Back in 2006-11 Phil’s Quick Review editor in chief Phil Hobden was the Film & TV editor and chief writer for the legendary martial arts focused Combat Magazine. The Combat Magazine Series takes look back at some of the best interviews, conversations and articles that Phil wrote or edited during that time.
Next up: A promotion pieces written by me for Warner Brothers studios for the release of Ninja Assassin. Interview by Phil Hobden
Ninjas are the stuff of legend. To fully appreciate this one must go back the origins of these elite, blackly clad shadow warriors. See the folklore of these deadly stealth assassins can be traced back to 15th century feudal Japan and to a time of civil war and The Bushido (Samurai code). Often assassins or tools for espionage, they were the antithesis of the honorable and worthy Samurai. As such, the myth and legend of these warriors is so fearsome they have become ingrained throughout both popular culture and the history of cinema as some of the most formidable bad guys. Now after almost a decade of hiding in the shadows, making but fleeting appearances in movies like Batman Begins and The Last Samurai or comedy side kicks in series upon series of forgettable comedy movies, the Ninja is back with Warner Brothers Ninja Assassin.
Directed by V For Vendetta helmer and Wachowski Brothers director du jour James McTeigue, Ninja Assassin stars Korean actor & pop sensation Rain (seen most recently in the Wachowski brothers’ own Speed Racer) alongside former 007 nemesis Rick Yune, Pirates Of The Caribbean’s Naomi Harris, genre legend Sho Kosugi and British actor Ben Miles.
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“After V, I was interested in doing great action. The fight chorographers I’d worked with for a long time on both V and the Matrix and I, well we wanted to take the genre to another level but also have a great story you can tell as well.” remembers director McTeigue on the genesis of Ninja Assassin. “I think what we have tried to do here is make a great story with some big huge set pieces. I guess I was interested in some of the more exciting Parkour stuff… and interested in making the action seem real. I know you can do a lot digitally but we are interested in making it feel really real.” As 2nd Unit director and action designer Chad Stahelski noted during a later conversation “You can put wires on people, use explosions, CG but at the end of the day you have to buy the character and the person doing it.”
As for the story well Ninja Assassin follows Raizo (Rain), one of the deadliest assassins in the world. Taken from the streets as a child, he was transformed into a trained killer by the Ozunu Clan (headed by Kosugi), a secret society whose very existence is considered a myth. But haunted by the merciless execution of his friend by the Clan, Raizo breaks free from them and vanishes. Now he waits, preparing to exact his revenge. In Berlin, Raizo saves Europol agent Mika from one of his deadly former associates, and it isn’t long before a team of killers led by the lethal Takeshi (Rick Yune) are dispatched by the Ozunu Clan, to silence her. Raizo knows that the Clan will not rest until they are both eliminated. Now, entangled in a deadly game of cat and mouse through the streets of Europe, Raizo and Mika must trust one another if they hope to survive and finally bring down the elusive Ozunu Clan.
Co-star Yune sees the film as “a cross between Bourne Supremacy, Seven Samurai and The Matrix” whilst McTeigue is very open about his plans to reinvent the Ninja film for a new generation, “ I guess there was a flurry of Ninja films in the 80’s some better than the others and I think that we wanted to take a genre that was once a B genre I guess, a great B genre but a B genre nonetheless put in alongside elements of 50’s film noir, horror and anime… put them altogether and create a new version of the ninja movie.”
Best known for the seminal Matrix movies, as well as recent released Speed Racer, The Wachowski Brothers act as producers on the film, alongside action producer extraordinaire Joel Silver (‘Die Hard’; ‘Lethal Weapon’). Speaking at the recent launch of ‘Speed Racer’, pproducer Joel Silver recently said of the film: “It’s a big movie… a lot of work with a lot of visual effects, but it’s not like this [Speed Racer] instead more like what we did on The Matrix movies.”
