Interview with Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist's Joey Ansah

Interview Gavin Jasper
5/23/2014 at 9:13AM

The writer/director/Akuma discusses the hard work that went into Assassin's Fist as well as why Paul Phoenix from Tekken pisses him off.

Today marks the release of Street Fighter: Assassin's Fist, the live-action YouTube/Machinima series chronicling the training of Ryu and Ken under Master Gouken as the ghosts of his past – namely his demonic brother Akuma – begin to manifest. Spun out from a short film called Street Fighter: Legacy, Assassin's Fist is the hopeful step towards a live-action Street Fighter movie that fans can be proud of for once. Fingers crossed.

I got to speak with Joey Ansah, the co-writer, director, prosthetics-covered Akuma. He discussed fighting game stories, the process in bringing the pixilated warriors into live-action, and how it's been working under Capcom's umbrella.

Den of Geek: I've watched the first few episodes. Phenomenal stuff. What spawned the idea for you to really delve into Street Fighter lore like this?

Joey Ansah: Well, I guess it's never been told before, right? Street Fighter as a mythology is very convoluted. As you know, most people's introduction to Street Fighter was Street Fighter II in terms of mainstream exposure and the little narrative around it has consisted of a bit of prologue and a bit of epilogue. And they went forward into Super Street Fighter II Turbo where Akuma came in and you suddenly realize, "Okay, there's this dude who supposedly killed Ryu and Ken's master but was also his brother." And then they did Street Fighter Alpha games set before Street Fighter II and you get a bit more backstory and then you get the animes – some of which are canon and some, despite being official Capcom products, are depicted as not being canon – and then you got the UDON comic book series.

So you've got all this kind of jigsaw puzzle made up of different types of pieces. So I thought it was necessary to go and try and do something that will be regarded as the definitive backstory of the Ansatsuken characters, Ryu, Ken, Gouki, Gouken, Gotetsu, etc.

We have something solid to launch from. If there's going to be a franchise moving forward, we're going to need a solid grounding. And I think fans are frustrated with the kind of lack of clarity of the Street Fighter mythology. And it's just not being done! The anime has touched on various areas, but you have to watch three different animes or read four different comic series from UDON to really get a pseudo clear idea of the history of Ryu and Ken. So I hope that answers your question in a really convoluted way.

No, I fully agree with all of that. I'm also a big fan of stories in games like Street Fighter, Mortal Kombat, so on. One thing I always get is people kind of looking down at it and looking down at caring about the story in a video game, especially in fighting games. What is it about the Street Fighter storyline that really inspires you?

Good question. As you said, people on the surface think, "Aw, there really is no story to Street Fighter," but they couldn't be more further from the truth. I think Street Fighter IV... I love it in some ways, but I'm also annoyed by it because they made the story... they dumbed it down and made it this very tacky, cartoony, almost spoof. See, I don't get why games series do that. You probably know Tekken did the same thing, right? I'm a Paul Phoenix fan. In Tekken 1 and 2, his story was badass and he was a serious character and by Tekken 5 and 6, he's a fucking joke.

(laughs)

Law is now more concerned about his goddamn restaurant and it's like, what the hell happened to kind of this dark anime? All these things started off as kind of a Fist of the North Star sensibilities and they've ended up as this kind of comedy slapstick almost pastiche of itself. So bring into the whole warrior's tale and the Ansatsuken storyline, which I guess I've tackled in this, is a real fundamental story.

It goes back to classic storytelling like the Illiad, Greek mythology, or ancient Old Testament, father vs. son, brother vs. brother, good vs. evil, the love triangle. All of those real fundamental storytelling concepts that I guess have fueled the human story and inspired us as a race and what it contains with in it.

This is kind of a goldmine and I'm not sure how far into the series you've watched, but when you go into the past, you really notice how highly charged that tragedy is. It's essentially a tragedy. The love triangle and the loss of Gouki to the darkness apparently. I just think it's great storytelling and it's very compelling and it's very layered. And that's what attracted me.

