‘Ninja Assassin’s’ James McTeigue aims for a 21st century ‘film noir’ take on ninjas
James McTeigue, the Aussie filmmaker behind the big screen adaptation of “V for Vendetta,” is back with “Ninja Assassin,” which hits theaters on Wednesday. Korean pop sensation Rain plays Raizo, who was kidnapped as a child by the Ozunu Clan and trained to be a deadly assassin. The film, produced by Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers — whom McTeigue worked with for many years on “The Matrix” trilogy — was inspired by the ninja scenes featured in the Wachowskis’ 2008 film “Speed Racer.” Hero Complex contributor Yvonne Villarreal spoke with the filmmaker.
YV: How did the project come about?
JM: I guess I got involved with it from standing around on too many movie sets, talking about what genre’s going to be good to shoot and revamp. But, seriously, I did some work on “Speed Racer” and I worked with Rain, who’s the main star of the movie, and thought if I was ever going to do a ninja movie that he’d be a perfect person to put in that vehicle. So we approached Warner Bros. and they were into the idea; they knew and liked Rain from “Speed Racer.” They gave us the go-ahead and put a writer onto it. Matthew Sand to start with it and J. Michael Straczynski came in and did a polish on the script. And then went off to Berlin to shoot it.
YV: Was this a genre you were hoping to tap into?
JM: Yeah. I sort of grew up with a confluence of American TV and Japanese serials and movies. And I was looking at taking the ninja movies from the ’80s, and the stuff I grew up with, like Japanese shows like “Shintaro,” “The Samurai” and “The Phantom Agents” and Japanese anime … and just make this union of styles. I wanted to blend anime, horror and film noir. I thought it’d be good to put elements of that into a ninja movie of the 21st century.
YV: Were you hoping it would develop into a film with mainstream potential?
JM: Yeah, that was kind of the goal. I mean, I think it sort of goes along the lines of graphic novels and comics. I guess one of those — the thing they used to be is subculture. But now … they are the culture. You got “Spider-Man,” “Iron Man,” “The Dark Knight” …. They all started out as comics. I think ninja is a part of that sort of folklore. They’re interspersed — especially in “The Dark Knight,” for example; the first one had ninjas in it. So I think people know and like ninjas. I think it was … they were sort of unfairly maligned because of the no-budget, sort of cheesy movies of the ’80s and early ’90s. I thought it would be good to take a movie that was essentially in a B genre and give it the affectation of an A genre and see if it could cross over and hopefully it will.
YV: What were some of the challenges in filming?
JM: I guess the challenges in filming stunts is always being well prepared. Of course, the biggest challenge is making sure you don’t hurt anybody. I’ve worked with the stunt choreographers and also the second unit directors on this movie, Chad Stahelski and Dave Leitch, a lot over the years. I knew them from the “Matrix” movies and they became stunt coordinators on “V for Vendetta” for me. I think we have a short-hand and a symbiotic relationship. We know how to push each other to the next level. Hopefully that shows in the stunts in “Ninja Assassin.”
YV: Do you have a favorite scene?
JM: I have a few. I love the sort of rite of passage in the bathroom scene — how kind of shocking that is… I also like the opening scene. I think it’s kind of fun and sets the tone of the movie.
YV: People know you from “V for Vendetta.” What did you carry over from that film into this one?
JM: I hope that by now I have a certain aesthetic or style. What I was trying to do with this movie … I mean, “V for Vendetta” was a comment on the times that we were living in. It was essentially about the morality of terrorism and why and how does it exist in the world that we live in. Even though that movie was written in the Thatcher period in the ’80s, I thought those two administrations had direct parallels. The ninja movie is something much simpler. It’s trying to take something that is a genre film and give it story and give it characterization and some amazing action sequences. I think sometimes with action movies, stories and characterizations and narrative are sort of mutual exclusives. Hopefully, we give them a story that didn’t get in the way of all that. Yet you get some interest in what made the man.
YV: And you’ll be up against “New Moon,” the latest installment in the “Twilight” saga.
JM: I think the audience for my movie is different from “Twilight.” Obviously, “Twilight” is a behemoth. If you look at tracking for the new ‘Twilight’ movie [New Moon], the awareness is probably at about 98% at the moment.
YV: But a ninja could certainly beat a vampire, right?
JM: Definitely. Hopefully. Especially if he were up against one of the vampires from “Twilight.”
Photo: McTeigue on the set of Warner Bros. Pictures’, Legendary Pictures’ and Dark Castle Entertainment’s action film “Ninja Assassin”; credit: David Appleby.