THE WITNESS SPEAKS: An Interview With Actor And Filmmaker José Manuel

It's probably a pretty timely thing for me to be able to interview someone like José Manuel. Jackie Chan just had a birthday and Manuel, well... he's probably one of the biggest Chan fans I've interviewed in my time on this site. He's bigger than me for sure, and in the wake of his own efforts as a filmmaker and entertainer with a distinct and profound love for action on film, I couldn't be more proud of him.

I actually REALLY wanted to meet him late last year when he attended the events at the Urban Action Showcase and Expo, only I had approximately zero clue that he was in town and had only found out when he presented a documentary video of his trip on social media. I was a bit floored and a laughed it off; it wasn't too upsetting, rather just delightful to know that New York City is in Manuel's purview and that more and more folks like him are congregating to the uEast to present their projects to audiences and people who share his craft.

I can't exactly remember how long back it was when I first discovered him for myself but if I had to guess, it may have been in the summer of 2014 as I was scavenging for Hit List content and I came across some of his material and needless to say I had no reason to not be impressed in the least bit with what I saw. You can see for yourself how invocative his work is in that regard below:

...And now, he's looking to extend that repetoire with his latest labor of love, Uncompromised, currently poised for presentation and pitch later this year at the Urban Action Showcase and Expo later this year. I won't be there and naturally due to my own work obligations as things stand, although I hope to be afforded the opportunities that I've had thusfar as a film reporter and journalist representing folks like Manuel. His is a craft that bodes amply for the kind of entertainment our readership craves and it's not everyday you get to interview the trailblazing star an internationally aclaimed independent action movie such as Manuel's 2011 hit film, El Testigo (Witness) - the current subject of our latest DVD GIVEAWAY WHICH ENDS IN A FEW WEEKS!!! I'm JUST saying! 😉

Manuel discusses his experiences working on that film, and much more in our interview below, and I sincerely hope that you will all share his words and growing wisdom in all their humility as he expresses below.

Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings José, and thank you for taking the time to answer some of our questions. How has 2017 been for you so far?
José Manuel: 2016 gave me the opportunity to visit New York later that year, to meet great talent and people who inspire me.. folks like old school Hong Kong players Bobby Samuels and Vincent Lynn among others. We had the pleasure of hanging out together and I also became great friends with fight choreographer Manny Ayala, and so that trip was a refreshing and inspiring experience. For me, coming from an island whose industry is not known for prominently for its action movie production (specifically because there isn't any), it made me happy and humbled to represent it in forums in other countries and meet the people who inspired me when I was a kid. 
I'm also happy that I got to share the action sequence teaser clip this year from my latest project, Uncompromised. So far as of this interview it has more than 100,000 views and I am very pleased that it got that far. We wish to move the full pilot into festivals as the next step, so we will see how it goes.
FCSyndicate: I'm glad you mentioned Uncompromised, and I'm also thankful for my quote in that awesome trailer you cut several months ago. That was pretty uplifting!
Dude, I'm curious about you. You act, do martial arts and you also sing and songwrite, and I wonder what came first! Tell us about yourself.
JM: Well, I love art in general. I use art to express who I am, and I take advantage of these creative outlets to show the world who I am and make it a statement. I grew up watching action pictures. They are a big part of my life. I also love pop, punk and othe forms of rock music, so I write songs along that line, and I'll be releasing a new song soon as well called ADIOS (Goodbye), which should be out by the time of our interview.

To answer your question, really it was action and film that came first. I was a fan of comedy and action movies while growing up. I watched Jim Carrey, Stallone, Bruce Lee, Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin, Chespirito who is an amazing Mexican comedian part of all of Latin cultures and childhood, and of course Jackie Chan; I think its common to hear that among action filmmakers, but when I saw Rumble In The Bronx for the first time, my life changed. It's amazing, the influence he has had on my life, and I am grateful for what jackie has contributed.
FCSyndicate: I think Rumble In The Bronx was a real upstarter for a lot of us fans. I know it was for me before venturing into Asian film fandom myself since I'd grown up mostly on American mainstream and B-actioners.

