Faith and Fear at Fantastic Fest
Action director Gareth Evans returns to Wales for the chilling Apostle
If you're wondering how Gareth Evans, the filmmaker who brought Indonesian martial art pencak silat action to Western audiences with his bone-shattering The Raid franchise, made a film about pagan evils in early 20th century Wales, it's really because of his grandmother.
"It's had a bit of a weird history," Evans said of Apostle, which makes its world premiere this week at Fantastic Fest. Back when he was a student, "before I was making anything on any professional level," during one vacation he started making a short film in his grandmother's house with a few friends. "There was a sequence with a raffle ticket that was used as a prop. I remember leaving it there and telling my nan, 'Keep that, and I'll use it when I finish it.'"
So his dutiful nan put the ticket under a carriage clock on her mantel, and there it stayed for years, and years, and years. "Every time I phoned her," Evans said, "she'd start saying, 'I've still got that ticket underneath the carriage clock.'"
Flash forward a few years, and after a decade in Indonesia (a diversion that he never really planned, but established him as a truly international filmmaker), Evans was back in Britain. He said, "I really wanted to make a film in the UK, and I wanted to know what the UK shooting system was like. I'd only worked in Indonesia, where they have a very different idea for how things work."
However, that film – Blister, his take on the classic U.S. gangster genre – went into development hell, and so he started looking for a new project, "something that's different, not The Raid III. Something that wasn't expected of me."
He had a wisp of an idea – a period piece about a man traveling to a small village – but that was all. Then he remembered that raffle ticket, and the short he'd started working on at his nan's a decade before. One image had stuck with him: an envelope with a letter and a flower petal in it. He combined that with the traveler, a pinch of his first experiment with supernatural horror in his "Safe Haven" segment of found-footage anthology V/H/S/2, and then a dark coven of the best of British folk cinema. There were, of course, the classics, like Witchfinder General, The Wicker Man, and The Devils, but also more contemporary studies of the evil beyond the village green. Most especially important were two works by one of his British peers, Ben Wheatley: the grisly Kill List and the hypnotic A Field in England, specifically one scene of uncanny madness. "One thing that stuck with me is when Reece Shearsmith comes out from the tent. It's that long shot of him with that maniacal look on his face."
But what interested him was not the supernatural, but belief. The late 19th and early 20th centuries were filled with spiritualists, charismatics, missionaries, and bizarre communities that would crop up in the middle of nowhere, spurred by dedication to something other than their dreary existence. Evans said, "We wanted to talk about faith, and politics using faith and corrupting religion, to further political means."
That's when he started bouncing ideas off producer Aram Tertzakian, sharing ideas through Evernote, "and we spent a couple of months beating out the storyline. I went, 'Look, mate, here's some shit I'm going toss over to you.'" Much of the communication was in images and notes, like pictures by Caravaggio, or pictures of certain types of wood, all designed to evoke a certain mood. That's how the story came together, "layer by layer, piece by piece."
What finally emerged from that process was Apostle. Set in 1905, it follows a traveler named Thomas (Dan Stevens, Legion) journeying to a remote island off the Welsh coast, where his sister is being held for ransom by a mysterious cult. His invitation comes, of course, in the form of a letter with a petal in the envelope. Evans is thrilled that the film will have a hard, sharp turn that will throw off preconceptions about who he is as a filmmaker. "This is not an action film," he said. "You're not getting Dan Stevens from The Guest. It's not Ye Olde Taken."
With the ideas in place, the casting and the locations informed much of the rest of the narrative. Key to this was Michael Sheen as Prophet Malcolm, one of the three leaders and founders of the community: joining the project a month before preproduction, he and Evans met over dinner, and the veteran character actor helped him finesse the dynamic between the trio, building up their co-dependence and eventual fracturing. Evans said, "We have these three characters who are the forefathers of the island, and what was interesting was making sure that they had enough differences between them all, and how the dynamics worked, how they would lean on them all, so it wasn't just Dan's character coming in an facing these bad guys."
Dan, of course, being Dan Stevens: an expert in period pieces from his time on Downton Abbey, every director seemingly has two stories about him. One about how extraordinarily nice he is to work with ("He's a gentleman," said Evans. "He brings so much, and he brings so much to everyone else"), and then one about the subtle and extraordinary lengths he goes to in creating depth and nuance in his characters. Evans recalled, "[Thomas] is coming in with a high level of dependency on laudanum as his drug of choice. So he did this thing of tightening up the muscles on one side of his jaw." As the character starts to focus more on the task at hand and less on his addiction, "his vocal performance starts to shift, it starts to amalgamate and clean up. He becomes the charismatic Bogart that his character probably thinks he was." What really struck Evans was not just the physical dedication, but the thought that went in: a couple of weeks into shooting, he noticed Stevens had marked on his script exactly where Thomas was in his rehab, so even though they were shooting out of order, that unclenching would unfurl in order.
The final component was the location and the set, and for that he praised his production designer, Tom Pearce, who hunted down the right backgrounds in rural and coastal Wales. "The one thing that we've got lots of in Wales is a lot of interesting looking, dynamic coastline," Evans said (although he admitted that some of those scenes were filmed far away from the rugged and often dangerous seas, in a flooded quarry at the National Diving & Activity Centre at Chepstow, on the Welsh-English border).
It was also Pearce who designed the village itself, a rough-hewn settlement that was deliberately not supposed to be of one specific style. Evans said, "We didn't want it to feel purely British, so there's that American Gothic feel, houses on stilts, houses we can get under." That reflects the community, who were driven there by desperation and religious ecstasy, not because of a desire to be pioneers. That's why most of the houses are recognizably made from scavenged wood, some even using upturned rowboats for roofs. "It's a ragtag group of people who are jacks of all trades. And not that many masters."
So with everything in place for production, what ever happened with that raffle ticket on his nan's mantel? "I think she's lost it by the time we started shooting."
Apostle world premiere: Fri., Sept. 21, 5pm; Tue., Sept. 25, 5pm.