Editor's Note: This was originally published for FANGORIA on June 7, 2013, and we're proud to share it as part of The Gingold Files.
V/H/S/2 raises the bar for found-footage anthology horror, and “Safe Haven,” the segment directed by Gareth Evans and Timo Tjahjanto, sends it over the top. The Indonesia-based filmmakers have delivered one of the most frightening screen experiences in years, and Fango spoke to them about how they pulled it off.
In “Safe Haven,” we watch through the cameras of a documentary film team as they head into the compound of a mysterious religious cult led by a man known as “The Father,” who is believed to be doing unfatherly things with his followers. What they discover is far, far worse, leading to a first-person ordeal that evokes the can’t-escape terror of a bad dream better than any other movie this writer can think of. The crazed energy and gritty visuals feel like the natural byproduct of the collaboration between Evans, who knocked out international audiences with his action epic The Raid, and Tjahjanto, whose credits include the grisly 2009 feature Macabre and the “L is for Libido” segment of The ABCs of Death.
Had either of you been interested in doing found footage before V/H/S/2 came along?
TIMO TJAHJANTO: Yeah; found footage as a format can hold a lot of possibilities, and a couple of films have done it very, very well. It was a challenge to figure out what we could do with it that was a little bit different and would still reinforce our vision. Our approach was to switch to spy-cams to get rid of that element of “Why are they still recording? Why haven’t they put the camera down?” It allowed the characters to be free to move around as they pleased and not be restrained by the camera. The downside on that end was that we had to figure out ways to keep the energy moving, without being able to zoom and being locked into one perspective from each of the characters.
On a logistical level, that compound was actually four or five locations we had to combine somehow. We had to figure out where we could put these little wipe cuts, to make it feel like the camera was always moving in one continuous shot through this entire building. It was a tricky shoot, but very exciting to us.
You were both well-established separately before you came together for “Safe Haven”; what led you to team up on this one?
TJAHJANTO: The producers actually approached us separately, though at the time, Gareth and I had been friends for almost seven years. We had been looking for a way to collaborate, and I already had the basic idea to do a found-footage movie about a cult. So I approached Gareth, and he said, “I was gonna try to take it to point C, but why stop at C when we can go all the way to X?” That’s where we started off. I’d had the idea to making a feature loosely based on the Jonestown story, but by the end, it became completely batshit crazy. Even though the characters are Southeast Asian, they are loosely portraying bastardized versions of Christians. It’s pretty much a mixture of the Jonestown family and the David Koresh kind of cult.
Gareth, the style of this segment has a lot in common with The Raid, which was very handheld and kinetic. Was it easy to adapt that approach for the demands of found footage?
GARETH EVANS: It was interesting trying to shift what we had done in The Raid, with all the handheld cameras, and bring that to a different genre. Timo is known for horror and thrillers, and I was known for action, and we were trying to find a way to mix those things together; to a certain degree, Timo was kind of pushing to do more action and I was trying to prove myself in horror. So we started to fuse our strengths together and find a way to get this thing to work.
The hardest part of the found-footage aspect was the fact that we had this clunky rig we had built ourselves, in order to strap the camera to our DP. He was pretty much, with the exception of only two or three shots, the operator for all the characters. So he would be running through all the buildings, all the rooms, constantly, having to move very fast. If you’ve got the camera in your hand, that’s easy and straightforward enough because your wrist moves fast enough. But using your body that way is very difficult. It was a major trial process in preproduction, when we were testing different rigs to see how we were going to do this and make it feel seamless. A lot of people have assumed we used GoPro cameras, but unfortunately, those don’t really work.
TJAHJANTO: GoPro has a very limited angle in terms of the lens, so we ended up using the Sony Nex 7, which is actually a still camera but also works to shoot video.
The Raid obviously had a lot of choreography involved in the fight sequences, while in “Safe Haven,” I would imagine you wanted the action to look more improvised, for want of a better word. Was this an adjustment you had to make?
EVANS: We choreographed everything on The Raid, while the difference on this one was that we weren’t doing a martial-arts film. When you do that sort of action, it always looks planned out because of the style of it. But with this one, nobody was supposed to have a certain skill set; they were just normal, regular people. So all the sudden movements, the grabs, the hits, the gunplay—it’s all that kind of clunky realism of a person who’s never touched a shotgun before, or someone who’s completely out of his depth, just doing whatever the fuck he can to survive that moment. So we went for a feeling of awkward, messy movements, not perfect grabs or punches or throws.
How easy or difficult was it to find actors who could adapt to this kind of filmmaking, and handle what must have been a pretty strenuous shoot?
TJAHJANTO: I’ll tell you something: It should have been hard, but when people heard the film was going to involve Gareth Evans from The Raid, it was easy as hell. If we’d told an actor to shoot himself in the foot, he’d probably have done it [laughs].
