Learning the art of cinema stunt fighting
Rolling to a stop at the side entrance of Master Yi Martial Arts Academy on North Burnet Road, I could see the prospective stunt fighters warming up, and my compulsive habit to twirl my hair into decidedly unsexy knots kicked in. With a fistful of dead hair cells in one hand and a half-empty bottle of gumption in the other, I walked around the academy to the front door, past the small mob of young men flipping, tumbling, and stretching into full-on splits atop the blue mat that covers the practice-room floor.
On Friday, Nov. 30, the fit, muscular, and agile were gathered for the International Screen Fighting Workshop, a three-hour, $150 stunt-fighting workshop meant as preparation for the following two days of auditions for two movies that, if all goes according to plan, will be shot in Austin next summer. Both films, Owned and Templar: Honor Among Thieves, are action movies heavily laden with street-fighting scenes, as well as those involving mixed martial arts, and their respective directors were scouting stunt doubles. But even more so, they were looking for the special breed of actor who would be able to act and perform his or her own stunts. Hence the event's location, Master Yi Martial Arts Academy, where actors go to become acting stunt fighters and where martial-arts or street fighters go to become stunt-fighting actors.
Akin to litigation animation as a potential moneymaker for art-school majors, stunt fighting is a lucky niche for the fresh-out-of-film-school set, glowing in their Bachelors of Arts in Creativity yet having scant more than a rusted pot to piss in. At Master Yi Martial Arts Academy, instructors clad with black belts offer to take the wannabe stars and the has-beens, those into film or those into the art of kicking ass, and help mold their slack into something of a career. It's the Juilliard of action training.
After emigrating to the United States from South Korea, Grand Master Wonik Yi founded the World Tukong Moosul Federation and has been teaching Tukong Moosul, a style of martial arts he invented, in Austin since 1982. There have been a handful of Tukong academies up and running in Texas (South Austin, Cedar Creek, Kerrville, and Odessa) for several years now, but about one year ago, Janell Smith – who has two black belts and has been part of Yi's Tukong Moosul organization for four years and a martial artist for 12 – approached Yi about opening a stunt-fighting-training academy in Austin. And thus, the Fighting Stunts Association and Action Film Institute was born in November 2006, the organization well-stocked with experienced professional stunt-fighting instructors.
"The idea came from working on the film Sin City with Mr. Frank Miller, Mr. Robert Rodriguez, and Ms. Devon Aoki," Yi says. Miller, Sin City's creator/co-director, and the stunning Aoki, who plays the silent and deadly Miho in the film, earned honorary black belts in Tukong Moosul. Working so closely with the directors and an actor of such a big-budget film made Smith and Yi realize their potential to run a successful stunt-fighting academy, particularly after the results came in: Aoki's martial-arts stunts were breathtaking, her debilitating kicks and weapons-hurling poetically devastating.
"After we worked with Devon Aoki in Sin City," says Smith, "she was contacted by many other directors to work on action scenes, so we really made her look good for Sin City, because she's not a martial artist."
In the past year since the academy opened, membership has swelled to 75 and continues to grow, as the stunt-fighting academy has proven to be a valuable niche in Austin's growing film industry. "Our organization specializes in providing training for action actors and actors who wish to make themselves more marketable by being able to do their own action and stunts," Yi says. "Every action film has screen fighting, choreography, stunts. We provide it all, down to the action director. We train and do the real thing, so why not teach actors to use it safely in films?"
Grand Master Yi's Beginnings
Grand Master Yi, though certainly not a household name here in Austin, is something of a star in Korea (a documentary is currently being made about the grand master) and has an impressive background. Keeper of a ninth-degree black belt, an 18th-generation sword warrior, and a former master instructor of the New Jersey Police Special Weapons and Tactics team, Yi entered the world of martial arts in 1964, at the age of 5, when he began his studies at the Dae Yeon Sa Temple. In 1979, Yi went into the South Korean special forces and then, like your average 19-year-old fresh out of school, competed in the World Martial Arts Tournament and became the world champion. Seeking to improve and perfect its army's fighting style, the South Korean government called on the world champion to invent one. "Tukong Moosul is based on the distance theory," Yi explains via e-mail. "The martial artist practicing Tukong is trained in four areas: throwing (leverage techniques), punching (hand techniques), kicking (foot techniques), and weapons (extended body techniques)."
