Isaac Florentine on Acts of Vengeance, Antonio Banderas’s Mastery of Fight Choreography and Making a Movie in the Wake of His Wife’s Cancer Diagnosis
Isaac Florentine is one of the stalwart direct-to-video directors of the last decade, making fluid fight films on microscopic budgets, usually with the miraculously athletic Scott Adkins in the lead. His latest film Acts of Vengeance has heightened visibility, and an honest-to-goodness theatrical release, thanks to the casting of Antonio Banderas as a slick defense attorney who takes a vow of silence before taking his revenge on his family’s killers. I spoke by phone with Florentine about the development of the project, the personal losses he sustained during its production, and his philosophy of screen fighting.
Filmmaker: How did you first learn of the project, back when it was called Stoic?
Florentine: The spec script was written after I met the writer, Matt Venne. We met just for breakfast, [which] became a three, maybe four hour meeting. We found out we had common interests — martial arts, old Italian Westerns. He called me after and said, “I have an idea for a script, I want to give it a shot.” I said “Absolutely,” and about six weeks later he came up with the first draft. Sometimes you read a script and it doesn’t click—from the first few lines, I really loved it. I brought it into Millennium and wasn’t sure if they got it or didn’t get it, but they loved it. Nothing happened for about three years—I did other stuff, also with Millennium—but three years later, the movie happened.
Filmmaker: And the movie happened because Antonio Banderas agreed to join the project?
Florentine: I’m sure. No doubt. He read the script, he liked the script, I met him, and it was a great meeting from the first minute. A very similar meeting [to that of Matt Venne]. It was supposed to be 15-20 minutes and instead we talked for two hours, maybe more.
Filmmaker: How familiar was Antonio with the same kind of films you are interested in — the martial arts, ninja, training films? Was he a fan of those as well?
Florentine: He was aware of my work. But Acts of Vengeance is different, it’s not actually a martial arts movie, it’s not even an action movie. There are action scenes but I cannot compare it to the Undisputed movies, [which] are back-to-back action or ninja. It’s more of a character piece here. He told me, “Look, I’m very good with choreography, and I remember choreography really well.” I wasn’t sure. He even came, in my opinion, too soon before shooting, and I was worried. It was amazing, he just caught the choreography on the spot and delivered it flawlessly. I was amazed how good he was. But in my opinion in this movie [that’s] not a major part of it. The major part of the movie is the story of the character.
Filmmaker: So this is something you’ve been wanting to make for a while. I was curious if you made this film instead of Boyka: Undisputed 4, because I know you were a producer on that one, and I was surprised you hadn’t directed it as well. Were you working on Acts of Vengeance and that was the reason why?
Florentine: No, here is the reason why. You can see it at the end, and maybe that’s why this movie is more personal: my wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer just before Boyka: Undisputed, and I wasn’t sure if I could direct the movie and be really hands on, so stepped to the side. Luckily at that point she was OK, and I was there hands on during Boyka: Undisputed. At the time of Acts of Vengeance, she really wanted me to do that movie. This movie is about loss, he’s losing his wife and daughter; I lost my wife during production of the movie, she passed away. The editor Paul Harb lost his mother to cancer during this movie. It was a more personal movie, this one. This is the reason. Not a happy reason, but this is life.
Filmmaker: I’m so sorry. My sincere condolences. I can’t conceive of having to go through that, or to work through it.
Filmmaker: Yeah, it was always in the back of my mind. Actually, we stopped the production. She called me when we were three weeks into the shoot and told me, “Listen, the doctor told me I have two weeks.” We stopped everything and I flew back. Luckily these two weeks were stretched to two months and two weeks. So…yeah. Anyway, that’s the story.
Filmmaker: I’m sorry to talk about a movie.
Florentein: No, it’s OK. Listen, we’re here to talk about the movie, that’s what it is. The movie brings work, brings purpose to your life. It’s OK, that’s what it is. Anyway, for me it’s a more personal movie, this one. There was a fight scene that I cut out of the movie—it was really great, very well done, with Antonio. In the cage, he comes back after he trains just to test himself, he wins. And I cut it out of the movie because I felt, the editor and me, that it slowed the pace and was not right, and we cut it out. We never cut out a fight or an action scene out of my other movies. Here it was the appropriate thing to do for the movie.
Filmmaker: Yeah, it seems to be a movie more about looking at Antonio’s face, and how he’s reacting and how he’s processing.
Filmmaker: It seems to be a movie about processing grief. To go back to the process of working with Antonio and the fight choreographer Tim Man. You said Antonio showed up fairly late in the process.
