How does a Welsh guy from the valleys end up making martial arts movies in Asia?
It’s a long story… When I was a kid if a video had the picture of a ninja on the front I had to rent it. It didn’t even matter if it was a piece of shit with a few minutes of fighting in it like American Ninja 4! I grew up watching Jackie Chan, Jet Li and later Tony Jaa, so I’d been exposed to Kung Fu, Karate, Aikido and Muay Thai but I’d never seen Silat on screen before…
Did you shadow fight in front of a bedroom mirror daydreaming that you were Bruce Lee?
Kind of! I guess it all began in my back garden in Wales messing about with my mates making Enter the Dragon rip-offs. I went on to study film at Uni but my dissertation was a personal piece and miles away from my passion for martial arts movies so after six months my lecturer could see I’d lost interest and called bullshit on it. I abandoned that and although it knocked my confidence I quickly focused on making a short Samurai film with a group of Japanese students in Cardiff. We shot it in Treforest… It became our feudal Japan.
Did things happen quickly for you after college?
No. I’d been living in Swansea for four years stuck in the rut of a nine to five job commute to Cardiff so I took a great opportunity that came my way to work on a documentary on martial arts in Indonesia. My wife is Indonesian Japanese so we returned to her hometown Jakarta where I met Iko Uwais (the star of The Raid and Gareth’s first feature Merantau) and discovered Pencak Silat. The whole time I’m thinking, “I can’t wait to show my friends how badass this martial art is!” There were some films made in the 70s and 80s but the choreography wasn’t as sophisticated as the films coming out of Hong Kong and the stories dealt with mysticism and magic so there was a real chance to do something new. But Iko just thought I was full of shit! The white guy promising him riches… He likes to remind me that he thought none of this was really going to happen until the first day of shooting on Merantau!
Pencak Silat - for those that don't know can you explain the origins and fighting style?
Silat is indigenous to Indonesia. It’s hundreds of years old with over 200 fighting styles of the martial art in Indonesia alone. They split into tournament fighting and performance styles that showcase the various skills. Each one borrows different elements… Some are animal based and with specific types of movement. One is designed for impact and breaking bones. But while there’s an aggressive element there’s a peaceful side because practitioners use a special oil to help bone healing. So the idea is that if you’re in a fight and you tear up your opponent you also help them recover. I like this philosophy and as a martial art it’s very adaptable to one on one fighting at eye level, and on the ground, or defending yourself with a series of escape maneuvers against a group. This really lends itself to film.
How does the action ramp up in The Raid?
In my film a SWAT team attempt to take down a drug lord in his tower block lair but it all goes wrong and they have to fight their way to freedom. In most martial arts films motivation for fight scenes is often minimal. I wanted to create a flow with the script and a natural progression towards the scenes of conflict so it made sense within the story. We wanted to make the film relentless but without overloading the audience. Because the danger is if you make them completely numb to the violence they won’t give a shit about the characters by the second half of the film! The action needs to develop with each new scene. So we start with explosions and gunplay then it moves to sticks and knives, then machetes and hand to hand.
You’ve trained with a Silat master and worked as a choreographer on the film. How good are you at getting your fight on?
I’m fuckin’ terrible! I studied for a year so I’d know that what I wanted from my performers came from a place of knowledge and not just me bullshitting my way… There’s a huge repertoire of moves so it became a collaboration with the performers to find the ones that worked best on camera. We spent three months designing the scenes and creating video storyboards then we rehearsed extensively over three months with these templates so we knew exactly how it was going to be shot before we even entered the three-month production phase. This technique developed through the filming of my first feature Merantau because when you’re making a martial arts film you can’t just blag it and improvise on the day.
How tough was it to shoot?
We’re still new to this in Indonesian cinema where action films are in their infancy. They’ve been doing it for decades in Hong Kong and Thailand so we needed the safety net that intense preparation provides. In my first film we did a lot of long takes which can quickly leave your performers exhausted so I’ve learned to break up the shots and look for a different balance with the scenes as the camera goes from wide to intense close up.
