On the set of Assassin’s Creed - this is no ordinary video game movie

It’s freezing on the set of Assassin’s Creed. It’s still dark, but that doesn’t stop the veritable hive of activity in the desert hills above the small Spanish town of Almeria. It’s the final day of shooting for one of the film’s 15th century sequences before the crew ups sticks and moves to London’s Pinewood Studios but the atmosphere isn’t one of panic, just of getting the job done. It’s a slick operation and I’m just doing my best not to get in the way as trucks speed into the main set area. Templars with shaved heads and cross tattoos on their necks wander by with very real swords and cups of steaming coffee, while horses are led casually through the madness. The head of the Templar army, Ojeda, wanders imposingly past, huge in armour and with a disconcertingly broken nose and milky left eye.  

I keep writing the word ‘COLD’ over and over in my notebook to keep my hands busy but I have an eagle eye out for one person. The actor who might just be the one responsible for making a video game movie adaptation that doesn’t actually suck. Michael Fassbender isn’t just taking on the roles of both future dweller Callum Lynch and his Spanish Assassin ancestor Aguilar De Nehra, he’s also in an active producer role on the movie. In a perfect combo with his Macbeth director Justin Kurzel, the pair have been handed the heavy responsibility of not destroying Ubisoft’s beloved history-hopping franchise on the silver screen. 

With last year’s Assassin’s Creed Syndicate the twentieth game in the series, there’s no shortage of stories to draw from but in a wise move from Ubisoft’s brand new motion pictures branch, the AC movie is creating fresh characters. This is a new story, a new time period and a brand spanking new hooded Assassin. This isn’t a world you’ve already spent 50 hours exploring and that’s probably for the best.

Callum Lynch, a criminal in the 21st century who has been sentenced to death, wakes up after his ‘execution’ to find that he’s the latest addition to Abstergo’s research labs. Scientist Sophia Rikkin, played by Marion Cotillard, promises she’s there to help him but given the fact that Abstergo is the modern face of the Knights Templar and she’s the daughter of the game’s evil Abstergo head Alan Rikkin (played by Jeremy Irons), I’m not sure how much ‘help’ this will be to humanity, even if she believes she's doing the right thing. On the hunt for an ‘artefact,’ Abstergo pop Lynch into the Animus, the genetic time travel chair that’ll allow him to relive the memories of his Templar-battling 15th century ancestor Aguilar. The Spanish Inquisition setting means we’ll see some real history mixed up with the sneaky stabbing action. Aguilar will be amidst the siege of Granada, experience the auto-de-fe and meet real historical figures such as first Grand Inquisitor Tomas de Torquemada.

In a drastic shift from the game, the part of the Animus we’ve got a glimpse of in the trailer is a lot more active than just a post-modern looking couch. Instead, a grasping sci-fi claw lets Lynch go through the full physical motions of Aguilar. Just like Desmond in the games, Lynch must learn the skills of the Assassins via what’s known as the ‘Bleeding Effect’ where he relives Aguilar’s memories. And Lynch isn’t the only Assassin in Abstergo; the evil corporation has a veritable Brotherhood of what it must see as captive genetic gold. How Lynch finds out he’s reliving history for the wrong side remains to be seen. 

While these new characters give Kurzel and Fassbender a bit of room to breathe in terms of characterisation and tone, they’re not taking it lightly. This needs to not only stand alone on its own freerunning feet but pay tribute to the fans expecting a fresh slice of the Brotherhood they know and love. Thankfully, Kurzel is aware of the problem but isn’t afraid to make the movie that he wants. 

“I think that’s the big challenge; how do you make something that exists as a game to be a 120 minute story, and also just setting up the storylines and setting up the character?” he ponders later that day when my feet have defrosted and the desert sun now requires sunglasses instead of a winter jacket.

“I’ve always approached this as a film. I respect the game and I’ve spent a lot of time with the game but, at the same time, there comes a point where you have to start looking at this as a film and how it actually works as a film. I just did Macbeth and that’s been done a thousand times, and has massive baggage to it, so I think you just have to sort of embrace it and go with it. And there’s something about Assassin’s Creed that feels very real, you know? And I think maybe different from other games that definitely makes it feel more tangible as a piece of cinema.”

