Interview: The Raid Director Gareth Evans and Star Iko Uwais

We took part in a roundtable with the folks behind one of the best action movies in years.

Interview: The Raid Director Gareth Evans and Star Iko Uwais

With The Raid set for a UK release next week, we headed to a round table interview with both the driector, Gareth Evans, and the diminuitive but imposing star, Iko Uwais. The film is a real blast, and you can see our review here. Naturally buzzing from the overwhelming early reactions to their film, Gareth and Iko were in a friendly and talkative mood, more than happy to talk about the intense shoot, the explosive end product and what we can expect from the planned sequels.

Firstly guys, congratulations on the amazing buzz The Raid has been receiving on the festival circuit- could you tell us a little about your favourite reactions so far?

Gareth: Yeah, the first time we screened it in Toronto, at Midnight Madness, that was the first time we’d ever been to a Midnight Madness anyway, and for it to be our film, when we were sat there in the background waiting to go on and introduce the film, we were hidden behind the curtain just waiting to go in, and all we could hear was the audience getting louder and louder, getting whipped into a frenzy. Just one week before that we finished post production on the film. So me and my producer, at that point we were so into it that all we saw were the things that were bad about it, so when we went we just thought, “Shit maybe we can just get a couple of decent reviews, and get a poster quote.”, that’s all we’d really hoped for. And no one in the audience had seen a frame of the film. So no one knew what to expect, which I think is what helped with that first screening, that people got so surprised by it. It was just overwhelming, such a great feeling. Every festival we’ve been to, there have been these very vocal reactions. Especially in Dublin and Glasgow, because in the UK we don’t normally tend to have a very vocal response, anyone makes a sound it’s like “Shhhhh”, so to be in Glasgow and hear people start to cheer, and clap, it was incredible, such a great feeling and it’s blown us away.

Could you tell us a little about the challenges that the shoot posed, both on a technical level in dealing with the tight locations and high octane action, and on a physical level – were there many injuries on set?

Gareth: The one thing with shooting the action scenes, was we wanted to make sure you could see the detail. When shooting in the corridors and things, we needed to use a camera that was wide enough for you to take everything in. Spacial awareness was needed too, because the geography of the place was super important. So one of the things we did, which was a bit of a cheat, was that when we needed to move the cameras to be wide enough to see the action, if it was in that corridor space, we’d shift the choreography to be near one of the doorways, so that as the camera is coming round we could have an art guy ready to open the doors and back round the corner into them, just so that we could come that little step further in, just to widen the shot.

Iko (translated by Gareth): In pre-production, we did an audition for most of the fighters, and one of the guys, his name is Godfred, he’s the guy with the machete and the kind of bug eyes. He’s actually an architect - so he cuts people in his spare time and designs buildings in his work time! He’s a really nice guy but he’s the one guy we auditioned who had this kind of fearless quality to him. Everyone else as they came in to audition with Iko, they’d treat him like the guy they couldn’t hurt, and mustn’t injure him during pre-production, whereas Godfred just came in and kind of swung for real, coming in very hard and fast with each hit. So when it came to a bit where they had to throw Iko over their shoulder. Iko landed funny on his leg, and his kneecap went like that (shows us a gruesome interpretation of the ways Iko’s knee moved) usually in a film if you’re doing a throw like that, you control the throw and let go so that the person falling has control of the fall. What Godfred did was basically to throw him over, but treat it like a real fight– it was a full, aggressive movement. We were definitely going to cast him!

After hurting his knee he had to rest for like 3 or 4 weeks, for the first week he couldn’t stand on it, it was just a mess. He also had chicken pox, this all happened like a month before the shoot. We were planning to shoot the training scene on the first day, where he has his shirt off, but he just looked like fucking bubblewrap! So we had to do that later in the shoot. With the knee, it got better and we did the fight scene in the corridor with the stick and knife. He had to turn, but his boot got stuck in the floor and he wrenched his knee, and was out again. There was one guy swinging a machete at him, and he has to shield with his arm. It wasn’t a real machete, but was made of metal and it kept hitting it on his forearm. You can still see the bruise, it’s been there since May!

Iko (breaking in in English): The guy who got stabbed in the face…

Gareth: Oh yeah, what happened was that he gets his head pulled forward and the knife goes into his throat, with the camera position and the blocking it works. Instead of his head coming straight down, it went to the side, right into the path of the knife. It was just a soft wooden knife but if it was just one inch higher it would have gone straight through his eye. It pierced the skin and Iko could feel it hit cheekbone. We put a plaster on it and a cup of tea and he was fine. The worst injury we had was the guy who breaks his back over the wall. The way we did that was to chop it together in post.

That wasn’t a dummy??

