ComingSoon.net Visits the Set of Assassin’s Creed!
I’m standing on the Albert R. Broccoli 007 Stage outside London, England and I can’t help but think about history. The stage was constructed in 1976 to film The Spy Who Loved Me‘s many underwater sequences and has been the home of countless film productions since that time, including Aliens, Little Shop of Horrors, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Parts 1 and 2, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, and of course, all four of Daniel Crag’s James Bond films. Today, however, it’s the halfway point on its latest occupant, the 20th Century Fox adaptation of Assassin’s Creed.
History is important here too. As the Assassin’s Creed game series, and its film adaptation, are rooted in the past. In the games (and the upcoming film), the main character is transported to a different time period, inhabiting the body of one of their ancestors in a different era like the Crusades, The Renaissance, and the American Revolution, among others. There’s also the Assassin’s millennia-long conflict with the Templars. That feud was the most interesting thing about the project for star Michael Fassbender, who has been attached to the project for four years at the time of our visit.
“I just loved the idea of Templars versus Assassins,” he tells us. “This idea of an elite group of people struggling with the idea of free will and these sort of rebels to that elite force trying to struggle for humanity, essentially. And the idea that the original Assassins were Adam and Eve and the picked the apple in the Garden was really interesting.”
Fassbender goes on to compare the franchise to another fan favorite, Star Wars.
“You have the dark side and the light. Both of these factions, they contradict each other all the time, they contradict themselves all the time. They are hypocritical, as well, of their beliefs — and I thought that was cool. So morally, it’s a very gray area that both of them are working in and I thought that was unusual for this sort of type of film, and also a lot more interesting.”
No stranger to an acting challenge, Fassbender takes on two roles for the film: the present day Callum Lynch and his assassin ancestor Aguilar, who lives in 1491 Spain. We’re shown a few photographs from the film’s brief time in Malta where complete recreations of the Spanish Inquisition have been built up and where Fassbender’s Aguilar is involved in some truly remarkable imagery.
When asked how he was able to keep the two characters separate in his mind when playing them, Fassbender had a sassy but satisfying answer.
“Well, one doesn’t say a lot and the other does,” he says to hearty laughter. “Basically in this story, you have somebody who doesn’t realize where he’s coming from. He doesn’t have a lineage he can feel a belonging to. That’s our modern-day protagonist, Cal. He doesn’t realize he’s an Assassin; he’s a bit of a lost soul. He’s always been drifting in and out of correctional facilities… Then, of course, Aguilar is very much somebody that belongs to the Creed. He has a cause, he’s sort of been following that cause. He belongs to it.”
That connection is what made director Justin Kurzel interested in the project from the get go, not to mention his previous working relationship with Fassbender was a draw as well.
“For me, Assassin’s Creed has always been about tribe, about belonging to something,” he says. “This story is an origin story, about a man who discovers that he’s an assassin and that he’s not alone and that in him he has a blood that runs very, very deep.”
Fassbender’s two characters will work together in a sense through the process of “regression,” wherein Callum is strapped into a machine called the Animus and relives his ancestors memories. We’re told that the film will be composed of roughly 65% present day scenes and 35% sequences in the past. These dips into the past via ancestral DNA were the facet of the franchise that first got Fassbender interested in the series too.
“I just thought if you’re doing a fantasy film, the first thing about it was to have something that was seeded in some sort of scientific world,” Fassbender says, putting his producer hat on momentarily. “What I mean is basically the idea of DNA memory. I just thought that it was a really interesting catch, and I thought that it was a really plausible theory. And I think if you can bring something like that to a fantastical world, it hooks the audience in even more, and makes the journey even more immersive.”
“Those themes and ideas are really kind of fascinating,” Kurzel adds. “The idea that your made up of the people that come before you and you somehow have some kind of conscious dialogue with your genetics. I think it’s really deep and interesting stuff. I think it’s probably why the game’s so popular. There’s a context to the game that’s smart and sophisticated, but also very contemporary.”
