By MICHAEL GINGOLD
After stunning the world with his Indonesian-lensed actioners THE RAID: REDEMPTION and THE RAID 2, filmmaker Gareth Evans relocated to Wales and took a more horrific tack with his latest feature, APOSTLE. RUE MORGUE got an exclusive chat with Evans about this Netflix original, which premieres on the service tomorrow.
APOSTLE stars Dan Stevens (THE GUEST, COLOSSAL) as Thomas Richardson, who travels to a remote island in the early 20th century to rescue his kidnapped sister. She’s being held by a religious cult led by Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen), who puts on a welcoming face in public but exerts draconian, bloody control behind the scenes. After infiltrating the sect, Thomas discovers a number of life-or-death dramas playing out on the island, which jeopardize his mission and his life, as well as its otherworldly secrets. It’s a return to the subject matter of “Safe Haven,” Evans’ blistering entry of the found-footage anthology V/H/S/2, though as opposed to that segment’s frenzied visuals, APOSTLE takes a more measured, slow-burning and distinctly creepy approach.
Is it safe to say, after this and “Safe Haven,” that you have a certain amount of mistrust and cynicism about religion?
[Laughs] I wouldn’t say religion as such, but more about people. My intention was never really to attack religion, but to address the idea of man’s ability to corrupt faith and twist people’s beliefs in order to further a political gain. That was the subtext I was aiming for.
Having addressed the subject once before, what different kind of story were you looking to tell with APOSTLE?
Well, “Safe Haven” was a fun-packed little short told at a breakneck pace, and fundamentally it was a rollercoaster ride. It was more about the conceit of, what if a group of investigative journalists just happened to be investigating a cult when doomsday occurs, that it’s all real and everything they thought was complete bullshit is actually true? It was about exploring the techniques of POV in a horror format and trying to find creative ways to break the rules and sidestep the issue of having one fixed camera position.
APOSTLE came off the back of having made three martial-arts feature films in a row [beginning with 2009’s MERANTAU]. I knew I didn’t want to do a fourth one straightaway, because you can get pigeonholed after a while. I wanted to try something new and flex a different muscle. I had fun on “Safe Haven,” but it was a quick shoot, like seven or eight days. I wanted to do something in that genre again, and after a project I’d been developing for about two years after THE RAID 2 fell through, I was back in the UK, living in Wales and looking for something to make. I dug through my drawers of different ideas from the past, and found this old short film we never completed with a very simple concept; all it really was was a sibling searching for another sibling, and there was an envelope with a rose petal inside it. That was the very, very basic, tiny seed of an idea.
So I got in touch with Aram Tertzakian from XYZ Films and said, “I want to make a horror film next,” and he was very supportive. We got onto a creative page where we could build and build, layer by layer, each of the components of what APOSTLE eventually became—figuring out the period of time it would be set in, the themes I wanted to play with, what the subtext and the mythology of the island would be, and we started creating that world from the ground up.
Considering the state of the world today, is there any sort of political or religious allegory in APOSTLE?
There are definitely echoes and shades of what’s going on in the world, but I think that’s true for 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 50 years ago, 100 years ago as well. I don’t think it’s a new idea in terms of faith being abused and corrupted in order to further political movements; that’s been pretty standard practice, a cyclical thing that keeps happening. In terms of an influence on my writing, I wrote this back in 2016, and when it comes to the horror films I grew up watching, the ones that have stuck with me the most, there was always a subtext. APOSTLE exists mainly to be an adventure-thriller that morphs into horror, but there is something in there that is kind of reflective of the way things are. It’s a way for me to, in a way, deal with some of my own anxieties about where the world is going and what we’re seeing in the headlines and on news broadcasts. It can be quite overwhelming, in terms of not just global politics but also our consumption of news from around the world now. There is no corner that’s unturned anymore, and we know everything that goes on everywhere, especially if it’s horrific.
