GRACE UNDER FIRE: An Interview With Actor, Stuntman And Producer, Sonny Sison
One of the earlier fortunes I had in starting my blog back in 2013 was getting acquainted off and on with actor and stuntman, Sonny Sison. Granted, in months prior to that, I had just seen him in the 2008 action thriller, Broken Path, which is still one of the most fascinating films I had ever seen, and for a number of reasons.
Last week, I had the opportunity to share a dialogue with Sison about the film among several others within the span of his career in the past two decades. Having cut his teeth as an actor and stuntman over the years, primarily as a suit actor on the AmeriToku crossover series, Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, and having recently worked with a number of familiar faces fans know and love, I would say there's plenty of reason to bookmark him as someone worth looking out for in the months ahead.
On an entirely seperate note, writing this and editing passage on a Saturday afternoon as you are just reading this I can't help but sit here and reflect on some of my past interview subjects. This definitely feels like another milestone and honestly, I'm really buzzed.
Ladies and gentlemen, Sonny Sison!
Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Sonny, and thank you for taking the time to talk to Film Combat Syndicate. How has your year been going so far?
No complaints at all. I've been in Manila, Philippines since the beginning of the year working as a stunt/fight coordinator, or as the position is referred to here, "stunt director".FCSyndicate: That sounds very exciting and I have a few questions regarding some of your projects mentioned here. First off, tell us how you first became involved in stunts and filmmaking.
My year kicked off very nicely having had the opportunity to work on Showdown In Manila with my "big brother" Mark Dacascos in his directorial debut, and we had a phenomenal cast including Olivier Gruner, Cynthia Rothrock, Don Wilson, Tia Carrere, Cary Hiroyuki-Ogawa, Russian action star Alex Nevsky and Matthias Hues. It was also a treat to assist my grandmaster and Mark's father, Al Dacascos, who was the fight choreographer. I also recently finished an indepenent feature film called Isla and now I'm onto an action horror project called Nialang with actress Maria Ozawa.
Though I was the entertainment kid in the family (always performing, dancing, clowning around), I had no intention of getting into the entertainment industry as a performer. I initially planned to do movie posters which is why I was a Commercial Illustration Major in University. While in school, I had a personal training business partner who was one of the "Conans" at Universal Studios live stunt show. He urged me to tryout the next auditions they had and I got the part.FCSyndicate: Considering film and television weren't your inital goals earlier on, what were some other things you had in mind on becoming when you were younger?
Never discount one's life experience, because you never know when it will be needed. My natural ability and martial arts background helped get the gig, and it was there that I met and befriended action veterans like Mark Dacascos, Karen Shepherd and Anthony DeLongis just to name a few. From there it was a relatively fast track to TV/film stuff - being at the right place at the right time.
Sheesh, I gotta peel back the cobwebs! [laughs] Childhood idols would include: Bruce Lee (of course), Bob Hannah (Motocross), Carl Lewis and Edwin Moses (Track and Field), Tom Curren (Surfing), Frank Frazetta (Artist), John Buscema, John Byrnes, Walter Simonson (Marvel Comics Illustrators)...Far too many to put down the entire list. But the bottom line is that they were all creative in their own way and lived their lives passionately.
While I definitely feel that ultimately I am doing what I was meant to do, other careers I considered were in sports therapy, marine biology and maybe professional DJing (I had a company with my older brother through high school and university).
I have to give a shout out to my older brother, Danny. Were it not for him, I wouldnt have tried to do so many things that he excelled at. No sibling rivalry here - he supported and trained me in all the physical activities I got into.
FCSyndicate: And since then, you've worn several hats in your current career as a stunt professional and acting with one of your more prolific earlier credits as a stunt performer on Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. Tell us about your experience working on that show - things you loved or found the most challenging.
