Welsh filmmaker Gareth Evans knows exactly how many levels of preparation and planning it takes to make a great action scene. If anything, Evans, the director of martial-arts smash The Raid: Redemption and its spectacular sequel, The Raid: Berandal, gets more ambitious with each film. When Evans directs an action scene, he has to choreograph a scene with his stuntmen, cinematographer, camera crew, set decorators, production managers, and art designers in mind. Even the most ostentatious action scene is even harder to set up than you imagine, making The Raid and its sequel’s many jaw-dropping set pieces that much more impressive. In honor of a new Blu-ray box set containing the two Raid films, Vulture talked with Evans over email about the craft behind his films’ action scenes.
Apart from your actors, it seems like two of your closest collaborators on the two Raid films’ choreography was the Piranha stunt team and Andi, your computer graphics guy who added touch-ups, including blood. Your script for these films included bullet points for the fight and stunt scenes. What kind of conversations did you have with the Piranha guys? What kind of language and concerns did they typically bring to the table?
Our remit was always to find ways to show — usually in what appears to be an unbroken take — a stunt that would make the audience feel they were witnessing something dangerous. By stripping away the cuts and cheats, everyone thinks they are seeing something unfold in real time, when in actual fact we would often be using semi-locked off cameras and multiple takes/layers of action that would allow us to minimize the threat and danger to the stunt performer.
You say something very interesting in the audio commentary track for The Raid during the crawl-space sequence. You said that you’re not really attracted to movies that dwell on torture or violence. What kind of movies were you thinking about here? And how do their depictions of violence differ from how you conceive of violence in the Raid films? The Raid is much more subtle about not showing blood or gore but there’s a fair amount in The Raid 2, wouldn’t you say?
There’s a subtle difference about how long a camera lingers on violence, and how much detail is shown. Almost all the extreme violence in The Raid 2 either cuts away on impact, moves onto another opponent, or happens at a distance in a wide shot.
There are moments in The Raid 2 where I wanted to use the camera to question screen violence. When we hold on the shotgun blast — you have a wide frame to look at, you choose where your gaze falls. But violence is pointless if you don’t also use it to say something about the characters. The restaurant scene in The Raid 2, with the lineup of men having their throats slit, barely shows any actual detail of violence. The focus of the scene is about the psychology of [crime boss villain] Bejo and [antihero] Uco, who are capable of committing and witnessing such brutality, yet still conducting a business meeting at the same time.
Or [Uwais’s heroic cop] Rama burning the corrupt policeman on the hot plate — you only really see the aftermath in any detail. Again, the primary focus is on Rama’s anguished face as he battles within himself, as he starts to slip deeper into the world of violence he now resides in. It’s how you present violence that is the key component of this differentiation. If it has something to say about your characters, then it can be as important as a scene of dialogue.
One of the things that stands about about the violence in the Raid films is that there’s something culturally specific about the character of the violence in these movies, like the way Tony Jaa and his Thai collaborators show the brutality of Muay Thai fighting. Now, in The Raid, Iko’s character uses a silat style while Pierre Bruno has more of a street-fighting style. How would you say, if at all, that these styles are culturally specific? And how did that inform the way you plan a fight scene?
Silat itself originates from Indonesia, so yes, it is culturally specific. But with regards to the brutality: That’s influenced by the circumstances the characters find themselves in. It’s that live-or-die psychology that informs the choreography design.
This may be a dumb question, but why are there so many characters getting physically launched across the room or having their backs broken? Is this a trauma for you or is that just the way things shook out?
I’ve always been a fan of the WWF, so I felt it was interesting to find new and unusual ways to twist and throw a body to show the core strength of a fighter. Also, in a fight like [good cop] Jaka vs. [druglord enforcer] Mad Dog, it seemed appropriate to give them entirely different fighting styles. It makes a far more interesting game of chess when two fighters have to read each other in the middle of a life and death bout of desperation.
Can you talk about the construction of the sets? That’s a key part of any fight scene, and one that’s not often talked about. You worked in a studio for much of the film’s interior shots, save for the stairwell stuff. There’s the fight scene that climaxes with Iko slamming a heavy’s head three times against a column. The effect is tremendous: You used blood-bags attached to the stuntman’s head to get the effect, and the column was made of foam for the wood and rubber for the tiles. How long does it take from conception to getting that shot in the can to come up with this one little bit? How did you learn what materials worked and what didn’t?
