Director Gareth Evans On Martial Arts And Extreme Gore In Netflix’s ‘Apostle’

Fantastic Fest/Netflix

Okay, first things first, because I know you’re going to forget this: Gareth Edwards is the guy who directed Monster, Godzilla, and Rogue One: Star Wars Story. Gareth Evans is the guy who directed The Raid movies. They’re both from Wales and only five years apart in age. There’s also Gareth Thomas, a gay rugby player who Mickey Rourke was supposed to play in a movie at one point, and two other rugby players named Gareth Evans, one older Welsh one and one younger New Zealand one. When in doubt, remember this classic mnemonic device: everyone from Wales is named Gareth.

Now then. The Gareth Evans in question first became known to the film world for directing now-action star Iko Uwais in the Indonesian action films Merentau and The Raid, which reinvigorated the entire action genre with their furious pencak silat action. Which is a weird thing to consider when you’re looking at Evans, who is very clearly a jolly Welsh man and not an Indonesian martial arts guy.

Turns out, Evans had gone to Indonesia to film a martial arts documentary, where he met Uwais, who was working as a driver for a telecom company at the time. Evans thought he could turn Uwais into a movie star, and he turned out to be more right than most of us could hope to be even once in a lifetime.

With that kind of track record, the easy thing for Evans to do would be to take his place as a godfather of the modern action film. Instead, he showed up at Fantastic Fest in Austin with an oddball genre-straddling period piece horror kind of a thing.

Apostle stars Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey as a man trying to rescue his sister from a religious cult living on an isolated isle in the Edwardian era — with supernatural elements. With The Wicker Man as an obvious influence, Apostle (set to debut October 12th on Neflix) is grounded and mystical and beautiful while also heavily supernatural and dizzyingly gory.

Which is another of Evans’ apparent contradictions: when we spoke with him at the festival, he seemed extremely easygoing for a guy who made a movie full of sadistic torture.

So, maybe I’ll just start at the beginning. Tell me how you originally got hooked up with Iko Uwais and how that all came about.

So, Iko, I … God. That was going way back now. I met him back in 2007 when I did a documentary on the martial arts out in Indonesia. And, we met through there. And, it was this thing whereby, initially, I knew he had a certain amount of charisma about him. He just naturally exuded it. And so, then, yeah, we did the documentary. I came away thinking I want to make films out in Indonesia. My wife was Indonesian, so we moved out there. And then, before we knew it, we were asking him, “Hey. Do you want to be a martial arts action star?” And, yeah that’s the start of the adventure.

It seemed to work out for him.

Very much so. Yeah, yeah.

So, you weren’t living there when you went to film the documentary?

No, I was living back in the UK originally, and then I traveled out there for the documentary. We spent six or seven months out there. And then, we came back to UK literally for like three months just to pack up and leave, and then we were like… we had already made our decision to kind of pursue life out there for a bit. So, we were out there for eight years.

So is this movie kind of your way of saying like, “Hey, I can do more than martial arts movies?”

Yeah. A little bit of that. Not in a way sort of it’s just a full-on statement of it, but it’s just more that thing of I grew up watching all sorts of different films, and it was really the byproduct of me being in Indonesia meant that I made those martial arts action films. I’m incredibly fortunate and blessed that that’s what came to me and that was an opportunity that presented itself. I’ve just always wanted to do different types of films. You know what I mean? I just found myself in a situation where I was known as the action guy.

And so, we did … I did a short film with Timo Tjahjanto who’s got his action films playing here tomorrow, actually, which is amazing. We did a short film called Safe Haven for V/H/S/2. And so, then, that was a situation whereby there was a taste for it. There was an opportunity to try something within the horror genre. There’s certain similarities to the style, and certain sort of aesthetic qualities that kind of carry over from action filmmaking to horror filmmaking. So, I thought I wanted to sort of explore that more, and then tell almost like a British folk horror film, and to be able to play in my own backyard, so to speak, and shoot in locations that I’ve known for years as a child growing up.

