Read part one of our interview over here.
By his own admission, James McTeigue seems to be fast-becoming Hollywood's go-to guy for revenge stories. After beginning his career as an assistant director for the Wachowski brothers, he made his directorial debut with the graphic novel adaptation V for Vendetta, and is now set to release Ninja Assassin, about a martial arts master squaring off against his master and his former clan. Ironically, McTeigue is himself a generous, thoughtful and positively mellow guy, which makes his aptitude for bloody showdowns even more surprising.
Cinematical recently sat down with McTeigue at the Los Angeles press day for Ninja Assassin, where he talked about tackling his latest revenge tome. In addition to discussing the physical and philosophical origins of ninjas (and the movies that love them), he talked about protecting the cultural and ethnic integrity of his characters and story, and ruminated on the challenges of keeping a constant balance between brain-busting ideas and balletic bloodletting.
Cinematical: When you came on board this film, what was your cultural mandate for the film especially since you were featuring an Asian actor in the main role?
James McTeigue: First off, when I worked with Rain, I knew he was out of the ordinary. I first worked with him on Speed Racer, and I thought if anyone was going to be able to carry the film and cross over, it would be somebody like Rain who has huge charisma, a great screen presence, he's a huge star in Asia. So there was already some mechanism in there to make it more palatable, I guess, and he went above and beyond what I thought he might do.
Cinematical: There was some criticism lobbied at Memoirs of a Geisha, for example, for casting actresses from other Asian countries in Japanese roles. How careful did you have to be in maintaining a sense of cultural or ethnic accuracy and still tell a compelling story?
McTeigue: I didn't have to be careful because that wasn't my story. The way my story is set up, children are stolen from all over the world, so Rain isn't a Korean guy pretending to be a Japanese person. I think once you're doing that, and I'm sure Rob Marshall would probably disagree, you're being disrespectful; I mean, you're just saying, hey, a Japanese person looks like a Chinese person looks like a Thai. That's dangerous territory to get into, and you might have been able to do that in the '50s or '60s, but we're living in a very kind of multicultural world; you go to downtown LA and it's in Spanish. So I didn't have to worry so much, but if I did do a story [like that] I would be absolutely cognizant of doing it. I wouldn't mix the nationalities up.
Cinematical: How did you develop what the style of the ninjas going to be? Particularly now that you can present them in an era where their abilities can be augmented by CGI?
McTeigue: I took influence from all over. There was an old ninja movie, Shinobi No Mono, that I really loved, some Japanese TV shows when I was growing up, also the ninja movies of the '80s and early '90s. I think you take all of those things, like all of those classic images, and you kind of form it into a vision that's your own. But there was ninjas in The Dark Knight, for example; there was ninjas in G.I. Joe. So I think it's your own style – you take some of the mythology of the ninjas and you think about that and you bring some of that into it as well. Then you get with your costume designer and you get with your production designer, and the person who does your visual effects, and you go, okay, this is my idea for the ninjas. I want them to dissolve in and out of darkness, and this is how I want to do it.
Cinematical: Is there supposed to be a supernatural element to their abilities, or does the CGI just visually augment their ability to move through the shadows?
McTeigue: No, there's definitely meant to be a supernatural kind of like, horror element to them. Because I think if you want to believe that ninjas exist in the 21st century, you have to go, okay, this is what they do – they come out of the dark, and they disappear back into the dark, and maybe they're like always in the shadows. I thought it was kind of cool – I liked the idea that they could disappear almost.
Cinematical: Particularly now there are opportunities to shoot things in as dark a location as possible. There an early fight where it's illuminated only by a character's flashlight, for example. How did you decide that your aesthetic would be a more literal darkness as opposed to a day-for-night or Terminator-style blue-night kind of cinematography?
McTeigue: I thought the thing that was cool about that was they would disappear so you would sort of see it, but you wouldn't see it, which would make it even more frightening for her, because a lot of it's played from her perspective obviously. So you want to strike a balance because you don't want it to be ultimately unsatisfying in the end; you want to be able to like see little bits of it in the end. But you also see more than in others, like the fights towards the end of the film, obviously, you see some more. It's always a balance and it's always one you're refining as well; you shoot it in a certain way on set and then in post-production you get into the digital intermediate process and you keep tweaking it until it feels good.