We all can’t help but marvel at the Abstergo set we’re standing on. It’s a lot to take in, and it leaves you with a funny feeling. It’s an artifice based on something that used to not even be tangible, and our stupor of staring at the set is quickly squashed when we learn the clock is ticking on this construct. Production on the film has to make sure that they’re done by November 15, to the date. A little movie called Star Wars: Episode VIII will be moving in at that time and is fully prepared to extend the long arm of the Empire and kick them out.
Most films construct their sets in segments and make them all appear to be connected in the edit. Much like how Assassin’s Creed connects the past and present, it’s set is one giant unit. I’ve been on big sets before, but none of them hold a candle to this. Abstergo is the corporate entity at the heart of Assassin’s Creed, the modern day Templars trying to find all of their long-lost artifacts but also hoping to squash these assassins once and for all.
Picture a lowercase “q” and you’ll have a rough idea of what the Abstergo sets looks like from an eagle’s perspective (a facet of the games that will be utilized in the film). Starting at the base, you enter a long and tall hallway. The steel floor and beams pair well with the old rock the building is built into. Adding onto the layers at work in the film, this base of operations is actually built around an old Templar church in the context of the film. These kinds of things are important to them, you see.
If you take a left from the hall you find the Common Room, the spot where Abstergo’s test subjects lounge about when they’re not reliving their past lives. Among the activities around are chess boards, basketball, and a little corner for some peaceful gardening. You read that right, test subjects. Plural. Michael Fassbender isn’t alone here and his bunkmates all have an assassin in their family lineage too. Matias Varela stars as Emir, whose Middle Eastern ancestor is an assassin named Yusuf. His specialty being the bow and arrow, though Varela tells us he has a sword and some small knives as well.
“Michael’s costume looks pretty much like I’ve seen it in the game,” Varela adds. “Yusef’s costume has that Arabic touch to it, the Middle Eastern pants, the Aladdin pants and the leather harness and platform that covers the shoulder has an Arabic touch to it. And also the sword is twisted. What I’ve seen so far looks super cool.”
Another occupant is Michael Kenneth Williams, who’s playing Moosa, his ancestor being a voodoo-themed assassin named Baptiste whose specialty isn’t a weapon at all, but poisons.
“Moosa definitely has some assassin skills. Although I think he prefers to use trickery and magic and voodoo to slay his opponents as opposed to just hand-to-hand combat, but if it needed to be he could take it to the mat.”
Exiting the common room we’re lead down a sterile, purely metal hallway. On either side are a number of empty rooms for the occupants, but we calls ’em like we see ’em – they’re prison cells. Each room has a bed, maybe a shelf, and just enough open space so it doesn’t seem completely confined. Beyond the hall of cells lies an open circular room (picture a little tumor off the top of the lowercase “q” we mentioned earlier). Not much exciting about this place in and of itself. It’s got some fake elevators, but more importantly it’s where part of today’s work is being shot.
In the scene we observed, Fassbender’s Callum is walking into a trap. He enters the room and is quickly overrun by one of the security guards of the facility as they try to garote him from behind. Having learned a thing or two, Lynch turns the tables and ends up killing the guards with a move that his ancestor probably planted in his head. The most remarkable thing about the scene, however, besides the choreography, is the way Kurzel is shooting it: long takes with no interruption. Kurzel calls this “a very honest and grounded” way to approach the photography, saying:
“We’re trying not to cut a lot. We’re trying to shoot the action in camera and try to work with the best stunt people. We’ve got some of the best parkour guys in the world at the moment. We’re just trying not to cheat as much. I think that some of these films, you can get away with creating an action sequence with continuous cuts. I think we’re trying to, I guess in an old school way, allow action to play out, and for you to be engaged with the action that’s in front of and the sequences that are in front of you before you’re cutting into them. That takes a lot of time and a lot of discipline… Trying to use the actors as much as possible so that they’re involved and engaged.”
