“ENTER THE AUSTRALIAN: THE MAN WHO TRAINED THE MORTAL KOMBATANTS” – A Word With Martial Arts Instructor Nino Pilla
With over 44 years experience, the name Nino Pilla is synonymous with the more progressive styles of martial arts. Highly regarded by many as one of the world’s top authorities on Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do (JKD, being one of the forerunners to Modern Mixed Martial Arts), his experience has garnered him equal praise and reverence. His high level skill and incomparable knowledge had made him highly sought after, regularly featuring in Silvio Morelli’s famed BLITZ publications where his step by step methodologies were demonstrated the gritty yet refined style of JKD.
More recently and very notably, Nino’s expertise was used by Warner Bros with the Hollywood juggernaut using his martial arts coaching skills for one of the biggest blockbuster martial arts fantasy films of 2021.
Taking a different route to the Wachowski Brothers who secured HK kung fu choreographer Yuen Woo-Ping, in recent years other Directors such as Doug Liman and Paul Greengrass opted to use the skills of JKD based specialists like Jeff Imada from the Inosanto Academy. Setting this precedence, it would appear that Warner Bros got one of the best in the business, who just so happened to be an Australian – that being of course, Sifu/Sensei Nino Pilla.
It is important to consider that, generally speaking, becoming certified and accredited in JKD is no easy feat. The developmental structure of the system is paradoxically more stringent than the actual combat applications of the style itself; there is a higher standard applied to essentially determine the best exponents, in order that they themselves can instruct in this modern yet nuanced fighting system. To his absolute credit, Nino himself was certified by Bruce Lee’s own protegee and friend, the legendary Guro Dan Inosanto. Additionally Nino has been a certified instructor under the late great Larry Hartsell, known for his JKD grappling expertise and also trained by Ajarn Surachai Sirisute, a veritable icon in the world of Muay Thai. The Nino Pilla International Academy of Martial Arts (NPIAMA) is true to its name offering a range of styles that cover the gamut of the five ranges of combat, ranging from the Filipino martial arts weaponry, to the more mainstream kick oriented Taekwondo, Muay Thai and to the very obscure Maphilindo Silat.
Evidently the suite of skills that this famed instructor possesses has no doubt enabled him to incorporate methods from all over the world, and he does so with such efficiency and effectiveness.
Almost reflecting the duality in the Yin-Yang symbolism of the founder’s art, there is both calmness and explosiveness in this experienced coach. Witnessing him undertake drills with Guro Dan Inosanto, reveals this very principle; he fluidly transitions between the ranges of combat without hesitation, effortlessly moving between old school Western Boxing, elusive Wing Chun trapping, limb destroying Kali strikes then to a powerful Muay Thai round kick. His dedication to the art illustrates a level of prowess that is rare, due to the refinement in his methodology and experience. It takes a truly special kind of athlete to engage in that fashion, combining speed, power and accuracy – yet also being able to properly implement the more nuanced combat methods required in a live scenario.
The brilliance of Nino’s pedigree is that he truly reflects the whole concept of adaptability, the way he not only transitions between ranges but also utilizes the same principles when he instructs his seminars. When he speaks you are immediately drawn to him and listen intently; this is over four decades of martial arts experience that induce students to consume every piece of knowledge he imparts. It’s that level of authority that commands respect without even asserting an overt physical presence, instead the sage words and associated expertise of Nino is that which makes him so compelling and equally lethal.
In 2007, Nino served as martial arts trainer and helped with the film fight choreography for the action comedy vehicle ‘BIG STAN’ which starred Rob Schneider, to which he also doubled for. Schneider was flanked by the likes of MMA greats such as Randy Couture, Don Frye and Bob Sapp, with even Nino’s own master Guro Dan Inosanto also making an appearance. Though not a massive blockbuster, the movie was very entertaining and the fight scenes were clean and crisp, possessing that refinement that is a hallmark of Jeet Kune Do – courtesy of Nino Pilla himself.
