Like many martial artists across the globe, Mindy Kelly began her training young, stepping into the dojo at the early age of four. By the time she was a teenager, she’d completely conquered the world of competitive martial arts and tricking. Mindy would soon take the next step, diving into the world of stunt work in the early 2000’s. Fast-forward to today, and “The Dark Knight Rises”, season one of “Daredevil”, “Transformers: Age of Extinction”, WB Games’ “Injustice 2”, and “Alita: Battle Angel” are among the many stunt and performance-capture assignments Mindy has lent her talents to.
Mindy’s latest project sees her as stunt coordinator and fight choreographer for “The Art of Self-Defense”. An unabashedly dark, deeply cerebral black comedy, the film gets right to the heart of the philosophical underpinnings of martial arts, while tasking Mindy with getting the film’s three leads – Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola, and Imogen Poots – into fighting shape for the film.
Fortunately, Mindy more the rose to the occasion, and with the combination of her action direction and the film’s razor-sharp screenplay, “The Art of Self-Defense” is a wickedly satirical deconstruction of the motivational factors that lead people to want to master martial arts.
Today, Mindy sits down with KFK to share a behind-the-scenes look at the making of “The Art of Self-Defense”, and the process of training a cast of newcomers for the film’s comedic yet hard-hitting fight sequences!
Hello Mindy, it’s great to connect with you, we hope you’re keeping well. Welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom and thanks so much for taking some time out to speak with us!
Hi Brad, I’m doing great, thanks for having me today!
Fantastic. Well, let’s kick off with your beginnings in martial arts, how did you first begin as a stunt performer?
I started training when I was four, and I competed in Karate and tricking a lot as a kid. I began in stunt work when I moved out to Los Angeles in 2004, and that was really my beginning in the film industry.
The Art of Self-Defense
Solid. So, what can you share about how you became involved with “The Art of Self-Defense”?
Well, I come from stunt coordinating a lot of music videos, and Riley (Stearns) had heard of me through the grapevine. Riley was actually looking for a woman to serve as the fight choreographer on the film, as he wanted to kind of balance out how male-dominated the film was (Laughs). So, that was how I came aboard “The Art of Self-Defense”.
I see. On that note, what can you share about the process of training the cast for the film? Did any of them have any previous martial arts experience, or were they all newcomers?
Training Jesse Eisenberg, Alessandro Nivola & Imogen Poots
Jesse, Alessandro, and Imogen all had no martial arts experience. Once Jesse had signed on, we had about two months until we started filming, which is a pretty quick turnaround, and I had about a week to train Jesse and Imogen.
With Jesse we basically trained him to be at the skill level of a yellow belt, but since Imogen was a brown belt, I had to take a completely different approach to training her for that level. Alessandro was the last one to join the cast, so I literally had about twenty-four hours to get him up to speed to play the Sensei, and one thing we did was base his “dialogue kata” that he does in the film on one of my creative forms I did when I was ten or twelve-years old.
I was really fortunate that he, Jesse, and Imogen were so committed to training as hard as they could for the film, and we also really benefitted from having Steve Terada, who is a world champion martial artist, as one of the high ranking students in Sensei’s dojo, as well. I also really wanted it to feel like we’re following each character’s journey, so we didn’t rely too much on doubling, and we wanted the imperfections of Jesse’s character’s movements to feel like you were watching his character progress in his journey.
The Art of Action-Construction
Indeed, and speaking of his character’s journey, how did the film’s deconstruction of martial arts and masculinity shape how the fight sequences for the film were designed?
Well, I really wanted to base the fights around what each character’s strength was, and also try to keep it grounded within a gritty reality. The director, Riley Stearns, has a background in Jiu Jitsu, and he wanted that to kind of be Imogen’s secret weapon for how she would beat up one up the guys. So, in the scene where she fights Steve Terada’s character, I wanted to base that as the idea for how she would get the upper hand.
Also, when Jesse has his fight with Sensei, the idea was that he was only supposed to be at the level of a yellow belt, but that he keeps trying to pull out more advanced techniques like a ridge-hand or a jumping front kick that he’s not supposed to be practicing yet.
And the idea was that Sensei would take offense at that, like “How dare you disobey Sensei?”, and he smacks him or uppercuts him as a way of trying to tell him to stay in his world as a yellow belt.
Sounds like a deep approach to the fight choreography. Was there a similar approach with the fight sequences that take place outside of the dojo?
Well, the way I was training Jesse was to show his progression, but for the fights outside of the dojo, we really wanted to utilize the location and surroundings as well. So for example, in the fight with the cop, I took a look at where we were filming and said “Hey, I’ve never seen someone get killed by a fire hydrant!”, so we brought that into the fight with the cop. Really, whenever you do a fight sequence, you look at the environment you’re in for the scene, and predicate the design of the fight around it, so that’s where the fire hydrant came into play.
That was a painful hit that guy took! So, Mindy, what are some of your upcoming projects?
I have a few things coming up, can’t say too much right now, but I’m really excited for people to see those when the time comes!
Definitely look forward to that! Thank you so much for your time today, Mindy. It’s been a real pleasure to speak with you and we wish you all the best of success with “The Art of Self-Defense”.
Thanks Brad, happy to share all my stories from the film with Kung Fu Kingdom.