Look closely at the latest Kickstarter campaign video from this Monday for Bao Tran’s The Paper Tigers and you’ll likely spot actor Mark Poletti in the mix. I’ve been following Poletti off and on since about 2013 as I was catching on to the efforts of a group called Usurp Productions and Poletti has gradually seen his carrer progress little by little.
His latest effort recently sat him on both sides of the lens for his latest action short, Jack & Jill, an aptly-titled and intriguing thriller which focuses on two agents forced to make a choice as they engage an underworld crime boss. There’s a bit more I missed out on bringing up before publishing this interview, while Poletti’s latest turn at the helm deems an exciting an newsworthy move. For all else, Mark’s official website is how you can best reach him.
Greetings Mark and thank you for taking the time to talk to us. How has the past year been for you?
Hey Lee, I’m always down to catch up! The past year has been a whirlwind of changes for me. From relationships to film, I can say that 2018 was definitely the most interesting time in my life outside of Philadelphia [laughs]! But luckily I have been really busy this year and it’s only been picking up even more recently, which is exciting. I look forward to not having days off!
I first reached out to you in 2013 when you were co-owner of Usurp Productions, and you’ve managed to add quite a bit to your career progression since then – acting and nowadays even directing!
Definitely – the dream has definitely grown and evolved since then!
Tell us about yourself and how you got into film to begin with because I literally know nothing of you prior to 2013. You’re an actor, a martial artist, a Luke Skywalker doppelganger– What else? How did it all start for you?
Yes to all of those things apparently [laughs]. Well I moved out here back in 2011. At the time I was just (barely) a martial artist, and had only been studying WuShu for two years. My only film work was background stunts in The Last Airbender (oops!) and while it was a great first experience, film didn’t quite interest me yet.
Moving out here was kind of crazy to be honest. D.Y. Sao, who was teaching a martial arts camp that I came to in Costa Mesa (South Coast Martial Arts) had put up a Facebook post about needing a roommate. I knew I wanted to pursue martial arts more seriously, and college wasn’t my thing. So I told him “Hey, save the room for me. I’ll be out there ASAP.” I had just gone to China through my university and had made the realization that I wanted to get the fuck out of Pennsylvania and see more of the world. So I dropped out of school, quit my job, broke up with my girlfriend – packed my bags and moved to Cali.
When I moved in with D.Y., he started showing me how to do stunts and film fighting and was really my main mentor in film when I first moved out here. Stunts was definitely great, but he had asked me to read lines with him a few times. Actually during my first time reading lines with anyone, I had to read for the female part for him [laughs]. After reading a few different times with him, he planted an idea in my head. He said ‘hey you’re not terrible at this, you should do more acting!…’. At the time I threw it away because I had no real interest in acting but that idea stayed with me.
Scale of one to ten on how Star Wars has impacted your direction in life, 10 being the most.
Eleven is probably cliche to say but it has, one-hundred percent; From martial arts to acting, I’d say its my biggest influence. I didn’t know it at the time, but seeing Ray Park do WuShu as Darth Maul… had be trying to do butterfly kicks before I even knew what they were called! And I didn’t have too much interest in acting before 2013. That’s when they announced they were doing more Star Wars movies, and suddenly I wanted to be an actor [laughs]! And now thats a goal of mine, helping drive me forward.
Where did you start in martial arts, in general, stylewise?
Technically, my first experience in martial arts was Hung Ga, a southern style of Chinese martial arts. I had only about three months of training when I came to the first Making Ninjas martial arts camp out here where we practiced quite a few different styles. Boxing, kickboxing, jiujitsu, kenpo – but mostly we trained Shaolin Kung fu and Modern Wushu. The moment I got back to PA, I went looking for a WuShu school and found my Sifu Tim Niiler at Open Source Wushu in West Chester, PA. I eventually went and attained what is equivalent to a 1st Degree black belt under Sifu Tim, and I attribute a lot of my application ability to him.
