Continuing with our Ninja 2uesday look behind the scenes with the cast and crew of Ninja II, we were still scoping the jungle depths of stealth when we heard a commanding voice, someone responsible for the actions of all these Ninjas, director Isaac Florentine!
He’s the visionary behind putting some of the best action scenes ever to film, far surpassing in realism, excitement and punch the action attempted by Hollywood studios. He is also well known for endowing the characters in his movies with dramatic qualities and provides emotional hook points which help tell the story with a heightened participatory level of feeling, ultimately adding a richness that enhances the viewer’s pleasure while making it all the more enjoyable to watch.
With movies such as Undisputed II: Last Man Standing, Ninja, Undisputed III: Redemption and now Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear to his credit, we thought it would be a good idea to listen to the Ninjas’ boss and take notes!
Hi Isaac, if we could start off with a bit of background, that would kick things off nicely! How did you first get into the martial arts?
Hi Raj, good to speak to you! The first time I was exposed to it was at thirteen years old when I saw karate in the 1967 James Bond movie, You Only Live Twice. Later I saw pictures of a karate jumping side kick and I wanted to train in it. Later,I heard about Takayuki Kubota the Japanese master of karate who founded the Gosoku-ryu karate style. Anyway, eventually I convinced my parents to take me to a dojo, but I had to start with judo, karate was too dangerous!
Who would you say actually inspired you to train then?
Bruce Lee! My first goal was to become a blackbelt which took eight years. Then I got into teaching and opening my own dojo in Tel Aviv, Israel. I also became chief instructor for twelve dojos. I wanted to learn cinema as I wanted to do action movies. Soon I came to the attention of Sam Firstenberg (who directed all those popular 80’s ninja movies) after I made an award-winning short film in Israel.
Who were your main teachers when you started out?
There were the WKF instructors, at the time and also I learned from Soke Tamas Weber in Sweden, founder of Sanshinkan Karate.
What different styles were you involved in from the beginning to now?
Mainly karate, Krav Maga and Muay Thai.
Who would you say are the top martial artists that have influenced you the most?
I’d say Tamas Weber (who has been my sensei for 39 years so far), Don Warner (Canadian Champion), Fumio Demura, Takayuki Kubota, Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez. They understand the mechanics behind the stance, you also learn that there is not just one way, every way is a good way.
Ninja II marks your sixth collaboration with Scott Adkins, how did the two of you first meet?
Well we used to get tons of VHS samplers from people attempting to get into movies, either decent martial artists with no acting ability, or vice versa. At a certain point you get tired, you can’t watch anymore! Don Warner my colleague at Rising Sun Productions said, “Isaac, watch this VHS video, put it on!”. I kept refusing but he kept insisting that I see it, I finally acquiesced to see what the fuss was about and there were short movies of Scott. I noticed he had a good presence, physique and could move with good kicks and all-round good martial arts, he could also do some quite stylish moves and could also act! I took the tape, dialled the number with it, and told Nu Image that we have a guest actor, for our movie Special Forces (2003) and to give Scott a role which worked out well.
What can you say about the style of action in Ninja II?
We did Japanize Scott’s style but only very little, not to the extent as with the first Ninja which had a bit too much fantasy. Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear is totally realistic, the story is much more realistic. It’s back to the old-school ways with this one, no wires, or CGI.
Kane Kosugi has proven to be a hidden gem of an actor and martial artist doing his own stunts too, your thoughts?
I have to say, Kane’s a real gentleman a rare combination of fantastic martial artist, talented actor and humility personified. He also speaks Japanese and English as he’s American born, I’d surely like to work with him again in the future.
We spoke with Jawed El Berni who played Lucas in the movie recently, what kind of fight did he have with Scott’s character Casey?
Actually he was one of the biggest surprises! I was at a bit of a loss at who to get for the part whilst in Thailand and then Jawed showed up and demonstrated his abilities. Right then and there I knew, he was perfect for the role, he’s a super nice guy too! In the movie, he has a ”friendly” sparring match in the dojo with Scott’s character which almost turns into a real fight after an uncontrolled hit causes an intense reaction.