Florentine: This is my third movie with Tim Man, and he’s just brilliant. Everybody was telling me great things about him, and they were absolutely right. It’s a pleasure to work with him. He comes, he prepares, he knows what he wants. Sometimes you go to sets and there is a tense atmosphere—not with Antonio. He knows exactly what he wants, what the character should be at that point. He can joke with you, and when I say cut, continue to joke. The same with his choreography. He sees it, he gets it and it’s done. It’s just a pleasure to work with an actor like this. He’s a mensch, he’s a wonderful person, he loves the process of making a movie. Even when we did the action scenes, he was so much into it [that] instead of going to the trailer he used to stay on the spot and enjoy the moment.
Filmmaker: Describe the differences of working with somebody like Scott Adkins, who’s more of an athlete, versus Antonio, who’s more of an experienced actor.
Florentine: I’ve done nine movies with Scott. I’ve seen him from his very first movies. In 2002 we did Special Forces and then we did Undisputed 2, and I’ve seen Scott growing up as an actor, getting better and better. His athleticism is way up there. I think at this point, it’s kind of the same, because the level where Scott is now as an actor is way up there. He comes very, very prepared. The difference is that Scott is very methodical. He thinks and he writes notes and prepares in his trailer room. Antonio, because he has so much experience, comes prepared but doesn’t show the intensity, it comes to him maybe easier because of the experience he has. But the work on the set was identical, with Scott or with Antonio.
Filmmaker: It was really fun seeing you and fight choreographer Tim Man as the trainers of Antonio’s character when he was preparing to get into shape. Let me know how that came to be, and what the working relationship is with Tim on the set.
Filmmaker: I am a practitioner of traditional karate. There was this little role for an elderly karate instructor, and I asked the stunt coordinator, “Let’s look for someone,” because I don’t like being in front of the camera. I’m the worst, I’m really the worst. Tim and Teodor Tsolov, the stunt coordinator, looked. But then they said, “Listen Isaac, we can bring in a stunt man but it will be fake karate. We think you should do it.” And I said, “I don’t want to but OK. But on one condition, Tim should be the jiu jitsu instructor.” We shot for about two hours. For me it was stressful because I don’t like being in front of the camera, but at least I’m doing something with which I’m very comfortable, karate. Antonio loved it, it was a fun time. It was the end of the first or second week—a good way to finish the week. It was traditional karate—textbook.
Filmmaker: Is what you teach Antonio, in the fights he performs in the film, a mix of karate and jiu jitsu? How would you describe the style?
Florentine: What I did with him was karate, what Tim did with him was judo and jiu jitsu. However, what you do in the movie is something else, it’s really what I call screen-fighting. Anything that looks good. The difference between, let’s say, real karate and fighting versus a movie fight, is that in the real fight you want minimum motion and maximum effect. When you do a fight on the screen it’s exactly the opposite: you want maximum motion and zero effect. It’s smoke and mirrors, the difference between real life and cinema.
Filmmaker: Please talk a little bit about working with the other actors in the cast—Robert Forster, Karl Urban, Paz Vega.
Florentine: With Robert Forster, it was an honor. He read it, he came for a day, really just to be a part of it. A gentleman and a wonderful actor, just blew us away. He created a lovely character for that scene he was there. Karl Urban—it was a different experience for him because he comes from a different school than Antonio. But it was a pleasure, when he does something he will do the same thing in every take —continuity will be flawless. The funny thing with him was that we started with a fight scene, so the first few days [were] physical, physical, physical, and only then we went to the character. With Paz—you have to understand, my ancestors were Sephardic Jews deported from Spain in 1492. They speak this dialect Judeo-Espanol, or Ladino, and I speak it, because my parents spoke it—they were born in Greece. In 1492 the majority went to the Ottoman Empire. When I was with Antonio at the beginning, the very first time, he greeted me in Spanish, and I answered him, and he said, “Oh, man, you’re Sephardic,” and the ice broke. It was the same with Paz. Maybe I was a piece of walking history, but it cut the barriers, and it made it a pleasure and personal, in a really positive way, to work with her and Antonio.
Filmmaker: Antonio Banderas’s character takes a vow of silence. Please give me your thoughts on how that functions in processing the grief of his character.
Florentine: In the beginning of the movie he punishes himself. At a certain point, when he stumbles onto the Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, he suddenly understands that the direction he took was the wrong direction. He was blaming the wrong person. This is where the movie takes a totally different turn: OK, who did it, and how I am going to get over it. I know the Stoics were silent, but one of my favorite Westerns, and also one of Matt Vennes, is The Great Silence, which Sergio Corbucci did with Jean-Louis Trintignant. No doubt we were inspired by that movie.