Snow White & The Huntsman - Joey Ansah interview (exclusive)
Interview by Rob Carnevale
JOEY Ansah talks about playing the warrior tracker Aldan in Snow White & The Huntsman and the joy of learning archery, as well as some of the choreography involved in his fight scene with the dwarves.
He also reflects on his career to date, including his seminal role as a Moroccan in The Bourne Ultimatum and why appearing in Batman Begins marked a turning point in his career. As a choreographer, he also talks about the future of action cinema and why he believes the days of shaky cam could be numbered.
How would you describe Aldan in Snow White & The Huntsman?
Joey Ansah: He’s a really cool character. Obviously, that’s me speaking selfishly [laughs]! It’s a shame that the film has got so many characters, and so many original sub-plots in addition to the main one, because in order to make the running time suitable for its cinema release we had to lose a lot. So much more footage of the Queen’s riders, led by Aldan and the Queen’s brother, Finn (Sam Spruell), exists and there was a very interesting sub-plot involving the prince. But Aldan is something of a mysterious warrior and tracker. He’s almost the odd one out in the film. He’s the only warrior of colour, or person of colour, in the movie, which is set in this hypothetical Europe or England.
So, Aldan stands out as decidedly Moorish or Saracen and I guess that’s what Rupert [Sanders, director] decided on – that somehow from the Crusades he had found his way to England to sell his services. So, he gets recruited by Finn because he needs someone else who knows the dark forest, like the huntsman (Chris Hemsworth), and I step forward and I ride ahead as tracker. You can see a bit of that still remains where I find Snow White and the huntsman’s trail. But obviously, there’s more of that and we catch up to Snow White and the huntsman at various points through the film. But in the longer cut, you get to see how we’re finding them each time. I hear original cut was almost two hours and 40 minutes, whereas the version you’ll see in cinemas is something like two hours and seven minutes, so that gives you an idea of how much more there is. I’ve no idea whether the Blu-ray will provide an extended director’s cut. I hope so.
Q. He still has a key role to play in what we see of him though…
Joey Ansah: He does. But if you see the whole thing, Aldan starts off as this fairly quiet, mysterious tracker but when things hit the fan, so to speak, he kind of really comes in his own and is a lethal warrior. He leaves his mark quite significantly.
Q. Did you have to learn archery or did you already have those skills?
Joey Ansah: No, I had to learn but because of my life-long passion for martial arts and the skills I’ve learned I tend to pick up weapons very quickly, so I’m pretty good with various guns as well. I guess it’s because the various principles of aiming and handling carry over. But I really enjoyed the archery sessions. I only did a couple of sessions but I picked it up quickly and I filmed the whole thing, so I may post them up at some point. It’s very addictive and learning about things such as the point of aim and not to close one eye was great. I even learned a few surprising things about archery you don’t expect.
Q. Will you continue with it?
Joey Ansah: I would love to. I have some friends who live down in Surrey or Oxshott, somewhere with a lot more space than where I live in London, so if someone set me up with some bows and targets I would do it in a heartbeat. Normally on film, all of the arrows are CG, there are very few legitimate ones, but there were some scenes in Snow White where I said: “My aim is good enough, so let me shoot some real ones.” And they did.
Q. Can you tell which scenes those are? Are they still in the film?
Joey Ansah: There are some cool little tricks you can do and little shows where you can tell. To fire a bow, you have to pull back on the string so hard that when you release the string you get a poof of smoke that conveys the power of how taught it needs to be. There is a little bit of dust you can see…
Q. Ridley Scott used the water effect to illustrate it in Robin Hood, didn’t he?
Joey Ansah: Exactly. You can see the water coming off the string in slow-motion.
Q. How complicated was the choreography involving your fight scene with the dwarves, especially given the way the dwarves were used in the film?
Joey Ansah: It was pretty complicated. Any long shots involved shooting with the dwarf doubles, who are genuinely 4ft or under and wearing prosthetic masks that look identical to the actors playing them, in my case Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones. So, to film an action scene you’d first do the long shot with the doubles and then come in for close-us. I’d have to stand on a raised rostrum, or table, and the dwarf actors are standing either side of you… and then you go through the whole fight again. So, you’re doing this very complex choreography and I’m standing on a very narrow kind of table.
