a certain level of pain a human can receive and as people we work in this industry, in martial arts action, as a scriptwriter, we know the level which I can push you this hard but I cannot go more than that, so the pain needs to be there and trust is very important. Me and Iko we are like brothers and during the fight I punched him for real, for some of the attacks and he did the same, but it’s always very important for us to understand, to see each other in the eye, that if something happens in a fight it’s never intentional for me to hurt you. It’s because we wanna deliver, together we wanna make it right, we wanna make it perfect. It’s the passion. How passionate we are as an actor doing the action part. So if we understand each other in terms of that, all the pain, it’s always okay. I think the chemistry is very important, what I understand in Hollywood movies they don’t have time to have that chemistry, which is why they just stop.

Well, you’ve kicked ass on Star Trek Beyond. What is the difference, set wise, from something like that to this?

Joe: In Star Trek, the fight itself was a pretty short fight, it’s not really a complex fight. We did it and I think how they shoot it is different and because I’m in Indonesia we always use video boards. Video boards are a simulation of real shooting, so for actors, I mean in Hollywood they don’t wanna- I mean, I don’t wanna say it, and maybe some actors probably wanna do it, but most of the actors they don’t wanna do the simulation.

Timo: Sometimes it’s also about rules, right? Regulations?

Joe: And regulations, safety issues, you need to stop them, to prevent them to go all out with that, but in Indonesia, we have the privilege to-

Timo: We sort it out with a beer.

Joe: Yeah. Of course, safety is always a priority but there is a certain level of pain that actually a human can endure, we play around with that.

You’re still sitting here. You’ve survived.

Timo: Just a little bit of blue balls.

Joe: I mean, of course, it’s tough when shooting that one for a couple of months. I woke up in the morning and go to the set (feigns exhaustion), but actually, that helps the acting.

Timo: Especially towards the end of the final fight. We shot the final fight chronologically, so towards the end I know like, the set is not the healthiest place to shoot. It’s a really dingy warehouse where you see rats, cockroaches running around and stuff and by the time we reach the seventh/sixth day out of that nine days you can tell that they are getting this heavy flu, they’re shivering and all that stuff, but it helps, because towards the end all that emotional release really helps, because I know they’re in real pain.

You’re fighting against something there.

Joe: It’s our type of method acting. We don’t lose weight, we don’t gain weight, we don’t learn how to play piano. We take the pain for real and deliver.

And yet for all its action, the film opens on the eyes of a child. There’s a kid in peril and actually commits a lot of peril for others too.

Joe: The film to me… he is definitely a bad guy, but not by choice. He was raised on the streets, probably grew up in this hell that made him who he is and why he joined the Six Seas. He needs to fix something, one of the brothers did something bad and then in return, they need him to join the Six Seas. It’s never his choice, it’s always doing something for the other brothers, it’s always trying to fix things but mostly they’re never really fixed. I think that the character itself, it’s easy to say he has been living in a dark tunnel and the little girl is a spark of light at the end of the tunnel, as simple as that. He’s been killing a lot of people during his years in Six Seas. When he saw that little girl in the eye somehow there’s this eureka of humanity. He’s just like “this is not right and I have to stop’” and he’s quite persistent, he’s quite stubborn, he’s a meathead.

Timo: Yeah. He’s a meathead

Joe: Yeah. So he brings the girl back and says goodbye to a lot of people, a lot of close friends, and he knows he’s probably not gonna make it.

Timo: He’s definitely a depressed and haunted character.

Joe: He has PTSD, he has trauma in the head. At the beginning of the week he got shot, before the fights, so he is damaged inside, he’s damaged in his head as well so I think the little kid is a symbol of “If I do this right, probably I’ll die in peace. I know I’m not gonna make it.

Timo: And I might add that it might come from a selfish place for his character because there’s a line that he mentioned in the film, maybe this is a bit of a spoiler but “Maybe I wasn’t trying to save her, maybe I was trying to save myself.” I think that’s really an important part of the character, of who he is. He’s not afraid to die but he’s afraid of not achieving that thing where he knows deep down maybe he wants to be that person. So I think that’s the core.

Joe: It’s pretty deep.


The Night Comes For Us hits Netflix on October 19th.

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