Justin Kurzel interview: Assassin’s Creed

Assassin’s Creed’s Justin Kurzel talks PG-13 violence, filming the leap of faith and, um, Step Brothers...

Australian director Justin Kurzel made a big splash on the indie circuit with his based-on-a-true-story murder spree drama Snowtown back in 2011. Michael Fassbender was impressed when he saw it, and ended up working with Kurzel on his 2015 Macbeth movie.

The Fass must’ve been impressed again when they filmed it, as he soon recruited Kurzel to direct Assassin’s Creed, the videogame flick that Fassbender had been producing for years and was set to star in (playing dual roles as modern day death row inmate Cal and his Spanish assassin ancestor Aguilar).

Kurzel and Fassbender also reteamed with their Lady Macbeth, Marion Cotillard, for the game adaptation (she plays an employee of megacorporation Abstergo Industries, the company that sends Cal back into his ancestor’s shoes), resulting in an action movie with top tier talent on both sides of the camera.

A few weeks before the film’s release, we sat down with a coffee-sipping Kurzel in a swanky London hotel to chat all things Assassin’s Creed

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In the press interviews you did for Macbeth, the idea of the violence being quite cathartic kept coming up. It feels like that theme, or idea, is in this as well. Are Shakespeare and Assassin’s Creed more similar than we might think?

Well, it was interesting, I thought the themes in Assassin’s Creed, the ideologies between free will and freedom of choice, and even their mantra, you know, ‘nothing is true and everything is permitted’; there was a certain sort of Shakespearian element to the heart of the game.

I think in terms of violence, I guess through my three films: Snowtown was about a kind of corruption of innocence and whether violence can be taught to someone; and the second film, Macbeth, I guess the violence was consuming the characters and kind of used ambition to somehow control the violence; and I was always quite interested in Assassin’s Creed kind of being primarily focused on whether violence is something learned, you know? Or whether it’s actually part of your DNA and your genetics. It’s there through the experiences of your ancestors, so… I definitely saw some similarities between, not only Macbeth and Assassin’s Creed, but also Snowtown.

Another thing that kind of permeates between the three films is these gorgeous location landscapes shots. How important was it for you to not do all of this in a studio?

It was kind of everything. If I think… I think the idea of me being on set looking at green screen for 92 days would’ve just done my head in. Adam Arkapaw, my cinematographer, has always been inspired by real locations and environments and real light, and we, right from the beginning, wanted to, I guess, make a point of difference from the game in that you can recreate these worlds for real in a film. And, um, why just spend all of your time in CGI when that kind of world has already been created in the game.

And that kind of passed over, especially working with Michael [Fassbender], he was very determined to do a lot of the action sequences himself. So, it was like, ‘how can we make these assassins real? And what’s possible? How much can you parkour across a city? Is slack-lining really realistic?’

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And we certainly had a lot of fun testing out what was achievable, and going a bit old school with it.

When you transition from the modern day into the regressions, there’s these wonderful swooping shots coming down from the sky. Are those drone shots?

Yeah! We used helicopters and drones, but we also came up with this fantastic rig, which was a cable rig, where you literally can put the [movie quality] Alexa camera on a cable like a Flying Fox [a customisable rigging, traditionally used with GoPro cameras] that can travel 300 metres from one end to the other in sort of less than five seconds. And that actually became a really important piece of equipment in regards to sort of making the audience feel like they’re jumping with the assassins and there’s a sense of free will to it all. So that was probably one of our biggest inventions for the film.

The drones and the helicopters have a very predictable sort of movement to them, and pace to them, and it feels a little floaty, whereas these cable runs felt much more dynamic.

That’s really interesting. Yeah, there are lots of moments in the film where the camera goes with them and I’m just like, ‘how did that happen?!’

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Yeah yeah yeah, it’s from these cable runs. And I think mounting cameras on actors and, you know, trying to find various ways to show off the movement of what it is to be an assassin.

Speaking of your three films so far: with them, you’ve gone from an 18 certificate to a 15 to a PG-13.

Yeah, kids’ films next. [Laughs]

[Also laughs] Was there, with this, any points when you were like, ‘I wish I could chuck a bit more blood in there’?

Yeah, there is. Like, I think we’ve got a lot in there, you know? When I came on, they said straight away it was a PG-13. So, I made a contract, right from the beginning, for this film to be able to play to 13-year-olds, you know, 14-year-olds. Obviously the game’s 18. And obviously I’ve sort of trodden the ground of violent films in the past, especially my first one.

But I don’t know, I saw the violence in this… I saw the actual kills, the physical skills of the assassins, to be much more interesting and dynamic than just splattering more blood on the screen. But, yeah, you do get frustrated that there are certain kind of moments when you think, ‘Wow, just a visceral hit of blood or something there could really elevate the scene’. But, all in all, I think we’ve been really happy with how it’s sat.

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Just to backtrack a bit: what was your first impression of this premise? It came to you from Michael Fassbender, is that right?

