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Thursday, July 21, 2016

STEEL RISING: An Interview With Larnell Stovall

*The following is an interview I did back in 2014. I made some HTML fixes but for some reason, Blogger took it upon itself to update as a new post for 2016. At any rate, it was purely accidental, I hope it serves up a nice little read for fans. Enjoy!


The past few weeks have seen a slight shift in gears for me. I hadn't done any formal interviews with anyone for a long time until about a few weeks ago, and I posted a batch of them just last week. I admit, I may need a break this weekend, although I like the momentum I have seen and maybe I've found a pattern I could work around as I would love to continue to share even more stories on my site from extraordinary people working in the film today.

Don't get me wrong though. I don't use the word "extraordinary" loosely here, just the opposite in order to address a general idea about the progress so far being made by one of the most prominently known stunt professionals in his field, actor, fight choreographer, stuntman and stunt coordinator Larnell Stovall. Having uprooted himself from his home in New Orleans, Louisana to working among the industry's numerous and talented screenfighting atheltes and artists on films like Bunraku, The Hunger Games, The Other Guys, Snitch and the hit webseries, Mortal Kombat Legacy to name a few, Stovall has become a major topic of cinematic lore for martial arts cinema fans edging between American and international markets in constant search of good movies to see. He's a man who wants to bring change to an industry he knows can do better when it comes to presenting quality action cinema to the masses, and with the uptick in veteran stuntmen becoming directors, he's got other goals in mind beyond just being a fight choreographer. However, he's not one to ever turn down a chance to apply his strengths needed, and as you can see in the reel above, his work speaks for itself...that is, unless his colleagues do. Then you're outnumbered anyway. 

Your argument is invalid. Sorry not sorry.

From independent to mainstream cinema, Stovall has become bankable. Several of his credits have become number ones this year at some point or another, including the latest home invasion thriller, No Good Deed with Idris Elba and Taraji P. Henson. But, make no mistake. He has no allusions about his achievements while making every move he makes count for something, from the projects he gets involved in to the people he networks with.

For Stovall, the journey is ever growing, and I got to chat briefly with him this week. I didn't get to ask him all of the questions I had in mind - some were omitted for legal reasons and others due to lack of time, but I suppose we'll just have to save that for another hopeful interview not too far down the line.

For now, here is my conversation with the one and only Larnell Stovall.

Larnell Stovall and director Isaac Florentine on the set of Undisputed: Redemption (2010)
Film Combat Syndicate: Thanks for taking the time to chat Larnell! How has 2014 been for you so far?
Larnell Stovall: Thanks for asking! So far this has been an amazing year. Between Ride Along, Think Like A Man Too and No Good Deed being #1 at the box office, I'm not sure it can get much better. I have never had a wide release movie at the box office as a stunt coordinator, so I'm grateful for the opportunity to have some of my work seen on the big screen finally.
FCSyndicate: Indeed! You've had a few big successes this year, especially with the films you just mentioned. And you're also very popular in the martial arts cinema niche as a fight choreographer as well. What initially inspired you to take up martial arts?
LS: I have been very fortunate in a seemingly short amount of time indeed. I actually started martial arts around the age of thirteen at the behest of an older high school classmate who was well-respected, was often quiet and made good grades. I remember being a class clown at the time [laughs], and one day the entire class was about to receive detention for our behavior and he threatened another guy to chill. Another guy threatened that same person with a kick to his face if he shut up, so I walked up to him at one point and asked him if he really knew martial arts. He pointed me directly at the school he went to and about a week later I caught the bus there to check it out. Funny thing about it all was that when I started, the guy quit a week later after he got his blackbelt! [laughs]

