It’s not often a filmmaker comes along with a movie that makes them legions of instant fans the way Gareth Evans did with his action masterpiece The Raid (and it’s equally brilliant sequel). Naturally there was a lot of curiosity about what Evans would do next after his masterful one-two punch. While there were a number of potential projects since The Raid 2 dropped in 2014, Evans wound up leaving action behind for his next film and dipped a toe (or a whole severed foot) in the horror genre with the thrilling and gruesome Apostle.
Legion star Dan Stevens leads the film as Thomas Richardson, a man with a dark past who travels to a mysterious island where his sister is being held hostage by a deadly cult. It’s a brutal, blood-soaked piece of culty horror that starts with a slow burn before turning up the heat to full blast and leaving behind a mess of body parts.
Apostle is now streaming on Netflix, but ahead of the film’s release I sat down with the writer-director at Fantastic Fest where the film made its world premiere to talk about his blood-soaked cult story and making the transition from action to horror. We discussed how he translated his love of 70s folk-horror to an updated nightmare, how he approached making a film without the kinetic energy of his action scenes, the similarities and differences between horror and action set-pieces, and creating the creepy mythology in his film. Check out what he said below, and for the super spoilery portion of our interview, be sure to check out Evans’ explanation of the film’s chilling ending.
I love The Raid and I love horror so I was very excited to see you try your hand at the genre. Was there something you felt was missing from horror that you wanted to bring, or was this just a passion project for you?
GARETH EVANS: I think it was more the latter, it was more just passion. There’s this thing of, before I started making The Raid films I was just obsessed with all different genres and just loved cinema. Then when The Raid came along, The Raid 2 came along, it was an opportunity for me to have a chance to get into the industry. I loved making those films, and they were great for me, but I want to tell other stories too. I didn’t want to be, like “the action guy”. Not that that’s a bad thing, it was just I knew that I wanted to try my hand in different things. When me and Timo [Tjajhanto] made Safe Haven for VHS 2, that was me having an opportunity to flex a filmmaker muscle in that genre, it was something that always interested me. I know there’s certain similarities between making an action film or making a horror film, so I kind of wanted to explore it more.
When I moved back to the UK and I started playing with ideas of what to do next, this one came up, and it existed in a number of different formats before. I did a terrible short film before I did anything professional. The only remnants of it was there was a sibling looking for another sibling and there was an envelope with a rose petal in it, that was it, that was all they had, and that carried over.
Fast forward to 2016, I’m sat with Aaron, my producing partner from XYZ Films. We’re sharing pictures with each other left and right. This is the kind of atmosphere, this is the kind of tone, this is the history of it, this the peak, see how this plays into a timeline, really just create the world of it and the ecosystem of it and then start to be like okay there’s these other characters, there’s these two young kids and they’re really in love with each other but they have to keep their relationship a secret. What else can we do? This one, these three guys are the forefathers of the island. It was the fun of just creating from scratch.
You have to build the world.
EVANS: You build a world out of it. It was so much fun. I’m sorry I kind of got side tracked. It was a chance to create something, first and foremost, that was about the dramatic side of the story and the characters, and then start it off as almost like an adventure film that would veer in to thriller and then that would veer into horror and then go full horror. That was the fun aspect, from my side.
Then being British, and being in love with the whole folk-horror vibe of the 70s and then went to some of the more modern stuff, like Ben Wheatley’s stuff. For me, I wanted to take a look at those films, pull them apart, look at the aesthetics, find out what it was, what the look and the feel is, and the sounds of those films, and the performances and the world of them. See why it was that it felt grounded at points, then ever so slightly freakishly askew at points, and frankly, kind of incorporated that into the world that we were building.
You talk about this relationship between action and horror and I was curious about that, as a filmmaker, your approach to doing a different kind of set piece. The gore set piece, or a scare set piece, as opposed to these kick-ass action pieces.
