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I, Frankenstein – Ron Balicki and Diana Lee Inosanto Talk Bringing Martial Arts to Movies

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I, Frankenstein - Ron Balicki and Diana Lee Inosanto Talk Bringing Martial Arts to MoviesKa-li (noun): 1) One of the manifestations and cult titles of the wife of Shiva and mother goddess Devi, especially in her malevolent role as a goddess of death and destruction, depicted as black, red-eyed, blood-stained, and wearing a necklace of skulls…

2) Eskrima, Arnis and Kali are umbrella terms for the traditional martial arts of the Philippines (“Filipino Martial Arts,” or FMA) that emphasize weapon-based fighting with sticks, knives and other bladed weapons, and various improvised weapons.

It also includes hand-to-hand combat, joint locks, grappling and weapon disarming techniques.

More and more, martial arts action sequences are becoming integral to genre filmmaking. From the “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” series (1997) and Blade (1998) to The Hulk (2003) and Resident Evil: Apocalypse (2004), we’re seeing more and more cinematic heroes who are kickin’ ass. One commonality in all of the aforementioned films are the action choreographers/stunt people: Ron Balicki and Diana Lee Inosanto. With direct lineage to “martial arts royalty” (Diana’s father is Filipino Martial Arts legend Dan Inosanto, and her uncle/godfather is none other than the legendary Bruce Lee), this married couple has brought a new sense of dynamic realism to the projects they’ve worked on. So much so that they’ve contributed new terms and definitions to the cultural lexicon and are a part of a distinct paradigm shift, not only in the minds of audiences, but in filmmakers themselves.

With Lionsgate’s release of I, Frankenstein (review), starring Aaron Eckhart (The Dark Knight), Bill Nighy (Underworld), and Socrates Otto (X-Men Origins: Wolverine), we get to see, via the most public display in recent memory, what is arguably one of the most deadly martial arts on the planet. Dread Central had the distinct honor of talking with Ron and Diana to get an idea of the extensive training they did with the film’s stars.

DC: How did you come to the project? I mean, your reputations speak for themselves, but why this particular project?

Ron Balicki: I have a student named Simon Rhee (Best of the Best) who trains Kali with me and has for ten years. He was training the director, Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), who was a writer at the time. So, Simon was training Stuart and Stuart loved Kali. Kevin Grevioux (Underworld) had written I, Frankenstein. They got together and thought, “You know what Frankenstein’s going to be? This guy with double sticks, or a Kali background.” So, then… there was a Stunt Coordinator/Second Unit Director on I, Frankenstein named Brad Martin (Underworld). We’re friends and the production said that they needed a guy to train Aaron Eckhart. Brad said, ‘I know this guy!” So, they got me and I met Stuart and said, ‘What made you think of Kali?’ He said, ‘Oh, I train under Simon Rhee.’ It’s this weird thing…

Diana Lee Inosanto: We’d known Brad since 1995. Brad had actually helped my career when he got me the job doubling for Sarah Michelle Gellar on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” So, it’s really less than “six degrees of separation.”

RB: In Hollywood and in martial arts, it’s more like three degrees.

DC: Ok, so… connect the dots for me: Frankenstein… Filipino martial arts.

RB: [laughs] I don’t know how much I’m allowed to give away… His background is supposed to be that he’s fought for a couple of hundred years, managing to stay alive, and he’s developed this system himself.

DLI: Meanwhile, there’s the character that Socrates Otto plays, and it’s kind of the same thing: He’s trained for five or six hundred years in different Filipino martial arts styles.

RB: The way we’ve always talked about it is that Aaron’s character is kind of like Shrek. He’s very… [growls].

DLI: We made Socrates Otto more refined… a lot of grace, a lot of finesse.

RB: And that’s why Diana got him [laughs] and I got Aaron. I don’t want to quote other movies, but I kept thinking of Liam Neeson and Tim Roth in ROB ROY. They both had extremely different looks and that’s what we went for.

DLI: We felt it was important that we educated them as much as we could. We know over twenty-seven different variations or more in the Filipino martial arts, but we stuck primarily to the Lacoste Inosanto style and Lameco style under Punong Guru Edgar Sulite.

DC: I train Lameco under Langley J. West.

RB: Langley was one of my students! He used to bring us out for seminars to Las Vegas. I’ve known Langley since the Illinois years.

DLI: See… three degrees of separation! So, it was very important that with both Aaron and Socrates that they had, at least, a basic understanding of both arts so, when they did their fight scenes together, they knew and understood the lines of attack. We really trained them to be true martial artists because we were very concerned that they would have a command on the set, so that, even if they were working with a stuntman, our goal was to make them to where they would know more than the stunt people as far as Kali goes.

