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

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