Interview: Assassin’s Creed’s Justin Kurzel

Justin Kurzel first came on the scene with his astonishing debut, Snowtown, set in his native South Australia. Since then, he’s earned the admiration and respect of many artists in Hollywood, such as Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard. So, once Fassbender was brought on board to produce and star in Assassin’s Creed, the movie based on the videogame, his first choice to direct was Kurzel, who directed him in last year’s stirring adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. He talks to us about turning the videogame into reality.

So what convinced you to adapt the videogame Assassin’s Creed into a film?

It was Michael [Fassbender]. I was editing Macbeth at the time and he took me to a café and said, “I’m doing this film. It’s based on Assassin’s Creed. Would you be interested in doing it?” I was pretty shocked because I hadn’t considered my third film being a film of this scale, but he just started talking passionately about genetic memory and the notion that you’re made up of the experiences of your ancestors. Then there was the assassins, Templars, free will and control; there was a whole lot of ideas there so I asked, “What is this thing?” He said it’s a videogame.

I was kind of shocked really that a game would be so complex. I instantly thought it was a fantastic world to make a film about.

So you weren’t a fan of the videogames in the past then?

It’s not that I wasn’t a fan. I knew the posters, I knew the imagery, I knew the brand, but I hadn’t sat down and played it. After I came on board, Ubisoft took me through an Assassin’s Creed boot camp and I sat down with a gamer for two days and went through all the games and was blown away by how much games had evolved since I’d played them as a kid.

‘Ubisoft Assassin’s Creed Boot Camp’. Did that involve taking you to the top of a tall building and pushing you off into a bale of hay?

Uh, no [laughs]. No, it did not.

Did the battle sequences of Macbeth prepare you at all to make an action blockbuster like this?

I was nervous about it because the scenes in Macbeth were smaller to the ambitions of this film. I guess what was encouraging was that Michael said he wanted to do a lot of the action himself, so then we started discussing shooting in real locations and attempt a lot of the skills the assassins had for real, that started to make me feel really excited and comfortable. I love the idea of working with real stunt guys and actors and real locations. I was a little worried at first that the approach was going to be all green screen, CGI, actors on wires, and as soon as everyone got behind the idea of doing it all for real, I felt a lot more comfortable with that because that’s the world I come from.

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In the game series, the split between modern day and historical sequences is usually heavily in favour of the historical side. What made you do the opposite?

It was something that Ubisoft really encouraged. They were developing their ideas with Michael so when I got the script it was based on a contemporary story about a contemporary man who evolves throughout the film and understands that he’s actually an assassin that comes from a tribe of assassins. That kind of revelation was something that was very important to the film. It was a concept; an idea that I thought was so unique and different. The great thing about being an assassin in the game in those real time periods is that the gameplay is what it’s all about, being a real assassin in that time and in those locations and cities is really at the core of it; but on top of that is this amazing filmic and narrative concept of what if someone had access to their ancestors memories and didn’t know about them?

I think if you went to any studio and started talking about that initial concept they would grab it as a great film narrative idea. We’ve tried to balance it and we’ve definitely tried to make history be something that informs and overlaps in the present day. But forget the game, just this idea for the film seemed really rich and exciting.

So you wanted people who had no knowledge of the game to be able to experience this fresh?

Yeah. I thought that was a great bridging point. If you’d set it all in the past and it was about a brotherhood and you were just following them taking out historical figures; I didn’t see that as being broader and more original as a film than a film about a guy in the modern day who gets to interpret his history and that history having a greater context than what is happening to him. That was something I thought would not only be a surprising and original point of difference from the game, but also would really attract those who are not familiar with the game, because then the film could exist as its own thing and not have to be a copy or an appropriation of one of the games.

The world of Assassin’s Creed is very interesting because the Hashashin, whom the Assassin’s Creed is based on, are an Islamic organisation and The Templars are Catholic. In the current political climate do you have to work around that to not offend anybody?

It was very simple for us. It was based on the ideologies of Assassins vs Templars based within the game. What the Assassins were fighting for wasn’t based on the teachings of any particular religion or political ideal. What they were actually fighting for was something very human and basic which was ‘free will’. That wonderful line of, “Nothing is true, everything is permitted,” I felt was the key to what was virtuous about them. This notion and idea of challenging everything, of not blindly following, and coming to your own self-realisation, one that wasn’t tied to any one organisation, but was more about just what it is to be human. That sense of them being freedom fighters and asking human beings to interrogate their authorities and not just blindly follow them I thought was, number one, really contemporary and interesting and, number two, something that was just greater than good or bad.