The Biz is a small world once you get into it - I'm buddies with Walter Jones and way back then, we were cruising in Hollywood and he was telling me about a costumed superhero pilot he just shot based on a Japanese series and I told him that it sounded like the TV shows I grew up watching on the Japanese channels in Hawaii. A season later, our mutual friend Danny Wayne asked me if I wanted to do stunts on a movie called Sword Of Honor, and it was there that I met Jeff Pruitt - then partners with Koichi Sakamoto and Alpha Stunts, and he invited me to work on MMPR. I did a couple episodes as Red Ranger but since I was really into Capoeira at the time, I was told that my moves weren't the Ranger style. However, it would totally work as a Putty. I had a blast on the series working in various roles as monsters or henchmen.
Rangers was my stunt training school and no one gives it the credit it deserves because it's a kids show. Doing choreography in those outfits is no joke and I hold Alpha Stunts (The genius behind Mark Dacascos's movie Drive) and A.A.C. Stunts (Japanese stuntmen who worked on the show) in the highest regard and for teaching me so much! We had a reunion of sorts where several of us came back together to make the action cult classic Broken Path a.k.a. Attack Of The Yakuza, directed by Koichi Sakamoto. The best part is the friendships I have to this with everyone who worked on the various seasons.
FCSyndicate: It sort of felt that way to me when I watched it because, it's like you know there is a sense of comradery and friendship that comes with making a film like that, and I know that Koichi-san and Steve Wang have tried to follow up from Drive point on and were never really able to. And then came Extreme Heist (a.k.a. Wicked Game) with actress Motoko-san and Broken Path, a movie which I absolutely love to death and I thank you for mentioning it. How rough was that shoot?
Broken Path was the hardest but most fun of all the films and television shows I've worked on. Imagine, we worked in Brown, Texas (an hour or so North of Fort Worth) in the middle of summer, 15+ hour workdays every day for two weeks in 105+ degree weather with almost 100% humidity! And you're right about the camaraderie; We all knew each others' rhythms, and so everything was seamless when it came to choreographing.FCSyndicate: Going into the fights, the level of violence here is definitely a far cry from anything anyone here has seen actor Johnny Yong Bosch in compared to the action his fans were normally accustomed to seeing him in with MMPR and the like. For me, in hindsight, this film is right up there with Gareth Evans's The Raid and I know you have your own opinions about that film as well. But what did you think of the reaction the initial trailers for Broken Path received?
Now in most instances, having rehearsals and pre-vis is always a plus. But here, we created choreography on the spot and made it look as if we rehearsed weeks in advance. That's the brilliance of Koichi in accordance with input from everyone!
It's one of those movies that's definitely made for the fan of that kind of genre and no one is going to watch it for the acting! [laughs] Kung Fu Cinema named it "One Of The Top 10 U.S.-Made Martial Arts Films You'll Never See" or something like that, and there were definitely some anime elements in it.FCSyndicate: Me too, and it boggles the mind even more that this film never got a decent U.S. release. It first landed in South Africa and then it was retitled Broken Fist in the U.K.. It's on Amazon Instant Video right now and I actually had the opportunity to rent the film several years ago on Google Play before they removed it from their catalogue. In your opinion, and be as frank as you can, what the heck went wrong? And is it too late for a proper DVD and Digital HD release?
The initial reactions were unjustly made and that's the bad thing about being associated with Power Rangers. People's minds are stuck on it being a kids' show, so of course with all of us coming from the TV show cloth, but especially Johnny and Dan Southworth being Ranger actors, people stereotyped it before getting a chance to watch it. Still...I loved the experience!
It was a bad distribution deal with a lack of experience on the part of the producers, kind of like what happened with Mark Dacascos's movie Crying Freeman. How does a $100 Million Dollar worldwide-earning movie never get seen in the US? That's where I'm at now, segueing into becoming a producer. I watch it from all angles, in front of the camera and behind it as a great way to gain perspective and understand what to do and what not to do. There's still a lot to learn, but will be worth it, and I have a hint for you...something big is going to happen in the very near future!
