Joey Ansah Has Strong Feelings About Street Fighter Characters, and That’s What Makes Assassin’s Fist So Great

Unlike my strong feelings about video games, which just lead to me playing too many video games.

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Joey Ansah, co-writer, director, and star of Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist, has very strong feelings about the way licensed video game movies are handled, and it really shows through in Assassin’s Fist. The series deals with the origins of Ryu, Ken, their master, and Akuma, and instead of shying away from taking these characters seriously, it uses characterization to drive the action.

Ansah is certainly a Street Fighter fan, but do not mistake this for a fan film. This production underwent huge fundraising efforts, and everything has been licensed officially from Capcom to get the series done right. While the story is broken up into episodes about ten minutes in length each, Assassin’s Fist plays out more like a movie than it does an episodic webseries.

We’ll have the series on Geekosystem when it debuts on Friday, May 23, but we can tell you a little bit about it from our early look and conversations with cast and crew. What I’ve seen so far has me really looking forward to the rest, and I got to talk to Ansah about what it was like trying to bring these characters to the screen both as an actor and as a filmmaker.

Geekosystem: Was there anything different or challenging for you about bringing a video game character to the screen?

Ansah: I think the first thing is that you’re fighting an uphill battle as far as fans are concerned, because of failure after failure after failure of video game adaptation into live action. There is now a kind of mass cynicism. To add to that, we also live in the era of the hater— the online hater, the troll— so you’re really up against it. You’re guilty until proven irrevocably innocent in this day and age, so you’ve really got to knock it out of the park.

[Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist] not being some big studio financed thing with a 50 million dollar marketing budget, my team have had to be very clever in a grassroots campaign that started late last year when we finished filming. In terms of actually executing the characters, I’m a firm believer that you can, one hundred percent faithfully, adapt these characters to the big screen without changing their costumes or hair or moves and saying, “Oh, it won’t work in the real world, so let’s dumb it down.”

I noticed a lot of the physical movements for the special effects moves looked really natural. What went into putting those together?

I think having been a lifelong martial artist, choreographer, and action director, and Christian Howard, who co-wrote the series with me and played Ken, and also was one of the choreographers along with me on the series. So, for a long time we studied the game movements and practiced them in real life. This is going back years in training, and obviously, through Street Fighter: Legacy we had a lot of experience doing that. So, for us it was fine, and we got each other’s back.

If I’m directing, and Chris is slightly off, I know exactly what to tell him to make it look exact, and vice versa. It was more a challenge of teaching the other actors, because it was a more steep learning curve for them to get their heads and bodies around the stunt work—the rhythm, the bobs, the specific move sets that you see in the game.

So you’ve been training martial arts your whole life?

Yeah, for about 25 years. All manner of styles: Wushu, Ninjutsu, Capoeira, Filipino Kali, boxing, Tae Kwon Do— you name it. My big Hollywood break was in The Bourne Ultimatum as Matt Damon’s nemesis, Desh, which culminates in that epic fight in Morocco. So, I think that was the first time I really arrived on the scene in anyone’s mind. And people at home, shit, that fight was insane.

I’ve been a professional actor for ten years. I’ve done maybe even straight drama and action stuff, because I enjoy all aspects of filmmaking, as you can see from this series. I’m a director, writer, a producer on it, choreographer… you name it. But, I think great action comes from great characterization. If you really care about the character, you are utterly engrossed in the action, and you fear for the characters involved. That’s why the Bourne franchise, for example, was so powerful and compelling, because they set up this vulnerable character— very skilled, but he was like a lost child, almost. You really felt for him and empathized with him and believed in him. So, when Matt Damon got into these scraps, you were like, “Wow.” It was a different kind of experience viewing action than any other films coming out around then.

So, from very early on in my career, I was like, “This is really the key. Action has to have characterization and deep narrative, emotional layers, to care about it.” Otherwise, it’s just purely a choreographed routine of guys slugging each other, and it may be mildly cool at the time, but it doesn’t stick in your mind, does it? You can think of any fight scene that you really remember, even if it’s something from Indiana Jones or something, there’s emotion in it. You get involved. It sucks you in.