Do you have any particular memories you’d like to share from your heyday with Usurp? I remember there was at least one project that your team was involved in with director Wilder Herms called Knight In The Rain and your partner at the time, D.Y. Sao was involved on it and it looked really slick and cool in its concept art.
There are a ton of memories with those guys! We still film and hangout all the time, even though most of us are spread out. Knight In the Rain is a pretty awesome concept that I’m sure Wilder will be ready to talk about one day, but currently Blue Kanji is finishing up another feature with D.Y. as the lead. That one is in post production now, and I was lucky to act and do stunts, as well as choreograph for that film. It was, at the time, the largest project that I had done and I learned a ton from it – much of which I tried to apply to Jack and Jill.
I hear that one is gearing up for festivals and you’ve put a tentative stranglehold on reviews at the moment. Tell us about this project and how it came together with your partner Julie Zhan. You two have been on a few projects together in the past year that I’ve noticed – Cactus being one.
Jack & Jill is, in a weird way, a spiritual successor to Cactus – at least in its conception! I’ve known Julie for as long as I’ve lived out here in California and she’s one of my closest friends. After Cactus, I think I really sparked her interest in WuShu. We had only trained for about four weeks before we shot that project. She’s been doing WuShu for over a year now and picked it up waaaaaay faster than I ever did, guess over fourteen years of dance experience helps [laughs]! But thats not to take away the love and hardwork she has for the art.
About a year after we filmed that, we both were in a place where we wanted to create something. So we came up with the idea: Lets see how much better your film fighting has gotten now that you have some actual martial arts experience under your belt?
So that was the basis that lead into this larger story. The original concept was “What are you willing to sacrifice for the greater good?” Or even “Are you willing to?” “How does perspective and self interest play into decision making?” Then, sprinkling in some action just sounded like we had a fun idea on our hands.
Talk about putting the principal fight scene together with you and Julie and Jerry Quill taking the mantle and the rehearsal process of it all.
Knowing I wanted to direct, I had to bring on a team that I could dedicate to action. I had just shot a short with Jerry and Jay up in Quincy. I think we all had just an amazing time on the shoot together and it was really important for me to have them come on to make sure the action looked great, and because they always brought positive vibes to the set. I didn’t have to do a take and then check playback. All I had to do was yell “Jerry, Jay – notes?” And we’d either move on or adjust.
Jerry also took the time to understand what I wanted to do with the story and develop the action around it. It was a super egoless and easy going collaborative effort from concept to execution.
The concept you’ve assembled for Jack & Jill looks as grand as one might expect and I know I see a lot of these proofs of concepts as potential “part ones” of something larger. What would it take to grow this story on a more feature or serial basis apart from the usual need for budget and producers, etc. Is the interest there among parties involved? Or is it too early to tell?
There is definitely interest! This short was actually written as part one of three. Being a Star Wars nerd, I like the idea of telling a bigger story in trilogies. It’s also classical story structure and it allowed me to see how this first one is received and get my bearings on directing before taking it full circle.
I was so insanely thankful and lucky for my crew. We had over thirty people on cast and crew and just about every single person came on for free (or a SEVERELY reduced day rate) because they liked the concept, and trust the people involved creating it. That being said, every single damn person on the production was a professional. The set ran amazingly smooth, was fun, and was EGOLESS. I don’t know if I’ll ever get that experience again, and couldn’t ask for a better first directing attempt. And every single one of those people deserved to get paid because they are 1000% worth it. So honestly it would just take a bigger budget. I think that could be the case in the near future – but only time will tell!
Being your first directing gig, how different does it feel for you compared to acting and doing action? Is there a comfort preference between either?
It is, and honestly the three are all things I love to do and are hard for different reasons. Directing J&J, being that its a genre I love, I think really helped me as my first time directing. I’ve gotten to see a lot of different ways of doing action, and a lot of ways people direct and tell stories. I tend to give input when i’m on a shoot for better or for worse, so it was a great experience to finally be able to put my money where my mouth is. I feel like I was successful in doing that but we’ll see what other people think of the film first!