So bullet time Shuriken sequences? One can only hope…
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Director James McTeigue is in a playful mood today, joking about dictaphones, reporters and films in general. As you would imagine from an industry veteran like McTeigue, he’s exceptionally comfortable with the press. McTeigue cut his teeth working with the press shy Wachowski brothers on the first Matrix movie and again on it’s massively successful sequels. Helming his first film as a director with comic book adaptation V For Vendetta he again found himself working with Larry & Andy (as producers). Speed Racer followed suit (with the Wachowskis back in the directors chair) and with Ninja Assassin it marks the sixth time they have teamed up together. So did they come to you about directing the film?
“Yeah I guess we talked about it. They are the films producers, along with Joel Silver and Brad Hill, and I was here over summer last year making Speed Racer with them and we started talking about doing another film together. But ask… it was more of a thing that evolved.” So I guess you share a good relationship with the brothers then? “I’ve known them for 10 years now. It’s very open, it always has been. Which is good”.
With Ninja Assassin McTeigue, much like he did with famed comic book V For Vendetta, is once again working in a genre inhabited by knowledgeable, passionate and occasionally rabid fans, but when the conversation leans towards his inspirations for Ninja Assassin, he quickly shows he himself is no slouch.
“That’s easy. The Akira Kurosawa ninja films like Seventh Samurai, 60’s ninja film Shinobi No Mono… but aside from action Noir films of the 50’s and films like Badlands was another film I showed the cast. The Getaway… also some Anime stuff. like Ninja Scroll and Samurai Shampoo.“
So Anime is a definite inspiration as well? “For sure. I liked the way in Ninja Scroll they dealt with the fights… they are much more visceral. If someone gets a sword cut their arm comes off, If someone gets hit with a Shuriken half their back comes out.” What no American Ninja, I interjected? McTeigue laughs… “Ha! No. I thought I’d save them that. Maybe they can watch it afterwards…”
The casting of Sho Kosugi, to many the definitive cinematic ninja, is something of a masterstroke by the filmmakers. Making his comeback after almost 20 years away from the genre he became synonymous with in the 80’s and 90’s, Kosugi is a genuine legend. So how did McTeigue coax him out of retirement?
“It didn’t take much to tell you the truth. He dropped out of sight for a while for sure, working on his martial arts schools but I just think the timing was right. He came in, screen tested and did a great job. I was definitely interested in the homage aspect to it… but he’s got a great face for a baddie…” So will he be fighting? “Yes he does actually. He gets to show the old wares… “
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A skilled martial artist & weapons performer, Sho Kosugi found success in film on the back of a career as a legitimate fighter in the mid to late 70’s with his first major film role alongside Straw Dogs actress Susan George and veteran screen star Christopher George in Cannon Films seminal Enter The Ninja. Kosugi cut an impressive and charismatic villain and by far was the stand out performance in a movie that even now has fans remembering with nostalgic eyes. With Enter The Ninja Kosugi had redefined a cultural icon and opened the doors to both the boom in 80’s action and 80’s ninja movies. Ironically it was this success that eventually saw Kosugi tire of the industry and return to Japan where he opened a series of schools called the Sho Kosugi Institute. As it turns out, the Wachowski Brothers are responsible for the return of the enduring legend…
“Larry & Andy started looking for me in Japan! They wanted to see me so eventually I met them and they asked me to play the lead bad guy role.” Remembers Kosugi, who starred in over 14 movies during his tenure in Hollywood. As he notes himself Kosugi, who made his name as the hero in his 80’s Ninja movies, uncharacteristically takes on bad guy duties for Ninja Assassin in the role of Raizo’s former Sensei and head of the Ozunu clan.
“I always played the good guy but they gave me the chance to play bad guy! I am almost 60, but my body is still very strong. I read the script, liked it and so I thought why not? I am the boss. The main guy. The strongest. You know why Ozunu is the clan name? You know what it means?” asks Kosugi ”Ozunu Is creator of mountain priests. He is the one who started mountain priests in Japan. Mountain priests and the Ninja are very much related. That’s why the clan is called Ozunu. I read that and thought… hmm the writer has done his research!”