What was that location?

It was a place called Margam Park. It’s like a national park. They have beautiful castle grounds nearby, and then they have lots of wildlife areas. And then, they have this like treetops thing. And then, next door to the treetop climbing place for kids was our village. So, we built our village into this perception of the landscape.

Where is it in geographical terms?

Geographically, it’s sort of… In South Wales, we have Swansea and Cardiff is our two major cities, and it’s in the middle between there. Somewhere between Port Talbot and Bridgend. So, yeah.

And then, in terms of the story, we’re supposed to imagine it’s like an island off the coast of Scotland?

Somewhere off the coast of… somewhere in the UK. But, yeah. It’s like it’s not too far away, but it’s decent enough travel where you have to go by boat to get to it.

So then I assume Wicker Man was one of the influences?

Definitely. 100%. I mean, Wicker Man was definitely one of the influences. So was Witchfinder General. And then, The Devils, Ken Russell’s film. Those films were such a key. They were such key moments in British folk horror as a genre. But then, also, looking at sort of the more modern stuff like Ben Wheatley’s films like Kill List and A Field in England. Those films were so strong in terms of tone and atmosphere, and they harken back to that style of filmmaking. So when I was getting ready to make this, I would go back and re-watch those films, and try to kind of really understand the look and feel of those films, and why they made me feel the way they did. What it was about the aesthetic, what it was about the performance, what it was about the world building that made me feel like, “This is unlike other horror films.”

There’s just something askew about their approach to it, and that for me is more frightening than demons and ghosts and creatures. It’s the idea of, “No. It’s just real people, but they have a capacity for violence.”

So it gets pretty gory at the end there. What are your influences in terms of gore? Do you think your Indonesian film experience has influenced that at all?

Yeah. I mean, a little bit, undoubtedly. Big fan of Clive Barker’s as well. So, there are certain shades of that within this film as well. But, I think, when I talk about something like the heathen stand, for instance [a torture implement in Apostle], the scene with the table, that is more about, “I’m going to show you how that machine works. I’m going to show you how turning this handle makes this happen, turning this handle makes that happen.” But, when it comes to the actual act of it happening, I’m going to cut to other people’s reactions. I’m going to stay away from the detail of it. I’m going to put it all in your head. And, you’re going to imagine far worse than whatever I could possibly show in terms of a prosthetic or a gore effect.

It sounds weird to say, but a sequence like that is meant to hurt, it’s not meant to be sort of visceral and fun in the way that The Raid was kind of fun action. It’s supposed to feel distressing. That’s when there’s a certain amount of weird, and I use this term very carefully, but a sense of restraint, because I’m not going to give you all of the detail on that. And then, when it comes to the other stuff, like more of the sort of horror, action-y beats, like with the mangle table and stuff, it’s fine, because it’s more about the adventure of it. It’s more about the thriller aspect of it. And that’s where we can have a little bit of more kind of like… not playfulness, but it’s a bit more fun, and visceral and we kind of stretch the boundaries a little more there with what you can actually show on camera.

Right. I mean, I was going to ask about. There are times when it feels like it’s meant to be the fun kind of gore, and there are other times where it feels like it’s meant to be the disturbing kind of gore. What’s the philosophy behind that?

Well, it’s all about the tone of the scene. It’s who is the recipient, what is the intention, what are we talking about, what are we saying about the evolution of the plot or the world of the story? The philosophy of the design will change accordingly. So, it’s like what I was saying earlier. It’s like the one with the heathen stand is about man usurping power from a community. It’s the introduction of militaristic rule. The one in the mangle room is about a guy trying to survive a situation. And so, they will, naturally, play very differently, and they will have different tones.

Where did the heathen stand come from. Was that your design, or had you seen that somewhere?