A lot of people don’t realise that Snow White was shot on a very tight schedule. The release date was brought forward and the film lost about a month of pre-production, so once it got going it was on a very tight time schedule. I had one day to film that fight scene and because of a change of location I had only choreographed it a couple of days before, so no one had chance to practice it before we were on-set. It’s not the ideal way to perform action at all, so you have to improvise within the moment and be flexible.
Q. As a choreographer yourself, and someone who has directed action scenes for Street Fighter: Legacy, you must be all the more aware of how invaluable preparation is for such scenes?
Joey Ansah: Yes and I have several projects coming up where I get to choreograph my own fights and then perform them as an actor. I’ve got a film called UFO [name subject to change] with Jean-Claude Van Damme, Sean Brosnan, Sean Pertwee and Van Damme’s daughter and I choreographed and oversaw the edit of all the fight scenes. It was surreal choreographing for Van Damme! But the choreographer can see the fight in his mind and then oversees the edit, so it’s one vision throughout the process. With action in Hollywood, a choreographer will be hired to design an amazing fight, with all these cool little narrative bits, such as a fighter having to perform a certain move because he’s been injured and can only move that way, but it can all get lost in translation because the director then does what he wants with it and then passes it on to the editor, who does his interpretation of the fight. It becomes almost like Chinese whispers, so sometimes the end fight you see on film is so different to how it was conceived and looked on the day. If you saw B-roll footage of the shoot you’d almost think: “Where’s that bit gone?” It’s one of the biggest conundrums in Hollywood trying to work out where the logic of an action timeline has come through.
With The Raid, for example, they would pre-viz the whole fight scene and shoot it from all angles, so they could work out in rehearsal what they wanted. Gareth Evans, the director, then had those stored in his iPad so that he could see the timeline and then they’d take one and shoot it exactly as it was conceived. And they went along shooting to order, so all those amazing fight sequences in that movie have been done in that way and that’s why it’s so coherent. You can see and understand every beat of the action because it’s been thought through and executed to a plan, rather than shooting a load of coverage and seeing what happens.
Q. It’s been said that The Raid may change people’s approach to making action movies. Do you think that might happen?
Joey Ansah: I would love it if that were the case. Gareth is a man after my own heart. I’m a big supporter of the approach they took and would love to work with Gareth one day. I mean, The Raid is a $1 million movie and that’s the level of action that’s coming out. It’s worth noting that the stunt and fight team are sometimes the first team hired on a big movie… maybe three months before filming begins. So, you have a full team of stunt people designing these sequences and working on them full-time throughout the process and then sometimes the film comes out and you see the end result of the action and you think: “That’s it? You’ve had people full-time on it for five months and this is the best you can come up with on a $100 million budget?” And then there’s these dudes in Indonesia who achieved what they did on The Raid with just $1 million. It shows that a lot can be done with not very much. If you give me three months with a full time fight team, see what happens. In UFO, for instance, there’s a four and a half minute fight scene that is going to be a game changer.
Action is cool but it’s all down to the director’s interpretation at the end of the day, so you have to serve his visions and do what you can. So, you do your job to the best of your ability, you perform the fight and then it’s out of your hands. It’s then down to the director or the producer. You can give your opinion but often it’s not heard. Actors have their riders and all kinds of contract terms and one of my big ones as I continue to make a name for myself as a top action guy is that I design my own action in films and oversee the edit. So, if Joey Ansah is dong a fight scene it’ll be of a certain quality in the way it’s presented, as well as in terms of the performance and the choreography. A lot of fans are complaining nowadays of too much shaky cam [in action scenes] and not being able to see what is going on, but I don’t want to disappoint people. I’m a huge admirer of action and I’m very passionate about it. I do believe that a lot of action could be done so much better in general, so I’m a real advocator for pushing things forward in that sense and giving the fans what they want.
Q. You mentioned Van Damme and I’ve read that you were a massive fan of his work growing up, along with the likes of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, so what was it like to actually direct him and issue orders, so to speak?
Joey Ansah: When I started martial arts… Bruce Lee is obviously the top dog and Jackie [Chan] is a legend. But for a lot of westerners it was Van Damme. He was the first person you saw that made you realise you didn’t need to be Asian or Oriental to do that stuff. So, it was surreal to direct him… he was my idol at the time I was getting into this stuff, so to end up essentially telling him and his daughter what to do fight-wise… The fight I did with him was again shot on a tight schedule and was essentially one long night but it was great. We tried to mix it up a bit too. He has a very specific style and rhythm to his choreography, it’s what made him famous. But I think he would do well to modernise and mix it up a bit, and that’s what we tried to do in this movie, so people can say he’s moving a bit differently, and there are a few more combinations rather than one big power hit. I also worked with Bianca, his daughter, so it was the whole Van Damme clan!
