Fans of Justin Kurzel's visceral take on Macbeth can be forgiven for approaching Assassin's Creed with some mixture of excitement and trepidation; for how rarely do directors with such visual force survive the transition to major studio constructs?
Not to fear though, for the moment a lone eagle soars into the midst of the Spanish Inquisition – dusty, dirty, electric - it becomes immediately clear: we may be entering the world of Assassin's Creed, adapted from one of gaming's most popular franchises, but we do so strictly though a Kurzel lens.
"I didn't know what I was getting myself into," Kurzel admits. "I had a lot of preconceived ideas of what it was going to be but, to be honest, I was lucky to work with New Regency [the studio behind the film]. They did The Revenant and Birdman, and so had been involved in some very director-driven films. So, I was pleasantly surprised and kind of inspired by how much they really let me find my feet with this film."
Kurzel's involvement in the project actually stemmed directly from its star, Michael Fassbender, who had been working alongside games studio Ubisoft in developing the screenplay for nearly five years. Fassbender, of course, starred in Kurzel's Macbeth alongside his Assassin's Creed co-star Marion Cotillard.
"We had a really great time making Macbeth," Kurzel reflects. "We got very close while making that, because it was so tough. And then I was editing Macbeth, and Michael had already been working on Assassin's Creed. He just started talking more and more about it; and then one day he said, hey, do you want to do it? And I'd started getting really seduced by his conversations about it, especially about genetic memory and the notion of having access to your ancestors' memories. I thought that was a really cool and interesting idea."
Ubisoft, however, was well aware of the challenge ahead of them, specifically in the so-called “video game” curse which seems to have haunted past adaptations. Kurzel admits,"they were very aware of some past adaptions that maybe felt too close to the game or like second-rate appropriations of the games. So they were very keen to introduce new characters and new timelines, and to try to debate a lot of the ideas within the games that are really interesting."
Indeed, this cinematic iteration conjures up a fresh protagonist in the guise of Fassbender's Callum Lynch; a convicted murdered seemingly executed by lethal injection, who suddenly finds himself the unwilling participant in Abstergo Industries' program to mine genetic memories. When he's strapped into their contraption entitled the Animus, he finds he's able to relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar – a member of the Assassin's Creed during the Spanish Inquisition.
Kurzel himself admits he's less familiar the cinematic past of video game adaptations but that, "you need some meat on the bone of whatever you're doing and I think with Assassin's Creed, it's a very human kind of universe. It's based on real history, you're not slaying dragons and you're not doing any ridiculous kinds of things. You're in a world that feels plausible. I was in luck that this game is so rich and complex."
By that, he talks specifically of that eternal conflict which snakes its way through each entry of the gaming franchise: Assassins versus Templars, free will versus control. A centuries-old war that flares up in moments of tension, including the relentless religious persecution which took place during the Spanish Inquisition. "It's fascinating, you know," Kurzel says. "[The games] will pick moments in history that have very political or religious tensions, and what they'll do is quite effortlessly shadow in a Templar vs. Assassin war amongst it."
A grounded complexity seen also in the duality established between Cal and his ancestor Aguilar: one a violent loner, the other a fervent member of the Creed. Kurzels adds, "That dynamic was interesting because Aguilar has always known that he was part of the brotherhood and was living under the Creed, so I think he had a very stable loyalty to what it is to be an Assassin. Whereas, Cal's denied the truth of his past. He walks into this tragedy that he has no idea about, or doesn't quite understand yet. From then on, he becomes a kind of lone wolf. As he says, he uses violence as a way of surviving."
"What I found fascinating was that through this quite violent experience of being in the Animus, being transported back into the past and experiencing his ancestor's moments and emotions, he suddenly realises he isn't alone," he adds. "That in his blood are the answers to who he is, and the fact that he's part of a tribe that goes way back; that his destiny and fate has already been chosen for him. I thought that was a very cool realisation for a main character to have."
It's these complexities that Kurzel can thankfully report he was given the full freedom to explore. A fact most clearly evidenced in the film's Spanish Inquisition scenes; in cinematography that's both vivid and dirt-encrusted, in pacing that feels entirely grounded in the immediate, fleshy and alive. And with its dialogue entirely in Spanish. Yes, it may just be one of the ballsiest creative decisions in Hollywood cinema this year, but its pays off handsomely.
"We started doing it in English on set and it just felt so awful," Kurzel reveals. "It felt like it does when you do watch those films, and everyone starts to put on an accent and they're not even Spanish, you know? That became very clear, and thankfully New Regency allowed us to do some takes in Spanish. And as soon as these amazing Spanish actors started to do it all in Spanish, the language and the words and the kind of authenticity of that environment came in, and it created a point of difference from the present day. It just felt right."
Thankfully, New Regency loved the new footage, though you have to wonder - how exactly did Michael Fassbender take the news that Aguilar was suddenly speaking another language? "I think he started off saying – maybe Aguilar doesn't say anything. Maybe he has his tongue cut out," Kurzel joked. "But then I think he became more and more confident with it. I think Michael just got really excited and got caught up in speaking Spanish. And he's great. He's got a fantastic ear. So it was something that we all felt sort of comfortable in, in the end."
Indeed, if there's anything that makes Assassin's Creed stand out amongst the rest of cinema's video game adaptations, it's the singularity of Kurzel's vision. And with the franchise having so much potential scope when, quite literally, Kurzel would have all of history to choose from; is he tempted to return in the future for another round in the Animus?
"I think doing something this large, there's a will of everyone wanting to do another one," Kurzel replies. "You have many other timelines that you can go to, and we definitely set up Michael and Marion's characters at the end of the film with an openness to the possibility of where they could go next. We had a great time making it, and we would love to see where those characters would go to, but ultimately we're interested to see how much audiences embrace Assassin's Creed as a film. Hopefully they do, and that will probably predetermine whether we're going to do another one or not."
If the director had the choice of what time period to visit next, he confesses: "I've been thinking a lot about the '50s for some reason and the Cold War in America, I don't know why. I don't think the Assassin's Creed outfit would be that exciting from the '50s, though. It's kind of endless, but the thing you've got to be very careful of is that it's Michael going back, so you kind of want to make sure that he feels right going back to any time or culture. A lot of it would be dictated by him and his character."
"All you're thinking about is the moments in history that were volatile, where there was a political or religious war. That's where the Assassins seem to thrive the most, when they've got something to really fight against. It's interesting when you go back in history, you can really sort of feel the periods that seem right are probably the ones that have got the most volatility in them."
Assassin's Creed hits UK cinemas on 1 January.
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