Papa Vinyard chats with director/writer/star Joey Ansah about his web series STREET FIGHTER: ASSASSIN'S FIST!
Papa Vinyard here, now here's a little somethin' for ya...
Joey Ansah had never directed anything beyond a Crackle web series (entitled CELL) before his fan video, STREET FIGHTER: LEGACY, but even in less than 3 minutes, he came closer to replicating the joys of playing the classic coin-opper than almost any video game adaptation to date. His passion and reverence for the material helped him launch the web series, STREET FIGHTER: ASSASSIN'S FIST, currently available to view via Machinima. It's an episodic, feature-length look at the days when Ryu and Ken trained together, and even though it only features a handful of the series' iconic characters, it feels truer to its source than the vast majority of video game adaptations out there. It certainly shows that Ansah has a handling of the material, and I'm hoping he gets a bigger budget (and the cast he wants) to do a second season, based on the STREET FIGHTER II story of THE WORLD WARRIOR.
Mr. Ansah gave me a huge chunk of his time to discuss his passion for the games, his process of getting both the short and the series made, and his approach to adapting hugely iconic entities like the costumes, the relationship between Ryu and Ken, and of course the Hadoken.
VINYARD: First off, I want to ask about your relationship with the game series. I get the feeling LEGACY was a labor of love for you. If you wouldn't mind, talk a little bit about your history with playing the games and your experience with them.
ANSAH: Yeah, no problem. I've been a big STREET FIGHTER fan since the late-'80s. I remember STREET FIGHTER I at the arcade, but I would've been pretty young. You know, sub-10-years-old. So STREET FIGHTER II was where I jumped onboard like most people. I played nearly every incarnation since then. SUPER STREET FIGHTER II was a big one for me. ALPHA II I really got into, and as a result, MARVEL VS. CAPCOM 2 I still think ranks as the most fun I've ever had playing STREET FIGHTER. The level of technicality you can get to, and the pace of the game, and the reliance on reflexes, and the fact that you can do all of your Ultras at will, that was almost perfection for me as an experience.<
So yeah. I'm a good player. I'm not tournament level, but I can hold my own. I've played various people at Capcom, some of their good players, and I can get a game off of them. And I can play with most characters to a good proficiency. I'm not just a one-trick pony when it comes to character selection, for example.
VINYARD: Do you have a persona favorite character?
ANSAH: I think Akuma, actually. I like Akuma, but I like Ryu. I play with Ryu more than Ken. I like Ken more in the ALPHA series. The way Ken feels in STREET FIGHTER IV, I've never really jelled with much. I'm a big Guile player. I'm a Bison player, as well. Recently, people like Ibuki, just 'cause she's so different from everyone else, the sheer versatility of her move set makes her quite a unique character to play with.
VINYARD: Like I said, LEGACY was a labor of love. Can you talk about how that came together?
ANSAH: Yeah, sure, because I think there is a lot of ignorance out there as to how that really came about. You know, I did the BOURNE ULTIMATUM with Matt Damon, and the fight in that was dubbed one of the greatest movie fights of all time, and I thought, "Right, on the back of this, that's a great platform to go in and pitch STREET FIGHTER. Who else is going to walk into their offices with that accolade and say 'I want to handle your game series in live-action.'" I'd recently done a web-series called THE CELL which showed on Crackle, the Sony channel. I'd actually directed that and was in it. So that got me thinking, "This is maybe a good way to to STREET FIGHTER, an episodic way." Originally, I was going to shoot it more 300 style, using detailed practical sets augmented with comped-in backgrounds, shooting in a greenscreen studio. But then that evolved into doing more of a classical, full-on live-action thing.
I then thought, "Let's get going!" I lived with Christian Howard at the time, and I said, "Look, I want to this series based on STREET FIGHTER, and I think this is how it should be done. You would be perfect as Ken, because you are the living incarnation of Ken." So we got writing. We wrote the treatment for THE WORLD WARRIOR storyline as a series, and then I put together the whole distribution strategy, the whole marketing plan, the whole multi-format series element of it, and sent it off to Capcom. I flew over to L.A. to pitch for them.
Now I was kind of hoping, maybe a bit naiively, that Capcom, being a huge company with a lot of successful IPs, would have a big pot of money that they would invest in something worthwhile like this. But that wasn't the case, particularly at licensing, who only naturally exploit the IPs for ancillary merchandise, films, clothing, apparel, whatever. But then SUPER STREET FIGHTER IV was gonna come out in about 9 months from that point, and they obviously would have a marketing budget to promote that game. So licensing suggested, "Hey, why don't you go and pitch to marketing, and maybe you could do something on a smaller scale. Get some marketing budget, and do something to coincide with the release of SUPER STREET FIGHTER IV." So that's what happened. I went to San Mateo and pitched to them, I then went to Capcom Europe in London, where I live, pitched to them. They seemed very enthused in the idea of what I'd pitched them, which was LEGACY, this short.
