411mania.com Interviews: Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist Writer, Director, and Actor Joey Ansah
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 06.03.2014
411mania.com speaks with the creative force behind the new hit digital series Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist, Joey Ansah, who also plays Akuma, for an exclusive interview. Ansah discusses the long road to financing and producing the show, Hollywood filmmakers not knowing how to properly film action and fight sequences, his goals with Assassin's Fist, and much more.
Right before the recent premiere of Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist, I got the chance to interview Joey Ansah, who directed and co-wrote the show. Ansah, who also co-stars in the series as Akuma, has labored on creating this show for five years, beginning with the Street Fighter: Legacy short film from 2010. The complete digital series is now available on Machinima's YouTube channel, and is set to receive a multi-platform release. Here's what Ansah had to say on putting together his vision for Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist.
Jeffrey Harris: Ahead of the premiere of the show, how are you feeling right now?
Joey Ansah: I'm feeling good. This has been a long time coming. I've lived with Street Fighter fulltime for about five years from when I first pitched to Capcom, which was a World Warrior series. The follow-up story that would follow on after Assassin's Fist, that script treatment I wrote with Christian Howard, who plays Ken, about five years ago. And that's what I originally pitched to Capcom, to do a full on feature-length series then that I hoped they would finance. It turned out that wasn't the case. Licensing in America didn't have a part of money, blah, blah, blah, blah. So I counter-pitched to do a short concept that Capcom marketing would hopefully finance and release at the same time as Super Street Fighter IV. So that's how Legacy came out, and it was kind of a proof of concept. And after the success of that, I was then eager to then continue my original plan and continue my original series. Except, I decided doing Assassin's Fist would be a better place to start narratively, so we shelved World Warrior as a sequel. It's been a tough ride. I think there's be a lot of misinformation or ignorance or how this project has all come about. Capcom obviously are the IP owners of Street Fighter, but it was conventional licensing deal in the same way that any studio would acquire the rights to a book or a game. Nothing was given to us for free to do. We had to pay the same amount any studio would pay to get the rights to do this. And it's been a long, hard road. A lot of times during that journey, it felt like it wasn't going to happen and all the doors had been shut to us in favor of other studios or other people. So to have won out in the end and to be standing here talking to you with this thing ready to launch in a week, it's special. Its dream come true stuff.
Jeffrey Harris: How long did it take to get Capcom on board with this project? Were they skeptical at first?
Joey Ansah: Well you know I would've hoped Street Fighter: Legacy – I pitched to Capcom Marketing in the states and in Europe this vision. The short was approved as a concept to show that Street Fighter can be done faithfully and dark and adult as it should've been done in the first place. My eternal hats off to Capcom, they liked my pitch. They believed in me. I was fresh off the back of doing The Bourne Ultimatum. So, they got the finance together. It ended up about being half of what we originally wanted. Originally, Legacy was going to be 10 minutes long. Bison was going to be in it. Cammy was going to be in it. That was going to be a whole much bigger, better thing, but the whole finance was cut in half. We had to scale down our plans. And that came out on a channel with zero subscribers to begin with. And right before release, Capcom marketing since they had financed it, they were reviewing the rough cuts and stuff. Suddenly, someone in Capcom got cold feet and just thought fans aren't going to like it. So they were naturally worried that it would negatively impact the release of Super Street Fighter IV at the time. So I was like, "Look guys. I understand your trepidation. Let's take Capcom's name off it. Let's reposition that it's a fan film made by me that Capcom merely endorsed. That way if people love, it does the brand great. Everyone wins. If people hate it, they can put their blame on me and not on Capcom." I think ever since Legend of Chun-Li, they are understandably sensitive about any live-action Street Fighter happening; if that makes sense. When it came out, it had 1.1 million views in one week and a 98% approval rating, which it still has. It broke some YouTube records in that category at the time. It couldn't have gone better. So I was hoping, maybe naively, that Capcom would be like, "Wow. You guys have shown that this can be done right. Let's finance the series you want to do." But that wasn't the case. So it's almost like it didn't count so much, other than, "OK. You guys now can do it." But I think in a world of film licensing and adaptation, money talks. It's a business at the end of the day, and these companies have to