Filmmaker Justin Kurzel had already begun to make a name for himself before he was brought on to direct Assassin's Creed, the first video game-based movie from Ubisoft's film production branch Ubisoft Motion Pictures. Kurzel's feature film debut, Snowtown, documented the bleak story of a series of murders that took place in a town in Kurzel's native Australia. He then went on to direct a new adaptation of William Shakespeare's Macbeth, which starred Michael Fassbender as the title character and Marion Cotillard as Lady Macbeth.
In Assassin's Creed, Kurzel was reunited with both actors - Fassbender playing the dual roles of a Death Row inmate and his ancestor, a Spanish Assassin, and Cotillard playing Sophia Rikkin, a scientist who saves Callum from execution in order to gain access to his genetic memory, using a machine called the Animus. Blending sci-fi and historical drama, Assassin's Creed used a great deal of practical sets and on-location filming in Malta in order to make both settings feel real and tangible.
Visiting Pinewood Studios, where a full-connected set had been created to provide the interiors for Abstergo's Animus Project, Screen Rant got a chance to speak to Kurzel about what it takes to bring a hit video game franchise into the world of cinema.
What’s it like on day 40 of an 80-day shoot? How are you feeling so far?
Justin Kurzel: I feel like I’ve kind of got my second wind. I’ve never shot for this long. Macbeth was seven weeks and Snowtown was like five weeks. So I feel like I’ve kinda made two feature films already. But yeah, it’s been a pretty kind of extraordinary experience working at this scale.
What’s the experience like, working with such a big budget?
JK: It’s all relative. There’s never enough money. Every one has got the same challenges. I think it’s very similar. It’s a very similar process to working with Snowtown, Macbeth. It’s all relative to what you’re doing and the ambitions you have. And they are always greater than what the resources are around you. And especially with this one because we’re trying to do as much as possible in camera. We’ve gone and shot in real locations. I was kind of determined for this film not to be a kind of copout film where you are shooting just on green screen and you are using most of post to help you out. So it’s been really important, I think, also just to differentiate ourselves from the game as well in terms of time that we ca
The wonderful thing about cinema is you can bring a 3D world to life. So it was kind of important that it had its own tone and is has its own kind of dance to it that is embracing the DNA of the game, but is also offering up something different, which is what cinema can do, especially if you kind of film in the real places.
What were the main themes of the game you tried to bring into the film?
JK: I think for me Assassin’s Creed has always been about tribe, about belonging to something. And definitely this story is an origin story about a man who discovers that he’s an assassin and that he is not alone, and that in him he has a blood that runs very, very deep. So I think those themes and ideas are really kind of fascinating—the idea that you are made up of people that come before you and you somehow have some kind of conscious dialogue with your genetics. I think it’s really, really deep and interesting stuff.
I think it’s probably why the game is so popular, is I think there’s a context to the game that’s smart and sophisticated but also very contemporary.
Can you talk about the action in the film - how you guys are approaching this to make it maybe slightly different than other films that are out there right now?
JK: We’re trying not to cut a lot. So we’re trying to kind of shoot the action in camera. And we’re trying to work with the best stunt people. And we’ve got some of the best parkour guys in the world at the moment. So I think we’re just trying to not sort of cheat as much. I think that some of these films you can get away with creating an action sequence with continuous cuts. I think we’re trying to, I guess in an old school way, allow action to play out and for you to be engaged with the action that is in front of you and the sequences that are in front of you before you are kind of cutting into them.
And that takes a lot of time and a lot of kind of discipline. So yeah, trying to use the actors as much as possible so that they are involved and engaged. I guess just trying to do it in a very honest and grounded way.
You just adapted Shakespeare and you are now are adapting a video game. Is it a similar process of adaptation? Do you look at them for visual references or is it a similar experience making both of those in that regard?
JK: Well, what is similar, like Macbeth, is the thousands of productions of Macbeths that we’ve all seen and been involved in and read in bad school productions. And then, also, the extraordinary films of Macbeth. There is a kind of baggage that comes with that, like there is a massive baggage that comes with Assassin’s Creed and a product that is adored and loved. So you have to have a dialogue with that. But, at the same time, we are also trying to make a film, too, that engages with people that are not familiar with the game, and also kind of brings a new audience to some of the themes and the ideas in it that people might be naïve to.
I think doing a piece of cinema allows you to kind of investigate things in a different way, such as narrative and storytelling, and then suddenly bringing words and faces to these characters in the game that we have the privilege of doing, which you obviously can’t in the game so much because they are made up. So that’s been really exciting, is sort of bringing a very visceral and real life to some of these characters.
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Was it interesting for you to come onboard a project that had kind of already had a lot of development or things already in progress?
