Most moviegoers will remember director James McTeigue from his directorial debut on the adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s graphic novel V For Vendetta a couple years back, though he’d already been heavily involved with action from working with the Wachowskis for many years on “The Matrix” trilogy as well as working on the second “Star Wars” prequel.
His new movie Ninja Assassin really allows him to flex some of those action muscles on his own, because a lot of the movie involves the title character, played by Korean pop sensation Rain, in epic ninja battles using all sorts of martial arts moves and weapons to fend off his enemies. McTeigue stages these scenes almost like art, the blood spraying like paint and the body parts flying in all directions, clearly showing some of the director’s many Asian influences, something that certainly has carried over from his work with the Wachowskis. (Although they act as producers on the movie, Ninja Assassin is all McTeigue’s baby, having developed it from the ground up for years.)
ComingSoon.net has interviewed McTeigue a number of times over the years, the last time being at Comic-Con roughly a year and a half ago when he showed some of the first footage from the unfinished film. We’ve always found him to be an affable filmmaker who has a meticulous style of working, so this time, we wanted to know more about those action scenes and how he pulled some of them off.
ComingSoon.net: Last time we spoke, we covered how you got involved and the inspiration, so let’s start by talking about the nitty gritty, the action scenes that will have a lot of people talking just because they’re so distinctive in their look and the amount of blood. Do you usually storyboard a lot of that stuff beforehand?
James McTeigue: Yeah, I do.
CS: Can you go through the process for creating some of those action scenes and figuring out what’s possible?
McTeigue: I’ve worked with a guy a lot, this guy called Steve Skroce, who is a comic book artist, and he’s got a great comic at the moment called “Doc Frankenstein.” What I usually do with Steve is that we start off with concept pieceswe call them key frames. We talk about the key frames and how they come together and then I’ll say to him, “Look, I felt like this should be a cross between anime and gameplay,” so then he starts sketching out the boards and I go, “Maybe look at ‘Ninja Scroll’” and then he’ll go and do that and he’ll draw some key frames, and then once we flesh out the aesthetic of the film, then we start getting into the action sequences. He pretty much draws a lot of them. And then after he does that, once you get the aesthetic down, you get the action choreographers–in this case, it was Chad Stahelski and David Leitch–and then we start working out the choreography exactly, like all the mechanics of how that will work. The way I do that is that we work out the basic choreography, then they get with their fight teams, and they video tape it, and then we edit it down and go, “Oh, that’s good, that’s not so good, let’s put a bit more of that in, do a bit more of that, let’s use this weapon… the katana or the shuriken you see.” So it’s sort of a slowly evolving process.
CS: But you have all these weapons being used, whizzing around Rain and the stunt guys, and all that blood flying, so one imagines a lot of it still has to be done using CG. Do they actually have some of those weapons being used live?
McTeigue: Yeah, you do. For example, Rain in the movie uses this blade and chain weapon, but when we’re training him, it’s with an actual martial arts weapon called the rope dart, so he trained with that so he knew how to swing it around, because then ultimately when you get into it, you need something for him to physically use. He’ll use that, and the visual FX guys will put tracking markers on it, so that way, it gives the stunt guys something to react to and then we’ll replace it later. But with swords and katanas and other things, sometimes we’ll use bamboo painted silver for example, they’re actually real sometimes.
CS: I know you worked with Rain on “Speed Racer” and he did a little bit of martial arts for that, but not quite this much. Did he have any idea what he’d be in for to train to be a ninja?
McTeigue: I don’t think he did. (chuckles) I think he was excited to first of all do a big American movie, and when we spoke to him, he just said, “Look, just tell us where to be and I’ll be there.” Obviously, he has one image in Asia and I was excited to make him into a great martial arts star, (hopefully I guess) and he trained really, really hard. He has incredible discipline, so he trained for five or six months. First he started with the physical training, and then you start folding in the fight choreography. I think he didn’t actually know how hard it was going to be (laughs again)… at the end, I think you can see he always has cuts on him and he’s covered in blood. That stuff is a sticky mess of red stuff and prosthetics and he had to be really physical but have that stuff all over him…
CS: So you weren’t implying that those were all injuries from his training then?
