Today I had a lengthy discussion and interview with the extraordinarily talented Joey Ansah, which isn’t an overstatement given his skills as a practioner of multiple martial arts disciplines, actor and fight choreographer and even motorcycle racer. Additionally, as we’ve seen from his accomplishment of having pulled the Street Fighter name of out of the dirt (the two movies we’d like to forget) with Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, he’s also a dab hand at writing and directing. As you can probably glean from below, Joey is a cool guy and highly knowledgeable. Check out our interview.
I guess there first thing we could talk about here is Street Fighter. How’d that come about, how did you get CAPCOM on board with that?
Long story over five, six years in the making. Let’s say about six years ago, Legend of Chun Li came out, the second Street Fighter movie. And it was almost worse than the first one. Although it was dramatically a less campy movie. It was so derivative that it almost bore no resemblance to Street Fighter whatsoever. I use the analogy if you’re a Street Fighter fan and you’re on a plane and the movie is playing in front of you and you wake up, it could take you ten or fifteen minutes to even realise that it’s a Street Fighter movie, see what I mean? And that’s a real problem. So that was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back, it almost incited such revolutionary spirit in me, that something needs to be done about this. And the way the Hollywood system is set up, they’re never going to get it right. They just sit there thinking, one day we’re going to get that Street Fighter or Tekken thing we dreamed of working… it’s just not going to happen, y’know?
A studio or producer sees the potential in an IP, so he goes and gets an option on that license. And then they go and assemble a team and it’s often the lowest common denominator. Films are so expensive to market these days, you’re forced to fit in as big a demographic as possible. Even look at the new Jurassic Park, this one felt like it was made for seven or six year olds, as opposed to the first movie which was a far more cerebral, intelligent movie, that adults would be stimulated by but the kids would find it exciting as well. But this new one was utterly dumbed down, you know? But I guess this is kind of a testament to the one size fits all, lowest common denominator way that films are made these days.
So coming back on track, I originally did a web series which I actually directed and starred in. And we only had a budget of about £200,000 and was shot in green screen, so we had live sets then completely comped-in greenscreen backgrounds. And it gave it a very hyper real ‘300’ style look. And I thought, hmm… this could actually be a very cost effective way of doing something like Street Fighter and giving that hyper real video-gamey look to it. So originally I was going to give it the ‘300’ look as opposed to the very real, practical way that I did end up doing it. That was the kind of genesis of the idea in my mind. I was living with Christian Howard, who plays Ken Masters, at the time. And Chris had been my partner in crime and apprentice, ever since I’d met Chris he was very talented. And I sort of took him under my wing and began teaching him choreography and my way of doing things and so forth. And I thought Chris loved Street Fighter as much as I do and was super knowledgeable about it and would make a great Ken, so I got him to help me write this thing. And that’s kind of where it came from, it was that simple. Two guys living together, playing Street Fighter every day.
So it was like a labour of love?
Oh completely. It was completely motivated out of… this needs to be done right, other than ‘can I make a quick buck out of this’? So I’d done The Bourne Ultimatum, it had come out a year before. So I still just had the hype of having coming out of one of the greatest movie fights of all time.
Did you choreograph the entire fight as well?
No that was actually Jeff Imada and Jon Eusebio, but they allowed a lot on input, for example that wrist lock was something I came up with. And the fight between me and Matt, if you watch that fight frame by frame you’ll see how many full hits to the face or head there are.
Any serious injuries?
Yeah, my larynx, the famous book that I get in the throat. He picks up the book, if you remember, I pick up this big candle stick thing, and he slams into my throat and slams me into this cabinet. And we were thinking, okay, can we kind of sell this in a safe way. But it just looked phoney, so if you really want that momentum and impact and driving me into that cabinet… in the end we tried it a few times with me kind of trying to sell the impact without him really putting it in, but then I just said, Matt, just put it in. And then I thought I’d kind of do, like… you know when you see these Shaolin Qigong masters putting the spear in their throat kind of thing. If you tense all of the tendons in the front of your throat it makes your larynx sink back and a layer of tendons cover it, creating somewhat of a shield to protect your windpipe from a big trauma.
We hit that thing so hard that the doors fell off the hinges, we hit it way harder than anyone was expecting. But that wasn’t the worst bit. I then grab his wrist as he’s holding the book at my throat and then with the other hand he kind of palm strikes the book and kind of pops it into my throat, if you remember. I remember after that day I lost my voice completely. There was just no sound at all coming out of my voice.
That must have been kinda worrisome.
It was! It was like is my larynx damaged beyond repair, it was like will my voice come back and if it does come back will it be different, you know? But luckily it healed. That was pretty worrying and you can imagine how having a neck that bruised. And then doing that somersault repeatedly I tore the adductor on the inside of my leg. Because to do that move you have to kick your leg up almost into splits, to get the momentum, to push off the other leg and to contract, to tuck into a ball so that you spin off. So going from a sort of complete split stretch. If you haven’t prepared for that move loads and you’re not conditioned to it, it really tweaks your adductors. I had already injured it during rehearsals back in Los Angeles, doing it over and over again. So when it came time to actually doing it on set my adductor was already fucked. And you know a muscle has fully torn because it just goes numb. Otherwise we were all bruised, waking up in the morning we felt like we’d been in a car crash. Your jaw was hurt and you’re moving your jaw and you’re thinking, why is my jaw hurting. Then you’re thinking, Matt must have clocked me in the jaw with an elbow or something.