With such esteem, it is perhaps no surprise that Nino’s skills were called upon by a major Hollywood studio, with this Australian given the enviable task of training and coaching a cast of international stars including (but not limited to) Canadian Ludi Lin and American Lewis Tan, Australians Jessica McNamee and Josh Lawson and even Indonesian and Japanese actors in Joe Taslim and Hiroyuki Sanada, respectively.
In the lead up to the film’s April 2021 release, the hype was at a fever pitch and unsurprisingly the action packed trailer was viewed so extensively that this first trailer had surpassed LOGAN and DEADPOOL 2, as the most watched red band trailer in history. Evidently there was a genuine faithfulness to the source material, something that studios generally eschew much to the chagrin of fans. Yet additionally, the dynamic physicality of the action could not be understated with the actors receiving their coaching from this very Australian JKD icon, who managed to bring diversity in action to the diversity in the cast.
In a recent interview with Collider, MORTAL KOMBAT’s lead actor Lewis Tan referenced Nino as the film’s trainer denoting that he is ‘…a student of Dan Inosanto who trained with Bruce Lee’s most prestigious students.’ Meanwhile on Epic Stream, fellow star Jessica McNamee stated that ‘Sensei Nino Pilla was who taught us a lot.’ Undoubtedly, Nino had made an indelible impression upon upcoming Hollywood elite in the same way he impresses upon his academy students and those attending his highly sought after seminars.
I was grateful to have the opportunity to sit down with Sifu/Sensei Nino Pilla, and seek out his striking thoughts.
Sifu/Sensei Nino, thanks for your time today firstly what drew you to martial arts, and more specifically to Bruce Lee’s style of combat?
Thank you for the opportunity. As a kid I watched a Bruce Lee movie, that’s what did it. I loved the way he looked on screen. His energy, movement and message. I originally began my Martial Arts journey with Tae kwon-do. My teacher would teach us Tae kwon-do and Hapkido, so the idea of blending arts was already something I was introduced to early in my learning. The idea of, Using No Way as Way, was ultimately going to be my Way.
Your instructor is the legendary Guro Dan Inosanto, what is it like learning from him and what is the most important principles you have derived from his tutelage?
I began my training with Guro Dan Inosanto in 1984. I feel blessed every day that I’m able to be around him/learning from him. He’s an encyclopedia of knowledge and experience and one of the nicest people you could ever wish to study under. There are so many principles to talk about. There’s a few that Guro Dan constantly shows us examples of. Never stop learning. At 84 years of age, Guro Dan is always training and researching. That also includes learning how to use his iPhone, every time he gets a new one. When learning from others, don’t be scared to put on the white belt (not just the belt but also your ego). Guro Dan is amazing at being the perfect White Belt when learning from others. Sounds easy but so hard for most people to do.
Jeet Kune Do (JKD) has different schools and approaches, how would you define your interpretation and application of JKD?
Being very close to Guro Dan, I tend to follow many of his teaching and training methods.
As mentioned you recently were involved in the new MORTAL KOMBAT film directed by Simon McQuoid, can you tell us about how did that come to be?
My martial arts student, Chan Griffin was the Fight Coordinator/Fight Choreographer for Mortal Kombat and he spoke to Kyle Gardiner (Supervising Stunt Coordinator/2nd Unit Director) about getting me on board to help train the actors.
What was it like training each of the cast and how did you structure the delivery, given that each character had their own unique style? Was there specific training regimens for each actor and how did you manage this?
The cast I trained were great. They all turned up and gave it all they got. They were dedicated to their role and the MK fans that were going to watch the movie. I love the new challenges that present themselves with every new project I take on. My 40 years of teaching martial arts really helped me breakdown each actor’s needs. The first session they came in for I did a movement assessment. Each actor had what they needed to be taught for their role, and they would come in at different times to train with me. Based on the characters fighting style, I built a training routine to strengthen the attributes that play an important part to their character. There were very few crossover training routines I taught. Some were empty hand only, others worked with weapons and only a few did both.
How does it feel receiving praise from some of the actors such as Lewis Tan and Jessica MacNamee?