McTeigue: No, no… (laughs)
CS: You didn’t train him like we see them training the young ninjas where they hit them with a cane if they mess up.
McTeigue: “Here’s a real sword… Whack!!!” (laughs) No, we didn’t do that, but he really got into the spirit of it. I think some people wouldn’t have gone as far as Rain did, but he really went to the edge of anything that I’ve experienced, because I’ve trained a lot of people for “The Matrix.”
CS: What about working with these kids in the flashback sequences? Did they all speak English?
McTeigue: I shot the whole film in Berlin, so what we did was went to this series of dojos or martial arts training centers all throughout Berlin. We went there and selected kids and then we brought them all into one dojo and we trained all those kids. They had basic martial arts skills already, so we trained all those kids. For the most part, they were German and English speaking, and then some of the main little kid characters, one came in from New York–the little girl Koriko–and little Raizo came in from Korea.
CS: It was pretty dramatic stuff they had to do so were they all able to understand that it was all make-believe.
McTeigue: Yeah, but you know they’re kids. At some point, you always want to be mindful that they’re children, but they really got into the spirit of it, because I think a lot of them had a martial arts background, so they knew there was a physicality that was going to be involved, but I think they got into it actually.
CS: As I mentioned before, I think there was some of the goriest violence I’ve seen in a movie, including “Kill Bill,” and I think a lot of people are shocked by that. Did you have any problems with the MPAA ratings board?
McTeigue: I didn’t. Luckily enough… I think the ratings board did a good thing. When we submitted the movie, we said, “Look, it’s really stylized.” In no way is this ‘Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer’ or one of those movies that’s so extreme it’s meant to make you feel sick. This is like a game, it is like anime, it is like a comic book. I think they saw it as that, so henceforth, they gave me an R-rating and if you look at the ratings card, it goes “For stylized violence and blood.” I think they got it.
CS: I don’t know if you remember, but Tarantino had a big problem with the “Kill Bill” sword fight and ended up making it black and white, so I was curious how you got around that.
McTeigue: A lot of the blood for example, some of it is stuff from on-set, blood bags that you remove later in FX, but then some of it is digital creation. I did some color manipulation, but not too much. I didn’t want it to look like a car accident or something. I just wanted it to look stylized. I thought it would be interesting, like a lot of those Japanese animes, they have a cool way of doing it, like in “Samurai Shamploo” or “Ninja Scroll, it’s a cool way they deal with it, and I thought it would be good to deal with it like that.
CS: It’s really cool, especially the blood, and I’ve never really seen that sort of consistency. It’s used almost like paint on a canvas, and I was curious how much of that you could achieve on set or you had to do later.
McTeigue: I guess in the end it was about half and half. Sometimes you do real FX on set and then you augment it later, but I think you do that with most digital FX, like in “V For Vendetta,” for example, like a lot of the explosions were models crossed with digital FX. I always feel like if you have a mixture of the real and the digital, it always looks a little better. It always seems like the aesthetic has a little more flow to it.
CS: You mentioned how the movie looks like a video game, so has there been any talk of making video game based on this? It seems like such an obvious thing to do, because after you see the movie, you want to start fighting with swords and throwing shuriken.
McTeigue: No, the funny thing about video games is your lead time on a video game is like about twice as long as your lead time on a film. To get a video game that was going to come out at the same time as the film, I would have had to start it three years ago basically. But you wouldn’t be the first one who has mentioned it.
CS: It could be something done after the movie comes out, like maybe it gets someone at a game company excited enough to create something. When you started developing this, did you see something more long-term that could be done with the character?
McTeigue: Obviously, they’re not finished with him. Like he is the fly in the ointment. He is the one that keeps them (i.e. the other ninjas) from carrying out their assassinations. Sometimes he’s successful, sometimes he’s not, like in the case of this ninja assassin, he does stop an assassination of the girl Mika, but yeah, you could tell more of his story. It would be fun to take it to another level, like they come after him. That could be cool. It could be cool also to do it in a different environment as well, like take it out of Berlin. Take it to another city, maybe take it to Japan. You know, bring it back home kind of thing, that could be cool.
CS: Since we last spoke, you’ve already started working on “The Raven”?