RB: From Day One, Aaron’s philosophy with me was, “I do romantic comedies… What am I doing? This is dangerous!” [laughs] He said, “I accepted this movie, but I’m not really a stick fighter or a swordsman, you know?” Then he said, “I want it to be where I can protect myself and make sure I don’t [hurt anyone]. I can’t depend on anyone but myself for safety, so I want to make myself that good so that I know where I’m at with whatever’s in my hand and know where they’re at.” And that’s what we trained. I had to go to Europe for the first week or two, so Diana had Aaron alone and she was just getting him going…

DLI: …on foundations. It was important for him to have a really tight understanding of the foundations.

RB: So, when I got there, it was hardcore training, sparring days, everything.

DLI: They were breaking sticks. I said, “You guys are going through so many sticks!” They went through like seven pairs of sticks.

RB: It was kind of cool. I got a little spoiled. Being a Kali man, you know that you save your stick. Say you’re doing Heaven Six or some Sinawali and you’re going real hard… You’ll basically lighten up on the follow-through because you know it’s just gonna shred your rattan. We had this inexhaustible supply because the production was funding it and we are BURNING through sticks so fast.

DLI: One other thing, too… and I’ve never seen this in other actors… Aaron was starting to play his character during his training with us. I have an acting background as well, but it was fascinating for me because I could see him articulating certain motives and bringing certain choices as an actor and as his character into the training. So, he always had a reason why he was doing something. It was amazing for me to watch.

RB: I’ve got so much video of he and I, but I chose to only put a little of it up [on YouTube]. I put something from the first week or so with Diana and the staff when he was like a “newbie” with it. Then I did a midway thing, but you never see him toward the end-end because he got even better than that. I’d throw him in the ring right now. I honestly would.

DLI: Cold Steel Challenge… easy.

RB: People talk about Daniel Day Lewis going to a boxing gym for six months or whatever. I gotta be honest; Aaron’s right there with that mentality. We would get there and the “on switch” was ON. It was every day, for two to four hours… just bangin’ hard. And at the end we were both just exhausted.

DLI: Another cool thing is… both he and Socrates would put things into muscle memory. We trained them so much so that if there was even a remote mistake on set – even if someone was off just a little bit on angle – they knew how to pick up that angle and protect themselves or protect the other person. That was real important to us. Even with the best training and people on the set, mistakes can happen, especially when you’re working six, seven, eight hours on a set and you’re driving through this fight scene over and over. The body becomes fatigued after a while.

RB: We didn’t know what was going to be asked of him, so we put blades and staffs in his hands, we went empty-handed, we went on the ground… did some Muay Thai. He and I would have knife fights in the living room of his house. [laughs]

Ron Balicki - I, Frankenstein

DC: Did you train them in other martial arts besides Kali?

DLI: We did because we didn’t know what was going to happen in Australia. The world of movie-making has changed, so a lot of time an actor may get their training in one part of the world and they have to go overseas and film. You’re working with a whole different group of people. So, we apply what we call “adaptive choreography,” meaning that we didn’t know what the choreography would be exactly, so we made sure that both Aaron and Socrates would be able to adapt to anything that was thrown to them. So, we tried to give them a “sixth sense” [regarding] some of the Chinese martial arts. Like I taught Socrates to use a little bit of Wu Shu because I knew that some of Jackie Chan’s guys might be involved with the choreography because they’re based in that area of the world. We also taught both of them Krabi-Krabong, which is from Muay Thai. Ron trained Shoot Wrestling with Aaron and a lot of knives. Socrates had a bigger challenge because his character had to look more finessed and he had NO martial arts experience whatsoever. I had to teach him so many systems… It was quite a challenge for both of them, but they rocked it.

RB: I’d bring in a bunch of my students and we would have different people run at him. We’d do a “Chain of Challenge” thing where he didn’t know where the attack was coming from. I’d tell him that no matter what the choreography was with me, it would stay that. The minute he touched Diana, he’d have to drop into that style with her, same with the others. We kept shuffling back and forth.

DLI: He had four or five people attacking him at the same time from different angles, so he had to pick it up fast.

RB: He got really good at it.

DLI: Sometimes I would train with both Socrates and Aaron and change elevation and they’d have to fight somebody attacking them from a higher level or fighting from the ground with the attacker standing up and using a weapon. We did every kind of scenario possible.

