In Gareth Evans' latest film, Apostle, Dan Stevens plays Thomas Richardson, a man who's tasked with locating a woman who'd been taken in by a mysterious cult residing on a remote island in the early 1900s. The longer Richardson stays with the cult, the more he learns about the nature of the real danger residing on the island.
The film had its world premiere at this year's Fantastic Fest in Austin, Texas, with Evans himself in attendance. After The Raid director dished on how the weaponization of religion played a part in the story, Evans took some time to sit down with SYFY WIRE to talk about some lighter fare, including how he assembled the ensemble cast, and the dissection of genre films to find the perfect tone for his cult-centric horror story.
It's difficult to imagine anyone but Dan Stevens playing this character. Was he the actor you always had in mind for Thomas Richardson?
I was always a fan of Dan's. The Guest was the first time I'd ever seen him onscreen — I didn't watch Downton some reason. My wife loves it, but I have not seen it yet. But for me, I got to see him in The Guest and [later] You're Next and The Raid played at the same Midnight Madness. We had a chat about a different project at first, and he just struck me as this super cool, really nice, charismatic guy. Very easy to talk to. So, when it came to this, I pitch them the idea and we talked about it, he seemed really enthused and excited about the idea.
He came on board and really worked with me to craft this really interesting character in Thomas Richardson. This idea of who he is, how he would be played the idea of making him not a typical hero in a film like this.
There was an expectation when they said, "Oh, the guy who directed The Raid and Dan Stevens from The Guest!" Then people expect him to come in and be all bells and whistles and just beating people up and everything else. We were like, "No, he's gonna think he's Bogart, but he's not." He's going to be a broken guy who's very vulnerable, very weak, but he will do as much as he gets given in order to try to succeed in this mission
He's got this kind of effortless complexity about him. Did that help inform the idea that we don't get that much backstory about his character?
A little bit of that. There's a chunk of stuff on the cutting room floor that kind of alluded to a little bit more of what he was like when he was in London before he gets given this mission. We removed that from the film. It was basically because it didn't fit where we wanted to put it in. We felt like we didn't need to know that much because there was so much coming off him in terms of his performance that the things that were remaining mysterious, they weren't "annoying me" mysterious, they were just intriguing.
Finding that balance between the two, it was almost like if we'd said everything about this character, it would have made him less interesting. It was kind of fun to find out the little pockets of information that we could along the way.
Alongside Stevens, you've got Michael Sheen, Mark Lewis Jones, just a dynamite cast of all these great character actors. Did they all bring in their own ideas to help flesh out their respective roles as well?
It was front and straightforward. Similar to Dan I had a sit-down dinner with Michael [Sheen] to talk to him about the role, and he had some ideas that you wanted to float by. They were all great. They all added to the layers within.
One of which being that he wanted to feel like that the forefathers, Frank, Malcolm, and Quinn, would have enough to differentiate themselves from each other so that they all bring something unique to the table. So it's not just three bad guys. That was a real key note to get from Michael because it just made everything work. It made the power struggle feel more apt. Felt more right. Felt more organic.
So, Michael was great to work with. The whole cast really delivered. For me, I think Mark Lewis Jones... I mean, he just knew what we were making. He knew the genre, it felt like he had seen all of those films and so he really played into that role. It was a joy to see him on set every day. Even the younger guys, they all came to it with such enthusiasm and they went along for the ride and it made my job all the easier because they were all in-tune. They were all the same wavelength.
I'm curious about some of the films that were going through your head while putting this together.
I grew up watching a lot of British folklore and things like that. So, I went back and revisit a few things, The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General. Then for the first time, I got to experience Ken Russell's The Devils, which blew my mind. I've never seen it before, so I sat there and watched it and was just absolutely blown away. And then also more modern films like Ben Wheatley's film The Kill List and A Field in England.
It was fascinating to be able to kind of pick those films apart and figure out how the aesthetic qualities of that genre, that sub-genre would play out. The feel and look of those films and the behavioral traits of the characters that felt so grounded, but then every now and then there'd be like one thing that tipped it and made it all askew. And that was for me, what was so unnerving and unsettling about cult films.
You utilize that same technique in Apostle. There's a hint of the supernatural teased throughout, but it's kept mostly in the margins — at least at first.
To be honest, everything that was in there was everything that we had. I felt it was important to kind of drip-feed it from the beginning because I didn't want it to be a third act reveal. If it just came into the third act, suddenly you've got the audience questioning everything they've seen before when really the pace needed you to just keep moving forward, keep propelling towards the end.
That felt imperative to kind of have these little pockets, you just don't know why yet. But you know there's something otherworldly about this place, and when those scenes all started to coalesce and when you start to understand more about the mythology and the history of the island that it won't feel like brand new information you've just been pummeled with. It'll be like, "Ah, that's filling in those gaps."
Apostle will be available to stream on Netflix starting October 12. In the meantime, be sure to check out all of SYFY WIRE's Fantastic Fest coverage.