This week, the martial arts sci-fi action movie Jiu Jitsu hits theaters. It tells the story of Jake (Alain Moussi), the leader of an ancient order of jiu-jitsu warriors who, unfortunately, has amnesia and doesn’t remember he’s the leader of an ancient order of jiu-jitsu warriors. This is a problem, as the reason for their existence is upon them: Every six years, a portal opens up and spits out a vicious alien creature, and it’s the duty of Jake’s order to fight the alien visitor back and protect humanity.
The cast is rounded out by a number of notable martial artists and stuntpeople. There’s also one hugely entertaining performance by Nicolas Cage as Wylie, a disgraced member of the order who may or may not be legitimately insane.
There’s a lot of fight choreography and martial arts for action junkies to sink their teeth into. I sat down with director Dimitri Logothetis to talk about the enormous complexity of shooting some of those action sequences, what it was like working with Nic Cage, and how much respect he has for the art and sport of martial arts.
Note: This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Atom Tickets: This is such a unique concept as it mashes together a number of genres that don’t necessarily naturally fit together. How did this idea come about? It feels like a passion project you’d been thinking about for a while.
Dimitri Logothetis: Interestingly enough, you’re right. Number one, I get accused of being crazy and I probably am – hopefully in a good way! But, you know, martial arts films are always about the same thing. They all have, at their core, your lead and your protagonist, who really is going up against someone who is unbeatable. And in this instance, he’s someone that you really can’t kill, and so I thought that would be really cool. Then science fiction is something I’ve always been a fan of, and I liked the idea of mixing that with martial arts and come up with a team that had to face this unbeatable foe. Martial arts, in the East, is one of the best genres you can work in because you’re dealing with, at the core, honor, respect, loyalty, laying your life on the line for humanity. And so I thought all of that stuff mixed together would make for a really cool and fun project.
You have an extensive background in martial arts yourself. Do you still practice regularly?
DL: I don’t. You know, I bike ride, really. I did about twelve years of martial arts and got two black belts. I did some competitive fighting at the time. One of the belts was in kenpo from Master Ed Parker and the other one was tangsudo from Howard Jackson.
In regard to what you were saying with respect and honor, I’ve noticed that for a number of my friends who have done martial arts for a long time, even if they don’t practice anymore, those virtues still form a core of their worldview. Do you find that’s also the case for you?
DL: I hope so. I mean, I find that some of the best – I’ve been fortunate enough to work with some of the most incredible athletes in the world, going all the way back with Muhammad Ali. I did a documentary with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Larry Holmes and Ken Norton, and I find that these people tend to be the most humble people that you’ve ever met in your life and yet they’re extremely talented and lethal at the same time. So I find that to be a really nice trait and I’m hoping that we can push that trait out every once in a while with my films.
You’ve worked with Alain [Moussi] often. He’s kind of your martial arts muse. What does it mean as a director to work with someone that you are so familiar and in sync with?
DL: It’s a wonderful thing. I discovered him and decided to star him in the first remake of Kickboxer. Without it at its core, when you make a martial arts film, you have to have a tremendously talented martial artist as the anchor. Otherwise, you’d never be able to shoot these sequences if you had to work with actors and double them for every single role. It would take months and months to film. And you’d also lose that authenticity I try to achieve with my martial arts talent.
The stunt and fighting community in itself is so tight-knit. Had you worked with any of the rest of the cast before?
DL: That stunt team was actually the team I discovered in Thailand when I did the very first Kickboxer remake. I’ve stuck with these guys and gals, so then I brought them back for Kickboxer: Retaliation after I brought them back for Kickboxer: Vengeance and then I flew them out to Cyprus to do Jiu Jitsu. They’re just an exceptional team. They’re muy thai-centric, which means that’s where their foundation comes from, and so they bring a certain style from martial arts you’re maybe not used to seeing all the time. Chinese martial artists have a completely different approach to choreography, as do the Japanese martial artists. But the Thais have a completely different look and a sort of balletic aggressiveness, if you will, and it’s very entertaining to watch.