FCSyndicate: That's some interesting timing there! [laughs] So what led you to transition your training to film?
LS: The transition to film started after I saw Blade, watching Wesley Snipes applying himself, kicking ass and killing it as a martial artist. It inspired me to do some research when I began traveling and competing throughout the NBL, SKI, USKA tournament circuits. From there, I started trying to make some moves; I actually missed the audition for the Mortal Kombat Conquest TV series and I even dreamed about performing on WMAC Masters. 
Anyway, researching Blade led me to its fight choreographer, Mr. Chuck Jeffreys, and I tracked down his website which led to his e-mail address. He was kind enough to respond to me and I sent him some tournament footage of myself performing, fighting, doing tricks, etc. He gave me some encouraging words before hoping on a greyhound bus shortly thereafter.
FCSyndicate: What were some of your favorite titles and action stars while growing up?
LS: Favorite titles and action stars? I was a huge fan of our 80's icons due to the fact that it was such a great era for action films (Arnold, Stallone, Van Damme etc.). However, the Asian market was what did it for me as it kept my interest and my eyes glued to the racks at the local video stores. Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Michelle Yeoh, Yuen Biao, Sonny Chiba...the list grows [laughs]. So many of their classics kept me training and imagining; Films like King Of The Kickboxers, Wheels on Meals, No Retreat No Surrender, Guyver: Dark Hero, and all of Bruce Lee films are what come to mind.
FCSyndicate: You intially popped up on my radar a little less than a decade ago with a cool shortfilm you starred in titled Steel, and now you're working much more behind the camera. Do you still pursue acting as a primary career? What's more comfortable for you these days?
LS: Acting only happened at that particular time when stuntwork wasn't quite taking off as I thought it would. It led me to crashing auditions and actually booking over ten network television shows within two years. It brings mixed feelings when I think about it; It was fun but very unsatisfying. You enter a room with anywhere from ten-to-twenty people, you get a call back, book the gig and work one day, maybe two at the most, where as working as a stunt coordinator, even small projects might have you at the job anywhere from six-to-eight weeks.  
I enjoy creating behind the camera more than being in front of it, althogh I do have a feeling that I may have about two or three good screen fights left in me provided the right project comes along. 
As for Steel, that project is something I am still very proud of. It won awards and led to recognition by my peers as a choreographer. I'm actually going to follow it up real soon and really push to get it out there as a feature film. It is time to! I have the connections and still haven't seen anything like it or similar yet in concept.
FCSyndicate: That's intriguing and I'm inclined to ask you about that a little later. But first, you recently wrapped up work on the new Max Steel movie which is releasing next year. I know you can't say much about the film since it is too early, so I'll keep this particular inquiry mininal. What were some of your creative angles in designing the action sequences for this new sci-fi adventure?

