James McTeigue Interview, Ninja Assassin

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

We sat down recently with director James McTeigue to talk about his new film, “Ninja Assassin,” based on a screenplay by Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski, and starring Korean pop star Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Rick Yune and legendary martial arts performer Sho Kosugi.

As a boy in Sydney, McTeigue was exposed to a variety of world cinema and television and was heavily influenced by ninja television shows like "Shintaro" and "Phantom Agents," and by films such as "Shinobi No Mono." He graduated from Sydney University, where he studied art and film.

McTeigue made his directorial debut helming the iconoclastic screen adaptation of the graphic novel "V for Vendetta." He came to the project through his relationship with the Wachowski brothers, for whom he served as the assistant director on all three "Matrix" films. His other previous film credits as an assistant director include "Speed Racer" and "Dark City." He is next set to direct "The Raven," a fictionalized account of Edgar Allen Poe's final days.

Here’s what James had to tell us about “Ninja Assassin,” working with Rain, the physical challenges of shooting such an intense action film, and the possibility of a sequel. He also reveals details about his upcoming project, “The Raven.”

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about casting the movie and how Rain became involved? 

JM: I did some second unit on Speed Racer and I worked with Rain on that. We’d always been talking about doing a ninja movie, breathing life into that genre, and we thought, if there was ever going to be anyone who’d be perfect for the role, it was Rain. So we decided to basically make it a vehicle for him and then we went ahead and did it.  Naomie Harris, [who] plays Mika in the film, was one of the actresses who really understood what the movie was or what I was trying to do with the movie, and so she came on board. The casting came together pretty quickly actually.

MoviesOnline: How did you know Rain could do all the ninja stuff? It seems like it’s a lot of him doing his stunts or did you cut in other people?

JM: No, it’s a lot of him actually. The way it started off was you always do storyboards and then you bring the fight choreographers in and then you start to flesh it out and then you bring the actor in to see how many of the moves that they could do, and [with] Rain, through his dance background and his singing background, I think there’s muscle memory, the way dancers count off and all that, he just kept getting better. So, we kept giving him more, because at some point you stop and go, ‘Okay, bring the stunt guy in.’ But he just kept doing it. So we just kept giving him more and more complicated choreography, which is good. It’s not usually like that, let me tell you. You get actors hitting people in the head with swords.

MoviesOnline: There’s a lot in the press kit about bringing the ninja mythology into the 21st century. What was the change that you hoped to make in your movie?

JM: Well, I think ultimately what happens when your budget is limited, or you’re trying to make something really cheaply, which was how those ninja movies in the eighties were made, they sort of become cheesy just because of what you have available to you, and so you end up with a B genre. What I wanted to do – because I kind of like the idea of a ninja movie, and kids like ninjas, ask a kid and they’ll say, ‘Oh, I love ninjas,’ -- was to try and bring other genres into the ninja genre, like bring some gaming into it, bring some anime, bring some horror, film noir, and try and to give it the affectation of an Asianer. That’s what I was hoping to do.

MoviesOnline: Is this the first type of movie like this that you’ve done?

JM: It is. It’s like the first time I’ve done a straight out genre piece. I did V for Vendetta, that crosses genres, and V for Vendetta was like two hours of talking and maybe 10 minutes of action. There’s a lot of action in this, so I think when you have a movie like this, you want to keep the story pretty straightforward. You want to have the characterizations so you understand the people enough that you care about what happens to them.

MoviesOnline: I made a joke that this made Kill Bill look like a PG-13. When you started this, did you discuss how far you wanted to go with the violence?

JM: I guess I wanted to set it up so it was in no way that it wasn’t real. In the first scene in the tattoo parlor, I set those guys up as super bad guys, so when all that stuff starts happening to them it’s kind of funny.  That was the aesthetic I was going for from the outset. You get with the storyboard artist and I’ve had a long relationship with Steve Skroce. I said, ‘Hey Steve, what about this?’ And then he comes back and it’s a little bit more and it’s like, ‘Oh, that could be cool,’ and then I go, ‘Oh, what about that?’ You end up being very inventive in the way that people die.

MoviesOnline: When it came to the props, what were you most afraid of, the chains or the swords?

JM: That chain with the blade on the end of it, that thing (points to the poster). Obviously you don’t swing that around on set, and it was his kind of weapon. That was kind of the fun thing to do with it.

MoviesOnline: What was the biggest challenge to shoot – you had people running over cars down the street, that was real, right?

