'Apostle' Director Gareth Evans Builds The Perfect Halloween Movie Marathon [Interview]

With The Raid and its sequel, director Gareth Evans established himself as one of the most exciting action directors working today. With Apostle, which is currently streaming on Netflix, Evans has established himself as one of the most exciting folks making horror movies as well. In other words, anything with his name on it is worthy of your attention.

Apostle is a throwback to old school English horror, with Dan Stevens playing a damaged and dangerous man who infiltrates an island cult to rescue his sister. However, it's not all cheeky Wicker Man references – Evans fills this film with dread and gore and sequences of horrible intensity that demand to be barely watched from behind your hands. It's perfect Halloween viewing.

I sat down with Evans following the world premiere of Apostle at Fantastic Fest last month and we spoke about the film's period setting, why he made this instead of The Raid 3, refusing to hide the story's supernatural elements, directing scenes of extreme violence, and what great horror movies you should marathon alongside his movie. We also debut a very cool new poster for the film, one that perfectly captures the movie's macabre tone.

I dug the hell out of the movie.

Thank you!

I think you could have come in here with The Raid 3, people would have been excited and it would have been cool, and they would have said, "Of course you made The Raid 3." But you didn't make The Raid 3. You made this gonzo cult thriller. So a more obvious question to get it out of the way, was this you saying, "I don't want to do The Raid 3," or was this you saying, "I need to do something different?"

It was a combination of things. It was partly because I moved back to Wales and I wanted to make a film in the UK. I had an initial concept for this as a short from way back before I started making anything professionally. That didn't get finished. It had pockets of elements from it, like the envelope, the rose petal, stuff like that kept going through into this iteration of it. And to be honest, I'd had a taste of doing horror with [director] Timo [Tjajjanto] with Safe Haven, the short film that we did for V/H/S 2. Yes, part of me was like – The Raid 1 and 2 were amazing for me, incredible for me, but I didn't want to just be doing The Raid films all the time. The more time that's gone on from that, the less interested I am to go back there. What we did with The Raid 2 – I felt that we kind of closed that off nicely in The Raid 2. So it didn't really appeal to me to just jump back into that world again.

So I'd long been a fan of British folk horror, and so it was this opportunity to just be like, "You know what? Let's do something completely different that people are not really expecting from us." And then the development process, and working on the script with [producer] Aram [Tertzakian] from XYZ [Films], kind of bouncing ideas back and forth and stuff, was so refreshing and so different. It was like, "You know what? This is kind of a blank canvas. Let's take what we've learned in terms of the technical filmmaking of it and see if we can kind of transplant that into an adventure thriller horror hybrid.

Since you mentioned it, I need to bring up Safe Haven [from VHS 2] for a second. It's my favorite segment of any horror anthology ever.

Oh, nice! Thank you.

Even though they're ultimately different movies, they both have this cult set-up. They both have the, "Let's build this house of cards, then send it to chaos and tear it down" [vibe]. Were there lessons you learned from that movie, from making horror? What did you bring from Safe Haven to this, beyond the genre?

Yeah, that sort of structural approach of putting all the dominoes in place before tipping them over is something that we did in The Raid 2 as well. We did it in Safe Haven, and it was something I wanted to do in this as well. I've always loved the films where it's like you're building up to something, you're getting a drip feed of mystery and tension and suspense, and then all of a sudden you flick the first domino and it just free-wheels until the climax of it. That was something I've always been drawn to. I always find those films interesting in terms of pacing and structure and stuff like that, so that was a big, big influence on this.

One of the things that struck me immediately is, within the first 20 minutes of this movie, you're already seeing the hints that, "Oh, something supernatural is on this island." You don't save that for the last-minute twist. There is literally magic and monsters on this island. Was there ever the temptation to say, "I've gotta save this," or did you realize getting this card out there early was going to be useful for the movie?

