The 23rd Fantasia Festival just wrapped while my review coverage of the event is also finally culminating. Click and you’ll find at least one review for director Shaun Piccinino’s latest hard-hitting action drama, American Fighter, billed as a non-canonical follow-up to Alex Ranarivelo’s notable hit, American Wrestler: The Wizard.
About six years since our first interview, I finally got to reacquaint with Piccinino over last few weeks about his work just as film screened in Montreal for the festival. Needless to say, there’s more to come from him and his at Truly Indie Studios, and I’ll be sure to help spread the word. Enjoy our conversation below!
Hey Shaun, I’m glad we can catch up again in the wake of your latest premiere. How have you been?
Thanks Lee, I’ve been great! Working on so many wonderful projects, I feel truly quite lucky actually and grateful for all the great people I get to collaborate with.
Tell us how you got involved in American Fighter.
Well that all starts with an amazing actor named, Shane Graham. We were filming the WW2 project about James “Jimmy” Doolittle and this famed Doolittle Raiders, starring another amazing actor (and friend) Casper Van Dien, when Shane told me he wanted to introduce me to the producers of another project he was working on at the time. That project is actually coming out very soon called, “The Ride” starring Shane Graham and Chris “Ludacris” Bridges. Really good movie by the way. It’s about a interracial couple adopting a young Neo-nazi kid and helping him overcome the abuse he suffered as a child and his prejudices through love and teaching him how to ride a BMX bike at the highest level. It’s a true story based on the life of John Buultjens of Haro bikes.
Anyway back to American Fighter. Shane introduced me to the awesome team behind the movie The Ride and they were looking for a director for their next movie. I watched American Wrestler and loved it. I also felt connected to the story as I actually have extended family that went through similar experiences during that time fleeing from Iran to the United States. So I basically kept bugging them (i.e. Ali Afshar, Christine Moore, Hadeel Reda) until they gave in and hired me to re-write and direct a kind of spin-off sequel. Not really a direct sequel per se.
What came to mind in terms of what to avoid or keep or add to make a successful sequel? I reckon you saw the first film.
Yes so I, of course, loved American Wrestler and thought what the director Alex Ranarivelo and the team at Forrest Films did with it was really awesome. So of course I wanted this next installment to live in the same world but just a little darker. This next story, it’s not a direct sequel as the first film was more based on true events, this one takes on a much more fictional tale and really plays into the fun tropes of 80’s action films. I wanted it to go into the seedy underworld that exists just underneath the squeaky clean surface.
What do you normally look for in a project when you decide what you want to direct?
Of course everyone will probably say this but I look for something that will excite me. Something that will really get me to fully dive head first into a different world for a while. And I love just about every genre of film so I try not to limit myself but always expand and push my boundaries. The last four films I’ve directed couldn’t be more different. American Fighter is a gritty 80’s throw back Action film, Roped is a young teen love story, Lady Driver is a female coming of age story about a kick ass 16 year old woman becoming a race car champion and Wheels Of Fortune is a slapstick comedy that’s gonna take you on a wild ride.
How is working with George Kosturos this time around and preparing for him to upgrade himself into sort of BJJ mode?
George is literally one of the nicest human beings I’ve ever met. And seriously so easy to work with. He has this relaxed and approachable demeanor mixed with 1000 percent work ethic and determination. It makes my job easy when someone is that dedicated. He also did most of the fight action in the film. Of course we had an awesome stunt team working with him to train him and get him ready for the shoot.
How was it in terms of finding locations to host the fight circuit scenes? You guys had about two or three I think?
We actually had 5 different fight locations, all in beautiful Petaluma, California. Forrest Films, care of Ali Afshar, have shot many films up that way and are really dialed in up there. The locals all take really good care of us when we film there. Plus the production design and art department did a fantastic job transforming the warehouses and auto shops into the underground fight scene.
Talk about being on set with Sean Patrick Flanery because this guy is the real freakin’ deal. Some folks still don’t know this. A total genuine BJJ journeyman, blackbelt, walks the walk – I didn’t know this until a few years ago and it was great sharing that knowledge this year with his Mickey Kelly announcement.
Sean Patrick Flanery is the real deal. He might be a total ham (he cracks me up) in between takes but when the cameras role he’s all business. Plus you’re right he is a legit BJJ practitioner, teacher (master level) and school owner. Which all came in real handy for his training scenes with George. We spoke early on about just having him teach George for real and we’d film it… and that’s just what we did.
You worked with Noel Vega who arranged the fight action for this film. How did you guys go about that process? Did Sean share any input?
