Interview: Dev Patel on his directorial debut Monkey Man; “It was kind of a by-any-means-necessary approach to filmmaking.”

Inspired by the legend of Hanuman, an icon embodying strength and courage, Monkey Man stars Dev Patel as Kid, an anonymous young man who ekes out a meagre living in an underground fight club where, night after night, wearing a gorilla mask, he is beaten bloody by more popular fighters for cash.  After years of suppressed rage, Kid discovers a way to infiltrate the enclave of the city’s sinister elite.  As his childhood trauma boils over, his mysteriously scarred hands unleash an explosive campaign of retribution to settle the score with the men who took everything from him.

Also serving as an astonishing, tour-de-force feature directing debut for Patel, this tale of one man’s quest for vengeance against the corrupt leaders who murdered his mother and continue to systemically victimize the poor and powerless announces the Academy Award nominated actor as a presence to be reckoned with.

As audiences prepare to meet Monkey Man this week in theatres across the globe (you can read our review here), Peter Gray spoke with Patel about the origins of the film, the directors that guided him, and the mental preparation he undertook to get his story to screen.

I went into Monkey Man knowing very little.  I had heard it had action, but I was struck by the emotionality and the socio-political commentary.  I understand the inspiration for this came from stories you had heard from your grandfather?  How long has this film been churning in your brains to come about?

It’s been knocking about between these two big ears for a very long time.  Like, over 10 years.  My dad has this chain around his neck with this little monkey icon, called Hanuman.  I’d ask him what’s it about, and he’d always tell me to wait until granddad comes from Kenya, and “he will tell you better than I can.”  When he used to come to London he would tell me these stories of these old Indian mythological epics.  He was a great storyteller.  And I just love this character of Hanuman.  This half-man, half-monkey, simian kind-of superhero.  As someone who was sort of running away from my culture in my early years of youth – trying to fit in and not be bullied – this was something I thought people could relate to.  This kind of iconography is cool.

Superman is pulled from it, you know? Him splitting his chest open and flying…all that.  I wanted to ground it and give it resonance and weight, and this kind-of primal feeling.  And that’s where the idea of this underground wrestler (came from).  This kid, whose got this trauma, he’s a literal performing monkey in this wrestling ring.

There’s obviously physical preparation for this.  But, how much mental preparation goes into this as well?  You go through the wringer in this film!  How do you prepare for that?

You don’t.  I thought I had been prepping and I’d thought I’d prep the hell out of it.  Then we got hit with the COVID pandemic, and I was in the biggest slum in India, man, and then the film went down.  It was always just (about) not taking no for an answer.  Not accepting failure.  And we managed to blag out way onto an island in Indonesia, where there was a warehouse that became our studio.  (This) amazing production team there did everything to help make this film happen.  The borders were closed (so) we couldn’t get in camera equipment.  I used my mobile phone in sequences, and GoPros…all sorts of stuff.  It was kind of a by-any-means-necessary approach to filmmaking.

What you have achieved here is incredible!  The way you utilised the music, the camera shots…were there any directors that you have worked with that you looked to as inspiration? Or that served as a type of guidance?

I think pretty much all of the guys and gals that I’ve shared a set with, through osmosis, influenced me, starting with Danny Boyle.  His ferocity and his ingenuity with the camera…it kind of worked its way into my kind of language.  Then, you know, Armando Iannucci and his love of physical comedy.  Hitting those gags.  And David Lowery, who I did a film called Green Knight with, and Garth Davis, who I did Lion with…they really connected me to the “soulful Dev”, the guy that will ask, “How does nature influence the character?  How does the environment influence (this character) and where is the philosophy going to live in the movie?”  I think all of that is in the film.

I was just so taken with the film, and as a queer man, I love that there was trans representation in such a strong manner.  And the reaction out of SXSW has got to give you a good boost as to how this film will be received.  I can’t say congratulations enough on this.  As a first film? This is so, so, so good.  And I look forward to seeing what you bring next, because if this is where you start? The sky’s the limit.

Thank you so much for all of that.  I love you!

Thank you.  And anytime you want to come back to Australia and nail our accent…you’re more than welcome! 

Chookas!

Monkey Man is screening in Australian theatres from April 4th, 2024.

Peter Gray

Film critic with a penchant for Dwayne Johnson, Jason Momoa, Michelle Pfeiffer and horror movies, harbouring the desire to be a face of entertainment news.