Everybody—or at least everybody who loves action movies—will be talking about The Raid. The film sent a jolt through Sundance and has critics reaching for the thesaurus, as phrases like high-voltage or edge-of-your-seat seem to fall short of its audiovisual freshness and force. A Die Hard for the gaming generation, the film follows a botched SWAT mission to a crime-infested Jakarta tenement, taking us on a tour of the building (and its not-so-friendly residents), going floor to floor, upping the ante—and the dose of mayhem and violence—with each flight of stairs. But in a welcome change of pace at the multiplex, the film is less about grossing you out than amping you up.
Even if you know the hero will get out alive, the film’s Welsh-born, Indonesia-based director Gareth Evans builds a claustrophobic dread so powerful it makes the sudden releases when the tension snaps about as visceral a rush as you can get at the movies. I met up with Evans—who has the jaunty camaraderie of an English backpacker you might meet at a hostel—to talk violence, videogames and the Indonesian martial-art of Silat
How did you end up in Indonesia? What drew you there?
I started working in film in Wales but didn’t do enough to get noticed there, I stayed too localized. Then my wife, who’s Indonesian-Japanese, got me a directing gig in Indonesia for a documentary about the martial art Silat. I’d always loved martial arts films as a kid. And during those six months working on the film I became obsessed. I learned about the culture and people, and met Iko [Uwais] who went on to be the star of both Merantau and The Raid. Everything kind of fell in my lap.
What exactly is Silat?
It’s an Indonesian martial art. There are over 200 styles, each informed by certain cultural or regional traits. Some are even animal-based. What I love about Silat is that it has a fluidity to it. The movement leading into a strike is really beautiful to look at. But the result of that strike is really disgusting to look at. So there’s this juxtaposition between grace and violence.
That mixture between grace and violence really came across in the film’s style.
And in Iko we found the perfect guy to represent that. He understands the movement of it. He understands how it looks on camera. A lot of people just want to throw kicks and punches, but he knows how it will end up looking on screen as well.
Where did the idea to shoot a film in a single building come from?
We finished our first movie and were looking to do something bigger. But we couldn’t get the budget in place. So after a year and a half, I thought, let’s just do a film on a much lower budget, and the best way to do that was by using only one location. Once I decided we would do a one-building film I looked at other one-building films to draw inspiration and influence from: Die Hard, Assault on Prescinct 13, films I watched over and over again.
The film levels up like a videogame, literally from floor to floor. Was that videogame logic conscious on your part?
When we get those comparisons it’s cool. I totally get it. But that logic doesn’t come from videogames so much. It’s more that I hate action films where the best action is at the beginning of the film and then it all whimpers out. I want that final action scene to be the mother of all action scenes in the film. The bad guys go from being canon fodder, to pretty tough, to even tougher, and then the last guy is the fucking machine.
Have you faced critiques about too much violence in the film? What do you say to those kinds of criticisms?
The film is not for everyone. It requires a certain threshold of violence in order to enjoy it and embrace it. But I didn’t set out to make something repulsively violent. There are moments in the film that are designed to make you have a visceral reaction, but we always cut away just after.
Who are the filmmakers you grew up with and return to?
When it comes to action and gunplay, I love Sam Peckinpah and John Woo. I love the sense of clarity you get in their action scenes. That spatial awareness in action is so important and it’s something that’s gone missing recently. I want to show everything as cleanly as possible. I don’t like to cheat. So the action films I watch over and over again are not from the last ten or fifteen years. They’re films from the golden age of Hong Kong action cinema, the Jackie Chan films for example.
Was it easy to find Western distribution for this film?
Our executive producers, a company called XYZ Films based in LA, they helped us sell the US rights to our first film and were influential from the beginning for The Raid. Two months into production they took offline edits to the Cannes market just to get buyers interested. And luckily for us Sony responded.
Are you staying in Indonesia for your next film?
I’m going to do a sequel next, so yeah, that’s going to be there. We’re going to go even bigger on that film, stepping outside the mold of the first. We have one set piece where Iko is going to fight against four guys inside a speeding car. First we have figure out how to even shoot that, how to get the camera in the car, and throw stuntmen out at full speed without killing them. So a couple logistical problems, but then we’ll get going.
Sounds gnarly. It’s like now you’re leveling up as a film director, always wanting to go bigger.
I can’t wait to start shooting man. I’ve been dying to do this for years now.