[This is entry #1 from my set diary for Fox's upcoming cinematic adaptation of the Ubisoft video game ASSASSIN'S CREED. In this entry, I'll focus on the set itself, the design elements, and some of the filmmaking philosophy that's gone into this ambitious adaptation.]
It was a characteristically rainy, gray, dreary day in London as I sat down in a small van to get shuttled to the set of ASSASSIN’S CREED. Full disclosure, this was going to be my first-ever set visit. While I’ve gotten offers before, this was the first time I was actually able to take a studio up on one. I remember there was a euphoric glaze that came over my brain as we pulled away from the city and started heading off into the suburbs to visit Pinewood Studios in Leavesden. For a lifelong film nerd like me, getting to go to Pinewood is like getting to visit the Emerald City or something. My mind was racing with the questions I’d ask Michael Fassbender and co., while also trying to remain open to taking in every moment of this experience.
Suddenly, there it was. We drove under a sign that said PINEWOOD STUDIOS as we entered the main gate. I heard the driver mention to the person working the entrance that he’s bringing us to “the 007 stage” and my jaw dropped. Hang on. I’m going to be walking into the 007 stage?!
Oh my god!
The surreal nature of what was going on was only heightened as I stepped out of the car and walked towards the door. Why? Because who would happen to walk through the door, chasing after his cute little dog that didn’t seem interested in being inside the dark soundstage? Jeremy Irons.
As I walked into the soundstage, I immediately saw a set piece meant to resemble the United Nations where- I was told- the character Alan Rikkin (Irons) would be making a speech. At first, I was a little bummed. Would the podium, flags, and massive green screen backdrop be all that I saw today? Thankfully, I was wrong. Very wrong. While that setup occupied one small corner of the 007 stage, it turns out that nearly all of Production Designer Andy Nicholson’s “Abstergo” complex was housed within these walls.
I was escorted to a doorway within the stage, and suddenly I was no longer in Leavesden. They’d constructed a massive set, with exteriors and interiors of its own, that was all interconnected. Not a series of disjointed rooms and green screens, but an actual set you could walk around, into, through, and back again, without seeing anything that pulls you out of that world.
I noticed that, as I looked up at the walls- while walking around the “exterior” of what I would find out is Abstergo, it looked like whatever this structure was it was meant to be built beneath a church. This was evident because of the brick that gave way to the sterile, gray stone walls the lower you looked. Everything was very linear, very cold, very angular.
I was brought into the complex itself, right into what looked like a rec room. Only, it wasn’t the kind of relaxing, jovial type of place you’d imagine a rec room to be. It had the feel of a futuristic prison. Everything was gray, metallic, and very bare. There were tables with strange looking games/puzzles on them, gym machines, a small green house area where one could do some gardening, and a large window that allowed whoever was on the other side to peer in at the inhabitants of this place. I had a lot of questions about what this setting was for and that was when I realized…someone had been talking for quite a while, and I was too busy being a total fanboy to pay attention to him.
A bearded gentleman with glasses was addressing myself and the handful of other journalists I was there with, and as I came into the conversation, I could hear him speaking in a very in-depth, knowledgeable manner. He seemed to know the movie inside and out. The story, the settings, the connection to the ASSASSIN’S CREED video games. Since I had missed his initial introduction, I nonchalantly tried to piece together who he was. Based on his excitement and deep knowledge of the material, I thought maybe he was a writer. Moments later, I would find out that this was producer Patrick Crowley (JURASSIC WORLD, the BOURNE series). I feel like we all have this impression of producers as being the guys who handle the money and only speak in sales pitches. I was kind of blown away by how knowledgeable and forthcoming Crowley was about every detail. He was utterly immersed in all things ASSASSIN’S CREED.
I learned a few things during my time with Crowley, like that the film’s budget was north of $100 million, we were there on Day 40 of a planned 80 day shoot, and that Damien Walters- the preeminent name in parkour- was Michael Fassbender’s double because there’d be a lot of free-running in the film. The idea of free-running comes straight from the games, which led to a brief discussion about how hands-on developer Ubisoft was with the film production.
