Undisputed III blew me out of the water so the chance to talk to direc tor Isaac Florentine was something I just couldn't pass up. This email exchange revealed him to be articulate in a way that so few subjects are about the business of action film.
Fans often view sequels (particularly action film sequels) with lowered expectations. Have you found anyone who dismissed the film outright simply because it is a sequel?
IF: Almost everyone I talked to dismissed the sequels with the usual arguments. It's low budget, no names, STV junk, you name it. You sometimes have to twist people's arms to get them to look at them. Once they do they are taken by surprise and the first reaction is how come the films did not go to theaters. This always makes me laugh.... Undisputed II originally was done a few years ago as filler to give the Bulgarian crew some work so they wouldn't desert to an Italian film while production was preparing for Black Dahlia. No one in the corporate office believed in this film, besides producer Boaz Davidson, who did everything within his power to make sure we'd come up with a better film than expected.
Once the movie was finished, we did an audience test screening, and the results were very high -- 84%. New Line was taken by surprise, and they considered taking it to theaters, however, because of an internal dispute and the rejection of their theatrical department, it was vetoed. So when I did Undisputed III, I basically went to do a sequel to a sequel; I honestly never thought the movie would go anywhere. I had fewer shooting days, however I also had total support from the producers and the crew. After the movie was completed, Tom Queen, from Magnolia, wanted to bring it to ActionFest. He never really saw the film, but based on Undisputed II, he had a good feeling about it. The movie was not a part of the competition, however once the jury saw it, they didn't ignore it, and awarded it with best director award (for myself) and best fight choreographer award for Larnell Stovall.
What I am saying is that no matter what, I always put my heart and soul into any movie that I do, seeing it as the last movie I am going to do in my life and be judged by it. But to be honest, I never really believed that Undisputed III would get any exposure. So the nice exposure and feedback it got really surprised me this time.
The film conjures the best of the eighties with its tough guy sensibilities and over the top genre storytelling. But the fighting is completely modern. When you set out to do this film did you realize the unique mix you were going to wind up with?
IF: Yes and no; I'm not really crazy about the eighties movies, but I am crazy about the sixties and seventies spaghetti Westerns, the Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen movies, Lee Van cleeff, Giuliano Gemma also the Jean Paul Belmondo, Lino Ventura films, but first and foremost, the one and only Bruce Lee. Those characters are maybe in my subconscious when I make a film. I like my films to have simple stories but with more grey or slightly complex characters. Regarding the action,I always put character and story first. Obviously without strong characters and emotional content, even the best action sequences become irrelevant, and even boring. I started to experiment with actionin high school in the seventies, using my father's 8mm camera and a wheeled coffee tray as a dolly. Of course being an avid Karate practitioner for almost forty years gives me a deep understanding about fighting techniques but also, I never stopped experimenting and thinking about how to improve action scenes cinematically. I just read some reviews on 'Undisputed 3', most of them are really good. Some critics mentioned the 'Ramping' effect in the fight scenes, stating we "borrowed" it from Zack Snyder's "300" - Well that is not correct, It is exactly the opposite!
We already used the Ramping effect in 2005 on "Undisputed 2" that was done before "300" was made. - When we made the film, the Fight Choreographer JJ Perry and myself came up with the Ramping concept in Bulgaria. Later on in '300' the Ramping concept was used but was also improved with the use of a Prism ('Crazy horse' rig) to create the digital slide 'Zoom in & out' effect.
I found another cheaper solution for the 'Zoom in & out' effect ("Creativity" is what low budget filmmaking all about) - I could not afford the 'Crazy Horse' Prism rig, however I asked the grips to build a simple wooden box where we aligned the cameras for the effect, it cost next to nothing, but as you can see it really works well...
Was anyone hurt during production?
IF: Not really. I am very, very conscious in all of my films that safety is first. So are the stunt coordinators and the fight choreographer I am collaborating with. We're just doing a film; we're not curing cancer, and we're not sending a rocket to the moon, so no one should get hurt while doing a film. Now, by saying that, I'm not Mother Teresa, I have ulterior motives too; let me explain. In a fight scene, if you know that you will get hit, then you stiffen up and your reaction will not be on time and will look lame. If you know that you are safe, you can relax, and your reaction will be on time, flashy and explosive. You will never see in my movies really dangerous stunts like car crashes unless I'll shoot it like in Ninja with Scott Adkins flipping over a moving car (as a split screen, which is totally safe). Also you won't really see in my films extreme high falls where the stunt man drops out of frame into an air bag, and basically you lose the human element. Instead, I use a fall from a lower height, but I follow the person that falls, and usually they will fall into some sort of awning and then bounce to the ground in one continuous motion. The camera will follow without any cut and you will feel their "Pain" (i.e. the human element, the drama of it). How do I make it safe? The person is totally padded under his clothes; the first awning he hits breaks the fall, and when he hits the ground, there is a camouflaged thin mat on the floor but now it becomes a part of the set. Because you follow the person down without any cuts and see the impact, you feel the pain and the human drama. However, it's completely safe, unlike a high fall, where someone can miss the mat, and really get seriously hurt. In these stunts, they can maybe get bruised at the most; however, it looks more dynamic.
