The Sadistic Ones: A Talk With The Raid 2's Gareth Evans and Iko Uwais
In The Raid: Redemption, the first film in the series, director Gareth Evans transports us to the desolate Jakarta slums in Indonesia and into a grungy, poverty-stricken apartment building, haunted by a nefarious drug lord known as Tama (Ray Sahetapy) and his two blood-thirsty lieutenants, Mad Dog (Yayan Ruhian) and Andi (Donny Alamsyah). Rama (Iko Uwais) and his SWAT unit break into the building and ascend it floor by floor, taking various drug dealers captive as they make their way towards Tama. However, when a child informant signals to Tama that they have broken in, he enlists his tenants to take violent action against them by offering free housing in exchange for their heads. With limited ammunition and weaponry, Rama and his team must fight their way through every apartment, hallway and staircase in hopes of leaving the building with their lives.
The Raid 2: Berandal picks up right where the first film leaves off. Rama is still recovering from his ordeal and he wants it all to be over so he can return to his wife and newborn son. However, he is recruited by a new task force which asks him to work undercover as a prisoner to gain the trust of inmate Uco (Arifin Putra), the offspring of a gang lord named Bangun (Tio Pakusodewo), in order to earn his way into the competing gangland and up its treacherous hierarchy. And it is there, at the top, where he will be beaten, ripped and tested for the larger cause of bringing the current crime-scape to its knees.
In my opinion, these filmmakers, these violence-happy mavericks, are heroes of postmodern filmmaking. They are cineastes with a cause and that cause is to thrill and energize their audience with films that exercise a rare combination of substance and spectacle, purpose and pleasure, tragedy and glaring violence. I drove to Santa Monica to view a press screening of The Raid 2:. The movie started to roll and I immediately felt as if I were in an IMAX theater. The movie is huge, and I was engrossed and involved to the point where I could barely move.
I arrived at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills the next day and made my way to the fourth floor where they were holding interviews. I sat eagerly in a waiting area for about an hour among five other neurotic writers until the press team guided me to Gareth’s room. We had a drink of water and began conversing…
Milk Made: So jumping right into it, The Raid 2 was considerably larger in scale and I was wondering if there was any pressure to make it bigger and badder….
Gareth Evans: It was one of those things where I didn’t want to do what I did in the first one. I didn’t want it to be like Hard Case Part 2 – let’s make the building bigger or let’s just rehash the original concept. Because for me that’s kind of boring, so what’s the point of doing another part if you’re not going to do anything new with it?
The films that I love, the trilogies that I love, are the ones that really set off to change things up a bit. They mess around with the concept, they mess around a little with the scope and the scale of it so yeah, it was always "What can I do with it?" So I thought, "Well we introduced these two characters at the end of the first one, the good cop, Bunawar, and the corrupt cop, Reza, at the top of the corruption chain – chief of the police, and so that was a leaping off point and it was just like, let’s explore that world now. Let’s get to know the other people involved. It’s not going to be just a good cop and a bad cop. It’s going to be the mafia that they pay, the bosses that they pay. And once I realized I wanted to do this, then everything that was scary with the first film, everything that was frightening about the guy who owned the building in the first film; to know that he was just fucking small fry and was being controlled by other people – that was the interesting thing for me…now we can go bigger, can go badder, and the action scenes have to top it. They just have to because if the action scenes in the first one are better, then we’re fucked. Because we just have to make something more invigorating and it doesn’t mean crazier, but just like more complex and also more relatable to the story as well.
MM: This was very much a gangster film as opposed to a martial arts movie. What’s you’re approach to genre and were you looking to combine these two genres?
GE: For me, for The Raid 1 and 2, I could never see them as martial arts films. They will get categorized as martial arts films and that’s fine, but for me it’s only the action discipline that’s the martial arts. There’s no story archetype that’s martial arts related. The first one was a survival horror, technically. I mean them surviving in that building was all survival horror staple genre. Then throw in some different thriller elements and some gunplay and all that and then we finally get to the martial arts aspect. But it’s the action discipline that is martial arts, not the storyline and so for this one, I consider it a gangster film and an undercover cop story, a father and son betrayal story. That’s what the story is. That’s what the film is, but the action beats are martial arts. So for me it’s like, yeah I enjoy playing with genre and while I’m delving into the martial arts world, I like the idea of a film that’s just a good fusion of different styles, a fusion of different genres.
MM: Your style is almost hypnotic.
GE: Thank you.
MM: The set pieces, the colors – bright reds to neons to cold steel rooms. How did you conceptualize the production design?
GE: The first one was all inside that building so it was grays and dark and grungy and dirty and filthy and horrible and rough and broken up – and so then, I was like, "Ok, well we are not doing that." I wanted to do something that felt bigger and more upbeat. We were shooting with the Red Scarlet so the resolution is so much better and also the fact that we were shooting in Cinemascope. There’s just something when it comes to shooting in Cinemascope. When you look at that monitor all you want to do is shoot a classically composed frame. You don’t want to shake it and get crazy with it all the time. There are moments when you say, "Oh god we got to get this one on the dolly track so we get a nice little establishing shot." It’s such a beautiful-looking frame and beautiful-looking quality that I thought when we were starting, I want to play with adding more vibrancy to color, creating these rooms, these worlds where sometimes it would be monochrome like a red and black, and sometimes we’d have an influence of neon in the background somewhere.
