Tuesday 9 June 2020

[Interview] Going Undercover with Rising Action Star Saj Ali

British born actor and martial artist Saj Ali has become a staple of the independent short film circuit  with his own brand of high kicking high octane action. Having started training in martial arts a little later in life Saj's impressive and agile skills moved from dojo to celluloid in award winning short films. Though he has only featured in a handful of productions Saj continues to step up his persona and skills on film with his eyes set on the action star prize. 

Saj takes pride on his collaborations with other like minded performers and film makers, including David Cheung, and Lee Adamassie and all of whom met through the festival circuit. The films have a unique gritty feel with jaw dropping fight action that have won Saj and his collaborators various accolades around the world. Even in lockdown Saj never stops training and developing projects and we are pleased he has taken time out to speak to Cine Bijou.

As a kid we all liked watching martial art movies, you know, everyone liked Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee films. I actually started martial arts training quite late, about  24 or 25 years old and went to different martial art schools, gaining my black belt in freestyle kickboxing, also black belt in Shotokan Karate. From that point onward I started teaching as an assistant instructor, then as an official instructor, and have been teaching for two years. That's when it took off. I saw this ad on Facebook about a short film called ‘The Real Target’ it was written by David Cheung [who also directed along with George and Harry Kirby], and Yolanda Lynes I dropped him a message and things took off from there. 

So it was the real target that got you interested in making movies. In that film you play a character called Agent Blade and you get a fight scene of your own. You were given a real opportunity to showcase your presence and your fighting ability. How much of that choreography had your input and how much of it was down to the choreographer of the film?

David Cheung did the choreography and we shot the fight in this small room. David wanted me to showcase my kicking skills so that way, people can see what I can actually do. We had some different ideas on what to include. Some of the stuff we tried and we took out anything that didn’t suit the scene. We kept in the basic kicks but to a high standard as possible and the fight came out really well.

You look like you had a bit of fun with that you weren't just doing the fighting but playing a part for the first time. Did you have any acting classes before you took on the role?
No, I've never done any acting in my life. On set they showed me how to do a lot of the facial expressions and how to handle dialogues, which I'll be honest with you I was terrible at. I went through so many takes, you could see I was trying to do my best but then I'm not sure if people really liked my acting or not as. I've not really had any feedback from that yet. But I was mainly there for the action scenes, but since then I did get a best actor nomination so I think I'm improving with time.

Saj Ali - Action Reel

So let's talk about ‘Thirsty’ as that's quite an unusual film and you share a fight scene with another filmmaker Lee Admassie, and it’s one for which you're the producer as well. How did that come about?

 What happened was after I did ‘The Real Target  I was at the Fighting Spirit Film Festival Where I met Lee.  He had already made a film called ‘VSA’ with Jordan Rasta, and basically they asked me to play the main villain for a feature film. For various reasons that didn't happen but at the same time Lee was writing a script for ‘Thirsty’. He couldn't find the right person to work with on that film. Suddenly he asked “how would you feel about doing ‘Thirsty’ with me?” Well I was like, “yes sure no problem.”  He sent me the script, asked me to read through it and left him know if I liked it. He said he wanted to do a very long action scene and that he wanted me to do it with him. So from that point onwards, that's how it took place, we ended up meeting each other again for coffee and then we started rehearsals. It took quite a while, at least six months for the rehearsals and everything. 

We spoke previously about some of the issues  filming one of them being the location.

Yes. We were supposed to shoot where I live in Buckinghamshire and we shot there for about two or three days. First problem we had was that we couldn't get a car into the field, because there was a big slope, and the river of course, so we shot a little bit of the portion of the film there. With the action, as far as the team was concerned  we couldn't film it there because we had walkers regularly walking past into shots,dog walkers as well but the worst part was the weather; the whole week it was chucking it down with rain. We decided to look for another location this time in London, Battersea Park. The fighting took about five or six days to shoot.  

Obviously you're happy with the finished result.  How well was the film received?

Amazing. I mean, we were just happy the film got selected for the [Fighting Spirit] festival. That alone if it was just that we would have been happy, but then we won an award and we were shocked.. After winning one award, we started being nominated for one another award one after the other. We won over 10 awards for action choreography. So that's when we decided to do more films. This has really taken off with great feedback we got from people, including other film producers and directors. And then we got some messages, private messages from other people from all over saying,  ‘well done, the film was amazing, when can we see it?’ So we started sending them the links to the films to watch.

With action star Scott Adkins
David Cheung & Saj square off

Wow that’s great! So not only were you in the running and nominated for various awards you won various awards including action choreography. And was it that momentum that led you on to produce your latest film ‘Undercover? 
Yes definitely. I produced the whole film, starred in it and David Cheung was the director and writer. I had an idea in my head that I wanted to do an action with my own style of choreograph.  I approached David Chung for this film, gave him the idea for the story and he wrote the script. We put a team together for the film, and including the guy I have a fight with, his name is Alex (Alex Ermar). I'd never worked with him before but I’d seen a couple of his videos on YouTube, so I was more than happy to fight with him. I wanted to include different things in this film, to showcase some knife skills, shoot out, as well as martial arts. This time I included more Capoeira and gymnastics, back flips, that sort of thing. I really wanted to mix the fighting style up a bit so that way you've got a bit of everything, rather than just hand to hand. It was really exciting to work. 

Tell me a little bit more about the plot of the film, and the character that you play.

