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– by Nancy Tapia

We take a lot of martial arts stuff for granted in movies. I mean, sure, when you have big blockbusters like The Dark Knight Rises hit, the action set pieces where punches are a-flying are easy to appreciate, but when they’re in more lower-key movies like the dark comedy The Art of Self-Defense, we don’t necessarily look twice when punches are being thrown. But, fight choreography is one of the many jobs that are required in these films, and The Art of Self-Defense is no different.

I had a chance to speak with the film’s fight choreographer and stunt coordinator Mindy Kelly, and in our discussions, she talks about the fast-paced process of readying the actors in a limited time frame.

She also talks about how much ass Imogen Poots kicks in real life.

The Art of Self-Defense hits theaters this weekend!

LRM Online: Hi Mindy.

Kelly: How are you?

LRM Online: I’m doing great. How are you?

Kelly: Fantastic.

LRM Online: Great. I’m actually excited to speak to you. I mean, you’re a gem. You’re an actress, you’re stunt producer.

Kelly: I am a stunt coordinator, choreographer action designer and I consider myself a filmmaker. I don’t consider myself an actress.

LRM Online: Oh, I saw that, so I thought that was also, I was like, wow, she’s a full gem.

Kelly: Well, I mean I can if necessary.

LRM Online: I’m sure. I’m sure.

Kelly: That’s not my main focus. My main focus is I want to tell stories and I want to bring director’s visions to life.

LRM Online: Gotcha. So for starters, to speak with about The Art of Self-Defense, I mean, how do you prepare the talent for some of these scenes and choreographing them when maybe that’s not even something they’re used to doing?

Kelly: So basically I had a week to train Imogen [Poots] and Jesse [Eisenberg] before we started production and each character has their own world that they live in. So Jesse’s world is, he’s a yellow belt and Imogen is a brown belt and Alessandro [Nivola] is a black belt. And I actually had one day to work with Alessandro to teach him with no dance experience, no martial arts experience whatsoever, how to be a black belt and that’s from bowing to the whole world of martial arts that Riley wanted us to play in. And so with Jesse, I started off with teaching him basics and basically he was only supposed to be a yellow belt, so his curriculum and his movements are very basic in terms of what a yellow belt, as a beginner level martial artist. And then Anna is a brown belt. So with that, gave them a crash course on martial arts and then I observed their movements and then after that had a day in LA to kind of create the fight scenes I wanted to do for them. But with training them for that week, I have them not only for the martial arts movement but also for the actual fight scenes and gags that they’d be doing and their progression throughout the film.

LRM Online: Was there something you had them train or maybe practice doing prior to meeting with them for that week?

Kelly: No. I met with them and we started from the top, and that was it. Basically the film, it happened very, very quickly. Once Jesse signed on, we were filming in two months.

LRM Online: Oh, wow.

Kelly: So I had one week to train them and then taught them the fight scenes when I got to Kentucky. And then the same with Alessandro. So it happened very, very quickly. Most action films, they have like six months of prep and working with actors and stunt performers. So yeah, it happened very, very quickly, and they are top level actors that just absorbed and we got lucky.

LRM Online: Yeah. But still, I mean this is out of their comfort zone, the physical part. Right?

Kelly: They killed it. I mean Jesse was a gem to work with and I mean all of them were. And Immy, she knew the importance of what her character and she what she was supposed to do. So my favorite part of being on set is when we’re shooting out her scene, we had a stunt double come in and block it twice with Thomas and then Immy came in, Immy was basically my secret weapon. And when she did the scene and the whole entire crew was just like, their mouths dropped and that’s when I knew like we had magic.

LRM Online: Which scene was this?

Kelly: Imogen’s fight scene against Thomas.

LRM Online: Oh okay. Yeah, I mean she was pretty awesome.

Kelly: She was fierce. Like when the stunt double blocked it, everybody was like, whoa. And then I was just sitting there almost like a boxing coach on the side, like “I have my secret weapon and that’s coming in hot.” And then Immy came in and everybody just couldn’t even say anything. They were like (Gasps) . And I was just like, yeah that’s my girl.

LRM Online: Proud moment for you.

Kelly: Very much so. So with the limited restrictions of teaching them, they all gave it 110% and I think that, I mean Riley set the tone for the whole film with trusting me and trusting everybody and that bled through with us all wanting to make the best art that we could possibly make.

LRM Online: So for the other people that were there, for the scenes where everyone’s in line or those extras, are they actually familiar with karate or were they just extras that were just picked up?

