This article contains some mild Assassin’s Creed movie spoilers.
At first glance, the corridor would appear to be brightly lit. After all, there is a soft fluorescence pooling down along the concrete floor from lights on high, as well as footlights below that trace every step. But this labyrinthine hallway belongs to Abstergo, the malevolent conglomerate run by a secret society in Assassin’s Creed. So no matter the light source, the effect in this large but controlled space is sterile, bleak, and quietly authoritarian.
Thus it’s no wonder that Michael Fassbender’s character Callum Lynch chooses this exact moment to attempt his escape—or at least pose a demonstration of very un-civil disobedience. Surrounded by guards armed with only nightsticks and (presumably) a taser or two, Fassbender’s protagonist moves not like a troubled prisoner circa 2016, but like a man possessed from another time. He moves like an Assassin.
In actuality, Fassbender is possessed simply by the desire to correctly execute the elaborate fight choreography on display. And we’re not in the belly of a stainless steel beast. Rather, it’s a rainy Wednesday in London, and I and a group of other journalists are huddled around a playback monitor at Pinewood Studios to watch Fassbender whip out those ass-kicking moves. He does that more, one take at a time, as Callum Lynch lays out a half-dozen Abstergo guards in their fit black suits with a near-lethal precision that does not match Cal’s biography of an American drifter who’s been running his whole life. In this moment, the man at the center of the Assassin’s Creed movie is making a stand so firm that the camera is forced to whirl around the performer, as if trying to avoid a stray punch.
The secret for this complicated sequence, besides the meticulous choreography, is that the gliding camera is overseen by cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, who lens junkies know best as the DP on the first season of True Detective. And like that show’s glory days, Arkapaw’s penchant for uninterrupted shots is adding an immediate tactile quality to the current beatdown.
“We’re trying not to cut a lot,” director Justin Kurzel said earlier that day about this more grounded approach to the violence. “I think we’re just trying not to cheat as much. I think in some of these films, you can get away with creating an action sequence with continuous cuts. I think we’re trying to, in an old school way, allow action to play out and for you to be engaged with the action front of you… before we’re kind of cutting into them.”
A video game adaptation that tries to do as much in the camera as possible? That of course sounds unusual, but so would much else around the Assassin’s Creed set for fans of the Ubisoft games—as well as perhaps those who are not used to such craftsmanship going into a “video game movie.”
A Stage Built for Walking and Talking
The set itself is a testament to Kurzel’s serious approach for a blockbuster about jumping through ancestors’ memories via DNA. Constructed on the 007 Stage at Pinewood Studios—the one that Eon Productions had built to house a submarine-eater in The Spy Who Loved Me—Assassin’s Creed is primarily using the space to create a sprawling set-piece that is as uninterrupted as Kurzel/Arkapaw’s aforementioned shots. Designated almost entirely to be part of Abstergo’s ominous Madrid Headquarters, the filmmakers behind Assassin’s Creed have used the space to form a giant track comprising that facility.
And having walked the layout several times—with producer Patrick Crowley providing the first and most thorough tour—its benign oppression is effective. Instead of walking between sets, the space acts like a real floor plan for soothing imprisonment with a massive hallway as its centerpiece. With no windows present, the simple size of the lengthy hall, which is dotted by branchless trees kept in soilless pots, becomes its own kind of mental torture. There are also multiple stony archways and exposed brick, which hint at the building’s more ancient origins—Kurzel suspects it used to be a Byzantine Templar church that Abstergo has wallpapered over—but now it just adds to the a strange secular-occultist affectation.
While each room in this track has a distinct feel, all of it is intentionally overwhelming at first brush. When we chatted with Andy Nicholson, the production designer on Assassin’s Creed, he repeatedly made clear that the set is meant to be a character in the film, one of windowless submission.
“If you just woke up, how would you escape, where the fuck would you go?” Nicholson said. “You run down the corridor, and it’s like, ‘There’s a staircase. Does it go anywhere?’ Or if you cross here, does it go anywhere? That sort of thing is the embodiment of this building.”
Indeed, but it is also easy to quickly imagine that the multiple staircases and catwalks that also decorate the great hall—alongside lit-up Abstergo signs that gamers are all too familiar with—could one day make for a terrific fight sequence and several well-placed parkour jumps.
Some of the other spaces that we toured included the bedroom/holding room that will mark Callum’s prison cell. It is again mostly concrete and glass that encloses a darkly lit twin bed, and its depressing green blanket. However, it is also rather large, which will inevitably come into play as Crowley confirmed that Cal will have “bleeding” effects here—where his 15th century ancestor Aguilar will come to his modern descendant in visions, training him to be a deadly Assassin in 2016.
