JIU JITSU Interview: Star Alain Moussi And Director Dimitri Logothetis Talk Martial Arts And Science Fiction
The classic martial arts film Kickboxer was given new life in 2016 by producer and screenwriter Dimitri Logothetis, the man behind the remake Kickboxer: Vengeance. The legendary Jean-Claude Van Damme took on the role of the mentor, while martial artist Alain Moussi was introduced to the world of cinema with the starring role of the young man who wishes to face the Muay Thai fighter who took the life of his brother in Thailand.
“Dimitri and I, we’ve known each other now for 10 years, he’s a dear friend”, said Moussi in an interview for Screen Anarchy. “It started as producer hiring an actor, I was saying give me the chance. That’s what Dimitri did for me and that was the relationship. It progressed to an amazing friendship and a great collaboration”, he added.
Logothetis, who went on to direct the sequel Kickboxer: Retaliation, recalled that “I found Alain originally up in Canada when I was preparing another movie. I saw his athleticism and the fact that he was an expert martial artist, which is the core of any martial arts film. If you don’t have Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen or Jean-Claude Van Damme to begin with, the audience won’t embrace the movie. I can never approach a martial arts film without having true, authentic martial artists as the core.”
For Jiu Jitsu, his most recent feature film, Logothetis called Moussi again. “Alain is a 6th degree jiu jitsu master, he started training when he was about seven or eight years old. For a man in his age (39), he stills has this sort of innocence that he brings to this character. I think that the little boy and the little girl in all of us lives through him when he’s the lead, so that you can win when he’s winning. Again, he’s an exceptional martial artist, I mean how many men do you know that are 6 foot 1, weight 205 pounds, and can do a front aerial and a back aerial, and just do the kind of execution in kicks and punches that he can?”, stated the director.
In Jiu Jitsu, Moussi plays Jake, a fighter who has completely lost his memory. Little by little a whole mythology is revealed, involving an alien (Ryan Tarran), a comet and a portal in a temple in Myanmar. The alien visits Earth every six years, seeking to fight with the best exponents of jiu jitsu, a martial art that he himself brought to our planet long ago. The movie is based on the homonymous comic book, written by Logothetis and Jim McGrath, and illustrated by Greg McCrary.
Logothetis said that when he first created the storyline he “did a lot of research into jiu jitsu, a martial art that is several thousand years old. It’s very difficult to find its origin, it looks like it perhaps might have been Japan or Korea or even India. With that concept in mind, the basis of the story is that the martial art was brought to Earth from another being from another planet. I sat with my writing partner (McGrath) and I said let’s write a comic book. Of course he thought I was crazy because we’ve been spending our whole lives writing screenplays. I said, listen, if we write this comic book I’ll have an opportunity to be able to visualize it, like a visual storyboard. So we did, we set off and wrote a comic book. Then once I was able see the whole movie. Also I used some real science, we have a comet that goes through our Solar System every six years. I used Myanmar because it’s thousands of years old, the Valley of the Temples, there’s thousands of temples in there. I used all that mythology to create the basis of the film.”
Moussi, on the other hand, was surprised when Logothetis told him the story of the film. Then he saw it as an opportunity to “go back in time and present jiu jitsu not as what the world knows today. Right now, in the modern day, people know jiu jitsu as Brazilian jiu jitsu, but Brazilian jiu jitsu is very young. Jiu jitsu has a heritage that goes like thousands of years, its origin goes way back, to India, China or Japan. If we go back to the point where modern-day Japanese jiu jitsu comes from, would be the samurai. The way it worked, even If you go back to the samurai time, you look at weaponry, long-range weapon. Then we get into short-range weapon. Then we go into striking, gripping, throwing and grappling. We wanted to present the full spectrum of jiu jitsu.”
The other great martial artist who appears in Jiu Jitsu is Thailand’s Tony Jaa, whom Logothetis has admired for many years, since he realized that his young son and one of his friends were obsessed with “an obscure movie called Ong-Bak: The Thai Warrior. As soon as I saw it, I decided that I was going to make a martial arts film. For years I tried to get Tony Jaa and finally he was available. My stunt team is from Thailand, they worked with him before so it was a very easy fit.”