EVANS: In terms of the cast, we got together some big names for the main guys and the documentary crew, and for The Father we got Epy Kusnandar, this great character actor who was originally known for comedy shows on TV, but now Timo and I have started to cast him in all of our stuff. He’s become our go-to guy for fucked-up, bug-eyed characters.
TJAHJANTO: He’s also in my ABCs of Death segment, and he’ll be appearing in each of our next features as well.
EVANS: They were all game, they were on board and understood what we were doing. The same couldn’t be said for the extras; they would show up with pretty-boy hair with fucking Brylcreem in it and moisturizing cream on their faces, and then we basically lined them up against a wall, roughed them up and threw blood all over them. It was like a nice little baptism, I guess, in terms of how weird a shoot can be compared to what they usually get.
The big surprise in terms of the talent was, we had a couple at the start of the movie, when we walk past their room and see them having a tender moment with the guy stroking the woman’s face. And then when we get to the climax, we suddenly see them fucking the shit out of each other, with blood flying everywhere. That wasn’t originally in the contract; this was a last-minute addition that Timo and I figured would be a good idea. So that was an interesting conversation with our casting guy, who had to explain to them that they were going to do that next!
TJAHJANTO: Initially, we wanted to hire a stripper for that; that’s the only kind of talent we thought we could get to play this kind of role in Indonesia. So we were trying to find strippers within half a day’s time because this was our last day in that particular location. And when our talent guy couldn’t secure one, we thought, “Hold on, what about that middle-aged lady we used before for that tender scene?” We approached her, and she was like, “Holy shit! I would love to do this.” [Laughs] So it was one of those rare cases where we had to pay the guy extra but not the actress, because she enjoyed it.
How did you find somebody to not only create the extensive FX the movie required, but to do them amidst this on-the-fly filmmaking style?
EVANS: We had a great makeup artist, Kumalasari Tanara, who had worked with Timo on Macabre. I’d been wanting to use her for a while and Timo has worked with her kind of exclusively, so this was a good opportunity to push her to her limits. We made a lot of last-minute demands, like we would suddenly say to her, “Now we want the head to explode. Now we want the spider woman burned and charred and looking like her hair’s fallen out.” She really rose to the challenge and did great stuff for us. And on top of that, we had a guy named Andi Novianto, who was our online editor and a fucking demon when it comes to CGI and finding ways to add on top of practical effects. He’s the Stephen Hawking of effects; he’s quite gifted. I believe he does digital blood better than anyone I’ve seen. He pays a lot of attention to detail in terms of lighting and textures and focal range, so it never feels like it’s just added on. We were very lucky to have both Andy and Kumalasari on the project.
How aware were you of what the other V/H/S/2 filmmakers were doing?
EVANS: We all kept in touch with each other during the writing stages, and got to find out what each of the other people was working on. That was important, to make sure none of us were crossing over into another’s territory and doing the same story. In terms of production, we’d send each other little stills now and then and kind of reach out to each other, but we didn’t have any real contact until we had all started editing. We got caught in a little bit of trouble, actually, because everyone else was sticking to the prescribed limit of 15-20 minutes, and all of a sudden we came in with a first cut that was 45 minutes long.
TJAHJANTO: We were delusional; through the whole shoot, we were like, “Yeah, this will be 20 minutes.”
EVANS: It was a 27-page script, and we thought we could bring it in at 20 minutes [laughs]. When it came to about 45 in the first cut, we started picking it apart and streamlining the opening, getting into the compound a little earlier, and managed to cut it down to about 30. And the producers all supported us and said, “We really like what you’re doing,” and let us go over that limit we had been given.
Did you ever have a sense of trying to top what had come before, both in the original V/H/S and in found-footage movies in general?
EVANS: I don’t know if it was a case of that. It came from the idea that here in Indonesia, we’ve got quite a strict censorship board; anything involving nudity or sexuality is an absolute no-go. And when you’re making films in an environment where you have to enforce a certain amount of restraint upon yourself, when you’re given a project where you can be free to do whatever the fuck you want with it, you abuse that right to the maximum extent [laughs]! It opens you up and liberates you to be able to think, “You know what, I’m going to stretch with this one.” It wasn’t about trying to top anyone, but just saying, “Let’s throw everything at it and use our budget and resources the best we can here in Indonesia, and think about the consequences later.” It was a great experience.
What can you tell us about the features you’re working on now?
TJAHJANTO: My next movie is Killers, a collaboration between Indonesia and Japan. It’s a psychological thriller that also maintains certain horror elements. It will hopefully come out soon, as we just finished the final editing.
EVANS: I’m working on The Raid 2 at the moment. We’re still in production, and have about a month and a half left to shoot. It has been quite an experience so far; we’re essentially picking up almost immediately where the first Raid left off, but taking it in a completely different direction. We’re stretching the concept and the universe, and putting the Rama character through a whole series of hellish situations.