Two filmmakers going balls-out. Both fearless. Both brilliant. Both at Sundance.
Two years ago, Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto collaborated on “Safe Haven,” a wacked-out, cinematic hit of PCP that shocked like a horror film but sprinted at the frenetic pace of a first-shooter video game. “Safe Haven” wasn’t a full-length feature, but rather, one of several short films included in the “V/H/S/2” horror compilation film of 2011. It didn’t matter that they were only allotted a small piece of the film. The duo of directors clearly had something to prove.
Despite its compressed running time, “Safe Haven” is bat-shit crazy and completely unhinged. Focusing on a team of journalists who’ve come to investigate an Indonesian cult leader, the crew behold as all hell, literally, breaks loose. Think Rosemary’s Baby being conceived during the Jonestown Massacre, and you might get some sense of the plot.
But such a tepid description doesn’t come close to capturing the spirited, sick glee spurting from the crimson screen. Demon babies burst from bellies. Mexican standoffs morph into head-splattering mass suicides. Scads of children, drugged on Guyana grape juice, reach out with stiff, robotic arms to commit mischief and murder. “Safe Haven” is overblown, undisciplined, and, truth be told, a little silly. But it’s clearly the work of a filmmaking force willing to go completely berserk and push beyond the confines of genre filmmaking.
Flash forward to the present. Each director is showcasing a new movie at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. Tjahjanto’s contribution is “Killers” (co-directed by Tjahjanto and Kimo Stamboel), involving two serial murderers engaged in a particularly sick – and timely – competition. Each fiend videotapes his kills, using the snuff clips to impress, taunt, and inspire the opposing “team.” The film follows these psychopaths in their continuing efforts to out-do one another.
It’s a disturbing premise, but Tjahjanto is no stranger to provocative cinema. “The ABC’s of Death,” another recent horror anthology, includes a particularly nasty snippet helmed by Tjahjanto. The segment observes a particularly vile competition in which shackled men are forced to masturbate – or die. The first to spew moves on to the next round, while the losers are dispatched in a multitude of imaginatively perverted ways.
Meanwhile, Evans unleashes the sequel to his brilliant action masterpiece, 2011’s “The Raid.” Its premise was ingeniously simple: an Indonesian SWAT team is dispatched to capture a nasty drug kingpin hiding out on the top floor of a seedy apartment high-rise. But their mission becomes much more daunting than expected, as corrupt cops and assassins become formidable obstacles.
The film’s perfectly-calibrated mayhem makes it the Swiss watch of action films. Like John Woo’s early Hong Kong classics, Evans embraces the joy of violent movement. There’s a dark, kinetic beauty and stunning sense of craft woven into each brutal gunfight and bone-snapping martial arts death-dance. Entitled “The Raid 2: Berandal,” Evans’ much-anticipated follow-up has already screened at Sundance. Some reviews claim “The Raid 2” trumps its predecessor. One writer dubbed it the greatest action film of all time.
Tjahjanto and Evans enjoy helming separate projects. But the longtime friends are also working on future collaborations. Currently in development, “The Night Comes for Us” explores betrayal and deception within the gangster underworld of Jakarta. Tjahjanto will direct, while Evans acts as co-producer on the film. Meanwhile, expect the profiles of both filmmakers to explode as their projects make waves at Sundance. In the following interview, conducted last year shortly before the release of “V/H/S/2,” Evans and Tjahjanto reveal some of the secrets behind how they’ve re-invented the crime and horror genres with such unprecedented gusto.
As co-directors of “Safe Haven,” how did you break down duties on the film? Was it difficult to maintain a unified sense of direction?
Gareth: We’ve been good friends for seven years now. We work together on script ideas, and watch the same movies together. We have a similar appreciation of film, and similar approaches as to how we want to make them. For “Safe Haven,” because of budget and time constraints, we had to break up into separate teams, each doing different things. We both knew that we could rely on each other, and trust that each of our teams would deliver. At the same time, when we were in the same area together, we could be collaborative. It was kind of exciting. I come from an action background, while Timo comes from more of a horror background. So we both started bouncing ideas off each other. There was a unique energy.