Kurzel’s director of photography on the film is his old film school buddy, Adam Arkapaw. You may not know his name, but you know his work: he shot the entirety of True Detective season one, most notably that extensive one-take-six-minute scene where Matthew McConaughey robs a stash house. Arkapaw is the secret weapon of the film, and Kurzel says he brings only an incredible artistry to the film.
“I couldn’t make the films without him, we both live in each other’s pockets… his understanding of light and hsis understanding of how to tell a story through movement of camera. He’s extraordinary with performance. I think after True Detective, there’s a kind of classic style that he’s developed now that … A very in-camera style, that grounds things but at the same time finds a magic to it that we’re trying to embrace with this. He’s been a huge part of the re-imagining of Assassin’s Creed as a piece of cinema.”
Leaving that lonely elevator room we return to the cavernous main hallway. Slick stairs and catwalks are all around, and we’re told once things really go off there’s going to be even more combat leaking out into this open space. One thing I notice missing though is a conveniently-placed stack of hay for someone to fall into. When I bring this up, I’m told it’s something about the games that won’t be making its way into the film.
There are some very specific things from the Assassin’s Creed franchise that will make the leap to the film though. Hidden away in the Abstergo base is a room full of artifacts. All kinds really, Templar artifacts and also old Assassin artifacts. Among those Assassin artifacts, eagle eyed fans will notice a lot of very familiar weapons from the games, like the traditional Assassin wrist blades but also specific character weapons like: Altaïr’s sword from the first game, Haytham Kenway’s bow from Assassin’s Creed III, Edward Kenway’s flintlock pistols from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, and Jacob Frye’s cane sword from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate (a game that was days from coming out on the day of our visit).
These aren’t just surface-level Easter eggs for fans. In a rather unprecedented move, the Assassin’s Creed film shares a continuity with the game series, meaning that these items you’ll see in the film are the very same you controlled when you played the games.
“We really want to respect the game and the elements to it,” Fassbender says,. “But we also wanted to come up with our own thing. And one thing I’ve sort of learned from doing the franchises like X-Men is that audiences, I think, want to be surprised and to see new elements of what they already know, and different takes on it.”
They may be doing their own thing with Assassin’s Creed, but Fassbender reveals that the game’s developer Ubisoft is very keen about some of the ideas they’ve built for the film and are considering incorporating them into future installments of the game.
All this talk of video game continuity shouldn’t scare anyone that’s never played one of the titles, as Fassbender says the film can be enjoyed by newcomers too.
“This is a very dense world, and trying to bring it to a cinematic experience is different. We tried to simplify as best we could and really get the important aspects of the game across, because there’s a lot of non-fan audiences to take on board. So to really find a format where we could get these things across and keep it in a cinematic and dramatic experience, that was really the challenge.”
Building off that, video game movies don’t have the best track record with audiences. A spark is lost in adapting an interactive medium to a passive one, but Fassbender and Kurzel have one thing in common: They’ve already successfully adapted Shakespeare with 2015’s Macbeth, so how hard can a video game be?
“What is similar, like Macbeth, is the thousands of productions of Macbeths that we’ve all seen and been involved in and read in bad school productions,” Kurzel says. “Then, also, the extraordinary films of Macbeth, there’s a kind of baggage that comes with that, like there is a massive baggage that comes with Assassin’s Creed. A product that is adored and loved. You have to have a dialogue with that. At the same time, we are also trying to make a film, too, that engages with people who are not familiar with the game… I think doing a piece of cinema allows you to investigate things in a different way, such as narrative and story telling, and then subtly bringing words and faces to these characters in the game that we have the privilege of doing, which you obviously can’t in the game so much because they’re made up. That’s been really exciting is sort of bringing a life, a very visceral and real life to some of these characters.”
Assassin’s Creed will be released in theaters on December 21.