Capone cuts through to the truth about NINJA ASSASSIN with director James McTeigue!!!
Published at: Nov. 23, 2009, 4:52 p.m. CST by Capone
Hey everyone. Capone in Chicago here.
Director James McTeigue is perhaps the least mysterious man of mystery I've ever met. The Australian-born director of the awesomely violent NINJA ASSASSIN built a career for himself being one of the more reliable first, second, and third directors for other filmmakers since the early 1990s, working of such titles as STREET FIGHTER, DARK CITY, THE MATRIX trilogy, STAR WARS: EPISODE II-ATTACK OF THE CLONES, and last year's SPEED RACER. In 2005, the Wachowski Brothers and producer Joel Silver turned over the reigns of V FOR VENDETTA to McTeigue, and although some ugly rumors got started that the Wachowskis basically directed the film (a subject McTeigue and I address), it turns out that that was a load of crap-filled lies.
The McTeigue rumor mill kicked in again when the Silver-produced THE INVASION needed additional work and original director Oliver Hirschbiegel was circumvented in favor of McTeigue to do reshoots. I don't think anyone will doubt that McTeigue is the driving force behind NINJA ASSASSIN, despite the fact that Silver and Wachowskis are listed as producers once again. Despite the martial arts theme, this is a very different film than THE MATRIX movies, if for no other reason than the blood spilled could be measured in Olympic-size pools. I think the work is exciting, and McTeigue really breaks out from the Wachowski shadow enough to count himself as one of the great action forces working today. I had a chance to sit down with him at Fantastic Fest in September, and I hope to hell you find the conversation enlightening…
James McTeigue: You’ll be down here at the festival for a bit?
Capone: For the duration, yeah. I’m on a jury this year.
JM: That means you will be seeing a lot of films then, huh?
Capone: I haven’t counted yet, but I’m sure it’s a lot!
JM: Any standouts?
Capone: Yeah, well the ones we gave awards to last night, there’s a great little revenge film from Canada called SWEET KARMA that I would highly recommend. There is this really great domestic abuse drama from South Korea called BREATHLESS that I really liked. There are loads. I just saw REC 2 last night. It blew my mind. Speaking of which, I certainly have heard of this film as it has sort of been coming down the pipe, but I have been blissfully unaware of some of the details of it, so seeing it yesterday was really an eye opener, because I haven’t read anything about it. Every once in a while that happens.
JM: Something passes you by?
Capone: Doesn’t pass me by, but sometimes I just try to experience something as purely as I can. I don’t need to know everything about a movie called NINJA ASSASSIN.
JM: [laughs] Right, you probably got it right there in the title.
Capone: Exactly. I was genuinely surprised and pleased at the way you committed yourself on a couple of different levels. I want to get into that starting with the fact that you open with this incredibly bloody sequence where you sort of announce “Okay, this is not going to be one of those martial arts films where people get cut and there’s no blood.” Here it’s like “You are going to get cut and you are going to lose a limb!” Tell me a little about your thought process from beginning to end.”
JM: Yeah, I guess I was really interested in making the film like a cross between anime and a video game, and I really like the way games at the moment treat blood. They treat it much differently than films and I think also in anime, because of their audience and because it’s animation obviously, you could do things more stylistically in those two disciplines. So I was interested in putting those into a film. I didn’t want to say it was too serious, and at the point that you have something that’s so stylized like that, you think that it’s not quite real life, like “Wow, they are trying something different here.” I was trying to take the aesthetic in a different direction.
Capone: So you think this is so stylized that people won't take it too seriously? I think it’s right on the edge. The actual visual treatment of the blood is not a complete gusher, but it’s also not a gentle pooling. It’s something that struck me as something I had never seen before and it seemed very believable.
JM: That’s good. If you got into the aesthetic of it, I think that’s good and I was interested in… I didn’t want it to be comedic, but I also didn’t want it to be HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER, you know what I mean? There are those two extremes. I wanted it to be pitched in the middle there and fans of games and anime would get into the style of the blood. If you take that first scene, where I announce, “This is what the film is going to be,” I think the way I set those characters up, as well, plays into the way that I deal with them when they die and get killed. Partially that was “Here are these super bad punks,” so you know something is going to happen to them. I remember when I first took the key frames or the concept drawings to Warner Bros., there used to be a scene in a bathhouse, and it was like the aftermath of the ninja being in the bathhouse and there was like people lying all around and limbs and eviscerations and they were like “Is that really what it’s going to be like?” [Laughs] I said, “Yeah that’s the idea.” They really got into the idea.
