A visionary new take on the action-adventure genre.
Assassin’s Creed is a worlds-spanning tale of one man who finds himself at the center of an ancient battle between two powerful sects—only by harnessing the memories of his ancestor, which are contained within his own DNA, can he end the conflict and claim his own redemption.
Based on the blockbuster video game series from Ubisoft, the film is directed by Australian filmmaker Justin Kurzel (Snowtown, Macbeth) from a screenplay Michael Lesslie and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage.
Marked by tragedy at an early age, Cal Lynch (Michael Fassbender) is a convict facing capital punishment when he gains an unexpected second chance at life thanks to the mysterious workings of Abstergo Industries. Through a revolutionary technology that unlocks the genetic memories contained in his DNA, Cal is sent back across the centuries to 15th Century Spain.
There, he lives out the experiences of his distant relative, Aguilar de Nerha, a member of a secret society known as the Assassins who fight to protect free will from the power-hungry the Templar Order.
Transformed by the past, Cal begins to gain the knowledge and physical skills necessary to topple the oppressive Templar organization in present day.
Adapting The Games
Released in 2007, Assassin’s Creed dropped players into the heart of the Crusades, imagining a world in which the bloody, centuries-long war between the Assassins and Templars had defined much of human history. The game became an instant blockbuster, spawning no fewer than eight sequels and a slew of popular spin-offs that have sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. The series has transported players to the Italian Renaissance, the foundation of America, the golden age of piracy in the Caribbean and revolutionary France.
Framing each of the games is the Assassin/Templar conflict of today, in which shadowy biotechnology company Abstergo Industries serves as the front for the Templars, imprisoning Assassins and using a device called “The Animus” to tap their genetic memories and uncover the secrets of their ancestors.
Adapting Assassin’s Creed for the big screen, the movie introduces a new character to the established canon; Cal Lynch, played by Michael Fassbender.
A descendent of several lines of prominent Assassins, Cal is a career criminal who is rescued from his own execution by Abstergo Industries, the modern-day incarnation of the Templar Order. He is forced to participate in the Animus Project and relive the memories of his ancestor Aguilar de Nerha, an Assassin during the Spanish Inquisition. As Lynch continues to experience Aguilar’s memories, he begins to gain an understanding of his traumatic past and his role in the centuries-long conflict between the warring factions.
Michael Fassbender, who has fast emerged as one of the world’s most accomplished and popular actors, immediately saw the potential in a new adaptation of the game. “The Assassin’s Creed universe seemed to lend itself very nicely to a cinematic experience,” he says of the project. His faith in the material was such that his company DMC boarded the project as producers. They were joined by Frank Marshall and Patrick Crowley, who together have been responsible for the Bourne series of films and, most recently, Jurassic World.
“Assassin’s Creed is a mammoth game in terms of its penetration all over the world,” says producer Patrick Crowley. “There’s a whole world of people who know all of the rules and all of the by-laws and the history and all of the various characters that make up the Assassin’s Creed gaming experience.”
But, he says, the new movie, with a screenplay by Michael Lesslie and Adam Cooper & Bill Collage, isn’t just for long-time fans familiar with the series’ rich mythology— it offers a thrilling standalone experience for newcomers as well. “The story we’ve come up with is a story in which you don’t ever have to have played the game in order to really enjoy the movie.”
With his experience portraying the powerful mutant Magento in films including X- Men: Days of Future Past, Fassbender uniquely understood the storytelling possibilities afforded by the game’s time-bending, sci-fi inflected premise, and he was excited by the opportunity to amplify the already expansive world of Assassin’s Creed for the big screen. “When I met up with the guys from Ubisoft, and they started to explain this whole world and the idea of DNA memory, it struck me as a very feasible scientific theory,” Fassbender says. “I thought about the possibility of it being this cinematic experience. We’re approaching it as a feature film as opposed to a videogame.”
To that end, original characters—including the dual roles of Cal and Aguilar played by Fassbender—were created expressly for the film. Says the actor of Cal: “He doesn’t have a lineage he can feel he belongs to. He’s a bit of a lost soul. He’s always been drifting in and out of correctional facilities.” Conversely, Aguilar is “very much somebody that belongs to the Creed. He has a cause. He’s been following that cause. He belongs to it.”
With Fassbender on board, attention turned to a director who could partner with the star and bring additional depth to the storytelling. Having collaborated with both Fassbender and Marion Cotillard on 2015’s Macbeth, Justin Kurzel was a natural fit. Fassbender had first met the Australian filmmaker after he saw the director’s debut feature, the dark indie drama Snowtown: “I immediately felt that I wanted to work with this guy,” notes Fassbender. “Just from the feel of who he was as a person and the conversations we were having, I knew we could collaborate. We were lucky that he responded to the material. To have someone of his strength and vision was a huge bonus.”
“The great thing about Justin is that he can make the complicated elements and difficult subject matter manageable and relatable for an audience, which is what he did with Macbeth,” Fassbender continues. “So to have that perspective and bring it into a fantasy world, we knew that was going to be a huge bonus to us.”
Adds producer Frank Marshall: “Justin Kurzel is somebody who came in and knocked our socks off. He came in with an exciting approach of how to tell the story and how he would look at it in a very real way. He wanted to approach the world in a very realistic sense, not a super-human or fantasy sense, and we all liked that.”
Cal’s journey was at the heart of Kurzel’s interest in the project. Through learning the truth of his ancestors, Cal gains perspective on his troubled past and begins to move toward a place where he truly understands and embraces his role in the world.