I imagine working with Tony Jaa is really something, too. He’s just phenomenal.
DL: Well, I mean, look. The thing about Tony is that he’s just such a nice guy. He’s the kind of guy who is always smiling, always happy. And my Thai guys, of course, my Thai team has worked with him many times through many films so it was really easy for him to slip into the choreography. I start working on the action choreography months before I start shooting a film. The guys will start working it out in the gym, and then they’ll cut it together and send it to me and I’ll look at it and send notes. I’ll give them feedback on what I’d like to see in that particular sequence and build to the other sequences. But I mean, just look at the stuff he’s doing on screen. It blows your mind.
That actually led to my next question, which was how involved you are with the fight and action sequences. So it’s more of a collaborative back and forth?
DL: Well, I’ll take a look at martial arts films going all the Seventh Samurai and then cut together some sequences from it and go, “Look, this fight sequence should be inspired by these films and this kind of look, this is what we want to go for.” That’s how I approach every single film with my stunt coordinator. And of course, Alain is a stuntman and a fight choreographer himself and he always has a lot of input. So by the time we’re done, we’ve come up with some of the incredible sequences that you see there.
The movie utilizes a lot of interesting camerawork. There’s the single tracking shot where Tony is doing parkour over the rooftops, one where it looked like you were maybe using inward-facing body mounts, vertical 360-degree spins. Was that all in the script or did it come about organically as you filmed?
DL: Well, my director of photography is a fellow by the name of [Gerardo] Madrazo – this is the third movie we’ve done together. And every once in a while, he’s state of the art, he’ll come up with a new lead camera rig like that that fits perfectly into what we’re doing. That sequence with Tony that you’re talking about was a series of camera handoffs, because you do have Tony starting on the ground and then suddenly leaping up onto the rooftops and running across a wall. So I think the camera was handed off about three or four times. The stunt coordinator was actually the last handoff, and we rigged him with a camera and hung him on a crane, because he leaps across rooftops following Tony’s character twice and then he leaps down. So [laughing] it hopefully looks like a really seamless sequence, but it was actually very, very difficult to develop and create.
There was also the one scene in the forest, the firefight, where it looked like they had maybe a body harness and the camera pointed at their face. Is that right?
DL: Oh yeah. I just thought, we’ve seen so many battle sequences in films, you know, especially when it comes to Army movies, that are kind of the same. So I just said, you know what? Let’s mount the cameras on the actors and go for a POV shot and let them run through the choreography and let everything happen as they evolved through the chaos. I think that helps the audience feel as though they’re in on the action.
Okay, I have to ask: How did Nic Cage come to be involved in this project?
DL: Well, first off, Nic Cage is a tremendous actor and he really embraces genre. He is very European-centric, if you will, because European actors, they’ll work all the time. If you look at the amount of movies he’s made, you can understand why he’s honed his craft. He doesn’t like to sit around, he loves to stretch his acting chops and he embraced this character. And I was lucky enough to get him, because he’s the core of the film, he’s the one that sells the myth. Without him selling the mythology in such a passionate way, you’d never buy into it, you know? And so I was really lucky to get him.
He always seems like he’s up for anything. Some actors are maybe a little bit preoccupied with their brand, but if he sees an interesting project, he’s like, “I’m doing it.”
DL: I agree and I think that’s how you get good. I think – I mean, look, he’s an Academy Award winner. And he’s gotten that way because he works all the time, he works at his craft.
Is he an actor you give a lot of direction to or do you just point the camera at him and tell him to do his thing?
DL: Well, he respects the filmmaker. The very first thing he does is he sits down – because, you know, I’m the storyteller, in his mind – he’s got a lot of respect for how I want to tell the story. And so I sit down and have a long discussion with him and he takes off from there and then he develops this really cool character that’s incredibly fun to watch.
Jiu Jitsu is in theaters on Friday, November 20th.