Digital Spy sat down with director Gareth Evans to discuss his influences, his views on action cinema, and the shooting technique that gave The Raid's fight sequences their visceral impact.
You were originally working on a different film before starting The Raid – how did that change?
"Yes, we wanted to do a different film first and when that fell through, because we just could not raise the finance for it, The Raid was a backup project. This was a concept I had, and it came in at about two-thirds of the budget of our first movie Merantau. I said 'look, I can do this one, we can make it this year if we can get it bank-rolled'.
"And after spending a year and a half being told no, we had one meeting one afternoon with an investor who just green lit The Raid then! So we were suddenly in a position where I was having to write very quickly to get the script done, and to get the story ready."
How did you approach the challenge of shooting almost entirely in one location?
"I started watching a lot of different films for influence, and to learn the structure of how to maintain interest in one location. We were going to spend like over 80-85% of the film inside that building, so yeah, it was tricky. It was trying watch any of the films that I've loved watching in that similar environment and see what they did right, see what they did wrong and try to learn from them."
You have a fairly intricate method for shooting your fight sequences – can you explain that?
"There's about three stages' worth of the design of fighting that we do. At the treatment stage, it'll be me, the choreography team and Iko and Yayan, and I'll give them a situation. I'll say 'OK, you're carrying an injured cop on your shoulder, you've got a nightstick in one hand and a knife in the other, you gotta get to this one room and there's a T-section corridor and people are gonna come at you in front of you, people are gonna come at you from behind and how do you defend yourself in that situation?'
"So then they'll go off and figure out different movements they can do using the weapons, using the environment around them. We'll do that for each section and we kind of shape it together then, we figure out a good structure for it and how to build the tension. So that first draft of the script is basically just a collection of different movements that have come together, and that's stage one.
"Stage two, we'll film it, but it's still just me and the two guys in an office base with crash mats everywhere. And we just film every single shot of the fight, as we want it to be on film, so while they're doing the movements I'm trying to figure out the best way for the camera to capture the detail in the choreography.
"That's one of the things that has been important for us because I'm involved with the guys from the design stage, so I know the details that they've put in there and I know what's interesting about the fight. So then my job is to guide the audience to see it.
"The third stage is production. I do all the fight scene editing while I'm still on location, because we don't have the budget to go back to the same place more than once. So I need to be sure that I've got everything in camera that I need have in camera. Then we have the previs version from the office loaded up shot by shot, and once each shot is completed we drop it in on top of the previs version, so that we can see whether the cuts still work, whether the angles still work, and whether it all cuts together nicely."
So it's essentially live action storyboarding?
"Yeah, pretty much. It stemmed from me being a terrible drawer, the world's worst artist. I actually tried drawing some storyboards this afternoon, the first I've tried doing for the sequel, and I gave up. The first seven panels I put so much effort into them, and then I realised by panel 15 that they'd just become stick figures, so I stopped!"
There's a tendency for some directors to use shaky camera and other editing techniques in action sequences, whereas yours are very clear – what's your view on how fight scenes should look?
"I think it stems from the fact that I notice a lot of the films that I re-watch over and over again on DVD, they tend to be from a particular era and time. They don't tend to be that many modern films. Mostly if it comes to martial arts I tend to tune in to '80s, early '90s Jackie Chan stuff, Jet Li films. And then when it comes to action I'm still hooked on John Woo films, The Killer and Hard Boiled and then even further back, Peckinpah, The Wild Bunch. I think it was an era before we had all these different sort of bells and whistles at our disposal – filmmaking was a lot more practical back then, it wasn't so effects-driven, it wasn't so flashy.
"Those films were always more about the physical side of it rather than the spectacle of a big spaceship. One thing I always became struck by was the sense of geography – you knew where every little stick of furniture was, you knew where the thing that could come into play later on was, what it would be. So once you have that clear image in your mind of where the people are, and what's around each corner, it kind of helps the audience to be able to interpret the action clearly."
Do you think there's a lack of that clarity now in modern blockbusters?
"I think what happens now a lot is that it tends to be, like you said earlier, a lot of quick cuts and closeups. Where instead of you actually seeing any action happening on screen – whether it's down to like a performer not quite hitting the mark or the impact not being quite right – a lot of those gaps are being filled in by sound editing and sound effects. So there are 15, maybe 20 different punches but we only see maybe two or three actually land, and that's something that I'm not interested in. I never really got much excitement out of that.
"It's kind of the equivalent of when we shoot drama, if you want to want to focus the audience's attention to someone's performance, you've got so many little tricks that you can do with the camera to do that. I feel action is exactly the same way; we're supposed to be guiding the audience so that they see everything and that they feel like they're on the same journey as the characters."
There was a rumour that you were being considered to direct the remake of The Equalizer with Denzel Washington – is there any truth in that?
"To be considered is very flattering to be honest, but Berandal (the sequel to The Raid) has been something that I've wanted to do for three years now, and I think that probably rules me out of that one. I'll be starting in January and we've got a long shoot for it, we're not going to finish shooting until the end of June, so it's gonna be pretty brutal. I'm way beyond flattered that I would ever be considered for it, but yeah, I've got to scratch the itch of this movie that I haven't been able to make yet."
The Raid is out on DVD and Blu-ray from Monday, September 24. Watch the film trailer below: