Talent is no guarantee for success, Welsh-born filmmaker Gareth Evans and Indonesian ‘silat’ sensation Iko Uwais will tell you. They are the creative minds behind ‘The Raid: Redemption’, only the most talked-about martial-arts movie in and around the world since premiering at Midnight Madness in the Toronto International Film Festival. So dazzling is their movie that it was picked up for a domestic release in the United States by Sony Pictures Classics, chosen by Linkin Park’s Mike Shinoda for a new score ahead of that release, and already has a Hollywood remake in place.
It all seems a little surreal for Evans, who said that the movie was the fruit of immense frustration on both his and Uwais’ part when another project they were working on for a year and a half eventually fell through because they could not secure the budget to do it. “We had to make something, we got to have a plan B, so this [The Raid] was literally us saying ‘let’s not think too much and just go with the flow’”, said Evans, who despite the phenomenal success of the film, remains incredibly humble and down-to-earth about it.
Indeed, Evans’ collaboration with Uwais started back in 2007 when the former was working on a documentary about ‘silat’ and the latter was one of the practitioners featured in it. Then in 2009, they decided to make a movie, with ‘Merantau’ the first foray by Uwais into the acting scene. Reflecting on why that did not take off the same way as ‘The Raid’, Evans surmises it could be due to the fact that the movie took longer than what audiences expected to get to the first fight.
In contrast, he added that ‘The Raid’ had a much more universal story whereas ‘Merantau’ had stronger elements of local Indonesian culture and tradition within it. ‘It [The Raid] was a high-concept action film and the only aspect of culture comes from silat,” he said, “But that’s more the action aspect of the movie than a prominent part of its storyline.” That’s to be expected however, as Evans cites the ‘70s and ‘80s Hollywood films like ‘Die Hard’ and ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ as his structural story and character influences.
But it wasn’t just action films that Evans drew his template from- rather, horror is one of the genres he had his inspiration too. ‘When I was writing ‘The Raid’, I noticed that if you take all the action out, then what you are left with is the structure of a survivalist horror film- the idea of people being hunted and having to fight for their survival,” he said. “In that sense, we did not have to follow the rules of a normal martial-arts film. We could put in scenes like the one with a machete up against the wall pressed against Iko’s character’s face.”
Nonetheless, there’s no doubt that these scenes function primarily as build-up to the action setpieces- Evans describes them as ‘stepping-stones’ leading from one action sequence to another, so that once he has his audience inside the building, it becomes a process of ‘catch and release’ from one scene to another. Certainly, the development of the movie attests to its central element, around which plot, character and dialogue are planned around.
“We start designing the action while the film is still in its treatment stage, and we spend about 3 months on the treatment and about 1 month on the script,” said Evans. “I try to tell it as visually as possible first and only at the last minute I add in the dialogue.” A self-professed fan of action movies, who calls Jackie Chan his favourite action star, Evans also works with Uwais and Yahan Ruhian on the choreography- the latter plays the villain simply called ‘Mad Dog’ who goes up against Uwais in the film’s intense climax.
Filming the action was a different challenge in itself. Evans recalls that there was a particular sequence which took place inside a two-story set that ended up being shot in an indoor badminton court because all the studios that were tall enough for the set were already booked up. “The court had a tin roof which really heated up around noon. It was crazy- like around 40 degrees Celsius- and it was so hot that we were literally dropping,” he exclaimed. “We had like 20 air-conditioning units in there and it didn’t make any difference. In between takes we would walk up to the air-con like moths to light and just blast ourselves with cold air.”
Still, the nature of the shoot had in a way shaped the style of the film. For one, the budget the team had meant the movie was going to be set in one single location, which was designed as a breeding ground for the lowlifes of the city. “Tama [the boss of the building that Iko and the rest of the SWAT team raid] is not the boss in the suit who smokes cigars; he’s the guy eating noodles and wearing a sarong and a vest,” Evans explained. “So the visual style of the movie had to match him- not rich, not glossy, not glamorous.”
Evans added that it was a deliberate decision to go ‘low light’ on certain aspects and to lose the super-clean video sheen one gets from shooting in high-definition. “We may have gone a little too far in some places, but we wanted to give it more texture and a rough feel like the 16-mm indie films from the ‘70s.” He says though that the sequel, ‘Berantau’, will be very different- if anything, so as not to repeat what he has already done.
“In ‘Berantau’, we are dealing with the elitists, the high society gangster types, and that’s going to be reflected in the cinematography,” he revealed. “We’re going to shoot wider and go for a more glossy feel.” And it is with pride that he adds that ‘Berantau’- the movie that he intended to shoot before ‘The Raid’ was conceived- will be filmed in exactly the manner he had planned to do it earlier, a definite possibility given the opportunities which have just opened up through the resounding success of this movie.
At the centre of it is the relationship between Evans and Uwais, one that the former describes as that of an ‘older brother-younger brother’. In fact, they have been working together since the first day they met, with Evans challenging Uwais with every project to push himself further in the acting department. Among one of the biggest challenges Uwais cites in ‘The Raid’ was the need to juggle dual responsibilities in front of and behind the camera.
It isn’t however going to get easier for Uwais in the sequel. “I’m interested in giving him challenges every now and then, set up certain things where he has to overcome certain obstacles in terms of his performance- not just physically but emotionally,” said Evans. “For the sequel, I’ve already told him he’s got so much work to do.”
“The thing about ‘The Raid’ is that everything is wrapped around this one event, so you can’t have too many different emotional arcs or plot points. The sequel is over a much longer time- like 4 or 5 years worth of time- so you’re going to be f**ked!” he added with a laugh and a knowing look at Uwais.
It’s a challenge that Uwais is all ready to take on, with shooting for the sequel commencing (hopefully) in January next year. In the meantime, the duo will continue to bask in the spotlight of attention as ‘The Raid’ continues to stun audiences around Asia and the world, with many proclaiming him as the equivalent of Tony Jaa. And if you’ve seen what we does in ‘The Raid’, you’ll agree that Iko Uwais deserves all the praise that he’s been getting.