Finally, connected by other passageways and atriums designed specifically for the movie is a massive common room where Abstergo’s “patients” will undoubtedly spend most of their time. In the center of the room are four stainless steel picnic tables with connected and equally spotless benches. Each one features a childhood game that has been appropriately dehumanized: would you care to play black and white checkers or simply metallic and gunmetal gray chess?
The only color in the room comes from one wall that is lined by a garden. With a raised floor carved out of wood, one imagines that Abstergo’s patients might actually find solace in the greenery, although the irony that most of the plants are still kept in metallic cages could not be lost on them. Also, there are some curious voodoo dolls and herbal potions hidden away in the garden area that will likely come into play for Michael K. Williams’ character, a fellow patient who has been at Abstergo for years before Cal got there. His character’s name is Moussa, but at this point he probably should be called Baptiste, his 200-year-old ancestor that was a voodoo Assassin known to dabble in poisons.
Directly across from the garden—with those steel picnic tables in between them—is a control center where Abstergo’s best and brightest are constantly monitoring their “patients,” and seeing what they do when they aren’t spending their days communing with their ancestors.
“It’s not a secret, [the patients] have powers,” Williams told me during an interview. “So, they know Moussa plays with magic and things like that. And they encourage that we do these things, so they can cipher it out of our brains into the things they stick into the back of our heads. So, they give us little safe havens, the environment is to play with our gifts.”
If there is not a patient/Assassin uprising by the end of the movie where someone goes through that glass window, I’ll eat my Ubisoft hoodie.
A Period/Future Ratio of 35/65 Percent
The entire structure of the set seems built around climbing to that moment of revolution, which is one of Assassin’s Creed’s biggest departures from the games (the other being that there are apparently no haystack landings!).
While everyone I talked to during the set visit stressed Ubisoft’s involvement and a desire to capture the essence of the game, the whole of the Pinewood set for Creed is a massively expensive undertaking meant to flesh out the 2016 and science fiction elements of the story. Whereas the games increasingly have muted and shaded the game-within-a-game fantasy elements since the end of Assassin’s Creed III—to the point where it felt like almost a cursory obligation in Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate—the film is going to be spending most of its time in the modern world.
Producer Patrick Crowley made this explicit when he said the modern day sequences would account for about 65 percent of the film while the sequences set in 1491 Spain (called “regressions” within the movie) would take up about 35 percent of the running time.
Kurzel confirmed this to me again by saying, “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.” But the advantage for the film is exploring the duality effect of when these two worlds bleed. The premise of Assassin’s Creed as a film is not that far removed from the set-up of the original 2007 video game where the character of Desmond Miles travels back to the Third Crusade at proverbial gunpoint after being kidnapped by Abstergo. But while that felt like window dressing in its narrative, the movie will be the chance to unite the themes of moral ambiguity from the games in a much more immediate context. Or as Kurzel suggested, “We’re continuously just trying to find ways in which there’s a bridge between those two worlds.”
The bridge itself is much more dynamic for Callum Lynch than it ever was for gamers’ Desmond Miles. Unlike Desmond, Cal has a fairly grisly and immediate backstory that moviegoers were already introduced to in the first trailer. In Assassin’s Creed’s movie storyline, Cal has been on the run from essentially himself after he saw his father murder his mother. What he could not realize at the time was that his parents were both Assassins, and his father killed his wife out of love—he had to stop Abstergo from mining her living blood to find out the secrets that she (and now Cal) keep in their DNA.
Like in the games, Abstergo is an international corporate entity that is really the secret arm of the Crusades’ Templars, who have survived through the centuries under many guises. Now, Abstergo is one of the world’s most powerful firms, which is overseen by Rikkin (Jeremy Irons), a secret Templar who on the day we visited the set was shooting a scene where he was addressing an assembled G7 summit.
Rikkin’s daughter is Sofia (Marion Cotillard), who by all accounts is a well-intentioned woman that seems oblivious about the Templars’ more sinister motives. She oversees all of the “patients” (her preference over calling them prisoners) in Abstergo’s Madrid facility, which is where adult Callum Lynch comes back into play. As an adult, Cal was convicted for murdering a pimp who beat up a woman (much like how his mother died), and the film opens with him on death row. In fact, our press group saw the photos of Michael Fassbender outstretched on a gurney with a ticking clock, like Christ about to meet his Texan crucifixion.
