EYE OF THE ASSASSIN
Australian director Justin Kurzel knew making a film based on a hugely popular video game would be fraught with risk, writes Philippa Hawker
‘Iseem to be attracted to things that scare me,” says Justin Kurzel. Directing Assassin’s Creed, a blockbuster action film based on a hugely popular video game series, “was definitely one of those things”. And knowing that video game adaptations are generally critical and/or box office failures can only have added to the lure of fear.
Assassin’s Creed is Kurzel’s third feature. He made his debut with the bleak and brilliant lowbudget Australian drama Snowtown in 2011. Macbeth, with Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, was his second movie. Assassin’s Creed reunites him with Fassbender and Cotillard on a completely different scale. In a way, he says, it was almost an advantage that he didn’t know what he was letting himself in for.
He was editing Macbeth when Fassbender started talking to him about a script he was planning to produce. Kurzel didn’t know it was based on a game, he says. What intrigued him about Fassbender’s project was its premise: the idea of a story about genetic memory, about the possibility of somehow tapping directly into the experiences of your ancestors.
“I guess I was really desperate to work with him again and really curious about the scale and the genre of this sort of film.” The video game connection, he says, was not something of which he was particularly aware.
“It was only after I came on that I was introduced to the world of Assassin’s Creed [through its developers, Ubisoft] that I started to discover the game and was taken through it.” He found it “conceptually sophisticated and quite cinematic. I was surprised by the culture of it, and I understand its popularity now. I think there’s something very human about it, I think it’s a very human quest.”
Assassin’s Creed, the video game franchise, creates a series of fictional narratives within historical scenarios that include the Crusades, the French Revolution and the Victorian era. It focuses on two ancient secret societies, the Assassins and the Knights Templar, whose struggle is waged across centuries. The Templars focus on control, the Assassins prize free will.
The film adapts aspects of the game and its setting, introducing a few new characters. There is a contemporary story about a criminal called Cal Lynch (Fassbender), who is facing capital punishment for his crimes. On the brink of execution he is given a second chance. Kidnapped by a company called Abstergo Industries — a contemporary front for the Templars — he becomes an experimental subject for the company’s chief executive (Jeremy Irons) and his scientist daughter, Sofia (Cotillard).
With the aid of a device called an animus, which unlocks “genetic memory” contained within his DNA, Cal is returned to 15th-century Spain to live through the experiences of an ancestor, an Assassin called Aguilar (also played by Fassbender). Various characters have a stake in Cal’s quest, for reasons that are not immediately clear, in a storyline that involves the Inquisition in full auto-da-fe, the apple from the Garden of Eden, the origins of free will and the nature of human violence.
The idea of genetic memory intrigues Kurzel, and he has found aspects of it to identify with. “Both my grandparents endured World War II in very different ways. My father was a Polish immigrant, and on my mother’s side my grandfather was an Australian soldier, and I often think about the experiences they had in a very hostile time in history — whether somehow those experiences are passed on, whether there are instincts and feelings that I have that somehow connected me to those lives lived one or two generations away.”
There is a phenomenon in Assassin’s Creed known as the bleeding effect, in which a character’s genetic memories get mixed up with their own real-time experiences, a situation that can induce breakdowns. Kurzel says he can understand the concept’s relevance. It reminded him, he says, of working on Macbeth, “when we were talking to a lot of soldiers about post-traumatic stress and the idea of recent memories in their lives playing out in the present day”.
For the action sequences, Fassbender wanted to do as many of his own stunts as he could. Kurzel and his regular collaborator, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, also were keen to make a commitment to as realistic a depiction of them as possible.
“We approached a lot of things on this film that we probably would never have if we had been more experienced. There was a naivety that allows you to go, ‘Why not do all the action sequences for real, go to real locations and try to pull off a grounded feel and look for a film of this scale,’ ” he says.
“I guess our naivety and experience made us try things we wouldn’t otherwise have tried.” He mentions the documentary Not Quite Hollywood, about Australian genre cinema in the 1970s and 80s, and its depiction of the making of the first Mad Max movie. “You understand why the film hits really hard, because of the way they tried to make it feel as real and as dangerous as possible.”
