Director James McTeigue has been working on films since the late 1980s, back in his native Australia. He was second assistant director on Dark City and first assistant director on Star Wars: Attack of the Clones. He started working with Andy and Larry Wachowski as an assistant director on The Matrix, and they've been collaborating on projects together ever since. The Wachowskis wrote the first feature film helmed by McTeigue, V for Vendetta, and he provided second-unit direction on their most recent film, Speed Racer.
Ninja Assassin, which opened this week, is the latest movie McTeigue has directed, with the Wachowskis on board as producers. You can read William Goss's review for more details about the action/fantasy film. Cinematical sat down with the director in late September during Fantastic Fest, just after the movie played the festival. He was very pleased with the fest screening and happy to talk about the film.
Cinematical: So how did you get involved in this project? How did Ninja Assassin get started?
James McTeigue: I think it got started from the love of the ninja genre, from a) when I was a child, b) standing around on sets with the 87 Eleven guys -- the action choreographers -- and the Wachowskis, and we would always end up talking about films we wanted to do, genres we wanted to remake. At one point we were talking about Enter the Dragon for awhile, but then we thought that maybe it was time to drag the ninja genre out of the drawer and give it the affectation of an "A" genre, and that's what we did, that's where it germinated.
And then we put a writer onto it, Matthew Sand, he did a draft, and we worked on it for awhile, then we brought Joe Straczynski in to do a polish for us.
Cinematical: Are there any particular ninja movies that influenced this film?
James McTeigue: A lot of those Cannon films from the 1980s: Pray for Death, American Ninja -- anything that Sho Kosugi was in, actually, which is why it was fun to bring him back and have him as the ultimate bad guy or father figure in this movie. He was the classic ninja in all those Eighties cheesy movies. Some of them were fun, even though you know they have this reputation of being a little cheesy. Sho is an amazing man and an amazing martial-arts proponent.
Cinematical: You worked with the Wachowskis again -- how involved were they in this movie?
James McTeigue: They're involved as much as any producers are, you know, I mean they're great producers, those guys. They're creative, so you could do worse than have them on your film. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch, who are the 87 Eleven guys, were the second-unit directors, so I think we have a really nice collective. The boys produce, I direct, it's a nice thing. It's that thing that Robert Rodriguez and Tarantino have a little bit. They come in, they do bits on each other's films. This is a great flow of intormation and ideas and creativity.
Cinematical: Are you planning anything else together?
James McTeigue: I don't think you could ever count it out. It's probably been more than 10, probably 12 years since we first started working together, from the first Matrix that we did. So I think we understand each other, and more importantly, we're friends. I think that's a good basis for any working relationship. Chad [Stahelski], I've known from the first Matrix when he was Keanu Reeves's double, and his partner Dave Leitch I've known from the second Matrix film when he was a double for Agent Smith, when there were many Agent Smiths running around.
As I make more films, I like that repeat experience that I get to have. You want to work with people you like, but you want those people to keep pushing the envelope with you. "Maybe we could do this next, maybe we could make this better, maybe this is a good thing to do" ... it's a nice way to work.
Cinematical: Do you have any interest in writing scripts for the movies you direct?
James McTeigue: There are a lot of really good writers out there, and I think ultimately when you get a script, you give it your own input anyway. You think this character will need work, you want to refine the aesthetic a little more, so there's always something you bring to the script. Personally, I don't feel lke I need to be the one writing the words. I much prefer to direct, and I think that's my strength. And I know a lot of good writers -- Joe Straczynski being one, Larry and Andy Wachowski being amazing writers, and I think I'm happy to let those kind of people write. At the moment, I have a lot of really good scripts that are coming across the table. There are things I want to say, obviously, but I try to feed them into the films that I do.
Cinematical: I noticed you had a few actors in Ninja Assassin who had also been in the Wachowki's Speed Racer, like Rain.
James McTeigue: That's the funny thing you get with the collective, right? I put Ben Miles, who's also in this movie, I put him in V [for Vendetta] to start with. When the Wachowskis got around to making Speed Racer, they went, "Wow, he's a really good guy, let's get him back." I did some second unit on Speed Racer, so I worked with Ben again, I did nearly all of Ben's scenes on Speed Racer. Then when I was getting around to doing the ninja movie, I thought, "Be good to get Ben back again." So he came back, it was good to have him.
Naomie Harris, I liked just from Pirates [of the Caribbean] and Miami Vice and other things I'd seen her in. The thing that was great about Naomie was that she got the idea of what the ninja movie was. You can tell whether people are going to be into the ninja movie or not by their first reaction. They go, "Oh, what's your movie?" And you go, "Ninja Assassin." And they either go -- blank -- or they go "Oh, that could be interesting." And Naomi is one of those people. She absolutely got what I was trying to do, which was not Citizen Kane.
Cinematical: There's a little more blood in this movie.
James McTeigue: Correct.
