In all of the last five years and with many of the filmmakers I try to network with, it’s obvious I won’t be able to interview them all immediately. One can only hope though that these connections maintain long enough with the progress of certain flourishing film projects so as to keep interview prospects in line as well. And this week, I’m especially to finally share my platform with director Sam K.J. who just had a robust weekend attending the Toronto After Dark Film Festival.
It was there that he got to premiere his recently released online shortfilm, PVP, featuring performers Alvin Hsing and Yoshi Sudarso. It’s currently online as one of only two short action projects he’s been busy with his craft on in the midst of slow-burn independent cinema in the last several years – three if you count his new and forthcoming shortfilm, Oni, a project filmed back in 2015 and had a rough copy ready for festivals by the Fall in the following year until the usual challenges started occuring.
I’ve actually been waiting for this project to emerge ever since the crowdfunding campaign launched in 2015 to help bring Oni to fruition. It’s got some of the best stunt guys I’ve ever covered in the realm of film fighting and independent cinema, namely Michael Lehr who has all but kept busy with a prominent stunt career on both coasts of the U.S.. K.J. discusses working with Lehr and the cast and crew of Oni in Monday’s interview, and we couldn’t be more proud to include a raft of behind-the-scenes photos, and the exclusive trailer and stills to help give this puppy the profusion it deserves.
Greetings Sam, thanks in advance for sharing your story!
Hey Lee! Big fan of FCS, honored to be interviewed by you.
How have the past few years been for you since raising funds for your new shortfilm project, Oni? You had a work-in-progress ready to go to festivals at one point I remember.
The past few years have been a roller coaster ride and a learning experience. After having multiple VFX artists accept the gig and then rescind, I took it upon myself to learn After Effects. This dragged the post down to a crawl, but I have to say I’ve learned a ton, and while I don’t necessarily want to do my own vfx again, I have a much greater understanding of the process and how to set my films up for successful VFX when I shoot. Funny thing is, I have released 2 films since I shot Oni—PvP and Unmasked— and while Oni will be my 3rd Action Film to be released, it is the first I ever made.
I’m glad you brought up Unmasked and you definitely showcased your aptitude there as well. Were the challenges for that one any similar to Oni?
Unmasked, like Oni features, a 1 on Many fight, which is something I think both Michael Lehr and I brought a lot of our experience from shooting Oni to. The main difference is the power dynamic— Unmasked is an escape story versus Oni which is an infiltration piece. It was really fun to play with the differences between the two, and the similarities as well.
The main challenge with both of them, I would say, was the schedule. Both Oni and Unmasked were shot at breakneck speed. We only had 2 days for the entirety of Unmasked, and only 1 day for the largest fight in Oni (2.5 days total). This meant we were cramming upwards of 55 shots per day. This was made possible only by Michael Lehr and the unbelievable crew of performers he brought in, as well as my creative producing partner and 1st AD for those films, Nick Carraro. Those guys were indespensible. And it helps when you have lead performers like Jerry Quill (Oni) and Jay Kwon (Unmasked), who make this shit look easy and nail everything by the 3rd take at most.
Last note: While I’m bringing up my stunt baes’, I want to shout out Alvin Hsing and Yoshi Sudarso, who absolutely killed it in my most recent film I did for Lumix called PvP (showing at Toronto After Dark!) so #blessed to know such cool people.
I’m gonna be frank here…we’ve shared social media space for maybe four or five years and we’ve chatted but I literally know nothing about you and how you got started in films and engaging action directing as I’ve seen with your work thusfar. Tell us about yourself.
Ha! Right?! You’re heavily featured in my news feed!
I have kind of always wanted to direct. Not sure when it started. I came up in theatre acting and directing, and graduated from the University of Minnesota, Morris with a B.A. in Theatre and Mass Media Production. College is where I developed my filmmaking, I made 4 shorts and a 10 part webseries, as well as several sketches. I learned a lot about being self sufficient through all of that.
I fell in love with martial arts films while I was in college, and made a goal to carve out my career in the genre. Thank god I met Michael Lehr, who was introduced to me through a mutual friend that I was playing Dungeons & Dragons with at the time. Mike and I hit it off right away, and he took me under his wing in more ways than one. He helped me put Oni together, budget wise and by recommending and putting together the cast of stunt performers. He taught me loads about how to film a hit so it sells, and how to edit a sequence to give it good impact and rhythm. He’s been my creative confidant ever since.
I’ve also been working in camera technology since 2012. I spent a few years with Hot Rod Cameras where I learned a ton about gear, how to use it, and how to squeeze the most quality out of the smallest amount of money. That was instrumental to my success thus far. Hot Rod is also where I met Ian Start who co-wrote and co-produced Oni.
As for myself as an artist, I just want to make people stoked. I want people to finish my films and immediately want to skip back to their favorite part. My goal is to make the kind of films that 14 year old sam would have been stoked out of his mind for.
