Directors, Features, Filmmakers, Indonesia, Interviews

Timo Tjahjanto interview: “The criteria for casting was: could you kick ass and get your ass kicked without suing us later on?”

We talk to one half of the Mo Brothers on his career, Headshot and working with Iko Uwais…

Timo Djahjanto is a filmmaker from Indonesia, mainly known from his collaborations with Kimo Stamboel, with the two of them working under the name Mo Brothers. Their collaboration started with Dara, a short film that eventually became a full feature splatter film with the title Macabre. Some years later, Nikkatsu decided to fund them, with the fruit of this collaboration being Killers, crime thriller featuring a mixture of Japanese and Indonesian actors, including Kazuki Kitamura and Oka Antara. Their latest production is Headshot, a martial arts film headed by Iko Uwais.

How did the cooperation with Kimo Stamboel came to be, and what led you to this profession and a common name (Mo Brothers)?
Our friendship goes way back, to 2002, we both share the same love for genre films. Personally, I always wanted to become a filmmaker, and I think this goes way back, in 1997, when I was 17, the year Akira Kurosawa died. I remember reading an article that’s titled The emperor has died , and I went to read up about this guy , start finding his films, and my life changed ever since.

The Mo brothers was a conscious choice from our end, we knew that we wanted to make films that are internationally accessible, and two of our names will be too exotic and barely pronounceable , so the stamp Mo Brothers was born.

How did the transition from low-budget exploitation (Macabre) to big budget, international films (Killers, Headshot) came to be?
Believe it or not, neither Killers nor Headshot are big budget films, I would say they are decently budgeted, if not on the lower region. Macabre was made for around 200 thousand US dollars, while both Killers and Headshot were made for roughly around 5 times that. Even so, that would be considered a big budget film for a SE Asian production, and I think, so far, the sales of those films manage to convince investors to just have faith on us.

There are many things said, particularly by western voices about the demands Japanese production companies have from the filmmakers. Is there any truth on the matter?
I think this is a normal thing; whatever demands made by our Japanese partners (in this case NIKKATSU) were reasonable, and definitely still turned out to be a pleasant and beautiful experience.

Killers was such a personal movie for me, and I couldn’t thank these guys enough for betting on a film that is pretty bleak and could be punishing for some audience, made by (at that time) new filmmakers like us.

What are the differences between working in Japan and Indonesia? And between Japanese and Indonesian actors?
Crew wise, I would say Japanese are all about efficiency and bulls eye precision. They are more traditional in terms of executing certain things, but whatever it is they do, they execute it with harsh self-discipline.

Us Indonesians, we are more cheerful and happy go lucky on certain things, such as filmmaking, especially genre stuff. Everything is always a new experience for us, it’s all about trial and error and a lot of insanity.

Regarding the actors, I was working with Kazuki Kitamura, and his method would be to find the character’s traits from the get go, and sticking with it, which, to be honest, made my job so much easier. He will say his lines without missing a beat, and knows precisely what to give to the camera.

In Indonesia we have the principle of always improvising, and that is good too, our actors will slowly cross certain lines, and sometimes it will be “fuck yes, that’s the character” and sometimes it is “no don’t go there.” Oka Antara, who played Bayu Aditya in Killers is such an emotional consummative guy that he always gives me more than what I am asking.

The three feature films you have directed are of different genres (exploitation, horror, martial arts). Do you enjoy the fact that you shoot different kinds of film?
Yes, definitely, as a lover of cinema I enjoy all sorts of genre. I would say that my love will always be in horror, but it is not strange in my movie watching days to put on Holy Mountain in the day and then switch to Babe: Pig in the City come nighttime. Every genre is its own test, when the aim is to make a good film then that’s the challenge; make something good, regardless the genre.

All your films are violent. What do you think is the appeal so many people find in violence?
Violence speaks to me easily, and I think way too easy, to the point that I find myself often fighting hard for self-restraint. I think that’s where Kimo usually comes to play, he is the guy that put breaks on my violence-throttle. I can’t speak for other filmmakers, but for me personally, I think it’s the restrictions within these regions that make me a filmmaker who’s drawn to violence. Between that and my Catholic upbringing hahaha.

And how do actors react to playing bloody and violent scenes, particularly women?
Actors love playing violent scenes, especially if they have to beat someone to pulp. It’s a release for them, just like it is a release for some people when they watch scenes of gore. The women that I worked with so far, love these violent scenes, I would say their enthusiasm and courage to these scenes often surpasses the male actors.