Cinematical: How well-defined were those fight scenes before you went in and started building them visually? For example, I thought it was awesome to see a sword fight on a freeway.
McTeigue: They have to be. We were shooting on a limited time schedule and a limited budget, and what you want to do is plan, but be spontaneous. I think like when they're running in the traffic there, we put Rain out in the traffic, but the ninjas that were chasing him in that particular case were like parkour guys, like free-running guys. So you have it mapped out in storyboards and some pre-visualization, but then one of the parkour guys comes up to you and goes, "hey, you know what? I can run at that car and do a somersault up in the air over it." and you go, "really? Well how fast can the car go?" He goes, "uh, 30 miles an hour," and so you always have things planned out but then there's situations like that where people take it to another level for you. It's great to be able to do that.
Cinematical: Even as gory as the movie is, it manages not to be upsetting. How tough was it to find the right balance between being over the top and still be fun? Or were you trying to do that?
McTeigue: Oh no, I was definitely trying to do that. I set the tone of the movie from the very first scene; I set those guys up as so unlikeable that once they start to get decapitated, you're shocked but you're like, good! And then I think as you get further into the film, you want to have an escalation of what happens. Ultimately you want it to feel satisfying and I wanted it feed back into games and I wanted it to feed back into anime and I wanted it to feed back into Asian cinema, and so it is always part of striking a balance, but you do that as you start to edit the movie. You go, okay, that feels good, now I'm building to here, and that feels good, so yeah.
Cinematical: Do you feel like this movie is a specific homage to the '80s ninja movies or is it just more in keeping with the lineage of all martial arts films?
McTeigue: I think it's another part in the evolution of the martial arts film or the action genre in a lot of ways because those ninja movie from the '80s were limited by their budgets, so ultimately they don't have much story and they're a little cheesy. This, I was interested in taking I hope to another level; you can make a really cool movie that has all of the affections of an 'A' genre movie and just make it feel like another step forward from those movies.
Cinematical: How tough has it been to move back and forth between working for and with the Wachowskis and helming your own directorial projects?
McTeigue: The only reason I shot any second unit on Speed Racer was for those guys, because they're my friends. I wouldn't shoot second unit for anybody else. It's like in the same way that Tarantino shoots stuff for Rodriguez, it's that kind of relationship, I guess. And when I do second unit it's not like traditional second unit; they'll give me like whole chunks of the movie to do. "Hey, go and do this; hey, we trust you to do that." So for me it's not really slipping back and forth, and it's great. You're not like doing a close-up on a teaspoon pouring sugar into a cup or something. They let me do a lot, so for me, it just feels like I'm always making another movie. I know I started off as an assistant director for those guys, but they're so incredibly generous and such great filmmakers and such great producers that it's a pleasure actually doing stuff for those guys. And with Joel [Silver] and with Grant Hill, who's the other producer.
Cinematical: Their movies and yours both have these deeper philosophical complexities to them. How tough is it structurally to balance the visceral components of the set pieces with the exploration of the story's ideas? In this movie, for example, there seem to be a couple of scenes where Naomie Harris really does have to go, alright, I'm going to catch the audience up.
McTeigue: Um, I guess I'm the guy who does the revenge movies, so far, right? Like there's some guy who's always trying to get revenge, whether it's V trying to revenge the government of the day, or Raizo trying to revenge his father and his family. But I think you do strive especially in this film to ultimately the story is Raizo is in the ninja world, Mika is investigating the ninja world, and then those two worlds collide. Then, okay, now we're in the ninja world and now they're on the run. You try to strike a balance; you try to not let the narrative and the characterization get in the way too much, but make it feel satisfying, make sure that you care about the characters when something happens to them. Make sure that there is some point to the story; I mean, I think the problem with a lot of the '80s movies is they had not story. It was like, okay, what? What are they doing? It's like a porno, you know (laughs).