RB: I told Aaron that he was going to know more about Kali than the people down there choreographing because, while I’m sure they’re great martial artists, it doesn’t mean they’re Eskrimadors. He wrote me a letter while he was down in Australia during filming and said, “You know, Ron, you’re right; I have more of it down than they did. The one thing [audiences] can be sure of is that when they’re seeing it happen on camera, it’s me and not my stunt double.”

DC: How did Aaron and Socrates take to such a “paradigm changing” martial art? I mean, most martial arts deal with punches and kicks, getting your butt kicked. But, when you bring a bladed weapon or sticks into the mix, you’re talking about seriously hurting people, if not killing them. How did he adapt to that?

DLI: I can tell you how my father trained me and it’s helped me on many sets and it didn’t matter what kind of style or system would be thrown at me… My father was really good about drilling into me as a child. He’d get a diagram of a person and he’d drill these lines (what we call Angle 1, Angle 2, etc.), much like fencing. So, I was almost like a school teacher in a way with them both and we just drilled these lines. I said, “Visualize these lines because you just never know.” So, they were able to pick up the lines of attack no matter what angle.

RB: And that’s part of the “adaptive choreography” Diana was talking about. Can a fencer adapt to an Eskrimador? We know the numbering patterns and the blocking patterns in fencing. But then, we also know the numbering and blocking patterns in Filipino Martial Arts. But you gotta choose one and go with it and everybody’s got to stay on that program for the show. And that’s what we did.

DLI: We also made them fight left-handed and taught them to be ambidextrous.

RB: What I did with Aaron was … any time I attacked him, I’d do everything right-handed and, if he was using his right hand, I’d switch it to my left and he had to adapt. People don’t think about it. I’ll say, “Ok, disarm an Angle 1” and I’ll feed my right hand. If your stick is also in your right hand, you know how to do it. But, if I switch it to my left hand and I tell them to disarm it, it becomes an odd thing for people. I said, “Look, we don’t know if the camera is going to be on the left or on the right. We may need the stick in your other hand.” So, I forced him to [learn both]. People will cringe at that, but if you just make it the norm from Day One, they figure that’s the way it is and they pick it up.

Diana Lee Inosanto - I, Frankenstein

DC: I guess my question had more to do with finishing moves. In a lot of cases, you’re killing the attacker. I mean, there’s a lot of stabbing and slashing in Kali. For me, that took some time to get my head around. I’m wondering how someone like an actor might get past that.

RB: Aaron’s a killer. You know what, man… that guy is intense; probably more so than any other actor I’ve trained with and I’ve had the pleasure of working with quite a few names. I’d love to have Aaron back and to just keep working with him. In fact, he’s called me and said, “I gotta get back with ya. I want to come back.” He really took to Kali.

DLI: Socrates was different because he’s a very sensitive soul, and yet, it was funny to see this progression come out of him where he was going, “Oh, yeah! Yeah! [growls]” He was really good… but they both realized that this was violent and it’s aggressive and dangerous. They also understood the responsibility of that knowledge.

RB: We came at them pretty relentlessly, too. I mean, I train how I was trained and I’ve had some pretty hardcore people like Punong Guru Edgar Sulite who came at me sometimes, and I thought, “I better kick it into gear or I’m not going to make it.” When I trained with Arjan Chai… I’ve been in the ring with him and he’s looking at you like, “Do you want to live or die?” [chuckles] That meant you better go for it. I tried to bring that attitude to this because they’re gonna be stuck. They’ve got to sink or swim right now.

DLI: We really wanted the arts to be second-nature to them. We wanted it to be like breathing.

RB: It’s like being thrown into the deep end of the water right away. You better start treading water or you’re going to sink. I figured, in a movie, that’s how it’s gotta be. You gotta bring it!

DLI: We’ve seen accidents on the set, too. We both wanted to give them all of the power in the world to prevent anything from going wrong.

DC: Treading very lightly here… no one knows better how important safety can be and how easily it is for accidents to happen on set than you, Diana. I’m speaking about Brandon Lee and the accident on THE CROW.

DLI: I’m still surprised, even today, years after his death, I still see stupid stuff on sets. I honestly wish that, in film schools, they allow stunt people to come at least for a day to really talk about safety on set because you get all these new directors and producers and, sometimes, they don’t think about it. They really don’t. They get so caught up in the characters and the story or in saving money, but… if there’s an accident on your set, it changes things. You don’t want to be the director that has people’s lives being lost on your watch. Or even if they’re maimed or hurt, that’s something really difficult to live with. I think about Brandon all the time.