The heathen stand came from a thing of, like, in all of the sort of British folk horror films that we talked about earlier, there’s usually one key big set piece that becomes talked about. In the Witchfinder General, it’s the burning of the witches. In The Wicker Man, obviously, it’s the climax. In The Devils, there’s a lot of them. For me, I wanted to have a moment that felt like, “Holy crap. This is the moment where the world turns on its head.” Where it’s like, now it becomes brutally serious. So, all of those contraptions and the devices on that table felt like they would belong [on the island], they would use them. So, that table gets assembled. We see it getting put together, legs and tabletops, and then everything being bolted down and strapped to it. The vices would be used for the construction of the builds for the houses that they were building. They might need to drill a hole through wood in order to kind of create a part of the carpentry, for instance. So, all of those things are natural, organic elements that would exist on that island as part of their tools, in a way. So, that’s kind of what led to that.

The really horrible part of it is there’s a world of difference between drawing that in pre-production, and then just handing it to a production designer, and being like, “Can you build me something like this for this sequence?” And then, turning up on the day of the shoot to see the table assembled for real, looking real as it is, and then 50 supporting actors all dressed in occult gowns, and then turning up and being there, and being like, “All right. We’re shooting that today.” You know? It’s a weird thing. And, there’s a disconnect. Because when you’re on set, it’s like… you can’t possibly approach these things with a sort of degree of solemnity and seriousness, because you’re about to create something wildly insane. You’ve got to just laugh at the absurdity of what you’re doing. It’s a very bizarre experience.

Does it have a psychological effect to spend a certain amount of time trying to think up torture methods?

Not really. I mean, I did some research, I read up on some old medieval forms of capital punishment and torture. So, far, far, far worse stuff out there. And then, it’s like this throughout post-production and all that, you spend days and days analyzing these scenes. It’s not like a scene just gets put together and then you’re done with it. You re-watch it. It becomes so technical a process that it strips away any kind of psychological effect, so to speak, of it.

Right, it’s just meat on a rube-Goldberg machine.

Well, right, and then plus, I might take a break and then go and grab lunch, and then watch an episode of Always Sunny in Philadelphia. And then, all of a sudden, everything’s fine in the world again. You know what I mean?

So how did you choose the time period? Why that time period in particular?

That was influenced by the fact that we were talking about Thomas’ loss of faith, and then the fact that the journey was going to be his rediscovery of faith. And so, I wanted to find a period of time in history that felt like, if he was a missionary and he was out somewhere, where could it be that he would have suffered such injustice, and then felt like God had betrayed him and God had let him suffer?

And so, then, we started looking for things that were within that period. We knew we wanted to go a little bit Victorian, Edwardian period, because it was something that was really interesting, aesthetically, to me. And then, more and more as we researched it, we picked up on the Peking Boxer Rebellion as an area of history and a period of time that felt about right in terms of, if he escaped that, and he managed to get back to London as a broken man, then somebody who would devolve and delve into vice… Then, that told us, “Okay. This story starts at around about 1905, which is the turn of Victorian into Edwardian London.” So, that kind of came from there.

I love that time period. Anyway, good luck. Thank you very much.

Thank you so much. Cheers.

(Ed. note: Below is a spoiler-y question and answer. Consider yourself warned.)

I mean, you do kind of have a demon a little bit, though. Right?

Well, technically. -Ish. Yeah. But, I wouldn’t… And, again, we’ve been really careful so far in terms of marketing to kind of not allude to the existence of something like that. But, for me, it’s less about a demon and more about a goddess. And, a goddess that has been wronged that is being enslaved by these humans that are the real force of power and violence on the community. Like, it’s not the goddess. If anything, she exists in a way that’s natural, that is sort of part of the cycle of life on that island. And then, when these men have arrived on this island, they found her on it, instead of revering her, they enslave her. And so, for me, it’s more about man’s power to corrupt as opposed to a demon, so to speak.

Vince Mancini is on Twitter.