hit targets and what not. So we had to fight hard to independently raise the finances and compete and see off any kind of studios that were trying to get the rights as well and convince the powers that be at Capcom that myself and my team were the right people for the job and we won't let them down. So after three long years of wrangling through many iterations of Capcom licensing, we got it. We got it. Ono-san [Yoshinoro Ono, game producer of the Street Fighter IV subseries], the producer of the game in Japan, that was a very key thing to get him on board because I think he realized early on, "This dude actually loves and respects the brand and wants to do right by it rather than just trying to get rich off it." And that helped push things through. But by no means, Capcom currently do not invest in movies. So anyone that thinks that Capcom commissioned this or Capcom financed this. They didn't. They are a partner. They got great IP. Ono-san's been a great supporter. We've got some great allies and supporters within Capcom in Europe and America, etc, etc. So we're kind of now part of the Capcom family, I feel, but it hasn't been an easy road at all. That's not controversial, it's just the truth.
I think a lot of people have this sugarcoated—especially who don't work in the film business—people have this weird sugarcoated view of how these projects come together. And that's the reason why my motivation for doing this was I was so let down by the first Street Fighter and Legend of Chun-Li. I just thought, for f***'s sake. By this point, I was working on Hollywood movies myself. So I thought knowing now how the system works, I know this is never going to be done right, maybe not for the next 20 years, unless I do it. I've got to be the guy to do it. That means pumping every penny I have over the next five years into this thing. It's do or die now. So we set down that road. Another difficult caveat is that after the success of Legacy, we could have easily approached a studio and said, "Guys. We want to partner with you. Let's get the license from Capcom. You guys finance and pay for the marketing." But I would have lost creative control. They would've said, "Oh, well you can't direct it." "You can't write it." "You can just be a creative supervisor." No way…or any number of restrictions could've come in. So I was like, "No. This thing needs to be 100 percent under my creative control and vision, and I'm not going to do it any other way." I have a fantastic producer and partner, Jackie Quella, who has been my ally. She's completely believed in the vision and this kind of innovative distribution, this multi-format concept I came up with in that it will work as a web series. It will also work as a TV miniseries. It will also work as a TV movie or a full theatrical cut. And it will be released in all those formats, which is quite exciting. Never before has one piece of content been distributed on every known type of viewing format. So that's quite exciting to see if that catches on. If that's successful, that may become a future model for another piece of content. … To raise a couple million dollars independently in a recession year as a first-time director, as you can imagine is not easy, but we pulled it off. We pulled it off.
Jeffrey Harris: You have such a passion for the games and these characters, that was it any sort of dream or vision for you to get to play Akuma? He is a character who is a favorite among fans and also has such this great mystique about him. So you get to play that character and bring him to life onscreen for the first time.
Joey Ansah: Yeah. It's funny. I almost forget it's the first time he's ever really been presented in live action. It's not like he's been done and done badly before, and I'm here to do it right. He's never been seen. No one's ever really seen what an Akuma in live action would look like. He is one of the most iconic villains or antiheroes in the mythology, and I think he's so misunderstood because in some ways he's just kind of demonized as being this cold, ruthless killer; master of combat. But Akuma has a code. He has a code. He will not fight anyone who is not a worthy challenger, who he doesn't believe has the potential to kill him. And then ironic in that very traditional, bushido way, you seek an honorable death in combat. If you strive to become the greatest warrior on the planet, and you can find someone greater than you, then you know you are in the presence of a god. And to be slain by that god would be a glorious death. That is Akuma's kind of fatalistic lot in life. He wants to be the best, but ultimately, if he can die by someone greater than he, then that would be a brilliant end. If Akuma ran out of opponents to fight, he would just stop fighting. He would just meditate and live in a cave and live off the land for the rest of his days because he doesn't attack innocents or attack weaker people. I think there's a real, deep character narrative. How much of the human is left in him? What is the significant of the kanji that he has on his back? Why is that there? It means sky or heaven in Japanese. What is that significance? It represents transcending humanity. We've explored [this] in great detail. This story is the coming of age for Ryu and Ken, but it's also the rise of Akuma.
