BALLISTIC CINEMATHEQUE: A Word With Wych Kaosayananda
Filmmaker Wych Kaosayananda is a clear case study in resilience. His big break into Hollywood with the 2002 action thriller, Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever, didn’t pan out the way he hoped for a number of reasons. And before most of us knew it, despite the many studio offers he received, Kaosayananda diverged away from Hollywood for a really long time, which is probably why you might be wondering just what happened after all this time.
Well, nowadays, Kaosayananda is looking to leave an impression once again on an international scale. His most recent murder mystery crime thriller, Truy Sát (also known as Angels) starring Dustin Nguyen, underwent some reshoots in Thailand earlier this year and is now poised for a release in the U.K. under the new title, Zero Tolerance, this October with other releases pending. And with any luck, filmgoers will get to share their appreciation for the director’s work on the set of a Hollywood feature once more.Needless to say, Kaosayananda has a story to tell, and Film Combat Syndicate has the exclusive details in our latest interview, including what the director is planning for his next phase into his Hollywood re-emergence, and MUCH more!
Wych Kaosayananda: For the first two years after Ballistic, I couldn’t really bring myself to do movies. The experience I went through in post production on that movie was very painful. I still did take meetings after just signing with CAA and they were doing a great job of sending me out and getting me to meet execs. I even got a couple of directing offers, but I simply didn’t have an interest. Eventually I was lucky to meet Lou Addesso who happened to own Creative Film Management, a great boutique commercial house out in New York and I spent most of my working time doing commercials for them. However when it came to directing offers, my options were very limited, which is why I eventually took initiative and wrote the movie I wanted to do. That script was called Round 5 – a cross between Rocky and Lost in Translation, presenting a nice little love story with some action in it.
Only a few friends read it, including, Albert Shapiro – my AD on Ballistic, and an old hollywood hand who knew a lot of people such as Barry Osbourne, a producer on The Matrix and The Lord Of The Rings among many others. He loved the script then and still does.
He had it optioned through a company he was dealing with and we all flew back to Bangkok to develop it. Ironically that company was also based in Bangkok, which had gotten involved in a movie called Little Fish and they wanted mine to be their second picture. So we spent several weeks in Bangkok working on budgeting, casting, logistics, etc. When the time came to fully move ahead however, the company ran into difficulties (unrelated to the movie) and the money fell through.
Everyone parted ways, and since I’d never really lived in Thailand and was just a year into my marriage with my daughter turning one, I chose to stay. Three years went by and I had my first divorce, got involved in the local industry for a only a little bit, and just as I was thinking of returning Stateside to do commercials and work my way back in the movie world, which would be tough despite my good rapport with folks familiar with my efforts on Ballistic, a friend contacted me about a movie that was going to shoot in Thailand and asked if I’d help out. I met with the producers and turned my already existing company into a production services platform and we handled our first movie – a children’s feature called The Lost Medallion which featured Mark Dacascos and James Hong.
I helped produce and did all the 2nd unit. It was a fun experience and consequently we got more jobs. I started doing more as well; on top of producing and directing action, I also did work as cinematographer for some of them. And through the same producer who’s now a close friend, Michael Scott, I started to ghost direct some of his movies for him – He runs a company called Pureflix, specializing in faith-based films. We must have done around six of them through my company and I was also the DP for the majority of them.
2011 arrived and I decided to step back and do my own thing, this time with Angels. By then, I was married a second time, and my wife really helped me get the movie going.
With Angels, I sat down and wrote a script that I knew I wanted to make with the resources and actors I had and knew. So every part in Angels was written for the actors, and we made the movie. It took longer to finish in post as one of the investors didn’t come through.
My company had more movies and next thing you know, it’s 2014.
WK: Well, I’ll try to explain this as best as I can: I did my first cut which as I understood it was just that-my first cut which was the script as shot and fine tuned. There were scenes I wasn’t sure of, but liked. And we also tested the movie; One scene in particular lost the audience and the experience wasn’t very good. It was a little heavy on melodrama, and I own that. I loved the scene, but also was afraid it wouldn’t work and could easily be cheesy. But again, I honestly felt that was what the tests were for, and I was wrong. We didn’t score well and based on that test, two producers who I was already having issues with for various reasons basically just took over the movie.