Capone: Did you sit down as you were conceiving this and really look at the martial arts genre, and say “Okay, this is what we are going to do differently, and this is what we are going to embrace” in terms of some of the traditions that have been established? Did you kind of go through it and say, “This is how we want to distinguish ourselves”?
JM: I think ostensibly what you want to do is take, like you said there have been a lot of films made in that genre, but you want to take what you really like from that genre and what appeals to people and why people like that genre so much, but take it in a new direction, if you possibly can. That did inform the thinking, but I didn’t do an A-B list of what I can and what I can’t have. I guess I also wanted to put mixed martial arts in it and I wanted to have parkour. There were all of these different elements that I thought would be good and fit in the framework of a ninja movie, which essentially is a B-movie genre and try to make it an A genre, and then trying to hang it on a decent story. You don’t want the story getting in the way of the action, but you don’t want the story to be so secondary to the rest of the film, like they are in a lot of movies like PRAY FOR DEATH or AMERICAN NINJA or any of those movies that Sho Kosugi made in the '80s.
Capone: The throwing stars, we have seen those many many times, but we have never seen them eviscerate a body like machine gun fire before or the way they are used in that sequence with all of the cars, and how we just get the aftermath with that one shot with about a hundred of them stuck to that car, which got a great reaction from the crowd. “We know the tools we have to work with. Let’s do something different with them.” How far could you really go?
JM: Yeah, how far could you really go, and how far could you take some of the swordplay and the running? I remember with the stars saying to Steve Skroce, who was the concept artist and did some of the storyboards, you are exactly right, it should feel like machine gun fire. It should feel like with these guys, if they throw stars at you, there is no hope that you are going to survive. I think Steve really got the aesthetic of it and took it to a place. It was fun to do that stuff. It was really fun to take some of that.
Capone: You mentioned not sacrificing the story and one of the things I really liked about the film is there is an emotional quality that I have seen people try in some of the Asian made films. The idea of the training being part physical, but also part emotional, in that they are trying to eliminate emotion. That’s a really hard-hitting message, especially when you see that they are just children and they are being beaten and having their emotions suppressed. That might almost bother people more than the violence.
JM: Yeah, whenever you see violence against kids it’s shocking. That’s the thing and basically…
Capone: You are at the right festival for that, by the way!
JM: Right. Those kids in the orphanage, the overriding message is they are completely taking the emotion out of your life, so you can be an assassin and all you can think about is killing people. When you can concentrate on that, then everything else is peripheral, but you know obviously there is always someone who rebels, his girlfriend, she rebels. She doesn’t want to conform, and he is tortured about whether he should conform or whether he should go with her and his ultimate decision after he has his initiation is to reject the clan, so even though you can be subjected to this training of the body and training of the mind, ultimately, you have a choice. For every action, there is a corresponding reaction.
Capone: I love, and you treat it seriously in that you devote a great deal of screen time in the film with the backstory--it’s really half of the movie, and that’s a real commitment to helping us understand what that Rain's character is fighting for, because we are scared of him initially, and then the more we see what he has gone through, the more we go “He’s clearly the guy we need to be rooting for!”
JM: It also gives you an emotional investment that you don’t have in a lot of those other movies that preceded it. If you can see the making of the man, then you can understand the man a little better. I also thought Sho Kosugi is such a great villain. You also understand him a little bit, too, so when they ultimately have a confrontation, you understand the two disciplines and schools these two very different men come from.
Capone: By the time we get to that point, we know their history and so it’s clearly, for Rain’s character, a very emotional moment for him to have to do what he does. The other thing I loved visually was, and again I have never seen it before, the streaks of light that come from behind any weapon or the distortion in the air that you have when something is going really fast. Where did that idea come from?
