Director Timo Tjahjanto on the success of Netflix’s ‘The Big 4’

Over the past decade, Indonesian cinema has excelled in the action and horror fields. That’s due in no small part to Timo Tjahjanto, who as half of directing duo The Mo Brothers worked on acclaimed films Macabre, Killers and Headshot, and as a solo filmmaker become a Southeast Asian sensation.

Following acclaimed horror projects such as The ABCs of Death, V/H/S/2 and May the Devil Take You and brutal action blockbusters like The Night Comes for Us, Tjahjanto helmed the action-comedy The Big 4. The movie, which was released in the thick of the 2022 holiday season, became Netflix’s second most watched non-English film over the past month.

The Big 4 follows a straitlaced policewoman investigating her father’s murder only to discover that he’s been leading a double life as the leader of a group of assassins. Now hunted by his father’s enemies, she’s forced to team up with the deadly criminals his father trained in order to get revenge. With its spectacular action sequences and uproarious slapstick humour, it’s no wonder the film is a sleeper hit at home and overseas.

Hot off his streaming success, Tjahjanto chatted with NME about his journey as a filmmaker and making a foray into comedy with The Big 4. He also teased his upcoming projects – including the much-talked-about Train to Busan remake.

In the past decade, Indonesian cinema has garnered international acclaim for its outstanding horror and action output. As a director well versed in both genres, what’s your take on why Indonesia has become such a powerhouse?

“I agree and disagree that we’ve become a powerhouse, as we’re still green and there’s much to learn. Not to compare, but India has to be the ultimate Asian powerhouse in producing grand and original action. For Indonesia, we’re fortunate to have people like Joko Anwar, who has pioneered and elevated genre films. He’s a true auteur because his films are distinctly his.

“I also feel that the Indonesian film industry is still a wild frontier. While we’re not supported by the government, that also means that there aren’t any restrictions as to the films we can or cannot make. There’s a freedom to the trial and error aspect – the perpetual state of discovery that Indonesian filmmakers find themselves in, that allows for unfiltered creativity. Great films can come from chaos. Look at Apocalypse Now – Francis Ford Coppola nearly killed himself making it.”

Credit: Netflix

Do you feel that Indonesian action movies have, to a certain extent, revolutionised the way Hollywood approaches action?

“Yes… but great art is often recycled. Not to be artsy fartsy, but the reason why Picasso started cubism was because he already mastered realism, right? The original style is deconstructed and reconstructed. The same can be said for action in cinema. When Hollywood mastered grand action spectacles, a country like Hong Kong would adapt that style and bring their own sensibilities to it. Same thing with [director of Merantau and The Raid] Gareth Evans and myself – we essentially stole all the good action Hollywood has done, and then added our own spin to it.

“So Hollywood has seen what we’ve done with The Raid and The Night Comes For Us, and has definitely tried to emulate the Indonesian style – the kinetic, fluid way we shoot fight scenes. But of course, the style Hollywood borrowed from us only came about because we borrowed from them first. This is the fruit of constant recycling.”

There’s been a noticeable progression in your work over the years. Could you talk about the way you’ve grown as a filmmaker – and what you do continually push the envelope?

“As a filmmaker, I think I perpetually feel like a child – I keep wanting to try new things and discover different approaches. I started out in horror and then drifted into action. A big reason I wanted to do something like The Big 4 is because I’ve kind of become known for super serious, very tonally dark action films. I needed to try something new or risk becoming stagnant. So why not try something outside my comfort zone?”

Credit: Netflix

What were your concerns in attempting your first comedy?

“I knew The Big 4 might not be for everyone – especially for my very niche fanbase. But my biggest concern was that The Big 4’s style and humour is so specifically Indonesian. I had a constant fear that people outside Indonesia wouldn’t get the slapstick style. So I tried my best to make up for that by complementing the comedy with my action sensibilities.

“In terms of the comedy, I’m so thankful to my co-writer Johanna Wattimena who helped me a lot with the localised humour. Our entire cast were incredible and also helped with the script as far as deciding what jokes worked and what didn’t while shooting – because what’s funny to me may not necessarily be funny to everyone else.”

As it turns out, there wasn’t any issue with accessibility because The Big 4 has become one of Netflix’s most-watched non-English films internationally. Were you surprised by that?

“I was definitely surprised! You know what’s interesting? There’s this random guy on Twitter who continually sends me graphics and charts about how well my movie is doing in various countries. [laughs] The thing that surprised me the most was how popular the movie was in Latin American countries like Argentina, Brazil, and even Cuba. So I was wondering why The Big 4 has made such a connection with Latino audiences. Is it because the villain has this cool Latino aesthetic and alter ego? I don’t know. But I am enjoying all the people who reach out to me online in Spanish. They’re very kind, but I can only reply ‘gracias, amigo’. [laughs]

“This is the beauty of Netflix, I feel. Not trying to kiss Netflix’s ass, but the direct, immediate connection you can make with fans outside your home country is such a wonderful thing. Sometimes when you make and release a film in Indonesia, you feel like you’re in a bubble. Even if it’s successful in domestic cinemas, you never really know how it projects outside until much later. I’m proud of my heritage and I’m proud of Indonesian cinema – but as a filmmaker, I want my films to reach out to everyone because film is a universal language.”

Credit: Netflix

What are you focusing on next?

“Ideally I’d like to work on my American projects like Under Siege or my Train to Busan remake, The Last Train to New York. Everyone keeps asking me for updates, but with Hollywood stuff, you’re pretty much at the mercy of the studio. So I don’t exactly know when exactly that’s going to happen.

“But I’m very excited with my ongoing collaboration with Netflix, because I’m developing another action film for them. This one will obviously be different from The Big 4. All I can say is that it’s very female-driven, because I’ve always wanted to put female protagonists and female perspectives at the centre of my action. Hopefully, you’ll all get to know more about that soon.”

The Big 4 is now streaming on Netflix

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