Can you name some of your favorite films for us? What would we most likely find in your wishlist or current collection? 
JM: Rocky for sure, all the Jackie Chan films; I have a habit of watching oldies before I go to sleep - I like Dragon Fist, Snake And Crane Arts Of Shaolin. I like to watch kung fu flicks and old films at night [laughs] 
I enjoy Tom Cruise movies too, but principally most of my collection are Hong Kong films - John Woo's Hard Boiled, I love Corey Yuen as action director and I love Sammo! I think he is one of the best action directors ever...I watch their films and study them frequently. 
I own a lot of comedies as well -  Adam Sandler films, Jim Carrey, Jerry Lewis, the silent actors as well. Mexican comedies are great...I cant say specifically because I love so many! 
But yes, in a nutshell Jackie Chan sums it up. People as me all the time what my favorite Jackie Chan film is and it's so hard to say. I like to be objective when I say why I like a film, so i like something about all of them. But emotionally speaking, however, I must say that my favorite films are inspirational stories. One like Rocky or Frank Capra's It's A Wonderful Life... movies like that that touch my soul. I like to stay in touch with my spirit and film helps me with that in many ways. 
But but, Jackie Chan man...Jackie Chan forever! [laughs]
FCSyndicate: I agree! It's funny - questions on favorite Jackie Chan films. I think questions like that are almost difficult to answer. Even favorite fight scenes sometimes.

Even to date, your shortfilms, your projects take a lot of influence from legends like Chan and even prolifically from Donnie Yen. Bearing these in mind, what are some of the things you've learned in what incorporates choreographing and filming great cinematic fight action? Tell us, what works? What doesn't work?
JM: This could be a long answer, but one of the most important things for me is perspective, rhythm and editing. If you combine these three, I think you could do a great fight scene. In terms of performing, acting is a must, and being comfortable with the moves in your choreography so that they look natural. Sometimes I'll try something and take a risk, and if it doesnt look natural, I'd change it...either that or save it for when I understand and perform the movement better in the future, and if it looks great I'll keep it! But... always adapting. Everybody has some type of skill and so I try to adapt choreography depending on the performer's ability and to bring the best out of them, or if its me then I try to adapt my skill to the action design. I'm definitely not the best martial artist, but I try to bring the best out of what I know and what my fellow performers know.
FCSyndicate: Tell us about your martial arts background and also, what inspired you to pick it up?
JM: I have a TaeKwonDo background but thats the length of my formal training. Aside from that, everything I know about martial arts has been from seminars I've attended and training everyday flexibility and acrobatics. I remember training everyday since I was 15 up until I was 23 years old, then I kept drilling and conditioning and maintaining my skills and learing a little bit of everything. But all that I do is for film purposes, although I do understand and practice martial arts and especially the philosophy. It never was for competition or fight purposes. It was a way to express myself as an individual, and through film I can share it with others.
FCSyndicate: What's your training regimen like these days?
JM: Mostly drilling the basics and keeping the skills that I have. I live close to the beach here in Vega Baja, Puerto Rico. The beach has been my training ground for so long. I go there and swim, practice acrobatics and all...repetition of basics and such. I also go to the gym regularly.
FCSyndicate: And not for nothing either as you eventually got to showcase some of that training on film, first and foremost through your feature debut, El Testigo. How does it feel being Puerto Rico's premiere local martial arts movie star?
JM: I'm humbled in many ways. I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. I'm honored to have had the opportunity to represent the island that way, and I will try my best to keep it up even when the going gets tough. It's not easy, but if it was then everybody would do it I guess. Everyone has their own battles. 
I wish to work with some of my role models soon. Thats one of my goals. Little by little we'll get there.
FCSyndicate: Tell us about how you met the director of that film, Andres Ramirez, and your experience while working with each other on this particular film?
JM: For me, Andres is one of the best directors that can handle an action narrative here in Puerto Rico. He made a movie called "Not Even The Devil" which was shot guerrilla style and I was blown away by the quality of the image, the color grade which I thought was very nice, and depth. At the time, not a lot of filmmakers knew how to achieve that style and look, and this was back in 2005.
I contacted him, and similar interests kept our relationship going. He said he was interested in doing an action film with me, and I was more than willing. And a few years went by and we made The Witness.
FCSyndicate: What were some of the hurdles you and the production for El Testigo had to overcome through its completion?
JM: I had way less experience on doing action compared to what I know today, so the first thing was pulling of the fights with the knowledge I had at the current time. Andres is a great editor, and so in terms of action, he helped fill in the blanks. The project was an experiment, taking almost 30 days to shoot, and I was fighting most of them! There was little protective gear as well, so we had some hard knocks, but no one was seriously injured. I remember a tough shoot, but a really happy one. I was making my dream come true and I would do it again for sure.
FCSyndicate: And now you're continuing that effort with Uncompromised which you've recently bestowed online with a great trailer and clip. Tell us how this project transpired.
JM: Well, I had an idea of mixing the South Korean Neo-Noir atmosphere with Hong Kong style fights and some gunplay as well. I wanted to do a contrast project from The Witness which is a light action movie for the whole family, whereas with Uncompromised, you're immersed in a much darker-toned setting. 
I've had this idea for about almost four years, and at the time, we uploaded a video concept to see if anyone was interested, but it was a struggle, and so I went on and did other stuff. Then the car brand, Audi, approached me and said they liked the project and wanted to help us launch it. We agreed and we began filming three years after the concept was developed. The budget was tiny, but I was happy to start doing it, and now, phase one is finished!
FCSyndicate: I think a lot of us on the outside aren't very familiar with the industry in your neck of the woods in terms of the market for action movies. Tell us, if you are able to, what have you noticed in the atmosphere right now in terms of the demans for local productions and martial arts genre titles?
JM: Well, there's nothing. We did The Witness back in 2010, released it in 2011 theatrically, went to festivals and won awards, and to this day, the people that do action here in PR are the same, plus a couple more. I've seen some emerging talent during the years and Puerto Rico has great stuntmen, great cinematographers and storytellers. What I think people in the industry dont want to acknowledge, however, is that they dont want to do action movies because they don't know how to. To do anything in life you have to be passionate and invest hours of work and study. When it comes to action or fight sequences, you have to understand movement and so you definitely need a background in martial arts, dancing, ballet etc. Afterwards, you need to understand where to put the camera to shoot those movements, and not only that, each lens gives you a different perspective - knowing which one you are going to use and how you are going to edit it afterwards, while enduring as many takes as possible to make it look right.
And the thing is, people are fighting...exercising...and if you do not have the stamina, after the fifth take you would want to bail. That is why I have all the respect in the world for action filmmakers. Fights are conversations of punching and kicking and pushing, give and take. For me, it's one of the hardest forms of cinema seeing as how I still have trouble with it after all this time... 