I’m very humbled by their praise. There was Lewis, Jessica, Joe, Mehcad, Sisi, Josh, Ludi and Max, Hiroyuki and Nathan. They all did great. Maybe I’m the one that lucked out by having the opportunity to train some of the nicest Actors out there.
How much did you have to vary your training syllabus for the more fantasy elements of MK, given that JKD is known to be more gritty, pragmatic and reality based?
There’s definitely a difference between film fighting and fighting. I studied film in 1980 and went on to make short films (most were martial arts based). It’s great to be able to do techniques from JKD Trapping, Muay Thai, Silat or Kali and modify them slightly for the camera to make it look good.
What was it like collaborating with the fight choreographer, Chan Griffin? Given the fantasy elements and diverse character roster what was your joint approach to the combat like?
Chan Griffin, I’m proud to say, is one of my students and his Co-Fight Choreographer for Mortal Kombat, Anthony Rinna, is also one of my students. They did a fantastic job with the movie. With the three of us having the same background, it was easy to speak the same language. That made it easier for when I had to implement some of the film choreography during the actor’s training. Chan and Anthony did a great job creating moves and ideas for the fights. My input there was minimal. It was a great team effort by the stunt team.
What principle application of JKD did you impart to the cast of MORTAL KOMBAT, did it vary for each actor?
Understanding what an attribute is, and which attributes each actor needed to work on. For some it was strength and power or sensitivity and flow. Some needed footwork, body mechanics, timing or precision, rhythm and coordination. For a few, it was balance, focus and mindset.
Would this be your biggest movie to date since BIG STAN (2007) and GRIFF THE INVISIBLE (2010) and how did this movie feature compare to past projects?
It was definitely the biggest budget movie I’ve worked on. I’m very lucky that I’ve worked with some super nice people on every project so far. When working with good people, whether the job is big or small, its enjoyable to go to work every day. This movie definitely had more actors that we needed to take care of with the fighting. It was important to maintain focus throughout and make sure everyone hit their mark when their time came in front of camera.
Have you played the original MK games to any degree, and if so did Simon McQuiod’s recent film manage to meet your his expectations?
I remember playing MK in the Arcades. I was never that great at it. I couldn’t work out all the special moves. I’d be hitting the buttons crazily and most of the time, beating my friends by accident. I never spent a lot of time playing video games, I spent it in the gym instead. I think Simon did a great job with the movie. You have a game that’s almost 30 years old and you have 2 hours to show its history and action. That’s not easy to do in one film. I think Simon got the right balance with this film.
Are there any further movie projects in the pipeline that you can mention?
I am currently helping with another movie at the moment.
Can you tell us about your Nino Pilla International Academy of Martial Arts located in King William Street in Adelaide, South Australia as you offer a range of different styles?
We’ve been at the King William Street location for 22 years now and we offer classes 5 days a week. We teach JKD, Filipino Martial Arts, Muay Thai, Trapping Locking and Grappling, Kickboxing Super Circuits and Private Lessons. The other business I run out of there is Mask Entertainment. This is where we teach Martial Arts and Fight Choreography for Live Performances, Theatre, Television and Film.
For more information on Sifu/Sensei Nino Pilla or to contact him, you can reach him via:
NINO PILLA INTERNATIONAL ACADEMY OF MARTIAL ARTS: https://www.ninopilla.com/
Mortal Kombat is now playing in select territories with more upcoming dates pending. The film is released in theaters and IMAX in the U.S., as well as on HBO Max for a limited time, and will also premiere in the UK on May 6.
Vance Ang has primarily been professionally published in bodybuilding and fitness since 2005, having written extensively for hardcopy publications such as Australian IRONMAN and FLEX; but also for e-publications such as RAW Muscle and more recently the media platform, The Evolution of Bodybuilding. He is a Melbourne based policy and strategy consultant currently undertaking his post graduate study in Law. In addition to bodybuilding, conservative politics and Savate (French Kickboxing), he has long been a fan of movies and cinema of all genres – subsequently prompting an interest in modern story telling, that being script writing. He is in the process of writing his first horror novel ‘Providence’
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