From 'Skins' to Directing, Writing and Starring in a New Action Standout: Dev Patel Talks 'Monkey Man'

Sometimes, you just have to take it upon yourself to make your dreams happen — even when you're Dev Patel.
Sarah Ward
Published on April 05, 2024

When SXSW's OG film festival in Austin swoons, the entire movie world can fall in love. Just two years ago, Everything Everywhere All At Once premiered at the fest, then won a swag of Oscars exactly 12 months and one day later. Over the past decade, A Quiet Place, Us, Atomic Blonde, The Disaster Artist, Bodies Bodies Bodies and Bottoms have all premiered there. 2023 Aussie horror hit Talk to Me made the influential event one of its many early stops. And in 2024, alongside everything from Immaculate to The Fall Guy, Dev Patel's feature directorial debut Monkey Man was on the program. The line spanned blocks, and the response was rightly glowing — a standing ovation included.

Of course the festival that hosted John Wick: Chapter 4's premiere a year prior first introduced this propulsive new revenge-thriller to audiences. Patel's instant action classic even namechecks the Keanu Reeves-starring franchise in its dialogue. But with Monkey Man, its star, helmer, producer and co-writer (the latter with Boy Swallows Universe's John Collee and Keith Lemon: The Film's Paul Angunawela) takes a lifetime of loving his new picture's genre in all of its forms around the globe, plus his fondness for vengeance-fuelled Korean cinema and also Bollywood musicals, then mixes it with the story of Hindu deity Hanuman, all to make his dream movie — while making one of his big dreams happen as well.

2024 marks 17 years since Patel initially came to fame in his debut acting role, playing Anwar in British teen drama Skins. In his first-ever film performance in Slumdog Millionaire, he starred in an Oscar-winner for Best Picture and Best Director. If that isn't the kind of start to an on-screen resume that fantasies are made of, then nothing is. Just a decade after stepping in front of the camera, he had an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor for Australian drama Lion, too. But even as his career took him to the Aussie-made Hotel Mumbai, not one but two The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel films, TV's The Newsroom, The Green Knight, The Personal History of David Copperfield and a pair of Wes Anderson shorts (including another Oscar-winner in The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar), wanting to lead an action flick — and helm one — was always an ultimate goal, Patel tells Concrete Playground.

"It was always an aspiration. It feels really far-fetched and it took a long while to realise it, and at times I didn't even think I was going to be the director," he advises. "I was pitching it to a director friend of mine, Neill Blomkamp [who directed Patel in Chappie], and slowly I think I got nudged into the director's seat or the driver's seat of this whole thing. But it was truly a very humbling experience and a dream come true all in one."

Monkey Man follows a character known only as Kid, who Patel plays in a magnetic action-star performance (Bond producers, take note) — and also introduces as a Hanuman-worshipping adult donning a gorilla mask in the ring, where he gets pummelled at an underground fight club to get by. His true brawl is with far more than just whoever his opponent happens to be in any given bout, though. Searing with pain ever since his mother's murder when he was a child, he's on a quest for retribution not just against the man responsible, but the system and its authorities that let it happen in the fictional Indian city of Yatan — a mission that's also about the oppressed mobilising against the forces pushing them aside.

Patel's film is many things, then. It's an underdog story. It's a revenge movie, clearly. It's a feature about faith as well. It's about a son's devotion to honouring his mother. It's a rally against corruption and cruelty — and subjugation and exploitation, too. It's also a picture that was originally destined for streaming only, until fellow actor-turned-filmmaker Jordan Peele (Nope) came onboard with his Monkeypaw Productions company. As a result, Monkey Man is also one helluva big-screen experience.

With the movie releasing in cinemas Down Under on Thursday, April 4, we chatted with Patel about making it his own quest to bring his dream film to fruition, his first experiences with Hanuman, the ten-plus-year process of getting Monkey Man to theatres and its mix of elements. He also told us about the balancing act of starring, directing, writing and producing — as well as his cinematic influences, including from directors that he's worked with in the past, plus his journey from Skins to here, and the film's SXSW experience.


On Taking It Upon Himself to Make the Kind of Movie That Patel Has Always Wanted to Be In

"It's been over ten years since I first started with the idea, and started writing it. And at that point in my career, more so than now, I wasn't getting roles like this — and I don't think the industry saw people like myself like that. We were more going to be the comedic relief, or the guy that hacks the mainframe for the lead guy or whatever. 

But I love action cinema. I love Korean revenge films. And also, I've been exposed to Bollywood cinema with my grandparents and my parents. And I just wanted to put that in this one cannon and fucking blast it out — sorry, mind my French, but that's where this was born from."