Jaa is part of the best action set piece in Jiu Jitsu, in which his character is introduced and eventually fights alongside Moussi. It’s a dynamic sequence, it has handheld camerawork, some slow-motion and POV shots. For Logothetis, “Tony Jaa is untouchable. I wanted to create a continuous sequence where Tony was running, jumping up on top of walls, leaping over rooftops, etc. I wanted the audience to get the feeling of a video game, however around the middle of the sequence I wanted them to know that it was no video game, these were real-life martial artists who were pulling off these amazing athletic feats. I tried to stay away from the tricks, I tried to make just enough visual effects and CGI to sell the science fiction. But for the most part, if you notice, everything else is really martial arts-centric, and then you can really get lost in the characters and enjoy their athleticism.”
Jiu Jitsu focuses on a series of fights between the alien –whose design was influenced by The Day the Earth Stood Still and Alien– and the various martial artists, also played by actors like Frank Grillo and Nicolas Cage. Moussi, who has also worked as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, was quite involved in the conception of all these action sequences: “we had a huge team, I kind of oversaw the whole thing because I knew what Dimitri’s vision was, he trusts you even to the point when it comes to shooting, he’s so open-minded and understands the martial arts action genre very well. When it came to designing a lot of the stunts we were about to do, I had my hand in that as well. I wanted to make sure that that was done really well, I wanted to bring cohesive action and have a very specific style for everyone of those characters. With Tony Jaa and Thai boxing, we said: he is still going to have all the striking he does but let’s put a jiu jitsu influence in there because under the jiu jitsu umbrella there’s striking, gripping, throwing and locks. And we’ll take Frank Grillo and we’ll give him a dagger; he’s a boxer so he only uses his hands but he’s also going to grapple and he’s going to use his dagger in that way as short-range weapon.”
As for Nicolas Cage, his character –whose connection to the protagonist is revealed near the end– doesn’t shy away from fighting. Logothetis highlighted that Cage “has happened to train with jiu jitsu masters himself. He’s in very good shape, he’s very athletic, so we were able to have him step into the role very easily. He really sells the mythology very, very well. He was channeling Dennis Hopper from Apocalypse Now. He did about 80% of the action, then the 20% was the stuff that was just very dangerous; he was more than happy to do it but in all these years with my action directing in both television and film, I never hurt anybody. I made sure that I certainly don’t hurt them now.”
While the importance of action scenes in Jiu Jitsu is more than evident, Moussi always had in mind a couple of advices that Jean-Claude Van Damme gave him during the filming of Kickboxer: Vengeance. “He said this: remember, the acting is very important, that’s what is going to change the game so you have to really focus on that as much as you can, because your action will be great. He also told me that when it comes to the close-up, that’s where it counts, you really got to convey that emotion because that’s where everybody is going to see it. Those were two major pieces of advice I got from Jean-Claude. And I went back and watched a couple of his movies after that: I watched an older one, Double Impact, and then I watched JCVD. I understood exactly what he meant.”
The main challenge for Moussi in his third collaboration with Logothetis had to do, precisely, with his facet as an actor, because at the end of the day he has always been an expert in martial arts. “When I heard that I was going to work with Nic Cage there was definitely a bit of fear because I wanted to be up his standard, he’s an Academy Award winning actor. There was a bit of pressure. When you look at Jake, what he has to overcome in this film, he has to overcome fear, use fear as fuel. That’s what I did. One of my favorite moments was on the most emotional scene, when I’m with Nic Cage by the campfire, that’s when he reveals what brought us to this point. I remember in my close-up, Dimitri called me and said Alain, I really need a lot from you on this one, it’s a close-up. He shot it and at the end when he called cut, Dimitri flipped at me, he had a smile. I was like, oh my god that is awesome, there it go, I did it”, Moussi concluded.
Jiu Jitsu is in theaters and available on VOD.