I found out as I was on my way to the editing room two days after the test screening and just a day after having a big meeting with Warner Bros. executives and marketing people, who were terrific by the way. By the time I got to the edit suites, my editor was Caroline Ross, a wonderful person and a great editor, was also fired and replaced, after all those hours and weeks I spent with her. And I wasn’t too pleased to say the least.
So, after consulting with my agents at CAA, it was decided it was best to just walk away quietly and they’d focus on getting my next job. I still had a great relationship with the executives at Warner Bros. I had things in development with Fox 2000 and RKO and we’d just move on. The problem was, I couldn’t.
I’d shot an old school actioner in 2002 with the Steve McQueen classic Bullitt as my template. My DP and I had specific needs to be met with the way we shot it, especially when it came to all the action scenes I choreographed while working with Joel Kramer – one the best stunt coordinators in his field. But despite our best efforts, the movie was butchered to the point where certain shots were flipped because the edit no longer made sense. And yes, this also affected the sequencing and pacing of the action – it was horrible to watch.
Just so you know, I had only ever seen the theatrical cut once with no audio, during the colour grade with Julio, my DP. At the premier I waited until the movie had been playing for thirty minutes before taking my seat. I did this because I knew the movie was bad. I pretty much hyperventilated for the whole evening.
The challenge of the movie came during the development. We had a great spy vs spy script, character driven with balls-to-the-wall action. I read the script and loved it instantly – 1st thought in my head was The Killer vs The Professional / Chow Yun-Fat vs Jean Reno. Everyone involved in the pre-production process was in-sync and we were good to go.
However, Franchise Pictures didn’t think Chow and Reno were financially viable, so we spent months going through a whole slew of stars who were all great and I would have loved any of them in the role. And unfortunately, Ellie Samara’s casting was pretty much whoever he was making a movie with at the time and got on with, and it became apparent that he would fall out with them pretty quickly with the amount of actors I met to cast Ecks and Sever. I mean, at one point it was going to be Stallone vs Diesel, which would have been just as cool as my idea.
In the end, I got really lucky when we finally landed on Antonio Banderas, who I have the highest regards for and consider a friend, as well as Lucy Liu; It was also Antonio who suggested Liu come on board for the role of Sever, which I had no problem with whatsoever, especially since they had worked together before on Play It To The Bone (1999)
After casting, the real challenges started. We were going to shoot everything in Bangkok while we retouched the script to fit the location. Then the notes came in, and I won’t get into the details but there are only two things anyone needs to know about the changes that were made by request from the studio.
One: In the original draft, Sever kidnaps Ecks’ son, and the whole time, the boy is basically kept in a kid-sized glass box just big enough for him to sit in, placed on top of a kilo of C4. That was changed.
Two: There was no other motivation for the characters. It was all about family. Gant “kills” Ecks and takes his wife, Vinn, and their son, with both believing each other to be dead. Meanwhile, Sever wants revenge for the death of her family at the hands of Gant and his men. So, believing it was Gant’s son, she she kidnaps him and Ecks springs into action.
It was all about love and family and nothing else. The nano technology included in the final draft had nothing to do with what I wanted for the story.
Granted, we had a fantastic writer. Franchise Pictures brought Peter Lenkov to rewrite Alan McElroy’s script and he did a great job with the instructions he was given. Yes, there were changes made that watered it down to my chagrin, but it was as satisfactory as it needed to be at the time and everybody was on board. Then, tragedy struck in September 2001 and we had to relocate from Bangkok to Vancouver for safety reasons. Those moving expenses ended up in cutting more action scenes out, but thankfully our terrific crew made things feel much easier.
We had a great shoot, and every day was a memorable one for me, because I was living my dream, shooting a $35M Hollywood movie with Zorro and one of Charlie’s Angels. The stunt coordinator for Terminator 2 was in charge of my stunts. Are you effing kidding me?? There I was 27, from Thailand, living my dream and working with an A-list crew, kicking ass and getting great footage, all while staying on budget and on schedule. We were the only movie made by Franchise Pictures that did that by the way, something I’m weirdly still proud of.