I am aware of my strengths and weaknesses, and I try to be honest with myself and others. A lot of people here do dramas or comedies, and sure, every form of film is hard. On the other hand, action, or even the horror genre for really have to know what you are doing. You have to be technical, and most people are very creative but not technical. They won't know HOW to do something, they only know what they want to do, and then they hire other people to be technical for them, and when that happens the creative interpretation may not be as accurate as if you were doing it yourself. 
Bottom line: Action films are hard, and that is why I like to do them. It may be the same reason why nobody else is doing it here in the Island, but you have to be a nerd to learn the process. I watch fight scenes everyday, I see action movies all the time, break them down etc. But i love it! So it also comes naturally. Maybe someday, it will come natural to other filmmakers here and more people will start doing it. For now though, the people that do action here... I can count them all on one hand. We all know each other. Veteran coordinator Raul Alcocer is the only professional union coordinator. Everytime productions come here, he is the one most sought after, and in terms of independent film, only me and a couple more. But I see myself as a filmmaker, as an artist. Of course I can build a fight for someone else's movie, but there is a joy in building my own content. It's like connecting with my inner child, same as music, acting and art in general.
FCSyndicate: Would you consider this as sort of a humble call to action for the Puerto Rican film industry to take heed to voices and the talent pool such as yours and see the MA genre as an area of film with plenty of potential?
JM: I understand that film is a business and that people need to make money out of it, but a lot of us are dying for new martial arts action content and in the times we now live, there are great action movies made but not as consistently as before. People like me are always on the lookout and I know that there are many others like me as well, here and around the world. So a decent action filmmaker for sure can make a living out of doing decent indie action movies for the type of audience that watches them, but I, for one, strongly believe you have to be constant and persist as a filmmaker to gain a following. That is the hardest part. It's just like having a band...a certain group of people follow a band and buy their stuff and so they can keep creating, doing art for people who appreciate it. So, I encourage people to express themselves in the most honest way. If you like action, do action, if you like drama do drama, if you want to be a doctor and there's no support, go for it...give it your all. We have to follow our own path and if what we are doing is productive, it will succeed. But it will take the magical ingredient: Persistence. The hardest part of all. Hopefully I can eventually take my material to a bigger level and entertain even more people with action, or action comedies. I'm working on a little action comedy short right now and we've already filmed the fight. I think people will enjoy it.
FCSyndicate: You spoke of paths a second ago and as recently as last year your path led you to the Urban Action Showcase & Expo here in New York City. So, I reckon as much you've made some connections here which I think is fantastic. Do you see yourself relocating here or possibly elsewhere? How would you map things out, presently?