We plan way ahead of the shooting day itself. So for a scene like that — we would have already tested styrofoam wall tiles, and blood bag concepts to sell the action “punchline.” I rely heavily on my production designer [T. Moty D. Setyanto] to deliver the right materials to make the environment safe for the performer. We test beforehand, so if it looks right in camera, you know that adding sound effects of a porcelain tile cracking will help to sell the effect enormously.
There was a stunt that went bad in the first Raid, the one where the stuntman is thrown by Iko into the stairwell and lands five meters below with his back on the railing or banister. The stuntman’s head wasn’t properly cushioned for that sequence, right? How did the result of that stunt affect the way you filmed the remaining stunt sequences?
That particular stunt was a miscalculation on the wire-pull. The stunt performer was padded properly, but as a result of the wire-pull, he missed the crash mats below. All stunts are nerve-wracking to shoot, no matter how big or small. Something can go wrong in a heartbeat, so in addition to safety checks we always had medics and an ambulance crew on standby every day of the shoot.
The scene where Rama dives out the window during the machete gang fight took four days to shoot, and required some wire-work. Is it fair to say that this seems unusual for this film? What extra considerations do you have to bear in mind when you use wires, particularly for this sequence where so much is dependent on the audience’s feeling like we are experiencing the characters’ impact on a fire escape after a high jump?
For a sequence like that — with two people holding onto each other, and falling that height — aiming for such a small target area to do the fall could result in serious injuries. So the wire-work was absolutely essential to control the speed of the fall and the path. With modern filmmaking there are so many tricks and techniques at our disposal to hide wires. It’s all good as long as it doesn’t look like we are breaking the laws of physics. It was a complicated stunt that required a lot of rigging and tests to get right, hence the days it took to practice, then shoot. We were off filming other scenes during their prep and rehearsal time so the four days weren’t spent just doing that shot.
The Mad Dog vs. Jaka fight took about 30 or 40 takes. That’s a lot! How hard is it to keep your stunt guys and actors in the zone for that many takes? How many is typical for a fight sequence? How much coverage is necessary, how many setups, and how long are the shooting days for a sequence like this?
We stick to a detailed pre-visual design which is 98 percent of the time shot-specific. I don’t shoot for coverage: Every shot is like a jigsaw piece so if a take doesn’t have a perfect in/out point for the edit, it will never work in the sequence. Hence the multiple takes needed to get sequences such as this up onscreen.
Every time we shoot a scene or a shot, I approach it with the mindset of “I will never have another opportunity to realize this shot again once we wrap.” So that lends a sense of great importance to ensure there aren’t any errors in a “good” take. There’s nothing worse than the notion of “finding the edit” for an action sequence based on coverage. That’s the epitome of lazy filmmaking and is a massive disrespect to the hard work of the choreography team.
Plus the guys take as much pride in their work as I do so they wouldn’t let there be any compromise either.
Apparently [Indonesian character actor] Pierre Gruno really got enthusiastic during rehearsals for The Raid. This is something that I could kinda see in the drug lab sequence. Are actors that get asked to do stunt work usually that enthusiastic or was this a rare case?
Usually, they think stuntmen are indestructible, so they are less inclined to hold back as much as action performers like Iko. Iko has a wonderful sense of precision and an ability to sell an impact without following through on a kick or a punch. He snaps back the impact to help sell the power of it on camera. Whereas an actor/non-fighter … once they get an opportunity to fight onscreen, well, they’re not as precise when it comes to pulling back.
The torture room scene in The Raid is inspired by the two-on-one fight in Jackie Chan’s Dragonlord. Can you talk a little about where you watched martial-arts films — especially Hong Kong action movies — how they came into your life, and what they mean to you?
My dad. First and foremost, those trips as a child to the video store with my dad to rent movies from all around the world were the defining childhood moments that led me to pursue filmmaking as a career. My dad’s enthusiasm for cinema has always been something I’ve been extremely proud to share with him. Saturday nights meant anything from mainstream Hollywood films to the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema. Weekend rentals were the best: Sundays were spent watching, and rewinding, and watching, and rewinding.