You must get lots of scripts, what ingredients do you look for in a script, how do you decide what projects to take on?
I’m a gun for hire director. If the story holds, has heart and the character works, I’ll consider it.
Are there any martial arts styles you’re looking to showcase, or maybe a fusion of techniques never before put to a film?
Anything works as long as you adapt it to the screen, you’ve got to adapt it to the screen.
How does being a filmmaker and an action director specifically influence your experience as an audience member when seeing action and martial arts films? What are you looking for?
As a spectator I’m looking at story and character, as a director I’m looking at martial arts technique, if it was shot too close or too far, I’m aware of these things because I’m a huge fan of the genre. I’m also a huge fan of Spaghetti Westerns for example Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gun Down starring Tomas Milian.
Are there any upcoming new releases that you’re looking forward to see?
Yes, what comes to mind is Special ID (Donnie Yen) and there are a few others I’m sure.
Who are some of the ultimate warriors and fighters in your view?
In my view there’s no one like Bruce Lee, for his combination of charisma and simplicity! There are others to note like John Liu (with the tremendous elastic legs in Secret Rivals one and two also in Zen Kwun Do Strikes in Paris), Hwang Jang Lee (the Korean superkicker from Drunken Master and Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow) Yasuaki Kurata, (starred in Legend of a Fighter and Jet Li’s Fist Of Legend) and Gichin Funakoshi, the founder of Shotokan karate – one of the Okinawan karate masters who introduced karate into mainland Japan in 1922.
Could you reel off your favourite martial arts films for us?
Fist of Fury, Big Boss, Way of The Dragon, Enter The Dragon, Once Upon a Time in China parts one and two, Ong Bak, Drunken Master II, Above The Law, Drive, Ip Man.
You’ve mentioned before that the movie that influenced your life a lot was Fist of Fury [aka, The Chinese Connection] what was your favourite scene in that?
Bruce Lee fighting the Russian, played by Bob Baker.
What about women martial artists? Have you thought about a woman perhaps being a main character in a movie like Thai fight choreographer Panna Rittikrai (Tony Jaa’s mentor) did with Jeeja Yanin in Chocolate?
You know, in my view, there is no difference between it being a man or woman. For example, Bridgett Riley, the world kickboxing champion has been in touch with us. There’s no difference if it’s Angela Mao, or Cynthia Rothrock, when you’re that good, then, why not.
You’ve also worked with Gary Daniels, Dolph Lundgren, and Jean-Claude Van Damme, and of course many others, can you tell us a little about them?
Sure. Gary Daniels is a really nice guy, he’s down to earth with a great attitude, he loves the movies and is totally camera savvy! I met Dolph Lundgren in 1980, in Stockholm when he was a nightclub doorman, we had some connection due to our martial arts’ backgrounds and schools! I met Jean-Claude Van Damme, after a phone call with Sam Firstenberg, we talked and discussed a lot, JCVD, is fearless, and a great martial artist too.
Can you tell us one special training tip, mental or physical, that has worked well for you in your practice of karate?
Warm up well! If you don’t pay attention to warming-up and stretching you won’t reach your peak performance. Jump a little, stretch the neck and shoulders, then go onto do your wider stretches sitting on the ground.
You’ve been exposed to vast amount of martial arts knowledge, practice and wisdom, what advice can you give as regards to optimum nutrition?
Everything in moderation! I love Japanese food! From childhood I’ve had the ‘Mediterranean kitchen’ cuisine consisting of salads, vegetables and so on which is to eat light, chicken, sometimes red meat, not to exaggerate anything neither the ouzo or sake, I don’t really drink.
Have your kids taken up martial arts?
Yes, my son trained in Muay Thai, and my middle daughter is a 1st dan in karate.
Are they interested in the films you make and the genre?
(Laughs) They’re not obsessed by it, no!
What are you most thankful for personally/professionally so far?