On Patel's First Experience with the Deity Hanuman — and When He Knew He Wanted to Draw Upon It for Monkey Man

"My dad had a chain — or has a chain — around his neck with this little cool little Hanuman figure on it, and I always used to ask him about it. And he's like 'wait till your granddad comes and he'll tell you the story better than I can'. 

My granddad used to fly in from Kenya, and he used to sit in my little box room and I wouldn't let him leave, and he would tell me these cool stories of these big epic battles. And Hanuman was the character that I absolutely loved.

He was kind of an outsider. He had superhuman strength. Half man, half monkey — just so cool. If you go to India, you'll see in every rickshaw or taxi, there's a little Hanuman thing swinging from the mirror. If you go to the gyms, they've got Schwarzenegger, the weightlifter Ronnie Coleman and Hanuman on the walls.

He represents nobility, masculinity, strength, courage, all of those things."


On How Monkey Man Evolved Over the Ten Years That It Took to Bring It to the Screen

"It kept changing. You keep adding bits of armour to it. But the genesis of it, I wanted this guy who was inspired by this iconography to be a self-flagellating, masochistic young man who doesn't know how to deal with trauma, so he dons this rubber mask and is a literal performing monkey in this really claustrophobic wrestling ring.

The politics of the world started to fill out the more I researched, and the mythology, but at its core it's a revenge film about faith — but it constantly evolved and changed."


On Making a Film About Faith That's Also a Revenge Movie, a Rally Against Corruption and Oppression, and About a Man's Devotion to Honouring His Mother

"It all does sprout from that one notion — so it's how can faith be manipulated and weaponised to the masses? How can it sway elections and influence officials, police brutality, violence against women? These systemic issues are global issues. They're not just Indian issues. And it kind of just started falling out of me.

Once you have a guy that's grappling with his own beliefs in himself, in the iconography that he so fell in love with as a child and then faced trauma, and then stopped believing in anything, it starts writing itself in a way."


On the Balancing Act of Making Patel's Feature Directorial Debut While Writing, Producing and Starring as Well

"It definitely was. There was an imbalance more than a balancing act, I guess. It was chaos. It was absolute chaos. Looking back on it, I really don't know how I did it, actually, because we're in the middle of the pandemic and it was madness.

I don't know if you've seen the documentary Hearts of Darkness, about the making of Apocalypse Now? It was kind of like my own version of that. There's a lot of hats to wear."


On Preparing for the Film's Impressive and Relentless Action Choreography, Both as an Actor and a Director

"I just spent a lot of time with the stunt team. We were just trying to push the action as far as we could without it feeling like choreo — I wanted it to feel primal and animalistic and raw.

And actually, to try make choreo feel jagged and messy is the most difficult thing. So you're not preempting a move and waiting — and it's like, how does it feel like it's coming at you? 

You're getting caught off guard, and stumbling and tripping and sliding, and bouncing off windows and biting. That was the challenge with it. 

And we wanted to try to create a camera movement that was trying to keep up with the action, instead of preempting it."


On Finding Inspiration in a Love of Action Cinema, the Art of Action Choreography, Korean Cinema, Bollywood and More

"All of it, to be honest. I'm a huge fan of the genre. I am a fanboy and a consumer of this stuff. So everything from Bruce Lee — as a kid, who was my entry point to cinema — and Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Sammo [Hung], Iko [Uwais] from The Raid franchise to Keanu [Reeves] and John Wick.

And then the Koreans, and the way they just blisteringly make the best revenge cinema there is — movies like The Man From Nowhere, Oldboy, I Saw the Devil. These guys — and the pathos they can infuse in their stories, as well as the most gory violence.

And Bollywood, and that musical bombastic kind of cinema, all of it lives in this."


On What Patel Has Learned From the Filmmakers He's Worked with That Helped with His First Stint as a Director

"Having never been to an acting class or a directing workshop or anything like that, I didn't know about lenses or anything starting this. It was all just being super excited — and I guess through osmosis being around these great, very different kind of filmmakers, it's bled into this.

You'll see little hints and hat tips to Danny Boyle [his Slumdog Millionaire director], and some humour, comedy to Armando [Iannucci, who directed him in The Personal History of David Copperfield] — or even David Lowery [The Green Knight's filmmaker] with some of the more spiritual aspects that deal with time and all of it. So it's all in there.


On What Patel Makes of His Career Almost Two Decades After Skins First Made Him a Star

"It's so hard to step back and take it all in. When you're in it, you have no objectivity. But I would say more than anything, it constantly surprises me how good the audiences and fans can be.

Like with SXSW — I'd been away for a while, and I was like 'are people going to even remember me or show up for this thing?' It's been ten years. I've turned down a lot of work to make this thing.

And then, lines three blocks down the road and a standing ovation. We won the audience award. It was amazing."


Monkey Man opened in cinemas Down Under on Thursday, April 4, 2024. Read our review.

Published on April 05, 2024 by Sarah Ward
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