JM: I think I very briefly touched on it in V FOR VENDETTA, and then I thought it would be good to develop the idea, and I had the same visual effects supervisor, Dan Glass again, and I said “Dan, it would be great to take this another step forward.” And then when you have some of those weapons that you want to intimate that they are traveling at the speed of light, one of the ways of showing you that is to give them some kind of comet tail, asteroid tail, or something like that, and what it does do is makes them seem even faster and your eye immediately pegs into them, rather than when they are just traveling by themselves.
We did a lot of experimentation with what the right level was and speed and if the trail should be going faster than the object and all of these kinds of things you get into and yeah I think it works great on the stars. I also like when he’s whipping the chain around. There’s a scene towards the end of the film where he is fighting his brother, and there are four other ninjas in there. I wanted to intimate with the embers that were in the room from the orphanage going up and crashing down around them that he was actually affecting the air particles around him. If you watch that scene, the embers, the sword, and everything is kind of moving with him at the same time. Some of that stuff is just plain fun like “It’d be cool to do that.”
Capone: A lot of what you have been working on over the last few years I think it is fair to say has involved martial arts in one degree or another, what’s the attraction? What keeps bringing you back to it?
JM: I think I was lucky enough to work on all of those MATRIX movies to start with and that was the best possible co-joining of the martial arts genre with a film that had something to say for itself, and I thought it was so seamlessly integrated than when I went off to start making my own films, I was interested in that. V FOR VENDETTA, that movie is two hours long, and it’s basically 110 minutes of people talking. [Both laugh] I have a couple of these action pieces, and ultimately you put everything you have into those said action pieces, so in that film I really enjoyed the parts we got to do. With NINJA ASSASSIN, it was just about the love of doing a straight-out martial arts film. I wasn’t saying, “This is CITIZEN KANE.” I was just saying, “This is NINJA ASSASSIN. Hopefully, there’s going to be a good story that you can follow. Hopefully, there are going to be cool set action pieces." It was just about calling it what it was basically.
Capone: It’s interesting, THE MATRIX films are clearly about meshing the new-world guns with the old-world martial arts, and in NINJA ASSASSIN, they are pitted against each other. I wondered if that was a deliberate. You made me consider, how would a ninja work with night vision goggles spotting them in the dark.
JM: You are right. If you take the ninja mythology as they attack by stealth and then bring them into the modern age, at some point stealth can’t be their only weapon, because as you say when you get into infrared technology, but part of their defense was the throwing stars or the blade and chain. Those mixed with the stealth hopefully makes them and the army who comes in with the grenade launchers and the machine guns… Hopefully, they are pitted evenly, and so part of the things that we did with the chain and the blade and the sword and the shurikens was to give the ninjas at least a chance of fighting off the army.
Capone: The ending battle on the ninja’s turf is, and I don’t want to give away the ending, but it is a bit of an almost “End of an era” feel with what all happens. When you see what happens to their dwelling, it’s a little like “It was used to house a bunch of killers, but still…” It feels like the end of something.
JM: Hopefully, if you have a love of ninjas, there are a few that escape.
Capone: I’m sure there are pockets all over.
JM: Pockets, yeah. And they find some other monastery type complex deep in the hills of wherever they go next.
Capone: When V FOR VENDETTA was coming out, there was some discussion about the brothers from Chicago and how involved they were in the making of that film. Was there a difference for you, in terms of the control that you had when that film was being made versus the control you had with NINJA ASSASSIN?
JM: I had the same control. When V FOR VENDETTA came out, it was a marketing tool of Warner Bros. and Joel Silver, and I think you can’t blame them for that.
Capone: You mean the rumors were a marketing tool?
JM: Yeah. I think at the point that you have the two guys who made the largest franchise that Warner Bros. has ever had probably before THE DARK KNIGHT that if you can sell them on the fact that they are involved in the film, and they are producers, make no mistake, you are going to sell more tickets.
JM: I think in that whole pushing of the film out there, all of those rumors came up, but I make the films. They produce the films. I guess it’s only a mystery for those people outside of that world, and that’s okay, I can’t blame Warner Bros. for that. Whatever it takes, you have to get the film out there.