And then you see the final thing and you feel vindicated…
Oh definitely, it’s all worth it. As they say pain is temporary, film is forever. And as a young actor – I was 23 when I did that film – it’s a big weight and pressure. The Bourne franchise was already so famous with Identity and Supremacy.
It really exploded with that second movie.
Exactly, so the weight of expectation for the third – and because I was playing the upgrade, these sort of Blackbriar assassins which are meant to be a cut above the Treadstone programme.
Getting back to Street Fighter. They (CAPCOM) seem to treat a lot of their properties kind of poorly, such as those Resident Evil movies. So how did you convince them to let you use the property?
I was working with a big commercials company on some other projects. We put a pitch together and wrote a treatment for what would be an entire series based on the Street Fighter 2 game. And we had some producer partners on board and I sent the pitch to CAPCOM and they were very interested. And they said, look, we have several other pitches for this IP coming in so you need to be here by the end of the week. So I had to fly to L.A., literally get straight off the plane and pitch to them. And they were like… ‘We love it! So who is going to fund it?’ And I was hoping at the time that CAPCOM would fund it. We weren’t asking for much, originally it was around like two million dollars or 2.5 million dollars. And they were like, look, we don’t actually invest in ventures like this. Particularly not the licensing arm of CAPCOM.
So they said if you wanted actual investment, you’d have to actually deal with CAPCOM Japan and that would involve a long legal thing. And I was like oh fuck. But, they said we have Super Street Fighter 4 coming out in like six months or something and there’ll be a big marketing budget for that, why don’t you go and pitch to our marketing department in San Francisco. So I thought fuck the whole series idea, let’s do a proof of concept idea, like a short film. Which became Street Fighter: Legacy, which you might have seen on YouTube.
That has something like six million hits now…
Yeah and if you add up all the unofficial channels it’s like over ten million. And we never put that on Machinima, we never put that on any big established YouTube channels, we created a new channel from scratch. So yeah it really gained great traction. So CAPCOM were like okay, we’ll put some money in. They were originally going to put a third of the money in, then they halved it. So Legacy was originally going to have more Akuma and M. Bison. But when they cut it down it was like what is most important is seeing Ryu and Ken. And seeing them fight because that is something we’ve been starved of. So that’s how it happened, it was like down to the wire and CAPCOM only greenlit literally ten days before we had to film it. But we got it done.
The funny thing is that because it was a marketing expense, CAPCOM originally got cold feet and just didn’t quite ‘get’ it and thought that fans wouldn’t like it and naturally they were very apprehensive about any bad press coming out around the release of the game.
Did Mortal Kombat (web series) come before or after your Street Fighter?
I think… Mortal Kombat rebirth came out afterwards….
… so perhaps they can thank you for that then!
Yeah, the cheekers fuckers took the name Legacy, which is why my Street Fighter series was not called Legacy. It was like, you fuckers, you’ve nicked our name. But they did that, we did our short. And… CAPCOM were originally going to finance it. But they got cold feet so I was like, look, I’ll take your name off it, recondition it as a fan film that you guys endorsed but didn’t have any stake in per se. If fans love it, great, it still serves the purpose of boosting brand awareness. If fans don’t like it then it’s on my head. Then it came out and everyone liked it so that was all good. So then there was the three year battle to get the rights, to do a feature length series, which became Street Fighter: Asssassin’s Fist. And it’s really tough, because it’s almost unheard on in Hollywood for an individual or couple of individuals to get the rights to such a big IP.
When going around the studios with the follow up series, they’re always amazed, they always ask the question of how did you get the license for Assassin’s Fist? And we were like, we didn’t. We did it ourselves. And their response would always be: ‘What?! How the fuck did you pull that off?’ Because without the financial resources of the studio we had to have our own lawyers and spend tens of thousands of pounds on legal fees to make all of this happen. But it was as you said a passion project and we eventually got the option from CAPCOM. And I took the decision that, post Legacy, that people really liked seeing the Ryu/Ken stuff and rather than seeing the World Warrior stuff, let’s go back into the past and do a real origins story. Because it’s fewer characters, it’s cheaper to make but it will still do it great justice.
So what is up with Street Fighter: World Warrior now?
Ever since we finished Assassin’s Fist, that’s been full time. I moved to Los Angeles for four months and pitched all around town, literally to every major studio in Hollywood and there was huge interest and amazement at what we have achieved on such humble resources. So although I’m not ready to make any formal announcement, yeah, it has been full time to get World Warrior going. I will say that the plan is to do this next series on a whole different scale. The biggest scale possible, premium US TV. So we’re talking hour-long episodes, ten episodes, a minimum of ten to thirteen episodes per season, with potentially a huge studio-sized budget, you know? That’s the plan and hopefully we’ll be able to make an announcement in the next month or two about when people might be able to see that. I’m very excited about that.