Promotional still for Max Steel (2015)
LS: Max Steel was an amazing experience for me as I am a huge fan of anything dealing with superheroes, comic books and anything science fiction and fantastical. The only thing I can safely say right now, is Mattel, the producers and the director gave me freedom I needed to create what I thought was best concerning how Max Steel fights, moves and maneuvers. I cant wait for the world to see what was done with that character and hopefully the start of a new franchise. As many of us know, sequels always go bigger and there is so much more I hope to present to the world with Max Steel in the future.
FCSyndicate: That sounds like a pretty fair answer [laughs]. You've come far with your vision in fight design and martial arts and it's a muscle you've flexed quite prominently in the indie scene as well with films like Isaac Florentine's Undisputed 3: Redemption with Scott Adkins, for which fans are still clammoring for a fourth. What's your reaction to all this fan appreciation?
LS: It's very humbling. I'm never satisfied with the end product most of the times and I always want to push for better results. Anytime whenever I think I have done a decent job, I look at my peers' work and end up seeing there is so much more to do. 
Concerning Undisputed 4, I truly hope it happens and when it does, I want the action community to support it the right way by purchasing the Blu-Ray, DVD, VOD, and/or through any other legitimate platforms. This is the only way people like me, and talented people like Isaac and Scott can continue to deliver action movies like this, particularly since it is a genre struggling to maintain its presence. That is not debatable, it is an infallible fact, and Issac and Scott deserve to have this sequel happen soon, especially after killing it with Ninja 2 late last year and this year!
FCSyndicate: Ninja 2 was definitely a fan favorite, as well as Undisputed 3. I'm also intrigued by your involvement in another favorite and hopeful franchise first, Falcon Rising. You and its lead actor Michael Jai White have collaborated several times before. However, considering he once said he waited his whole career to make THIS particular kind of film, what were some things you both kept in mind while designing these fight sequences?
LS: Doing Falcon Rising was fun! I had free reign with the fights and most of the action, I would have discussions with Michael and the director, Ernie Barbarash, about how long the fights would be and listen to suggestions, story points, etc. It was amicable, healthy and very productive! 
What was cool about White's character was his mysterious, which to me, gave him room for growth should the series continue. We really don't know how many styles John "Falcon" Chapman trained in, so the sequel could present a multitude of ideas with the application of different styles, like Muay Thai, Krav Maga, Silat, etc. In other words, Chapman is a ticking time bomb loaded with surprises I think people will be delighted with should a sequel happen. 
Faclon Rising seems to have caught on with the action community and I hope we explore more of him in the near future. 
As a noteworthy mention, in working with Michael on this film, he would also see what was choreographed and would often add his flavor to it. The great thing about working with an action actor Michael is they can adapt and change at the last minute if need be. Sometimes better, more efficient ideas were created on the set, such as the flying sidekick to the face and shooting at the same time. That was Mike's idea! [smiles]
FCSyndicate: Well, it really is awesome seeing White in his element on that project among others you both worked together on so well with great results, between this, Metal Hurlant Chronicles, Mortal Kombat Legacy and his 2011 directorial debut, Never Back Down 2. What do you enjoy most about collaborating with White?
LS: Every time Mike and I work together, you don't know what to expect. We are always playing jokes on each other or yelling at one another. [laughs] When he knows I'm part of a project he's on, he trust me...well, except when he was in the trunk of that car on Falcon Rising. He made sure I was nowhere near the lock between takes! [laughs] Other than that, he trust me. He knows I'm rarely ever satisfied with my choreography or the final product, which means that I will push him for a better results. We did some cool stuff on Falcon Rising, but I still know we can do better, or at least I know I can be, and will be more creative and hopefully deliver something not seen from him yet.
FCSyndicate: I think that is something we can all look forward to in your pursuit of a complete cinematic vision for action design. Could you give me a few examples of some things you would like to expand on in your creativity?
LS: Right now I'm just enjoying the journey and trying to get better with each project and continue learning from my peers and friends. 
I want to get into more action driven films though, since it feels like America really shies away from straight martial arts movies. We have action movies with a only few fights in them, and this has been a catalyst for the niche turning to Asian cinema for the entertainment they want. I hope to step into directing soon and manifest as many crazy ideas as I humanly can, and hopefully they will work and are well received. However, I'm in no rush, and there are a few projects out there I hope to help out with or coordinate. Some are in the pipeline already and I hope to have more news on them next year.
LS: Yes, I am still involved. More news should be coming soon concerning Kickboxer in a few weeks.
FCSyndicate: You also mentioned your own aspirations further down the line in stepping the director's chair. When you are finally able to do this, will Steel be the first concept you will push forward? Or do you have other story ideas brewing?
LS: I have a few ideas; I actually want someone else to direct Steel to truly bring it to life in a way I never imagined. I may not even do the choreography, although I do have some moves I have been saving specifically for Steel should it happen. But for now, I want to work with as many different directors as possible to learn from them, prepare, network and grow toward my goal.
FCSyndicate: I want to talk just little bit about budgets. You worked on Never Back Down 2 with Michael Jai White. It had a significantly much smaller budget and a shorter schedule for pre-production and filming compared to its predecessor, and it still delivered something pretty special to martial arts cinema fans. What is your reaction to this particular trend though? Can indie films continue to survive on such tighter means? Should Hollywood do the same without having to spend millions of dollars on a movie to accomplish what a smaller-scale film can? And do you feel it is fair for one market to have more financial means to work with than the other?
LS: Those are great questions Lee, and I have seen both ends of the spectrum succeed and fail. 
Most of my producers, regardless of budget, make sure they know it doesn't cost a dime more to do one-on-one fight scene. You already have your actors so lets do something that connects with the audience by delivering a fight featuring the leads. I am a fan of car chases and the bigger action sequences, but we know those are stunt guys in those cars, and I personally feel the audience tends to disconnect from those scenes for a moment at times. 
Here's an example: Some of the highlights from a few of the previous Fast And Furious movies were the fights, and mainly since we actually saeour lead actors, heroes and villains fighting each other on screen and throwing down. I wouldn't really say it's a question of what's fair, but moreso about fighting your battles and putting your best effort forward on screen regardless of budget. 
Here's something to think about: What was the last great fight scene you saw in theaters? Everyone may have different opinions and answers like this, but for me it was Blade, Kill Bill, Kick-Ass and recently Captain America: The Winter Soldier. 
Notice the huge gap? It seems that only every now and then we are treated to the kind of cinematic fight action we crave in America from an American film. This trend needs to change, seriously!
FCSyndicate: Are there any forthcoming films, or directors, you can think of that might be able to accomplish this?
LS: Sure! Off the top of my head, I'll say Isaac Florentine for starters. I also endorse Chad Stahelski and Dave Leitch who are debuting John Wick this year, John Hyams who I worked with on Universal Soldier: Regeneration a few years ago,  Gareth Evans (no question there!), Tim Miller the man in charge of bringing Deadpool to life, The Russo Brothers who killed it with Captain America 2 this year, and Kevin Tanch who I worked with on Mortal Kombat Legacy. These are directors that understand action, and know how to work with the stunt coordinators and fight choreographers beyond just blowing things up and shaking cameras. Grrr!!! 
As far as forthcoming films, I look forward to films now when I know who was behind the action due to they deliver and fight for a better final product - people like Brad Allen, J.J. Perry, Jonathan Eusebio, James Young, Sam Hargrave, Aaron Toney, Philip Silvera, and so on. And I also extend that list to the future beast himself, Walter Garcia, "The Vladski" and Emmanuel Brown to name a few; These are creative artists who are passionate about great fights you can see. 
There will be a big shift in fight choreography in the next two years. The right people are starting to get on the right projects.
FCSyndicate: You mentioned the Vladski, and I think we both know who you mean! [laughs] and you also mentioned Tancharoen. You've yourself have been there for him since Mortal Kombat Rebirth and its following series went viral, and I know yours isn't the final say-so, but with a third season possibly on the way, what do you think the chances are for a proper feature-length treatment?