Yeah, Michael kind of sat me down when I was editing Macbeth and said, ‘I’m developing this big budget kind of Hollywood film based on Assassin’s Creed the videogame.’ And I was kind of like, ‘Well, why?’ [Laughs] ‘Why are you interested in that?’ And he said, ‘No no no, it’s really cool.’

Because I hadn’t played the games, I wasn’t familiar with kind of how different it was to my expectations. But he just started talking about genetic memory and the notion, the idea, that, ‘what if you had access to the genetic memories of your ancestors? And what if it awakened in you some sort of skills and feelings and kind of instincts?’

And I thought that was really interesting for a film, and I hadn’t seen it in a film before, especially a franchise like this. Um, so I became curious very, very quickly. And then, you know, he started talking about this war between Templars and Assassins, and I thought it was just going to be this moral, good and bad, the typical sort of stuff that you get with these sort of films. And when we started talking about, like, free will, and assassins fighting for choice and freedom of thought and sort of self-realisation, against Templars, who, they’re to control humanity and they think they’re corrupt and, you know, they believe that you need an elitist society to guide and nurture humanity.

I sort of, suddenly, was quite surprised that the film’s dramatic tension was based on ideologies that just felt very real.

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And did you go back then and play any of the games? Was there a particular one?

Yeah, I had a couple of days of boot camp with Ubisoft and a fantastic gamer who sort of took me through each of the games and the gameplay. And I had one at home that, in amongst the hugely busy time, I sat down with my daughters and we played it and, you know, it’s incredibly addictive. I really is.

My experience of games was back I was 13, 14 playing Dungeons And Dragons in an arcade, trying to pick up girls. That was kind of what my game world was. To suddenly play a game like this, um, and then being opened up to other games within Ubisoft… to me, they have really evolved into a sophisticated form.

There is a bit of a stigma around videogame movies. Were you hesitant at all because of that? Or is it, if something’s coming from Michael Fassbender, you’re not gonna worry about that?

It was a little bit like that. I think it was kind of like, I really wanted to work with Michael again. Assassin’s Creed looked really cool. Um, the ideas didn’t seem like, ‘how do you make gameplay into a film and a narrative?’ It wasn’t. The ideas felt really rich, and it was about real history and real characters. And, very, very quickly I started to forget about videogames turning into films and the so called curse of them.

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I didn’t watch many of the films that have been made in the past, probably deliberately, to not get caught up. I think Ubisoft just had a really interesting attitude to it all. They got Michael involved five years ago, they developed it with him, they wanted new characters, new settings, timelines, and they spent a lot of time developing it themselves rather than just handing over the material to a studio. Um, so I found that attitude to be different to what I was expecting.

So, how is producer-Fassbender different to actor-Fassbender?

Well, it’s just a very different relationship. You know, you’re suddenly on set intimately talking through a dramatic scene, or how the blade’s coming out, or putting him on a wire and jumping him off a building to, then, suddenly being in a room discussing the broader things of schedules and budgets and so forth. So, it was a very new experience for the both of us. It was very different to Macbeth, you know, and it’s his baby, he’s incredibly passionate about it. So, I was very aware of his trust in me, and not wanting to fuck it up for him, you know? So, I think that relationship kind of evolved as we were making the film.

And obviously he’s got the experience of being in big franchises like X-Men. Was it helpful to have someone who’s a producer and who’s in it who’s done all the green screen stuff and things like that before?

Yeah, I mean, I think Michael comes on set and he’s got certain expectations about how a film should be run. And I think everyone is definitely on their toes when he’s around, and I think that’s because of the breadth of experience he’s worked on, and the amazing directors he’s worked with in the past, you know? There’s an energy he brings on that you can tell has come from working on those other films.

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In terms of the story, there’s more of it set in the modern day than I expected. Is that because, from a filmmaking standpoint, you want to see things that the characters can interact with and make decisions and changes about?

Yeah, it was interesting. When the script came in it was predominantly an origin story about a contemporary, modern man who has no idea that he’s extraordinary and he comes from a tribe of assassins that go back 500 years. And I think Ubisoft always wanted, I guess, for the film to exist and the narratives to continue, for the centre of it to be about a modern day figure. And then being able to use the past as kind of, I guess, memory travels that then start to inform that character and show him who he is.

I agree, I think it probably, in the game, you get past the Animus stuff really quickly, and you get into the good stuff in the past, but we and Ubisoft just got really, really excited by – and thought it was an excellent narrative concept – how the present day can be completely and utterly manipulated and informed by the past.

That was, again, a really exciting kind of direction in which Ubisoft really wanted to push it that made the film different from the game. And, I think we were also really aware of just doing appropriations of the game. You know, I think maybe that’s where things have fallen down in the past, with the videogames [turned into movies], that they just feel so strangled by the game that they can’t have an identity out of it. I think this concept of a modern day figure was maybe a way of breaking the shackles a little bit.

One thing from the games that you stayed really faithful to was the leap of faith. I read that there’s a real jump in there, in the film.