Capone: Tell me a little bit about Rain. I have seen him in two things before this. I’M A CYBORG and then on "The Colbert Report," so that’s my exposure. I had certainly heard of him, but this is truly him in his element. You are responsible, in a lot of ways, for the first time a lot of Americans are going to see him. Tell me about working with him and the legend that came along with him.
JM: You are right. In Asia, he is a legend. He is the guy who can’t walk down the street. It doesn’t matter whether you are in Korea or Thailand or Japan, he is that guy. He was cast in SPEED RACER, and I did some second unit work on that, and I had worked with him and the opportunity came up to do this film. We talked about this film, got the script written, and Rain seemed like the perfect person to put in it. I approached him about it, and he wanted to do it. I think not only does he want to be a movie star, he wants to crossover into America, and he’s one of the few people who have the discipline to do it. His discipline is extraordinary, and he did a lot of things on the movie and I have worked on a lot of movies and have not seen the kind of physical pain that he went through from other actors. I’m sure he wishes that I did it digital for him and that would have saved him six months of pain, but he has great screen presence. From the film you will know, and I think that is a sign of a true star. If you go into a movie absolutely cold, and you don’t know anything about someone and come out and go “Who was that guy?” I think, with most of the reaction that I have got, because I have test screened it, is Rain rates off the charts. I think that’s because of his dedication, his discipline, and his charisma all come across.
Capone: Did it seem important to him to get the acting right, because there is a lot of acting required of him in this film. Was that important for him to really have you tell him when the acting needed to go in a certain direction?
JM: Yeah, he did. I treated Rain like I treat any other actor. If it’s not right, it’s not right. “Do it again.” He would intuitively know, too. He’s very smart, and I think he has a presence about himself that he taps into, so he knows when he is doing it right and he knows when he is not doing it so well, and his English really improved as we were shooting the film, so much so that it’s pretty great now.
Capone: I don’t even think I would have known that he didn’t speak it fluently before this movie. Speaking of people you have worked with before. Ben Miles obviously has been in a couple of things that you have been involved with. He’s a great voice of authority. What do you like about working with him?
JM: First of all Ben is a great guy. He comes from that really great tradition of English theater, where those guys are always about not what the film can do for them, but what about how they can make your film better. Ben is absolutely that guy. He does it effortlessly. He comes in and does his stuff and if you want it six different ways, he will give it to you in six different ways, and I really like working with him. I have fun with him. It’s important to me, as I make more films, that I have a good experience. I know working with Ben, I'll always have a good experience. Facially, he’s got some fantastic looks. I remember when we were doing some stuff on V FOR VENDETTA, he would make me laugh behind the camera.
Capone: So he will be your lucky charm in all of your movies?
JM: In everything, right!
Capone: Naomi Harris, after 28 DAYS LATER, I remember thinking, “Show me anything she is in from this point forward,” and obviously she went on to be in the PIRATES OF THE CARRIBEAN films. Tell me about her.
JM: She’s done a lot of really great work besides the ones that you mentioned. She was in MIAMI VICE. There are a lot of directors who tap into the person she is and the actor that she is, and the most important thing for me was if you approach someone, and you say that you are making NINJA ASSASIN, they are either going to get the idea or they are not going to get the idea. And Naomi totally got it. She read the script and said, “Okay, I understand what you are trying to do here.” It’s actually quite a strong role for the female character.
Capone: All of the roles need to be played by women who exude strength.
JM: Naomi came in. She tested for me, and we talked and thought she was great. She is another English actor, too. I was kind of lucky to have both her and Ben, because they sparked off each other. Naomi is great, and I loved working with her.
Capone: One last question and forgive me if this is something you have negated, but your name was tossed around with regards to this MAGNETO film for a while. Any idea where that came from?
JM: No, I think it was one of those strange Internet rumors.
Capone: It still is.
JM: I think David Goyer, who wrote that and is the director of note at the moment, I’m sure he would be as surprised as anyone to see somehow my name is on it. It would be a great thing to do. If he ever hops off, maybe I should approach Fox and see whether they will let me do it.
Capone: All right, well great. Thank you so much.
JM: Thank you very much.
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