FCSyndicate: Well that sounds delightful and you have my attention there! Speaking of producing, you also worked with documentarian Jay Ignacio on The Bladed Hand which centralizes specifically on Filipino Martial Arts, and last I checked you were developing a sequel. I want to talk a bit about your study of FMA and I remember earlier you stated you were more geared toward Capoeira. Do you still train in both?
Well, my base martial art system is Kajukenbo-Wun Hop Kuen Do, created by Grandmaster Al Dacascos (Mark Dacascos's father). Kajukenbo was created after WWII in Hawaii with five practitioners of Karate, Judo/Jiu-Jitsu, Kenpo, and Boxing blending the best of each into one street fighting oriented self-defense system with Kenpo as its base. What goes unsaid is the influence of Filipino Martial Arts (Escrima) which is primarily due to the late Adriano Emperado, who was an Escrimador and the first black belt of Professor K.S. Chow (Kara-Ho Kenpo). Grandmaster Al Dacascos's development of Wun Hop Kuen Do (Combined Fist Art Style) developed out of Kajukenbo and of his cross-training with other Kung Fu and Filipino Martial Arts practitioners from different systems.
It's often referred to as "The System Without A System". Though there are requirements in training as one goes through rank, and there's more emphasis on concept and spontaneity once the basic foundation has been established, and there is no set response. It all depends on the attacker's initial movement and the defender's creativity and self-understanding using the techniques learned in the system. What's great about the system is that at 3rd degree, one must go out and study a completely different system, bring it back and incorporate it into what they already know. That opened-mindedness is what helps the system evolve and not stay stagnant. Through my direct teacher, Sifu Earl White, he really saw that I had a natural flow with the stick and as well as having a dance background, and he introduced me to Mestre Amen Santo. I also had other Capoeira teachers: Mestre Velly Bahia and Mestre Borracha. But I emphasize, I never got rank in Capoeira though I took it for a good amount of years. My Sifu's influence of telling me to look into my own culture lead me to really focus on FMA. My primary system of FMA is SLD (Serrada, Largo Mano, Descuerdas) under Guro Jesse Abrescy with smatterings of other systems that I've been exposed to over the years.
The Bladed Hand Documentary was a great way to meet and practice with so many of these awesome teachers in the Filipino Martial Arts. And with the likes of Jeff Imada and Jon Eusabio, my goal is to give FMA its just due in film, and not just to use the techniques in choreography, but to physically say "This is Filipino Martial Arts", much like what Bruce Lee did for Kung Fu or Steven Seagal did for Aikido.
So currently, I've been in the Philippines since January, working as a stunt director/fight choreographer, wanting to bring back the action genre here and doing for FMA and the country what The Raid did for Silat and Indonesia and Tom Yum Goong did for Muay Thai and Thailand. As of August this year, I will have stunt directed four action features dating back to August of last year.FCSyndicate: I had been thinking the same thing for a while as other writers often mention the influence of FMA and Escrima in Hollywood, with respect to your examples like The Raid and Tom Yum Goong (I want to thrown in a personal favorite of mine which is The Perfect Weapon and what that did for Kenpo as well). With that said, in manifesting FMA right down to its core for Mark Dacascos's new film, Showdown In Manila, what were some things you and fight choreographer Al Dacascos did (or didn't do) in order to achieve that goal?
FMA was a definite influence on the fights Sifu Al and I created for Cynthia Rothrock and Olivier Gruner. Cynthia had told me back in L.A. several years ago that she wanted to really train in FMA so here was an opportunity for her to learn something about it and showcase it in a film. For Olivier, it was natural to give him choreography using a blade as he has real military experience having served in the Marine Nationale. Both of them picked it up easily and really sold it on camera, and of course, if they didn't feel something was natural, we discussed how they "would do something" and adapted it accordingly. It's always a team effort and I want everyone to shine to their best abilities.FCSyndicate: In your opinion, what are some common mistakes that are often made in the field of fight choreography that up and comers should take into consideration when designing action sequences? Any personal learning experieneces and stories come to mind?
