West Meets East: Director Gareth Evans on The Raid
It’s the final day of Glasgow Film Festival 2012 and I’m up with the lark to speak to Welsh director Gareth Evans, the man responsible for the most talked about film at this year's event, before he catches a flight back to his adopted home of Indonesia. The film in question is The Raid, a fat-free, high-octane martial arts flick that only a few hours earlier tore the roof off the GFT as it closed FrightFest, GFF’s blood splattered genre movie weekend. When I meet a bright-eyed Evans, he’s still flying high from the ecstatic response. “It killed,” beams the Welshman. “We’ve seen it a couple of times with different audiences and there are these certain moments where Iko [Uwais, The Raid’s star] and I kind of elbow each other and we’re like, ‘oh, that bit is coming up soon, are they going to react?’ And when they do we just giggle like kids.”
Evans made his feature debut with 2006's little-seen Footsteps, but in 2008, after failing to find a footing on the British film industry ladder (“I didn’t really do enough to get myself known here, it was my own fault”), he left behind the green, green, grass of home when his Indonesian partner secured him a gig on some documentaries back in her home country. Their subject was pencak silat, Indonesia’s indigenous martial arts. The experience changed his life. “It was like six months of falling in love with silat,” he tells me. “The idea of actually working out there seemed to make sense. It was an easy move to make.” One of the students featured in the silat series was Uwais, Evans' future leading man in The Raid and his 2009 sophomore film Merantau. “It sounds super clichéd but he had a real screen presence about him, even when he was just warming up with the rest of the team. I knew I had to work with him.”
The Raid wears its cinematic influences on its sleeve, borrowing from the likes of [REC], Die Hard, Assault on Precinct 13 and classic Bruce Lee movies, but at no point does it feel derivative. The simple setup – a squad of rookie cops enter a Jakarta tower block, filled with drug dealers and killers, with the aim of taking down the crime lord who controls the city’s underworld from his penthouse flat – offered Evans a streamline plot from which to hang some of the most impressive onscreen fights in recent memory. Perhaps what makes the picture so fresh is that its director achieves this breakneck action without having to resort to the shaky cam style that’s become de rigueur in Western filmmaking.
“Sometimes what [other filmmakers] do is they’ll shoot for coverage rather than make specific shots for the fight,” explains Evans of the practice of shooting a scattering of shots (wide, over-the-shoulder, close-up etc.), with the final sequence being constructed in the editing suite. Evans' approach is more rigorous: fight choreography dictates the shots. “We made a video storyboard of the entire fights, so every single shot that we used is chosen because it’s the shot that we want to use to show off that sequence. By the time we’re in preproduction we’ve got a template we can use of every shot movement-wise, props-wise, lighting position, make-up continuity, everything.” The result is lucid editing and framing that’s the antithesis of Michael Bay’s headbanging frenetics.
Hollywood has certainly taken note of The Raid’s success at festivals around the world. As is Tinseltown’s way, an English language remake will soon go into production. Evans is surprisingly upbeat about this prospect. “I genuinely feel like there’s a lot of room for improvement in terms of the central concept,” he says with refreshing honesty. When asked if he’d be interested in directing the remake himself he doesn’t miss a beat. “It has to be a fresh pair of eyes coming towards it, and they have to be given that freedom to run with it too. We didn’t have anyone looking over our shoulders when we were making it – it was literally whatever we wanted to do.”