Now, The Raid 2, I have to ask: Can you talk a little about what happened to Pierre Gruno and why he’s not back? It’s kind of a conspicuous absence since that’s his character, but not the same actor …
Sometimes schedules don’t align. Sometimes there are other issues at play. I’m just a firm believer in putting every penny on the screen.
How did you and your assistant director corral all those extras during the bathroom fight scene?
I leave that to Plenthonk, my fantastic assistant director, who commanded the respect of every fight performer. He trained with them every day, and through spending time rehearsing sequences, learned who was good enough to be front and center, and who would be better suited to making up the numbers in the back. Couldn’t do it without him.
The mud fight scene is especially impressive. You had to do seven, eight takes to get one bit where Iko advances on several heavies, since the mud was so slick. How hard was it to get the illusion of long takes during that scene? What elements are you up against, apart from mud and general discomfort of your cast and crew?
It’s all about the shot design, knowing what textures and movements will allow you to get away with edits and where. We employed a ton of cheats — cutting on whip pans, tilts, filling the frame with clothing, mud, even shooting green screen elements of fighters falling across frame so we would be able to hide impossible edits. Yes, the mud was horrible, we all suffered the discomfort of the shoot. But each day ended with a preview of the scene, as I was editing as we shot. So it helped keep morale up even in the worst moments.
The use of Handel’s “Sarabande” at the end of [antihero assassin] Prakoso’s fight scene still makes my jaw drop. That’s a song clearly associated with Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon. How did you pick that track for his death scene? And what were the other options you were thinking of?
I’ve never seen Barry Lyndon. It’s the one film of his I haven’t. So that piece of music didn’t carry the same weight for me as it did for others. It consequently didn’t really feel that audacious a move. It was important for that scene to feel operatic, full of big emotions. After all, we made it snow in Jakarta!
Was securing the rights to film the car-chase scene the hardest part of that sequence and were there practical difficulties of filming in traffic that proved more difficult?
It was a fucking nightmare shooting a car chase in Jakarta — the traffic there isn’t the best anyway, let alone when you are the sole reason for mile-long tail-backs. Hardest part by far was dealing with the lack of infrastructure there when it came to shooting days. We had permits arranged and agreements with police, but every day they would turn up 2-3 hours late, so we would lose time every single day before we had even started. Add to that a myriad of different issues. For example, a military general kindly parked his car in front of our set and left it there for 5 hours to go shopping. Being a military-badged car, no removal company would dare to touch it. It was a surprise we ever got the scene done. Thank God for the incredible Bruce Law stunt team, and Mike Leeder for supporting us. Without them we would’ve been truly fucked.
The Hammer Girl/Bat Guy vs. Iko fight is interesting because apparently Iko tried to shield Julie Estelle, the actress playing Hammer Girl, from getting hurt, so it took a lot of takes. What was her reaction to this? What kind of direction did you give him when you told him to not hold back?
Julie was such a fucking trooper the entire shoot. She did everything we asked of her, and proved herself to everyone on set by how dedicated she was to the training, which I think shows in the final product. When Iko was “gentle,” she would tell him not to be. So yes, after a number of takes, I had to tell Iko that by being gentle, he was actually hurting her more: Ten soft hits will make the body more tender as opposed to one hard hit that will hurt immediately, but fade a lot faster.
How hard was it to reinforce a sense of claustrophobia with your actors during the big final fight with those curved karambit knives? The camera has to be making very tight, specific movements, no?
The choreography design is as much about the movement of the camera as it is about the movement of the action itself. Also, there’s a world of difference between a mass brawl and a one-on-one fight sequence. In a mass brawl, it almost lends itself to a wider, more sprawling canvas. In a one-on-one however, there’s literally no escape so getting right in the middle of it without losing clarity was imperative.
Where did the idea of using blood-filled condoms for this final fight come from? Is this a common technique?
There’s something of an over-reliance on CG blood these days, and while I do lean on CG from time to time, nothing compares to practical blood effects in camera, interacting with clothing. We needed a system that was flexible and allowed the fighters to still be able to perform movements after the blood bags burst. If we had tubes and pumps, they would be severely restricted. So bursting condoms just made perfect sense. And after doing a number of tests, we stumbled upon a design that suited our needs perfectly.