With that kind of background, Yi's move into the action-movie business seems almost as absurd as Arnold Schwarzenegger's career path from Mr. Olympia to Mr. Governor. Almost. However, what is not so surprising, based on Yi's background, is his affinity toward teaching; he has a doctorate in education.
"I wanted to become a teacher of martial arts to honor my master, Eun Kwang Bup Sa," Yi says. "[He] taught, 'Jeong Shin Il Do, Ha Sa Bul Sung.' Translated, this means that when one summons one's mind, heart (body), and spirit in one direction together, nothing is impossible, and you can accomplish anything that you desire." Yi says his goal is to offer and impart to his students all of the knowledge, wisdom, and philosophy that he has acquired through his years of training. But perhaps it is not so incongruous for the venerable martial-arts master to want to train the next Jet Li over the next SWAT-team leader. One look into Yi's jolly face, which scrunches into a smile easily and frequently, and it's obvious he's happier training pretend warriors than real ones. "The students that are willing to listen and work hard will find direction in their life," Yi says. "They will become humble beings, with a great understanding of self-accomplishment, self-esteem, and an understanding of the importance of life."
Back at the Workshop
Right at 6pm, I strolled into Master Yi Martial Arts Academy, put my shoes and socks in a cubbyhole, and following the lead of a few men and women wearing black robes with the Tukong Moosul insignia stitched on the lapels, I bowed, timidly, before entering the practice space. The room is lined with mirrors, except for a corner of the large room, which is lined with a case filled with bow staffs and assorted instruments of death.
Grand Master Yi and Janell Smith stood at the entrance of the studio, beaming at the large turnout. A tall man wearing a skin-tight bodysuit that outlined his defined biceps and calf and thigh muscles had just arrived from Ohio; a tall, trim beauty from New York City breezed in, having driven directly from the airport; a group of young men flipped and kicked in a corner. While everyone in the room appeared to be athletic and fit, it was pretty clear the acting experience was concentrated among the women, whereas the men, who eagerly demonstrated their stunt-fighting skills – backflips, high kicks, nunchaku demos – appeared to have the action moves down but were looking for a little acting guidance.
And so it went. The ladies were shepherded into a smaller practice room with the good-natured Master Ali Brown to learn the basics of the Tukong Moosul stunt-fighting style, while Yi and some of the academy's other instructors helped improve the men's techniques for falling and realistically fake-sparring with one another.
Brown's lesson plans began with him teaching us the proper way to "kee-op," which is essentially the scream that fighters, stunt or otherwise, emit when they are performing strenuous fighting moves against an opponent. (I've always thought it sounded more like "hee-aw!") According to Brown, a literal translation of "kee-op" is "energy forward." The image was helpful, as we were instructed to step forward while we jabbed the air and screamed our kee-ops, all the while studying the expressions on our faces. I tried to force myself to keep my eyes on my own reflection, not looking at the other women around me. I stepped forward with my right leg, and, simultaneously hiking up my left leg and raising my small right fist in the air, I shouted with all the ferocity I could muster: "Kee-op!" I couldn't help but wonder, "Do I look as stupid as I feel right now?" Aside from being kind, patient, and good at what he does, Brown is a mind reader. "Don't forget to look at yourselves in the mirror," he said, staring at me.
After a good five minutes of jabbing and screaming, stepping and kicking, Yi entered the ladies' practice space to tell us how ugly we looked. "A good kee-op is no kee-op," he informed. That night, Yi was full of this brand of acting philosophy. "Good acting is no acting," he repeated several times. From then on, Brown instructed our kicks and punches to be accompanied by tight, quick, slightly closed-mouth breaths – audible but not forced-sounding. Good kee-op, no kee-op; good acting, no acting. Inherently, it's a good philosophy, but how does a person pretend-fight realistically if she can't fight to begin with? Train at a stunt-fighting academy, I suppose. "Remember, stunt fighting is 50 percent body fight and 50 percent eye fight," Yi called as he walked out of our space.