The other thing I was always adamant about was the restaurant [a massive, vibrant looking restaurant in which the film’s violent climax occurs]. When it came to the design of it, I said to my producer, "I don’t care what the building is going to look like 100 percent. Obviously, I want the best, architecturally speaking. If we had that with the staggered ceiling and the lights that were so beautiful, but the only thing that I guarantee you that I have to have no matter where we shoot it, we’ve got to carpet the entire thing red. It’s got to be red. I don’t want anything else.
MM: And the tables and chairs and the use of lighting for emphasis….
GE: I know what you mean in the scene when he pushes over the table and the lights fade up. It’s fake. Obviously there’s no way in the real world that would happen. It’s like theater almost, you know, but I enjoyed doing that and kind of playing with [lighting] a little bit.
MM: You edit your films as well. When it comes to the fight sequences, they are obviously very intricate and very well planned out. Do you choreograph and then plan the camera placement?
GE: We’ll figure out the entire fight sequence first, so Iko and I design the entire fight sequence. We’ll go through every punch, every block, every kick, every move and then we’ll write it down on a white board. Then we’ll figure out the structure of it. Then when we have the structure locked down, we shoot a real rough reference footage, which is the whole thing on one angle, no movement. Then after that, we’ll go through it and I’ll watch it over and over again. And it will be along the lines of – "OK, so he’s got him and he’s gonna uppercut then elbow" – so I start to think, "Where do I want to shoot – maybe I’ll bring my camera here where I’ll get the uppercuts then I can spin up here then catch him coming over the elbow then I can cut to here and get the impact point and cut to here to get this guy’s face after the elbow hits." We’ll go through that shot by shot. Then I’ll shoot it with them, and I’ll shoot it like it’s real footage, but it’s just on a crash mat floor carpet in the office. All our pre-pro video storyboards look terrible because it’s just beige walls everywhere. It’s like doing it here [the interview room], but with less shadow. Then we shoot it and we have this version where I’ll do all my edit decisions and I’ll do my shot decisions and it’s all in there in the guide video track and then we will chop it up and put it in the timeline and then we take it with us to set. So when we were shooting the real version on set, I can be like, "Ok, I like this shot here." We go bam-bam [mimicking punches] then we call cut. Once I’m happy with the beginning and tail end of that, every shot is like a jigsaw piece. Once I’m happy with that, get it, load it into the footage, drop it on top, and see "Does it play? Does it play?" – great – next shot…. It means that by the end of the last day of shooting a fight scene, I’ve got all the shots lined up and dropped in because I edit as we do each shot. Suddenly I’m in the position whereby my fight scene is edited now and I haven’t even gone to post pro yet. I’m still on the set. So fight-wise we are almost usually 90-95 percent done with our fights by the time we finish the shoot and wrap.
MM: When it comes to writing a fight scene, do you plan them out very specifically?
GE: Usually it’s two or three paragraphs per fight scene, but it’s never detailed. So I would never have done like that scene [described in the prior question] – "Oh, he uppercuts him twice then brings an elbow up to hit in the face, but it gets blocked," because that makes sense only to me. Iko would not be able to visualize that. The only way Iko can visualize that is if I take him and say, "You’re gonna go upper upper [making the motions] then elbow," and little movements showing emphasis of body movements. So if I put that on paper, it just doesn’t make sense. It’s pointless and also I’m taking away their job. They’re the choreography team alongside me so I tell them, "This is the situation" – like in the first Raid – "You’re in the corridor. You have a nightstick on one hand and a knife on the other. You got an injured cop on your shoulder. You’re walking down this corridor. All of a sudden, people start to come out of doorways and start to attack you. Every time you get attacked, you got to defend yourself and then take them down in a way that they can’t get up again. Doesn’t necessarily mean kill them, but just incapacitate them. But as you do that, you take the one guy down and this injured cop starts to slip from you. You have to come down to keep the balance up. You have to be able to support him the entire way through," and so yeah, we started – "Ok, give me five people attacking you; show me what that looks like." I’ll go off and do some work. Then they’ll come back and present all this martial arts and I’ll be "OK, that’s really cool, that’s really good. OK, I like this." Or there will be one where a guy gets his legs scooped up and then we stab him. Then I’ll say, "Well, if you go in and then just drag it down" [mimicking a cutting movement and I wince at the motion]. I know, I know, I get the same looks from my crew – they tend to call me the sadistic one. I’ll come in and talk to them and I’ll be like, "We can do this, we can play around with it, we can add a little bit more detail here or there just to make it more visceral," and to be honest, when it comes to those violent things, they’re not designed or put in there to be shocking. We don’t do it because "Ah hey that would be fucked up, let’s do that," even though we are immature as fuck anyway. We do it because I want to create a reaction. I want to create a visceral thrill. I want to get the audience to have a position like "huh!" Because if you have enough people in the audience and they all go "huh!," then you realize that the person next to you and the person next to them and the person next to them, they all reacted the same way and your natural instinct is to laugh and then once you laugh you’re getting levity from the film without me having to put jokes in there. People always say, Ah dude the film is so much fun" – the film is so much fun because the way you interpret it as opposed to me going "here a laugh, here a laugh, here a laugh." Then that kind of calms [the audience] down as well. The worst thing I could ever feel is that I’ve made people feel repulsed by a film because that’s not my goal.
