It’s was rainy, gray October morning in London as our shuttle bus hurtled through the morning traffic, careening down the city’s winding streets at a breakneck pace. Along with a handful of other bleary-eyed journalists, I was en route to the Pinewood Studios, a hallowed ground for many film fans. Situated some 20 miles outside of London, this sprawling studio complex is a living, breathing piece of cinema history, serving as the home of movies like Aliens, Superman, The Fifth Element, Star Wars, the James Bond films, and many more. Today, though, we are heading to the Albert R. Broccoli 007 stage — constructed in 1976 for the massive supertanker set from The Spy Who Loved Me — in order to visit the set of another film steeped in history, Assassin’s Creed. When we arrived at the studio gates, I suddenly felt a spike of adrenaline course through my body. Or maybe it was the fact that I’d drunk enough coffee to kill a small horse. Either way, I was excited to be there and see just how they planned on bringing the wild world of Assassin’s Creed to life.
It’s all about traveling back in time through your DNA
First released in 2007, Assassin’s Creed is a mega-popular video games series published by Ubisoft that centers on a centuries-old conflict between two warring factions, the Assassins and the Templars, which has shaped many of the most important events in human history. Though the games begin in modern-day, they transport the player back in time to various eras like the Renaissance, the Third Crusade, the American Revolution, and many more. The player character is usually the descendant of an Assassin, and uses a complex device called the Animus to access his ancestors’ genetic memories, living them out in virtual reality to learn both their skills and acquire their arcane knowledge. It was the combination of science fiction steeped in history that drew producer and star Michael Fassbender to the project in the first place.
“If you’re doing a fantasy film, the first thing about it [that you need is] to have something that was seeded in some sort of scientific world,” Fassbender explained to us. “What I mean is basically the idea of DNA memory. I just thought that it was a really interesting catch, and I thought that it was a really plausible theory.”
In addition to wanting to collaborate once more with his Macbeth co-stars, Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard, director Justin Kurzel found resonance in the film’s themes of family and belonging to something larger than oneself.
“For me, Assassin’s Creed has always been about tribe, about belonging to something,” Kurzel explained. “This story is an origin story, about a man who discovers that he’s an assassin and that he’s not alone and that in him he has a blood that runs very, very deep. Those themes and ideas are really kind of fascinating. The idea that you’re made up of the people that come before you and you somehow have some kind of conscious dialog with your genetics. I think it’s really deep and interesting stuff. I think it’s probably why the game’s so popular. There’s a context to the game that’s smart and sophisticated, but also very contemporary.”
Michael Fassbender plays 2 very different original characters
In the original Assassin’s Creed game, unassuming bartender Desmond Miles is kidnapped by the nefarious pharmaceutical corporation Abstergo and forced to use the Animus to relive his ancestors’ memories so they can extract their knowledge. This time around, though, we’ll be meeting a cast of wholly original characters. Michael Fassbender plays Callum Lynch, an inmate on Death Row whose death is faked by Abstergo, and then is brought to a high-tech research facility hidden in an old Spanish church where he is forced to relive these genetic memories on an enhanced version of the Animus.
Said memories belong to Aguilar, an Assassin living in 15th century Spain — played admirably by the country of Malta, where they shot on location — and is on the hunt for an ancient artifact that, in the wrong hands, could decide the fate of humanity. Living during the Spanish Inquisition, Aguilar must contend with Templars, Inquisitors, and more while avoiding a gruesome fate like auto de fe. (By the way, there will be an auto de fe sequence in the movie, which looks positively brutal from the set photos we’ve seen so far.)
As for how Fassbender keeps the two characters separate in his head, he had a sassy one-liner ready to go.
“Well, one doesn’t say a lot and the other does,” Fassbender joked. “Basically in this story, you have somebody who doesn’t realize where he’s coming from. He doesn’t have a lineage he can feel a belonging to. That’s our modern-day protagonist, Cal. He doesn’t realize he’s an Assassin; he’s a bit of a lost soul. He’s always been drifting in and out of correctional facilities.
Then, of course, Aguilar is very much somebody that belongs to the Creed. He has a cause, he’s sort of been following that cause. He belongs to it.”
The Animus is WAY different than the game
As mentioned previously, the way in which Cal travels back to the Spanish Inquisition is through a device known as the Animus. In the video games, it’s more like a fancy lounge chair from Brookstone, but for the movie, the filmmakers wanted to make something a little more interactive and visually compelling. After all, it’s not exactly exciting to see a dude lying back in a recliner and take a nap.
The reimagined Animus is a massive, robotic harness that wraps around the user’s waist, and enables them a full, 360-degree range of movement. That way, while Cal is experiencing a regression — the name given to these genetic memories — he can actually act out the parkour moves, assassination techniques, and physicality of what he is experiencing.