Cinematical: Your last two films, Ninja Assassin and V for Vendetta, have had some similarities: one man fighting alone, maybe he's masked physically or otherwise, taking on --
James McTeigue: Yes, if you boil it down to tintacks, those two films both have individuals who reject the system they're in. Whatever their rationale or philosophy is, they reject what is around them. V obviously is a terrorist, but I think that's an interesting kind of exploration to be had: what is a terrorist, what makes a terrorist, is a terrorist human. And in the ninja movie, it's a straight-out rebellion -- he rejects the family, he rejects everything he knows and turns against them. But you know, individuals against the world, I guess that's the common thing at the moment, right?
Cinematical: Only this time you don't have to film your main character in a physical mask --
James McTeigue: To tell you the truth, I loved the mask. I know there was a question about whether audiences would buy into it. Ultimately -- and this is probably going to sound a little egocentric -- people bought it because I believed it, I just totally believed I could pull it off rom the start. I don't know why I had that blind kind of notion that it would work, but I think that was partially what did make it work. And Hugo Weaving, who was the actor behind the mask, he was there too. We thought it was an interesting thing to do, it harked back to ancient theater, kabuki theater, Noh theater, whatever you want to get into.
On the ninja movie, yeah, it was a little liberating, being able to have an actor who could use facial expression, a turn of the mouth of a glance with the eye. That's kind of fun. But there's a lot of acting parts in V for Vendetta: Natalie [Portman] and Stephen Rea and Ben Miles and Roger Allam and Stephen Fry, I had a nice kind of ensemble of people who didn't have a mask on.
Cinematical: Do you think V for Vendetta fans will like this movie as well?
James McTeigue: I hope so. I mean, it's a very different movie. V for Vendetta was a treatise on the administration or the political environment of the time it got made. Even though it was a graphic novel written during the Thatcherite period in London, the things that it spoke to were timeless and universal. But ultimately I think it's a well-crafted film.
And I think this film has a certain style to it and a certain aesthetic and I think it's similar to V and people will be able to tell it's the same filmmaker, and hopefully they'll like it. I made it as a fun piece, you know, V was so complex and dark, and driven with what is justice and what is not justice, it was good to do something that was a straight-out fun piece.
Cinematical: I did notice that Ninja Assassin is visually very dark. A lot of the key scenes take place in shadows, without a lot of ambient light.
James McTeigue: I love graphic novels and the way they use negative space. I thought on the ninja movie, the thing that would make it interesting is if they [ninjas] kept appearing out of darkness all the time, if you treated them like a horror movie would treat them. They kept evolving out of darkness and that way you didn't get to concentrate on the ninjas too much. In the opening sequence, you don't even see him until the end, until he's done. And I thought that would be a cool way of dealing with it, not being able to see him.
I also like cinematography that's dark, I like using heavy negative space and I think Conrad Hall is a great proponent of it, and Roger Deakins. I really love The Man Who Wasn't There, that Coen brothers movie. So I was interested in having that as a visual start. I touched on that in V, it was fun to experiment, and I took it a little further in this film. And I think it works well, you can do a lot -- there's a process called the digital intermediary now, the DI, and you can take the basis of what you've got and really tweak it and accentuate the shadows, so that's what I set about doing.
Cinematical: What was your biggest challenge in shooting this movie?
James McTeigue: I think sometimes shooting with actors where English isn't their first language can be a bit of a challenge. But probably the biggest challenge was, we were backing into the writers' strike at the time. So we had to shoot fast and the film was very ambitious. If you've got a film which is just two people talking around a table that's easy to shoot in a short amount of time, but when you're trying to do complex action sequences, that does take some time. So that was pretty challenging, because we had to stop on June 30, and we were really backing into that.
Cinematical: What are you working on now?
James McTeigue: I'm working on a movie called The Raven, which is about the fictionalized last five days of Edgar Allen Poe. There's a serial killer loose in 1850s Baltimore who's killing people in the manner Poe kills people in his stories. And it's a race against time for Poe and a detective to find the killer. I'm in the middle of casting at the moment, I was scouting in Europe and just got back.
And everybody asks me about Magneto [X-Men Origins: Magneto]. Rumors start, sometimes they're true, sometimes not. Magneto, Superman, people ask me about those. But Poe is the one in front of me, so that's the one I talk about.
Cinematical: A lot of the films you've worked on are genre films -- science-fiction and fantasy, and the Poe film sounds like it may have a horror aspect. What draws you to these genres?
James McTeigue: I like the darker side of things. It's more interesting to me than a Jennifer Aniston comedy, not to malign Jennifer Aniston. But that's the kind of literature I'm interested in, the kind of film I like to see.
Cinematical: Is there a genre you haven't worked in yet, that's interesting to you? Something you've always wanted to adapt?
James McTeigue: I've done so many genres over the years that I've just about covered them all, I've even done the romantic comedy. But I like where I'm pitched at the moment: sci-fi, a little dark, a little macabre. There's a film that hopefully I'll do in the not-too-distant future called Altered Carbon, which is another science-fiction piece, and a really cool one, so hopefully that'll come to fruition at some point.