As for as a comfort preference I think it depends on the project. I definitely think going forward, I want to direct my ideas. Before I was pretty set on giving them to someone else so I can act in it, but after getting a taste of directing, I’d love to pursue that with my own projects.
But acting is where its at man! My goal is to inspire people in the same way they inspired me, and while directing and martial arts can do that, they can’t do it on the scale that acting can.
You’ve also completed your most recent feature film stint on Made In Chinatown for Robert Samuels and Art Camacho. How was that experience for you?
Most of the people on MIC were great people, Jay Kwon brought me out to do stunts and it was a really awesome experience to be able to go back home to work on a film – it was a very full circle moment for me. I had just filmed a little fight with the EMC guys that weekend before and I remember sitting in my car thinking about everything. Here I was filming a fight with the team that helped inspire me to do fim fighting and get into martial arts (Urban Ninja lead me to the South Coast Martial Arts camp that EMC was also coaching at) then getting ready to return back home to work on a film – its hard to explain but it was a very surreal experience.
Working with Jay, Kiera and Suo Liu again is always a fun time. I didn’t get a chance to work with Art Camacho but it was also my first time working with James Lew who is also an amazing person and super great to work with. They had some great crew members working on the project too but as far as the main production.
Going forward, you’ve now sampled a taste at directing. What are some of the most important lessons you’ve learned up to this point for your craft?
Surround yourself with a great team that you trust – ESPECIALLY – if you plan on acting in something you’re directing. Theres no way I could have accomplished anything without the amazing team I had on this project. I never questioned Jerry, Jay, and Kiera about how the action looked, Luke Dejoras (My insanely talented DP) always had a great shot, Jiyoung Park (1st AD) kept us moving fast and organized, and a good friend and another talented director himself, Riley Hayes helped keep my acting on point when I was in front of the camera. I could list everyone out but just know that every single person helped make this project awesome.
Build a team you trust and anything is possible.
Do you have any projects of your own happening through next year?
This year has been pretty busy and i’m working on quite a few projects at the moment! There is a short/pilot I am acting and coordinating on called The Outlier. That is being directed by AJ Wedding – another great friend and mentor who gave notes on Jack & Jill in the edit room – and also has a great stunt team. Again Jay Kwon, Kiera O’Connor, Jerry Quill, Allen Quindiagan, Nathan Peoples, AJ Deleon, and Nick Krawiec. We’re filmed in late October 2018, so keep an eye on that.
Also The Paper Tigers just launched their Kickstarter! I was lucky to be cast in that project directed by Bao Tran, and got to act and do some fights with Yoshi Sudarso (Peter Sudarso and Gui DaSilva also staring). That was a really fun project to be apart of and it was my first time working with all of those guys. I’ve trained or worked with those guys a ton since than, and I’m just super grateful that I got to be apart of it and make those friendships.
As far as my own projects, there was a little gem we shot in our downtime in Philly called Guilty By Association. We tried writing something on the fly after a great concept came up, so I am starting to write that into a feature, possibly a series. Other than that, Jack & Jill part two and a secret project that we can’t talk about yet!… But it’s a western!
You’re still collaborating with stunt performers on various independent fight practices and things I love sharing on The Hit List. You did a little get together with Tony Sre, Michael Hel and others recently and you brought some serious fire before that on that short you mentioned, Guilty By Association, with Kiera O’Connor and Shing Ka while you were in Philly. Glad you brought that one up. What does the continuation of that latter story look like going forward?
Kiera killed it and took some gnarly hits to the Philadelphian concrete! You’ll definitely be seeing more of that soon, but not too ready to talk about it!
Before we close, I wanna thank you for taking the time to share a piece of yourself with us and I look forward to seeing Jack & Jill climb up the hill into a feature film one day if ever. Do you have any final words to offer for readers and viewers?
I hope it does too! I just hope you guys can enjoy the film, and hopefully the love and effort everyone put into the project shines through. There was over forty people who came together to work on this project, so please stick through the credits, see who did what and hire these people! They are so dope at their jobs!
And hopefully, I’ll see you guys on the next one.
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.