Whilst the details of Ninja Assassin’s action sequences are being kept under wraps, one thing we know for sure is that Kosugi will square off against Rain’s lead character Razzio. Much like the rest of the crew however, Kosugi was reluctant to say more…
“No I can’t! Warner brothers won’t let me! “Don’t say too much” they told me! But it will be a good fighting sequence… trust me!”. Sensing the small look of disappointment on my face, Kosugi continues “Larry & Andy had some great ideas, like in The Matrix. The bullet time… bullets coming towards you. Wow. Amazing. So maybe they’ll use this here with the Shruiken coming towards you in bullet time. But shhh! I didn’t say that! But they are doing something very interesting here…”
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Located just a short journey outside central Berlin, Babelsberg Studios is one of the oldest film studios in the world. Since opening its doors in 1911 the studios have played host to production duties on some of film best known and loved films – from Fritz Lang’s Metropolis to the Max Schreck starring Nosferatu. Most recently Babelsberg has become the European studio du jour for studio blockbusters wanting to take advantage of the considerable talent in Europe, with big budget movies such as the Jodie Foster starring Flight Plan, Bryan Singer directed Valkyrie as well as the Warner/ Wachowski Brothers projects V for Vendetta and Speed Racer.
As we arrive at Babelsberg the first thing that strikes you is that, unlike the massive branded studio sound stages of Hollywood, you could quite easily drive past without ever knowing you’d missed something. As big as Babelsberg is and it is big – 16 sound stages taking up over 270,000sqft makes it Europe’s largest film studio – from the approach you would never look twice. For director McTeigue this is the third time in just a few short years he’s shot a movie at the world famous studios.
“I like Berlin I guess. I’ve been here three times… on V For Vendetta, over the summer with Speed Racer and now again with Ninja Assassin and yeah I like it a lot. But it’s also a great facility, and the crew here are fantastic. Berlin is a great city to be in.” And what about the city? McTeigue continues “Oh the film is set in very much Berlin and in the way that great film noir films of the past use the city there are set in as a character in the film I was interested in doing that here with Berlin. We have a big action sequence around the victory monument so yeah Berlin is definitely sprinkled throughout the film…”
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“We have the BEST stunt team here.” Enthuses co-star Rick Yune “The guy we have here he is the number one, he’s like Jet Li’s stunt double, we have Jackie Chan’s right hand man, we have Chad who has worked with the best… all these guys are the greatest at what we do, so we are having a blast”
Ninja Assassin’s action comes courtesy of stuntman, 2nd Unit director and fight designer Chad Stahelski. A former Jeet Kune Do instructor and legitimate Kickboxer in his own right, Stahelski started his career at the height of the low budget action film boom of the 90’s. Working on films such as Fist Of The North Star, Mission Of Justice and Bloodsport 2 & 3, saw Stahelski in action alongside legends of the genre like Jeff Wincott, Gary Daniels and Daniel Bernhardt. Now years later Stahelski has graduated to studio movies and had worked on the action for some of the biggest and greatest from the Wachowski Brothers Matrix Trilogy to action sequel XXX 2: The Next Level and Keanu Reeves comic book adaptation Constantine.
When I caught up with Stahelski, who is currently putting the final touches to the climatic showdown between Rain’s character Raizo and Rick Yune’s Takeshi, he has less than 18 days left on Ninja Assassin. He, with his 2nd Unit team started work four weeks ago and since then has been working flat out six day weeks to get the films complicated and adventurous action in the can. Stahelski doesn’t hesitate to tell me about the film…
“Ninja Assassin is a Martial arts movie, but as James says with a slightly Anime feel to it. It’s a rated R action film so the action will be a little bit more intense than a PG film. Which is good…”
But what about the action? The Wachowski brothers and producer Joel Silver are famed fro trying to ‘raise the bar’ when it comes to the action in their movies, what can we expect from Ninja Assassin? Can action and genre fans expect a more pure action movie then, than say the heavy CGI of The Matrix movies?
“The films action is definitely more Asian than US in feel. Our whole vibe on this film was kinda like Human talent. It comes down to finding the right people. “ enthuses Stahelski, “That said technically we are doing something very different…”
Throughout my time on the Ninja Assassin set and my conversations with the cast and crew it’s been alluded to the fact that both Stahelski and McTeigue are doing something not seen on screen before. Much like how The Matrix pioneered and popularised Bullet Time, so it seems that Ninja Assassin will build on work done on one of Stahelski previous projects.