Jeffrey Harris: What I really like in the first two episodes is this intense focus on the techniques of Ansatsuken and learning the techniques of the Hadoken and the Shoryuken. It's interesting to me to get this focus on ki and martial arts. It's not something I expected, but I really like because this is more than just a martial arts show. It's exploring the philosophy of these character, and everything from the games that is here has a purpose to the story.
Joey Ansah: It's really nice for you to have cited that out as a point to talk about because in creating the narrative—OK as a writer, let's put it this way. You can choose where you place your audience, perspective wise. When you go to the theater, the audience is in a very voyeuristic position. They are from afar looking in on other people's lives play out, but with film, you can choose to place the audience in the story. So you're essentially Gouken's invisible third student, and I wanted you to experience a day in the life of Ryu and Ken. Their whole training regiment; you train with them going down to the lake. Their frustration of having been teased with Hado but not learning it. And when they do start learning it, you go on that journey with them. Ryu and Ken are getting that new information at the same time you are. You have to earn Hado in this series. We're not just going to throw you in a fireball because the script says so. Ryu and Ken have to earn the right and the skill and the patience to be able to pull these techniques off, as does the audience. But it's so much more satisfying when you do get there because you then feel that you fully understand how it works, and that inner child in you believes that maybe you can do the Hadoken.
Jeffrey Harris: You have a great cast for this show. I'm especially liking Togo Igawa as Goutetsu. And you also have Hal Yamanouchi just coming off of playing the villain, The Silver Samurai, in The Wolverine. How did you like getting to work with them for your supporting cast because they are tremendous talents?
Joey Ansah: Oh great. They're both legends. Togo is a legend. He is real acting royalty. First Japanese member of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Olivier Award winner. He'd done over a 100 films. Hal's the same way. He's been in loads of films, speaks five languages. To have veteran actors like that on your production raises everyone's game. They are like the granddaddies on set that everyone is trying to level up to. I've known Togo for the last five years, and he's collaborated on Assassin's Fist with for the last three years. He did all of the Japanese translations for me. He was also the coach. He taught all the non-native Japanese speaking cast Japanese and supervised that. So he's an executive producer on the project as well and has been heavily involved. Getting Hal was fantastic. Hal was in Italy and was a friend of our production designer, who is Italian. He said, "Hey. I know this guy Hal." I said, "Look. It's a long shot, but do you think he may want to be in it?" He put in a call, and a week later, he flew out to Bulgaria. He is a great Senzo.
Jeffrey Harris: The Bourne Ultimatum is one of my favorite movies, and the character you created Desh is such a tremendous character because he shows all that menace and the threat you created with virtually no dialogue was amazing. And to this day, it's an amazing character because with that character, it's more than just acting, it's almost like performance art. I really like what you bring to the table. Do you see it the same way?
Joey Ansah: Yeah, thanks. It's really gratifying to hear you say that. Bourne, that was my big break. It was kind of do or die. As a young actor, when you start out, you're dying to have dialogue. You go through that process of dialogue is acting, and dialogue is showcasing. And the ego in me was, "Oh, I wish Desh spoke." But now as a filmmaker looking back, Paul Greengrass was completely right to have me silent because it created such a mystique for that character. It made him so much more sinister. To hear him talk would humanize him more. And the fact that he never says a word, the analogy Paul Greengrass gave to me direction-wise was a great white shark. They have those cold, black eyes, and they will just pursue and pursue and pursue. All their focused on is their target. That was the analogy I kept in mind.
