Posted on Monday, August 10th, 2009 by Peter Sciretta
Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with director James McTeigue (V For Vendetta) about his new film, Ninja Assassin. As many of you know, McTeigue started in Hollywood as a second assistant director on films like Dark City, and made a name for himself as the first assistant director on The Matrix films. He famously took the reigns from The Wachowski Brothers, directing big screen adaptation of Alan Moore’s comic book V For Vendetta (currently ranked #178 on IMDb’s top 250 of all time).
His latest film, Ninja Assassin, hits theaters on November 25th. I caught a sneak preview screening during Comic-Con, and while I’m barred from reviewing the movie, I will say that the action is bloody awesome and worth the price of admission alone. I was also able to talk briefly with James about his next project, a period thriller titled The Raven, a fictionalized account of the final five “mysterious” days of Edgar Allan Poe‘s life, and the big screen adaptation of Altered Carbon that he’s been developing.
Read our entire exclusive interview with James McTeigue after the jump.
Q: Hey, James.
James McTeigue: Hello, Peter. How are you?
Q: Good. How are you?
James McTeigue: I’m well, thank you. Where are you calling in from?
Q: I’m in San Francisco.
James McTeigue: Oh, good town,San Francisco.
Q: I love San Francisco. I was able to see your film in San Diego during Comic-Con. I was one of the few press that were in attendance and I really dug the intense ninja action.
James McTeigue: Oh, well, thank you very much. I’m glad they– that you got a chance to see it. It was a– I guess it was a smaller audience there, so it was good. It was good to show it down there.
Q: I think you’ve been to Comic-Con two times now?
James McTeigue: Well, I have. I’ve been to Comic-Con besides but I’ve been to Comic-Con twice. When V for Vendetta came out I had just finished shooting so I was cutting… so Natalie Portman came out for us. And then last year I’d also just finished shooting and I went with Rain and Naomi Harris.
Q: Yeah, it’s funny that these films are now coming to Comic-Con, like, two or three years in a row. It’s become this long long lead time to promote the film to the core audience.
James McTeigue: Yeah, it is. It’s, kind of, funny. I mean, I guess the funny thing about Comic-Con now is that it’s getting a bit like ShoWest without all the distributors, right? Yeah, and I think even, like, just a couple of years back it was more– I guess the basis was more in from the graphic novel, kind of, comic world, more cultish kind of films and now it’s– the studios release or take and show any film they have. It doesn’t matter whether it’s related to that world at all but I guess having said that what was once the sub-culture is now the culture, so it, kind of, makes sense.
Q: Definitely. How did you get involved with Ninja Assassin? Were you a big fan of ninja films?
James McTeigue: Yeah, I guess a little of both. I had a– I grew up in Sydney, Australia, so I had a really odd cross-cultural hybrid of an upbringing because we got a lot of films and TV series from England and we got a lot from America but we also got a lot from Japan as well which came in dubbed. We also got a lot of anime which came in dubbed and ninjas were a big part of that. There was one particular TV series called Shintaro which is basically like a Samurai TV series but had ninjas in it and there was another one called the Phantom Agents which was basically ninjas all the time which was, kind of, fun. And then yeah, in the– I guess it was the ’80s there was all those, kind of, classic ninja movies that mainly– Sho Kosugi was in, like, Revenge of the Ninja and Enter the Ninja which I guess is his first film, all those Golden Globes/Cannon Films which were, like, fun I mean, if you like ninjas they were pretty fun to watch. So I guess it was a confluence of my upbringing and watching those ninja movies and then from those ninja movies I watched some of the more classic Japanese ninja movies. I guess the ultimate classic which is made in the 50′s which is Shinobi No Mono which was– I guess that’s the Citizen Kane of ninja movies.
Q: The thing about ninja movies is that they seem to exist for this cult niche… they’ve never really crossed into the mainstream. IBut Ninja Assassin seems like it has the potential to be the– I might be speaking too soon– but has the potential to be the first mainstream ninja movie.