JK: Yeah. I mean there’s been quite a few voices involved in this, obviously through the studio, but then also Ubisoft. And then Michael’s been heavily, heavily involved. So it’s been really about kind of focusing the storytelling. That’s something I really love and enjoy. And that really comes from when you start to go into pre[-production] and start to work out what you can achieve and what’s starting to be the highlighted themes of it.
It’s been quite a similar process to the other projects. The involvement with Michael and the intimacy in pre was very different from Macbeth, which obviously was already there and we kind of developed that. As a storyteller, I know that obviously this has two different settings.
How do you make it all feel as one with the science fiction element, and the historical action?
JK: That’s been the most tricky thing, is they both are very, very distinct, especially in the game. You do probably spend more time in the past in the game, and the present settings are really kind of transient pieces to get you into the past. I guess in terms of setting up the film we do spend probably predominately a little bit more time in the present, sort of setting up the lead character in Cal and getting the audience to know him and understand him.
I think it’s about how those worlds bleed. Obviously in the game there is a bleeding effect. And there’s the idea that the shadows of the regressions start to play out in the present world and you are starting to see your past ancestor. So the idea that that history becomes a ghost within the present, where also you kind of see within the set, the Animus is sort of built in this kind of Byzantine Templar church that Abstergo have kind of built around it. It’s almost like an old sort of Templar church.
So we’ve kind of decided to kind of combine the old and the new within the actual production design, where you feel the history of the Templars play in a space like this. So we’re continuously just trying to find ways in which there is a bridge between those two worlds. But, at the same time, there is something very exciting about going between two different palettes. I mean the past feels very like a Caravaggio painting. It’s rich and very seductive. Like the game, I mean the light in the game is just extraordinary. So there’s a romance to the history that we really didn’t want to lose contrast with these very sophisticated architectural kind of heavy design world of modern day Templars. So I think it’s a mixture but, at the same time, kind of embracing the kind of contrast.
In addition to working with Michael Fassbender again, you are working with Adam Arkapaw, the DP. What does someone like Adam bring to a project like this?
JK: Just an incredible artistry. I’m very lucky to have kind of met him in film school and develop a relationship with him. But he’s a huge, huge part of my films. I kind of made the films with Adam. We both live in each other’s pocket. His understanding of light and his understanding of how to tell a story through movement of camera…he’s extraordinary with performance. But I think after True Detective there’s a kind of classic style that he’s kind of developed now and a very in-camera style that grounds things but, at the same time, finds sort of a magic to it that we’re trying to embrace with this. Yeah, he’s been a huge part of reimagining of Assassin’s Creed as a piece of cinema.
The camera in the game is quite distinct. It’s like sometimes it swoops in, sometimes it pulls back. Did you try and incorporate any of that into the film?
JK: I don’t think you can ignore the eagle point of view in the game. I think the notion and the idea of these assassins having the skills or the sensitivity of an eagle and the whole notion of the leap of faith and flight and eagle vision, there’s certain aspects of just the character that we’ve tried to work into the film rather than kind of copy certain sequences within the game.
So, again, it’s just been trying to approach it through character. There’s also certain things we can’t achieve that the game can, [laughs] because it can go anywhere. And I think we’ve been very conscious about that. We don’t want this to be a superhero film. We want it to be a film that embraces the possibility of what it is to be human. So, all-out jumps and all-out parkouring. It has to feel as though you are watching and thinking, “On a good day I could do this.”
Otherwise, I think it kind of goes into a fantasy, which I don’t think the game is about. Assassin’s Creed is based on real history. They spent a lot of time basing it on real characters. The details are just completely true to the period. So it’s very important that it feels tangible, the film feels tangible and it feels as though it has existed, but also that it just feels human.
Adam knows his way around a long take. Are there one or two sequences in particular that you guys have crafted to be kind of a long take here? I know that this set is kind of built to go everywhere.
JK: Yeah. That’s kind of why we sort of built her that way, is to try to sort of keep the takes simple and long and moving. I think the same with the past; we just try to keep long action sequences that are not interrupted by the cuts. So, as much as possible. And the actors have spent so much time rehearsing the at dual moves that we just wanted to make sure that we were embracing the hard work that they’ve done and that it felt, you know, when you were looking at Michael doing something it’s Michael doing something. It’s Michael parkouring or it’s Michael having spent three weeks learning a certain move. So I guess that kind of uninterrupted sort of longer kind of takes is something that is definitely apparent in Adam’s style, but it’s also something that we brought into the film.
Was there any one game in particular that was influential for the film?
JK: In terms of part of the series?
Justin Kurzel: No. I think they’ve all got certain qualities. The first game that I played was Unity. There’s a kind of romanticism to that game that’s very seductive. But I think they’ve all, in their little bits, kind of provided certain points of view, especially through the Assassin that we’ve definitely been inspired by.
Assassin's Creed arrives in theaters on December 21st, 2016.