But the Lone Star state was deceived since Cal was not executed but drugged by Abstergo employees. With the world believing Lynch is dead, nobody will look for him all the way in Spain where he is now a patient in a facility that has held up to 40 previous persons of interest—many of whom have since gone insane or worse. There, Sofia wants to incorporate Cal into her study where she intends to literally cure violence by tracing its origins through a science fiction machine called the Animus (it’s why she only allows tasers on her guards’ personage). She’ll go all the way back to Adam and Eve if she has to in order to discover why mankind is so hostile. However, Rikkin has different plans for Cal—he specifically wants to go into Cal’s memories of 1491 Spain and find one solitary ancestor: Aguilar.
It appears Aguilar knows where an ancient artifact/MacGuffin is hidden in Seville that the Templars have searched for since prior to the death of Cal’s mother. And through the Animus, Cal will have three “regressions” in the film that take him back to 1491 Spain and to the life of Aguilar, a stoic man who is newly recruited to the Assassin’s guild during the first regression. And as Aguilar’s visage and abilities bleed into Cal’s reality, Cal will free-run with Aguilar by taking on the Spanish Inquisition at its height, including the infamous Grand Inquisitor, Tomás de Torquemada.
“It’s Not Like Star Wars”
“I just thought if you’re doing a fantasy film, the first thing about it was to have something seeded in some sort of scientific world,” Michael Fassbender said as we sat around those aforementioned picnic benches. Fassbender, who seemed fairly relaxed before shooting that day’s fight scene, was not in costume and appeared at peace well into the middle of his 80-day shoot on the film, which had begun with production in Malta’s capital city of Valletta (it’s doubling for 1491 Seville).
“I just thought that was a really interesting catch and I thought that was a very plausible theory,” Fassbender elaborated. “I think if you can bring something like that to a fantastical world, it just hooks the audience in even more and makes the journey even more immersive.”
Fassbender has been developing the Assassin’s Creed movie with Ubisoft for four years before it came to Pinewood. While he has had other blockbuster vehicles in the X-Men movies, and the well earned Oscar nomination for his enigmatic turn as Steve Jobs, he has been resolute on bringing Assassin’s Creed to the screen as his first solo, mega-budgeted movie with his name above the title on the poster. And as he shook hands with every journalist in this fictional common room, the cautious expectation he has for the project bled through too.
“I just loved the idea of Templars versus Assassins,” Fassbender remarked about why he has been so patient about this movie’s development. “This idea of an elite group of people sort of struggling with the idea of free will and these sort of rebels, if you like, this kind of elite force trying to struggle for humanity, essentially. The idea that the original Assassins were Adam and Eve, and the Apple in the Garden of Eden, I thought that was really interesting. And also, what I liked about it is it’s not like Star Wars where you have the Dark Side and the Light. Both of these factions, they contradict each other all the time; they contradict themselves all the time, and they’re hypocritical of their beliefs… So morally, you have a very gray area that they are working in, and I thought that was unusual for this sort of type of film.”
In that vein, Fassbender and company seem very aware that as the Assassin’s Creed games progressed, the Assassins and Templars’ differences and distinctions have further blurred. If that level of murkiness can actually be adapted in a film of this blockbuster scale, it’d be a very unique special effect all its own.
The Inquisition, Look Out Sin
And rest assured that despite the film mostly taking place in 2016, it does have a massively epic quality. While the set I visited was only for the Abstergo scenes, the third of the film which takes place in 1491 was represented in a variety of ways, including with set photos of action sequences already shot in Malta (they went on to shoot several more in Spain during December 2015).
In those Malta set photos, we glimpsed Michael Fassbender’s parkour double, Damien Walters, leaping across rooftops in Valletta. Even with the contemporary windows not yet digitally removed, it appears to be straight out of the video game. But more impressive still is the already filmed 1491 centerpiece: the Auto-da-fé.
In history, the Auto-da-fé was a “public penance” utilized as essentially a sentencing hearing by Catholic Inquisitions in Portugal, Mexico, and, yes, Spain. While traditionally the actual executions did not occur on the same day, mythmaking has made it so, and the glimpses we have of the actual “execution” in that scene are jaw-dropping.
During the sequence, Michael Fassbender as Aguilar—with flowing long hair, no less—is chained up at a post alongside a mysterious female assassin, clearly about to be burned at the stake. A friar looks on with a torch ready (probably Torquemada), and in the distance there’s a dais where the king and queen of Spain sit in all their decadent pageantry. Subsequent photos show that both Aguilar and his female companion break free, however some other poor bastard is lit up like a Christmas tree behind them in the distance.