If you watch a punch up in The Fast and the Furious films or something, it’s nonsense. You instantly delete it from your brain, because you’re not really emotionally involved in it, you know?

Where does the emotional investment in Street Fighter characters come from for you ? Are you a fan of the games?

Massively. I’ve been playing Street Fighter since the late `80s and loved the games, loved Street Fighter 2 the animated movie. I like the UDON comic book series, and you always hope— you know, earlier in my career, I was doing my own thing, and you always hope that someone else is going to get it right. Someone else is going to do it. But the more I started working in Hollywood and the film industry and understand how these films were put together, it’s not like these game companies say, “We want to make a really faithful game [movie]. Let’s find a director who is an absolute fan of this and understands it and build the development around that.”

No. Some producer from a studio says, “Hey, this game is selling six million units. Let’s go and buy the rights and do a quick cash-in.” They hire a director that knows nothing about the game; they hire a writer that knows nothing about the game… a choreographer that doesn’t even play the game. So, every step of the pyramid is fucked, because they don’t care. They’re there for a paycheck. It’s just another job to these people.

When the last Street Fighter film came out, The Legend of Chun Li, something snapped inside me, and I was like, “Enough is enough. I cannot stand by and see my most beloved game get treated like this. Someone needs to do it right, and I now have zero faith in the conventional way Hollywood projects are put together—in it being done right. So, I’m going to do it, and if it takes every last penny and every last drop of sweat, I’m going to see this through to the bitter end.”

Here we are, Street Fighter Legacy was the first step of that, like a proof of concept, and now Assassin’s Fist is what I wanted to do and actually pitched to Capcom in the first place—a full, feature-length series. A multimillion dollar series.

This is one of, I think, the great things about the Internet and webseries. People can really pick their passion projects, and we’re not waiting around for Hollywood to finally get it right.

This is true, but then there’s still a cap on that. The difference— why I’m here doing this, and all these other guys who do fan films— the difference is I’m a professional who works in the film business. All of my team are veterans and professionals in the film business, so you have to understand the business side. When I wanted to make Legacy, I didn’t think, “Oh, let’s just get some friends and make a cool Street Fighter short and put it out on the net.”

I pitched it to Capcom. I wanted their official, contractual license that allows me to do this, even though it was not for profit. I wanted to do it by the book. So, when it came to doing Assassin’s Fist, it was a full licensing deal with Capcom like any other studio trying to get the rights. In the same way that Sony has the rights to Spider-Man, they did a licensing deal with marvel that would necessitate them paying an up-front option fee, a license fee, and then giving Marvel a percentage of the back end. That’s how these projects work in the real world, and Assassin’s Fist is no different.

People hear “fan film” because I am a fan, but in the same way that Christopher Nolan was a huge self-confessed fan of Batman. That project still had to come about through all the normal channels if that makes sense. This is the same thing. It’s just that I didn’t want to make it in the studio system, because I would’ve lost the creative control, which I had one hundred percent of, which I felt was necessary to make this, hopefully, a success and something of a phenomenon or a revolution in the genre. So, it meant raising the finance independently, which was very difficult at that time.

To raise even a few million dollars as a first time filmmaker during a recession period in the 2012/2013 era was extremely tough. It was so close to not happening. You may have seen that we launched a Kickstarter at one point, because things got so desperate that we were almost like, “Hopefully, the fans may step up.” With the success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter, we were like, “It’s worth a try, right?”

Sadly, we just didn’t get the level of pickup that we would’ve needed, and fortunately, at the eleventh hour, we secured a private investor who closed the remaining gap we had. And, hey, it got greenlit, and the rest is history.

One of the things I first noticed about [Assassin’s Fist] when I was watching it was that it didn’t look like your standard webseries. It looked like people who know what they’re doing—people who are professionals. Was there any difference in the production from working on film or TV, or was it pretty much exactly the same?