Reactions, reactions, reactions! Everyone wants to be the star that kicks all the baddies' asses so they focus on their delivery of techniques rather than reactions to impact. For example, you can deliver the best haymaker punch but if my reaction sucks, then the punch looks like crap. However, if the haymaker looks mediocre, a great reaction can sell it 100%. And that all plays into "ACTING", and there is nothing worse than a baddie that cannot act for doodoo! Come on everyone...we need emotional content! [laughs]FCSyndicate: [laughs] I see what you mean and I've spoken to a few people who think there's a difference between acting and doing stunts when there needs to be a balanced application of both in order to sell a fight, and hopefully they're reading this right now too.
Want to know my favorite fight scene? Check out "Once Were Warriors"! Temuera Morrison's character beats up a thug in a bar. There's nothing elaborate in the fight choreography, just left and right punches, a head smash, and a simple kick. What makes it stand out? Emotional content!!!!
What was it like watching Mark transition from actor to filmmaker?
This is what I learned from Mark on SIM: "Grace Under Fire". He kept a positive attitude throughout the entire shoot despite some very challenging situations. It was a treat to watch him during the audition process of getting local actors and it totally made them feel comfortable and unrushed. He even took pics with them when they asked if they could have a selfie. [laughs] He really is an actor's director and surrounding himself with people who know what they're doing, he totally acknowledges that importance. Again, teamwork.
FCSyndicate: I love that and I absolutely look forward to what happens next with you both. And what can fans expect with the release of Showdown In Manila (other than a showdown clearly in Manila)?
Truthfully, I'm curious myself. Three cuts were made: the editor's, the director's, and producer's. We'll see which one makes the big screen.FCSyndicate: And now your next project will be an action horror flick Nialang with local film star Cesar Montano and adult film actress Maria Ozawa, who I understand is making her debut into acting with a role that requires Tagalog and martial arts training. Have you two met yet?
Not yet. As for her speaking Tagalog, maybe a few words here and there but she will primarily speak English and Japanese. As for her martial arts training, I understand she has some Sport Kendo training but she will definitely have more training sessions with me for cinematic swordfighting.FCSyndicate: Well it's pretty clear you've gained ground working in the Philippines after working in Hollywood for as long as you have. I've actually spoken to a few people earlier on who have told me that the action genre has been difficult to evolve and grow in the Philippines, and like in a lot of countries, lack of money remains a consistent issue. Would you say it's still an issue for the industry in the Philippines in 2015?
Indeed it is. What happened is that the major networks here (the television stations control local theater as well by producing their own films) figured they can make cheap soap operas and comedies by banking on sponsorship. They brought that same formula to movie making and the excuse was that action films have been too costly and nobody wants to see them. And that's not entirely true. Yes, it they do cost money but people here line up to see Hollywood action films, so that doesn't justify their excuse of not making them.FCSyndicate: I think the action cinema audience in the Philippines will surely appreciate that, and I hope that these changes remain continual and for the better with you around. Going forward from there with stunt and producer credits currently to your name, have you considered taking after your big brother Mark in sitting in the director's chair as well? Do you have any ideas you would care to tease us with for future screenplays you would like to see happen on camera?
When I asked Robin Padilla (the biggest action star here who I worked with last year) "Why is there no action genre here?" He told me "With action films fizzling out in the late '90s, there really isn't anyone local as fight/stunt coordinators who've kept up with the rest of the world. But now that you're here, I think it can happen." And that's precisely my goal!
I've already directed 2nd Unit for several fetures so the natural progression would be to direct. It's something I'm considering but ultimately I'm aiming to stay put in the producer's chair. Directing is a huge responsibility that I know I can excel at. I'll give it a go (hint from a previous question of what's in store in the near future), But I don't have that much hair on top of my head to sacrifice for the stress. [laughs]FCSyndicate: I see! [laughs] I am interested in a little bit of post-MMPR perspective I'm hoping you might share. With all or most of the former cast staying in touch with many of the fans to this day. Do you do the same?