I felt we shot a very good action movie that had the potential to be great. And some moments were definitely more special then others – seeing an entire train car blow forty feet straight up in the air was pretty spectacular. Closing off the busiest sections of Vancouver and just blowing it to shit was cool. Seeing Lucy fire an entire mag of a 300mm on a gatling gun was also awesome. The moment we cut, and it was the first time she’d fired the entire mag non stop, I’ll never forget. Lucy turned to me with a huge smile on her face and said “That was better than an orgasm!”. We really did have a great time.
It was my first Hollywood movie, and it was the easiest film making experience I’ve ever had. I was working with the best people in their profession and by comparison, I had all the resources I could want.
My first movie cost 550k USD and that was considered big at the time for Thailand. Since then, I’ve worked on movies that had $300k and 11 days to shoot. Now those were difficult. Ballistic wasn’t.
And one last thing on all of this – the original script was called Ecks vs Sever. It was decided that the title didn’t work. So because of my love for Bullitt, I suggested Ballistic be inserted into the title, but it ended up being Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever. That pretty much sums everything up right there.
I know some people might think I’m crazy for even mentioning Bullitt in the same sentence as EVS, but Bullitt was the template for how we made the entire film, and I will be the first to say that the final product has no resemblance to that great classic, and maybe my cut wouldn’t have come close either. Maybe it wouldn’t have worked, but I’ll never know, because the final version is unrecognizable to me. And I spent over a year on it.
WK: It’s two separate issues. As with most films I’ve been doing for the past few years, I’m a hand for hire. That means I don’t have any real input in the key issues that go into being a director. For example, I believe casting is a huge part of a directors job. You may have to cast to meet certain parameters (financing and such) but the director should still have the final say on 90% of a film’s cast because that’s your movie right there. So for every movie I’ve done as a director in the past six or seven years aside from Zero Tolerance, I was hired to just execute the script. Once we wrap, I work on my cut but after that’s handed over, I’m done. Whether they use it, re-edit it or whatever, it is entirely up to the producers and I’m fine with it.
On set, they do give me full control as long as I stay within the resources we have. But as an example to help answer your question, on all of these films that I directed, I was my own DP as well. But I’ve never been able to color grade the final product, just as I’ve never used my name on any of the projects. So it’s never been about creative control, but creative control has never been an issue. It’s a job. One I love, but still just a job.
However, Zero Tolerance (formerly ‘Angels’) is an exception. That was a very personal project. I raised the money through 5 different investors, people who were my friends, and through friends of friends. I wrote the script and had full control, and once the movie was complete, it was the first time in my life I felt I accomplished exactly what I set out to do. It was a slow burn, character driven drama that had action in it, clocking in at 106 minutes. Some say it was too long, but what makes movies so special is that, it’s art, and therefore subjective.
Now, I was clear from the get-go that Angels isn’t say, The Raid, but a different movie all around. It isn’t full on action and was never meant to be. We had great actors, and the biggest star I had in it was Gary Daniels. I wrote his part to play against type – No punching or kicking anyone in the movie. He came in and gave a terrific performance unlike anything he’d ever done before, and I loved it.
But, we couldn’t sell it. Buyers were expecting action and it turned out to be a drama. So from that perspective, maybe I would have been better served to have had someone who understood the buyers’ world to help me shape the movie in a way that would suit the buyers, because, it’s still a business. So, while I remain confident that Angels would have found an audience that would have ensured the movie was profitable at the very least, most people who saw it liked it, but the one universal answer I kept getting was, we don’t know how to sell it. And that was when Andre Meyers and Marcus Warren stepped in.
Andre is a terrific businessman who was trying his hand in the movie world for the first time. He really liked the final product and was very supportive. But after a while and as I was having difficulties selling the movie, he stepped in and brought on his friend Marcus who is a producer working in England.
Through Marcus’s contacts, it was determined we had to change the movie to make it more marketable for the buyers. And that is where Scott Adkins came in. I was given a set of new parameters and it was me who rewrote the script to make Scott’s presence in the film work. Andre financed the whole thing and we set off and shot for another five days.
Just to be clear, Zero Tolerance is not Angels. They are two completely different movies. Zero Tolerance is a very slick, fast moving, more action oriented film, whereas Angels was a slow burn, character driven drama. The actors are all the same with one new addition, but the characters have all changed. While I would have initially preferred Angels. I understand why this was done and fully support it.
The movie isn’t finished yet, but already one thing is clear. Zero Tolerance is going to be a much easier sell, and therefore will make more money than Angels could have.