Jeffrey Harris: Marvel Studios is prepping a lot of interesting TV shows for Netflix right now. And you're so multi-talented, have they been in touch with you for anything related to Daredevil or Iron Fist yet?
Joey Ansah: They have not been in touch with me, but I think people are waiting to see. If Assassin's Fist is a big success, then I am waiting to have those meetings and hopefully have that interest. But I still haven't proven myself yet. For all we know, Assassin's Fist could be a real turkey and people could hate it. … But I believe the kind of vision I have of being an actor, being a director, being a writer, being a very experienced action choreographer—for the fights you see in Assassin's Fist, I personally edited [them]. I have a great editor, Oliver Parker, who I work with...but I would actually physically edit the fights myself because it's such a specialized skill, fight editing, that I have to do it personally and then will take it from my timeline onto the main editor's timeline to incorporate it. There are very few filmmakers that have that knowledge in Hollywood, of action as well as drama; and to be able to physically choreograph it themselves. There's so much s*** action in Hollywood because people don't understand how great action comes about. Going off on a tangent…the heyday of Hong Kong action, think Jackie [Chan] at his peak. Operation Condor: Armor of God, Police Story 2; that whole era. The fight choreographer was also the action director was also the editor. It was always one vision because as a choreographer, when you choreograph action, if you're any good, you're choreographing it with specific angles and cuts in mind. If you're good, you should be consciously saying, "This section comes in now. We capture it from this angle. We will then cut it in the edit and then we'll pop around to this angle for the fake hit," whatever. So then if you've done that, you're on the set guiding the camera operator and getting the shots and the lenses and the framing that you need. Then you're in the edit putting together your vision. But the way they do it in Hollywood is they hire one guy to choreograph the fight. They then say, "Thank you very much. Piss off." Then they have different people, the director who knows nothing about that fight, now shooting it. Out of ego, so many directors rather than say, "Let me lean for this first film of mine on the action specialist on how to shoot and edit this." But no. They're like, "I'm an artist." And they f*** it all up with their coverage. And that gets handed off to a third person not privy to stage one or two, i.e. the editor, who has all this coverage and feels compelled to cut together a fight using as much coverage as possible. That is why a lot of fights feel so choppy because they'll do a wide master of the entire fight, start to finish, a mid-master, and a close master. Then they'll do over –the-shoulder, over-the-shoulder, details, details. So a one minute fight, the editor is handed an hour of footage. So he feels compelled to use as much from different shots from all the different coverage. When that's not needed, when I myself choreograph and shoot a fight, I shoot to order. I only really shoot what I need. So in that fight, you saw the Ryu and Ken one, there isn't really any other coverage because that's how I saw it in my head and that's how I want it to be cut. So why waste time and why knacker out your performers? You can see in that first Ryu and Ken fight how much real contact is in it, right?
Jeffrey Harris: Right.
Joey Ansah: Now to ask those guys to do it five times over because I want to shoot the whole fight over in five different coverages is just mean and irresponsible. I often tell these directors, if I'm an actor, I'm like, "Let me put you in a fight scene. I'm going to get you to do it 50 times. Then tell me in the future if you will shoot action that way." And then they understand. But no one's ever told them because everyone is so s***-scared in this industry to tell someone, "Hey. Do you realize to make the action; this is the approach you should take?" It means as a performer, if you know you've only got to do it once, you're like, "OK. I'll get kicked in the head because I know it's once. I know the framing is beautiful to capture and that's going to last forever." The most infuriating thing as a performer, you do or take a real hit 10 times, and then you see the end edit and they've cut it out all together. And you're like, "You're s***ting me. I got kicked in the head 10 times. You didn't even put it in." It's crazy. To add more salt to that wound, I think a lot of film producers assume that a stunt coordinator is also an excellent, world-class fight choreographer. Just not the case. Most stunt coordinators are good at putting together a standard fight, a John Wayne-style brawl. Basic reactions. Hits. Falls. But it's very A-B-C fight choreography. No standard stunt coordinator really working other than few are going to put together a fight like The Raid because they just don't' have that knowledge and insight of martial arts and specialize in it. … There are a couple of stunt coordinators who are also phenomenal choreographers and action directors, but they're very few and far between. So these big studio films hire [and say], "Oh. Who was the stunt coordinator who did Transformers? That was a big scale film. OK. Let's get him on board. This film is full of fights. I'm sure he'll be brilliant." And he's off the knot. And rather than saying, "Hey guys. I think we should bring in this specialist fight team or fight choreographer," the ego is like, "No. I'll do it myself." And sometimes, it's done substandard. And I think there's just a lot of ignorance in the industry right from the studio producer level down to the ground on how to best execute action in the economical way. That Bourne Ultimatum fight took six 13-hour days to shoot, which is exhausting. And I was black and blue, as was Matt [Damon]. I had no double for it. But we could have – if you see the end edit, had Greengrass had known that's what he wanted, we could've shot it in two days.
