Few films at this year's SXSW Film Festival have knocked us back in our seat like Gareth Evans' assaultive "The Raid: Redemption." Opening this week, it's a slickly realized, breathlessly paced actioner about an unlucky SWAT team that invades an apartment building that is more or less exclusively populated with very bad dudes. (A kind of warlord/drug kingpin resides in one of the top floors.) Appealing to the typical SXSW audience's love of extreme violence and foreign weirdness, the movie went over like gangbusters. We got to sit down and talk with the film's director, the very British Gareth Evans, about where the movie came from, what we can expect from the sequel, and being saddled with that goofy subtitle. And as an added bonus we also get to hear from the film's composers – Mike Shinoda (from Linkin Park) and Joseph Trapanese (the man chiefly responsible for wrangling Daft Punk's "Tron: Legacy" score).
We wondered where, exactly, this movie came from since, well, Evans doesn't exactly hail from Indonesia. "It came from my sick, twisted brain," Evans joked. The movie seems to have been primarily inspired by a kind of creative desperation. "We finished the first movie, 'Merantau,' and we were looking to get a budget together to do a second film. And that proved really difficult. We spent a year-and-a-half getting the money, and after a year-and-a-half of not getting a movie made. I felt we really needed a second movie. So, knowing that I was going to have to work on a tight budget and there was the idea of containing it to one location, so we couldn't get rained off set." Evans said that the one-location constriction made him think of films he loved with similar conceits. "It set the tone of, 'What are the great films I love that are set in one location?' Films like 'Die Hard' and 'Assault on Precinct 13.'" Both films you can heavily feel in 'The Raid,' but what about the location and fighting style?
"I was based on Wales all of my life; my wife is Indonesian," Evans explained. "What happened was – she got me a gig doing a documentary out there, first. So that was my first experience of going out to Indonesia and making a movie there. And that documentary is about silat, a martial arts discipline." According to some cursory Googling, silat (known also as Pencak silat), is a traditional Thailand fighting style whose practices have largely been passed down orally, lending it a mythic quality. It's weapon-based, largely around single-edged swords, and after Indonesia gained independence, its style was more largely influenced by cultural and philosophical forces. "Now I'd seen kung fu movies and muy Thai movies but I'd never seen silat before," Evans said of the fighting style. "It stood out as something unique and different from those martial arts things so it was one of those things where being out there, shooting for six months, I got to learn about the culture and the traditions." The experience also shaped the film because it introduced Gareth to his leading man. "That's also where I met Iko [Urwais, the lead actor in both of Evans' films], and so all of these different things started moving into place. I never thought about making a martial arts film before but suddenly I got given the tools to do so. And that's how it all kicked off."
One thing that's very striking about "The Raid: Redemption" is that, for all its frantic, nonstop action, you're never confused about what's going on or who is being shot at or what the goals for any particular sequence are. And it's a huge testament to Evans' skill behind the camera that he can pull all of this off – there's at least a half dozen central SWAT team characters and dozens of villainous thugs to keep track of. We wondered what he was inspired by, especially given modern directors' insistence on jittery hand-held camera work that obscures all but the most essential bits of each scene.
"That comes from my influences," Evans said. "The films I prefer the films that I love are films from the golden age of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and early 1990s – the films of Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Donnie Yen. And also John Woo, with 'Hard Boiled' and 'The Killer' and Sam Peckinpah with 'The Wild Bunch.' And why I say all of those films, what's great about all of them is that when it comes to the action sequences, there's detail, there's clarity, there's spatial awareness. You get a sense of the full geography and you understand where each attack is coming from and what are the results of that." His influences go so deep that he doesn't feel like there's anything all that revolutionary about 'The Raid.' "I don't think I feel like I did anything new with 'The Raid,' I just felt I was riffing off stuff that was old fashioned that I grew up watching and loving. And to this day I still watch them, I still play them back over and over again." What about more recent action fare? "Modern movies? Not so much," Evans deadpanned.
Another influence, perhaps subconsciously, were old school videogames. A colleague pointed out this connection as we were leaving the screening and we had to ask Evans if this was intended. He said yes. "To a certain extent it's inevitable," Evans admitted. "When the set up is, they have to get to the top floor and the boss is up there. When that happens I don't see it as an insult either because I fucking love videogames." Part of that escalation was built into another aspect of modern action movies that he's sick of. "I hate when I see an action movie start with an incredible action sequence and nothing after it manages to match up, like the ending is a whimper and they spent all the money on the first ten minutes," Evans said. "So I felt like we had to keep ramping it up and we start good and keep getting better and better until the final fight is just the best fight you could do. And that requires you to do that thing where each opponent has to be a different level of threat. If it's just Iko walking through and obliterating people all the time then it gets boring fast."