Personally, health and family are the most important followed by my work and the fact that I’ve been able to move from one worthwhile project to another, which in turn helps me stay in the zone.
What are you really keen to accomplish in the next five years?
To continue to do what I do.
What do you like to do to relax, do you have any other hobbies?
Yes, I’ve been playing the guitar for many years. I also play the banjo while drinking a little coffee, it’s really relaxing, there is a Zen element to it, the mind is free to wander, I also like to read history books.
What advice would you give to a beginner who is considering taking up a martial art?
Find the right school, if you quit because you don’t find the right one, you can be discouraged from practicing for many years! Go to a few schools, see what it’s like. Check out the level of competence of the people there and what the instructor and his attention level is like. Do they make you work hard?
Which martial arts books or instructional/training manuals have impressed you over the years? Anything inspiring you like to read and recommend?
- Zen in the Martial Arts, by Joe Hyams, (who was a student of Bruce Lee).
- Karate: The Art of Empty-Hand Fighting by Nishiyama.
- Moving Zen: One Mans Journey to the Heart of Karate by C.W. Nicol.
Which warrior-wisdom quote would you like to share with us?
The ultimate goal of the art of karate is not victory or defeat but the perfection of the character of its participants.
Tell us a phrase keeps you motivated to train?
Karate, is like boiling water, it has to be kept simmering or it goes cold (i.e. you lose it).
What special message would you like to share with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your friends/fans around the world?
Glad you’re all friends of martial arts movies. You know it’s the greatest gift to carry your well-developed character cultivated through your chosen art, from young to old age, no one can take from it you. Thank you all for loving and appreciating this genre, our movies and for your support of Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear.
Thanks Isaac for giving us an inside look at what you do and what makes you tick, we can’t wait for more of the feedback for Ninja II from the multitude of fans who will be watching it with keen anticipation! We wish you all the best with all your upcoming movies, we’re excited to see what 2014 brings!
Thank you Raj, me too no doubt, we’ll be in touch.
In case you missed them, read our earlier interviews with Ninja II star Kane Kosugi, action choreographer Tim Man and action actor/martial artist Jawed El Berni.
Ninja II: Shadow of a Tear is released on the 31st of December
Great interview! I’m a big fan of Isaac Florentine’s work, everything he films turn out golden. I wish him success in all his upcoming film projects. God bless him and his family indeed. Bring on more action films!
I didn’t even realize it at the time, but many of the episodes of “Power Rangers” I watched as a child were directed by Isaac Florentine! That probably explains why I was such a big fan! A truly great interview with one of the best makers of martial arts films in the world!
In my opinion this amazing interview is an interesting example of an inspired life. I knew Florentine since I was 7 years old watching the irresistible and choreographic action scenes of “Power Rangers”. I think Isaac is one of the few martial artists that not only made a career out of his passion but also hones a unique style and philosophy of life.
Isacc Florentine is a classic example of a true martial artist: he has the inner strength and determination to achieve his goals. A black belt and a movie director?! But what struck me from the interview was Florentine’s love of classic kung fu movies and his need to keep his latest movie realistic; as he says: ‘no wires, or CGI.’
I enjoy watching Martial Art movies the action, drama and characters it all draws me in.
That is why Isaac movies are so entertaining.
I was pleased to see Florentine’s comments that there is not just one way; every way is a good way! My love of martial arts applies to all of them; I want to be knowledgeable in the cultural histories of all martial arts, so it’s good to see there is a filmmaker who is so open-minded.
A great insight by one of a small number of Non-Hong Kong action directors who can direct fight scenes. He really stands out from other directors in that he relishes in working with a low budget and absolutely refuses to follow the current trend of CGI obsessed action films.
Impressive interview and glad to read this on KFK, thank you. There are some words from Isaac that really inspired me a lot leading to some introspection and reflection on my self, the greatest gift we carry is a well-developed character cultivated through our chosen art, I will always remember this. Thanks for your generous sharing and advice. Ninja II: Shadow Of A Tear is a wonderful martial arts movie, I enjoyed it very much. Looking forwards to more from you!