Capcom financed it, and we went ahead and made it. Some people at Capcom marketing got cold feet at the time, that maybe fans wouldn't like it. Naturally, they didn't want to do anything that would negatively impact the release of SUPER STREET FIGHTER IV. Obviously, that was quite a shock to me. At the 11th hour, they're getting cold feet and threatening to maybe pull it or shelve it. I was like, "Look, guys, we'll take the Capcom logo off the front. We'll kind of position it that it's a fan-film immediately endorsed by Capcom," as opposed to something they've actually financed. So that way, if it's a big success, the brand benefits, and if it's a failure and people hate it, they can direct their hatred at me, and not at Capcom, you know? And that's how it happened. It came out and was a huge success, broke Youtube records, had a 98.8% approval rating. You can imagine with some pride and sense of justice, I sent those stats to Capcom marketing, and was like, "How's that!", you know?
So after the success of that, I think Capcom was like, "Okay, we now have faith in this guy." Because naturally, it's always a gamble; every attempt to pull of fighting games in live-action so far has been disastrous, barring I think the first MORTAL KOMBAT film, that was pretty cool. Then it was a big fight to get the license. I guess in an ideal world, I'd hoped that the rights would just be given to me and my team to proceed with ASSASSIN'S FIST. But it's a licensing deal like the way every other film would do it, the same way Fox has the licensing rights to do various Marvel properties, X-MEN and stuff. They pay a licensing fee to Marvel, Marvel will get a percentage of the back-end, and that's how the world of IP filmmaking works. The production company buys the rights to a property and makes it, and there's no difference for ASSASSIN'S FIST.
I didn't want to make this under a studio system. After the success of LEGACY, I could have easily taken this to Universal, or Warner Bros., or someone and said, "Hey, together let's go to Capcom and get the rights." But I know I would've lost some, or a large amount, of the creative control that I had, and that would completely defeat the object. Me having 100% creative control is what's going to make this thing a success or not. With my producer, Jackie Quella, it was like we had to get this financed in a way that gives me that full creative control, otherwise there's just no point. I'm not going to sell out on this and lose the ability to write and direct it and cast it as I see fit. That was a very difficult process in that recession year of 2012-2013 to raise independent finance. But hey, we've done it, we've survived, and here we are at the glorious other end, coming close to it coming out.
VINYARD: You said when you approached Capcom initially, that you had a plan for a rollout of a series and a movie, and I guess ASSASSIN'S FIST is going to have a multi-platform rollout with 6 episodes on TV, and then finally a fully-completed DTV feature film. Was that your initial plan, or has it changed over time?
ANSAH: The plan always was that this would be a multi-format series. In fact, ASSASSIN'S FIST is a complete first in the industry. I hope that press in the industry really recognizes that it's the first time that one piece of content has been designed, almost scientifically in terms of its structure, to work as a 12-part web series, about 12 minutes in length per episode. It works as a 6-part TV series. It works as a condensed 105-minute TV movie, which is being done. And it also works as a full theatrical cut, which you'll get on the DVD/Blu-ray. I don't think ever before has one piece of content worked on every major platform that exists, so that was a big challenge. That was always the plan.
The problem with the expanded Hollywood model: back in the day, theatrical releases were largely an advert for home video. Most of the money was then made on home video. But with the home video market declining and piracy being rife, this kind of model just doesn't make sense anymore. That's why studios make everything PG-13, to get the widest possible demographic, and they dumb down or dilute the violence or the intensity of the narrative to make it tick all the boxes for all audiences. In the same way you'll never see a film like BLADE made by Marvel again, which is a damn shame, because that film was done so well, so well. So dark and unforgiving.
Let's think of this logically: if you're going to create a piece of content, and you represent the target demographic, you can retrofit, you can work backwards and say, "How, as a fan, would I want the STREET FIGHTER series marketed to me? How would I want it available to view?" That's why Machinima is such a great first platform to premiere the series, because they completely target the male gamer, 18-34 demographic. And it's free. That's going to mitigate the piracy risk. Give it to the hardcore fans who want it the most initially, on a platform that they can watch it for free, over and over again, as a playlist. Then we target the larger audience when it starts to roll out on TV, and on demand, and all those other platforms. Hopefully, those people who absolutely loved it the first time will then buy the DVD and Blu-ray to own, which we've filled with a shitload of extras to make it a must-have.