“Well, you know, we didn’t want to have something where you just sit in a seat,” Fassbender told us when we asked what prompted the change. “Number one, we’ve seen it before in The Matrix, and it’s not a very dramatic experience when we’re doing the modern-day version of the regression. We wanted to have the characters more physically involved in it. And so I think Justin has come up with something really interesting for the Animus. Talking to Ubisoft, I think, perhaps, they’re thinking of adopting some of these ideas. But we definitely want to have to just be Cal as sort of a passenger in a chair. We wanted to have something more interactive for that character in the present day stuff.”
The film takes place in the same universe as the video games
Although these are all new characters that we’ll be meeting in Assassin’s Creed, the filmmakers confirmed that it is connected to the video game series. It’s less of a direct connection and more that they exist within the same overall universe, tackling the same narrative themes and dealing with the same overarching forces.
“You know, it’s all part of the same universe,” Fassbender explained. “We really want to respect the game and the elements to it, but we also wanted to come up with our own thing. And one thing I’ve sort of learned from doing the franchises like X-Men is that audiences, I think, want to be surprised and to see new elements of what they already know, and different takes on it. Like I said, we’re really respecting the very core elements of the game, but we wanted to bring something new to it as well, so that’s why we have these new central characters.”
“This is a very dense world, and trying to bring it to a cinematic experience is different,” Fassbender told us. “We tried to simplify as best we could and really get the important aspects of the game across, because there’s a lot of non-fan audiences to take on board. So to really find a format where we could get these things across and keep it in a cinematic and dramatic experience, that was really the challenge.”
There will be Eagle Vision
One of the core mechanics of the video game is known as Eagle Vision, a radar-like sense that allows Assassins to detect their targets in a crowd, find hidden treasure, and generally get an enhanced view and understanding of their surroundings. Now we can confirm that Eagle Vision will play a part in the Assassin’s Creed film too.
“I don’t think you can ignore the eagle point of view in the game,” Kurzel told us. “I think the notion and the idea of these Assassins having the skills or sensitivity of an eagle and the whole notion of the leap of faith and flight and eagle vision … There’s certain aspects of just the character that we tried to work in to rather than kind of copy certain sequences within the game.”
Eagle Vision from Assassin’s Creed (2007)
It’s like a more murdery Star Wars
While Assassin’s Creed has a massive fanbase of its own, Fassbender was quick to compare the film to another fan-favorite: Star Wars. And no, it’s not because instead of hidden blades, Aguilar uses twin lightsabers. (He won’t, no matter how many times I asked on set.)
“What I liked about it is that it’s a lot like Star Wars,” Fassbender told us. “You have the dark side and the light. Both of these factions, they contradict each other all the time, they contradict themselves all the time. They are hypocritical, as well, of their beliefs — and I thought that was cool. So morally, it’s a very gray area that both of them are working in and I thought that was unusual for this sort of type of film, and also a lot more interesting.”
Speaking of Star Wars, not only was Rogue One in the process of shooting on a nearby soundstage (all I could see was a gray wall when I tried to peek in), but they had to finish their filming on the 007 Stage by November 17 to make room for Rian Johnson’s Star Wars: Episode VIII. Now maybe that movie will have those hidden blade/lightsaber contraptions…
The fights pack a punch (and a kick, and another punch, and parkour…)
While on set, we watched Michael Fassbender get into a fight. No, not with the director; rather, his modern-day character, Cal, was ambushed by a detachment of Abstergo guards. Thanks to Kurzel’s free-flowing set design, the actors and stuntmen are able to fully occupy the space, allowing for 360-degree ass-kicking in what feels like a fully realized space.
What is perhaps most impressive is that Fassbender does much of the fighting himself rather than opting to let his stunt double stand in for him. We witnessed multiple takes of Fassbender throwing punch after punch, breaking free from chokeholds, and taking on an inhuman amount of opponents. The best part was that the sequence, framed tightly and carefully choreographed, was shot all in one take — a testament to both the director and the cinematographer’s abilities, and a scene that will hopefully evoke what Adam Arkapaw pulled off in that infamous tracking shot from True Detective season one.
“We’re trying to shoot the action in camera and try to work with the best stunt people,” Kurzel told us. We’ve got some of the best parkour guys in the world at the moment. We’re just trying not to cheat as much. I think that, some of these films, you can get away with creating an action sequence with continuous cuts.”
Based on what we saw here, as well as what I watched during a 20-minute-long footage presentation in London, Assassin’s Creed will have no shortage of visceral, bonecrunching fight sequences. With high-flying parkour moves, acrobatic ass-kicking, and even an occasional first-person POV to put us in Aguilar’s perspective, Assassin’s Creed looks and feels exactly like a live-action version of the video game — and that, in this case, is a very good thing.
