If single-take action scenes are hard to pull off, imagine how much more challenging making an entire movie in one shot is? In both cases, plenty of people in the film industry have risen to the occasion, whether in amazing one-shot action scenes in “Daredevil” or “Creed”, or movies that proudly forsook camera cutting like “1917” and “Crazy Samurai Musashi”. Enter director James Nunn, with his upcoming action movie, “One Shot”.
The movie marks James’ third with the great Scott Adkins, following “Green Street 3: Never Back Down” and “Eliminators”.
Co-starring Ryan Phillippe and Ashley Greene, “One Shot” focuses on a group of Navy SEALs on a mission to transport a detainee, and have to fight their way past the inmates of an island prison.
A one-shot action movie in the claustrophobic walls of a prison full of killers and maniacs are tough enough waters to navigate without having to abide by film set safety protocols during a pandemic. Fortunately, James and Scott are always on their A-game, with renown fight choreographer Tim Man also onboard, so you know the action is going to be first class!
Today, James sits down with KFK to share an extended peek behind the curtain on the making of “One Shot” which is set to be released this fall, along with his insights on his and Scott’s past work in “Green Street 3” and “Eliminators”, and some of his work on creature features, including his upcoming shark movie “Jetski”!
Hi James, welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom! It’s great to connect with you. How have you been holding up during the lockdown?
Hi Brad, I’m doing well, thanks. I’ve been quite lucky to find a way to shoot during the pandemic, and get two movies under my belt with “One Shot” and “Jetski”, although now, post-production on them both has just been mashed together. (Laughs)
James Decided to be a Film Director Aged 9
Awesome! Well, let’s go ahead and start with how you first got started as a director – who are your main influences?
Well, I saw “Jurassic Park” when I was 9 and decided I wanted to be a film director, and then geared my education to towards that. I went to film school to study film and TV production, and I was at the right place at the right time when I landed a camera operating job, so when I came out of university, I had a really good credit.
When I went into looking for mainstream work, even though I was young, it got me through a lot of doors. I started doing first assistant directing, and you’re kind of on the managerial side of the director. The director has the creative vision, and you go and sort of facilitate that.
I’ve always been very technically minded as a filmmaker and always interested in working with the crews, new technologies, editing and stuff, so I just fell into first assistant directing on a lot of movies in a very short space of time up until I was about 25.
Influences include Steven Spielberg & Martin Scorsese
Then I was lucky enough to meet an investor who really liked me and I first AD’d a few movies for them, and they were like, “Well, James, we know you want to direct, have you got anything?” I’d worked with a writer named James Moran on a film called “Cockneys Vs Zombies”, and he had a script called “Tower Block”, and I said “Let’s do it.” So we did “Tower Block”, and it went very well. Lionsgate ended up buying it, and it ended up doing quite a few festivals around the world, and that’s actually where I met Scott Adkins.
I was at Fantastic Fest in 2012 for “Tower Block”, and I think he was there with “Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning”. I’d interviewed him for something about two or three months before that, but that was where we really hit it off. These festivals are where filmmakers are kind of encouraged to have dinner or go shooting guns together or stuff like that, so me and Scott went and shot some shotguns and just became friends. (Laughs)
Being an Assistant Director
That was also when Lionsgate came to me and said, “We’ve got this hooligan movie called ‘Green Street Hooligans: Underground’”, and the way it was pitched to me was that it was a reboot of the franchise. It wasn’t going to have a number 3, and they were trying to make “Hooligans meets MMA”. And I said, “Well, I don’t want to do a number 3, but I’ll do an original”, and filmed it thinking it was going to be a rebranding of “Green Street”. Then when it came to release, Lionsgate were just like, “Hey, you know what, we’re going to make way more money if we put a ‘3’ at the end of this!” (Both laugh.)
We made it for the price of a supercar, we barely had any money. I was just a kid at the time, and Scott had this wealth of Hollywood experience, so that was really a big deal for me as director. The movie was received pretty well, it was sort of like a love letter to the 80’s for me where I tried to make all the “Rocky” movies in one. Then off the back of that, we did “Eliminators” for WWE, and they gave me more movies with “Marine 5” and “Marine 6”.