Sometimes during a fight scene, there is impact, but this is intentional impact, both the performers and the Fight choreographer know they will hit, it is never done by accident. Now, do they get bruised sometimes? Yes. Do they get sprained fingers, twisted ankles or pulled muscles? It happens sometimes. But never anything more serious.
Do you think it's possible in this day and age to franchise an action hero? Are fans growing tired of the types associated with fighting and action genres?
IF: As long as you're innovative and come in with interesting characters, fans will be interested to see more about these characters. There are a lot of people already inquiring about Undisputed IV. I'm not sure about "Taken", but I think they're doing a sequel to that. I believe if the characters are engaging, then there will be sequels.
Any thought to connecting the franchise to worthwhile sports charities?
IF: As a director, I don't have any power over these kind of executive decisions that are done by producers. If you ask me, if someone is willing to put the money into the movie, then why not?
Do people raz you a lot about having directed so many Power Rangers episodes? Could the two franchises (undisputed and PR) be combined? Who would tell Scott Adkins he has to wear the suit?
IF: Yes, many people joke about Power Rangers, however most of those people never even saw one episode of Power Rangers. As a matter of fact, we used to say that Power Rangers is most well kept secret on television because every episode had action, melodrama, slapstick, special effects, green screen, CGI, etc., etc. Power Rangers was cheesy, but it was on purpose. Furthermore, the producers' approach to Power Rangers was, because we were doing it every day, why don't you as a director go and experiment. If it doesn't work, we could shoot it again the next day. So I had the chance to go and experiment with basic cinematic tools that are sometimes lost today. Like, split screen, false perspective, matting the lens, and experimenting with screen fighting with many variations. However, there is another series that I would like to mention that was forgotten and is more important than Power Rangers with regarding to action and it's WMAC Masters. WMAC Masters preceded its time; I think it came ten years too early. If it was done in the mid-2000's and not the mid-1990's, it would have been a great hit. This is where I really experimented with moving camera, using a hot head, and shooting fights continuously using dynamic camera movements without doing cuts. Many people don't realize that sometimes when I do a movie and I do a fight scene, I chuckle to myself and say I already did the same thing years ago in WMAC Masters or in Power Rangers. Only, the same technique in Power Rangers was PG (glittery) and in Undisputed, it's R (Bloody) - it's the same technique and similar reaction but with more grittiness and violence.
Last year when I did 'Ninja' with Scott Adkins, he wore a suit... The idea behind 'Ninja' was to reverse 'Batman Begins'. In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne learns about becoming a ninja; in Ninja, a ninja becomes a hired assassin dressed in a sort of Batman high tech suit. Ninja went into the comic world, that is why the movie feels a bit like a video game; on purpose the blood there was CGI blood, and we used some wire work in the action, unlike Undisputed III were no wires were used at all and the blood was practical makeup blood.
Where is your core audience- stateside or overseas?
IF: Overseas, definitely. I got so many feedback from action film aficionados from Europe & Asia mainly. In a way, it reminds me of the B movies that were done in the 30s and 40s in Hollywood, where the crews were not given enough lights, so they lit only what needed to be lit. Mainstream Hollywood overlooked these movies as B movies, however, in the 50s, the French who really liked those movies suddenly put them under one umbrella and called them 'Film Noir', and put them on a pedestal. At that point, suddenly mainstream Hollywood had to look at it under a new light. Same thing was done in the 60s & 70"s with the spaghetti Westerns; as a kid growing up in Israel, I never liked American westerns. They were too boring, the good were too good and there was always a woman interfering with the story and slowing the action. I loved the spaghetti Westerns, where the good and the bad were always in the gray zone. Many people used to laugh about those Westerns - the bad dubbing, etc. - but for me, I saw them differently. I loved the way the used those wide lenses, the sweat, dirt, the violence. As an example, everybody knows Sergio Leone and now everybody respects him. However, there were two other Sergios, whose influence was very pronounced. Sergio Corbucci, who created Django and made a wonderful movie called 'the Great Silence' that never in a million years would have been made by an American company. And, Sergio Solima, that in his movies, The Big Gundown and Run, Man, Run, created the first third world hero, which, later on, paved the way for a genius like Bruce Lee to become an international superstar from a third world background.
What I am trying to say is that even today, the fringes are sometime more innovative and interesting than the mainstream, when it comes to Action martial arts genre and maybe years from now people in America will realize this.
What can you tell us about upcoming projects?
IF: I have a saying, I don't believe a movie is really going to happen unless I'm in the set and I hear a camera rolling next to me. And, as being as superstitious as I am, I don't want to jinx anything so I better keep my mouth shut!