By Joe Utichi – www.joeutichi.com
“It was so frightening!”
For director Justin Kurzel, transforming the world of the hit video game series ASSASSIN’S CREED into a live action feature film meant putting as much effort into realizing the action of the games in real life as possible. “I could have shot it all in a parking lot and made it very CGI-heavy,” he admits, “but I thought what was really interesting was to see how we could make the audience feel as though it were possible; that these Assassins in real life could jump between buildings.”
The games, he says, celebrate the human spirit and what we’re capable of, so the first task was realizing the freerunning ability most associated with them. Assassins spend their time scaling buildings and navigating rooftops, better to be hidden from the world beneath them.
Early on in the project he took a meeting with the stunt coordinator, Ben Cooke, to determine how much could be realized. It was Cooke who suggested bringing on Damien Walters, one of the world’s leading freerunners, to choreograph these sequences with the principal actors and the stunt team.
“What’s so amazing about this stuff is that you can do it,” says Kurzel. “You’re looking at an Assassin jumping off a building and going, ‘Is that possible?’ Well, we did it. I think that’s very important, especially if the film’s going to have some sense of its own identity. We’ve paid our dues to figure out how you jump from building to building, and leap and climb. What is a Leap of Faith that feels real and tangible and visceral?”
Indeed, the initial conversation with Walters and Cooke inspired Kurzel to go as far as was possible with the stunts of the movie. When they started talking about the Leap of Faith – an iconic ASSASSIN’S CREED series staple, in which an Assassin flings himself off a ledge, turns in mid-air and lands on his back in water or on a bale of hay – Walters revealed that he’d been planning to attempt his own, just for fun. 20ft was the height mooted by the production to attempt the leap. Walters suggested going for 120ft.
This series hallmark became the hallmark stunt of the film as well, as freefalling is rarely attempted for real in the era of CGI. It’s amongst the most dangerous kind of stunts a performer can attempt and, as Walters notes, “Anyone can drop from 120ft. It’s just how you walk after it – or if you do.”
But he insists that it was worth the effort. “It’s such an iconic part of the game that I don’t think it should be ruined with visual effects. We actually went back to the old school of stunts and doing that kind of thing for real. Visual effects have taken over, but when you do it for real it just looks more natural. If you get these stunts wrong, you’re going down, but for a stunt performer, if you’re not getting scared, it’s meaningless.”
Agrees Michael Fassbender, who plays the dual roles of Callum Lynch and Aguilar de Nehar in the movie: “We did it old-school, on location, on camera. Damien doing that jump – it was so frightening. He was nervous, but I think it was very special that he did his biggest jump on our movie. I got nervous just watching him; I felt a little sick every time he was up there. I just wanted him down safe.”
For many of the actors involved, the action of ASSASSIN’S CREED has involved months of intense fight training. The Assassins prefer to attack in the shadows, but there are plenty of all-out fight sequences in the film that require them to be incredibly precise. Michael Kenneth Williams plays Moussa, an Assassin caught in the Abstergo facility with Cal Lynch. “I’ve been in a few fight scenes before, but this type of choreography was a whole different thing,” he notes. “I used muscles I hadn’t used in a long time. It was so much fun to do, though. There was a lot of work – several hours every day – but it was fun.”
“You have to get the choreography to a level where you feel secure,” notes Mathias Verala, who plays Emir. “Otherwise it gets in the way of the acting. It was pretty advanced, and Justin likes to run scenes the whole way through. That increased the complexity because there’s nowhere to hide. You have to juggle the fight, the text and the essence of every scene, which is a challenge when you’re out of breath from fighting,”
Costume designer Sammy Sheldon-Differ went to great lengths to help the actors when it came to their stunt and fight work. The costumes were designed to look good and be flexible, and every Assassin costume came with a pair of boots designed specifically for freerunning. “It’s something I’d never done before, but now I know how,” she laughs. “They’ve got squishy soles in them – trainer soles – but they’re so slim that you’d never know they weren’t proper boots. I was really keen on them not having to change their boots just for a stunt, so they wear the same ones throughout the film.”
Her team also worked closely with the Armoury on the weapons of the Assassins, specifically in the 15th Century period. The Hidden Blade, the Assassin’s key main weapon, is worn in a leather bracer on the wrist – Sheldon-Differ made the leather parts and Armourer Tim Wildgoose supplied blades that actually functioned.
“For each wrist blade we made different versions that do different things on camera,” Wildgoose explains. “If they wanted to show Michael cocking his wrist blade, everything on one of them works and rotates and swings around.”
Another version uses a string wrapped around an actor’s finger which, when pulled, triggers the blade to spring out so it’s ready for action. “We’ve had to make everything work for real… just for fun, really.”
Wildgoose is a big fan of the ASSASSIN’S CREED games, and saw it as his responsibility to realize the weapons, even though the brief might not have demanded it in every case, so that any workings that were caught on camera would be accurate.
As a fan of the games, he embraced a particular brief from production that Abstergo would house many artefacts gathered from Assassins over the years. “I’ve made a lot of weapons that have appeared in the series. Fans of the games will be able to see things like the Guillotine Gun from ASSASSIN’S CREED: UNITY, or Connor’s bow from ASSASSIN’S CREED III, or Ezio’s sword from ASSASSIN’S CREED II. As a nerd, it’s been fun to make it all, and make it work as well. We treat them like Easter Eggs.”
ASSASSIN’S CREED lights up cinemas January 1st, 2017