EVANS: The best way I can think to describe it, is that in The Raid and The Raid 2, we wouldn’t dwell on them as long as I would in Apostle, but preceding an action sequence, I always try to find moments of tension and suspense, you crank it up a little bit so that when the action comes it’s like an explosion of energy that carries you through that action sequence. It’s just all about the buildup to the action sequence.
That’s similar to doing it with horror, although with horror, usually, all of those suspense builds and tension builds are to jump scare, but then the release is really quick they just say pop and it’s gone. You know what I mean? You’ve got the little jolt and then you carry on. For me, what I wanted to do, instead wait where I can sustain that sense of dread, sustain that feeling of danger so that you don’t get those jump scare release moments. You don’t get that release from it, so I might move you into another part of the plot, but I haven’t let you let go of that feeling yet. It carries over in to the next scene of drama until it dissipates. By the end of that scene, you should be seeing it build again. We get almost kind of like a strangle hold.
The Raid films are such kinetic films, and I also felt that Safe Haven was a very kinetic film. This has moments, bursts of kinetic energy, but that’s not the focus. It’s slower and more psychological. Was that a big challenge for you to transition out of that as source of energy and thrills?
EVANS: I think, with Apostle, the first opening 30 to 40 [minutes] is kind of like a drip feed. It’s more measured. The pace is more controlled. It’s more about I’m going to make you interest in things, but I’m not going to tell you why you’re interested in them yet. I want you to have a bit of intrigue into ours. Some of them even answer, some of them just left them hanging. For the first hour, it kind of needed to feel like it was building. Each moment there would be a little explosion of energy. It would be to further tease. Yes it’s going to come, but it’s not yet. Each one would kind of build some intensity on top. If, for example, for me, and maybe the first one is probably the scene in the church.
For me, that’s the first one, and then you kind of have taken the back way, but it doesn’t mean that much in terms of plot yet, and then gradually the next one is probably when they parade the sister, then all of a sudden this is starting to get real now. Slowly the intensity of all those moments will build over time, it’s kind of like I described it, a stack of dominoes, hit the table and you’re just going to flip and tip them and you’re going to just free-reel for the rest of the film, then. That’s always been a structural thing I’ve been interested in.
With the mythology, It’s not a real thing. What was the through line of the mythology you wanted to build and what did you pull from to create this sort of woodland goddess?
EVANS: I knew I wanted to — and all of this is like subtext, I didn’t want to make films that’s a social statement, but I feel like most interesting horror films have a subtext to it and are reflective of certain beliefs and certain things. I wanted to do something that was talking a little bit about religion, faith in order to push political gain. I didn’t want to be an attack on religion. In that respect, what’s the best way I can create something that acts like a metaphor for that.
For me, it was like, well what if these people arrive on this island and it’s perfect. You’ve got this goddess, she’s almost a little bit like mother nature in that respect, she feeds off of it and then she replenishes. The sea would be perfect, the harvest is amazing, it’s all clean and beautiful crops. They turn up and they find her, instead of revering her, they want to abuse the power they can gain from her. So they enslave her. From there on, that’s when the crops become toxic, because it’s not that she’s replenishing the village because of her natural ability but because she’s forced to. That became a mechanism, which is kind of used as an allegory for what we were talking about with the politics, religion and corruption of both.
In terms of the natural, the wood elements and the tree elements, that came from the idea of if it’s 1905 and they’re discovering this island, it’s untouched, they have to create their own landscape, they have to create their own infrastructure. There’s no irrigation, there’s no structure in terms of society there. They set up camp and then they build houses using the wood from the boats. It had to feel rustic, it had to feel organic. Even things like the healing stand, designing that table, it was all something that made sense that they could build. It was like an assembled table gets assembled there, vices that they would probably use for building, and then device used to cut holes through wood. It’s all instruments that they might have had as part of that world, as part of that community, that would’ve gone towards the old-world design of the entire thing.