Jeffrey Harris: In Assasin's Fist you really do a great job of representing the bond between Ryu and Ken. For me and Street Fighter, it's all about Ryu and Ken. I have some other characters I'm fond of, like Guile or Dan, but it's really Ryu and Ken who are two of the most important pieces of this puzzle. How important was it for your highlight the friendship and bonds of these characters, sort of like a bromance, and making the characters and relationships so organic?
Joey Ansah: Sure, sure. You're asking all the right questions, Jeff. I like you. What everyone expects, they've seen Legacy. They know the fights are going to be cool, but they probably think it's going to be s*** and badly acted. That's what everyone is going to come in and expect. And for me, the fights I can do in my sleep. This is what I specialized in for the last decade. But what people aren't expecting is a really solid character story, where you actually after a while start to care more about the characters and their plights and their personal grudges than you do about seeing the next Hadoken. I know all the journos have only been given up to episode five to preview. … So it gets so much bigger and deeper, and I guarantee by episode eight, nine, you're going to be so – you know the way Game of Thrones is all about the characterization? It's so well written. The characters are so layered. They all have flaws. They all have fears. They all have contradictions. They all have vulnerabilities. That's what makes you relate to a character because they're flawed. Ryu, Ken, Goutestu, Gouki, Akuma, Gouki; you see them three dimensionally in this series. Their celebrated strengths, but also their more vulnerable weaknesses. And that's what will endear you to them and suck you into the story. I think having had the benefit of three years to write this script with Christian Howard and nuance it and re-draft and re-draft and re-draft, we've really got it to I think a strong storytelling level. It's rather arrogant of me to suggest that it's good, but from the response so far, people have loved. I'll wait for the wider critics and audiences to give the final verdict. That was my intention, to create a really compelling character story. So when the series ends, you're sad because you're going to miss spending time with these characters. It's like Breaking Bad. You miss Walt when it ends. You're like, "I don't want Walt to leave my life because I know him so well, and I'm so attached to his cause whether he's doing right or wrong." It's like, "this is someone I now care about." If you can succeed in doing that as a storyteller, you have audience eating out of the palm of your hand. And then when you drop in the action at an epic scale, then their minds are just blown.
Jeffrey Harris: I think the show could really use like a training montage with like some 1980s Footloose songs, like "Let's Hear It For the Boys." So it's like a martial arts Footloose. What do you think?
Joey Ansah: The irony is you are not far off. All of that is in there and it's coming. There are some great 80s-inspired—you'll start to notice this is a period piece.
Jeffrey Harris: Right, it's set in 1987, the year of the first Street Fighter game.