LS: I am not sure what the chances are for an MK feature film. BUT, the version K.T. was going to move ahead with would have been insane!!! Crazy fatalities and surprise characters with a hard R-rating for sure! Too bad things did not move forward on it, though I am hearing there will be a third season Mortal Kombat Legacy. I truly hope Warner Bros and New Line make it happen, whether I am involved or not. I simply just want to see these characters on the big screen. They deserve it!!
FCSyndicate: Duly noted! Also, Michael Jai White teased has been teasing a little bit on his fanpage regarding the development of Never Back Down 3. We all know it's early so not a lot of details can be clearly divulged just yet, but will you be returning to collaborate with him on this installment?
LS: Yes, if the schedules line up I will be more than happy to return! There was so much more I wanted to do on Never Back Down 2 but there were so many fights, a short prep period and time was not on our side most of the time. We did what we could, but I'm hearing it will focus mostly on Mike's character and there won't be nearly as many fights, which is a good thing. I rather contribute six great fight scenes than fifteen mediocre ones!
FCSyndicate: I understand you completely. A good story and script can take a film of that genre a long way.

Lastly, I want to talk a bit about your career. You've made some accomplishments as a stuntman and stunt coordinator, and worked with some really great perfomers, and several of your films have been box office #1's this year, as mentioned at the top of this interview. If you could describe your career up to now in one word, what would it be and why?
LS: "Tenacious". I choose this word seeing as how there is no way I should have won awards and had box office hits after being told no so many times in the past. Tenacity and being stubborn is what made me create, study video games and anime, watch and absorb a variety of Asian-centric action movies, read comic books, graphic novels, the works! I'm just grateful due to the fact of knowing I have not yet scratched the surface of what I hope to accomplish.
FCSyndicate: Real quickly, you mentioned WMAC Masters earlier. Did you have a favorite WMAC Master character? If so, who? And if you had the chance to star in a rebooted reinstallation of the TV series, what would your Ki-Symbol be?
LS: My favorites from the show were performers Eric Betts/Panther and Hien Nguyen/Tsunami. I always looked forward to their fights. As for me, "Venom" was a nickname I used to compete under, so if WMAC Masters ever came back and I had the opportunity to get on board, my ki-symbol would be Cobra!!!
FCSyndicate: Awesome! So, going into 2015, do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers and stunt performers? What lessons do you take with you that others should as well?
LS: Take notes, watch everything that pertains to your craft, and create and make it your own, even if it means imitating what's popular until you create your own original lane. But more importantly, the one lesson I have learned is to be versatile. I don't want to be known as just a fight guy. It boxes you in to a certain area and limits what projects come your way. If you want bigger and better you have to be able to show you can handle it and do it safely. I'm grateful for some projects I wanted really badly and was not chosen for while most of them floundered, or in hindsight I was I was not ready to run them. 
Set your path, dream big and adjust when necessary, but stay the course.
FCSyndicate: Well I certainly hope your path leads you to other opportunities in filmmaking Larnell, and I look forward to seeing you in the director's chair doing great things, preferably in the not too distant future. And I'd like to share another dialogue with you by then. In the meantime, thank you so much for the opportunity to present a piece of your continuing story on Film Combat Syndicate.
LS: No, thank you! We appreciate your dedication to our community and the passion you have for all things action, whether they be theatrical, televised, or allocated online through shorts on YouTube. Keep up the great work!!!
From L to R: Scott Adkins, Darren Shahlavi, Larnell Stovall, Matt Mullins and Michael Jai White on the set of Metal Hurlant Chronicles: S1 (2011)

1 comment:

  1. Great fight scenes: "Captain America: The Winter Solider" to be sure that was incredible, also the intense fight scene in Parker . . . Something to look forward to: "There will be a big shift in fight choreography in the next two years. The right people are starting to get on the right projects."

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