“I was one of the chorographers on a movie called 300 where director Zack Snider used a technology called the ‘crazy horse’ which is a neat 3 camera prism mount. It gives you the ability to snap zoom in and out with three cameras in the action. BUT [on 300] we only did it on a straight line dolly so with Ninja Assassin we decided to take it to a whole new level. We have a circular dolly with Rain in the middle, with action happening the whole time so its like a 45 second piece UNCUT”
So how about Rain? The relative newcomer has only a few films under his belt, none of which were action movies in the way that Ninja Assassin is an action movie. Stahelski jumps in.
“He has a background in dance and dance chorography which helped. But he had also been a martial artist as a youngster which also translated well. He has a work ethic like no one I have ever worked with. Rain is definitely an anomaly… a very talented young man.” An anomaly? Stahelski continues: “I think it kinda goes back to when we where on Speed Racer. We decided to do a little [action] sequence with him. But as we didn’t really know Rain se thought we’d tone it done. But Rain arrived and he was like ‘I just want to train’ so we thought we’d train him and see what he could do. He picked it up quicker than we ever would have hoped. He ended up showing us he was VERY talented.”
Stahelski hardly takes a breath as he continues once more “So he put his heart and mind into that sequence [for Speed Racer] and we were so impressed we brought it to the attention of the Wachowski brothers who we knew had a project in the works regarding Ninjas. We were like ‘well I think we may have found the guy’. And when they saw our rehearsal tapes they were like ‘Yup I think you DID find the guy’.
As for the biggest challenge on Ninja Assassin? Well Stahelski answers the same way as any industry veteran… “Time is always a challenge. Time and money. But also we are making a movie with leads that most people outside of Asia haven’t heard of which is a challenge in itself, not just for us, but for the film. Beyond that we have to make sure we appeal to fans of the type of film we are making as well as everyone else”
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Stahelski has a point. Whilst the cast assembled for Ninja Assassin is impressive, none of them have a track record in opening a box office. Sure lead female Naomi Harris may have been in one of the biggest film trilogies ever (Pirates Of The Caribbean) but herself is not a name recognised much outside of the UK. But that didn’t stop V For Vendetta becoming a success and it’s true to say that both director McTeigue and producers Andy & Larry Wachowski have a track record of casting the RIGHT person for the RIGHT role. After all before The Matrix who would have though Keanu Reeves could play a messianic God like action hero?
Lead actor Rain arrives to Ninja Assassin direct from finishing work on Wachowski Brothers movie Speed Racer, where for sure Rain was one of the stand out performances in his role as fellow racer Taejo Togokahn. So popular was the character that you can even get Lego effigies of Rain in action. It was Rain’s physicality and natural abilities that drew him to attention of director McTeigue and action man Stahelski when consider who they wanted for the titular Assassin. But anyone expecting to see more kiddie friendly action from Korea’s new favourite export will be disappointed. The Rain in Ninja Assassin is a very different character altogether…
“My character’s name is Raizo. He’s a sexy character! A Ninja Assassin! I love playing him! And I have BIG fights. This is a wild movie, my character is so tough! I kill a lot of people in this movie… maybe 100 people! With swords. With chains. With punches. With Shuriken. Lots of people…”
Meeting him in the flesh, the former musician, singer & now actor certainly looks the part and is simply striking in the flesh. Rain is toned, in peak fitness and looks every bit the deadly assassin he plays in Ninja Assassin. But as Rain explained it has come at a cost… the cost of only being able to eat his favourite food!
“I have been training for six months for this film. From last December. I have learned Tae Kwon Do. Kung Fu. Movement. Weapons training, Sword training. I have learned a LOT of stuff. It’s been VERY hard. But my dancing background… that has helped. To get in shape I have been on a diet eating mainly chicken breast, vegetables. None of the food I like to eat. It’s horrible. But after this film? I’m going to eat Chocolate EVERYTHING! Salt! KFC. McDonalds. I can’t wait, It’s been a long time!”