It’s this focus on reality that really stands out on set. Every coffee-carrying Templar who walks past clinks in layers of chainmail, the wooden carriages rattling behind horses are ornate with engravings and I’m willing to bet that the oak is as solid as it looks. And then suddenly, as stealthy as the Brotherhood itself, there’s an Assassin on set. Michael Fassbender has arrived in full garb and, just like in the first promo images, he just looks right. 

Watching him walk across to the carriage where he’s going to spend the next four hours fighting the same fight over and over, this is no mere Assassin cosplay. Aguilar’s outfit is beautifully ornate, covered with beads and decoration. Each costume took months to craft and a team of 70 designers worked on the 14 necessary for the shoot. Fassbender is suddenly the perfect Assassin. It’s like a mental jigsaw piece falling into place. 

As an Assassin’s Creed fan, knowing that this central cog looks and feels so right is an immense relief  but I hear you, Angelina Jolie looked great as Lara Croft, look how that went down. The difference here is the approach to the game. While the franchise is of course at the heart of the Ubisoft’s production, it’s what makes a movie that matters at the box office. That means plot, characters and themes and Fassbender knows it. He hadn’t played Assassin’s Creed until now but he’s sure they're onto something special. 

“To be honest with you I didn’t really play the game before I met these guys from Ubisoft – I don’t really play video games so I’m not up to speed with any games out there to be honest,” he explains later when we catch up in a trailer. “I’d seen the posters and I’d seen some of the trailers, and then when I met up with some of the guys from Ubisoft and they started to tell me what the whole game was about and the concept behind it. These two rival factions that had been warring since the beginning of time; Templars and Assassins and this idea of DNA memory I was like ‘Wow, this is great. This lends itself very well to a cinematic storytelling realm, outside of the game stuff.’”

Fassbender’s also very aware that the movie has to stand alone for those who haven’t played so much of the franchise that their right hand automatically forms into a free running claw. “When I came on board it was sort of about refining all this stuff and simplifying, simplifying and simplifying as we’re introducing these concepts to people who might not have played the game at all, so we want to cater for both,” Fassbender confirms. “In terms of the games, I definitely then started playing them and watching for the movement to try and get a sort of idea of the shape that I’m going to be pulling basically. The physicalisation of the character, that’s definitely stuff that I drew from the game, without a doubt. When I put on that suit and the boots and put the hood up, it starts to help me with that physical side of Aguilar.”

Joining Fassbender on set is French actress Ariane Labed who plays Aguilar’s fellow Assassin, Maria. She’s complete with the same striking blue facial tattoos as Fassbender and where Aguilar has a long Assassin cloak, in the tradition of both Evie Frye and Ezio before her, Maria has a shoulder cape. As the sun comes up on set, Labed and Fassbender go through their motions of clambering aboard a carriage and battling a Templar. It’s already clear that Aguilar and Maria are very much a deadly team as she dodges the swing of a villainous sword while he throws a distracting knife into a skull. Well, it would be a distracting knife if it was real. This early in the morning it’s still thankfully imaginary.  

“She’s already an Assassin when Aguilar starts to become one. So she’s kind of more experienced than him,” Labed explains later when asked about her character. “I’d say she’s wise and she kind of carries this knowledge of being an Assassin, and she’s truly managed to do everything for the Creed. They are this kind of duo and always helping each other, so I think I save his life... I don’t know how many times and he’d do the same – that’s the kind of relationship we have, and it’s not very talkative at all it’s more like a whispered kind of communication, like you would imagine an Assassin to have. It’s more like body language than something else. So it’s a deep relationship they have between them, to do with death and fighting.” 

The sun is finally up and a helicopter is circling overhead. Clothing layers are coming off as the heat rises and Fassbender and Labed hurtle off on the back of a carriage to battle their Templar goon as they attempt to rescue a kidnapped prince. Horses raise dust as a group of Templars ride off into the distance followed speedily by trucks loaded with huge cameras. While they’re shooting, I’m being taken elsewhere. Two cranes half a mile away are stark against the blue sky. They mean one thing: A leap of faith. 