It was at this point in the basic training when my left hand involuntarily went to meet my fragile, tormented hair, twisting compulsively as the 10 of us were told to form two lines and demonstrate the two or three different high kicks and turn kicks we were taught minutes prior. Only two of the girls in the room had had previous martial-arts training, but they all picked up on the moves fairly easily – the New York actress, the three Friday Night Lights extras, the tough, attractive boxer with a chain tattooed around her ankle. Everyone but me. Still, it was undeniably the most fun three hours I've ever spent humiliating myself.
Lights, Camera ...
Bright and early Saturday, Dec. 1, Janell Smith, dressed in a smart, sleek suit, walked about the lobby of Master Yi Martial Arts Academy, poked her head into the two rooms where the two summer action films' auditions were being held, and all around monitored the process. Actors looked over sides and filled out applications while, for 10 minutes at a time, those auditioning read lines for a particular part and followed the reading with a brief showcase of their fighting/martial-arts repertoire.
Templar: Honor Among Thieves (www.templar-movie.com), which will be produced and directed by Rene Hinojosa, is a spaghetti Western of sorts about four fortune hunters – an antihero, femme fatale, thief, and mercenary – on a quest to claim "the ultimate prize." The film pays tribute to the classic tales of Western mythology and its character archetypes and is, naturally, set in "a galaxy on the brink of chaos." Hinojosa, who attended Friday's workshop to preview the stunt-fighting hopefuls, wanted to make clear to those auditioning for Templar what he seeks in an actor. "I'm impressed with the physical aspect, but I'm looking for passion, desire, and attitude."
Owned's CEO and executive producer Eric Alfio echoed a similar attitude while scouting for actors. He wanted skilled martial artists but animated performers, as well. Yi nodded behind him: "Fifty percent body fight, 50 percent eye fight." Writer/director James Hergott's Owned (www.ownedentertainment.com) is an action thriller set in the world of mixed martial arts and will be shot in HD24 digital-video format. Alfio explained that the film's shooting might take place in Canada if not Austin.
The last of the weekend's auditions did not mark the end of the Fighting Stunts Association and Action Film Institute's involvement with Hinojosa's and Hergott's films. Since Sin City, the institute has become more involved in film production rather than just writing the choreography and training the actors and will be co-producing both films. "We've worked with like 10 directors this past year, and they're offering workshops here for acting, just to cover everything in action filming, from acting to doing stunts to the martial arts to falling to wire works, even pyrotechnics," Smith says. "We want to be a one-stop shop for directors or producers." All who make the final cuts will attend weekly training classes at Master Yi Martial Arts Academy. (The classes, Thursdays at 7pm, are also open to the Austin community at large.)
Though I stared at the audition application for a while (motorcycle experience?), in the end I didn't audition for either movie. At the previous night's workshop, Grand Master Yi distributed certificates of excellence for completing the workshop. He instructed us to write our strengths and weaknesses on the backs of our certificates, and next to our weaknesses, we were to write down methods of improvement. "You say, 'I'm fat,'" he offered as an example. "What you gonna do? Less eat." "I play with my hair too much," I wrote. "I'm not brave." In my case, a temporary solution was printed on the front of my certificate. Just being at the workshop earned everyone in the class a month's worth of free Tukong Moosul-training classes at Master Yi Martial Arts Academy. Hey, it's a start to a braver future.
Master Yi Martial Arts Academy is located at 10435 Burnet Rd. #110. To learn more about the Fighting Stunts Association and Action Film Institute and to sign up for classes, go to www.fightingstunts.com or call 339-2467.
*Oops! The following correction ran in the January 18, 2008 issue: In last week's Screens feature "Energy Forward," we reported, in error, that the director for the movie Owned, James Hergott, was scouting stunt fighters at Master Yi Martial Arts Academy at a workshop on Nov. 30. In fact it was Eric Alfio, CEO of the production company and executive producer for the movie. The Chronicle regrets the error.