It is very evident that the director of last year’s Macbeth is helming the film when Fassbender is swashbuckling in a wide shot that has a focus so deep it reaches the barbecued heretic in the background.
“There’s something very exciting about going between two different palates,” Kurzel told me during our interview. “I mean the past feels like a Caravaggio painting. It’s rich and very seductive, and like the game—the light in the game is just extraordinary—so, there’s a romance to the history that we really didn’t want to lose contrasted with this very sophisticated, architectural kind of heavy design world of modern day painters.”
Set designer Andy Nicholson is also evidently proud of the sequence.
“One of the best uses of location in Malta was the Auto-da-fé sequence where we had an existing Maltese fort, which had three sides—big courtyard for three sides, it was 150 feet squared courtyard—and within that we built a huge, very dramatic woodwork, black set of bleachers overlooking the stage where the Inquisition was happening.”
Costume designer Sammy Sheldon also spoke fondly about the ambition of the scene where she designed all those costumes, and over 200 masks for the present Spanish peasants. Yet, her greatest challenge might have been adapting the costume from the game to be photo-realistic. While she incorporated 15th century Spanish influences, such as the silks and Moorish influence, the costume had to remain accurate to the game and Ubisoft’s specific guidelines.
As a result, Sheldon said they went through 20 or 30 versions of the hood, including “versions of the hoods that are stuck to the head and have all kinds of contraptions under there.” But she said they were satisfied when it “looks small enough to mimic the game but also big enough that it looks natural. That’s a tricky thing to do, because throughout the game every piece of fabric is manipulated from shot-to-shot and that can’t happen in live-action.”
A 21st Century Wrist-Blade
Finally, we also toured the “armory” and weapons room where Assassin’s Creed armorer Tim Wildgoose introduced us to the weapons he had designed for the film. There were over 3,000 weapons in the facility, including every variation on the iconic wrist-blade, which Wildgoose showed us how to operate. With a small ring around his finger that was attached to a wire, he could flick down and the iconic video game knife-of-death would emerge with a clink.
Even cooler, however, was a prop that might indicate how the Assassin’s Creed movie’s third act could begin: a modern day wrist-blade made from the spare parts of a shoe, a watch, a smartphone, and a pen. Around the space were also medieval maces, a countless variety of swords, and most especially notable was the singular cane-sword utilized by video game characters Jacob and Evie Frye from Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate. It should also be noted that we could see the blade and golden handle be extended one week before that game even hit stores—Justin Kurzel requested that it be placed in the film as an Easter egg. Wildgoose also sneaked one of his favorites in by showing off Connor Kenway’s long six-foot bow from Assassin’s Creed III. Apparently it—along with ninja claws and a five-bladed weapon—will be in an Easter egg-littered scene of a weapon’s dump late in the film.
The Animus and Other Changes
There is obviously plenty of fan service in the film, and with Ubisoft being involved as actual producers on the project, it would make sense. But along with that fidelity, hints of shrewd cinematic changes indicate that Assassin’s Creed might break the video game movie curse.
The most intriguing omen that could go either way is the movie’s depiction of the Animus. In the earliest games, Desmond Miles would just sit down in a chair or comfortable couch and be transported to Renaissance Italy or Revolutionary New England. Conversely, almost half of the movie cannot feature Cal just lying down on the job if the sci-fi elements are to work.
Indeed, Nicholson called designing the Animus a “radical departure” from the games. However, it was done to make the movie more “photographically interesting” and much more receptive to being executed on a performance level.
Fassbender says the redesign has been so successful that it might very well appear in a future game.
“We just didn’t want to have something where I sit into a seat,” the actor told me. “Number one, we’ve seen it before in The Matrix, and it’s also not a very dramatic experience when we’re doing the modern day sort of version of the regression. We wanted to have something where the character was actually physically involved in it. And so I think they, Andy and Justin, have come up with something very [interesting]. Talking to Ubisoft, they’re thinking of perhaps adopting some of these ideas. But definitely not to have it so much be Cal as a passenger on a chair.”
If Fassbender and Kurzel can thread that needle, not just between time periods, but between quality movies and video games, they might beat the video game adaptation’s daunting track record. Perhaps it’s time for good movies and games to also have a bleeding effect too?
20th Century Fox releases Assassin’s Creed on Dec. 21, 2016.
You can also chat about Assassin’s Creed or almost any other film on Twitter @DCrowsNest.