Same with the Templars. Obviously, Templar history is really strong, but I thought that what the game focussed on, which was really strong, was about how they believed that humanity could evolve through having an elitist society who could lead them and that all humanity was corrupt and needed to follow a philosophical way, I thought was those two kinds of ideologies were really powerful. I think what Assassin’s Creed does very well is take real moments of history and you couldn’t get one more volatile than the Spanish Inquisition, in terms of religious persecution, and effortlessly weave in this Assassin/Templar war into that. I think that’s why the game is so popular. This war is not fantasy. It does connect with real moments of history, and organisations that we are all familiar with.

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Do you think that free will is important in a time when corporations control our culture?

Yeah, I think we live in a time where we are being told what to eat, what to watch, what to wear, who to elect. More so now than at any other time, we must ask questions and we must interrogate. I think what the assassins are really good at is highlighting how blind we can become. There’s that great line that Jeremy [Irons] says ‘We’ve been controlling through religion, politics and consumerism, isn’t it time we gave science a try?’ I think he’s kind of right [laughs]. That’s what’s really interesting about that line, ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’. It’s a real raw and back-to-basics concept of challenging absolutely everything and then discovering something for yourself.

You have a long-time partnership with your cinematographer Adam Arkapaw. One thing I noticed about this and Macbeth is that you guys love having a sense of texture in the air, whether it be dust kicking up in the Mexican desert or frost gripping the Spanish hills. Could you take us through the process of that?

I think we are really interested in texture. The first film we did, we did on 16ml, and in preparation of this film and Macbeth we were watching a lot of old films, Lawrence of Arabia and Sergio Leone Spaghetti Westerns, Apocalypse Now; really big widescreen kind of films that naturally, when they are shot on film have a particular texture. That’s there with Macbeth with the mist and the frost, we obviously used a lot of smoke and ash for the fire at the end. There’s a depth that you get with that atmosphere, which, especially for period, almost provides that layer of grain that’s missing when you shoot digitally. I think there is a conscious effort to try and get that sense of depth, to not make it too harsh and flat and close, to make it feel as though you can really feel, smell and breath the atmosphere in the air.

The same thing happened with Assassin’s Creed. It was about getting that fire and ash and dust for the audience to breath in, to get that atmosphere and make it a character in the film.

My favourite scene in the film is when Michael Fassbender’s character Cal has a conversation with his father, played by Brendan Gleeson, that’s when the dagger is really stuck in the heart of the audience. When creating a sequence like that, Brendan Gleeson is the kind of actor you really want to bring on. What made you want him for the role?

Exactly that. He is the one that tells Cal the truth. You’re looking for someone who’s going to be the father figure to Michael Fassbender, so you need an actor with some pretty strong gravitas. We were very lucky. I know that Michael had worked with Brendan on Trespass Against Us and he was instrumental in getting Brendan to come in and do that scene. It was amazing for me because I’ve always been a huge fan of his. There’s an effortless sense of power and gravitas that Brendan brings and it never feels worked.

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What was it like reacquainting yourself with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard?

Well, with Michael it was a different relationship because he’s also producing the film. I already had my familiar relationship with him directing him as an actor although he was doing much more physical work in this film, so that was slightly different from Macbeth; but then you’re also sitting there talking about schedule, and having enough money, and how we’re all going to get through all this, and casting, and, especially, script. That made the relationship on this more all-encompassing.

With Marion, we were just very lucky. It was interesting. We were writing Sophia and she was evolving into Marion. I’m sure that came from the relationship we had with her on Macbeth. She had a very difficult role in that she was the communicating some pretty complex ideas in the film and some of the more heightened ideas. She had to give off this information in a way that – again – was effortless and you had to feel like it wasn’t just being told to you. Marion’s very good at that. She’s very good at making you believe what she believes.

What did Michael bring to the role of producer?

You get a very different perspective because you’ve got the actor that is in every single scene having a really powerful and strong say about how the production is put together. That can be really fantastic because Michael is always approaching producing through story and through point of view. It’s wonderful to have that kind of creative influence that is always backing and supporting the director. He’s also really good at having the point of view where he knows what all the connections are story-wise and he can only have that because as an actor he’s been part of developing the story. It’s a blessing to have someone bring that different perspective to the producer’s table.

What challenges did the action sequences present?

I think doing them for real, pulling off those sort of jumps, doing a real leap of faith, slacklining, and martial arts in an environment like Malta, which was really fucking hot, made it really difficult. It’s dangerous, it takes double the time, it’s uncomfortable, and it’s always more expensive. You desperately try and pull the stunts off because they’re never going to look beautiful or perfect, so you’re trying to make them look as good as they can and capture what is original and extraordinary about them because they are doing them for real. At the same time, you’re just trying to get through it and make sure it hits the schedule. It’s always harder doing stuff for real; it’s always more challenging, but I’m really glad we did because hopefully, the sequences will seduce those who are familiar with the game into believing that it could all be real.