That's where we, the makers of this, will make some significant profit. Nearly everyone who's involved in this series has deferred nearly all of their pay, so we essentially worked for free, or at a loss, to make sure all the money goes on the screen. We have merchandising rights to ASSASSIN'S FIST, and merch will be on the market in the next few weeks. Home video, that's ultimately down the line. If people want to show this, and want there to be more of this, that's the way to do it, but I think Machinima is a great platform in that it stops you from having to pirate it, and allows you to just enjoy it in HD over and over again.
VINYARD: Machinima also put out the MORTAL KOMBAT web-series, LEGACY, which, I'm sure you know, jumped from character to character and, while it had a cohesive narrative, was very much divided into chapters between the characters.
ANSAH: Yeah, it was a series of vignettes, or short films almost. Series 2 had a bit more of a throughline, but Series 1 was very much vignettes, short stories of each character in isolation.
VINYARD: Was there ever any point where you were thinking of doing that with the various STREET FIGHTER characters, or was there ever a request from either Capcom or Machinima that you go that route?
ANSAH: No, and I wouldn't have been swayed in any case (we laugh). Props to Capcom, they've let me do…I think I earned their trust, and I said, "I have the entire episode treatments for ASSASSIN'S FIST, translated it into Japanese." We're talking like a 45-page document translated into accurate Japaneses which (Yoshiro) Ono-san personally read. Once he gave the thumbs-up, it was the greenlight for me to just get on and do what I wanted to do, with no further approval process, no further meddling. That's where these things get fucked up: too many cooks, and too much meddling. That's also why I didn't want to do it through a studio at this time, because everybody has got a different objective. MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY, you look at Kevin Tancharoen's…
ANSAH: Pilot, yeah. He clearly had a very unique direction he wanted to take the series, right?
ANSAH: But in order to get the series going, partnering with Warner Bros. Digital, and Ed Boon and stuff- clearly Warner Bros. Digital, who would also have the distribution and publishing rights to the game, are like, "We kinda want this to be a prologue for the game, a marketing asset for the game." Everyone has got a different goal as to what they want this thing to be, and that can be problematic. Not everyone is moving in the same direction.
But that's the nature of business. People have got to understand- there are a lot of fans out there who think money comes out of nowhere. Having worked in the film business- I've been an actor for 10 years, I worked on huge films, from THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM to SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN, to small indie productions. It's all about the business first. Which is a shame, but people have to understand it's got to make commercial sense for someone to put even a couple of million into something and see a return on it. I think if you're focused on the art, you have to make sure that art is still commercially viable. That way, if you can crack both those nuts, you'll be able to make the thing you wanted to make from the getgo, and get the money for it, because it will hopefully be critically heralded but also commercially successful. Chris Nolan is a great example of someone on the big stage who has cracked that code. He's a Batman fan, he has kept true to the essence of what Batman is, but made a film that is also massively commercially appealing. That's what I've tried to do with ASSASSIN'S FIST, be utterly true, but also, it's a character story at it's heart, and I think that will draw in the wider audience.
Did you get to watch the first five episodes?
VINYARD: I did, I saw the first five.
ANSAH: What are your thoughts so far?
VINYARD: It's certainly more faithful and representative of the game than the film, the Universal film from 20 years ago, which it should be mentioned didn't do that great at the box-office, which couldn't have helped you gain traction on this project. I guess MORTAL KOMBAT made a little money in the box-office, but STREET FIGHTER is one that's easy to point to and say, "Well, it didn't work the first time, and we had Jean-Claude Van Damme, so maybe we shouldn't…"
ANSAH: You'd be surprised! On paper, STREET FIGHTER: THE MOVIE cost $13 million to make, and grossed $100 million worldwide. Now back then, marketing wasn't like it is now, so let's say they spent an additional, what, 40 mil on P&A. Believe me, that movie has made profit for Capcom. THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI, on the other hand, that's a different story.
VINYARD: I'd completely forgotten about that, I'm sorry.
ANSAH: Yeah, that is one that didn't do nearly as well, commercially. But yeah, you're fighting an uphill battle as well, because what has come before doesn't fill people with confidence, both in terms of possible investors or fans who are once bitten, twice shy.
VINYARD: Right off the bat, you can tell ASSASSIN'S FIST and LEGACY were way more true to the spirit of the game, just in terms of the costumes, and in terms of the framing; it was framed like 2-D fight scenes. And of course, the Hado, the supernatural element which the first film didn't even hint at. Did you ever find any trouble balancing the supernatural element with the more intimate, human story you were trying to tell with Ken and Ryu?
