Crash, bang, wallop
Breakthrough thriller The Raid is directed by Welshman Gareth Evans who grew up on Jackie Chan. It’s a dream come true, he tells DONALD CLARKE
GARETH EVANS must be the most unlikely man ever to direct a breakout Asian action movie. Since it sneaked onto the festival circuit late last year, The Raid – an Indonesian thriller entirely contained within one decaying apartment block – has been gathering buckets of deserved acclaim. Cracking along at a relentless pace, the picture piles ferocious punch-up upon ear-shattering shootout. The Raid won the Midnight Madness Award at the Toronto Film Festival and both the audience award and the Dublin Film Critics Circle best picture prize at the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival (the first time those two gongs have gone to the same film).
Against the odds, the latest hero of Asian cinema turns out to be an affable, enormously tall young man from the Rhondda Valley. He must be sick to death of explaining how this came to pass. But he’ll have to tell the story at least one more time.
“Oh that’s all right, that’s all right,” he says in a rain-softened voice. “I was based in Wales all my life – until I was about 27 I guess. I always wanted to make films, but never quite managed it in the UK. That was my own fault. I didn’t push hard enough. My wife, who is Indonesian and Japanese, put in a few calls at home and managed to get me a documentary on Silat, the Indonesian martial art. That introduced me to the culture. That was the starting point. I knew I could live and work there. That was it.”
That sounds simple enough. We’ll come back to the genesis of The Raid. But let’s dally a while in the Valleys. Evans is the son of a computer teacher dad and a mum who worked in the law courts. His father was a film fanatic and used to bring home an eclectic series of videos: Kurosawa one day, Die Hard the next, Jackie Chan the day after that. He remembers being ushered from the room during the notorious chainsaw sequence in Scarface.
“That’s what he’d do. He’d just put the video on pause and ask me to leave,” he laughs. “So, I’d sit outside listening to this screaming and imagining much worse than what was actually happening. My friends and I would then act out Jackie Chan films in the garden. Fortunately, we didn’t have a camera. So, there’s no embarrassing footage.”
He did a media course after school and now remembers working film footage into every dissertation he was assigned. After that he studied scriptwriting at the University of Glamorgan. His Asian bias was already evident at this early stage. As an exercise, Evans wrote a script entitled Samurai Monogatari. It never crossed his mind that the film would get made, but, after a friend translated it into Japanese, he found himself directing the piece as a no-budget feature.
“Yeah, we bought ornamental swords from eBay and one of them broke and the blade flew off. Who would have thought they wouldn’t be safe to use?” he says. “It was a hell of a lot of fun. It was great to do something semi-professional. We were in the forest pretending we were in Japan. It didn’t really open any doors. Then I did an independent feature called Footsteps. That didn’t open any doors either. But I just wasn’t trying hard enough. It took the trip to Indonesia to do that.”
Before travelling to Jakarta, Evans, who had only been to the country once before, secured a job at a local television station. While working on the Silat documentary, he met up with Iko Uwais, master of the Indonesian martial art Pencak Silat. The two men decided to make a feature. Their first effort, Merantu, gathered some notice. But The Raid saw Evans really finding his feet. The film offers a masterclass in the art of discipline. There is not an ounce of fat to be found.
“Making the documentary helped me shake off that feeling of being a foreigner. It dragged me away from the tourist areas. When it came to doing a proper movie, we did not allow ourselves to act like foreign film-makers. We were not going to shoot it like a postcard with all the landmarks. You know what I mean. Every American film set in Paris has the Eiffel Tower in every shot. That wasn’t going to happen.”
Indeed not. The film concerns a raid by a Swat team on certain hoodlums lurking in a vast building in a seedier corner of Jakarta. After the briefest of introductory flourishes, the paramilitaries are propelled into cataclysmic levels of gorgeously choreographed hyper-violence. The average viewer will, it’s fair to say, have little specialist knowledge of the Indonesian underworld. Will he or she learn anything?
“Oh, it’s a complete fiction,” he says. “With a film like The Raid, research is at a minimum. To be honest, the structure derives from loving films like Die Hard and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13.
“We were careful not to give the Swat team an official name. After all, we have them shooting one guy three times in the face. We didn’t want the real guys saying, ‘That’s not official procedure. We only shoot them once.’ Ha ha ha!”
The film may be cavalier with the details of Indonesian law enforcement, but Evans and Iko Uwais – who stars and shares fight coordination duties – have worked hard at bringing authenticity to the action sequences. It looks like a dangerous business. Actors are forever being flung down stairwells and propelled through walls. Can filming such a movie be as treacherous as it looks? One imagines a fleet of ambulances ferrying cast members from set to hospital.
“That’s the trick,” he says. “We try to be very careful when it comes to stunts. We design them to look way more dangerous than they actually are. You want a big reaction, but you don’t actually want to take somebody’s life.” He goes on to describe a nasty accident involving some “overzealous” use of wires during a perilous descent from a high balcony. But he insists that there were no really serious mishaps.
“Injuries come where you don’t expect them. We had one incident where somebody gets repeatedly stabbed with a knife. We use a retractable blade. But the padding on the guy’s chest slipped down. So the guy was constantly being hit. We looked down and the stunt guy was still lying on the floor. But he was all right.”
The film’s success on the festival circuit has brought much attention to Indonesian cinema. Midnight screenings have brought whoops and shouts. But the success does put Evans in a slightly uncomfortable position. One can imagine certain local film-makers resenting the fact that it took a foreigner to drag their nation’s cinema into western multiplexes. To be fair, the film does not look like the work of an outsider. But some bristles must have been raised.
“When I step back it just really feels bizarre,” he concedes. “Some producers and directors there do really welcome me. They’ve been supportive. It has put a spotlight on Indonesian cinema. Obviously there have been one or two dissenting voices. That’s natural. You expect that.”
On balance, he’s found the Indonesian people to be extraordinarily hospitable.
“Oh, yeah. They welcome you into their homes. Even if they’re struggling they’ll still want you to have dinner with them.”
The future looks bright. Evans is now working on a sequel to The Raid, and an inevitable American remake – about which he is positive – is churning its way into production. But he still radiates happy disbelief. He shares the wonder at the oddness of his own story.
“I grew up watching Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, but I never thought I would be able to make stories like that,” he says. “Guys from Wales just don’t make martial arts films.”
You, young man, are an inspiration.
'Its more like a dance'
THE RAID would have been impossible without the contribution of Iko Uwais, star and fight choreographer. A compact individual, bursting with wiry muscles, the Indonesian has been studying Pencak Silat, the Indonesian martial art, since he was just 10 years old. In 2005, he won first place in the National Silat Championship. “We have a boot camp where we devise the choreography,” he explains. “We learn our characters and learn the right attitude for a Swat team. If you have 17 people, I will give Gareth an individual move for each person. Then we break it down into shots. They know the consequences and they trust one another.” He shows me a mark on his head. “That’s from a machete. It’s not a real machete, of course. But after 17 takes you still end up with a bruise.”
What distinguishes Silat from other martial arts? “The differences with, say, karate are actually quite subtle. Karate is all feet and hands. When somebody tries to hit you, you don’t block straight away. In Silat you have to avoid the blow calmly. Timing is much more important. It’s more like a dance.” Does he recognise the depiction of Jakarta? “Not really. Criminals don’t live in rundown buildings like this. If they are criminals they probably live in a palace.”