When I was a kid, growing up watching films, my dad and I would watch movies all the time together. We would watch all sorts of videos and he would always be my sort of censorship in the house. So if we were watching something like Commando or some other movie where something bad was about to happen, he’d press pause and kick us out of the room and we weren’t allowed to see it. So we’d go off and we’d hear all this carnage from the room then he’d press pause again and he’d be like, "Ok you can come back in," then he’d press play. My dad’s been a huge support and a huge influence to me in terms of the films I’m making. So he always said, "You know what Gareth, as for violence, I don’t have a problem if something is visceral. I don’t have a problem if something is strong. What I have a problem with is when it’s torture; when it’s pain and suffering and when it’s focused on the pain and when it’s focused on the suffering." I thought, "Well, I think you’ll be ok with this one because it’s our thing if you hit ‘em hard, kick ‘em down really hard and then all of a sudden boom we move away and go to something else. And that’s the important part of the process.
MM: With all the chaos of the choreography and the environment and all the special effects work, I noticed, as in the climactic fight scene in the kitchen, you push the camera on [Iko’s] face at the very end to capture his emotional reaction to the fight at hand. How do you maintain focus on the performance with so much going on?
GE: I can’t take credit for that because a lot of times they just give me this shit, like they just perform it, but in the same breath there’s always reminders I have to give them. There will be moments where I’ll be like, "Ah, Iko remember you’ve been fucking fighting for 10 to 15 minutes. You must be so much more tired by now. Stop acting like you’re in control of your body right now – breathe, breathe, breathe." Then he’ll kind of get there, then we’ll workshop a bunch of times. One of the things that gets overlooked a lot in fight movies and action movies is the performance of the martial artist and what I mean by that is not the skill set of the fighter. That’s never overlooked. People will always comment about the [fighter] – "Oh my god, this guy is amazing. You should see the punches and the kicks he does, the flips and the jumps he does" – but they never pay attention to the actor. Say they are in control and then there is a power shift and they get more desperate as the fight goes on – you have to be able to convey that, but in shots and takes that only last for a second or two. It has to feel like there’s a connective tissue that keeps [the performance] growing throughout those shots. It’s such a concentrated performance that it could tip completely over the edge if it’s not sort of reigned in a little. Like Iko is amazing at that; selling growing frustration and desperation in a fight scene over the course of maybe 50 different shots, each one about 2 seconds long, but knowing that by the end of it, he has to reach a certain point.
And with that Gareth and I concluded our conversation and I made my way to another hotel room to interview the mad man himself, Iko. I entered the room; he introduced me to his translator and then says to me with a smile, “this is Rama’s movie.”
MM: How do you maintain such a convincing performance in the midst of all the chaos and choreography?
IU: The shooting is not orderly. We sometimes shoot the end and then the beginning and then the middle and every shot may require a different emotion. I prepare well in advance by knowing what happens before and after the scene and also continuously ask Gareth for help in guiding me with the emotion required in each shot.
MM: How involved are you in the choreography of the fight scenes?
IU: I give Gareth the ideas with Yayan (Ruhian) who played Mad Dog in the first movie. Gareth tells me what he wants and how the scene will end and we fill in the gaps.
MM: How is it working with actors who do not have fighting experience like, for example, Julie Estelle [who plays the ruthless Hammer Girl]?
IU: Julie was very professional and focused. She was not a crybaby even though she got pretty bruised up. I required anyone who played a fighter to warm up daily by running up 4 flights of stairs, doing 25 push-ups then running down and doing 25 sit-ups and repeat it that five times. It’s a long trip. Julie kept up with the fighters and was able to do it.
MM: Are you pretty beat up after long fight scenes?
IU: We are exhausted and have headaches, but we really enjoyed what we were doing. And even when we get a full night of sleep, we’re still exhausted. But it brought us great satisfaction when we were done with a scene.
MM: Did you ever think about becoming an actor before working with Gareth?
IU: [Laughs] No. I was a soccer player and martial arts fighter and worked as a driver for a telecommunications company and never expected to be an actor.
MM: Were you connected emotionally to your character?
IU: I played two characters. The evil guy was Yuda. I did not feel connected to him, because he’s evil and a killer. I felt a little more connected to Rama. However, when I had to talk to my wife and pretend I had a son…that was not so easy.
MM: What are you doing next?
IU: I’m preparing for an action film in Indonesia. But I will be choreographing behind the scenes only. I won’t be acting in this one.
The Raid 2: Berandal is hands down one of the most exhilarating gangster films I have ever seen. It is compelling, visceral, violent, tragic, and epic. And it will linger and scar into your memory long after the end credits roll.