Being genuine as a person, is a trait much more powerful than any physical skill. Add great flips, fights, and overall performance skills to that good vibe and you’ve got yourself a phenomenal stunt performer. In other words, you’ve got John Cihangir!
From days spent breakdancing to time spent hanging out with big names in the stunt world, John Cihangir has definitely evolved over the years. Nowadays, John can be seen working stunts in major productions such as DC’s “Doom Patrol”, “Suicide Squad”, “Netflix’s Ozark”, “Cobra Kai”, and many more.
In our interview, Kung Fu Kingdom readers get to delve into the mind of John Cihangir and learn his keys to a successful career in stunts be it in front of the camera, on a karate mat, or anywhere else life may happen to take you!
Greetings John, first of all, thank you so much for taking part in this interview! Let me ask you, what are your views briefly, on the name Kung Fu Kingdom?
You’re welcome Justin. I’d say Kung Fu Kingdom definitely rolls off the tongue. (Laughs) I can say it like, three times fast. As far as what I think it would entail without anyone telling me, it obviously sounds like a large martial arts resource to either learn martial arts or read up on it or the history of it.
Cool, that’s the idea, thank you! Let’s get right into the first question. So, how did you get into stunt work in the film industry?
Well I trained with a group of guys in New Orleans. Specifically, my friends Tony Vo, John Bernecker, and Joe Williams. I’ve trained with them since I was 17 years-old.
My background is in breakdancing and they had like an open gym and after I trained with them for a few years, I began to really understand what they were doing, which was stunt work. And so, when I was going to school, pursuing an engineering degree, I simultaneously trained with them on the weekends.
Got the Degree, but School Not for Me
As I went through my schooling, I realized how much it wasn’t for me, even though I went and got the degree. I made the decision to switch from that to stunt work, just from training with them for so long and understanding what it entailed and just seeing how I could get into it and what I could bring to the table. They were my first insight into what it was ’cause I didn’t have any idea what it was even the first couple of years knowing them. I just knew they did stunts.
I was like “They do stunts for shows and live shows. Alright, they just jump around.” But then I realized what it was really all about and I thought, “oh, wow, that seems like something much more interesting than what I’m doing right now.” (Laughs)
The Outstanding Influence of Hiro Koda & Jahnel Curfman
Awesome. That seems to be the general outline—or plan, I guess you could say—for stuntmen. They kind of stumble into it in the most interesting of ways. That’s really fascinating. With that said, do you have a favorite or standout memory from your work in stunts?
There’s a good bit. One specifically—I’ll probably say this until I die, just because he was a really big influence for me, him and his wife; Hiro Koda and Jahnel Curfman. When I first started working for them, I saw a different side of the stunt world—than just the film world in general—because the nature of the industry brings out certain aspects of people that are not necessarily genuine. And, you know, people are trying to get jobs, rightfully so. Everyone wants to work.
I started working for them and it was unlike anything that I’d ever experienced as far as being in the industry goes and I had only been going at it hard for about two years when I met them.
If you look at their track record, they’ve done so much. They’re almost like young legends in the game already. They’re two coordinators. Jahnel Curfman doubles for Ruby Roundhouse on Jumanji, for example, and Hiro Koda does everything—and he was a Power Ranger when he was younger, you know, things like that!
Leave Your Ego at the Door: Humility & Respect are Keys to Success in the Stunt World
Hiro Koda did all this crazy stuff and, me as a young guy coming in, well they didn’t really know who I was at all but they still treated me, and everybody else, as equals. They’re very humble and respectful.
That’s begun to be one of my favorite things, meeting people who are just very bad ass in a particular skill set, or the best in the world at this or that, they have a lot to brag about but they still remain humble and down to earth and you can just have a normal conversation with them.
So thanks to them [Koda and Curfman], I have a good outlook on the industry and people in general. I owe a lot to them and enjoy being around them.
So, not just good moves, but embody the character. Hearing that is pretty phenomenal and that’s a really good tip. With almost any profession, you must be able to temper ego with humility and keep a good and consistent character.
Movies: Working on Netflix’s “Ozark”, “Cobra Kai” & “Doom Patrol”…
So, can you describe your roles and the type of stunts you did for well known shows and films such as Netflix’s “Ozark”, “Cobra Kai” and “Doom Patrol”?
I had the chance to play a small part in a couple of scenes. I was a headless body being pulled out of a car, and a gunman in the church shootout. I really enjoyed the time I got to spend on this set because it was fascinating watching Jason Bateman direct. He’s quite intelligent and I learned a fair amount just by paying attention to him work.
This is by far the most fun I’ve had working as a stuntman. The stunt team, atmosphere, and show itself are phenomenal. I was insanely lucky with this one. I’m one of the stunt Cobra Kai kids, so I get to fight, fall, and show no mercy!