JM: Yeah, that was all real

MoviesOnline: What was the biggest physical challenge in shooting this?

JM: That was a challenge. That was a lot of nights and you have to be very precise. By the time you get to set, you have that all mapped out. There’s this complete laborious process where you’re mapping all the cars out and where everyone’s running. You want to keep it spontaneous so there’s always that element that something could happen and I could put Rain in the middle of the traffic, so you do, and you don’t want to put digitized cars in it. It was all real so that was a pretty hard one.

MoviesOnline: So there’s no digital in that whole sequence? That’s impressive.

JM: Except for when the guy leaps, there’s a car that wipes him – he does a somersault like this. There’s a car that goes past, but all those guys that are chasing him running down the street are parkour guys or like free running guys. We were shooting and I just said, ‘Can you leap up over that car?’ And he goes, ‘Oh, how fast is the car going?’ ‘I don’t know, 20 miles an hour, 30 miles an hour.’ He goes, ‘Oh yeah, 30’s fine.’ I’m like, ‘Really? You know they’re coming at you, right?’ And they just run and they leap and he did a somersault. I didn’t even ask him to do the somersault. He just ran. ‘Can you do it again?’

MoviesOnline: I actually liked the story – all the stunts were great but the story was good, and I wondered if getting the relationships between the actors was important to you?

JM: Yeah, it was important. I think talking about ninja movies in the eighties, they didn’t have much of a story and it was important to me to hang the film on a story. I guess I dared to give you the history of the Ozunu clan, and what set him on his path of rejection or revenge, or why he wanted to kill his brother and his father. I thought it was important to have a strong narrative that you could hang all the action on, but also like characterizations from – so that Rain’s character, Raizo, I thought was – he’s like in that sort of Clint Eastwood mode. It’s all in the expression. He doesn’t say much. It’s in the expression of his face but then his actions speak. I wanted to make sure the Mika character, who’s played by Naomie Harris, and the Maslow character, who is played by Ben Miles, they were all talking about what was happening, you’re going from A to B, because ultimately the story is like - there is someone in the ninja world, there’s someone investigating the ninja world, and that world collides to become one world and then they’re on the run.

MoviesOnline: What kind of star/director relationship do you have with Rain? Is he very collaborative, or does he want to do his own thing? Do you guys talk out a scene? How does that work?

JM: No, he’s super collaborative. I think [that’s] the good thing about him and why he’s such a huge star in Asia is he keeps always pushing himself, like going to the next level. His English is pretty good. You’ll get to talk with him soon. But then he learned a lot of stuff phonetically, but his understanding of what you want – when you have English as a second language, at some point you understand a lot more than you can actually express, and I think he was at that point. I could give him very nuanced direction and he would get it.

MoviesOnline: Did you ever consider adding a love scene with Mika?

JM: Yes, tempted. They did have good chemistry and there was one scene that was a funny scene that I cut out that wasn’t a love scene but it was kind of like an awkward sexy scene together. Maybe that will be in the next one.

MoviesOnline: That will be on the DVD?

JM: Yeah, I know. Don’t worry, I’ve got it in the wings there.

MoviesOnline: This could certainly be a franchise. Are you hoping for a sequel?

JM: Yeah, I guess it could. At this point you just wait for it to come out, see how it does and then take it from there. I’d like to work with Rain again, and Joel Silver and the Wachowskis and Grant Hill, all the producers, we have a long history together. I like making films with them, so yeah, I’d like to work with everyone again.

MoviesOnline: How was your relationship with them on the set?

JM: It’s always good. We’ve known each other for such a long time now. It’s like this dysfunctional family. We all get together every now and then, not every now and then, I guess the past 10 years now actually starting with the first Matrix film. Yeah, it’s good experience. They’re all great and unique at what they do. Joel is like a Barnum and Bailey producer, which is kind of fun, and Larry and Andy Wachowski, they’re like great creative producers.

MoviesOnline: How could you think up killing anybody in any other way?

JM: Well, in the film if you listen, they talk about the nine clans. He’s destroyed one, so he’s got another eight to go, right? I’m sure he’s plotting somewhere new and inventive ways to seek revenge on the others.

MoviesOnline: They’ll give him a different weapon this time.

JM: Yeah, that would be a fun thing to invent.

MoviesOnline: What style of kung fu does he use in the film?

JM: It’s a mix. We taught a mixture of styles to Rain -- kung fu, jujitsu, taekwondo. There was a whole bunch that he ends up using in the film at some point. We gave him weapons training, so he trained with that, he trained with two swords, he trained with single katana. We got him to throw shurikens, all that stuff.