There are Easter Eggs galore
Fans of the video game series will want to activate their Eagle Vision because the film will be chockablock with Easter Eggs and references to the game. With 3,000 weapon props constructed for the film, there will be many familiar-looking items sprinkled into the mix along with the classic hidden wristblades and other elements of the Assassins arsenal.
Ubisoft gave the props team a massive Bible of every weapon that has every appeared in the series to use as their guide. In particular, you can expect to see Connor Kenway’s bow from Assassin’s Creed III, Edward Kenway’s flintlock pistols from Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag, Evie Frye’s iconic cane sword from Assassin’s Creed Syndicate, and many more. Some of them will be featured in what the film’s weapons master Tim Wildgoose described as a “Templar trophy case.”
Wildgoose also mentioned that, of all the weapons, the most challenging to make were the iconic wrist blades. Making them function was particularly difficult, but the design team prevailed and made it work for the film. In fact, they were so successful that Ubisoft actually asked to keep several of the weapons as souvenirs after the production wrapped!
This is the longest shoot of Kurzel’s career
Although they have only been shooting at London’s famed Pinewood Studios for a mere 10 days, this is in fact day 40 of what is intended to be an 80-day shoot. It’s a daunting schedule that weighs, in particular, on Kurzel. “I feel like I’ve got my second wind,” Kurzel told us. After downing my body weight in coffee, I feel the same way.
“I’ve never shot for this long,” Kurzel explained. “Macbeth was seven weeks, and Snowtown was like five weeks. I feel like I’ve made two feature films already.”
There’s not as much green screen as you’d expect
While the video game itself is, by its very nature, rendered entirely from computer graphics, Kurzel and Fassbender were adamant about not wanting Assassin’s Creed to be nothing but green screens and CGI added in post-production. Part of that was achieved by shooting on location, in far-flung countries like Malta, a country that I visited in my youth and one that I recall to primarily consist of dust, castles, and falcons.
“It’s all relative to what you’re doing and the ambitions you have,” said Kurzel of the film’s budget, which is a fair sight higher than he is used to on past projects. “They’re always greater than what the resources are around you.”
“Especially with this one,” Kurzel continued, “we’re trying to do as much as possible in camera. We’ve got and shot in rural locations and I was determined not for this film to be a car park film, where you’re shooting just in green screen and you’re using most of post to help you out.
Part of the way they achieved this sense of location is by building massive, free-flowing sets. The Abstergo facility you see in the trailer actually takes up the entirety of the 007 stage. Hallways actually connect to other rooms, staircases add height and depth, and architecture imbued with a sense of “benign control” creates an undeniable atmosphere beyond what the actors portray on the screen. All of these design choices allow the filmmakers can use nearly every angle of the space to create a living, breathing world.
They all played the game to prepare for the movie
“We all had to play the game,” joked Denis Ménochet, who plays the head of security for Abstergo. “No, I looked at the game and I played a little, but I’m very bad with the remotes. I panic and push the wrong button.”
But with such immense popularity comes an undeniable sense of pressure for the actors. “If you talk about it to anyone, they go crazy,” Menochet revealed. “So that’s a lot of pressure. Because everybody plays the game.”
As for Fassbender, he confessed that he isn’t much of a gamer any more, mainly due to their addictive nature. “When I start playing video games I tend to find myself at 8:30 in the morning, still playing,” Fassbender said with a laugh. “You have to pry the joystick from my hand.”
“Obviously joining this [project], I’ve started to play the games, and it’s amazing to see how things have come along since I was last playing,” Fassbender continued. “It’s extraordinary, I mean, the detail. And I know a lot of gamers are sort of fanatical about this stuff, the detail. And the great educational benefits of it, the history elements. I was talking to a friend of mine and he said to his son, who is maybe fifteen or sixteen, “Let’s go away on a trip together,” and his son picked Florence because he played it in the game, and he wanted to see if all the elements of the city were as they were in the game. So that’s been a real education for me, sitting down and playing the Assassin’s game and seeing a 360-degree view of a city from another time period. It’s pretty exceptional.”
While they may not be earning platinum trophies anytime soon, the team is confident that the film will satisfy the demands of the core gaming audience, as well as a larger mainstream crowd too.
“[T]he action scenes I saw were really mind-blowing, because they’ve got this parkour thing with the best of the best, and Michael is really just on point with that,” said Menochet. “I cannot compare it to the game, it just looks f—king amazing. It’s like, how do they move that quick? That’s the part of it that’s tricky, because in the video game people move very fast, and I think they’re leveling with that very well.”
You have to be an active Uplay user to watch the movie.
Just kidding. But can you imagine?
Assassin’s Creed hits theaters on December 21, 2016.
Images: 20th Century Fox/Ubisoft