SDCC EXCL: Ninja Assassin Director James McTeigue


Surprisingly, one of the more low-key presentations at this year’s Comic-Con International was the one for Joel Silver’s Dark Castle Productions, the last panel in Hall H on Thursday that was surprisingly only half-full, something we haven’t seen too often. It’s a real shame because those who weren’t there missed some really impressive action footage from James McTeigue’s new movie Ninja Assassin, a series of quick clips that showcased McTeigue’s stylish visuals with bloody sword battles clearly influenced by the same Kurosawa, martial arts and anime flicks that inspired the bloody sword fight from Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Vol. 1. The footage shown of Korean popstar Rain (Speed Racer) in action was really impressive, certainly on par with what we saw from Zack Snyder’s 300 a few years ago, and the amount of blood splatter in the footage puts Ninja Assassin amongst a list of violent and bloody movies which debuted at the con along with Fox’s Max Payne and Lionsgate’s Punisher: War Zone; we’re definitely starting to detect a trend there.

Some may remember McTeigue as the helmer for the Warner Bros. adaptation of Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s V For Vendetta, and we had a chance to talk to him back then (read that interview here). While his second movie is once again produced by Andy and Larry Wachowski, who McTeigue has worked with extensively for the past ten years, the director might start feeling the need to get out from under the brothers’ shadows if too many people credit the amazing look of Ninja Assassin to “The Matrix” creators like they did with “V.” (Put it this way, having been involved with shooting the swordfights in both the “Star Wars” prequels and the “Matrix” sequels, McTeigue probably could handle himself *IN* a swordfight, let alone while shooting a movie full of them.) sat down for a brief chat with McTeigue to get the skinny on probably one of the most underrated movies brought to Comic-Con. This movie has been a fairly well-kept secret. I know I’d heard about it but had no idea you were that far along with shooting, so you snuck that footage into Comic-Con, almost like a ninja.
James McTeigue: (laughs) Right, as if by stealth. Yeah, I guess what happened was that it became apparent that we wanted to make a ninja movie after I did a bit of work with Rain on “Speed Racer.” I was doing some martial arts stuff with him and he was incredible and we talked about making a ninja movie for a long time with Larry and Andy and the action directors of the film, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, and then, we thought Rain would just be a prime candidate for it. To put someone in a martial arts film that we thought could take it to another level, and he did. I also wanted to make sure it had a decent story. I wasn’t interested in just going and making an action film for action’s sake, so I set about sketching out an outline of what the movie could be and then we set a couple writers onto it.

CS: And J. Michael Straczynski is one of them? He’s kind of a verbose writer, so did he actually write out action scenes, too?
McTeigue: No, he’s a great guy actually, Joe, and he came into the story. He did a really great pass on it. I’ve been an admirer of his for a long time, so it was good to get him in to write something actually.

CS: There was a lot of blood and gore in the footage we saw. The Wachowskis have become known for doing a lot of CG but with “V,” you did more stuff on-set and in-camera. Is this more of that?
McTeigue: Ah, yeah, well this is actually like a location picture almost. I guess I have an interest in… there’s a lot of CG nowadays and a lot of bad CG I have to admit, and I think there’s a standard that’s become acceptable, but I’m interested in making CG in the real blend. With this film, I was interested in blending anime and parts of horror and film noir all into the same film, so I want to make the film really visceral and I think if you get out there and do it for real sometimes it actually feels better than doing it with CG.

CS: Are you worried about having problems when you put the movie in front of the ratings board? I remember when Tarantino was doing “Kill Bill,” he had problems, and it looks like you have just as much blood in your fight scenes.
McTeigue: (laughs) Yeah, it’s always a dichotomy. I’m sure I won’t get a free ride off the ratings board, but usually they are objective when it’s violence for violence’s sake, but there’s a story and there’s a reason. I think there’s a place for it in the film I just made.