It was pretty much the same. All the HoDs I used from makeup and costume— the costume designer, Emily-Rose Yiaxis, she worked on Gravity. She was the kind of “number two” on Gravity— one of the biggest films of the last year. She worked on The Dark Knight, and she worked on other stuff. We got as strong a talent as possible in front of the camera and behind the camera.

All those sets that you saw were designed initially by Christian Howard who plays Ken, who is my creative collaborator on this. Then our great production designer, Antonello Rubino, brought them into reality. The have full-functioning interiors, so we didn’t use a single sound stage for interiors.

Those were all built for the series?

It’s all real! So, when you see people inside the dojo, that is the genuine interior of that exterior structure you see. There are no façades or false fronts. It’s all real, and I think the more you watch the series, you’ll get that feeling that they were there. They’re in the mountains for real. There’s no green screen in any of this. Those are real dojos that had been built. Everything has to have been created. I wanted this to be as authentic a feeling as possible.

That’s what’s going to suck you in as a viewer— that level of authenticity, and that respect. I find Hollywood films, look, this was made for $2 million cash, which is insane, and you’ve only seen up to episode 5. Wait until you see where it goes for episode 12. Your mind will be blown on the production value and scale of where it peaks.

That’s great. I’m looking forward to it.

So yeah, it’s just kind of like, I see these films— I’ve worked on, like Snow White and the Huntsman I was on, for example— you work on these films with $120 million plus budgets, and they still come off looking a bit cheap sometimes, and you’re like, “How is this possible?” Snow White and the Huntsman looked fantastic, but I’m just using it as an example of having been on big budget productions. Sometimes, the end result just doesn’t seemingly justify the money that was spent to get there.

That’s because projects are often cobbled together at the last minute. You probably know how studio films book the release date long before the director or sometimes a script is ready, and they’re like, “Working back from the release date, we must start filming by ‘this date.'” Ready or not. I mean, on Bourne Ultimatum, the script we started with is utterly unrecognizable from the film you see.

The script was literally written throughout the film. There were six writers, 24/7, writing around the clock to make that film what it was. They went to Paris and shot an entire Paris section of Bourne Ultimatum— that you would never know about— that was then decided, “Oh, we’ll leave this on the cutting room floor.”

It’s crazy, the reality of how studio films are made, and that’s the number one reason why some of them can be so shit: they’re not visions. When Nolan makes a film, it’s a vision. He does not start filming until he has fully done the development he needs, so everything is in place. His vision is succinct. He just needs to go out and execute it. Many Hollywood films are cobbled together last-minute, and they’re starting filming without a coherent script and need unlimited rewrites throughout, with a director who’s still trying to get his head around the script, and the story, and the characters.

That begins to explain why some of these films that we so want to be good end up so bad.

Like you said, I’ve seen up to episode five where Gôki leaves the dojo. Before we wrap up, without giving too much away, where does his story go after that?

It goes far. I mean, you will see the full transition into Akuma, which is then played by me. So, Gaku Space, who plays the young Gôki that you talk about, is the younger incarnation of me, who then arrives in the present. It becomes very Akuma/Gôki centric. I almost don’t want to spoil it for you, because it gets insane— it gets so epic, so deep, so powerful, and so tragic.

Yeah, that’s by no means the end of him. The story is essentially the coming of age of Ryu and Ken, but it’s also the rise of Akuma. So, where you ended [with episode five], things are just getting started, and I hope you like episode five. I really like it, because you’ve got the fight betwen Gôki and Gôken, but it’s very emotionally charged. That whole banishment scene between Gôtetsu and Gôki is a scene I’m very proud of as a director.

Yeah, it was a nice way to leave us wanting to see the rest of it.

(image via Street Fighter: Assassin’s Fist)

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Dan Van Winkle
Dan Van Winkle (he) is an editor and manager who has been working in digital media since 2013, first at now-defunct Geekosystem (RIP), and then at The Mary Sue starting in 2014, specializing in gaming, science, and technology. Outside of his professional experience, he has been active in video game modding and development as a hobby for many years. He lives in North Carolina with Lisa Brown (his wife) and Liz Lemon (their dog), both of whom are the best, and you will regret challenging him at Smash Bros.