STUNT FIGHTING THE FUTURE: An Interview With Umar Khan
I've been back and fourth on multilinguist and multifaceted actor, stuntman, filmmaker and fight choreographer Umar Khan's YouTube channel for a few years now. It's loaded with reels and highlights of his training and work as a martial artist and stunt performer working his way up, and all which are clearly working to his benefit to date.
His efforts in past year have granted him the necessary credentials, tools and people necessary to help fulfill his goals of becoming a top-tier action director in the film industry, and with more growth to come in film and television. I have to say, it's rare for me to meet someone like Khan of his caliber who happens to have a team of his own that is just beginning, and having seen what's out there from other groups I've witnessed in the last decade along with sampling a bit of what Khan has been up to, I have some high hopes.
I had the opportunity and pleasure to share an email chat with him about his endeavors as of late, and suffice it to say, he's just getting started. And yes, I even got in a food question.
Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Umar! Thanks for reaching out to me. How has the year been for you so far?
Umar Khan: The year has been great. I started off the year working with the talented action director Isaac Florentine on Close Range. I've known Isaac for a while now - we were introduced through a mutual friend, Soke Tamas Weber, who has been Isaac's Sensei since the 70s and a friend of mine for about 15 years, and I was in Sweden at that time when we were introduced so we've been in talks of doing a film together for about 5 years. It just had to come down to finding the right script at the right time. I was in Texas when I got the call so I took the next flight and we made it happen.
After that, I worked as a stunt performer for Stunt Coordinator Tim Davison on FOX's TV show "Bones" before flying out to Albuquerque, New Mexico to work with Stunt Coordinator David Rowden on Paramount Pictures' Whiskey Tango Foxtrot. I was originally set to do stunts on the show but I got upgraded to the role as "Wild-Eyed Man" when the director was pleased with my performance while rehearsing the scene for the original actor.
When I flew back to Los Angeles I choreographed a fight scene with my newly created stunt team, Stunt Fighting Concept in association with Under Armour, Microdrones Pictures and Slamartist.com. We developed an innovative style of film fighting with a brand new top of the line camera technology that has never been introduced to the market before, I am confident that this is going to be a game changer for capturing action scenes in the future, with this new technology we can now freely capture action sequences with a video game style look.
The Pre-viz we shot got a huge buzz from Coordinators and Producers nationally as well as internationally. Apart from this, I also landed a small role on Captain America 3: Civil War in a few scenes opposite Scarlett Johansson. My scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in Atlanta and I had the pleasure of working with great talent. Chad Stahelski and David Leitch were Second Unit Directing while Sam Hargrave was coordinating the stunts on that film and it was an absolute pleasure working with the people that changed film fighting in Hollywood when they first started 87Eleven Action Design.
When I came back to L.A., I was requested to choreograph two previzes for Tom Delmar, a renowned British Action Director making his directorial debut, and I started training the lead actress, Joyce Gutierrez, for the two previzes - Despite having no background in Martial Arts, she did very well taking on such a extensive role of hand-to-hand combat as well as martial arts weapons, one of the hardest workers I've met.
I got a call shortly after from Stunt Coordinator Jeff Wolfe who wanted me to come in to do stunts for Warner Brothers' new TV Show "Rush Hour". It was a pretty demanding shot since there was a lot of difficulties involved not to mention it was a "One Shot" but it went well having Jeff coordinating it with his background and experience. I should also mention he is now President of The Stuntmen's Association, and so I have to congratulate him on that. It's a well deserved accomplishment.
I ended the year before going on holidays with a stunt job on CBS' TV Show "Scorpion" with Jim Vickers coordinating the show. I must say I had a lot of fun last year, met a lot of talented people and gained tons of experience both in-front as well as behind the camera.
|From L to R: Umar Khan, George Crayton, Isaac Florentine and Scott Adkins on the set of Close Range (2015) from XLrator Media/Turbo|
UK: When I was around 7 years old, I saw my first American action film, Kickboxer, with Jean-Claude Van Damme. At that time I didn't what Martial Arts were but after having seen that movie I instantly knew that that was something that I wanted to do.
My main goal was to become an actor who did all of his own stunts and since that time I’ve dedicated my life to it. I started off like any kid by mimicking the fight scenes from the different action movies I saw. Later on, I developed an interest for fight choreography so I started to choreograph my own fight scenes and during my years in middle school I used to borrow the schools camcorder to shoot my own films. I remember that I was already a perfectionist at that age - I used to handpick my co-stars, do location scouting, direct, choreograph and act in the films I made.