Q. How did he take direction from someone else?
Joey Ansah: He took direction well and was a very polite guy.
Q. Talking of choreography and game-changing fight scenes, you’re perhaps best known for The Bourne Ultimatum and that stunning chase and fight sequence in Morocco. How complicated was that to pull off, given that it’s essentially three separate chases in one scene?
Joey Ansah: Well, first of all I was so honoured to have been a contributing part of that great movie and that great sequence. The whole conception of that Morocco scene and its choreography is, as you say, so complicated because there’s so much going on. It’s essentially the police chasing Bourne, Bourne chasing me, and me chasing Julia Stiles and it’s a master-class in building up tension, so by the time the fight happens you’re chomping at the bit for it. People sometimes forget and concentrate on the fight itself, which is great, but the 15 minutes that come beforehand are equally as breathtaking.
It’s a funny thing, too, because it was done using a shaky cam and [director] Paul Greengrass kind of started that trend for using it in action sequence. But he is the only person who can and should get away with it. And the whole film had that look, so it was in tune that the fight scenes had it too. Greengrass, though, is like an Impressionist painter when it comes to that stuff. It’s not about the details for him, it’s about the essence. He didn’t want to show every fine detail of the fight, he wanted to give you a visceral essence of what being in real combat is all about. I can think of a lot of films that are shot in a classical, nice style and then suddenly when it comes to the fight scene it’s all choppy and jerky and doesn’t work. A lot of people have tried to ape his [Greengrass’] style and it’s become annoying to a lot of people. But the Bourne fight is also emotionally true. It’s not the most technically difficult fight I’ve been a part of. But we were putting a lot of real hits in and the emotion is there.
As an actor, it’s all about whether you can sell the emotion on your face… that desperation, the panic and rage that comes with combat. And there was no score or soundtrack in that sequence, it was just the sound of us fighting… the grunts and all – and that’s what people don’t realise. The emotion of combat is important to me. I mean, you feel almost sick if you see a real fight where someone is getting badly beaten up. You can get emotionally involved in combat that has nothing to do with you in real-life, let alone if you are actually in it… or it’s someone you know, and so you should have those same feelings on film. That’s why that Bourne fight changed the game. People hadn’t seen anything like it before.
Q. Have you witnessed or been involved in a real-life combat situation outside of a movie fight then?
Joey Ansah: Yeah, I’ve seen them. I don’t attract violence because of my stature and because of my lifestyle choices. I don’t like to go out and be out of control or intoxicated because you could be the toughest guy in the world and still be vulnerable if you’re not in control of yourself. And I don’t like to go to place that are unnecessarily confrontational or dangerous. But I used to work in a pub and had to help the doorman fight off a load of people at one time. So, I’ve seen enough. And even when you spar for real and fight with full contact in training, you get hurt or you hurt someone and you see them trying to fight back. I want to inject as much reality as possible into fight scenes, even if some of the moves are slightly larger than life, if the emotion is there you’ll then still be able to buy it. I recall seeing some films where people perform an acrobatic flip mid-fight and land with graceful precision and it’s almost like watching Zorro… it’s almost whimsical but you’re no longer engaged,
Q. So, what attracted you to martial arts in the first place? I gather your passion for it really gained momentum when you were in Africa?
Joey Ansah: My dad was a martial artist, so he was an inspiring figure, as was one of my cousins, who also who trained with Ray Park [Darth Maul in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace]. He used to teach me when I was five. But my dad was also a martial arts film nut, so in the late ‘80s he would come back home with films like Bloodsport or Cyborg, or other Van Damme movies… so, growing up I became captivated with that kind of physicality. So, I guess you could say my destiny was set by the brain-washing and early indoctrination I received back then [laughs]. And then when I went to Ghana, there was a proper Tae Kwon Do school attached to the school I was going to. And in Africa, you’re doing it on stone floors and you’re learning it in a hardcore, old school way. A lot of martial arts in the west has been made safe and sanitised. But you go back to Africa and you go back to basics, so that was a really good start. When I came back to England, I also got into Ninjutsu and it just went on and on and on. I enjoyed really pushing the acrobatic side of things, too, and being able to perform the type of superhero moves I was watching while growing up…