How was your cooperation with Iko Uwais, who has become an international star?
I’ve known Iko since his Merantau days, but the wish to work with him came because, after being done with Killers, I wanted to do something less bleak. Iko is a good sport, he is always up for anything, a very tough son of a bitch too. We had 3,5 weeks for pre production and 43 days shooting with barely any breaks to finish Headshot, and he went rampaging through those days like a bison on speedballs. It was insane.

What was the casting process like for Headshot? In general, what do you search for in the actors you cast?
It was the fastest casting I have ever done. One of the main ingredients to get through an action film with only 3.5 weeks of preparation, is you cast people who know how to get it done. So the main criteria for those cast were : could you kick ass and get your ass kicked on harsh conditions without suing us later on?

I love to work with people who have been through some harsh times in their life, and for the most of it, that’s who I have worked with. It is job half done when you direct someone who has been through so much in their life, since they just tend to get you or at least willing to cross certain distance, without worrying too much about their celebrity image.

The action scenes in Headshot are impressive as they are original. Additionally, different styles of martial arts are implemented in the film. Can you tell us a bit about the procedure of how these scenes are conceived and shot?
Thank you, it was all a harsh learning curve for us. For me, it was my first action film and one that was given such a short time to prepare. For Iko, it was the first time he was working under his newly formed UWAIS TEAM. However, the key ingredient was that Iko’s boys (Yandi, Very, Rama and the boys) know me and the kind of stuff I am going for.

My principle has always been about gritty survivalism as opposed to artful martial arts. I am not a martial arts purist, I love my fights messy and degrading, almost desperate. And with that in mind, me, Iko and team Uwais worked closely in achieving just that. So, some of the messy and franticness in the film also comes from the shortage of time, it benefits us in its urgency, but leaves almost no room for error. Most of those fights were done in one or two takes. Beyond that, it’s either shooting days gone or budgetary reasons taking over.

Headshot features a bit more drama than is usually associated with the genre. Why did you choose this approach?
Honestly, one of the criteria in getting this film quickly financed was that I have to make it more locally accessible. (which goes to say that Headshot is our most accessible film yet in local market). And the local taste tends to lean to the existence of romantic elements. I can’t say that I am an expert in making romantic materials, but I honestly don’t mind, I was in that spot where making something more lighthearted would be good for the soul. And thanks to Headshot, now I get to make The Night Comes for Us. So, all the puzzles fall into place.

Indonesian film seems to be on the rise with you (two), Gareth Evans and Joko Anwar. How is the situation with the industry in the country, both in the past and nowadays
Speaking for myself, I cannot say I am really attuned to what is going on locally. I suppose we are heading to a better place, as there are more filmmakers that get recognized internationally. This year for example, Mouly Surya with her Cannes debut film; Marlina the Murderer. Also this is the year where we will see bigger action films coming out of the local market; Fox Trot Six and Wiro Sableng (based on a popular graphic novel series here) amongst them.

All I can say is that we are surviving, we are never ahead of the game, but every now and then we produce something good. From a looking glass, we are doing good, as long as we remain consistently hungry and ambitious.

Who has influenced you the most as a filmmaker? Which are your favourite movies?
I’d say Akira Kurosawa is one of my biggest heroes, I don’t say Influence because I share no traits with him, but definitely his works are my main drive into becoming a filmmaker.

I could say that my favourite films are: Akira Kurosawa’s Red Beard. Juzo Itami’s Tampopo. Roman Polanski’s The Tenant. And I love love love Peter Jackson’s Braindead. Imagine the fun he had making that film. One filmmaker I am starting to really love is Jeremy Saulnier, he is an amazing creator.

What are you working on at the moment and what are your plans for the future?
I am finishing up The Night Comes for Us right now, which stars Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Sunny Pang and Julie Estelle amongst others. After this, ideally I want to go back to horror, even though right now the stuff that will bring me the jobs faster seems to be action materials.

Headshot is released on UK Blu-ray, DVD and Digital Download on Monday 5th June by Arrow Films.

About the author

Panos KotzathanasisPanos Kotzathanasis Panos Kotzathanasis
Panos has been a fan of of Chinese kung fu and Japanese samurai movies since childhood, cultivating his love during his adolescence to extend to the whole of SE Asia. Currently he writes for a number of sites regarding Asian cinema and also does some content writing. You can follow him on Facebook or Twitter. More »
Read all posts by Panos Kotzathanasis

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