Joey Ansah: Exactly. You are going to see later, even in the bedroom, posters from that era. You're going to see gear and civilian clothing and all this kind of nostalgic stuff from that period. There's a scene where they go to a nightclub and sneak out at night and go to this nearby garrison town. And you'll be transported back to that time period. I wanted to pay homage to those 80s films because since Kickboxer, that gooey magical feeling you have when you watch those montages in Kickboxer that make you think, "I must go out and starting training." Or Rocky. That's been lost from films. And the bromance. This crazy kind of, "Oh, you're gay," this kind of over-homophobic kind of world we live in where two guys just kind of having a close, brotherly bond is almost taboo now. And I'm like, "F*** that!" This is going back to those 80s sensibilities in terms of the montages, the music, the bromance. And I hope it kind of creates a cult revolution to get a bit more back to that because there's a lot of great stuff in that era.
Jeffrey Harris: The way the story starts in 1987, I almost get the sense that you are attempting to follow the timeline of the original games from when they came out. Was that the intent?
Joey Ansah: You're exactly right. That's completely right because you got to think, the designs of the characters and even those hairstyles are a product of that time period. So they have no business existing in 2014. If you set this in 2014, it just wouldn't fly. So that's why a lot of these kids who just jumped onboard Street Fighter in the last eight years who have only played Street Fighter 4, where they all look like steroided out morons, and they're like, "Ugh! Look at that stupid Ken wig!" But that's exactly how Ken's hair looked in the Alpha games. He had that long hair, almost as an homage to Gouken's long hair. And that's a very 80s look, that big hair. You need only go back and look at Guns N' Roses from that era, and that s*** is standard. And you didn't laugh it at the time. That was just cool. Dude's rocking his hair man. Now it looks cheesy, but that's people looking at it from a modern sensibility rather than understanding it's a period and conversely the past is set in the mid-50s. So the fashion and the way of talking and the way of acting is very reminiscent – we studied Tokyo Story and a lot of Japanese movies from that time period and shot in that time period to see the way people spoke, the way people dressed to truly make it a faithful period piece for whatever times you're in. And it just makes truer because when we bring Guile in and the whole flattop, look at Drago in Rocky IV. He's almost rocking the Guile haircut. But that was the haircut at the time. You can't have someone rocking that now in 2014. I like period pieces, so it will continue to flow the approximate time period that the games were created in, and thus fashions will make sense. The music will make sense. The clothing will make sense.
Jeffrey Harris: When I first started seeing the production photo stills, I was a bit confused by young Ken's look and the car Ken's dad was driving. It didn't even dawn on me before I watched the first episode that this would be a period piece. Now I watch it, and it makes perfect sense. I love it.
Joey Ansah: The trailer doesn't show that, does it? I think everyone watching the trailer, and people loved it. It got over a million views in under three days, but people aren't aware that it's a period piece. I think that will be the shock, when you're like, "Wow. OK, OK." It kind of redefines the way you perceive it. I think it will be a nice surprise. … So I think when people see it, all these comments you get about the hair and the wig, now it makes sense. They're good wigs. That Ken wig costs thousands. That's real human hair. F***ing dope. It's just exactly how it's designed in the artwork for the game. We are not going to stray. I was personally not a fan of Bryan Singer's art concepts for the X-Men film. "Oh, it would be silly to see Wolverine in that kind of mustard color spandex or combat suit. So let's put them all in black motorcycle leathers!" As if that's anymore practical, you know? That looked f***ing s*** to me, and they could barely move in that stuff. It's the most unpractical gear you could ever put a combative in, thick leather. They could easily think or create the X-Men outfits all out of Under Armour, like American football players wear. Don't have Wolverine wear bright yellow. Make it more of a military tan, Desert Storm yellow with muted blue colors, and you can have all the webbing and stuff. Where they've really nailed it is Captain America's World War II suit. I mean Captain America 2 was so good. It was so good, and I'm glad they've done away with that nasty Avengers costume and realized the World War II costume [is the best].
Jeffrey Harris: Thanks so much for talking with me today. I'm really impressed so far with what you and your team have done so far with the show, and I can't wait to see more.
Joey Ansah: It's a renaissance baby. It's coming.
The complete Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist web series is now available on Machinima's YouTube page. A home video release for Blu-ray with additional footage is also being planned.