McTeigue: You’ve always got many fingers in many pies, but “The Raven” is hopefully the film I’ll do next, so I’ve just come back from surveying Europe. It’s meant to be set in 1850s Baltimore, but I think there is a European sensibility also that could be cool. You could totally get into world creation and I’d say, “Hey, this is my version of 1850s Baltimore,” because the Poe film is a fictionalized account of his last five days. It’s not real, and so it’s basically that there’s a serial killer in 1850s Baltimore and he’s using Poe stories as his methodology. So then he leaves clues at each murder and says that it’s up to Poe to find him before he kills (again), so it’s cool.
CS: Was this an original screenplay that came your way and you decided to direct it or was it something you’ve been involved developing earlier?
McTeigue: No, Aaron Ryder, who is the producer who did “Memento” and “The Prestige” and a bunch of other films like “Donnie Darko,” he started to develop it, and he brought it to me, and we started talking about doing it, so we’re sort of in the surveying and casting stage at the moment.
CS: Will this be the movie that gets you away from the action stuff you’ve done so much? I guess there’ll be some horror and gore in there.
McTeigue: Yeah, there’s a good sense of the macabre in it, but I kind of like the fact that it has a good pop sensibility to it, so yeah, there’s some great set pieces in it, but there’s a lot of drama to it as well, so yeah, I’m looking forward to it.
CS: I’m not sure if you’ve heard about the other Poe movies that have been in development and there’s always someone talking about doing an Edgar Allan Poe movie, not based on one of his books, but a biopic of sorts.
McTeigue: Yeah, he was quite the character, so I can see why people might want to do a full biopic. I guess the problem with the biopic is his life is…
CS: Well, we know very little about him.
McTeigue: Yeah, we know very little about it, but the stuff you do know is that he was a penniless writer. He was always moving around because he had no money. He got married to his 13-year-old cousin and she died of consumption. It wouldn’t be hard to do the biopic. It would be hard to make it exciting rather than dour. (laughs)
CS: There’s been quite a few really good comics with Poe as a character, so I’d be interested to see how it might work as a movie. What about “Altered Carbon”? Is that still in the works and you might direct it?
McTeigue: Yeah, I’d still like to do that. Joel Silver, who has the rights to it, we’re always talking about it, but it’s a big movie, so looking for the right time. I think the script’s in a good place, so hopefully that will be coming soon, maybe after the Poe movie.
CS: Over the last few months, there’ve been rumors about you being in talks with Warner Bros. about doing some superhero stuff. Is that something you’ve been seriously considering or would that not be possible if you do those other movies?
McTeigue: I don’t know. I guess the thing with filmmaking is that you always have things in development and until you’re actually standing on the set and there’s film running through the camera or you’re committing something to a harddrive, I think the possibilities are always there. They’re so temporal sometimes, so yeah, I’d love to keep working with Warner Bros. We have a good relationship, and they let me make interesting films, so hopefully… you know, they’ve got the DC characters.
CS: Are there any you’d be interested in? “V For Vendetta” was based on a DC graphic novel (sort of) but it wasn’t superheroes and it was outside that world, it was its own thing. But a movie based on one of DC’s superheroes would involve a lot more history.
McTeigue: Yeah, it’s funny with the comic book genre. It used to obviously be the subculture but now it is the culture, so I keep wondering whether there’s going to be some sort of critical mass reached with the comic book genre. I’d love to pick another one. It’s kind of like trying to find the right one, but there’s plenty out there.
CS: I guess what’s happening after last year with “Iron Man” and “The Dark Knight,” everyone is waiting to see what the next big comic book movie is going to be. Those were so good that it created a watermark that will be hard for anything after that.
McTeigue: Yeah, the point where a comic book hero makes a billion bucks at the box office, you go, “Yeah, so it’s definitely not a subculture anymore.” There’s a lot of people willing to see those movies, but yeah, I dunno, there’s always something interesting coming out, like “Sucker Punch,” I think that will be a good one. I guess Matthew Vaughn is making one, “Kick-Ass”?
CS: Did you get to see that footage at Comic-Con?
McTeigue: No, I didn’t.
CS: That one might actually outdo your movie in gore and violence from what I’ve seen.
McTeigue: I’d like to see that. I’ve only heard good things.