ANSAH: What you've probably noticed is that there's a type of film, there's almost a specific genre of film, a subgenre of the action genre, that is lost, which is the warrior's journey. You watch a film like KICKBOXER, even now when you watch it, you get that hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck, beautiful, inspired feeling seeing someone grow and develop, right? He doesn't become a badass overnight, there's a long process of training and evoltuion. With the Hado, and Christian Howard and I discussed this, I wanted to start before the boys had learned any Hado. So we as the audience are almost the invisible third student of Gouken, and we start to learn this process alongside Ryu and Ken.
Notice it takes a while before you actually get to see…even if you've watched up to Episode 5, you still haven't seen Ryu and Ken do a full-fledged Hadoken yet. So you have to earn it, as the audience, you have to earn the right and go through the training. You will have seen in Episode 2 how it's almost scientifically broken down. You really start to understand how Hado works, so when you do eventually start to see these fireballs, it makes sense and you kind of buy into it and believe it. Whereas a more conventional Hollywood technique would be, "They can just do fireballs because the story says so," you know?
VINYARD: Yeah, they just have powers.
ANSAH: Exactly, and that's just a cheap way out. That's a cheap way out. Let's get people to buy and believe and understand. If you can make the viewer feel almost like, "I can do a Hadoken as well! I'm going to go home and try and channel my Ki," you know? Then you've succeeded.
VINYARD: You said you had full control over the casting. Aside from Christian Howard, how did you cast the other roles? Were you looking for a nice mix of acting talent and martial arts abilities, or were you leaning in one direction? How did you approach that?
ANSAH: It's really difficult to cast STREET FIGHTER if you're gonna do it right, because ultimately- now you've seen the series, and you've got to Episode 5, which of what you've seen is probably the most drama intensive, right?
ANSAH: That whole banishment section with Goutetsu and Gouki is very intense.
VINYARD: The flashbacks.
ANSAH: Yeah. And you need good actors, you really need good actors. Togo Igawa, who plays Goutetsu, is acting royalty. He was the first Japanese member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, he's won an Olivier Award, he's done over 100 movies, LAST SAMURAI, MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA, everything from the biggest blockbusters to small independent stuff. He I knew. Actually, Togo helped me out with the Japanese translation and dialogue coaching on LEGACY, and I said to him five years ago, "You are going to be Goutetsu one day." He introduced me to Akira Koieyama, who plays Gouken and who also lives in England, funnily enough. Shogen (Itokazu) and Hyunri (Lee), who play young Gouken and Sayaka, respectively, were obtained from Japan. Togo introduced me to a Japanese casting director, Mizue (Kunizane), who arranged the casting. We went to a lot of people. Tak Sakaguchi, at one point, was provisionally going to be young Gouken, but he got an injury which meant he had to pull out. Gaku (Space), he actually lived in L.A. I was introduced to him by a Japanese stunt coordinator that I met in L.A.
Because they've got to look the part, they've got to facially look like the characters, number two, they've got to have the ability, at least, to build a sufficient physique, and three, they have to be able to fight. I want the cast to do all, or at least 90%, of the action. And they've got to be able to act, is the main thing. They have to act. I'm not here to make some cheesy anime-style acting piece. I want something that is genuinely emotionally engaging and compelling. It's much harder than people take it for. You read these stupid cast suggestions, "Oh, Owen Wilson should play Ken!" You just have to sigh, before then banning that person from the official Facebook page. (we laugh) These people don't think for a second. "Oh, you should have Batista play Ryu."
VINYARD: (laughing) Maybe Zangief!
ANSAH: Yeah. So you just assume he'll be able to learn Japanese and speak Japanese. You assume he can do a Hurricane Kick, or even a kick above waist-height. They don't even think. They've just seen the picture of some snack food, and say "He will do."
VINYARD: I haven't seen Akuma pop up yet, but I guess you're playing Akuma yourself in the upcoming episodes. What drew you to that character, specifically?
ANSAH: Akuma is one of the most iconic, dark anti-hero/villain characters in video game history. It doesn't get much more epic than Akuma, not only in just physical appearance, but what he stands for philosophically. And his moves, the Raging Demon, all the Shun Goku Satsu, are some of the most epic moves in video game history. Christian Howard was a natural shoe-in for Ken. Long before this even happened, people would come up to him and say, "Has anyone ever told you you look like Ken Masters?"
VINYARD: Is that his natural hair color?