 I can’t say too much about the film except as there is a twist in the story but I play an undercover soldier. You really need to watch the film to find out for yourself, who is the good guy and who's the bad guy. There's three people involved in the story so you need to figure out for yourself who’s who. The story itself is quite simple, it’s not a complicated film you just have to work out what’s happening.

Saj with 'Thirsty' co-star Lee Admassie

So in terms of filming and working generally on the film, as the star, producer, what challenges did you, did the film present, making the film present to you and how did you overcome those challenges?

It was actually quite tough and it was a challenge for me because I hadn't done this type of film before it was very different, and a step up from ‘Thirsty’. The location, again, was a problem - we always have fun with locations.We were meant to shoot in the woods, but that didn't happen, so we have to move it to a warehouse. The type of moves that I had to do. I hadn't done them before. Normally we train and rehearse on mats, in a safe environment.which I am used to. The warehouse was a little less safe and some of the moves were hard to do like a back flip off the sofa for example. That was just made up on the spot on the day and I didn't know I was going to do that. We made up quite a few things on the spot to make it look real. 

Okay, so in terms of film fighting style I know you were influenced by Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. However when choreographing a fight or working on an action scene where do you draw your influences from because there's some solid ground fighting but there's a lot of acrobatics as well.

Obviously, we’re all inspired by Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee. Taking up  martial arts got me into this whole thing. When ‘Real Target’ came up I wanted to improve my skills more so I started doing gymnastics and more acrobatic stuff. This led me to do more films. People want to see your skills, it has to be more than basic action. The more you can do, the better it is for me and the audience.

So you’re always looking for ways to improve and evolve and try new things like you did with ‘Undercover’? 

That’s right there’s always room for improvement. You have to try new things.

As well as Shotokan Karate and Kickboxing (I noticed you do a little Capoeira in the film) do you include any other styles to add to your skill set?
Yes I actually do some Capoeira in the film. I’ve also learned a little Kung-Fu, Taekwondo, Wado Ryu Karate as well as Shotokan, most martial arts really. I like to experiment with different styles. 

'Undercover' starring Saj Ali

Speaking of different things, and challenges managing the dialogue, I would imagine as an actor was quite a step up. Are there plans to step up the action side of you as a performer?
There is a project I am working on I can’t say too much about but I've got more of an acting role as well as being the action director. of this. There will be more dialogue and action for me because yes I want to pursue more acting roles than only action.  I can do action obviously very easily, it's not a problem for me. I think it's something I want to improve on as well because I can’t do the action forever. It would be good to stretch myself as an actor.
In much the same way Scott Adkins is broadening his range more as an actor I suppose. So in terms of future projects then what else do you have planned, feature films maybe?
Well I don’t know if I’ve told you but I’ve done a couple of music videos with Lee (Admassie). I am definitely looking to do a feature film and hopefully we'll be shooting in different countries. I would like to play the bad guy more in a feature - I know I sort of played one in ‘The Real Target’ Lately I've been getting the good guy role playing an action hero, which I enjoy as well I don't mind that. I do think it's time to probably change and maybe do more bad guy roles. I actually wouldn't mind taking a break from action, just to try different things and see what more I can do.
Some filmmakers want to make it all about the action with less emphasis on story, plot and characters and some vice versa. What's really important for you in terms of the finished product? is it all about the action and the thrills  or are you looking to engage people with story and character whilst entertaining them with the action?
For me, when I first started making films, it was the action. When I moved on to ‘Thirsty’ and ‘Undercover’  it can’t be solely the action you've got to have a good story. If you've got great action but the story’s not that good and then the action doesn't look so good. They both have to fit but you can’t just concentrate on action. I mean It'd be nice,  because at the moment I'm getting praise from people saying how great the action is in my films; that's a great feeling but I don't want to carry only doing action, as I said before I want to move on and do other roles as well. 
Interesting. Right now you’re a player in the independent film market making yourself known and getting recognised for your work. If Hollywood's come calling one day would you answer the call , or is Indie film better suited to the kind of work you’re doing?
Well everyone starts somewhere. I am starting out with independent films and I am getting recognition for my work, so that's a good start. However, if someone said, “would you be interested in doing a Hollywood film?” I wouldn’t say no and I would take that job but you can start improving what you’re making as an independent filmmaker first then set yourself a benchmark. From that point on, then you can start thinking about doing other things. For now I think we're quite happy what we're doing here. We've got a nice little British community for film-making, everyone's involved,  it’s fun,  get to meet each other, meet new people and we learn from each other.

Looking ahead then, obviously  your career today you stumbled on quite by chance and now you've got a taste for it you've got a passion for it. Looking ahead, where would you like to be in five years time with your film-making?

I've always been a big fan of Bollywood films, and would  love to be in a Bollywood film. If someone came up to me right now and offered me a  role in Bollywood that would be great. I don't think I'll get there yet, it's very hard to get to Bollywood anyway. For now I'm happy doing British films. 

In terms of inspiration definitely Vidyut Jammwal he's the main one for me. The first film he made was ‘Commando’. He hasn't been in the industry that long. He's a self made actor, with no training and no acting skills. He came to Bollywood with all his Kalari [Indian martial art Kalaripayattu] skills, and now he's killing it,  he's become a real commodity. I'd like to be someone like him and I think people can get inspiration  from someone like him because he is self made. Tiger [Tiger Shroff] has some amazing game too. He and Vidyut have similar fighting styles. Tiger is more of a gymnast, he’s very flexible and like me does a lot of acrobatic moves in his films. Vidyut Jammwal does the same thing but with more stunts. Yes I would love to be as successful as these guys. 

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