We've been following Indonesian martial arts film Merantau in these pages for quite some time now - you'll find an extensive collection of behind the scenes reels here - and recently writer/director Gareth Evans and star Iko Uwais were gracious enough to take some time out of their schedule to talk about the film with us. Want to know what it takes to shoot a martial arts film in Indonesia? Then read on!
TB: First of all, if I’m not mistaken your origins are actually British and not Indonesian. How’s a guy from the UK end up making a martial arts film in Indonesia?
GE: Long story that one, my wife is half-Indonesian half-Japanese. After we married we lived in the UK for a while, I was just doing a 9 to 5 job at the time while looking to find a new project after having directed my first ultra low budget feature "Footsteps". I tried to get a foot in wherever I could but it just wasn't to be, then suddenly I was hired to work as a freelance director for Christine Hakim Films on a documentary being made in Indonesia at the time. So my wife and I found ourselves living and working in her hometown of Jakarta and during that time I gained some insight and experience into the Indonesian film and television industry and after having worked there for 6 months on the documentary we decided to uproot from the UK and try our luck there. I worked for 6 months at a television company overseeing post-production and some program concepts but I found spending my time in an office space limiting and restricting and with the experience and knowledge I gained about silat from the documentary I set about writing the script for "Merantau".
TB: What is your personal background with both film and martial arts? Why did you want to make this film in particular?
GE: Ever since I was a child I've always dreamt of making a career for myself in film, and it first started with martial arts films. After seeing Armour of God, Project A and Police Story on VHS I'd drag my friends into trying to do remakes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan flicks in my back garden (thankfully none of us had a camcorder at the time so there's no cringeworthy footage for the twitch player). Naturally being the vain young child I was I'd always be the one to play Jackie Chan or Bruce Lee, but my complete lack of martial arts skills matched with my inability to act gradually led me towards writing and directing instead. I was given a small vhs-c camcorder for my 18th birthday and after 10 years of concocting all these ideas for scenes suddenly I was able to record them all on tape. I'm from a small village in Wales and until I went to University I had no access to editing equipment so everything I did shoot was just edited using two vcr's and the pause button as you can imagine they aren't the best. Then in University I was finally able to start playing around with bigger and better toys. I'd taken a media course expecting to learn all there was about film and tv but it turned out to be more about computers and electronics so I took advantage of the media dept equipment and just started to teach myself different techniques while consistently finding new ways to shoe-horn video production into any dissertation I could.
I've always had an obsession with asian cinema so my first serious stab at a short film was a Samurai story that I shot in Wales using Japanese students studying in Cardiff at the time, it was a self-funded short and its prospects were limited but the experience of arranging that shoot gave me the first taste of what it was like to treat filmmaking as serious profession. From there, I took a few years of office work before deciding to just try my hand at making a feature film, I was lucky enough to have an understanding boss who allowed me to take a sabbatical in order to shoot "Footsteps".
TB: Something that I have been particularly impressed by in your behind the scenes work is the attention to character and story. Many fight films are concerned only with jamming as many fight in as they can, why not take that approach?
First and foremost I'm a fan of action cinema, I can sit and take in scene after scene of fighting but what tends to happen when I re-watch those films is that I find myself skipping the drama because more often than not it simply doesn't work. The plot isn't thought out enough and offers so little in terms of characterisation and complexity that it's just "in the way" of the fight sequences. But what I wanted to achieve with Merantau is a film that could easily work as a drama, not just as an action film so I worked and I hope I've succeeded in creating characters and a story that people can relate to and be intrigued by. Something they won't skip on repeat viewings.
But also it was important for me to give just as much care when directing these dramatic scenes as the fighting. Sometimes watching a film, you can tell when the director is on auto-pilot, the action choreography will look stunning and exciting yet the drama is delivered in such a route one fashion that it looks like every shot is the first take. What I want from this film is to launch Iko, but not purely as a martial artist, also as an actor. He has seriously grown since we started production from a driver at a telcom company to potentially a breakout star, he has a ridiculous amount of talent and each day he just gets better and better.
TB: You’ve chosen to feature a martial art seldom seen on screen. Why silat? How do you approach striking a balance between authenticity and cinematic quality? Natural fighting versus wire work?
GE: I chose silat after working on the documentary, I'd never seen it before and having watched copious amounts of martial arts films it just seemed such a unique fighting form that after I started to learn silat with my master (Edwel Datuk Rajo Gampo Alam - the choreographer of the film) I just felt compelled to do what I could as a filmmaker to promote silat to International attention and as I live in Indonesia to incorporate it's culture to show the Western world a little slice of Indonesian life. In terms of achieving both authentic and cinematic quality to the action, we chose to use the camera in a very natural way, we didn't want to swoop around the action using cranes or intrusive movements, instead we played the observer especially for the final fight between Yuda, Ratger and Luc (a prolonged 5min 2-on-1 fight sequence). I chose to use the steadicam a lot during this sequence so that we drift around the action and see a series of sequences before we cut to our next shot, long takes being preferable to snappy over-edited cuts for each hit. Any use of slow-motion and double-cuts only really come into play during chase sequences or stunt work, we didn't want to over-stylise the fighting we wanted to keep it feeling real, so there's no triple flips or somersaults before a kick it just wouldn't fit in the story or the world that the film takes place in, we're presenting pure silat without the acrobatics.