I’ve been a part of Seasons 2 and 3. I can’t say anything about Season 3, but the big-school fight scene in Season 2, Episode 10 is one of my favorite jobs to this day, with an intense week of rehearsals and shooting. Every time they yelled “action”, the energy felt like a real school fight and we had an absolute blast with it!
I was a small part of this one, but the job was quite a big deal for me. I had performed one of the most dangerous stunts of my career. Other stunt performers and I were in fully enclosed head prosthetics for twelve to thirteen hours before it was our time on camera.
We were robot operators working on big machinery, when a spirit comes through and wipes us all out. The coordinator told me what my position was, and I would choose the way in which I would perform the stunt.
I ended up jumping off a step ladder, over a railing, chipping off a metal cabinet from my back, then hitting the floor, all without a wire. I could’ve chosen something a bit less dramatic, but I was eager to show what I could bring to the table. I think it was a six or seven foot drop and I performed it about four times. It was a pivotal day for me and I’m still very grateful for that particular opportunity.
John’s Take: What Makes a Fight Scene Look Good?
Fascinating stuff. So let’s look into fighting for a second. What do you feel makes a fight scene look good?
Being able to see it! (Both laugh) Oh, my God. I think it’s kind of a common understanding or agreement that if you can’t—as far as stunt performers, you’ll hear everyone who’s working on a film say, “Oh, yeah, I can’t wait to see what they put in the movie!”
Then, when it comes to the movie, you’ll see they’re cutting every half second. You only see a hand flying and then you see someone land on the ground. A good example of a good fight to me would be “Kingsman”. It’s shot wide and it’s steady.
The Impact of Jackie Chan
Also in Jackie Chan’s work. You see everything. It’s not cutting too quick. Your eye is digesting the action of what’s going on. So, relatively steady and wide camerawork is important, nothing predominantly close up, shaky and cutting too quickly.
You can play with all your angles and stuff but as long as you can see the fight and have time to understand what each person is doing, I think that alone helps the audience understand what’s happening in their head.
As far as skill wise, it obviously depends on the fight; whether it’s a bar fight where it has to be messier or it’s an assassin-type fight where they have to be smooth and stealthy.
No matter what the fight is, I personally really enjoy fights that flow very well, fights where it makes sense and isn’t too forced. Basically, where you can see that the people are moving effortlessly through it, as if it was natural. That of course all depends on the performer.
Finally, the acting of the stunt performer helps the fight scene. A small ten to fifteen second story that I’ll share is that I didn’t necessarily know the importance of performing—meaning my facial expressions and actually acting in stunts—until I was on a show. One of my friends says, “Hey man, we gotta make this dirtier. This is ‘this’ kind of fight. We should be doing something different!” He made me think, “Yeah, you’re right.”.
So we came up with this idea and made it dirtier and then it finally went to the internet after it came out and people were commenting, saying, “oh, this fight looks so good! These guys were really going at it. Yadda, yadda, yadda.”
It’s kind of funny that it was one specific moment when my friend said, “Hey, it’s not that dirty. We’ve gotta perform better.” Then we were yelling and cursing at each other in the scene. And afterwards, they yell “cut!” and we’re saying “Yo, you alright? You alright?” It’s things like that. It’s the authenticity without the actual getting hurt aspect of fighting.
Studying “Kingsman” & “Atomic Blonde”
On that note, what are some films that most impressed you in terms of their stunt work or fight choreography?
Just speaking from personal taste again, Kingsman definitely highlights their choreography well with the camera. They do a lot of VFX and stitching into oners (single-shot scenes), but I think that’s a really good thing to veer into as far as the film industry goes. I think we need more of that, it’s just a breath of fresh air. If I had to give another example of a movie that I really liked, I’ll just pull from history: Jackie Chan’s movies.
If you watch any of his fight scenes, you’ll see the difference between them and a fight scene that’s cutting really quick and you can’t really see much and then someone just ends up dead on the ground. You’ll see Jackie flipping over chairs in a room and kicking people’s butt and stuff like that.
He paints a better picture. When you can see everything, the movie digests better in your head. Look at “Atomic Blonde” as well. It’s something everyone will probably know. Just Google “Atomic Blonde stair fight scene”, and you’ll see what I’m talking about. It’s just phenomenal fight choreography, camera work and performance rolled into one.
Future Goals: Stunts, Films & Business
Definitely agree. We’ve seen those films and they have stand out, highly-impressionable fight scenes that linger in your mind. Looking to the future, what upcoming projects or goals do you have in the pipeline?
