Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel brings sophistication and historical detail to video game adaptations in Assassin’s Creed

Justin Kurzel grabbed everyone’s attention in 2011 with his brilliant and bleak debut feature Snowtown, and followed it four years later with arguably the best film adaptation to date of Shakespeare’s tragedy Macbeth.

He has since reunited with Macbeth stars Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard to bring Ubisoft’s bestselling action-adventure game Assassin’s Creed to the screen – a challenging prospect after helming smaller scale projects.

“I wasn’t prepared for the enormity of it,” Kurzel admits. “Shooting 92 days instead of 28 is a massive step up in terms of endurance. It’s not as nimble as making smaller films. I had never done action sequences or worked with these kinds of visual effects, so I was constantly anxious and wary of whether I was doing the right thing. It was great, it kept me on my toes, but it was definitely stressful.”

The director also admits he isn’t a gamer. “My level of gamesmanship was Double Dragon in the early ‘90s. But when I sat down and played Assassin’s Creed with a gamer, I was pretty blown away by how sophisticated games have become and how rich they are.

“I started reading the Assassin’s Creed books and understanding all the detail that’s put into it – all based on history. I thought it was extremely cinematic.

“The script was centered around genetic memory and the idea of someone learning who they are through the experience of their ancestors; I thought that was a cool idea and quite original for a film.”

Assassin’s Creed – both game and film – concerns the centuries-long conflict between a secret society of Assassins and the Knights Templar, who are determined to eradicate free will. Death row inmate Cal Lynch (Fassbender) is given a second chance by the shadowy Abstergo Industries, whose attempts to curb human aggression involve a device called the Animus, which synchronises Cal’s mind with his Assassin ancestor, Aguilar, in 15th century Spain.

The Spanish Inquisition (a period as yet unexplored in the AC games) and the enormity of the religious persecution during that time provided the ideal historical backdrop for the film. “Torquemada and the King and Queen of Spain… those figures were wonderful for the Assassins to rally against, and that definitely helped to create a political and religious landscape that fed into the ideologies of the Templars and Assassins,” notes Kurzel.

The director wasn’t concerned about the stigma attached to video game adaptations when taking on Assassin’s Creed – he doesn’t watch them. “That’s not deliberate,” he clarifies, “ I just haven’t come across them. And I kept my distance from them to focus on Assassin’s and try to continuously see it as a film.

“Video game films maybe feel like an extension of what people play, and at the end of the day they aren’t offering anything deeper than the gaming experience, which is probably the most important thing.”

Recognising this fact, Ubisoft approached the Assassin’s Creed film as if they were adapting a book or a play; developing the script with Fassbender but relaxing creative control once the film went into production.

“They were interested in finding the cinema in it and a point of difference from the game in terms of the experience,” says Kurzel. “They were determined there be a whole new set of characters and a different time period that hadn’t been in the game. They were excited to engage with it like you would make an independent film and really allow the actors involved to find the story, as opposed to a checklist of what’s in the game.

“Obviously there are some iconic things within the game that we celebrated, but a lot of the discussion was about ‘how do we make these Assassins really hit the ground hard, do real parkour, leaps of faith, and create a city in which they can live and breathe as opposed to using endless visual effects?’ Fortunately Ubisoft were very keen on that and thought it was a great point of difference from the game.”   

Assassin’s Creed is certainly different – visually and creatively – from other video game adaptations, being grounded in the real world through historical context and the always topical issue of violence in society.

“I think tonally we wanted to bring a sophistication to Assassin’s Creed that felt possible,” he continues. “The way in which the Animus works, and the notion that you can somehow connect to your DNA and relive the experiences of your ancestors, is not such a far-fetched concept. I love that about the film – the period stuff happened, there was a real Torquemada and these environments did exist, so I thought it should be handled in an adult way. It should be mature and sophisticated, not hammy.

“We always had support from Ubisoft to push the envelope a little bit in regards to making Assassin’s Creed feel real and not just an extension of the video game in look and style.”

Having tackled true crime, Shakespeare and now a video game adaptation, what this versatile filmmaker will do next is anyone’s guess. Even Kurzel isn’t sure, admitting that he chooses his projects impulsively.

“I guess I’m conscious of not repeating myself. The directors I admire are those who cross genres and styles. I usually pick things in a rush, too, and then kind of fall into them and love them more once I start work. I’d love to do a comedy next.”

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