I think it'd have to be early. I think to introduce something that left-field late in the film would have thrown the balance off, because it wouldn't have felt as integrated. If it was a final act reveal, all of a sudden it forces the audience to raise questions and suspicions about the whole film, while really I want them to be so in tune with it that they can just keep up with the pace of how it's going to end. If it just came out of nowhere in the last third, something that makes you question the first hour and a half of it, so to speak, you'd really, you want them to still be going along for it. You want them to kind of have more of an understanding of that character that's been fed, so there's been little pockets and apparitions throughout.

My favorite thing in the world is period horror. This movie takes its 1905 setting and indulges in the details of it, makes it feel important to the texture of the movie. So why 1905? Why this era?

First of all, I've always been interested in Victorian London and Edwardian England, that kind of thing. 1905 was sort of straddled that shift from Victorian to Edwardian, and that was really interesting to me, anyway – I love the atmosphere, I love the costumes, I love the sets, I love the feel, the period of it. I like the fact that it stripped out technology, which was another important thing. I didn't want it to be like, "Oh, he's got this cult. Why doesn't he try using his phone?" All of those things which would have been in a contemporary version of this film.

But also, a large part of why specifically 1905 is we were looking for something within history that could inform Dan's character Thomas's sort of loss of faith, and play up the idea between the discovery of it on his adventure, on his journey. One of the things we came about was the Peking Boxer Rebellion, which was around 1900-something – I'm a bit sketchy on the detail, I should have Googled that before talking to you. I did know it! [laughs] But the Peking Boxer Rebellion. It just made sense when we looked at that period of time, that he could have escaped from there, got back to the UK, evolved into this thing of atheism and vice and everything else, being almost transient in his lifestyle, and being considered dead by his family, and then all of a sudden he comes back into the fold in terms of the story. So that really put us in the place of, 1905 just made sense. It fit logically in that timeline.

Dan Stevens, I've been obsessed with him since The Guest. This guy is dangerous and sexy in a way that few actors are. So I want to talk for a few minutes about his performance, because he's so big in a way that fits the tone of the movie – the movie is big enough to contain him. What was it like to build that performance with him?

It was an absolute blast, and like you, I first came to know him through The Guest as well. I'd never seen Downton Abbey and I still haven't; my wife loves him in it. But yeah, he came on board and he's such a charismatic, cool person as well. He's so charming. Basically, we talked about the character, we talked about how big he could go, how wild he could go and everything else, and every now and then, he'd be like, "Is it too far? Should I push more?" and I was like, "Look, if I feel like it's way over the top, we'll do other takes and get another version of it." But we always felt like we had the right balance there. For me, it was always this thing where, his character thinks that he's Bogart, but when he turns up, he's not that. He's a guy who's dependent on drugs. He has a speech impediment created by this tightening of the jaw muscle because of his dependency on drugs. That gradually, throughout the film, he loosens his jaw when he makes a pivotal decision to abandon that to pursue a clear line of sight on his mission. We played around with the idea that even then, he still doesn't get to be Bogart because he can't fight. The only way he's going to save [his sister] is by enduring the punishment of the journey. In that respect, he had an absolute ball with it. We put him through the wringer, man. There's a lot of set pieces, and they're not just uncomfortable to watch, they're uncomfortable to shoot. Especially the trough sequence. It's not pleasant at all. It's fine for me: I'm sat up on a chair watching a monitor, but he's in that soup, you know?

The video I always show people where I'm like "Look at this shit!" is the behind the scenes video from The Raid 2 where the cameraman is disguised as the car seats and he's moving the camera around. I feel like in Indonesia, there's this wild west feeling to the filmmaking. Were you able to bring that to this set?