In Justin Kurzel’s quest for realism, British stuntman Damien Walters is happily free-falling from a tiny platform held up by cranes. He’s going to start at 80ft and work his way up to a 120ft swan dive into an inflatable bag that if it seems small from from down here must seem even smaller from a tiny platform held in place by ground ropes and big tankards of water. My heart is in my mouth as I watch him prepare. I’m suddenly aware of how human he is. He might be an Assassin in Aguilar’s robes looking over the edge but that particular sync point doesn’t have a save attached to it. 

Walters will go 40ft higher than this. This is just a practice, but as I watch him put up his hood and majestically dive into the air, I have an automatic mental Eagle cry and the overwhelming sensation of vertigo you get from the best leaps of faith as Assassins dive from the tallest towers into the smallest haycarts. A camera drops down after him to get just the shot you’re imagining right now. This could have been done with green screen but that’s not how Kurzel wants this film to feel. 

“Our big game was how do you respect the game and the motifs in the game but at the same time kind of create a piece of cinema that feels real and brings these Assassins to life?” Kurzel explains. “We’re doing two leaps of faith. This one’s real and I think there’s a great story to that. Damien’s one of the best free-fallers in the world, so instead of an animated character, why not shoot a real person doing something that’s possible?”

“I think that’s what so great about the game is that it’s human endeavour, it’s not suddenly a superpower. We’re doing another leap of faith which is probably much more in keeping with some of the style choices in the game, so I think it’s a balance between the two. We’re putting cameras on the blades so that it’s like a blade-cam. And that’s what we’re trying to do – all the stunts are being done in camera and they’re being done by some of the best stunt guys in the world. We’re just trying to as much as possible make it feel that it’s possible for a human being to be an Assassin.”

While the action side of things is being recreated without a dependence on green screen, Kurzel and Fassbender are equally passionate about the idea of the Animus. Both are fascinated by the idea of us revisiting the memories of our genetic ancestors by plugging into a machine. “There’s lots of action-adventure films out there, especially at the moment, but what was really unique about this one - and which I thought elevated it above other action-adventure and fantasy films - is that this idea of the DNA memories seems like a very plausible scientific theorem,” says Fassbender. “That we carry around in us the knowledge of our ancestors, and that way we know stuff like ‘Don’t eat that berry, eat this one…’ you know?” 

“I thought that really was something that would take the audience on a more immersive journey, kind of like The Matrix. I love the Templar/ Assassin battle that’s been going on since the beginning of time, and the idea of Adam and Eve being the first Assassins – that’s cool. And the idea as well that this isn’t Star Wars, there isn’t a dark side and light; we have very ambiguous morals going on here, it’s a very grey world. Both sides are contradictory of their belief systems – they have to, in certain terms, bend them and skew them a little bit. So I like that; I always think it’s more interesting when you’ve got a sort of grey area as opposed to very black and white.”

There’s more shooting to do as the crew head back to the 21st century to join Jeremy Irons and Marion Cotillard, but for now there’s one more leap of faith to perform in Spain as Walters’ platform is cranked up to 120ft. A helicopter hovers nearby to get the perfect 360 shot of the miniature Assassin on his tiny perch and I’m unable to look away from the action. 

A genuine lone leap of faith isn’t enough to save a movie but there’s something reassuring about the way Kurzel and Fassbender talk about the Creed. This is still the franchise we know but seen through fresh eyes and with a new interpretation. Between Kurzel’s passion for realism and Fassbender’s excitement for the potential of the source material, I’m convinced. Add in the dual Assassin team of Aguilar and Maria and I'm excited. If anyone can do this, it might just be these two. Don’t say requiescat en pace just yet. This could be the one.

Louise Blain

Louise Blain is a journalist and broadcaster specialising in gaming, technology, and entertainment. She is the presenter of BBC Radio 3’s monthly Sound of Gaming show and has a weekly consumer tech slot on BBC Radio Scotland. She can also be found on BBC Radio 4, BBC Five Live, Netflix UK's YouTube Channel, and on The Evolution of Horror podcast. As well as her work on GamesRadar, Louise writes for NME, T3, and TechRadar. When she’s not working, you can probably find her watching horror movies or playing an Assassin’s Creed game and getting distracted by Photo Mode.