Did anyone get injured?
We’ve got paramedics on standby but I think the worst injury was when one of the stunt guys got stabbed in the cheek with a fake knife.
How many martial artists were involved on and off screen?
We use 80 performers in The Raid (30 had previous experience in films and TV) but at the original casting session we saw around 300 martial artists. It was like the X Factor for fighters and inevitably you get a few who’d be on the comedy outtakes because they couldn’t do jack shit but the overall standard was phenomenal. But talented martial artists don’t necessarily make the best screen fighters because it’s also about being able to sell an aggression level and believable reaction when you get hit or retaliate without actually following through and knocking someone out!
What was the toughest scene to shoot?
The final scene is a punishing two on one fight and features over 6 minutes of constant action. For every minute of action screen time we’d need around a day and a half shooting time. I wanted 12 to 15 days to do this one scene but we were working to a tight budget and timeline so we had just eight days. We worked to a shooting schedule of 14 hours filming a day but with all the preparation required each day our shortest was 17 hours and the longest hit 26 hours. We were doing this six days a week. The best analogy is, imagine doing a 14-hour gym session then the next day not having the strength to lift a mug of tea but having to do it all over again. And again the next day… I feel knackered now just thinking about it. We wouldn’t have got away with this over here, we’d have been shut down! With a budget of just over a million pounds we stretched it as far as we could and hopefully the audience will see the effort of thousands of hours on screen.
If the budget had been bigger what else would you liked to have done?
There’s a scene where a refridgerator explodes and the SWAT dudes fall down through a fireball. I wanted the gas canister to come spinning out and rip through a bunch of guys but we didn’t have the time. We’ll have to revisit that fridge in the sequel...
What other martial arts disciplines are showcased in The Raid?
There are elements of Taekwondo throughout and the guy who plays the main henchman Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) is a national Judo champion so he brought his skills to the production. Iko is the star of the film but logically we follow the story through other characters to the climactic fight. When the film first screened at the festival in Toronto people cheered the fight scenes but when we reach the main event and we strip away the sound track to reveal the characters breathing and pulses racing it sucks the audience in. You can enjoy the other fights but here’s the reality…
How much work went into the effects process and the techniques used for some of the amazing close up carnage you've achieved?
We used a lot of CG elements like bullet squibs and blood effects. We couldn’t use blank firing guns so we used BB guns and effects were painstakingly added later. There’s a scene where a guy is shot three times in the face, which just looks insane! Our guy worked with us closely on set monitoring the light and using shadow to make sure our digi-blood didn’t look fake. A lot of post-production work went into that…
What films inspired you when you were making The Raid?
I love the work of Sam Peckinpah and John Woo – The Wild Bunch and Hard Boiled are two of my favourite films… The claustrophobia of Assault on Precinct 13 was in my mind when writing the film because a lot happens off camera with sniper attacks and explosions that adds to the tension. I loved Escape from New York too - John Carpenter is a genius. And of course Die Hard was a touchstone but Jackie Chan’s always been a big inspiration with the way he films martial arts because he shoots it clean. You get a sense of all the movement and what I love about his approach, and which works for us, is the idea of not just shooting for coverage with wide shots and close ups and then trying to cut it in the edit but also designing camera angles and movements specific to each movement being filmed.
The Raid feels like a true Grindhouse film. Were you wary of not making a homage or pastiche?
I didn’t want to do action tongue in cheek. Once you do that you lose the love of the genre. The best Grindhouse films were made 100 percent seriously and weren’t aiming for camp or kitsch and likewise with The Raid it’s up to the audience to choose how they respond.
Having sold the rights for a Hollywood remake of The Raid - on which he’ll also serve as producer with Iko Uwais choreographing the fight scenes - Evans is preparing a sequel. With the running title Berandal (Thugs) the Welshman promises more insane action incorporating car chases and big set pieces alongside the jaw dropping hand-to-hand combat and gunplay that’s made his name. Bring it on Gareth.
The Raid is in cinemas now and out on DVD in September.
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