For influences, I’m a big fan of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Michael Mann, and David Fincher. I’d also love to make some dark thrillers, but I fell into a world of action that I find irresistible and fun.
Working on Survival Horror Movies: 47 Meters Down
Totally relate! You’ve also done some second unit director work on films like the “47 Meters Down” survival horror movies. What are some of the differences between being second unit director versus the main director?
Well, it all comes down to circumstance and trying to make the right career steps. My dream is to make one of these big Hollywood movies like “Jurassic World” or a Marvel movie. Thing about the industry is if you direct a movie with a number in the title, especially a 5 or a 6, you sort of sit more in the home entertainment market, and it’s hard to break that.
I’m less pretentious and less snobby, but alongside trying to have fun and make fun movies and do what I love, I also think about, “How do I get to the next step?” Second unit directing is something that’s kind of easy for me to walk into on a short contract, especially if it feels like it’s going to be on a big movie, because then I’m sort of getting two goes at the mill. I’m able to put a year of my life into one of my movies, but then I’m equally able to just step in for a month when another director (who’s often a friend) wants help with a movie.
Also, if I come out of it with a pretty good credit on a movie that performs pretty well, it works in my favor too. The “47 Meters Down” movies were a hell of a lot of fun to work on and I learned a great deal on them because it was such technical filmmaking. Together, they made over $120 million worldwide, so that’s a good thing to be attached to in the hopes getting my own big $50 million movie.
Since I did those movies as second unit director, a guy came to me with a script for another shark movie called “Jetski”, and was like “Hey, you know how to do a shark movie, do you want to do your own?” and I said “Yeah, hell yeah, I’ll do my own!” So it was kind of a stepping stone towards doing that and doing something a bit different with a creature movie.
Even “One Shot”, has got a lot of fighting and action in it because it’s a military movie, but it’s also a very, very different movie to what you’re probably expecting. I hope people are going to watch it and go, “Wow! We’ve never seen Scott do this before!”
A Look Back at “Green Street 3”
Cool! Well, going back in time with Scott a bit now, what can you share about making your first movie with him, “Green Street 3”? Were there any injuries or mishaps in the movie’s pretty harsh and chaotic fights?
Actually, in England the football hooligan genre does very well. It’s almost its own subgenre that does very well on DVD, especially ten years ago. As a first assistant director, I’d actually made about three of these movies where I’d be barking at a hundred men in a football stadium to fight each other. So it was something that I’d done, and when Lionsgate came to me with the project, they said, “We want it to be hooligans, and we know you know how to do that, but we also want it to be like UFC.”
The Mighty Ducks + Hooligans x Rocky…
I actually remember saying to my producer – this is definitely an exclusive – “What do you want this movie to be like?”, and his answer was “I want it to be like ‘The Mighty Ducks’ but with hooligans”. So I was like, “Okay, so I’m making like this underdog squad good at fighting and I’m going to do it to my favorite fight movie background”, which is the 80’s Stallone “Rocky” movies.
I was a big fan of the movie “Drive” at the time, with Ryan Gosling, so I was very inspired to make “Drive”, as a hooligans and an 80’s fight movie, and I guess with a through line of “Mighty Ducks”! (Both laugh). It actually did really well, it was like the best-selling, straight-to-DVD movie in England that year, which I’m quite proud of. I was kind of annoyed that they changed the name of it and that it didn’t get the big push like we wanted it to get, but we were able to get Scott on. And because we got Scott on, -Scott and Joey Ansah were good friends- so he came on, and he’s such a good mate.
We did have a few accidents on the movie. There was one with Spencer Wilding, who has since gone on to be in the Darth Vader suit in “Rogue One” and movies like “Guardians of the Galaxy”, he was the main villain, ‘Mason’. I think Scott might’ve broken one of his ribs, but they never told me because they didn’t want to stop fighting.
Fighters Amped-Up & Adrenaline-Jacked!