The gameplay of Assassin’s Creed incorporates a free-running style; a good deal of action in the movie takes place on rooftops and high buildings. Creating chase and pursuit sequences that involved speed and lightness, Kurzel also wanted weight. “We didn’t want the Assassins to float, we wanted them to land with a thud, and we felt that was very important.” For viewers who came to the film having played Assassin’s Creed, he wanted them to feel what it would be like to experience the game as if it were real. For people unfamiliar with the game, he wanted them to be drawn into the idea of an imaginary, enveloping world of the past.
There were elements that Kurzel felt needed to be re-imagined for the screen. In the game, for example, the animus is “a sort of bed, quite a passive thing. It works in the game because you hardly spend any time in the present day, and the animus is a kind of conduit to get these characters back into their genetic past.”
For the film, Kurzel says, something more dramatic and interactive was needed. “We had to ask ourselves, what does this machine look like? How do you see and feel this character engage with the actions of his ancestor, and also emotionally engage with him?” They devised a striking new way to depict the animus, a much bigger, more mobile machine, with a crane-like arm and a scanner. It became “a kind of theatre for Cal’s memories and you could start to see physically how he and Aguilar perform as one”, Kurzel says.
Assassin’s Creed has an impressive cast, even if some are seen only fleetingly. Beyond Fassbender, Cotillard and Irons, it includes Brendan Gleeson as Cal’s father, Charlotte Rampling as a Templar bigwig, Michael K. Williams ( The Wire) as an Abstergo captive and Ariane Labed ( The Lobster) as one of Aguilar’s fellow Assassins. Kurzel says he was lucky all these actors “responded to the uniqueness of the world [of Assassin’s Creed]”. Cotillard, he says, “is quite incredible, I’m very blessed. What’s so engaging about her is that she’s so exotic and sophisticated, yet there’s something very human and grounded about her performances.”
In Macbeth, she embodied extremes and contradictions. “She was kind of like a witch, but at the same time she was a mother in grief,” he says. “She’s so able to get to the central core and truth of something in a very precise, and effortless way.”
In Assassin’s Creed, Sofia is a modern-day Templar who works at Abstergo under the supervision of her father, yet she has her own particular vision of the future. Her name comes from the Greek word for knowledge; science is her field and her obsession. Yet she’s not pre- sented as a classic scientist in a lab coat. She’s a scientist and an idealist. She’s both manipulative and protective of Cal, who is a vital part of her research. “She’s very mysterious; you don’t know much about her, but you know that she has dedicated her life to science and research. She’s also a very emotional person, a very complex character.”
The script provided few details about Sofia’s background; Cotillard says she needed to create them, to establish as much as she could about the woman she was playing. Some things she decided for herself, others came from discussions with Kurzel. “There are things we create together, that the audience might never know.”
When she learned Irons had come on board to play her father, she assumed she would have to master a British accent. Kurzel told her it might be better not to.
“He said, maybe it’s interesting to leave this mystery, the idea that she might have not been raised by him, and that’s why she has this flavour of a foreign accent.” Sofia’s eagerness to please her father could well come from the fact she was separated from him in childhood
And there are, Cotillard says, “things I create myself that no one will know about, not even the director or the scriptwriter — the secret part of bringing a character to life”.
Within the world of Assassin’s Creed, the biggest challenge was finding a way to play a character who is not directly involved in the action sequences. “Sofia is involved mentally and most of the time emotionally, but at the same time she’s very static,” Cotillard says. She and Kurzel discussed how to explore Sofia’s role as an observer by “trying to play with small changing details”, ways to keep the audience connected with her.
She also was intrigued to see Fassbender at work in more than one role on the film, as producer as well as performer. “We had a lot of discussions about much more than just acting and our characters. It was really interesting to see Michael learning a lot from this experience. It was his second time as a producer, but his first time producing a movie of that calibre.”
She can’t see herself moving into production, she says, “but I think I might have the desire to direct one day. I would love the experience of directing actors.” opens tomorrow. reviews the film on Page 13.
Ariane Labed and Michael Fassbender in Assassin’s Creed; Justin Kurzel on set with Marion Cotillard, below