ANSAH: In LEGACY, that was his own hair. When I first met Christian 10 years ago, he had long hair, like shoulder-length hair, already. It was kind of blonde/brown. For LEGACY we bleached it a bit. ASSASSIN'S FIST, because we've gone to the long ALPHA hair, there just wasn't a chance for him to grow it that long, so we got a wig.
Let me just take a departure here: a lot of people are shocked, "Oh my god, that wig!" It's actually a very good wig. It's real human hair, it costs thousands. It's just that I think a lot of these kids who've jumped onboard the STREET FIGHTER bandwagon on STREET FIGHTER IV are not aware that Ken has long hair in the ALPHA series.
VINYARD: 'Cause it takes place in '87. It doesn't take place in a contemporary setting, so there's also that period element. You want to distinguish young Ken and Ryu between the contemporary Ken and Ryu that you saw in LEGACY.
ANSAH: Exactly. You've hit the nail on the head. I think the main trailer doesn't put it in an era context. From the little you've watched of the series now, you're probably like, "Wow, this is a real period piece." The fashion, the '80s, like when they go to that nightclub in Episode 4, it's a real nostalgic trip back to the '80s. And the hair makes sense in that context, doesn't it? You only have to watch a couple of episodes, and you get used to that being Ken's hair, because it kind of fits with the era. But when you're looking at it with 2014 sensibilities, of course it looks absurd.
VINYARD: It's dated. There's also some great '80s music in that nightclub scene. Who did the music for the series?
ANSAH: Two contributors of note. The overall composer is Patrick Gill, who's been a longtime friend of mine. Ironically, I met Patrick studying ninjitsu when I was 14, 15, if you can believe it. I had no idea he was into music at the time. Years later, we reconnected, and figured out I had a love of score music, and he was a composer. I gave him his first professional gig; he did the score for STREET FIGHTER: LEGACY. He's come back as the composer for the series, and he's done the most terrific score. Certain tunes were done by my brother, who's a musician and a phenomenal guitar player. He and his musical collaborator, Daniel Braine, who's quite a famous drum-and-bass aritst, they did those '80s tracks. The two tracks in the club were done by them, and the '80s Ken theme that you hear at the end of Episode 4. That was my brother and Dan Braine responsible for them. Everything else was Patrick Gill.
VINYARD: Change of topic: what are your future plans for the series? You said you initially wrote THE WORLD WARRIOR script for the first season, but I guess plans have changed, and you're going to do that for the second season?
ANSAH: Yeah, because for financial reasons- to really do THE WORLD WARRIOR right, I want to shoot around the world. I want to go to India for Dhalsim's stuff. I want to be in Eastern Europe for Zangief's stuff. That was the reason it was shelved, not because it's not a good place to start per se, it's just that to do it the way I want to do it, to really do it justice, I don't want to be hamstrung by budget. So I thought, "Let me shelve this, and let's start with ASSASSIN'S FIST," because I think STREET FIGHTER really needs a definitive backstory. There's so many different suggestions, "Oh, the game said this," "The anime said this," "The UDON comics say this," it's a very convoluted mythology. I think it's high time, either Capcom or myself supported by Capcom, tied all the elements from the UDON series, and the games, and the anime into one cohesive, definitive backstory of Ryu, Ken, Akuma, Gouken. It's cheaper to do because there are less characters in fewer locations, so I knew ASSASSIN'S FIST could be done with a couple of million dollars and still look like a $30 million movie. WORLD WARRIOR could not have been done.
ASSASSIN'S FIST is much more of a fundamental character story. It draws upon all those classical, biblical, Greek elements. Father versus son, brother versus brother, ascension to the throne, the rise of power, the fall of a character, a love triangle. It's really good high drama, particularly the elements in the past in ASSASSIN'S FIST. As you've noticed from what you've seen, it starts out with flashbacks, but then it almost becomes the present, and the present becomes the past. You have two parallel timelines happening. The elements that happen in the past of this story is ripe with narrative. Ryu and Ken is more of a coming-of-age story. Their real tragedy and stuff begins in THE WORLD WARRIOR. This is a better place not only for the fans, but for the wider audience to jump onboard, and then at least the foundation has been built so you can then open the world up and bring in more weird and wonderful characters like Blanka and Dhalsim and shit like that down the line.
VINYARD: I think that's one thing that might've worked to MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY's advantage, if they'd started focusing on maybe Liu Kang or Johnny Cage, and then moved from there, and expanded the world outward from one base character like you have, instead of just throwing you character after character after character and expecting you to just keep up without a human center.