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So, how did you shoot that? Where did you shoot that? How much other stuff had to go on top of it?

Well, we definitely wanted to film a leap of faith and obviously we couldn’t leap of Seville Cathedral in the 15th century. But Damien Walters, who came on to do the leap of faith, and is one of the best parkour guys in the world, was really determined to do a real one for us. No matter what you do, whether you shooting it with wires or robo-arms or whatever, you can never get that real sense of flight and that sense of the way someone travels through the atmosphere. So, Damien waited until towards the end of the shoot in [Spanish southern city] Almeria, and we put a huge crane up, and we went from 20 foot to 40 foot and built up about seven jumps to 120, which is one of the longest jumps – free fall jumps – that’s been performed in the last thirty years.


That was a huge thing of seeing whether that height, that is comparable with the Church [which Aguilar jumps off of in the finished film]… sort of, seeing whether it was humanly possible. And I think it was, with a lot of the stunts of the film, sort of, ‘How far can you take them? What’s kind of humanly possible?’ And definitely that was an extremely dangerous jump, and one that we’re really glad we captured.

What’s he landing on when he does it?

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He’s landing on, like, a huge sort of inflatable air mat, that sort of decompresses when you land on it. Essentially, it not only breaks your fall, but it kind of falls with you.

A story broke a few months ago that Assassin’s Creed 2 is already in development. Are you involved with that?

It’s kind of not. It’s, you know, I think we’ve all sat around and discussed ideas and thoughts. I only finished the film about three weeks ago, four weeks ago, so I think everyone’s gonna sort of take a breath and see whether audiences embrace this one and that there’s a demand for another one.

I think you can definitely take it to some pretty great places. We’ve definitely left the first one quite open at the end, not only to suggest that this could go on but also, you know, to kind of allow those characters to kind of sit and not feel completed. So, there’s obviously all the different timelines you can go to and, you know, there’s also something very corruptible about those characters. You could definitely see how an Assassin could turn bad, and a Templar good. So, I think, we’ve talked about some ideas, but no we haven’t started writing or gone into development at all yet.

The internet tells me that True History Of The Kelly Gang is your current film. Is that right? Is that what you’re on at the moment?

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It’s one that I’m developing at the moment. Yeah, there’s a few films I’m really interested in, that I’ve sort of being developing over the last year or two years. And The True History Of The Kelly Gang is, um, a kind of opus to make. There’s been a lot of films made about [Australian bushranger] Ned Kelly, but Peter Carey’s novel… there’s an honesty to it, and a kind of point of view of it that’s very, very different to the way people perceive Ned Kelly. In Australia, he’s a bit of a legend, and he’s a bit of a larrikin, and I think Peter’s got the core of not only who he is, but also what Australia was at the time. It is a little bit, it’s a love project of mine that hopefully – we’re just keeping on developing at the moment – it’ll be shot some time soon.

So you’ve got your outlaw opus. Another one that I read was that you love Step Brothers and you’ve written a comedy film?

Well, my brother’s written one, and I’m producing it for him. It’s a comedy about an obsessed tennis parent in Russia who does something pretty awful at a tennis tournament with his 13-year-old son. And the two of them start to go on the run. It’s pretty fantastic, it’s pretty hilarious, and Jed [Kurzel, the aforementioned brother who also scores Justin Kurzel’s films] is gonna direct that.

And yeah, I love comedy, I really do. Like Step Brothers I think is kind of genius, and, you know, yeah, I’d love to find something in the future to do, as good as that.

So do you know what you’re going onto after this press tour is finished?

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Um, I’m… there’s a couple films that I’m looking at, yeah, which I can’t say anything about. Um, and then, there’s also, you know, a huge break coming up where I can sort of be human again and find myself and read and spend time with my family. So, yeah, I’m not sure yet.

And just finally, one of the great things they’ve started doing recently is saying at the end of films how many jobs the production created. I think Assassin’s Creed’s one said 1400 jobs were made by the movie. Of those 1400 people, I was wondering, is there one person you’d like to single out, who maybe won’t get mentioned in the reviews, that you couldn’t have made this without?

The one person who I think has been integral to this is probably Arnon Milchan, who’s a producer at Ubisoft. I think that Arnon’s a pretty extraordinary kind of figure, he’s made some pretty amazing films, and for him to take the risk on someone like me, who’s never made a film like this before, and also really a group of kind of virgins, making a videogame adaption – which has really bad track records [laughs] – and it’s his money, you know, I think he showed an enormous amount of courage for that, and you can see that through his films.

I guess, meeting him, and being around him, and the sort of history he’s had in films [producing the likes of Fight Club, 12 Years A Slave and The Revenant] was something quite unexpected and special about making this film. Because, you know, you hear awful stories about working on these larger films, and this for me was a pretty collaborative experience, you know, and that’s largely due to New Regency and him.

Justin Kurzel, thank you very much!

Assassin’s Creed is in UK Cinemas from January 1st.

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