James McTeigue: Well, I guess that’s what I was hoping to do to tell you the truth. I was interested in taking something that was essentially a B genre, like, Film Noir was a B genre but giving, like, the ninja film the affectation of an A genre. So you make it at a major studio, you give it enough money to take it out of its B’ness if you like, because ultimately what distinguishes or what used to distinguish B movies besides the subject matter was the amount of money that was afforded or what their budget was. And so I think now that you have like a– there’s a lot of interest in a really great ninja movie and I think from us standing around on sets we– and talking about what we grew up with and what we really like, then there was, sort of, a need to make a ninja movie and hopefully I’ve made one that’ll bust out of it’s B’ness and crossover into the A genre.
Q: Did you come up with the idea for Ninja Assassin or was it presented to you?
James McTeigue: No, we came up with it. I mean, basically Larry and Andy Wachowski who produced it and myself and we worked with this company called 87 Eleven who are our, like, fight choreographers who I’ve known since the Matrix days and so we were all talking about it and we said, “Well, we should do it.” So we presented it to the studio and then we set a writer onto it which is Matthew Sand with some– and [J Michael] Stracynski with some loose guidelines and said, “Okay, this is what we like about ninja movies and let’s set about writing a script and let’s set about making it.”
Q: What kind of research did you do creating this? It seems like there might even be some anime influences in addition to some of the legacy films you mentioned.
James McTeigue: Yeah, there is actually because anime really did influence what I wanted to do. I guess the obvious one in the way that you see how I dealt with the blood which I guess there’s a lot of which I mentioned in the introdcut– which I mentioned into the introduction to the film that you saw. I wanted to treat that like anime and the obvious influence there was Ninja Scroll. I always liked the way that that film dealt with blood and so I tried to do that. Some– mostly digital but there was a lot of practical effect that I did. Samurai Champloo that I really liked, so like, when Assassins Creed was probably– but that’s a game that I was, kind of, like, influenced by that obviously. And then I looked at a lot of other films, too, some of them film noir films, panic in the streets I really like. I really like the cinematography of Conrad Hall who wasn’t afraid to use super deep black shadows, I guess. That was some of the films I looked at. I also even looked at an Orson Wells version of Othello which I know sounds, kind of, grandiose for a ninja film but it’s, kind of, a classic. It’s the bravest use of shadow and darkness that I’ve ever seen in a film.
Q: That totally makes sense, especially after seeing the film, and what you did with it. And it’s funny that you mentioned Ninja Scroll because I remember back when this was in development there was a lot of rumors going around the Internet that it wasn’t an adaption of Ninja Scroll and it’s interesting because you almost shot this film like a ninja. It was very stealthy. Like, we may have seen one or two photos come out of the production, like a photo of a car with ninja stars all over it. But for the most part you kept it under the radar, which is tough because you did a lot of on-location stuff. Can you talk about that?
James McTeigue: Yeah, I mean, I think basically you want your film to come out and for people to notice it and I think for film like this it’s more about building a ground swell of it rather than just coming out wit extreme noise about something. And I think that what we’ve grown to see or find out is that there is a lot of interest in the film and I think I’m interested in it getting out in the right way rather than just there being this endless– the film’s coming, the film’s coming, the film’s coming, when’s it going to come and I think that happens to a lot of films now. I mean,in some ways, the anticipation is better than the film actually. So I was interested. I know how long a film takes and what our pre-publicity will be, so I’m all abou just getting about making the film and doing the film and then once it’s in a place that I feel comfortable with then starting to– showing it to different people and letting, like, you got me and I like sites like yourselves, talking to you guys and hopefully the film will get out there in the right way.
Q: One thing at Comic-Con that day I saw this– I saw some footage from Matthew Vaughn’s Kick Ass which has a little girl going around chopping people into bits and blood going everywhere and that was with a group that was, kind of, shocked watching that footage. And then we saw Ninja Assassin that night and Ninja Assassin makes Kick-Ass look like a kid’s movie. No offense to Kick-Ass, which looks awesome. But in Ninja Assassin, there’s a lot of blood in this movie.
James McTeigue: Yeah, there is, it’s true but I guess I hopefully know who the audience is and I don’t think they’ll be scared by it and I think if you’re making a ninja movie what’s a ninja movie without blood, right? I mean it’s, like–
Q: Oh, no, I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. I was amazed that a studio made this film and because I really think a lot of people have been waiting a long time to see a film with a budget like this to go all out, if that makes sense.