You know what I would really like to see?
CAPCOM’s Resident Evil getting the same treatment as you have given Street Fighter.
Because those movies are so fucking shit!
I know. Constantine, the company that has the rights, they’ve got a deal that is just rolling. As long as they make another sequel within X-amount of time, they hold onto the option. I think they’re doing one more.
Yeah they’re shooting that this summer, I think.
The people who watch those movies are not fans of the game. They’re generic action/horror, sort of Milla Jovovich fans. So they found their own organic audience in a way that is not dependent on the game but I don’t want to knock that, because there are people who like those films. But if you’re a hardcore Resident Evil purist, it will fucking piss you off. And I would love to, out of any other property CAPCOM has, I would love to do a Resident Evil TV series. Pick up from the first game, the STARS helicopter crashing, you know, the grounds of the mansion. Them being chased by the dogs… literally, follow the first game, it was so cinematic, so beautifully primed to be turned into a film or TV series. It was so crazy that they didn’t and that they made a made up character for Milla to play. They made Chris Redfield and Jill Valentine supporting characters at best.
Could ‘Arklay’ (not associated with Joey) do for Resident Evil what Assassin’s First did for SF?
What did you think of the Tekken movies, the first or second?
I didn’t even see the second one. Again, it’s just something they slap the name onto. I mean John Foo, he’s a good friend of mine. I used him in Street Fighter: Legacy. And I was really pleased that he had landed this big break which would bring his career to another level, even though the film kind of flopped.
It’s good to see that John has succeeded Jackie Chan in Rush Hour now.
Yeah, he has hit the motherload. I was just out in Los Angeles and spent a lot of time with him and yeah, he’s excited and hope he does great work and the show is a success. But the Tekken movie, at least they made some attempt to make some of the characters look similar you know? They got Latif (Crowder) in for Eddie but again, it was all… the look, the way the characters are written is all wrong, know what I mean?
It’s like they’ve sprayed a surface veneer that resembles Tekken. But here is the problem. If you look at any of these video game adaptations, you can go down the list from the producers to the writers to the directors, almost none of them will be fans of the game. It’s crazy, the studio will have the rights to HALO or something, say Devil May Cry. And rather than put out a pitch for a writer to step up who has played the game and knows it like the back of his hand, like the biggest fanboy, they will just hire someone else like some writer who has written something for TV and say… do a bit of reading up on Devil May Cry, and write a spec script. So they’re not invested in all the nuances. When I pitched to those people I was like, look, what made Street Fighter such a fucking phenomenon as a game, it was the distinct characters, right? It was the costumes, really iconic and different costumes. It was the music, every character and every stage had very iconic and catchy melodies.
Then there’s the actual basic fighting styles. The stances, the way the different characters moved and stood, their different attacks. All of that. If you’re going to make an adaptation of that game, it has to include all of those ingredients. Because then you can guarantee the ingredients that made the game a hit are also going to be in the series as well. Yet time after time everything you loved about the game is gone when you’re watching these adaptations. And they replaced it with some generic bullshit you don’t care about, then they scratch their heads and wonder why the film was a flop. Because they don’t understand what they are adapting.
I mean these spec writers that they hire… they just spend 15 minutes browsing Wikipedia on whatever franchise it is.
Yeah exactly, it’s painful. But hopefully with Assassin’s Fist people are like, holy shit! This is like a real love letter to Street Fighter but at the same time has narrative and drama that should work for someone who has never played Street Fighter in their life. You have to create drama with great characters that are three dimensional characters that are nuanced and flawed, that the audience can relate to. And haver good pace and intrigue and whatnot and twists. If you know all that then you’ll get your broader audience in, because good storytelling is good storytelling. And then you have to be reverent to all of the fanboy mythos, which for me wasn’t all that difficult.
The big challenge was, how do you make these larger than life characters, with the crazy hairstyles and whatnot. Well the first thing you’ll probably notice is that we set it in the ’80s. Because Street Fighter is a product of the ’80s and all of the hairstyles and costumes are influenced by the sensibilities of that time… it would be crazy to set Street Fighter, an origins story of Ryu and Ken in 2015.
The makeup and costumes in Assassin’s Fist were something else. I mean they were really good.
Thank you, thank you. I mean it’s painstaking, my character, Akuma, the frayed sleeves, I was like it’s not just good enough to have the sleeves just frayed. I want the peak of the shoulder to curl up like a pagoda roof and that meant having metal wire built into those frayed bits so that they’d hold the right shape. So it looks iconic like the game. So we spending hours and days just on fucking frayed sleeves, to get them right to look right. It’s attention to detail and nothing is irrelevant.
So what is on your agenda right now, Beowulf?
Yeah. I don’t know how much we can say about it, but it’s a big, big show and the most expensive ITV has ever made. It’ll be on a Sunday, 7:30pm slot next year, when it comes out. It’s a big world, very Game of Thrones-y with a lot of clans, very political. It’s got a great cast. I’ve got a recurring role in it, which is good.