Exploring fundamental questions such as how history can shape identity were paramount for the filmmaker—and he was fascinated by the notion of genetic memory, that our own actions and the choices we make can echo across generations.
“It’s about a man who learns who he is through the experiences and lives of those who have come before him,” Kurzel says. “That always intrigued me. If you are naïve to what your bloodline is, how do you make sense of certain emotions that you might feel that are actually inspired by your DNA? That is an integral and dynamic part of the concept of Assassin’s Creed that I think elevates it from just being a game.”
Nevertheless, the filmmaker says the story was a complicated one to get right. “The challenging thing about Assassin’s Creed is that the concept is really complex,” Kurzel says. “The idea of a modern-day character who goes into this machine called the Animus and that takes him back? It’s not a time travel machine—it’s a memory travel machine. On top of that there is the war between the Templars and Assassins, and understanding that it is centuries long. Ultimately, you want to leave the audience with a central idea of what the film is about. That was the most challenging element—how do you take two different, complex genres, and two different time periods, and one actor that is playing two different characters and leave the audience with something satisfying?”
Fortunately, Fassbender says the director’s vision and steady hand guided the production toward the light. “Justin’s insight into the piece, and the clearness of what we were looking for in each scene, really brought a clarity to each beat,” he says.
One of the greatest successes of the Assassin’s Creed franchise has been its clever marriage of real history with its heightened fantasy. The Assassins and the Templars are both real groups whose philosophies were in diametric opposition, and whose embrace of secrecy led to much speculation about their motives.
The Assassins are drawn from Hashashins of Nizari Islam, characterized as a secret order that followed a figure known as the Old Man on the Mountain. Over the course of 300 years, the Assassins killed hundreds of important targets, and in fact the word “assassin” originates from this group. The Crusaders, who form the backdrop to the first Assassin’s Creed game, found the clan particularly fearsome, and their legend was further embellished in Crusades stories told by Marco Polo.
The Knights Templar, by contrast, was a Christian order established for nearly two centuries during the Middle Ages. Officially sanctioned by the Roman Catholic Church, Templar membership included some of the most important and feared figures of the age, and the group held enormous power and influence until its dissolution in 1312. Its sudden disbanding at the height of its power led to a belief that the organization had simply gone underground, where it continued to exert its influence.
Assassin’s Creed imagines a world in which neither one of these groups fully disappeared, instead waging a silent, centuries-long war with one another and deciding the course of real human history through their actions. Many historical figures factor into the games, and the movie is no different, revealing Tomas de Torquemada, for example, as a Templar enforcer that the Assassins must stop, during the most brutal days of the Spanish Inquisition.
Says Crowley: “In the world of Assassin’s Creed, the Assassins are characters who live by stealth, as opposed to the typical warrior of the time who would have a big sword, who would have shields, who would ride horses. The Assassins have hidden blades attached to their wrists with leather armbands, and they use these weapons in order to be able to kill at close range.”
The Assassins live by several key tenets but one is paramount: that they work in the darkness to serve the light. “One of their credos is that you hide in plain sight,” Crowley continues. “So they’re very good at camouflaging themselves. They’re very good at blending in, and then they create enormous social disorder, because no one is expecting that they’re there.”
The Assassins are interested in protecting free will, while the Templars are interested only in power and subjugation of free peoples. “The Templars want to effectively control everything, make life very predictable and eliminate chance and opportunity,” Crowley says. “It’s a much more totalitarian approach.”
The meticulous attention to historical detail that helped Assassin’s Creed become such a landmark in the gaming world also helped inform the new film, Crowley says—using historic fact as a guidepost even delivered a stunning set piece, according to the producer. “It forced us to do this great job in terms of costumes, in terms of weapons, in terms of fighting styles,” he says. “One of the most exciting things that we did for the movie historically is we recreated an auto-da-fe where, during the Spanish Inquisition, they would routinely take and burn people at the stake, as a way of essentially demonstrating their control, to rid themselves of what they perceived as heretics. It took enormous research and painstaking work for all of our departments to present this accurately.”
It was through researching both 15th Century Spain and the game itself that Kurzel found the world of the film. “I didn’t know much about the game,” he says. “But I was quite blown away by the level of detail, effort and passion of the game. It has a historical integrity—it didn’t feel like entertainment fodder. There was a strong feeling of narrative and a vision, a voice, and a culture. That was a real eye opener. We took ideas, and started developing them, just as if you were adapting a book— what is the most interesting thing here, and what are our characters and what is their journey?”
The director sought to ground the film to the greatest extent possible to make the story credible and vibrant—it was that desire, in part, that led to the decision to subtitle the historic sequences set during the Inquisition with the actors speaking in Spanish. “We were very determined to make an audience believe that this world and these characters exist,” adds Kurzel. “I wanted it to be an unbelievable ride and an immersive experience that combines these exotic worlds with some dynamic action sequences.”
Throughout the process, Ubisoft remained a committed partner, opening their archives to the production to ensure that the film earns its proper place in the series’ canon. “One of the great things has been how excited and involved the people who made the game have been,” Marshall says. “They’ve wanted to help, and they’re excited to see how the movie’s coming together. It’s a different kind of challenge for them, but being able to work with us to incorporate the elements that made the game so great has been really terrific. They’re collaborators and we’re collaborating all the time on how to keep the game world and the movie world together.”
Marshall sees the future of Assassin’s Creed on the big screen as being as lasting as that of the games on which it is based. “One of the things we’re very aware of is that we have to set up the story and give it a place to go,” he says. “And I think the characters that are in the story that we’re establishing are so engaging and so interesting that you’re going to want to see them go on. With all the history that we have, there are a lot of different places they can go.”