That kind of mass publication and consumption of day-to-day real-life violence is something I feel anxious about, to be perfectly honest. I’m very, very squeamish in real life, which is a thing people always find unusual about me. When it’s something I’ve created, it’s make-believe, but I cannot watch things that are real; I don’t have the disposition for it. So yeah, in terms of some of APOSTLE’s more ritualistic elements, they’re not a million miles away from the horrific things we were seeing with ISIS, when they were doing those horrific public executions. There was something bizarrely orchestrated about them, like they were events in some freakish way.
One element of APOSTLE’s story that I find especially intriguing is how the island’s religious leaders rebel against each other, which creates a lot of the drama and horror in the movie’s second half.
Yeah, exactly—it represents that fear of a dictatorship, of something that completely flies in the face of whatever political tenets Malcolm is espousing. In his sermons, what Malcolm talks about is like an early form of Communism, in terms of the way he discusses equality and freedom and no taxes and so forth. But the truth is, his society still exists with a hierarchy. It has a weird police state that hovers in the background, you still have a curfew, you still have to give, you still have these things you have to do in order to earn your place on this island. So in a way, he’s a hypocrite as well.
What it paves the way for is the horror and violence of what Quinn [Mark Lewis Jones] represents. When he comes into that position of power, we see it wholesale in the sequence with the table and the drill. We use that moment to show a differentiation between those who are part of the establishment and those who are purely the believers of the rhetoric. When you see the village community, they are just as disturbed and upset at what’s happening as we are as an audience, so it starts to carve a line in terms of, there are people who are just misguided believers and there are people who are inherently evil, and sometimes they can stand right next to each other.
Not only does APOSTLE explore new subject matter for you, but it’s told with a very different style—much less aggressive than the RAID movies. Was there any kind of learning curve in adapting to that kind of slow burn?
It was one of those things where, because of the nature of the genre and the storyline, it’s a different beast. I knew I wasn’t interested in making the jump-scare version of this film, and doing lots of buildup to a loud sound. Having watched a lot of movies in the British folk-horror genre, like THE WICKER MAN and THE WITCHFINDER GENERAL and THE DEVILS, they’re all slow burns. They all take their time to create their worlds, let the audience get a feel for the textures and tones they’re exploring and set up those dominoes one by one, ready to reach that tipping point where they flip the first one and you watch them all start to crash down in this crescendo of consequences and violence. That was, structurally, what I wanted to do with APOSTLE, to feel like it was building to something that would super-charge the final act. It wasn’t like THE RAID and THE RAID 2, where if the story started to wane, I could put the hero in the bathroom and have him fight 20 people. It couldn’t rely on those little punchlines I used in those movies; it needed to feel more measured.
The benefit is that in cinematographer Matt Flannery, I feel very, very lucky to have an amazing collaborator. His work is just beautiful in this film, because he has the same background as me, where we’ve watched tons and tons of movies in multiple genres since we were kids, so I have this great shorthand way of describing to him what it is I want to achieve. We messed around with our tonal styles a little; there are still certain shots and sequences that carry a bit of the DNA of what we did in the RAID films, but we wanted it to feel more classically composed in terms of the framing, and in terms of the editing as well, especially in the front half of the movie.
The village is a very impressive set; where was that constructed?
That was built by Tom Pearce, my production designer, who is an absolute wizard. He and his crew worked tirelessly in order to build that set on a patch of land in Margam Country Park, which is not too far from where I live—which was a benefit, because I could easily commute! I think they had about eight weeks, maybe nine weeks total to build the entire village, and it was constructed in the harshest winter weather we’ve had for some while. It was a misery for them. I felt guilty turning up once a week to check on the progress, because I would arrive in my bright green hi-vis jacket, looking very, very clean, while everyone else was just in absolute misery [laughs]. But they did an incredible job: the construction went up, the landscaping was done, the scenic artist came in to make every single wall, panel and piece of furniture feel like it had been sat in, worn down, weather-beaten. I was blown away by the work they did.