Gareth: Nope, not a dummy, it was a real guy! We took the wall out the guy’s on a wire, and he lands on a bunch of crash mats. First he landed on his back and put his legs down, then we put the wall back in, raised him by an metre, and he landed on his back and put his legs down, then we put the wall back in and landed him on his arse and tipped his upper body back so his legs would go down, then put it all together afterwards into one shot. What went wrong was that the guys who were pulling the wires to make sure he landed on a safe spot, pulled too hard, and he ended up banging the back of his head into the wall, and coming back down. So then, they’re off balance, because of the impact, and lost the wire. He just shot over, missed both crash mats and ended up falling another 5 meters onto concrete. We were watching on the monitors and just thought – he’s fucking dead – so we rushed out and the paramedics , we have paramedics on our shoot, checked his neck and he wanted to go again! After ten minutes of being unconscious, but we were like “no, you’re going to hospital!” but he came back in the morning and was fine, so we did the shot again.

Your previous film, Merantu, is also a martial arts action movie, but very different in tone and pacing to The Raid, did your direction of that film influence The Raid?

Gareth: Yes, what we did with the way we shot action on Merantu, was that we used a lot of long takes and that tended to make the fighters and Iko exhausted. We had to get things done in one take, otherwise they would get wiped out really fast. In using a lot quicker, shorter shots it gives them more time to get their breath back, and to save it all for those longer ones when they are needed. In Merantu the choreography is very different, because the character is different – he’s supposed to be a nice boy who doesn’t want to get involved, so in that film, it’s like block, block, punch, then push the guy away and try to escape, he doesn’t go for the jugular like he did (in The Raid). In Merantu it gets progressively more violent, but in The Raid, from the beginning it’s kill or be killed so we had to be way more direct, way more brutal. In Merantu, it’s a little too long, a lot of people said it takes too long to get to the fights, and it’s true it does. But in that film, we wanted to balance drama, and to introduce silat culture, tradition and moves, so it played stronger to a local audience because a lot of it was very specific to Indonesia. In this one, we’d done our introductions so we could just go for it. My decision was that I wanted to be in that building inside 10 minutes. Also story wise, this one is much more streamlined, we don’t have anywhere near as many subplots and characters, and if we did it would have unbalanced the film.

How did you prepare the cast for the demands of the shoot? Iko, was it hard learning to handle all the different weapons?

Gareth: I only really get involved with the creative side of choreography, so Iko was more involved with training the fighters…

(Iko answers in Indonesian, Gareth translates as below)

At the start, they got a pile of fighters, and go through each one to check out their skill sets, what their strengths and weaknesses are, and where to put them in the film. So one may be more suited to the corridor fight, or the drugs lab fight, and if there are a number of people in the scene we decide where to put them. Then they put them through a general test, where we see what they’re like throwing a punch, or a kick, or their reactions. For a lot of the film, it doesn’t really matter how good Iko is, or Yayan (Mad Dog in the film), if the person on the receiving end doesn’t respond in a realistic way, they both look bad.
We set up a sort of boot camp training, to get them used to handling guns, so they didn’t look like they hadn’t used one before. So rather than just showing them the mechanics of each gun, they’d look at the tactics and things, and do a lot of things like raid assimilations. They’d also be taught about communication techniques, they were treated as recruits, so had to respect their superiors, learn how to salute different ranks and stuff. That created a sort of bond between them, they’d all eat together, sleep together, so it was something they could carry through to the film.

Did you cut anything out that you really hated to lose?

Gareth: we had a couple of action moments that I really wanted to put in. How we’d shoot an action scene was, say we had four days to shoot a scene, day one we’d shoot the beginning, day two the end, then the last two days bridging the gap. So by the end of day three you know what’s staying in. There was a moment with an axe that I really wanted to do, a guy was trying to come down through the hole, and axe was going to get swung and go (another grisly demonstration) THUD in between the toes, and then he’d get pulled down and hit the floor. We couldn’t do it, I’m gutted! Maybe we’ll keep that for the next film. We do that quite a bit, try and make a note of the choreography we dropped so that we can use it in future, we’re very economical like that.

Iko, what did you think of this stranger, this Welshman who just turned up in Indonesia and wanted to film you, what were your first impressions of Gareth?

Iko (translated by Gareth): At first, he didn’t trust me at all, what happened was that he wanted to do work in commercials, and he got involved with an agency, they screwed him over, made him pay a deposit, then he did the commercial, didn’t get paid, didn’t get his deposit back so he just thought “no, screw the media”, and went to work in the phone company as a delivery driver. When we were doing a documentary after that, my wife and I saw him perform and just thought “wow, this guy’s got screen presence” and so we said that we wanted to offer him the lead role in a film. He didn’t believe me, and I don’t think he did until the first day of the shoot, which would have been a really elaborate prank to pull on him! When it came to doing a film in Indonesia, there had been a lot of action films, but nothing about silat for about 15 years, so it seemed a bit unusual that it was a Welsh guy who came over and wanted to restart this genre, probably the next one for us to drive into the ground by making too many of them…

The sequel is said to be moving on to a bigger scale, spilling out onto the streets in a continuation. Is there anything else you can tell us about the sequel at this stage?