In 2002, a friend of mine told me about a shoot that was going to place and that they were looking for people with fighting skills and I went there and got the part, which later led me to play the lead in a longer version of that TV show. I believe that if you’re meant to do something, you’re going to end up doing it sooner or later.
I’ve had many inspirations over the years in the different fields I’ve participated in. When it comes to films, I started off at a very young age by having Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger as my inspirations. I later moved on to Jean-Claude Van Damme and Bruce Lee when I discovered Martial Arts and more recently I’ve developed an interest for Action Directing having Donnie Yen as my main inspiration. I've also turned more into the acting aspect and focused on improving in that field with inspiration sources as Denzel Washington, Leonardo DiCaprio, Christian Bale among many others.
UK: I would say that acting is harder then a lot of people choose to acknowledge. In my opinion, by putting stunt performers who haven't acted before in acting roles actually limits the credibility of the film because of lack of experience in that area.
As soon as you see that someone is acting or pretending, you lose interest. It should be natural in the way that you shouldn't be able to tell if the actor is the character he or she is portraying to be or someone else.
Acting should be taken seriously as it is the foundation for credibility in a film. As much as Stunt professionals train for their physical part, they need to train acting if given the part.
UK: I have a lot of favorite movies that inspired me in different aspects of filmmaking, here are a few of them. From a storytelling perspective, I like Crash - Director John Haggins really did something original and depicted a reality of how things are usually misunderstood because of our differences and the lack of wanting to know the unknown. I enjoyed Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire because it favoured a person living in a nation with a Caste system to have a chance at something beyond what he was "supposed" to be.
I've always been fond of history and the development of the different ancient cultures and societies and of course action design so I would add 300, Gladiator and the TV Shows Spartacus and Marco Polo to the list.
When it comes to the acting aspect of what kind of roles I would enjoy depicting, I would say Denzel Washington's role in Training Day, Gerard Butler's role in Law Abiding Citizen, Jeremy Renner's role in The Town and of course Boyd Holbrook's role in Netflix' Narcos.
Action choreography wise I loved the choreography in Donnie Yen's Flashpoint and Gareth Evans's The Raid. They did a great job with being original and different from a lot of martial arts movies, and I'm actually in talks with XYZ Films (the original producers of The Raid) to make a Previz for the American as well as Indian remake of The Raid using our concept so I'm excited about that.
Last but not least I'm very fond of movies with great storytelling rather than the multimillion dollar budget special effects movies. Independent films are high up on the list as well innovative ones, The Wrestler, Black Swan and The Revenant are to name a few...
UK: Stunt Fighting Concept displays a blend of artistic and raw fight designs showcasing the beauty of combat to ultimately produce a stunningly and visually appealing experience for the audience. As displayed in the Pre-viz, the content is Hong Kong style of action with highly advanced innovative moves from various martial arts captured almost to the likes of a video game, we want involve the audience for a closer look and feel of the action. We are using Hong Kong style cinema of showcasing the action at its fullest due to trained talent and not shooting it the Hollywood way of filming action by shaky camera moves, fast cutting and close up shots within the fights.
We also have the advantage that we are using the right type of system to capture these kind of difficult moves, with our game changing camera technology that is a part of our concept. It will revolutionize how filmmakers capture movie fights and overall action scenes in the coming years. What's unique about this new camera technology is that it freely captures the fights and action in a video game style look...
UK: The biggest one is the excitement and originality - I mean shooting a movie with fight scenes require a person who really understands both worlds of real fighting as well as fictional fighting and how to sell it!
Selling action to fight enthusiasts is easy, they would want to see the movie for the fight scenes anyway. I'm more into selling fights for people who are not watching the movie for the fight scenes but still get amazed by them and goes and tell their family and friends about the fight sequences, similar to the affect The Matrix brought when it came out.
To be honest, the majority of the "fight movies" have terrible scripts and terrible acting, and that's something I would like to change. Having a great script with great acting, and on top of it, selling the fights to the general audience (of any age or sex) who came there to watch the movie - that's the hard part and in my opinion, it is when true artistic creativity comes to play.
UK: Yes, I definitely have the directing aspect in mind as I have already been directing all of my own Projects and Previzes. I have a few stories in mind that I would like to be captured on screen someday.
As of right now there's a script that director Pema Dhondup is working on, to be shot in Katmandu and Los Angeles. It's still in development.
UK: The most memorable moments of the past year was probably when I created my own Stunt Team and developed our own concept of innovative action design. I had been thinking about creating my own Stunt Team ever since 2001 and that's when I came up with the name "Stunt Fighting Concept".