Crowley said that Ubisoft had a hand in everything, including scripts and sets. He revealed that representatives from the company made sure that the film adheres to certain rules from the game world. But he says that there was definitely a spirit of collaboration between the filmmakers and the game studio, as they worked on the project with the hope that it’d appeal to both gamers and casual fans.
“You can only make them so happy,” Crowley said, of gamers who are sure to scrutinize the film while watching it. This is why he said it was important, yet challenging, to create a movie that was “an acknowledgment of how cool the game is,” while making sure it appeals to people who’ve never played any of them. He said, to that end, it’s been a great collaboration. “Ubisoft is willing to bend, and we’re willing to bend.”
I was given a chance to walk around the entire set, which was labyrinthine in nature. From the rec room, to holding cells, long corridors, and interrogation rooms, it was pretty clear that Abstergo is not a fun place for its prisoners, or “patients.” There’d be no place they could go that wasn’t being monitored, and no windows in sight, which Crowley said was the case to create a sense of benign control.
Production Designer Andy Nicholson spoke a bit about making sure the place felt sterile and controlled. “There’s a claustrophobia to it,” he said. Nicholson said that, from a design standpoint, it was important that Abstergo feel very different than the other settings in the film. Since ASSASSIN’S CREED will jump around between present day and the 1491 Spanish inquisition, he designed the complex so that it’d be instantly identifiable to the viewer whenever Fassbender’s Callum Lynch returned from a “regression.”
“You need to know exactly where you are, cause otherwise you’d get lost,” Nicholson, whose previous work also includes GRAVITY and DIVERGENT, said. Nicholson also revealed that he and Kurzel carefully designed Abstergo so that you could film long, uninterrupted sequences. “A continual kind of flowing space so that we could use a lot of the movement that you have in the game within the world that’s here because that’s never really been seen before,” he said.
“The kind of production value that you get by doing that is that it really becomes apparent the size and the scale of the place,” Crowley said on the subject of having the set be one large interconnected structure. “Most films, unless you’re in a practical location, you don’t have this kind of space to deal with."
When I chatted with director Justin Kurzel, he offered further insight about the design of Abstergo, which revealed a deeper sense of the filmmaking philosophy that’s gone into ASSASSIN’S CREED. “That's kind of why we built it that way, is to try to keep the takes simple and long and moving. I think the same with the past, just trying to keep long action sequences that are not interrupted by the cuts,” Kurzel said. “As much as possible, and the actors have spent so much time rehearsing the actual kind of moves, we just wanted to make sure that we were embracing the hard work that they've done. When you look at Michael doing something, it's Michael doing something. It's Michael parkouring or it's Michael having spent three weeks learning a certain move. I guess that kind of uninterrupted, sort of longer takes is something that is definitely apparent in Adam [Arkapow]'s style but it's also something that we've brought into the film.”
In my walkthrough of the set, it was readily apparent that you could film one long sequence that takes you through the entire set without risk of filming anything that would break the illusion. There was an artistry at work here, with a desire for authenticity, that was very exciting to see on display. Kurzel and his design team want you to see the actors, the stunts, and their surroundings with as little smoke and mirrors as possible. Just long, uninterrupted takes of dialogue and action.
I was able to watch some of the dailies from the previous day, and it really was something special. It was an action sequence that saw Fassbender’s Lynch being escorted down a hallway and into a room where an all-out brawl breaks out, and he’s forced to take down several guards at once. It was all achieved in a single take, and it was all Fassbender doing his own hand-to-hand stunts.
In the next installment of my set diary from ASSASSIN’S CREED, I’ll tackle my chat with Fassbender, Kurzel, and all of the story elements I picked up on during my day at Pinewood. You’ll get to see how it mirrors and diverges from the plots of the games. I’ll also talk a little about the awesome weapons I saw that were created just for the movie.