Spencer took this massive kick in the chest from Scott in the end fight sequence and you can see it, it’s in the movie. Then he carried on fighting for two or three more hours, and the next day, someone said, “You know you broke your rib last night?”, and he said “Nope.” We’re generally quite good at not having injuries, but you can’t help it sometimes, because these guys are just so keen to actually connect with each other. They’re so amped up, and when they come to watch the monitor with you, they’re so jacked with adrenaline that you’re worried you’re going to get beaten up!
Joey also did a huge amount of work in finding a lot of fighters for “Green Street”. There’s a lot of fighters in the movie, so I have to give him a lot of props for casting it up with a lot of fighters. To be honest, I keep using most of them every time I do a fighting movie. Quite a few of them were in “Marine 6”, and “One Shot”, so huge thanks to Joey for doing that.
WWE Stars are among the Hardest-working People
Joey knows his stuff! Looking ahead now, what are a couple of your most memorable experiences from making your second collaboration with Scott, “Eliminators”, and also with WWE star Stu Bennett!
Well, Scott and I were very keen to work together again, so that was great. I always knew Stu Bennett was going to be in it. What happens with WWE’s roster is you’re obviously doing shows every other night, so you’re really, really busy. I have massive respect for WWE stars because they’re some of the hardest-working people I know. It’s not a surprise to me that The Rock is one of the biggest stars in the world.
It’s mad with the way they manage their schedule, and they’re also mega-humble people. They’ll literally get changed in a car park, as soon as they get off the plane, they’ll sign stuff and take pictures with people when any normal person would be like, “I’m kind of not in the mood man, can I just go to bed?”
They’re on it all the time and they’re so professional and lovely, and to be top tier WWE, you really have to be this certain type of person. And that was the case with Stu Bennett. I think he was suffering from a five-month injury at the time, so he still did appearances and commentator stuff, but he was off the roster.
But WWE were like, “Well, we’ve got a couple of wrestlers who are injured, but they could probably be in a movie, because they get a bit of downtime”, and they get to stay in one hotel room for a month, as opposed to being on the road every night. Stu had already been in “Dead Man Down” with Colin Farrell, and WWE thought it’d work with Stu being English and the movie being set in London.
I decided to make “Eliminators” as a kind of a cat-and-mouse “Taken” style movie, and I’m also going to show as many landmarks and skylines as I can to show it’s in London. Because of my background as a first AD making very low budget movies, I knew these cheap shots in London that had these incredible views and vistas.
“Eliminators” is not an expensive film, and the amount we achieved versus what we had is actually crazy good. There are times where we were filming one way, and if you look behind me, there’s dead fish and a dump! (Both laugh)
On Tim Man as Fight Choreographer
Scott had been working with Tim Man for years, and he really wanted him for the fight choreography for “Eliminators”. I’d never met Tim at the time, but we had a phone call and he was into it. As a director, you brief Tim with the script and what you want, and he’ll go and film it at his gym at home with some guys, make it look amazing, and then that gets sent to the cast so they can start rehearsing at home, and then we have about a week of rehearsals before we start.
I’ll usually have two cameras, and Tim knows exactly how he wants to shoot it, and I’ll put in my camera and get the other angle, then between it, you end up with everything. He’s kind of done a visual storyboard for me before I get it, and it’s a lovely way to work, because with low-budget filmmaking, you’re just not having the time you need. Some of the old kung fu movies they’d shoot for months, and you could afford to shoot one fight sequence in a month.
Time Limits? Give it to Scott and He’ll Just Go Beast Mode!
On “Eliminators”, for the two fights with Scott and Stu, I’m pretty sure I had a day for one of them and a day and half for the other, and you’re talking about two, 3½ -minute fight sequences. That’s where Scott really deserves more credit than he gets, as well, because you see all these masters from the Van Damme era who just had the time, then you tell Scott we’ve got a day, and he’ll just get into beast mode and do it. But if you gave Scott a week on just that one sequence, it would incredible, it would be the best thing you’ve ever seen.
“One Shot”: The Movie
No doubt! Looking now at your latest film which you’ve about wrapped post-production on, “One Shot”, please tell us how this came about?