ANSAH: That's the big issue. Any film with a mass ensemble often fails. Certain characters naturally become throwaway cameos, because there just isn't the time to develop everyone in the limited narrative length. MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY would've worked, it's just the episodes were so damn short. As you know, half the episode was "Previously On…", "Coming Next Week," and titles. You only sometimes had about 4 or 5 minutes of actual content. That was where they were hamstrung and, I'm sure, budget was straining. They would've been under the same budget constraints that we were, so I know how they feel. Whereas ASSASSIN'S FIST, each episode is 11-12 minutes of actual content. Is it a good length? Did you feel that it was a good episode length?
VINYARD: Yeah. And because it's sort of structured like a movie, at the end of every episode, it wasn't this, "Oh I wonder what character they're gonna deal with next week," like I experienced with LEGACY, it was more like, "Oh, I can't wait to watch the next chapter right now." It builds.
ANSAH: It does build. The best way to describe this- you've hit the nail on the head, I like your intuition- it's essentially a chapterized movie that you're watching, even moreso than a conventional series. It is a feature-film experience, just broken up into chunks. When this thing comes out on the 23rd, the whole series will be released in one go as a playlist, so you can just watch them on and on and on, much like a movie. But you've noticed we still end each episode with a degree of cliffhanger, it still makes you think, "Oh shit, what's going to happen in the next episode," but it's not so jarring that it wouldn't work if it were just continuously playing, which is how you'll see it on the DVD/Blu-ray.
VINYARD: For Season 2, you mentioned you wanted Scott Adkins for Guile if you did THE WORLD WARRIOR. Do you have anyone else in mind, in your dream cast, for the other characters?
ANSAH: There are…I almost don't want to make those announcements now, because I think they'll be exciting- I don't want to say someone's name, and then I end up giving it to someone else, and they're all heartbroken, you know? There are people I have in mind. Scott for me is a no-brainer. Even his physique shape- look at him in UNDISPUTED II or III. He's the right height, he's got the moves. I think he'd just be great. And Scott's a friend of mine. We're both Brits, we've known each other for years, we've trained together. We are both in the BOURNE ULTIMATUM, funnily enough. GREEN STREET 3, which is a film we did recently, I co-starred in with him, and I action-directed and choreographed it. So we have a good working relationship, and a good friendship. In this industry, as an actor, a lot of people are out for themselves, and we're almost a rare pairing in that we help each other out. If I'm going up for a role, I'll call Scott and say, "Hey, are you going up for this as well? If not, get your agent to call this casting director and get involved." A win for him is a win for me. He's super-talented. Scott deserves the big shot with things, because he's paid his dues.
Likewise, we both want to see each other succeed, and we both want to work together again. Yeah, it's a cool thing. So Scott is someone (we're looking at), definitely, and I think he's very keen to take on that Guile mantle as well. So, uh, watch this space.
We went off track, but just to answer your question about me playing Akuma: when devising it, it was like, "Of course I want to be in this, but I don't want to play any character that I have no right playing," right? So who could I play? Being half-black, half-white, I thought I could hypothetically play Balrog, but I think I'm too fair to play him to way he's depicted. And there are more suitable people I could think of that look more like Mike Tyson than I do. Akuma's an interesting one because the color of his skin- he's got this sort of deep, dark red skin tone. And being mixed race, when I tan, I get a lot of red tones in my skin, almost like Apache, Native-American skin tone. I've got the build. I'm one of the few guys who weighs 220 pounds who can back-somersault, and who can flip around, and do all the martial arts stuff for real at that size with that level of muscle mass. And because Akuma has become demonic, the Satsui No Hado has started to warp his features, he no longer looks specifically Japanese anymore, you see what I mean? So even if I cast a Japanese actor to play him, with the prosthetics and stuff, Akuma is kind of his own entity. So I thought, "This is a character I feel I can pull off well, better than anyone else I can think of. If anyone wants to suggest, 'Oh there's this actor who I think would be better,' I'm all ears for it.'"
But I took a lot of care to be faithful in reaching the right physical size. Akuma only speaks Japanese in this series. I do not speak a word of English as Akuma. That part is 100% faithful, and I think you guys are going to see for yourselves, when you get to the part of the series that's Akuma/Gouki-heavy, you'll see a nice transition. A lot of people are like, "How the hell does it go from Gaku Space playing the younger Gouki to Joey playing Akuma? I just don't buy it." How do we do it? You'll see. When you get to that part of the series, you'll see the transition, and I think you'll buy it, and think, "Wow I never would've thought this would work or be possible, but they've done it, and I believe it and I buy into it." Even going as far as my voice. My voice is a mixture of Gaku's voice and my voice, so you still get a sonic through-line of him with me, you know what I mean?
VINYARD: Yeah, that's pretty cool.