We also got some time with Mike Shinoda and Joseph Trapanese, who were brought in after the film screened at Toronto, replacing the work of original composers Fajar Yuskemal and Aria Prayogi. How'd that come about? "Just after they did Toronto I got approached by Sony and rather than coming to me with the typical, 'Hey we love Linkin Park we want a Linkin Park thing,' these guys said, 'We know about all the stuff you do but for this film we're thinking about your Fort Minor side project and some of the remixes you've done,'" Shinoda explained. It was Sony referencing his smaller projects that won him over."They didn't realize it but they were citing all of the things I had done for fun, so add to that the fact that I'm already interested in scoring, the idea of getting some experience and having fun doing it; it was a winning combination."
Trapanese described their working relationship as, "A great collaboration right from the beginning." Their way of working was incredibly collaborative, according to Trapanese. "Every once in a while we would take a scene for ourselves but for the majority of it we would each start a scene and then pass it along to the other person to wrap up," he said. Apparently the idea for an alternate score for the American release was something that was floated about quite early in the process. "About two months into the shoot, Sony Pictures picked up the rights to the film. And one of the first things they broached was, 'We might want to do a score we can bring to the film for a US audience,'" Evans explained. "When we finally got a chance to speak, I had just come off working on the score with the original guys and Mike was talking about how he wanted to approach it, it was one of those things where I had so much reassurance from them that I could completely trust them and interpret the film in the way that they thought was right." The end result is a propulsive, nerve-fraying score that perfectly accompanies the bone-splitting visuals.
Another thought after watching "The Raid: Redemption" will be: this guy is going to be offered every big budget Hollywood project for the next five years. It's that kind of impressive. We wondered if Evans had already begun the Hollywood courtship process or if he has plans for what's coming next.
"The first thing I want to do is a sequel to 'The Raid,'" Evans said, without missing a beat. "That'd be off in Indonesia. It's going to be on the streets this time. We're going to meet the guys that gave that guy the building. The first one was small fries compared to what we're going to do in the second." He sounds more cautious about talking about the movie to follow-up 'The Raid' sequel. "After that it's about finding something that feels right as my first English language project. I'm not going to jump onboard a franchise if it's just based about a bit of hype and buzz off this one," Evans said. He wants everyone to know what they're getting into before the ink is dry. "Whoever I work with next is going to have to want my version of that film and what I can bring to it as opposed to that there's some inches of press. I'm being a little cautious in terms of what I can do next as an English language project."
Evans said that the sequel will have a bigger budget ("Fuck yeah I need it," he said) and when we looked over to the composers to see if they would return, Shinoda let out a sly, "We'll see…" But when Evans joked that the sequel would be called "The Raid: Shawshank Redemption," it made us ask about the curious (and, if we're completely honest, somewhat clunky) subtitle that has been slapped on the film for its American debut.
"We wanted to and Sony wanted to keep it as 'The Raid.' And then, right up until the last minute, we couldn't get legal clearance on the title, so we had to put something on it," Evans said. Which had been particularly annoying since it had played as "The Raid" (no subtitle) at Toronto and Sundance. "We had spent five months trying to raise awareness on a movie called 'The Raid' so we didn't want to call it something like 'Death Battle' or 'The Legend of the Raid Warrior,' which is what usually happens with Asian movies. So we just added a word. We couldn't call it 'The Raid: Part One.' We had to think of a word that was relative to the subplot of the film and it's a little bit of a spoiler but it works." Don’t worry: the word "redemption" isn't any kind of spoiler, and you have to squint and stand on your head for it to even make sense after you've seen the movie.
We were somewhat concerned with the way that "The Raid: Redemption" is being released. Last year there was a SXSW sensation that was ultimately picked up and distributed by Sony (under their Screen Gems banner) and it wasn't quite the hit many thought it would be: "Attack the Block." Evans said that he loves "Attack the Block" but doesn't feel nervous. "The guys at Sony Pictures Classics, they know what they're doing," he said. "That's been apparent to us since they got on board. It's built up this hype. We're feeling that in Indonesia, even. We feel like the buzz is getting bigger and bigger and bigger."
And even if the film isn't some kind of blockbuster, Evans is still happy. "I think the response we've had critically and from the audience as well, is so great and overwhelming that personally, I'm satisfied. That's it."
"The Raid: Redemption" kicks your ass on March 23rd.