“Eliminators” was the movie that gave me the idea for “One Shot”, and it’s just taken me six years to actually get it made. One thing I’ve been singing, and dancing about for years is Scott’s ability as an onscreen fighter, it’s like Fred Astaire with dancing. And his spatial awareness – you could be talking to him, and suddenly, he’d throw a high kick and you wouldn’t have even seen it and it didn’t hit you.
Also, sometimes on these movies, you’ll get pressure from above to shoot with multiple cameras because they’re like, “We want to be able to edit this if it’s s—, or we want to speed it up”, and with Scott, I’m thinking, “I’m shooting 100 shots with someone like Scott that I’m going to cut up, so why don’t I just shoot long takes where he’s doing it all because he can?”
I managed to do it on “Eliminators” with the fight in the cable car, and on the day I wrapped the movie, I went to pub to celebrate with some of the producers, and I said “You know what, guys? I need to do a one-shot movie where it’s just wall-to-wall. We follow Scott, almost like a computer game, and it’s like ‘The Raid’, but in one shot.” They loved it and asked for the pitch, and I said it was going to be on a prison island, so they asked me to go write it.
Krav Maga meets “Zero Dark Thirty”
So I wrote a treatment, and they liked it, but it was very comic-booky, and the reason was, I realize, was to excuse the level of violence, where it was a cannibal prison island. They also really liked it, and wanted to do it, but didn’t want it to be done in one shot, they wanted it to be a normal movie. And I was like “You’re missing the point. The point is to do it in one shot.”
So it just sort of fell onto a shelf for three or four years, and at that point, the company I pitched it to was starting to go down, so I asked if I could take the script back, and they gave it back. Then I went and pitched it to someone else and they were like, “I can’t believe you haven’t made this!” In the amount of time since it’d been sitting on the shelf, “Birdman” and “1917” had been made, and I could’ve been ahead of them!
But the good thing was that they’d proved that it could be done and that there was a thirst for it. The only problem was it was very comic-booky and they asked if we could do a serious version, so I did a rewrite, and it’s a lot more of a Krav Maga meets “Zero Dark Thirty” world. It’s definitely the best movie I’ve ever made. I’m so proud of it and can’t wait to get it out there!
Can’t wait to see it! So, how was the process of creating a movie that’s meant to look like one continuous shot?
I wanted to use as many true one-takes as possible, so the fights are all one-take and there are some long fights. There aren’t many hidden cuts, and I challenge you to see them, I’m sure many people will try to spot them (laughs).
[Watch out for those, everyone!] So, what are the most demanding or risky action scenes or moves that were performed for “One Shot”? Were there many injuries?
One of the actors pulled a hamstring when he had to carry another actor on his back for 5 minutes. In a normal movie, he probably wouldn’t have held him for that long, and they’re both 6’4” guys. It wasn’t really a big injury, but it did slow filming down because he had to sit out for an hour and stretch.
Scott Adkins & Lee Charles can Punch each other and not get Offended
I’m trying not to give too much away, but because of the long-take nature of it and there’s no hidden cuts, you actually have to kind of connect or be very close. Lee Charles and Scott have a fight in the movie – they know each other and have a lot of trust, and because of that, they’re able to literally punch each other and not be offended. (Both laugh)
So Scott and the people he’s fighting in the movie trust each other so much that, sure, they’re not trying to knock each other out, but if a connection happens, they keep going and they don’t stop, and because of that, it looks way more real.
Not that I’m encouraging them to beat each other up, but we’re doing it all in one shot, and I’m trying to be dynamic with the camera and do it from that side, and that side, and that side, they actually had to kind of go for it. I’m very thankful that Scott did and Jess Liaudin from the UFC did. He’s amazing in the movie, and I think he’s definitely going to have some kind of Hollywood presence in the next few years.
Making Movies during the Pandemic
Well, on that note, what were come of the challenges of filming “One Shot” during Covid?
Well, I’m very fortunate that I shot “Jetski” first, so I’d already shot a movie during the beginning of the pandemic. So I was already in the mindset of making it work with the safety protocols and keeping the insurance people happy.