Gareth: Yeah, we didn’t want to do the sequel in a building again, we’d run out of ideas of what we can do in the building, so it made sense to expand the story. We’re going to meet the gangsters that allowed (The villain) to own the building, so now we’re going up a tier, getting more dangerous but with a different feel to it. That guy was vest, sarong, a gun and a bowl of noodles, but now it’s going to be guys in suits who appear to be legitimate businessmen on the surface, but are darker underneath. The action sequences this time are much bigger in scale, large scope scenes. Our big set piece for the sequel is going to be Iko versus four guys, inside a moving car on the motorway. We’re going to have him throwing people out of windows, and smashing into other vehicles. It’s going to be a headache, but fun!
Iko (in English): He’s a violent guy!

A western audience watching The Raid will perceive a lot of influences, for example a lot of John Carpenter, John Woo and a lot of Aliens. Are there any other influences from Indonesian or South-East Asian cinema that we might not be aware of?

Gareth: The obvious ones are Die Hard, Hard Boiled, Assault on Precinct 13. Rec, too, anything contained in one building. Peace Hotel was one, the central concept was that the landlord of the Peace Hotel rented out rooms to people who needed to get away from the hotel. I remember knowing that synopsis, and seeing a picture of Chow Yun-Fat with a fucking Winchester rifle and thinking that this was going to be the greatest movie ever made. When I finally got to see it, it was a romantic comedy with musical moments. So it wasn’t what my teenage mind wanted it to be, I just thought, make it a tower block, make him a drug boss, a bad guy. That was kind of where it came from, in terms of the SWAT team element, it was originally going to be a hotel, and Iko was just going to wander into that hotel and become a part of that world. Then I started thinking of a couple of ideas. Then I saw the music video for MIA, Born Free, the Roman-Gavras video, and thought “Fuck, I want to do the SWAT team thing” that was such a brilliant music video, so visceral. That gave me a huge amount of inspiration, we played it every day in pre-production to everybody who came in, this is what we’re going for, what we’re after.

The film is set in these tight, enclosed spaces. Was it shot on set or on location?

Gareth: probably 85 per cent of it was shot on sound stages. We just couldn’t find a structure in Indonesia that we needed for the choreography to happen. We build the atrium, then did the CGI straight up for the 15 floors. With the scene where they cut through the floor, we couldn’t do that in a real building, so we did that on a studio set over two stories. A lot of it was sets, and my art team had a hard time on that, because we didn’t have a big budget for the film, we could only afford to have two sets built at a time. So when they pulled one down, we had to reuse the wood. So again, recycling –we are very green as filmmakers. We had a building we wanted to use – the drugs lab is a real building, and the stairwell is real. The exteriors we see, only the very bottom part is real, then CGI all the way up. Only four stories tall.

What are both of your favourite scenes in the film?

(Gareth consults with Iko in Indonesian, then answers)

His favourite is the scene where he’s carrying his friend on his shoulder, with the stick and the knife. The reason it’s his favourite is that it was really hard to shoot. The jacket was too tight, so whenever he tried to twist or move, he didn’t have too much flexibility. The weapons weren’t great either, the nightstick was hard to use when you spin it. Then on top of that there’s a guy with his entire dead body weight hanging off of him all the way through, and then on top of that his knee was still fucked up too, so when we were shooting that scene in the second scene that was when he wrenched his knee. The military boots we gave him were too heavy too, so the kicks were very hard to do. He then had to fight his way through 18 different guys in a corridor that’s only 2 metres wide. All these things were difficult, but the reason he loves it is not the process of shooting it, but because it’s the scene that when we watch it with an audience, it gets the most reaction.

For me, I really like the bit when we drop through the hole, and go to the next room, because we shot that without a storyboard, it was really nerve wracking to shoot like that, so it was kind of a thrill for me. Everything else in martial arts is pre designed, but on that one we just went with it. The same kind of thing, I get a kick out seeing people react to the guy getting shot in the face, or getting hit with the axe, or getting thrown out of the window. When the refrigerator finally explodes towards the audience, they can breathe again. To know how stressful that was to film, we had to find a studio that was high enough to build a two story set, but the only one was fully booked, so we had to use a badminton court. It was not designed like a studio – with a tin roof, it was so hot, about 42 degrees in there, so we had about 20-25 air conditioning units in there to pump cold air through and it just didn’t work, didn’t drop it by a degree, we were dropping like flies. We had to swap to nights just to cool it down, it was the most horrible shoot ever, but that’s my favourite scene. I think it’s whatever punishes you the most, you end up loving it the most when it’s over.

Is there any reason you shot that without a storyboard?

Time mostly, I don’t want to bullshit you that it was all part of the plan, it really was just an issue of time! When it comes to the gun stuff it’s a little harder to organise as a storyboard because there’s like 5 or 6 people in one scene, when it’s just one on one fighting it’s easier, and when you need to have four or five people crowding one guy, it’s hard to storyboard. Also, it kind of made that scene feel a little bit more fluid. I wanted the actors to feel like they were free to do longer takes and things.