ANSAH: I hope you as a viewer, so far, appreciate the unique narrative structure that we've taken to this, of these two parallel timelines.
VINYARD: Very much so. Like I said, this has more of a human center than basically any of the (video game-based) feature films, including MORTAL KOMBAT, like taking the time to develop the fighters. There are episodes where there are no fight scenes, but you're still engaged because not only are you connected with the characters from the games, but because there is a story. There's an internal narrative going on beyond just the sparring and the fighting, which gives the series a lot of momentum.
ANSAH: I'm just picking your brains now, it's always interesting to see have new eyes on it. What was a pleasant surprise to you, what were you surprised that we did, and what episode did you like the most so far out of what you've seen?
VINYARD: Well, the biggest surprise was how closely- when you started to explain the Hado, I thought, "Okay, this is a placeholder to explain if something maybe looks like a Hadoken, or something looks like one of the moves you're familiar with, there's an explanation for it." But I did not expect an actual Hadoken. In LEGACY, I did not expect Ken's fist to turn on fire. That blending of the supernatural is definitely something that a lot similar adaptations, like MORTAL KOMBAT: LEGACY, have shied away from, so that was a very pleasant surprise.
ANSAH: Did you get a big kick out of Gouken's first Hadoken at the end of Episode 2?
ANSAH: A lot of work went into those physical effects. I'm very proud of them, and the post house that worked on them. A hell of a lot of design went into them, so it still looks recognizable from the game, but it also meshes in with the live-action. I think what helps is in Episode 3 when you see Ryu and Ken trying to do (the moves). All you see is like a little mirage form between their hands, but not much else, then you see that singularity, that first flash of that consolidated Ki flash between their hands. I think seeing that gradual process- if you throw bombastic effects straight at the audience, often their mind rejects it, "No, I do not believe this. This doesn't look real." But if you tease people in, you then start to buy it.
It's like TERMINATOR 2 with the T-1000. They don't instantly show you him looking like the Silver Surfer, melting into the floor and shit. You see very subtle things, his hand just changes shape, or he gets a buillet-hole in him that closes up, and gradually your mind starts accepting this new form of FX. So when you do see his head bloody split in half and reform, you buy it, and you're like, "Oh my god, this is just so real and I believe it and I buy it!" Whereas if they'd shown you that instantly, I think you'd say, "No, I don't buy it," you know what I mean?
VINYARD: Like I said, there's the character base, which also plays a huge part. The emotional hook, instead of leaning on the special effects as the hook, and actually having an emotional throughline to keep people interested instead of like, "What move are they going to do next?!"
ANSAH: The further you go in the series, you almost forget about the fights. Not to say that the action isn't amazing and it's not mindblowing when you get to it, but the character story takes over as your priority. You become so focused on what is going to happen to this character that you care about, that you almost forget that what drew you here in the first place was to see cool fights and Hadokens.
Another thing that's unique, which I'm curious to see how critics and reviewers like yourself respond when you see the full thing, is how there is no clear, main protagonist. Most films force-feed you, they use the mechanics of the narrative to say, "Here is your hero. This is who you have to back and feel sorry for and empathize with. Here is your villain, who you must hate and want to see destroyed." We haven't done that in this. Gouki is initially demonized, but there's an episode from Gouki's point of view where you start to see the same series of events from his perspective. Then you start to see, "Oh shit, I have to now change my opinion on him, 'cause now I've actually seen this from his perspective." It makes sense. This guy isn't just evil and kind of crazed. He's got a logical, righteous reasoning behind doing what he's doing.
I like the whole concept. In writing this, there is a degree of social commentary, almost like religious fundamentalism. Gouki almost represents someone who is a fundamentalist. He wants to follow the doctrine of Ansastuken to the letter, whereas Gotetsu and furthermore Gouken are like, "Look, we don't live in a feudal, wartorn time now. You have to moderate what you're doing to fit the time that you live in," you know? And the whole concept of "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter." It's all points of view, right? No bad guy, whatever terrorist who blows himself up, he is not thinking, "I am evil." From his point of view, he's righteous, and he's a good guy, but it's all perspective. It's very interesting thing with a series like this, to keep switching perspectives to try and show a character's actions from multiple viewpoints. Rather than the narrative telling the viewer what you should think, it's showing you multiple viewpoints and leaving you to arrive at your own conclusions.
When you get to the end of the series, everyone I ask, "Who's the protagonist in the series?", they all come up with different names. Which, hopefully, is a new experience. We need new narrative structures. I think the go-to formulas of series and movies are just getting boring now. The BREAKING BADs and the GAME OF THRONES of the world are really shaking up that format.