I thought it's much better to start a potential new franchise there than to jump straight into The World Warrior, which has Blanka and Dhalsim and Guile and all these kind of weird and wonderful characters that may be a little bit too zany to stomach and first, you know? By starting with this Ansatsuken tale, I think it grounds it and it's a great platform to then start telling other characters' stories and opening that world up.

You put a lot of work to make the characters look true-to-game, but what really blew me away was the fighting. Even in bad fighting game movies, the guys there can still stage a fight scene. Here, when Ryu and Ken fight, it really feels like that's really how Ryu and Ken would actually fight. Even before the special moves come into play. How difficult was it to get everyone to fight so true-to-game?

Great! I love you lots for even asking that question.

Aw, you're swell yourself.

Because it's those details that I think if the audience picks up on that, we really succeeded. Ryu and Ken – if you really look at the evolution of Street Fighter and the way they fight, they have a boxing style stance, bouncing light on the toes. It's got a very karate base mixed with boxing elements. Now I guess Kyokushin karate founded by Mas Oyama would be the closest real-life style to how Ryu and Ken fight.

So when casting the various cast playing the characters you see, you need to start getting your mindset into the Japanese karate way of punching and moving. A lot of fight choreographers would just give them generic martial arts choreography peppered with a few special moves, right? But most generic martial arts choreography is using a lot of Wushu and kind of Chinese northern Shaolin-type looking moves, which are as far away from Japanese techniques as you can get.

So I, along with Christian Howard, created essentially a false martial art. This is Ansatsuken. That kata you see in the beginning, which you also see done at the end, is the basic foundation for all the moves and stances. Their style starts to evolve—I don't know if saw episode 4 with Mr. Masters—

I saw that, yeah.

So you begin to see, okay, that's where they start to get the form from. Gouken's mindset is kind of liberalism. There's always another way. There's always new elements to learn so he encourages Ryu and Ken's style to start evolving and incorporate more modern elements from western boxing, etc. In the first fight that you see Ryu and Ken have at the end of episode 2 at the dojo to the end fight you see, you will notice and evolution in their fighting style. I'm glad you noticed. It was all by design and none of it was by happy accident.

The basic techniques are in there. Like Ryu does that collar breaker – that down, down punch he does on Ken – the kind of a two hit. Bam, bam! A lot of Ken's basic punches and kicks and techniques are in there. The throws you see them do are the throws from in the game. So yeah, it has to be authentic. The thing about this series is that it needs to be 100% authentic and that is reflected in the fight choreography as it is in the characterization and the costume design and music for example.

Capcom's been pretty cool lately when it comes to helping out with fan projects, like they did for the Street Fighter X Mega Man game recently. How did they come aboard with this and how's it been dealing with actually having to answer to them instead of Legacy, where I guess it was just you guys doing your own thing?

Okay, well I'm going to let you in on a little... well, I guess not "secret." Legacy was not just some fan thing. I mean, you can see from the production value of it that is not something two mates cobbled together in the woods. Wind machines, rain machines, super thousand frames per second shots. Legacy came about... I pitched to Capcom about five years ago a World Warrior series and I wanted them to finance it and I pitched to Capcom licensing. I then realized that licensing don't have money. It's not like the licensing branch of Capcom have a pot of money that they can invest in products, they just exploit the IP, right? Now, that could be doing a movie deal or doing a lunchbox deal.

So I got this great project and they love it but they're not in the position to finance it and if they did finance it they would be dealing with Capcom Japan and it would be a big, long deal with lawyers, etc. But their Super Street Fighter IV was coming out within the next, I don't know, year or nine months and they had a marketing budget. So they were like, "Why don't you go and pitch something to our marketing department? Maybe you can get some of that budget."

So I thought, maybe I'd do a counter-pitch and quickly drafted the draft for Street Fighter: Legacy, kind of a proof of concept and pitched it like, "Let's do a Street Fighter short that's actually going to be pretty good and can be released at the same time as Super Street Fighter IV." Kind of as an asset, you know what I mean?

So I pitched to marketing in San Mateo and I pitched to Capcom Europe marketing and they were down! I really thank them for really believing in my vision and my pitch. So they financed Legacy. And we made it. And when it came close to delivering it—so, we were going to have Capcom's logo on it, "Produced by Capcom," blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. They financed it. But...they got cold feet.