Noel Vega is someone that I’ve had the pleasure of working with for many years and countless projects. He’s actually the one person in the business who’s giving me multiple big (big for me) breaks. My first stunt coordination job on a feature film, my first 2nd Unit directing gig on a TV show and countless motion capture gigs in the video game world. So the point being we’ve worked together so much and developed such a report that it’s like a second language when we’re designing fight scenes for a project. He of course hires awesome stuntmen and woman to execute the vision. For this film I really wanted it to feel like it was made in the 80’s and not have to fancy of moves that didn’t even really exist back then. MMA and the UFC wasn’t even a thought yet. We kept it simple and gritty on purpose.
This film also gets some pretty neat cameos from actors Kevin Porter and Guy Grundy who you’ve shared the set with on many an occasion. What’s the level of ease or difficulty when it comes to congregating folks onto a project such as this one?
Yes I love getting awesome people that I’ve worked with in the past onto the projects I work on. Of course it has to be the right role and yes they do still have to audition and earn the role. I do recommend them and push for them if they’re right for the roles like they were so perfect for this film. When we came up with the role of “Tank” I told everyone I have the perfect guy for this, Guy Grundy!!! And as luck would have it he beat out the competition.
That this film is set in the early 80s is especially a feat to achieve. How careful did you have to be not to miss a beat on the overall design and look of the period?
Yes that’s always a challenge to try and create a different era. Especially when filming exteriors where new model cars and even building can be seen all around. Well a lot of ground work is done by our awesome production team. From location scouting, picture cars, art department and of course production design. They all help us live in that forgone era.
This film gets a quite a bit of Star Wars love. What was your first exposure to the sci-fi franchise?
Star Wars!!! It’s no secret that I’m kinda a Star Wars nut. So is my writing partner. So being in early 80’s set when Empire Strikes Back was still in theaters, we had to include it into the vernacular. It’s also a nice tool to help transport audiences back in time. Empire Strikes Back was the first one I saw in theaters as I wasn’t born with the first Star Wars hit the big screen. I also grew up watching the films over and over on VHS – I wore the tapes out several times and had to beg my parents for new copies.
How prevalent was Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu by the early 1980s? I ask for folks like myself who were only ever exposed to it in the early two-thousandies when brands like Tapout were popular and it became a bit more proliferated in film at that juncture.
Well Japanese Jiu Jitsu itself has existed for a quite a long time and shares many of the techniques with it’s Brazilian successor. So the techniques were already in the states at that point but the Brazilian take on it was being developed and honed into what it’s become during that time really only in Brazil itself. It didn’t make it’s way over to the states until the 90’s with the emergence of the UFC and the Gracie family. The first Ultimate Fighting Championship debuted in 1993 when Royce Gracie dominated the compition.
What are some great film influences that someone looking to design BJJ or MMA fights should look toward? What is the ultimate apothesis for this kind of fight action?
Again the fights in this movie really mix a bunch of the early style of fighting in that time. You have everything from street fighting to wrestling to karate to muay thai in this movie. It’s rough, raw and not always pretty. Sean Patrick Flanery’s character, Duke, is the one that starts to implement the ground grappling and submission elements to our hero’s game.
Anything on the reaction from the room at Fantasia? How was the crowd?
The Fantasia International Film Festival is awesome! I highly recommend anyone who wants to visit Montreal during that time of year should check out this festival. Really nice people that run the even and the crowds and fans were so amazing. The crowd reaction to our screening couldn’t have gone better. They cheered in the big moments and laughed at the Star Wars jokes, we couldn’t have asked for more. Then during the Q&A and red carpets after the screening everyone was so positive and supportive of the film making process. That was very refreshing and inspiring.
Will you be working again with George or Sean for the foreseeable future? What plans do you yourself have?
I’d love to work with both of them again 100 percent. They’re a joy to collaborate with and we genuinely have fun on set while also working extremely hard. By the way Sean and I already did another film together after American Fighter as he starred in Lady Driver.
As for myself I have a lot of projects in the hoper. Still finish post on my comedy, Wheels Of Fortune and currently working on post for a sci-fi action TV series I directed with Casper Van Dien and Armand Assante called, Salvage Marines. I’m really excited about that one. Plus several new projects in development. Full steam ahead for me.
So where does American Fighter go after this? Is a VOD or select theatrical release close by?
It might make it’s way into a few more festivals but I know the future plan is for Forrest Films to release it theatrically in early 2020.
What are some big hopes you have going forward into the second half of 2019 and in next year?
I just hope to continue doing what I love and working with the amazing people I’ve been blessed to work with.
Thank you as always Shaun, and do you have any final thoughts to conclude with as we exit this interview?
Thank you so much for always supporting the work I’m lucky enough to do. You rock! And to the readers, I hope you get a chance to check out some of the stuff I’m working on.