James McTeigue: Yeah, and I must give the studio kudos because I made the film. I was really aware that there was going to be a lot of blood in it and I didn’t want to dilute it by making the blood look like sand or making it look black or brown. I thought, if you’re going to go there you should go there and the studio trusted me in the process and when it came time to send it to the MPAA I think they saw it for it was as well and I think it’s why it has that rating on the front of it which you may or may not have seen which is basically– it’s an R for stylized blood and violence. So I think they, kind of, got it, too. They got that I was not trying to show it in anyway it being realistic, I guess. They understood the, kind of, like, artistic bent behind it and so yeah, I’m glad everyone got onboard with it because it was a little bit of a gamble starting out for sure.
Q: Definitely. V for Vendetta was in some ways, promoted as “from the vision of the Wachowski brothers” even though it was clearly your film. It’s clearly not a Wachowski brothers movie. It’s clearly something different. It seems like you have been pigeonholed as being a protégé of the Wachowski brothers but you’ve been in the film industry for almost a decade before. Not to sound rude, as no offense is intended, but Is there any concern of the possible public perception of you having to break out of their shadow?
James McTeigue: No, I think when V for Vendetta came out it was the next film after the Matrix films. This is putting it plain and simple. It was the next film after the Matrix films and Warner Brothers rightly or wrongly did a very smart thing which was sell the film on the back of the people who brought you the Matrix film. That’s basically what they did and the people who directed the Matrix film were Larry and Andy Wachowski. And so that’s how they promoted it and I mean, it’s only, kind of, like, out there, like, in the press that people, I guess, ask me about it. I mean, like, if you talk to anyone who’s in our film circle, I guess, I just go on about making films. I’ll make the ninja film and I’ll make another film and I’ll make films without Larry and Andy but I guess within us it’s, kind of, like, the relationship Tarantino has with Rodriguez I guess. They work on each other’s films and there’s, like, a filmmaking rapport that goes back and forth and I guess that’s what I have with Larry and Andy and it’s a nice position to be in and I think we make good films. They’re really good films and they’re really good producers and that’s good for me. There’s nothing bad about that.
Q: Now that you’ve stepped forward from AD to second unit to your own feature directing, are you still planning o doing second unit and AD for the Wachowski’s in the future? Or is your future directing your own stories?
James McTeigue: No, I think my future is feature directing. I mean, it’s hard to take a step sidewards, I mean, I shot some second units. The boys on Speed Racer but I probably wouldn’t do that for anyone else. I’ve got enough projects, like, up and coming that I’ll just keep directing. That’s what I want to do. That’s what I love to do.
Q: Well, that’s definitely good to hear. Before I let you go could I just talk about a couple of the projects that you are attached to? I just want to get some updates.
James McTeigue: Oh, okay, yeah, sure.
Q: Well, recently there was rumors that you were in talks for Magneto over at Fox? What’s going on with that?
James McTeigue: I think David Goyer would be surprised about that actually. I think that was just one of those rumors that just started out. I don’t know where it came from or how it came up. I mean, it’s not a bad idea but I think it– I think David as far as I’m aware is still writing and directing that, so that one’s not on the plate.
Q: How about Plastic Man which seems to be more of a Wachowski brother thing but your name has, kind of, fallen into the mix someplace.
James McTeigue: Yeah, I’m not sure. Obviously Larry and Andy did a script for Plastic Man back in the day. I think I’ll be very surprised if that movie gets made. We haven’t ever really talked about it but I know it’s still a– I think it’s still a [Joel] Silver property or a Warner property.
Q: In interviews you’ve talked about jumping onto Ninja Assassin because you were about to go into production on something else that wasn’t ready before the writer’s strike. What was that film?
James McTeigue: Well, yeah– well, at the time and– and we’re still talking, it was Altered Carbon actually, which I still hope to do with Joel [Silver] which–
Q: Oh, the Morgan book.
James McTeigue: Yeah, the Richard K. Morgan book, so yeah, I’d like to do that. It’s really a good script that I’ve developed there for a while and I’d love to do that when the time is right and hopefully that’s– that’ll be shortly. We started actively talking about that again.