So, in conclusion, I love Angels, but also love to eat and make a living.
Now that I think about it, Angels was a movie where it probably needed a brand name filmmaker behind it to be able to sell. I guess until I create a better brand for myself, I should focus on making movies more like Zero Tolerance which I understand and accept.
By nature, I’m a very collaborative filmmaker. I can see where having full creative control is essential for some filmmakers. It’s a universal truth for all great filmmakers, but not all filmmakers are close to being great. For myself, I’ve come to learn that the biggest key to being a successful director is aligning yourself with the right producer – a partner who supports your vision but is better than you at everything else that doesn’t have to do with the actual filmmaking.
So, to sum up and hopefully answer your question, I believe full creative control has to be earned, unless it’s your own money. By then, you can do whatever you want, but as long as you have a fiduciary responsibility to your investors, then creative control can be a dangerous thing.
In a sense, I’m still earning full creative control for my projects, although, I certainly don’t have the money to just make my own movies. But realistically, I just want partners that support me and the movie and will help me give the movie we make the best shot we can at finding an audience for it. Because in the end, the audience will always decide the final fate of every movie that’s made.
FCSyndicate: Let’s talk about the action for a bit. With the addition of Scott Adkins to the mix, do you feel like you were able to achieve a good movie despite one version being a more action-oriented film than the other? Who directed the fights and stunts for both?
WK: For this movie, I shot all the action myself, particularly the gun fights which I designed. For the fights, with people like Dustin and Scott involved, they were a big part in the design of it. We had a local fight coordinator who designed the base of the fight scene and the actors adapted it. Keep in mind, it wasn’t like we got Scott and then I had a million dollars and plenty of weeks to shoot the scenes. It’s still a very limited budget we were working on. But overall it turned out well. I believe Zero Tolerance will play to a bigger audience.
WK: Honestly I look at it as one movie. Angels no longer exists. It’s Zero Tolerance now. And I’m not trying to talk myself up or anything, but the reality is I like my cut of Angels. If anyone were to be able to see Angels, it would only be because I had managed to do enough movies that people liked and I had become a brand myself. Only then I think, would there be a justification to revisit and invest in getting Angels out. It might have started as Angels, but now there is only Zero Tolerance. And Angels doesn’t exist anymore. That’s the reality of the situation. One I fully embrace and support. So it’s very unlikely anyone who hasn’t seen Angels will get to see it. Unless they’re my friends and watch it with me. [laughs]
WK: Always a most difficult question. My favorite films change and evolve depending on where I am and how I’m feeling I guess. I love movies and it’s difficult to pick a favorite, but here’s a quick list of films that can all occupy my top three at anyone given time.
2. Blade Runner
5. The Killer
7. Last of the Mohicans
8. Before Sunrise
9. Searching for Bobby Fischer
10. Black Rain
11. Man on Fire
12. Batman Begins
13. Kingdom of Heaven
14. Six degrees of Seperation
I could go on too, so I’m just going to stop here. I can’t just pick one or two, or ten. LOL!
As for filmmakers it started with a handful I admired from an early age, then some more were added to that list while I was in college. The list does continue to grow as I believe there are more and more terrific filmmakers coming out, and I think that’s a direct result of the boost of people going to film school, the advance of technology and the vast array of outlets that we have today. But it starts and finishes with Jaws and Steven Spielberg – I was seven and Jaws was the first movie I saw in a theatre.
All time favorites: Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Michael Mann, John Woo, David Fincher
Huge fan of: Peter Berg, Michael Bay, Francis Ford Coppolla, Martin Scorceces, Tony Scott, Wong Kar Wai
Will always watch: Spike Jonze, Gareth Edwards, Sofia Coppolla, Robert Zemekis, Chris Nolan
It’s a very difficult question [laughs]. Anything in a movie can have an influence on me; how something was shot or framed, a performance, the writing, etc. I go to movies for certain writers as well, and certain DPs, regardless of who is in it or what it is about. It’s a very difficult question. I can’t put it into words how much I love film. In fact, I love watching movies more than making them, and my favorite place in the world to be is on a movie set.
I stay at home most of the time with my girlfriend. When I’m not working, we go out to eat or watch movies. Otherwise we’re at home watching movies or playing iOS games.