Yes true! So as far as personal goals, I do have a few goals outside of stunts where I just want to basically expand my skill set as far as my finances, meaning that I don’t necessarily want stunts to be the only thing that I live off of, it’s not. I do enjoy math, money, numbers, stuff like that and just like creating a good life for the people around me.
I have aspirations in real estate and business and stuff like that but as of right now, while I’m young and while the momentum is going, stunt work is my focus for now. I really enjoy stunts; performing, fighting, falling/hitting the ground, wires, I enjoy all of that, but I equally enjoy being behind the camera and editing.
So, I do have some rather big goals behind the camera in the next few years in the film industry showing people what I can do as far as my creativity and ability to acquire skills in a short amount of time go.
When I came into the stunt world, I didn’t necessarily have anything [skill-wise] behind the camera. I would edit breakdancing videos of me when I was younger and that was about all the experience I had. But now I do VFX, sound design, I shoot my video shorts, and stuff like that.
I have a few action shorts that I’m gonna be putting together to show my skills behind the camera in the editing room and what’s going on as far as the creativity in my head. So that’s why I make those kinds of videos and I have a few more in-depth ones, more so than I’ve done in the past, lined up.
John’s Motivational Secrets
Nice! We can’t wait to see some of those, and best of luck with your other goals, outside the stunt realm as well. So to get to this point in your life now, what warrior wisdom quote or philosophy has helped shape you into who you are today? What advice has stuck with you?
Yes! I’ll say what it is and then, explain why. It’s a generic quote, which I came across in a few books and it’s stuck with me ever since, “I think therefore I am“.
Basically it just spawns from the other quotation, “He who thinks he can and he who thinks he can’t are both usually right.” Meaning, if you tell yourself you can do something, you can most likely do it over time with resilience and just not giving up. If you tell yourself you can’t do something, you just never try, so therefore you aren’t doing it and so you won’t be able to do it.
The Book: Think and Grow Rich & Tony Robbins
I went through a phase where I was reading books like “Think and Grow Rich” and books about highly successful people like Tony Robbins. That was when I was making the transition from college to stunts because I needed something to keep my mind busy. You know, I just gave up an engineering job to come do stunts. My parents didn’t know what it was, and were like, “you’re crazy!”, so I needed material to keep my head above water mentally.
It’s All About What & How You Think
When I was reading those books, you kind of begin to think like really successful people. I think the main one is, “I think therefore I am”, meaning the way you think means everything. It’s not a college degree. It’s not necessarily who you know, even though people can help you get where you want to get. It’s not who you know, it’s how you think and that attracts everything into your life.
It might seem a weird way of thinking, but if I explain it more, it might make sense. You see those books formulated a new thought process for me. I wasn’t thinking ‘college is everything’. I was thinking, “OK, if I bring value to people, if I do this, if I do that, if I help people and make people’s lives better, if I act like this, if I treat people like this, things will happen for me”. So that’s kind of where it spawned from.
John’s Message to Kung Fu Kingdom Followers and Aspiring Action Film & Stunt People
That’s a sign of self-awareness, nice answer. Alright, as we start to wrap up, what special message you would like to share with Kung Fu Kingdom readers, especially those interested in getting into action and martial arts films and the world of stunts?
As far as getting into the world of stunts, if you ask each stuntman, they’ll tell you different things that are about the same thing. It happens differently for everybody, but for me personally, it was just—and this is without sounding conceited—I think it just comes from the confidence I’ve had to build within myself.
It’s just, work hard, look at the people who are accomplishing what you want to accomplish, embody what they’re doing, basically seek what they sought, and just keep whacking at it, over and over and over…
Tell Yourself it will Happen if You Don’t Give Up!
If you really want it, if it’s not something you just want to dabble in, it will happen for you. It’s about maintaining that confidence. As you train, you’ve just got to tell yourself—or as you get better, skill wise, at literally almost whatever you do—”I’m gonna get there eventually. It has to happen if I don’t give up!”
If you look at all successful people, that’s literally all it is. It’s that simple, but the path can lead off into many different routes highlighting what they had to learn. So basically, if you really want it, it’s going to be enjoyable, then you’ll stick with the process. It’s that simple.
You’re going to meet the right people. You’re also going to meet the not-so-right people and you’ll know who not to meet and who not to be around.
But you do need people to help you get to your goals. You do need to treat those around you well. You do need mentors. You do need people to look up to, people who you can—basically model; do what they’re doing and add your own little twist. You know, you’re going to get there eventually, it’s statistically going to work out for you. (Laughs) Just don’t give up and I swear to God, it will happen!
Wise words John, sound advice. Thank you so much for taking part in this interview, we wish you the best of success in what you’re aspiring to achieve in 2020, despite the challenges.
Thank you Justin, and great connecting with you guys at Kung Fu Kingdom!