I actually don't. I was invited to attend the Power Morphicon Event last year but I was already booked for a movie. Guys like Walter, Jason David Frank, and Austin St. John make regular appearances all over the world still while most of us stunt people, like Tadahiro Nakamura, Yoshio Iizuka, Bridgett Riley, Sophia Crawford, Danny Wayne, Hiro Koda, Luke LaFontaine and T.J. Rotolo to name a few, have continued our stunt careers for T.V. and film. Koichi is back in Japan along with his wife, Motoko and Alpha Stunt Member Tatsuro Koike. Yuji Noguchi is still involved with the series filming in New Zealand, and my buddy, Dan Southworth is focused on his acting and assists Mitch Gould on the T.V. series they coordinate.FCSyndicate: As you may know, Lionsgate and Saban are developing a big screen reboot of MMPR, and fans are either for or against this sort of thing, as usual. If anything, what are some thoughts, expectations or hopes you might have for the new film?
I'm "Rangered Out". Whether it does well or bombs, I guess I'm indifferent to it all. I'm so far removed from the realm of Power Rangers in terms of what I'd like to see on TV or film, but I'm still grateful for the experience but I don't want to be stuck in the past when there's so much to be done for the future.
FCSyndicate Is there anyone you specifically hope to work with in the near future? Whether it's as producer, stunt director or both?
To be honest, I'd like to find a completely unknown actor, much like Tony Jaa or Iko Uwais were for their respective movies. All the established action people are known for what they can do. I want to blow people's minds with "Where the heck did this guy/gal come from?!"FCSyndicate: Just a few more questions and that will be all, and I really do thank you for taking the time to exchange words with me about your career at this juncture. What advice do you have for aspiring stunt professionals who might be reading this?
Train constantly, get out of your comfort zone and learn all the various aspects of stunts at least to a basic level of capability, because you never know what you may be asked to do. And stay humble! I've seen a lot of swelled heads in the biz, and NO ONE wants to work with an asshat.FCSyndicate Lastly - and I shared this question with Jeeja Yanin a while back - once in a while when I have the opportunity, I like to try something different, and you're a lot more familiar with Filipino cuisines than I am. What favorite dish of yours would you recommend?
Now we're talking about something I'm really passionate about...food! [laughs]
I'm sure you've already had adobo and lumpia but there's a whole lot more to Filipino cuisine. My personal favorite is "sinigang" - a soup made from tamarind base, "bangus" - milkfish typically served for breakfast, and "longanisa" sausage (I like the spiced pork variety). "Laing" - taro leaves made kind of like goulash, cooked in coconut milk is a favorite too! I highly recommend you check out the Filipino restaurants in downtown Manhattan and Brooklyn like Maharlika, Jeepney and Purple Yam. They serve up really great dishes!
FCSyndicate I'm bookmarking those right away! [laughs] Sonny, thanks so much for sharinf your story, and I look forward to your announcements as hinted earlier, as well as your future prospects!
Thanks for promoting the stunt community!
It had been a while since my last interview prior to this, so this particular discussion was very much a breath of fresh air. Sison was fun to share and engage in, and I'm always glad to share a talk with someone who is straightforward and honest as he is, and I'm sure anyone closest to him couldn't agree more.
As for what's next with Sison and Dacascos, I'm inclined to have my own ideas about what will happen there, even if they're just speculatory. Dacascos and his Showdown In Manila cast member, Alexandr Nevsky, just wrapped their latest action comedy, Maximum Impact last week...and then of course you have this Facebook post. So, in the name of simply putting the pieces together, I'm looking forward to what gets announced next, and I can't wait to give it a mention on Film Combat Syndicate.
The Bladed Hand is now available on DVD and VoD wherever movies are sold. In the meantime, try and follow Sison on Twitter, and stay tuned for more information on Showdown In Manila and Nialang!