VINYARD: They did mandate, when Steven E. de Souza did the movie 20 years ago, they were very specific. They wanted a good vs. evil story, they wanted Guile on side and Bison on the other, and it's to the film's detriment. The film becomes like a POWER RANGERS TV episode. There's only one outcome for this, Guile's gonna be fighting Bison for the fate of good and evil, for the fate of the world. It's fun to do it, but in terms of narrative, it's the same old thing.
ANSAH: It weakens it, and that's why BLADE is, for me, one of the best Marvel films. The first BLADE film is so goddamn good, because it's so unforgiving. It breaks all the conventions. BLADE even robs people! Nicks their watches and stuff in order to pay for his serum. He's quite unscrupulous, he's just the right side of the line of being a good guy, but much of his body is over the other side in being a bad guy. He's almost more terrifying than the villains, which makes for an extremely powerful and intimidating performance, because BLADE is like…friend or foe, you should be wary of him. And I like the way the female character, they didn't turn her into a love interest.
That is how Wolverine needs to be. I'm a huge Wolverine fan, and imagine if WOLVERINE was made in the same vein that that first BLADE film was done. When he fuckin' nailed that guy against the fridge in the chest, stabbing people in the feet and shit, that was good, but why-oh-why have they never shown you Wolverine's Berserker Rage? It's one of the most defining abilities of Wolverine in the comics, and they have not addressed it in a single X-MEN film, where he goes so berserk that he's actually a threat to his allies.
VINYARD: These types movies usually bend over backwards to update that iconography, whether they think it's cheesy, or campy, or dated, but as soon as…like in LEGACY when Ryu puts the bandana on, you get this surge of familiarity that, as a fan, it immediately puts you in this mindset, like this is what you want to be seeing. As opposed to them being afraid you're going to see it and be, you know, turned off.
ANSAH: It's just being brave. I think people go, "Oh, you can't stay faithful 'cause it won't work," I say you can, but you have to embrace it.
Because it's set in the '80s, I wanted to give an homage to films like BLOODSPORT, and KICKBOXER, and NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER and all that. Remember, those films unintentially had a slight bromantic, homo-erotic vibe to it. Just look at ROCKY III, Apollo and Stallone. But that shit was epic! Let's celebrate that. You can see like with Ryu and Ken chilling by the waterfall, and Ken's kind of washing his hair in the background and Ryu chilling there. I'm not afraid to take it to that place. It's a sad world that we live in where kids of today see two guys just hanging out, or training together, and they're like "Ugh, gay!" Fuck, when we grew up in the '80s, that shit was just normal. It's this kind of homophobic weird thing that's grown in the '90s onwards.
VINYARD: I don't know how related this is, but there's also the death of the arcade culture. In the '80s and '90s, you played STREET FIGHTER II at an arcade with whoever the hell happened to be walking around at that time, jumps on in the middle of fighting your 5th CPU opponent, and all of a sudden some guy enters, "a new challenger," and you're engaging with some stranger. Whereas now, you're very much distanced from that. You're playing on a XBox or a Playstation, and you're playing over the internet, and maybe you're modulating your voice, you don't even sound like yourself, your name isn't your own. There's such a distance, there's no bonding going on. Playing STREET FIGHTER II as a kid in the arcade, with whoever the hell thought they could take me, was very much a fraternal experience. You're both engaged, you're both into it, and you feel it. I don't know how closely the death of the arcade culture plays into what you're saying, but that's definitely something that comes to mind.
ANSAH: You're right, but I think in STREET FIGHTER, all the way through, the bromance and the friendship between Ryu and Ken is very touching after a while. I want audiences to think, "I wish I had a training partner like that," you know?
VINYARD: It's a good yin-and-yang relationship.
ANSAH: Yeah, exactly. These are nice values that are being lost, but I've tried to put in some big social things and…I've essentially made a series that makes you go, "Fuck, I want to train martial arts again!" That's been lost. Since THE MATRIX and CROUCHING TIGER, where it's all become utterly fantasy, long-gone is the era where you're like, "I want to train!" WARRIOR is the only film maybe that made me think, "Fuck I need to start doing MMA."
VINYARD: Did you see Keanu Reeves' movie, THE MAN OF TAI CHI?
ANSAH: I'm sorry to say, but I thought that was an utter abortion.
VINYARD: I have to admit, that element, his practicing with his sensei, did get me in that mode you were talking about, like "Oh, I should really get into tai chi."
ANSAH: It's got the nice training elements, but I thought the entire execution…it's not a good film.
With that, our hour-long interview came to its conclusion. Watch the fruit of Mr. Ansah's labor for yourself below.
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