Gareth Evans on Apostle’s measured, restrained approach to full-blown gore

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For a Welsh-born director, Gareth Evans has an odd claim to fame: through a series of movies made in Indonesia, he brought the martial art pencak silat to Westerners’ attention, made a star out of martial artist Iko Uwais, and built a name for himself through brutal, precise action sequences and a memorable approach to violence. Evans’ movies Merantau, The Raid: Redemption, and The Raid 2 weren’t major action blockbusters, but among martial arts fans and cult-cinema enthusiasts, they enjoy the kind of delirious word-of-mouth that builds fandoms and boosts reputations.

Evans’ rep was likely a major part of what let him sign on with Netflix for a distinctly odd and personal project: his first film actually shot and set in Wales, and his first historical feature. Apostle, a harrowing, thrilling horror film which launched on Netflix on October 12th, stars Dan Stevens (star of the FX Marvel series Legion and the terrific indie horror film The Guest) plays protagonist Thomas Richardson, a lapsed priest and troubled addict who infiltrates a cultist community on a small Welsh island, hoping to save his kidnapped sister. The film grapples with religious and supernatural elements, but it’s largely about the ways a charismatic leader can warp a community. The film recently had its world premiere at Austin’s Fantastic Fest, where I sat down with Evans to talk about Apostle’s riveting central performance, its queasy production design, and how continued work with his Indonesian crew has given him a kind of traveling tech family.

Did Netflix fund this project from the beginning, or pick it up at some stage along the line?

They funded it from the get-go. Myself and [producer] Aram Tertzakian from XYZ Films started working on the script, putting this idea together, working on storylines and beats. We took that to Netflix as a package: “This is the film we want to make, these are the mood boards and the vision.” And thankfully, they jumped right in and got behind it. And to be honest, if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t have gotten this film made.

So we were very grateful and happy with the process. They’ve been amazing, so creatively supportive. Obviously, you get notes in every format, everything about this industry is collaborative in some way, but all their notes were measured, and came from the right place. I was surprised, to be honest — this is the first time I’ve worked outside of my own company, and when I’m working for my own company, me and my wife are the boss of that thing, so I get a little bit of say in things. [Laughs] This was my first time outside of that environment, and it was beautiful.

The movie’s story feels like you started with the 1973 Wicker Man and went from there, but you’ve said that 1970s British horror films in general were a major inspiration. What else was on your cinematic mood board?

Films like the Witchfinder General, and Ken Russell’s The Devils, which I had not seen until literally 2016, just before I started writing this. I just wanted to get into this mood, so I started rewatching a lot of movies from that era. I hadn’t seen them since I was quite young. I’d never seen The Devils before. I was not ready for that experience. I was blown away by just how incredible that film was. And then also, some of the more modern British folk horror, so stuff like Ben Wheatley’s Kill List or A Field in England. Those films were so inspiring to me as well. So it was looking at that landscape, what that world of cinema looks and feels like, and trying to find a version of that I could create for myself.

Photo courtesy of Netflix

The pacing on Apostle is so relentless. How much of that do you find in editing, and how much do you build on the set, through the performances and direction?

It’s this weird thing for me. I have a set structure I can put in place, maybe less on The Raid, because that film just — poom! — came out of the gates and kept going. But on The Raid 2, and things I’ve done since, like [the V/H/S 2 short] Safe Haven, it was more about the idea of setting audiences up so they know what the adventure is going to be. You set that up straight away, get the audience in there. Then I start to drip-feed little morsels of information and mystery throughout. Once you kick off hard, you can just keep going in forward momentum. So it’s in the structure, from the initial writing stage. I’ve never liked that idea of finding the pacing in editing, because I edit myself. When I’m writing, I’m already visualizing how I’m going to shoot and cut it. It does evolve all the time, but the pace is predesigned.

What do actors say about your working methods?

“[Actors] say they like the fact that I know what I want.”

They say they like the fact that I know what I want. What I want is for them to feel comfortable. On this, they brought a huge amount to the script. We workshopped the script for three weeks before shooting, working on script notes and dialogue polishing, establishing clearer dynamics between the characters. I did my best to write a 22-year-old girl studying medicine, but I don’t have that personal experience to draw from, as much as someone like [Apostle co-stars] Lucy [Boynton] or Kristine [Froseth]. So the workshop was an opportunity to sit down with them and interrogate the dialogue, interrogate those relationships and see what they felt was missing, and incorporate their notes into it as well. It was a collaborative process, back and forth.

That extended to the look and feel of the film. Tom Pearce, my production designer, did an incredible job of helping to create this world and this village from scratch. There was nothing there when we started, and then suddenly this whole village exists.

Dan Stevens plays this role so differently from the way he’s played previous roles, particularly in his body language. How did you work with him physically to get that performance?

Dan is an incredible person to work with. He’s so charismatic, so charming. One thing we talked about to make his character Thomas interesting is a certain degree of vulnerability and weakness. He’s not going to come in like he did in The Guest, as a big, strong presence. He’s going to come in and the audience will think, “Shit, I don’t know if he’s going to be able to do this.” I told him the key component was, “You should think you’re like Bogart, but the reality is that you’re not.”