From L to R: Manny Ayala, Vincent Lyn, José Manuel and Robert Samuels
JM: Well, I'd like to travel and network and my dream is to work with any of my idols, be it on a set with Jean-Claude Van Damme set or any of my heroes from the 80's and 90's, meet the coordinators and just have that experience. I was recently in contact with Marko Zaror and we talked about a project he was doing in Thailand, and we had plans for me to be a part of it in the stunt department. I even had a letter from the production but then the project was postponed because Marko landed a role in Battle Angel: Alita with Robert Rodriguez. So the other film went on hold, but I was almost on my way to Thailand with that one. I'd like to visit other places to work and I would love to work with Marko Zaror, Ron Smooremburg, Andy Long from Germany, Bobby Samuels...all of them inspire me. And obviously Jackie Chan who just had a birthday over the weekend! So, we'll see. One has to chase the dream, and at the same time go with the flow. I loved New York. Everybody was so kind to me there....
I want to network and meet some people first, and then see what's convenient. Hopefully I'll go visit New York this year fingers crossed!
FCSyndicate: Fingers crossed indeed! I'm looking forward to sharing a meal by then. I hope you like pizza and things involving meat! 
JM: Pizza for sure bro! Lets hope that happens!
FCSyndicate: You mentioned the first phase was done for Uncompromised. Looking into Phase Two, can you tell us what lies ahead?
JM: Uncompromised is now a 24 minute pilot, and I plan on moving forward to see if I can finish it as a feature. We are working on finishing the script now, and then we'll move around with what we have so that it can be done. It's a slow process but I want to do it. I love this project for some reason and there's still some cool action that I want to shoot, I want to do some gunfights involving diving a la John Woo style, as well as Hong Kong-style fights. Just like Jet Li's Rise To Honor game in terms of the mix of the action and style of it. A lot of other influences as well. It's the type of project that I think it SHOULD BE DONE.
FCSyndicate: I couldn't agree with you more. Point in fact I hope some of your aforementioned heroes will read this and possibly take interest in bolstering this project.

Going into the future and as someone who wears multiple hats often on a film set, what are some of the most important lessons you're taking with you in the course of your growth?
JM: Wow of the most important things I've learned is that we are always learning. That doesn't stop. I'm always a student and I'm always thankful and humble. Aside from that, I have also learned that you have to believe in yourself. Even when you find yourself thinking more modestly or less of your work than others, lest sabotage your own success, believing in yourself comes first; Being yourself, and being honest with yourself. Being self aware and humble, being unpretentious and saturated, being genuine and listening to others as well. Share with others your knowledge, keep eye on what is not right for you and remove it. This all comes with self-respect. I've learned so much through the path I've chosen and I only wish to enjoy life to the fullest and laugh as much as I can with my loved ones.
FCSyndicate: Positive words amigo. Say, what's your moviegoing schedule like? Anything on your wishlist so far for 2017? I've got my eye on a bunch but Atomic Blonde is looking spiffy!
JM: Man! Great question! I've been waiting for BOYKA like crazy! All the Jackie movies: The Foreigner and such, Paradox with Tony Jaa and Sammo action-directing, and even the blu-ray release of John Wick 2. I'm also A HUGE TOM CRUISE FAN, so The Mummy is one to look out for. Also, it was just announced but there's a rumor that Jackie might reunite with Donnie in Ip Man 4 next year sounds like a DREAM! This, plus Donnie leading the cast in the Sleeping Dogs live-action movie, and I LOVE the game so a movie like that with Donnie sounds amazing.
FCSyndicate: That makes only one of us in terms of gaming! My last system was a Sega Genesis and now I have to get all the cliff notes from Wikipedia and such 
Any last words for our readers and some of your fans in PR and abroad?
JM: To anyone who is reading, thank you for the honest interest. And thank you, Lee, for helping indie action filmmakers have a voice. You've done a lot for us. Thank you everybody and I'll continue to do this for as long as time allows me! Action movies forever


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