Interview: 15 Minutes With SINNERS AND SAINTS Director William Kaufman
SINNERS AND SAINTS is one of the best action films I have seen in 2011, and it was an absolute pleasure for me to catch up with the film's director William Kaufman to talk about SINNERS, his new projects, and independent filmmaking.
What gave you the inspirations to make the film SINNERS AND SAINTS, and what made you choose New Orleans as its setting?
As you guessed from your review, I am a huge fan of what I would call the gritty action thriller directors of the 70's, 80's and 90's (think Peckinpah, Mann, Besson, Scott brothers etc...) and I desperately wanted to do something that echoed that style of storytelling.
As for the inspiration for SINNERS and why New Orleans, the truth is I have a personal connection to the city that goes back to my childhood. It is by far my favorite city in the South. I think it is one of the most unique places in the States. Everything about it, from its attitudes and accents, to its customs and architecture, is all so different from any place else in the world. It has an amazing mix of Spanish, Caribbean, Sicilian, Irish, African and Southern cultures all crammed together. Being beautiful and seeding; wonderful and dangerous, it is a perfect back drop for a hard core gritty action thriller.
So anyway, long story short, this script idea was a perfect opportunity for me to showcase both my love of the gritty "realistic" action genre and the Wild West atmosphere of post-Katrina New Orleans.
The gun battles in the film are beautifully choreographed. Where did you learn how to create great action scenes?
At an early age, I was quickly introduced to the reality that violence wasn't and isn't cool and exciting... It's a very scary, ugly and brutal thing. With that in mind, I felt that if I could get that reality across to my audience, I would be able to affect them on a much more effective level. This includes everything from the style of how the scene is filmed, to the use of really "authentic" but still cinematic sound design, to spending the time to train the actors to look as convincing as possible in their weapons-handling and tactics.
On SINNERS, I brought in one of the best tactical advisor out there, my good friend and a former Russian Special Forces operative, named Sonny Puzikus. Sonny went above and beyond to do all he could in the limited time he had to train the cast, and for that matter, train me on how to best portray the "story" of the action in the most realistic way possible.
Tell us about some of the challenges you faced in the making of SINNERS AND SAINTS.
Our greatest challenges on producing this film were the limitations of our VERY modest budget and the scope of the level of action in the film. For example, the special effects and stunts were almost 100% practical. I don't have anything against CGI, but I really prefer to use it to enhance practical effects rather than replace them. I think that way it adds a level of authenticity and dramatic effect that you don't get in many of the current CGI-driven movies.
Luckily, we had an incredible special effect coordinator, Brian Schuley, and an excellent stunt team led by Ron Balicki and Jeff Galpin that were willing to go out on a limb for me and do some really great work. Besides that, what really saved us was a cast that were so supportive of me personally and so committed to making the best film possible. Across the board, my cast all worked so hard and endured a lot of really rough conditions (putting it mildly) to make this film possible.
Johnny Strong gives a star-making performance here. How did you come to pick him to be the lead actor?
You will be hard pressed to find another actor out there who is going to be more dedicated or work harder than Johnny will. And to be quite frank, as far as I'm concerned, there is a very short list of actors working out there that have both the acting chops and physicality required to pull off the role of our title character, Detective Sean Riley.
As to how I found him, I'd been a fan of his music for years (he's amazing... check out his album "The War Of Art"), and had asked him for permission to use a few tracks on my first film THE PRODIGY. Shortly after that, I saw him in a great supporting role in Stallone's film GET CARTER. I knew when I met him that he acted but had no idea how good he was. I was really taken back by the fact that even though he was playing this really despicable character, I actually felt sympathy for him when the time came for him to pay for his sins.
The next day I looked up his resume and discovered he was also in BLACK HAWK DOWN, and I suddenly realized that he was "that guy", the actor that played the role of Medal of Honor winner and Delta commando, Randy Shughart. After re-watching his performance in the film, I sat there thinking to myself: this guy's got it all - the acting chops to carry the heart of our story, the physicality needed for the action elements of the role and a kind of charisma that I think rivals anyone working in Hollywood today.
And yes, it didn't hurt for this particular role that Johnny has certain skill sets that you just don't come across very often in Hollywood. He has a black belt in Jiu Jitsu, and is a top notch Mixed Martial Artist. Plus after spending eight months training with Delta operators in Morocco for BLACK HAWK DOWN, and going through Sonny's Spetsnaz Commando School for our film, he looks pretty damn legit with just about any weapon you can throw in his hands. So yeah, I feel very lucky to have had Johnny play this role.
So who are some of the other actors and actresses you really want to work with in the future?
I've had the opportunities to work with some pretty amazing guys already, but that said, I'd love to work with actors like Ed Harris, Daniel Graig, Denzel Washington, Daniel Day Lewis, Natalie Portman, Cate Blanchett... You know, Hugo, if you let me I could probably go on listing names all day!
Sure, there're just so many great actors and actresses around. Now, can you tell us something about the projects you have been working on since SINNERS AND SAINTS?
Since SINNERS, I've been hired to direct two more films: one for Sony called THE HIT LIST and more recently this summer, I did another action thriller for Anchor Bay shot in Romania called ONE IN THE CHAMBER, starring Cuba Gooding Jr. Up next is another personal pet project of mine that I'm super-excited about called STOLEN, an action thriller written by a great writer whom I know, Chad Law. It's set in Barcelona. Imagine TAKEN meets MAN ON FIRE, hopped up on steroids... If you dug SINNERS AND SAINTS, I guarantee you're going to love this.
Wow, sounds like more great action to look forward to! As an action director, I am interested to find out if you're only into action movies. So what are your favorite films?
Yeah, granted. I'm a diehard action film man but the truth is I love all kinds of stuff: from action films like THE WILD BUNCH, THE PROFESSIONAL, HEAT and MAN ON FIRE; to crime thrillers like SE7EN and TRUE ROMANCE; to comedies like RAISING ARIZONA and FARGO; to horror films like THE SHINING and THE THING. And I LOVE cool dark science fictions like BLADE RUNNER, ALIENS and TERMINATOR.
You mentioned the budget being one of the greatest challenges to you as an independent filmmaker. If say you get given an unlimited budget to make one film of your choice, what kind of film would it be?
Oh, I don't know... I love apocalyptic movies... Maybe something in the vein of a giant version of THE ROAD WARRIOR meets SINNERS AND SAINTS. That sounds pretty cool to me.
That sounds awesome! Finally, what advice would you give to aspiring filmmakers?
If this is really what you want to do, you need to chase it with everything you've got. Get out there and shoot as often as you can. In this day and age where you can go buy a Canon 5D and a Final Cut edit bay for $5k, there is no excuse not to have developed your own style and to have created a hell of a resume by the time you get ready to shoot your first feature film. Also get out there and work on as many productions as you can get on. Try and develop relationships with the department keys and ask a lot of questions and learn as much as you can.
And finally, remember that filmmaking isn't like most art forms - it is a collaborative effort. The best thing you can do is to surround yourself with a crew full of really smart, talented and driven people who will challenge you and help you grow into be the filmmaker you aspire to be.
SINNERS & SAINTS is available on DVD in Australia and New Zealand from Pinnacle Films, and will be released in the US in early January, 2012.