Q: Oh, so that’s what you’re aiming for next is Altered Carbon?
James McTeigue: I think what I’m actually aiming for next is a project called The Raven which is the last fictionalized five days of Edgar Allen Poe’s life and it’s like the poem, The Raven itself crossed with Se7en.
Q: Wow. That’s actually a pretty interesting logline.
James McTeigue: Yeah, yeah, it should be pretty cool. The script is really good. Everyone responds to it really well and I’m in the middle of casting that and hopefully–
Q: Who wrote the script?
James McTeigue: It’s by two writers, Hannah Shakespeare and Ben Livingston.
Q: If you have Shakespeare writing for you then–
James McTeigue: [laughs] Yeah, I know, you get the good gag out of that, right?
Q: Yeah, the other thing I wanted to ask you about is it seems like there’s these never ending rumors about Superman and the Wachowski’s and you and is there any truth to that whatsoever?
James McTeigue: [hesitates] I would say….I’ll keep you guessing actually. It’s good not to dispel every rumor, right?
Q: You’ve directed two very different types of film, this comic book film and martial arts action film. A lot of directors like to stick within one realm or genre. It looks like you’re excited about dipping your hands in a lot of different genres. Can you talk a little bit about that?
James McTeigue: Yeah, I am. I’m interested in, like, having a broad canvas. Like, I think like the directors that I grew up with that I really liked always tried a lot of different things, whether they be like a Francis Coppola or a Peter Weir or a even like a Sidney Lumet and I think they tried a lot of things. And so I’m interested in also trying a lot of different genres, whether it’s– I do like graphic novels. I do like science fiction but I also do like period and crime thriller which would be what The Raven is ostensibly. So I think I’d– basically I’d like to– what I’d like to do next is whatever is good and there’s things that I actively pursue and things that come to me as well and I think it’s good to also get outside of your comfort zone, too which probably means I should do a comedy next, right?
Q: Well, the interesting thing about your two films is that you’ve taken stories that exist in what is usually considered a b-level genre, and tried to elevate it and treat it with a bit more respect than it normally has been. Not that the property that it was based on, V in particular, wasn’t serious enough to begin with, but…
James McTeigue: Yeah, a bit. I also think that like I’m writing the wave of the zeitgeist a little bit. I think that some of the things that were once seen as, like, you were saying, being a little goofy or a little B. I know what people are really interested in. If you went back 15 or 20 years and you told me that Batman would be one of the highest grossing films of all time, I would go, “Really?” Or if you told me that the next Ironman film is one of the most anticipated films of the next year, you’d probably get, like, the same response. Thor is coming out and there’s whole lot of things that have changed and I think, culturally we’ve changed a lot. And I think the studios also recognize that, like, the people who go and see films in cinema repeatedly are people who do read comic books. They are people who go and watch ninja films. I mean, that’s just the reality of where we are at the moment and I think that I’m interested in– I am, me, as a fan, is interested in doing those kind of things and I think that’s– comes down to how I choose the material sometimes or what I want to do next.
Q: Well, James, thank you very much. I won’t take up anymore of your time. Again, I really had fun with the film.
James McTeigue: Oh, thanks very much. I’m glad you like it. It’s nice to talk to people who get what that film’s about and they get into it and it’s a genre film but hopefully it’ll be an Asian film and a lot of people who normally wouldn’t go and see those films will go and see it. So I’d be happy if that happened.
Q: A lot of the reasons I like the film probably couldn’t be typically advertised on daytime television and I’m just hoping that they can find a way to advertise that– the great action. It’s really a great action film, so–
James McTeigue: Yeah, you know, I think partially that’ll be, like, the red ban trailers that’ll come along. They’re obviously only be certain sites that can shop it. I think where there’s a will there’s a way and obviously that first trailer you saw is– it’s the friendly version of the film. They can’t obviously show what actually happened in the film but yeah, I think they’ll get it out there in a smart way and Warner Brothers are really behind it, so hopefully everything will be cohesive.
Q: Well, very good. Again, nice chatting with you.
James McTeigue: Yeah, Nice to talk to you.
Q: Thanks James, bye.
James McTeigue: Okay, bye.