RB: I just did second unit on Steven Seagal’s new film and a lot of time I had producers on my back – and they’re good guys – but sometimes they’re like, “We have to make our day, Ron. C’mon…” They were cool because I said, “Nope, we’re not rushing here. We’re going to have a blade here and we’re swinging bats at each other. Let’s just get this right” and they’d back off and let me do my thing. But, I’ve done other films where it’s “Go! Go! Go! Go!” and they’re not thinking and that’s when accidents happen.

DC: I see it in low-budget filmmaking where they hire someone to do weapons or whatever and, since they come cheap… “Here you go!” and the director sort of lets it happen.

DLI: It’s a roll of the dice.

RB: I see that a lot of time, too, when they throw me an actor who’s never had a day’s training and there’s going to be a knife scene. I’m like, “Whoa, whoa… wait! It might be blunt but it still has a point. It can still take an eye out.” Look at the Jean-Claude Van Damme film CYBORG. The stunt guy got blinded on that. So, I always make sure that we know where we’re at. A big thing with knives and sticks and swords is eye contact. “It’s coming! Here it is!” That’s another thing we did a lot with the actors because we knew there would possibly be a lot of spinning with one’s back turned to their opponent. So, we made sure, “Eye contact! Eye contact! Before you swing that thing, you make sure you know where each other is,” and they were great about it. They really rocked.

DC: Had you seen a script at this point?

RB: Oh, yeah! I got the script before I started training them. We both had to read through it…and we had discussion with the producers. If I had questions, I’d ask, “In the script, it’s saying to do this. What do you want?” and we’d kind of bump-n-grind through the whole thing until we got it. They came in and looked at us training and it was funny because I think, at one point, they were a little nervous. “They’re just drilling.” So, I told Aaron, “They want to see what we can do, a demo” and he was like, “So, let’s give ‘em a demo!”

DLI: And he lit it up!

RB: He went after me… [laughs] I was fighting for my life with that guy. At the end, the producers said, “You’re on the right track. Just keep it up!”

DLI: They were all getting their cell phones out! “This is great!” [laughs]

DC: Diana, will we see more films along the lines of The Sensei? I think the film has a powerful message and I routinely give it to people along with Ekachai Uekrongtham’s Beautiful Boxer.

DLI: Oh, my gosh… what a nice compliment. I’d like to see more movies like The Sensei because it represents to me more of the spiritual path of what martial arts can bring to an individual and how martial arts can direct the decisions we make in life. I would like to see more of that. When I wrote The Sensei, I was thinking about my godfather when he was first trying to create a path – this was when I was a tiny, little girl. I wanted to stick by my principles because I knew (with my first movie) I could do an action thing really easily, but I thought, “If this was going to be my first (and potentially my last) film, let it be something that expresses more of who I am, what I care about, and [let it] be a message about humanity and tolerance.” Those are the things I’ve seen in the martial arts world growing up. I grew up in a time where my parents’ marriage, when they first got married, was against the law in a lot of states in America. It wasn’t until 1968 or ’69 that the ban on interracial marriage was lifted. So, I saw a lot of these things. Even growing up around Uncle Bruce in the Chinatown school, I was very lucky as a child that I had that kind of role model where I saw this international group and not just racially, but also culturally and spiritually. You know… Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was around and he’d just converted to being a Muslim… James Coburn… Steve McQueen… my godfather had Jews in his school, a lot of ethnicities. It was like the United Nations. So, that played a huge role in my character building.

DC: So, what’s next for the two of you?

RB: I’m supposed to go back to Romania for another Seagal film next month. Then, we’re going to Russia. And then, I have a film that’s being done in Colombia.

DLI: We’re working now with a producer who has close ties with NBC and they’re talking about me potentially doing a development deal where I might have my own TV show. It’s still all talk right now. I’ll believe it when I see it, when I’m on the set. [laughs]

For more check out the official I, Frankenstein website.

Synopsis
The action thriller I, Frankenstein is written for the screen and directed by Stuart Beattie from a screen story by Kevin Grevioux and Beattie. The film is brought to life by a cast that includes Aaron Eckhart, Bill Nighy, Yvonne Strahovski, Miranda Otto, Socratis Otto, Jai Courtney, Kevin Grevioux, Mahesh Jadu, Caitlin Stasey, and Aden Young as Victor Frankenstein.

200 years after his shocking creation, Dr. Frankenstein’s creature, Adam (Eckhart), still walks the earth. But when he finds himself in the middle of a war over the fate of humanity, Adam discovers he holds the key that could destroy humankind.

Lionsgate / Lakeshore Entertainment / Sidney Kimmel Entertainment present a Hopscotch Features / Lakeshore Entertainment / Lionsgate / Sidney Kimmel Entertainment production

I, Frankenstein

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