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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Profile - As­sas­sin’s Creed Stephen Romei

‘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

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