As far as on set, it has to be working with director Isaac Florentine, we had been in talks for so many years of doing something together and I finally got the chance to work with him.
I also say getting the opportunity to work for Chad Stahelski, David Leitch and Sam Hargrave on Captain America 3: Civil War was a great, great milestone. I didn't know what my role was or what I was going to do, I just got a call to fly over to Atlanta to work with them and it turned to be fighting Scarlett Johansson on what the fight choreographer called the most spectacular fight scene in the movie.
One other memorable moment off set was probably the traveling part. I love to travel and I did travel a lot last year for work as well as vacation. I went road trip on my off time, visiting different places in California, hiked to the top of Yosemite Falls to celebrate my birthday with my girlfriend.
FCSyndicate: I imagine she's very happy with you. I've never traveled really and it's something I dream of doing one day. Tell us, aside from your career growth and generally speaking, how important do you feel martial arts is in life? And what would you be doing now if it weren't for the choices you made toward film?
UK: Martial arts has been my foundation in life since a very young age as it has made me into the kind man I am today. I strongly encourage anyone to start learning about Martial arts, and unfortunately most people associate it with violence and something negative, despite its name (The term, Martial Arts is derived from Latin, and means "arts of Mars", the Roman god of war.) It's a way of balancing your life for a better and more healthy mental state as well as physical.
I have had my mind set on doing film since I was seven years old so it's hard for me to imagine what else I would've done or become. Maybe something within the military.
UK: I will definitely go see Captain America 3: Civil War when it hits the theatres in May. To be honest I haven't been very active when it comes to keeping up with my work but I'll try to be better at it this year. I heard that Close Range just came out on DVD and Blu-ray so I'm going to see it, I have another film called Whiskey Tango Foxtrot coming out on March 4 and then we have the new Rush Hour television reboot premiering a few weeks later.
Just a few more questions: What advice do you have to offer to readers or anyone looking at this with hopes of getting in film and stunts?
UK: Every person is unique, so don’t try to be someone else. There is already that someone else, so just try to be you. Spend your time wisely to discover your own talents and abilities, to improve yourself all the time by learning new things and seeking who you really are and how you can apply that to the characters you play. Try to be a new and improved version of yourself every year and remember that things will happen when they are supposed to happen. Many people do only one thing in life and that is the only thing they’re good at, when someone does two things, that person becomes special in the eyes of the people who do just one thing. When a person can do more than two things and do them well, then that person becomes supernatural for most people, but it shouldn’t be that way. We as humans were not created to only do one or two things, we weren’t supplied with all these gifts just to waste them so work hard and be persistent. Don’t be scared or hesitant... If you want to have something you’ve never had before then get ready to do something you’ve never done before, period!
UK: [laughs] That's a tough one, I was actually raised in Sweden since the age of 2 and we mostly ate mixed food, so I'm not very familiar with a lot of Pakistani dishes. I love food in general and cook quite a lot even though I'm on a special diet most of the time. There are so many amazing dishes do it's hard to choose just one but if a had to choose one, there's a French-Italian dish called mustard chicken which is an absolute delight, and to top it off there's a Swedish cake called "Kladdkaka" roughly translated "Sticky cake" which is always a hit wherever I make it.
UK: Thank you Lee, it's been a pleasure. Also you have to travel, it's the best thing you will ever do! Start small by taking road trips, see different states and move up from there to countries and so on.Our e-mail discussion actually continued late in the evening as I live three hours ahead of California and so I accidentally fell asleep on his last reply, so my apologies Umar, and yes, traveling is something I wholly look forward to one day. I should also mention that Kladdkaka looks absolutely delicious and being the chocolate fiend that I am, I now have one more reason to preserve my other favorite habit!
Film Combat Syndicate also report a few updates in the days since we interviewed Umar Khan with word that he and his team are actively pre-vizualizing fight choreography for approval in the upcoming American remake of The Raid using his methodology over at Stunt Fighting Concept. The film itself is no longer at Sony as of last October but still moving along its development stages at the behest of producers at XYZ Films with the search for a new director ongoing, so expect this conversation to continue to buzz a little more in the next year or so with further updates pending on aforementioned director We're No Monks helmer Pema Dhondup's new epic action thriller, The Man From Kathmandu from Clear Mirror Pictures.
*A previous version of this article has been re-written to clear up any confusion regarding confirmation on Khan's involvement on The Raid remake at XYZ Films.