MoviesOnline: Isn’t Taekwondo Korean?

JM: That’s what he started with. When he was a kid, he learned that, and then it was kind of like a refresher course.

MoviesOnline: Can you talk about The Raven? Is it a biography of Edgar Allen Poe’s later life?

JM: No, it’s not a biography actually. He disappeared for the last five days of his life, that’s the true part of it. They found him drunk in a bar in not very good shape. This movie is like a cross between Seven and a series of Edgar Allen Poe stories. There’s a serial killer loose in 1950s Baltimore (means 1850s – Poe died in 1849) Baltimore and he uses Poe’s stories as his methodology to kill people. And he kidnaps Poe’s fiancée and says, ‘I’m going to keep killing people and leave a clue at each killing that I do which will eventually lead to where your fiancée is, if you get there in time.’ That’s the basic premise of it.

MoviesOnline: Have you cast anybody in it yet?

JM: I’m in the middle of that. I’ve just come back from Europe. I was just scouting some locations over there, so I might make it there or hopefully I could make it in the U.S. I’ve been thinking about a couple of places in the U. S. that it would be possible to make.

MoviesOnline: Who would you want to play the killer? Do you have anybody in mind?

JM: I do, but I don’t want to – I’m superstitious about it, because I’m right in the middle of it. It’s dangerous.

MoviesOnline: Have you always had a fascination with Poe or was it the story of this?

JM: I’ve always read Poe, but then this script was given to me by the producer, Aaron Ryder, who did Memento, The Prestige and Donnie Darko, did a lot of really interesting movies and Poe’s stories are fantastic. I guess it’s sort of ubiquitous in this country, too. A lot of kids read Poe at school. It was such a unique blend of thriller with the very inventive psychotic way that Poe wrote about things. It was nice to have a film that has The Tell-Tale Heart in it and Murders in the Rue Morgue, Premature Burial, all those things that fed into this. They were woven into this story. It’s cool. It was a good idea.

MoviesOnline: Do you have any ideas yet about the look of the film and how you want to set it up visually?

JM: Yeah, I’ve just started the storyboarding process which is great, with the same guy who did Ninja Assassin, Steve. Yes, I do. I think it will be – I like the way for example that you talk about a similar movie. It’s like a modern day Seven, really created like the world, you didn’t know if it was New York or whether it was L.A. or whether it was Gotham. I think the thing about this is I’d like to do this in 1850s Baltimore, but ultimately it’s Poe’s world. It’s like the way that he’s seeing the world. So I think I’ll shoot it through with that.

MoviesOnline: So Poe’s involved looking for the killer?

JM: Yeah, he is.

MoviesOnline: In terms of casting, what about Johnny Depp? Of course I’d say him for anything.

JM: Yeah, so would I actually if I had 50 million more dollars and I could shoot it in 2018 when he becomes available. Unless you’re Tim Burton, there’s not much of a chance these days actually.

MoviesOnline: What Poe stories are included in the killings?

JM: There’s a lot. There’s the Tell-Tale Heart, Murders in the Rue Morgue, Premature Burial, and a bunch of others. It’s a cool concept.

MoviesOnline: When do you start shooting?

JM: Hopefully I would start shooting by spring next year, probably sort of late winter into spring -- whenever Johnny’s available. I like that idea. Could you just put that in your article?

MoviesOnline: What genre haven’t you tackled that you’d like to do? – I don’t think you’re the rom-com guy.

JM: No, well, never say never, right? You’re probably right, romantic comedy, am I going to do that? I don’t know. Me and Jennifer Aniston? I think as a filmmaker you always want to keep expanding and moving into different genres. I think I’d like to do anything. There’s always genres that you’d like to make movies about. Because I grew up on westerns, I would like to make a western, but nobody wants to make a western anymore.

MoviesOnline: I was surprised 3:10 to Yuma didn’t change that.

JM: Yeah, I guess you could go back into it, but the last one that really did anything was the Clint [Eastwood] one, The Unforgiven. I know Kevin Costner tries a lot. There’s a really great story that I’d like to do called Altered Carbon, about this guy called Richard Morgan that I’ve spoken over the years about. Joel Silver has the property. So, maybe that. I’d like to do lots of different genres if I could. I guess the musical is dead, but I can’t see myself doing that.

“Ninja Assassin” opens November 25th.

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