CS: What were some of the influences on the look of the action, was it Hong Kong action movies or samurai movies? Was there any things specifically you looked at that you wanted reflected in your movie?
McTeigue: Ah, yeah, you know, see I was interested in almost making a black and white film in color, like having that super high contrasted look. Like some of the older films were like Kurosawa films but then I also looked at a bunch of film noir like “Panic in the Streets.” I remember when Naomi came on board, I showed her a bunch of disparate films like “The Getaway” and “Badlands” but I also showed her “Ninja Scroll” which is an animated thing I really liked. I showed her “Samurai Champloo” which I think is a great anime, so I was trying to fold those kinds of elements into the film, and some of the classic ninja films from the ’80s. The lorded-up ninja films like “Shinobi Non Mono” which is a great version. It’s the classic ninja film I guess.

CS: For some reason, I just assumed that this movie was optioned from some Japanese anime I’d never heard of.
McTeigue: No, it’s an original thing, an original story.

CS: Since this originated with you, how were the Wachowskis involved? Just as producers?
McTeigue: Yeah, I guess we just have a relationship that kind of works, so we just keep making films together. It’s almost like a filmmaking family, and I guess in the same way that Coppola and Robert Evans worked together in the past. They swapped around, sometimes produce, sometimes direct. Or the way Tarantino works with Rodriguez. There’s people that you find a kinship with who keep pushing you and keep pushing each other. We surround ourselves with the same people a lot, because I think we have a nice thing going, and we all like roughly the same films I guess.

CS: Did you start working with them on “Reloaded” or on the first “Matrix” film?
McTeigue: On the first “Matrix.” I guess I’ve been working with them for about ten years now. People always… I know because they don’t do press and people ask what they’re like. They’re just a couple normal filmmaking guys who are just friends. I know there’s a bit of a mystery, but it would probably be deflated if you met them.

CS: It’s just strange that when they market the movies like “V,” they always mention their names, and I think some people just assume you’re just the guy who is fronting the movies they don’t want to take full credit for, but you’re obviously making your own movies. How do you feel about that and do you ever feel you want to do a movie completely separate from them to prove you’re really the director?
McTeigue: Yeah, I probably will. I think it’s inevitable. I have a slate of films that’s totally separate to Larry and Andy, but after “V,” I did a thing for Warner Bros. to help them out and I was just about to do another film, but then this film presented itself, and the other film, it was obvious it wasn’t going to go before the actors strike, so it just seemed like the time was really right to do this. As far as Larry and Andy are concerned, it doesn’t bug me really, because you know they’re great filmmakers. If it was somebody else, maybe I would… but I’m happy to be associated with them.

CS: What are some of the other movies you’re thinking of developing? Is there anything you’re going to do after this and how much work do you have to do on “Ninja Assassin”?
McTeigue: Well, I only just started doing editorial.

CS: Really? I was pretty amazed with what was shown downstairs.
McTeigue: Ah, thanks. No, I just put that together in the last two weeks actually. The slate after this: I might do another thing for Joel called “Altered Carbon” which is from a Richard Morgan book. There’s another film called “Bangkok 8” which I might do, which is a crime-thriller set in Bangkok, and there’s another film called “Revelation” that I’ve got coming up, so I’ve got a bunch of things.

CS: Do you expect all of those to incorporate some form of action or will some of those not be as action-based?
McTeigue: Yeah, it’s funny. I guess “V For Vendetta” was kind of surprising, because people thought there was a lot of action in that film, but there isn’t that much action. There’s a little bit at the start and a tiny little set piece in the TV station, and there’s the big thing in the Underground at the end, but there’s a lot of people talking in that movie. I like doing action. I’ve always been involved with it, so yeah…

CS: Well, there was more action in the movie than the Alan Moore comic, let’s put it that way.
McTeigue: (laughs) Yeah, that’s true. But will I keep doing action? Yeah probably. There’ll always be some kind of element. I like it and I know how to do it but also I like story, and I’m more driven by narrative than I am ever by action.

Ninja Assassin is scheduled to open on January 16, 2009.