The Welshman on directing his high-tension Indonesian action movie
Gareth Evans is the Welsh director responsible for one of the most highly anticipated films of this year's Glasgow Film Festival, a non-stop action ride called The Raid. He speaks to Rory Ford about the pleasures and perils of Indonesian filmmaking
Gareth Evans is apologetic: ‘Sorry for beating your guys in the rugby at the weekend,’ he says in an unmistakeable Welsh accent down the line from his home in Indonesia. No apology necessary. While we may have to endure the indignity of the Scottish rugby team bagging the Six Nations’ wooden spoon (again) we can at least take some semblance of national pride when the Glasgow Film Festival hosts the UK premiere – which Evans will attend – of what surely must be the best action movie of the year.
The Raid is an extraordinary low-budget/high-impact martial arts extravaganza from that follows a SWAT team as they face overwhelming odds fighting their way through a tenement in Jakarta that’s controlled by a ruthless drug lord and infested by vicious gangsters. ‘30 Floors of Mayhem,’ shouts the US poster – and for once that isn’t mere hyperbole. The Raid is a visceral thrill-ride that transcends its obvious influences (Die Hard, Assault On Precinct 13 and John Woo’s Hard Boiled) partly due to its utilisation of the hitherto little-known Indonesian martial art of pencak silat (literally ‘to fight artfully’) but also due to Evans’ bravura visual style which – in a refreshing change for modern action movies – never overwhelms the artistry of the performers’ moves. However, what on earth is a Welsh rugby fan doing helming a foreign language ass-kicking fest like The Raid?
Evans graduated from Cardiff University in 2003 and made his feature debut with the little-seen, low-budget drama, Footsteps in 2006. After that: nothing happened. ‘I didn’t push enough to get into the UK film industry,’ he admits. ‘My wife is Indonesian and in 2008 we were living in Swansea but she really hadn’t settled and I was stuck in my nine-to-five routine.’ Filmmaking seemed half a world away – and essentially it was. Evans' better-half started making phone calls home to Indonesia and used her contacts there to get him work on a five-part documentary series on pencak silat.
It was a fortuitous gig to say the least. While filming the series Evans met his future The Raid star, Iko Uwais, who was working as a delivery driver for a phone company at the time. Impressed by his skills, Evans persuaded Uwais to quit his job just before production of their first feature collaboration, the 2009 martial arts drama Merantau (UK DVD title: Merantau Warrior). Encouraged by the movie’s reception in Indonesia, Evans started writing their movie together – which, surprisingly, was not going to be The Raid but will now become its forthcoming sequel.
Evans originally planned an expansive – and expensive – gangster action opus, Berandal, with Uwais starring but it proved too costly to produce. ‘We had people going: "Oh we’ll buy the rights for ‘X’ amount of money" but at most it would only have covered 50 per cent of the budget,’ explains Evans. ’I was just sick of being idle so eventually said: "Oh let’s just do some low budget movie!"’
Amazingly, The Raid is that low-budget movie. The budget was a mere $1 million – even thought it looks as if it cost around 100 times that amount. ‘As soon as we’d finished shooting all the corridor scenes we had to tear those sets down and use the wood to build the atrium,’ laughs Evans. ‘There were absolutely no spare days on the schedule so if we didn’t get a shot we were gonna be screwed!’
To make the most of limited resources, preparation was essential. Evans spent ‘nearly a year’ studying pencak silat ‘not just to know the names of the moves – so I didn’t look totally ignorant – but also because otherwise I would have been entirely reliant on the choreographers for ideas and I wanted to be able to say, "How about this?"’
‘We spent three months designing the action scenes,’ Evans says of The Raid’s pre-production. ‘We’d workshop them in the office using crash mats, props and rubber weapons so we had nearly full video storyboards of the movie worked out before we started. I’d shoot a flat one-shot reference of a fight scene on a Handycam, then analyse it and break it down into individual shots. Obviously when you get on set some shots might not work perfectly or the stuntman might not be able to pull something off quite right but I estimate it’s still 95 per cent what we originally shot and planned for.’
The Raid was an instant success when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last September and unsurprisingly both the US distribution and the remake rights were snapped up immediately by Sony. ’I’m serving as executive producer and will suggest some ideas but I feel it’s really important that it gets a new director – a fresh pair of eyes,’ says Evans. ‘There were some things in the script that we just didn’t have the time or budget for so what is in the film is my cheaper version of them – so there are a few things we could improve.’
Evans is delighted that the US producers want fight choreographer Yayan Ruhian, a charismatic screen presence who plays also one of the villains, to work on the remake and, when pressed, admits that, ideally, he’d like to see it helmed by one of its main influences. ‘John Woo,’ he says definitely. ‘I think he’s busy in China just now but yes, John Woo doing The Raid – I’d watch that in a minute!’
While having the Hong Kong action ace directing the US remake of an Indonesian martial arts flick which was originally written and directed by a Welshman sounds like an interesting experiment in cross-cultural pollination, many of us will be eyeing Evan’s own sequel to The Raid with far greater anticipation. Currently busy with promotional duties, Evans is looking forward to a well-earned break before starting pre-production on Berandal in September with another lengthy round of video storyboards and painstaking choreography before shooting can start in January 2013.
‘The sequel is a lot more story-based but we have some really, really crazy ideas,’ Evans says enthusiastically. ‘We’ve got a scene where Iko is fighting four people at the same time – but in a moving car that is speeding down the motorway! We still have to work that out with the choreographers and the cameraman and the set designers … Actually, I’m still really not sure how we’re going to be able to do that.’
The Raid, GFT, Sat 25 Feb, 23.15. On general release from 18 May.