You certainly can’t accuse Rain of choosing a ‘type’ of project. In such a short career he has already mixed TV, art house with Korean film I Am A Cyborg, multi-million dollar blockbuster with Speed Racer and now martial arts action movie Ninja Assassin. But talking to Rain, who cites his favourite action film as Korean film The Terrorist starring in Ninja Assassin has helped him realise a life long dream.
“When I was young I wanted to be in a martial arts film. So when I was shooting Speed Racer I had chance to talk to the Wachowskis about this film. Hollywood films invest much more capital than Asians do. Money is so important! Here it is enabling us to do some unique visual effects in this movie that you guys have probably never seen before. I know everyone will like this movie!
James is the best. He has amazing abilities…”
A feeling that is more than mutual about Rain’s own abilities. An action film lives and dies on its hero. He must be charismatic, handsome and believable. In an action film he must be all this and more. He must be a utterly convincing as a killer. For most big budget blockbusters, this is where the trade off is. Often you will find you have an actor who can act but not fight or a fighter who can fight but not act. But maybe in Rain director James McTeigue found someone who can convince at both. For sure Rain seems to have put his all into the film enabling the filmmakers to do more than they originally planned.
“Rain is such a talent… “, enthuses 2nd Unit director Stahelski, “and through his talent and dedication we were able to do so much more. So rather than shoot and use doubles and over the shoulders we thought well how can we highlight Rain and the action – well lets do less cuts , lets shoot it a little bit wider, lets do longer sequences so when you watch it you’ll be like ‘wow that’s really the guy’. And it really was!”
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Heading back outside to the scorching Babelsberg backlot, we walk past a selection of custom jet black police vehicles which no doubt looking at them form part of one of the films numerous action sequences. In the distance the much talked about and seemingly pivotal location – the Orphanage set. With it’s ornate décor, real Japanese maples and authentic paving, this relaxing slice of Japan could easily have been created as a place to relax and enjoy a tranquil meditation between takes. Well if it wasn’t for the variety of weapons-clad Ninjas wandering menacingly around the set. Suddenly I’m flashing back to a misspent childhood of London’s Scala cinema and late night showings of back-to-back Ninja movies…
In the distance the director is watching the action behind a bank of monitors, whilst the crew apply the finishing touches to the first scene of the evening. Taken from the finale of the film, the scene sees a battered, bruised and bloody Raizo (Rain) restrained to a pole in the centre of the courtyard. Confronted by his former sensei (Kosugi), Raizo is woken from his sleep by a bucket of water whilst Takeshi (Yune) looks on.
“Yeah I don’t think it’s a PG movie. Definitely R rating. I had an interest in definitely making an adult film.” Mused McTeigue earlier during our conversation. Judging by the heavily made up pre-final fight look of Rain’s character Razzio, McTeigue and his team are very much holding firm to that vision.
A rehearsal is called (with an empty bucket) giving both the actors and crew, including on camera on a dolly & track, a chance to run through the minute plus single take sequence. After a brief conversation with his assistant director, McTeigue jumps out of his chair, moving quickly over to Rain to impart a few last minute directions to the relative newcomer (remember Ninja Assassin is only Rain’s third feature film, after this 2008’s Speed Racer and the 2006 Korean language Saibogujiman Kwenchana aka I’m a Cyborg). Back in his chair and watching the monitors intently, a check is made that the bucket of warm water is ready, silence is requested and seconds later “Action” is called.
As I leave, with Rain having endured another two takes of water over the face, I get the impression this could be the start of a very long night ahead.
“With my first movie as a director V For Vendetta we’d talked about the movie for a while and I guess, to use that horrible cliché, it was organic. I knew the book, I knew they’d written the script we started talking about it… but the film was very timely and very pressing with what was going on in the world.” McTeigue remembers “As for Ninja Assassin this was a much more different film – this is just trying to make a great action film that had a good narrative and was interesting at the same time.”
If McTeigue and his top notch cast and action team can hold firm to that vision then 2009 will very much be the year that the Ninja is reborn for a whole new generation.