FCSyndicate: With Zero Tolerance being released in the UK this October, can you offer any clue as to when it will be released other territories?
WK: If I knew, I would be happy to tell you. As I mentioned before, Andre and Marcus have taken the lead on this and they are the ones doing all the wheeling and dealing. I’m doing whatever I can to support them.
They just got back from Cannes and I’m getting a full update from them soon.
WK: I don’t know about fan appeal, but I’ve known Dustin for over 15 years. I shot his directorial debut, Once Upon A Time In Vietnam, so I can’t imagine us not sharing a set again in some capacity. With Gary, I’ve known for a few years now, we’ve worked together numerous times and will continue to do so, he is genuinely one of my closest friends.
And I know this sounds like it’s lip service, but even though I’ve only just met them this year, Scott and Kane are now good friends of mine too. Especially Kane. I got to spend a lot of time with him as he I shot a movie he was the lead in.
Afterwards he invited me to Tokyo and my girlfriend and I spent 10 days with him and his wife. Kane and I have 2 projects we are actively developing right now. We’ll see what happens soon enough.
I love working with my friends. Both behind and in front of the camera.
Here’s another thing though. And all of these guys know this: Fight scenes are not my most favorite thing to shoot. I love watching them and there’s nothing quite like watching Ong Bak or The Raid for the first time. But it’s just such a pain in the ass to shoot. [laughs]
I want to do one, for sure. But it would have to be done right. Which means only one thing: Proper time. Proper time to rehearse the fights and proper time to shoot it.
WK: Well, in my head, it’s my autobiography. That is, if I were a James Bond-type who decided to kill for profit instead of working for her majesty. [laughs]
It’s my ode to all the old film heroes and movies I grew to love. I didn’t grow up loving the classics per se; in college I hated film history class the most (which is why I guess it wasn’t an elective). I love history itself, especially the old empires. If you love movies and like to read, I highly recommend the works of author Conn Igguden. They’re awesome.
Anyways, the movie is called Maxx, with a title character embodied by all of these great on screen heroes that I love, rolled into one. I started the script years ago, and finished it last year during a break in filming in Vietnam.
Earlier this year, Kane asked me to direct a movie he was already in development on. He gave me the script telling me that it needed work, and he and his producer, Ko Mori, asked me to do some rewrites. I loved the concept of the script but felt it needed to be reworked from the ground up.
They didn’t disagree with me, and as we were going over the notes, I sent Kane Maxx to read. He ended up loving it, and then he sent it to Ko, and he loved it as well. And our next call together it was decided that we’d just make Maxx instead, and develop Kane’s script for later.
It’s out to two stars right now. If they say yes, then we have a movie. If not, we continue casting.
WK: Making movies is one of the best things you can do for a living. If you want to do it and if you get any kind of opportunity, go for it.
I guess that’s true about everything in life. But if you do find yourself working on a set for the first time, you’re probably going to be some sort of assistant in one of the departments, maybe an extra, or an actor, or a director, producer or writer (because those are the only positions where no experience is needed on set, [laughs]).
There are two things I would tell anyone who wants to listen to me:
Be respectful of everyone around you no matter how they treat you. You’re lucky to be there and filmmaking can be a very short career, or if you’re lucky, a long one. How you conduct yourself and interact with others will go a long way in determining the length of your career.
And, the most important thing is, no matter what you’re doing on set, it doesn’t matter what budget level or where you’re making it, there’s always going to be pressure – time, budgets, conflicts, a whole slew of things. But regardless of all that, never forget that at the end of the day, you are all there to make a movie. That’s it. It’s entertainment. It’s never life and death, so out of all the jobs you can be doing, filmmaking is the one where you should really enjoy it all of the time. I find that too many people forget that.
Special thanks to mutual friend Lee Mason for introducing me and assisting me in editing.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
January 1, 2016 @ 12:00 am
I recently reread this article on New Year's Eve and all I can say is that I hope his next project aren't like his last two best known ones where they have producer's interference. He left an impression here and I'd like to work with him.
ALL-IN: Catching Up With Filmmaker Wych Kaosayananda | Film Combat Syndicate
October 14, 2019 @ 7:02 am
[…] and I spoke of this and more back in 2014 for our first interview, and he certainly gave an in-depth perspective about his career to keep in mind. Around this time, […]