Q. Are you a fan of comic book movies too?
Joey Ansah: I’m a big comic nut! I love comic book movies. The Avengers rocked my world and The Dark Knight Rises will probably end my life [laughs]. I actually worked on Batman Begins. I was one of the league of shadows ninjas in the training camp you see at the start of the film with Liam Neeson training Christian Bale. It was a big turning point in my career because it was then that I realised that I’d been training to be a stunt guy up to that point, whereas I actually wanted to be an actor who could do his own stunts. I didn’t want to just work as a stunt double; if I was choreographing and performing stunts, they should be for me as a character on the screen. It was also an honour watching Christopher Nolan at work, as well as Liam Neeson, Christian Bale and Ken Watanabe. But you can imagine if that’s not going to kick you up the ass and inspire you, then I don’t want know what will!
Q. How is your Street Fighter series coming along?
Joey Ansah: I’ve been been writing them with Christian Howard, who plays Ken in it. And I’ve been writing them ever since the pilot, Legacy, came out. It’s been a full-time job for me over the past two years… even when I was on-set on Snow White I’d be in my trailer script-writing throughout. But the scripts exist now and are done. We are working with Capcom to try and close a deal and make the thing legit. With any joy the series will come out next year and we’ll start filming this year or next. At the very least, the scripts are there – they’ve been done, re-drafted and edited, so we’re ready to go. If we got the green-light now, we could be ready to film in three months time. So, we’re very far down the line in terms of pre-production and certain attached cast. But that’s been my life’s work.
Q. What inspired you to do it?
Joey Ansah: Well, whenever you get game adaptations, it strikes me that it’s always the gamers who get mugged because they try and make it for everyone else first and the actual gamers last. So, I wanted to buck that trend and make it for the gamers and then distribute it to them first and everyone else second. So, we’ll be looking to go out via Xbox live, or other gamer-centric channels, so that gamers can feel it was made for them. It will be shot cinematically and it would be cool to do some event screenings if possible, possibly theatrically, but we’re not setting out to make it as a straight theatrical release… possibly a TV series that’s distributed digitally.
Q. You’ve also recently worked with John Cusack. How was that?
Joey Ansah: We had a great script for The Numbers Station. When I first read the script I couldn’t put it down. I had to know what happened. The film was shot in four weeks, so it was another incredibly tight shooting schedule. But it was shot in a genuine old WWII military base in Ipswich on the east coast, so that was cool. John Cusack takes himself and his work very seriously, so he’s intense and very in character a lot of the time. He likes knowing the reasons for things happening. But it was cool to get to work with him. I’ve got a very significant part in that and we have some pretty intense scenes together but I don’t want to say too much and ruin it. Malin Ackerman was also great. When I saw her in Watchmen, I thought she stood out and she was so lovely to then be able to work with on this… a real joy.
Q. Everything seems to be going really well for you at the moment? It took a while after Bourne…
Joey Ansah: Bourne was my big break. But I was 23 at the time and relatively clueless. I didn’t have a big agent, or a publicist or US representation behind me, so I was kind of running blind… it was almost a false start. I had this massive breakthrough but no one knew who I was and I didn’t get the benefits from that Bourne role even though it was celebrated. But I used that down-time to get into filmmaking and produce shorts. And if I didn’t have that, I wouldn’t have got round to making the Street Fighter: Legacy pilot and then I wouldn’t be developing the series that I am now. So, things happen for a reason… I then got with a good agent and I started working a lot acting-wise. I’ve now got a good body of work behind me. I’ve done straight drama as well, I can do accents, so I’m really ready to attack Hollywood now and the roles are coming in. It’s about keep that snowball effect going…
Q. Do you have Sweetest Love next?
Joey Ansah: I’m not sure what’s happening with that. But I’m currently looking at doing Fast & Furious 6. If you remember, they were initially courting Jason Statham for a role in the movie, so the part I’d be up for would be part of that character’s crew. I think they intend to film in the UK and I would be part of a potential rival car crew to Vin’s. I think Luke Evans, who was in Immortals, has now been cast as the character Statham was being courted for. So, I’m sure they’ll start casting the rest of the UK cast soon. We’ll see. It’s crazy the amount of near misses you can have in the film world. But it’s a film I’d really like to be a part of.
Snow White & The Huntsman is in UK cinemas from Wednesday, May 30, 2012. Or to find out more about Joey Ansah and the Street Fighter series, visit his website
The Bourne Ultimatum photos kindly supplied by Universal Pictures.