We played with the idea of his laudanum addiction at the start of the film. I watched him create this character through an incredible process — I didn’t even realize he was doing it until over a week into the shoot. Throughout the whole start of the film, he’s got his jaw tense and locked up, and his speech is muffled a little. And then gradually, as he has pivotal moments where his character has to decide to abandon the laudanum and focus, and knuckle down, that’s when his jaw starts to slacken, and he becomes more clear and focused. Problem is, he’s still not Bogart because he can’t fight.

So that was the fun part. I was like, “I’m going to put you through the wringer, and you’re going to survive by the skin of your teeth.” That made it more interesting — I wanted to follow him more because of it. It’s a different process from the action version of this movie where Thomas runs in and beats everyone up, and can handle himself well. Instead, I wanted him to feel always at death’s door, no matter what situation emerged. So that was a fun aspect of the film, playing with that.

Photo by Warren Orchard / Netflix

The violence he endures is incredibly intense. Was it all practical effects?

A lot of practical, a lot of little CG assists. I have a very talented VFX guy out in Indonesia, Andi Novianto, who did all my stuff for The Raid and The Raid 2. So when it came to the gore assists, he was the only guy I trusted with that, because he has a real amazing way of blending it in seamlessly into what the camera would see practically. We always try to get as much as we can practically in-camera anyway, and CGI is just there to assist and make it feel more real.

“I know there’s … going to be a visceral reaction to what this film has in store.”

In terms of the violence, and what we show — this sounds weird, because I know there’s always going to be a visceral reaction to what this film has in store for people. But for a sequence like the Heathen Stand, it’s like, “I’m going to show you how this machine works. I’m going to show the inner workings and the mechanisms, so you can understand exactly what each of those levers does. But when it comes time for it to be used, I’m going to cut away to people’s reactions, to be away from the detail of the gore. You’ll see enough to put the rest of it, absolutely pun intended, in your own head.” So we show the aftermath, but not the actual physical act.

I know it’s weird, talking about restraint in a film like this. But I do believe that when we do show real violence, you’re seeing it for short periods of time, then cutting away to somewhere else. So you get a sense for what’s going on, but we don’t stay on it. And that’s the slight differentiation between all-out gore and what we were trying to achieve with this.

Looping back to the production design, what was it like building the village?

Well, I wasn’t there for the build. [Laughs] But Tom Pearce and his team of carpenters worked in literally the worst months possible. It was like January, February, into March, about an eight-to-nine-week build for an entire village, with houses where we could shoot inside and out. The houses were sets inside, and it was brilliant, because the actors felt like they had a place that was anchored to them, that was organic and real. We had practical fireplaces so we could have smoke billowing from chimneys, and things like that. It was an amazing, amazing set, and they built it from scratch.

When I talked to Tom about the set, what I said was, “These guys are like the Pilgrims. They arrived at this island, and they used the wood of their boats [to build their houses] because they were settling. They were planting a flag in this place.” So some of the smaller huts had upturned rowboats as the rooftops. And there were bits of wood clearly broken off boats used on the larger houses. I said, “Look, this should feel like you might have the odd carpenter nestled in amongst the community of people. You might have the odd guy who knows how to build a house. The problem is, he’s not working with a bunch of contractors or construction teams who can help him assemble a house properly. It should feel a little ramshackle, and take on different tastes, to reflect that the community isn’t just purely people from the UK. There should be lots of different influences.”

So we have some American Gothic-style architecture in there. Malcolm’s house, for instance, is on stilts. Initially, that buys us the opportunity to get under the house, for plot purposes, but it also started to infuse the feel of the world.

That reached into the music as well. Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal, my Indonesian composers from The Raid and Raid 2, they started to take that influence, too. So they took influence from British folk-horror films, but also from Cajun music and other stuff. The festival on the island has a sort of weird Cajun-y feel to it. They were definitely borrowing influences from Southern Comfort music, for instance, to create and build tension. So it was a fascinating world to go off and create.

You’re still working with so many of the same Indonesian talents from your Raid movies. How is the start of your career affecting where you are now, and how you work?

Working in the UK meant that we couldn’t bring on everybody. So many of the crew from those films worked so hard on those films out in Indonesia, and I’d love to be able to give them all the opportunity to keep working on these films. But obviously that’s not possible. But we brought over some local key collaborators and people we’ve worked with in the past. So Matt Flannery, my cinematographer, brought over Yudi, his focus puller and camera assistant, because they have such an incredible relationship. We brought over our DIT guy, Danu, because he’s been amazing to me through every project I’ve worked with. And then obviously the guys who did the score. They’re key collaborators, as important to me as anybody else on my crew, for my creative side. They’re as important to me as Matt, who’s been my DP on everything, because they understand what I want to do.

We did have other VFX companies work on this. Some of the biggest 3D elements, we sent out to a company in Wales called Bait, and another company called Squint. They did some of our more complex matte paintings, and things like the animated 3D vines and leaves. But Andi did the lion’s share of the VFX, some 200 to 250 shots. He did it remotely from Indonesia. He understands me now, he understands the process for me, so I can just send him frame-grabs with little annotated notes, and within two passes, he’s got it. It’s like shorthand. So no matter what I do, I always want to maintain those working relationships, because in the same way that I get to hopefully grow as a filmmaker, project by project, they’re growing all the time, too. It’s like family, when you work together for this amount of time on something.

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