The entire movie’s continuity is also one path because it’s one shot. We shot it in an old, derelict army base in England in the countryside, and we were able to just stay in these farmhouses in the middle of nowhere, and on the base there was no one coming in from the outside. So we were kind of in our own little bubble really, and then you have antigen tests every day, PCR tests every other day, and other tests, as and when required.
The producers did a really great job of managing all of that and all the crew had masks on, apart from actors and background extras. It’s not as fun because when you cover up someone’s face, you cover up so much emotion. The actors would come to me after takes, and I don’t think they could see if I was smiling or what, so I’d just have to pull it down to let them know I was! But the producers did a great job of keeping everyone safe, so it didn’t really affect us.
Working with Ashley Greene & Ryan Phillippe
That’s very fortunate, glad to hear it all went smoothly. On another topic, Scott will also appear alongside Ashley Greene and Ryan Phillippe in the movie, both of whom have Taekwondo backgrounds. Will they also get to demonstrate their martial arts in the film?
Yeah, they get involved as well. Ryan more so than Ashley does, but they both did great work. Ashley’s role is so technical as a CIA officer with all this information that needs to get out, and it’s similar to “Zero Dark Thirty”, and she has these scenes where she has to get all of this info, and this guy’s from here, and this guy’s from there – it’s difficult stuff and she’s just selling expositional every time – she was just such the right person for the job, I’m so grateful to have her in the movie.
Ryan was also great, he has the Taekwondo background as you said, and he did “Shooter” as well, so he comes with a lot of military knowledge as well. Even though we had military advisors on set, I don’t think he really needed them, because he played that character on “Shooter” for years, and he’s so well-versed in how to stand and speak and dress and hold a gun. He’s such a fun guy to work with, everyone got on really well, and I’m just dying to get people to see it, man!
“One Shot” Releases this Autumn/Fall in the UK & US
Well, per the recent announcement in Variety, “One Shot” will be released this fall. Is the holiday season the general timeframe for it?
Yeah, it’ll be out before the end of the year. I don’t know whether it’ll be October, November, or December, but I know it’s going to get a good release in the U.K. and the U.S. Buy it for yourself and your family for Christmas man!
If You like Fighting, Video Games, Military & Prison Flicks You’ll Love “One Shot”!
Great gift idea! So, how is filming action scenes different in a one-shot movie like “One Shot” compared to more typical action films? What is your favorite action scene and standout memory from the overall experience of making “One Shot”?
Well, there’s some incredible fights in it, and there’s a 5-6-minute gun battle where we’re in the middle of a battlefield. What I really hope for the movie is a wider appeal as it’s got Scott for the fight crowd; the computer-game crowd, because it’s got a one-shot perspective that’s very immersive; for the military fans it’s also a military movie, likewise for the prison-movie fans and one-shot movie fans who try to spot cuts!
So I really hope it finds all of those audiences and hopefully is enjoyed, and can do great things for Scott’s career, my career, and Tim’s career, because we want to get $50 million to do the big one. We really need the fans to support this one and push us over, because we want to do the long fights, man. We want to spend a month on Scott just punching some guy in the head!
James’ Upcoming Projects
Fascinating! Well, as we sign off James, what other projects do you have in the works after “One Shot” and “Jetski”?
It’s difficult to say, I’m spinning a few plates at the minute, and there are some exciting ones. It’s kind of a case of one of them needs a script polish, one of them we’re out to cast, and I also wrote a movie during the pandemic which I sold. I’m also hoping that “One Shot” and “Jetski” really attracts some of this bigger stuff in Hollywood to come my way.
One thing’s for sure, Scott and I talk every week and we’re certainly trying to find something together, but I don’t just want to do the same thing with him all the time. I want the $50 million Scott project, so I’m sort of actively working to try to get that, and hopefully, “One Shot” is a level to get us there.
Hopefully “One Shot” makes that happen! Well thank you James, it’s been a real pleasure to chat with you and we look forward to seeing “One Shot” very soon! All the very best with the rest of your upcoming action projects in 2021…
Thanks Brad, glad to share everything today with Kung Fu Kingdom!