What were some of your influences behind creating Oni? Tell us about this new shortfilm.
People can probably tell, but I had just seen death note for the first time while I was writing Oni. I love the archetype of a kid and his big tough companion, you see it across a lot of genre fiction. I had also just finished Daredevil and was excited to see that dark, gritty, gory fight stuff was actually getting made. So I wrote a story that would appeal to similar audiences as those series. But doubling down on the themes and aesthetics I like most in them, and sprinkling a bit of my own flair over top.
But to be honest, it all started with the mask. I found the mask for this film online and was like “Yo, how do I justify paying for this thing?” As I was super poor at the time, I super couldn’t. So I built a story behind it and raised a budget to make a film with it. Now I have 2.
Talk about casting for the role of Chris Hokama and what your actor, Anthony Ma, brings to the table.
I had Anthony Ma in mind for Chris Hokama when Ian and I started the script. It’s weird, but I don’t like to write something before I know who is playing the lead. Anthony had acted in a sketch that I was helping Ian with, and I was really drawn to his ability, general character, and attitude. I also thought he had a great look for Chris.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything here: Anthony has one line in the whole film, and it’s one word. His acting is entirely physical, and he nailed it. 10/10 hope to cast him again.
Talk about the crew behind the principal action. You have Jerry Quill, Narayana Cabral and Oscar Leiva among the lot and you also have the aforementioned Lehr serving up the action.
Yeah, dude. To say I was blown away would be the understatement of my life. These guys opened up my eyes. They’re shining beacons of professionalism, and I learned so much from watching them work. Particularly Jerry, who played Chris in mask, was a total champion. The guy was literally DRENCHED with sweat, as we shot in the daytime in July, and he had to be in a hooded sweatshirt, sweatpants and mask. I found out afterwards he couldn’t hardly even see out of the mask. So when you watch Oni, know homeboy’s doin’ it blind. And he literally never complained once.
Crowdfunding for this project surpassed its original four figure goal at the time and it was somewhere to the tune of five grand, I think? I wanna ask: What factors into putting together such a small budget to produce something ripe and watchable? This is mainly because I’ve seen crowdfunders ask anywhere up to six figures and noticeably a project like the half-hour long Kung Fury is one of the biggest, most rare instances of that kind of success and so you have to be real careful in a sense when crunching numbers, I guess…
Yeah I have to be totally honest here, I didn’t get much past my kickstarter goal. I had an investor who had committed $5k to the project as seed money. If I remember right, I pumped a lot of that in at the end to make sure we met our goal.
To be honest, crowdfunding is incredibly difficult. I was lucky to have a supportive friends and family base, as well as some folks who I don’t know who made large donations to the project. The real trick is to have all your momentum built before launching your campaign. The metaphor I have heard is rolling a boulder down a mountain— you gotta push the boulder to the top first.
I hope I never have to crowdfund again [laughs]. It’s a rough time and I really don’t like self-promotion, which is a must on Kickstarter.
You did mention to me recently that the VFX work amid post a sort of nightmaring learning process? What’s been the emotional toll it’s taken on you up to this point? You seem to still have some sanity left, I presume.
Oh yeah dude as mentioned before it was just a mess, but I did learn a lot about it and I am happy with my end result. Emotionally, it’s been a growing weight on my conscience trying to get this thing done while working full time. But I would say it’s been worth it 100%.
I imagine you still have ideas you’d like to see cook up. I am curious about what lies ahead for Oni and if there may be room for an expansion on that mythology for you.
I have a full world built that Oni just touches on where Chris’s Oni definitely isn’t the only yokai. The larger story would feature an eternal game of cat and mouse between Chris, the LAPD, and a shadowy organization called Q.
Could this be your hopeful feature film debut? I’m saying it’s necessary either way – whatever you prefer, though I’d love it to be this, personally.
I see Oni working best as a one hour streaming drama series a la Netflix. I’ve just built up too much world to cram into 90 minutes. I do have a couple Indy feature concepts up my sleeve for it as well, if necessary!
Do you have any moviegoing plans of your own going into the new year?
Oh you know I gotta keep up with the Marvel films, and I’m headed to Toronto After Dark this weekend so I’m excited to see what I can see there. Furthermore, I’m super looking forward to watching Yoshi Sudarso in Buffalo Boys. His mustache in that film is straight up beefcake.
In parting – and thank you for taking the time out for these questions – are there any final words you’d like to offer to readers and viewers before we close?
Hey man, thanks for being interested in Oni!!
Guys, I really hope everyone enjoys Oni, and I hope my interview answers were entertaining! Give yaboi a follow on insta @sam_kj_film_stuff if you wanna see me make more work, because apparently that’s important. Also, please watch the exclusive trailer below and stay chill y’all!
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.