It's a different thing. Some of the DNA in those films is apparent in the way that we shoot, it's just the way that me and Matt have always shot stuff. Matt Flannery, the [director of photography], we've always collaborated in that way. We've always looked for unusual ways to move the camera and always find unusual ways to continue shots and stuff like that. It's been a bit of a shorthand technique now. In terms of that sort of style, though, we don't really have a moment in Apostle that warranted that kind of camera pass off style that we did in The Raid 2. It made sense in that because we were car to car and it felt dynamic. But in terms of this, yes, it was using one technique, though no one will ever feel it. No one ever feels it's that special, but to me, it was really complicated. They're behind the back of the house, Jeremy's waiting for Thomas and he's got a bag of tools with him. The camera tracks back with them, crouches down, and goes under the house all the way across. We follow them under the house, and we literally dug a trench all the way across, laid a track down, and Matt would pass the camera to a guy that was lying on a dolly track, so he could then be pulled on a rope to go under and track with him. It was great, it was wonderful. But when you actually watch it on screen, you don't think that's how we did the stunt. You just think, "Well, of course they just walked across." So it doesn't look special, but it was tricky to get.

But if we had noticed, it would have been a failure.

Exactly! It's all the cool shots that don't draw too much attention to themselves, I think.

The movie is a slow burn. It takes a while to get where it's going, and then the last 45 minutes happens, and I was going crazy in my seat. When do you know how to pump the brakes on violence and how to really go for it? I feel like there are scenes where you're holding back, and then scenes where you're like, "Nope, you're going to see all of this." How do you balance that?

I think it's, tonally, what are we trying to get from an audience, and what are we trying to say as well? For me, a scene like the heathen stand, for instance, I'll show you how that table works, how the mechanism works, I'll show you how everything functions, I'll let you know everything up until that last minute detail, and when the violence happens, I'm going to cut away to show you somebody else's reaction. When I do cut back to that character, I'm still at a distance and I'm not showing you the detail of it. But it's all in your head now. For me, that's more disturbing. And that needed to be like that, because that one, it should never have been and it would never have been right to do a thing that's purely about viscera. That is a sequence that needs to feel like it hurts. It's gotta hurt emotionally, and it's about the man who's about to take over this community almost as a dictatorship, almost a militaristic, usurping control of the situation. For me, that one would never have played well if I'd gone full tilt with the gore and everything else. It was more methodical, almost like a medical thing [showing] each individual piece and item.

When it comes to something like the grinder table, for example, that's a totally different thing. That's a horror action beat. For that one, you kind of need to show certain things. And even then, when we do show stuff, we'll show you a hand but when it burns you'll look across to Dan's reaction, and then we'll cut to the grinder. And then you'll get little snippets of gore detail, but for the majority of it, we're moving away from it. We don't stay on one thing for too long. That's always just been my personal preference and my personal barometer for what's OK and what's not OK. It'll differ for everyone. (laughs) I am not in any way expecting the majority of people to have the same barometer as me. But for me, it's always been a case of understanding exactly what you said: when is the right time to pump the brakes on something, when is the right time to be like, "We're OK to go full tilt on something."

Speaking of the grinder, let's talk about the shirtless henchman with the strange mask. At what point did you realize, "I'm going to remove all context from this guy and let him be just this creepy motherf***er?"

The guy who came in for that was great, by the way, Sebastian, his name is. He came in initially as a background artist character, and he came in and we auditioned him for that role. He took on all of the physicality of it. He was really, really good – totally committed. For me, it was like, that guy doesn't need a backstory. He doesn't need to be explained. The fact that he opens the door for Malcolm into this weird barn, and the fact that that guy is almost like the gatekeeper of that location and the protector of the person within, doesn't need any more explanation. The fact that they have this weird relationship, like when he tries to give her the funnel to feed her, she doesn't want it, but he strokes her hair to say like, "No, it's OK, you need to feed." It's just weird. It's really strange and unusual, but I think if I explained it, it wouldn't be anywhere near as effective. Some things you just don't need to fully understand in that respect.

Lots of people are going to see this on Netflix. What I want to do is give people homework. What inspired you? What should they double, triple, quadruple-feature with Apostle?

Five films?

Let's do five, yes.

I've said these five films all day today, so I'll say them again. Witchfinder General, [the original] Wicker Man, Ken Russell's Devils, and then two Ben Wheatley films: Kill List and A Field in England.

Kill List is one of my favorite movies of all time.

Kill List is incredible. It's an astonishing piece of work. Those would be the top five for me.

Thank you so much for your time.

Thank you, man. I appreciate it.