Kelly: So some of the cast like Steve Terada is a world champion martial artist and he played Thomas and some of the other, Philip is also a martial artist who worked with the actor that was with Jesse. But yeah, Philip had a martial arts background and Steve Terada. And then even, so the lone cop for the cop scene …

He’s also a world champion martial artist that was casted, cause I stunt coordinated the whole entire project, so I brought on all the talent for the motorcycles and for all the action scenes.

LRM Online: Oh this is an exciting film for those that are familiar with these people within this field then they’re familiar faces. I mean unfortunately for me I did not know cause I’m not familiar, but I mean that’s pretty awesome how you were able to gather these people to participate.

Kelly: Even Imogen’s fight double, she’s also a world champion martial artist as well. So it was really cool. And then like we had Mark Walberg’s stunt double who doubled Alessandro on the motorcycle stunts.

LRM Online: Oh, okay.

Kelly: So yeah, I was able to assemble a really solid stunt crew. But for me, I really wanted it to be, I never wanted you to feel like you were taken out from the action films by being like, oh this is the stunt double. Like I wanted to see Jesse face doing a jump front kick. I wanted to him by Alessandro so I feel like the imperfections is what makes storytelling interesting and I wanted to see each one of the character’s journey and never feel like you’re taken out by being like, oh that’s a stunt double.

LRM Online: You know what, I never knew at any point that I think there was a stunt double, so that’s really awesome. I didn’t even think when it came to the bike riders until I was reading the credits, I was like, oh there’s also like the bike stunt people. Like I didn’t realize that.

Kelly: Good. Then I did my job.

LRM Online: You did!

Kelly: But then Steve Terada actually, he did ride a motorcycle and he’s the one who rides and then punches Jesse in the back of the head at the beginning of the scene. So that’s Thomas who fights Imogen. So he acted and he also did all of his own stuff.

LRM Online: Oh yes, because we see the video later on in the scene.

Kelly: Yeah, so that’s him.

LRM Online: Again, that’s an awesome job. Cause like I said, it didn’t ever cross my mind. I was just like, wow, they did really good. They look like they’re really on this karate world. It never crossed my mind that they were actual stunt doubles.

Kelly: Good. I mean there were stunt doubles but mostly I had the stunt doubles there for blocking and to work with. But mostly they came out for just like when we were filling out those scenes. But mostly it was the actors that did everything. So like for Anna’s fight, we had the stunt double run the fight from start to finish with Thomas twice. And then Immy came in and then did the fight scene. And then basically Jesse, I mean Jesse, yeah he did pretty much everything. You can see it cause it’s his face. And same with Alessandro and Immy as well. Like we had the stunt double there for blocking and for safety and to just set out the scenes for blocking. But yeah, like I said, my favorite part was when Immy came after the stunt double did it twice and then the whole entire crew was in awe when they saw Immy come in and perform.

LRM Online: I see. So I’m going to ask you a question, I don’t know if it might be a dumb question, but as a stunt double or fight choreographer, how do you get into these projects? I mean, as talent, you pretty much have to do castings and so forth. As a stunt choreographer or fight choreographer, how do you get involved in these projects?

Kelly: I have been stunt coordinating for about a decade now almost. So as a stunt coordinator, I hire, well most films you’d have a stunt coordinator, you’d have a fight choreographer, you would have an assistant fight choreographer, and you’d have a stunt team. I played the role of all of, I was the whole stunt department in this film.

So stunt coordinator would hire the fight choreographer, which then would also hire the talent required to double the actors, and I did that. And then also I choreographed got the fight scenes and taught the actors martial arts.

LRM Online: Wow, that’s a full responsibility you have there.

Kelly: Yeah, but like I said the film happened very fast and so coming from doing music videos, I learned how to move quickly and also learned how to work with talent first, cause on music videos it’s always the talent that’s on camera and it’s not the stunt doubles. But because I have come from being a performer and also being coordinator, I know how to work and communicate with actors and also help make the director’s vision come to life and that was my most important job was to make Riley’s vision come to life.

LRM Online: Right. So to kind of finalize, I mean you’ve covered major features. I mean you covered Alita and The Dark Knight Rises, which are huge.

Kelly: I did the development stuff for Alita, so I did from 2012 to 2015 all the development stages and then the actual pre-viz test that they pitched to get the movie green lit. I didn’t actually work as a stunt double or on the physical direction because I wanted to stunt coordinate. So after that is when I decided to continue on with my career as a stunt coordinator and not just a stunt performer.

LRM Online: Gotcha. Well, thank you for clarifying. So what else do you have coming up after The Arts of Self-Defense? If you can share. If not, it’s fine.

Kelly: My whole life is the NDA, so good things are coming.

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