Assassin's Creed director Justin Kurzel ups his game for the big screen adaptation

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Jan 8, 2019, 11:00 AM EST (Updated)

It's not often Shakespeare is linked to a videogame franchise, but in the case of the big-screen adaptation of Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed, the Bard is definitely to blame.

How so? It was Australian director Justin Kurzel's lauded 2015 cinematic interpretation of Macbeth, featuring Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard as the doomed couple, that introduced him to the actors. At the time Fassbender was also developing Creed with Ubisoft, and based on his positive working relationship with Kurzel, the actor recommended him as the man to bring the immensely popular gaming franchise to the screen.

Some would say it was a fated collaboration, plucked from a Shakespearean tale, as Assassin's Creed is out today in theaters. It features Fassbender as both modern-day Cal Lynch and his 15th-century descendent, the assassin Aguilar de Nerha. Meanwhile, Cotillard plays Lynch's adversary Sofia, a modern advocate of the Knights Templar. Both are reminiscent of characters from Ubisoft's almost decade-old videogame franchise that uses technology called an Animus to place assassins into meticulously re-created cities in far-reaching places from Constantinople to Revolutionary War-era America. The assassins perform missions that build toward unlocking mysteries in the modern day regarding a global conspiracy.

It took a lot to distill nine games and almost a dozen more alternative missions into a coherent narrative for the big screen. Kurzel tells Syfy Wire is was more than a little overwhelming for a guy known more for traditional dramas, but he admits sometimes fear is a good thing.

Michael Fassbender was a big advocate for you helming this film, but it's not exactly your wheelhouse. What made you interested in even undertaking a film like this?

Primarily talking about the concept and idea of a character traveling into the past through their memory. Understanding and identifying through the memories a powerful idea and notion that our DNA carries an archive of our past  down to our behavior, skills and point of view of life was interesting. I was introduced into the culture of Assassin's Creed through Ubisoft and I found a very cinematic world in the game. It's essentially story of a guy who learns who he is through his past through this concept of the Animus, and being connected somehow through the ancestors, was cool and interesting.  I also got quite excited about being involved in a big genre piece like this.

Since this was a new genre for you, did having Fassbender and Cotilard as your leads help because there was already an established relationship so you could focus on other things a little more?

I think there was a familiarity but the two films were quite different. With Macbeth, it was quite intimate in terms of Marion feeling comfortable and understanding the verse. The relationship they had was extremely intimate and a consistent experience with the three of us together. Assassin's Creed was a much broader approach in that we're crossing between two different time frames. Michael is playing two different characters and Marion is playing an ambitious scientist in the present day who is on the opposing side. She's a Templar. And then on top of that, you have Michael doing a huge amount of preparation for the physical side of the film in regards to doing the stunts and portraying Aguilar. I think I was stretched a lot broader. To be honest, I hadn't really experienced the intensity of stunts and effects, so it wasn't as intimate as Macbeth but it was exciting and collaborative in different ways.

You mention Ubisoft introduced you to their world, so it wasn't a game on your personal radar?

No, I was a real virgin to the game of Assassin's Creed. I used to play games earlier in my life but I lost touch with the gaming world and was frankly really surprised by the level of detail in many of the games. So I guess I came through the back door for Assassin's Creed. I'm an odd choice for me to make it. But I'm fortunate that Ubisoft wanted to make the film with filmmakers. Michael was involved for five years, so for three years before I came along he already had a huge say in the development. I think that's what's interesting about this, is that it didn't just go into production. Michael is not only an actor but a producer, and Ubisoft trusted the team he wanted to bring onto it.

Let's talk about story and how you approached distilling all of the game mythology into a script that would work as a movie.

I think the origin story of a man in present day as an ancient assassin really excited me as an effective idea. We know that Assassin's Creed happens in the past when you play the game, with very little happening in the present. And even though we have a huge amount happening in the past in the film, what makes the storytelling is the point of view of the present day character. There's an originality to that and we get to know the Cal character much more closely. I think it's interesting that it's not just set in the past. Ubisoft was really keen to make sure it was a film with an original story, and the characters are fresh to the film. It's why we didn't want to put in Ezio Auditore da Firenze [from Assassin's Creed 2] or Desmond Miles [the central protagonist of the game series].  We felt they correctly belonged to the games and were ingrained in those experiences. So it allowed us to differentiate the film and the games experiences.

What about the Inquisition worked for you as the right setting?

It was already chosen by Ubisoft and Michael before I came on board, but part of why I was so excited was because of that period of time. Not only is it a rich era that hadn't been explored in the game, but I also think Assassin's Creed really embraces characters of history and the Inquisition was a time that could create tension that you could play against Templars. And then I liked the idea of outsiders fighting against that kind of religious purity so you could embrace the Assassins. So the time period and the politics create ideologies that help define our characters in the past.

Unlike a lot of videogame inspired films that lean on CGI for everything, you shot a lot practically in Malta. Did you get pushback from Ubisoft?

No. Maybe part of it was how to make it different as a film as opposed to the experience of the game. I didn't want to copy the game in terms of style exactly. One of the great things about making a film is you can recreate things as real. We could also work out what was possible as an Assassin and figure out how to film that. It provided the wonderful challenge of can you do a "leap of faith," and how high can you go before it's impossible? How far can you jump? Is it 10 meters or 15 meters? When do you have to start using wires? It was a quest to make the Assassins possible and their skills and stunts onscreen are genuine. We got the best Parkour guys from around the world, the best stunt fighters, and the best runners. From that we figured out what was humanly possible and took it to the absolute edge. We had to make them look human so they land hard and there's a possibility of damage.

And I think there was something about going back in time and going old school with it. The environments are real and we used very little green screen apart from taking things away that might be modern. I hate being on a film stage surrounded by green screen so we just wanted to make it real as possible.

Now that you have a franchise blockbuster under your belt, has it changed you as a filmmaker? Would you want to work in this scale again?

Part of the attraction to do it was the opportunity was to work on this scale. I knew that at the end of the two years, I would be a very different filmmaker. It's been brutal. I completely underestimated how stretched you are. But it's an adrenaline hit.  Now I know how directors get seduced by working at this scale because there's nothing like it in terms of the resources. So far, I do like to look for things that make me feel like I'm out of my depth, whether it's scale or subject matter. So I am a different filmmaker, but I'm just as interested and passionate about doing lots of different films. But I got a little taste of the energy of making this, and if another projects come through in the future, I would be tempted to do it again. 

Assassin's Creed opens December 21, 2016.