In terms of wirework, I know from some previous blogs you'll see some wirework at hand, but the use of wires is minimal and only as a means to assist the action. Everything we have shot is rooted in reality, so they've been used purely to help us stage some of the stunts on top of the container, a motorbike flip and also later in the production a building-to-building jump sequence. There's no flying or anti-gravity in the action at all, the wirework has just been there for more control to ensure the safety of our stunt team.
TB: The only Indonesian action star I’m familiar with at all – and even then just barely – is Barry Prima. Is there much of an action film culture in place there or have you had to develop your own team from the ground up?
GE: Yeah that's exactly it, a film of this style hasn't been made in Indonesia for almost over 20 years (as far as I know) so the majority of action on Indonesian screens is purely from television shows which rely a lot on mysticism, fx and wirework. So we really have had to work from the ground up not just with fighters and stunt performers but also in terms of camera and action directing. Way before I wrote the script for Merantau I shot some very small basic fight sequences using some of the silat fighters I'd met while working on the documentary to see how we could incorporate it into a martial arts film, to figure out how we could best represent it. Pencak Silat by its very nature has many different forms of exhibition some styles are designed for a purely aesthetic purpose as a performing art almost like a dance but I found my interest lay more within the practical application of silat in real-life situations. We've designed the fight sequences to feel like they could happen in some form of reality so we've chosen to choreograph and shoot in a way that isn't just flashy, every shot is designed to clearly show the choreography. One of my biggest gripes when watching martial arts films is seeing prolonged shots of the hero swinging arms, feet or weapons in close up and sound fx filling in the gaps to cheat like you're watching something frenetic. It's a cheap shot and is purely there for padding. We made a conscious decision to avoid that in every fight sequence we shot.
TB: What have the biggest challenges been for you as a director?
GE: The biggest challenge has to be handling the action sequences, I've shot drama before and it's not the first time for me to work in a foreign language but in terms of the martial arts - it's being sat there at the monitor and knowing when the shot is right and when you know it will cut together as you'd hope. Throughout the shoot we've had our field editors loading all the footage so that I can make quick edits on location to make sure the shots cut together, but shooting them is a very laborious process. There is never a single shot for a fight sequence that we've had in anything under 15 takes whether the camera position is a little off or the choreography isn't as clean as we'd hoped it's a long process and it can make a working day a very exhausting experience. But on the back of all that are those moments when the crew sit together and watch a rough cut of the completed fight and we see that the hard work is paying off. It's a great feeling to hear the gasps and cheers when a specific shot just works perfectly, so now we hope that audiences too will gasp and cheer once the film is finally released.
TB: How long have you been practicing silat? Do you work with any other martial arts?
IU: I began learning silat since 1993. Initially I was a student of PPSI (Persatuan Pencak Silat Indonesia) in 1999 however, I turned to the Tiga Berantai silat school and accomplished significant achievements there, I have not learned any other martial art outside of silat as yet but I have an interest in all forms of martial art.
TB: For those unfamiliar with the discipline, what would you say are the main differences between silat and more well known disciplines such as kung fu, karate, aikido, etc?
IU: The main difference is simply the presentation of the movements. During a demonstration Silat uses a lot of kicks and punches accompanied by traditional music and is very closely associated with the teachings of Islam as a means of character building especially in my master's school (H. Ahmad Bunawar - Silat Tiga Berantai). Although I think kung fu also shares some similarities with silat in terms of movements and the way it uses music, silat still has its own identity and quality. In general, all martial arts share similarities yet they also have their own individual characteristics that separate themselves from one another. Silat itself also separates within itself with many different styles according to its province of origin. In Indonesia, there are 33 provinces and in addition to 10 different traditional schools.
TB: Have you done any acting or stunt work before? How are you finding the process of transferring real life fight skills to the different discipline of screen fighting? Are you finding acting a challenge?
IU: I am very challenged with the fighting scenes in this film, because naturally I have competed as a fighter in tournaments but now I have to perform movements that are choreographed and planned ahead. Also I find it difficult to control my movements to not hurt other cast members who aren’t as experienced in martial arts, while at the same time maintaining a look as realistic as possible for each shot. Kicks are naturally much harder to control than punches because a kick is all about momentum and a swinging movement, therefore I had to learn how to kick as hard as it is in real life yet striking within a safe body area. In tournaments, it is the other way around, I easily move my body the way I am comfortable and however I want it. I am also not afraid to hurt my opposition since I know my opponent is experienced in silat. And for acting, honestly, I am very happy and fascinated by acting in front of the camera it is something I have never done before in my life.
TB: What has been the most difficult or intense thing that Gareth has asked you to do? What has been the most fun?
IU: In terms of the overall experience, each day I get to learn something new about filmmaking, acting or screen fighting. I feel lucky because I get to learn all of this while making this film. Although Gareth has asked for extreme scenes especially the container fight where I had to kick and throw stunt performers against or off the steel containers or the final fight where we shot constantly for 10 hours fighting every night for 14 days, I just see it all as a challenge and he keeps me encouraged to do it, to succeed. Gareth is a good director, he understands martial arts and is very wise in making decisions, but the best part is I just really enjoy working with him.