Timo: Here’s an example of what Gareth’s action background brought to the film. At the climax of the movie, the main character escapes from the cult leader’s compound and runs from the building. When the story was initially written, it stops right as he’s running out. But working with Gareth allows you to be more ambitious with what little budget we had. Instead on ending at the house, with the demon calling out to the main character, Gareth says, ‘Why fuckin’ stop at the house? Let’s get him inside the car before the fuckin’ creature smashes it up.’”
We just love each other so much (laughter)!
There’s truly an art to making kinetic films. In both “The Raid” and “Safe Haven,” you could feel this visceral quality in your bones. It’s interesting how some films, like early John Woo and George Miller’s “The Road Warrior,” had a similar intensity, while more recent, CGI-heavy, big-budget action movies fall flat.
Gareth: One of the things I’ve always tried to achieve in my work, is to emulate what I loved about John Woo and Sam Peckinpah action movies… the way they’re edited, and the way they’re structured. There’s always a sense of rhythm to it. The punches, kicks, blocks, and gunshots – it’s kind of like percussion in music. There’s a beat to it. Certain kinds of rhythms help you to set the pace of a scene. How fast should a camera pan?
There’s another layer to it as well – the sense of geography that you get from those movies. If you watch the end of Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” or the hospital shoot-out in Woo’s “Hard-Boiled,” you’re always aware of where you are in that place. You never feel like you’re lost. I like the idea of trying to guide the audience through whatever transition you want to take them through, but with as much clarity as possible. Guide them through so that they’re seeing all the right details. That works better than just shooting for coverage and fuckin’ trying to piece it together in the editing room later on. I do a lot of my stuff on storyboards. I have sort of an idea already, as to how the scene is gonna look before we’ve even shot it.
In “The Raid” and “Safe Haven,” the camera is always prowling… always on the move. There’s a sense of being in a maze or labyrinth. In “Safe Haven,” I felt lost in a haunted house, with everything going at light-speed, never knowing what I’d find around each corner. A mass multiple gun suicide, a demon pregnancy… you’re unaware of what’s gonna hit you next, and the speed is unrelenting.
Gareth: When it came to the idea of the mass suicide and birth stuff, all of that came from Timo. What we decided to try to do was keep the pacing up. Do a lot of uninterrupted long takes, and a lot of rehearsals and practice to make sure that there are no moments of dead air, where you’re waiting for something to happen. We waited to get the choreography and the timing of everything just right. We were going for a “carnival horror” kind of approach. When we cut to the girl being dragged and carried into the birthing chamber, for example, we wanted to jump straight into her perspective… to have these giggling, laughing nurses carrying her, full of insanity… a kind of carnival horror.
Timo, how has horror changed over the past several decades? When I was young, “Jaws” was the scariest thing I’d ever seen. I talk with kids now who think it’s passe. They’re more into gore horror.
Timo: I think that’s a good point. By now, horror has become more of a digital show. I agree with you that “Jaws” was a powerful experience. My greatest fear in life is being eaten by a shark – that dead set of eyes looking at you. I think younger horror filmgoers are more into shock visuals. I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s just how horror evolved. A lot of horror films that are heavy on gore and blood, like the “Evil Dead” re-make, I’ve enjoyed very much. But I also appreciate unspoken horror, like “The Others.” Horror can always be done right if you rely on characterization and storytelling
Can you provide information on current projects, including Gareth’s “The Raid 2: Berandal” and Timo’s “Killers?”
Timo: “Killers” is a psychological thriller set in Japan and Indonesia. It has some horror elements, but I think that at its heart, it’s actually a study of violence and how man relies on violence.
Gareth: “The Raid 2” is different from the first one in a way. It’s got the same kind of action set-pieces, but it plays out in an expanded universe, and on a larger scale.