For some reason, I think they just didn't get it, seeing the kind of early rough cut, they suddenly thought, "Oh no, what if fans don't like this and what if it negatively impacts the launch of Super Street Fighter IV?" So I kind of politically was like, "Okay, I understand you have fears. Let's take Capcom's name off and remove any kind of direct affiliation that they may have directly financed this and I'll position it as a fan film... that Capcom has endorsed. They've given permission to do that."

And that's how Legacy happened. It was financed by them. The irony is, it came out and broke YouTube records and had a 98.8% approval rating. And I was like, "What part of you guys thought this wasn't going to be a success?"

But anyway, that's water under the bridge. So you would hope...I would hope...Maybe I was gullible at the time, but I hoped after the terrific success of Legacy, that Capcom would be, "My God, somebody has finally done Street Fighter right in live-action! Let's just give them the money to do Assassin's Fist!" But that wasn't how it worked.

Again, we had to pitch to Capcom licensing and we'd have to buy the license like any other studio pitching for the license would have to do. So here's little me and my team going up against studios. Now, in the last five years – I'm not going to go into details – but various studios have also been trying to get the live-action rights for Street Fighter. So you could imagine what kind of fight it's been to beat off these guys and convince Capcom that they should give us the rights. And we had the means to finance it independently. Just for the record, Capcom – since The Legend of Chun-Li – do not invest in their Resident Evil movies, they don't invest in Street Fighter. And not many companies do! They sell the license and then whoever buys the license raises the finances. So that's how this happened.

Now, of course, Capcom is supporting the project with marketing support. The nice thing is, as a fan, I really wanted the creatives at Capcom to be behind this and see that I'm treating the material with love and care and deep understanding. Eventually, Ono-san... it's his rights to reject. He could have torpedoed this if he didn't like the idea of it or didn't think it was going in the right direction. He could have torpedoed this, but he believed in what I was doing. Then I was largely left to have full control.

It wasn't like Capcom was breathing down my neck, saying they must approve of all the scripts and you must do this and you must do that, not at all. I was largely left...completely left...All they did was read the treatment and, "Thumbs up, we trust you that you're going to do the right thing." The rest is history, you know?

As you've probably seen if you've watched episode 4, Ono-san cameos in the series.

Speaking of cameos, there was one line about a certain character that got me very, very happy. I don't want to spoil for the readers, but when Ken was looking at the list of other Ansatsuken practitioners...

Oh, yes, yes, yes. A lot of people have been asking about this person, who shall remain unnamed. "Oh, is he going to be in it? You do know that he should be in it at this timeline!" And it's kind of like, yeah, we know.

And there's more. There will be, down the line, some deleted scenes, of which there'll be a bit more coverage on that area of things.

Do you find yourself on the lookout for future casting? Do you keep an eye out and go, "That guy is exactly who we need as Sagat!" or, "That guy over there would be a perfect Adon!"?

Yeah, I'm always on the lookout. So Scott Adkins, for example, is a close friend of mine, being a fellow Brit action actor and he would be my number one choice for Guile without a doubt. Anyone would just have to watch Undisputed 2, look up Scott in action, and picture him as Guile. So there are people already I've earmarked for certain characters. My Bison, there's a guy – I won't name who – but I have a strong intent in mind for Bison.

The problem with some of the other characters... You know, I shake my head at some people's fan suggestions. They'll pick someone who is some huge bodybuilder but they've got no proven acting ability, no proven ability to do accents or speak in a foreign language, and no proven fight ability. And it's like, when you cast someone in this, they have to be the triple threat: they have to look like the character, they have to have a sufficient physique, and they have to be able to bloody act! That is the main thing, they have to be able to act.

If you watch episode 5, which I hope you did—

I did!

--you've seen the heightened level of drama in the series, right? I mean, just look at the scene between Goutetsu and Gouki during the banishment. How many actors or wrestlers or bodybuilders out there do you think can pull off that level of dramatic performance? Very few. So the need for good actors is as important as the need for great martial artists or physical specimens. That's what makes the casting so difficult and so specific on this. But yeah, I've got my eye on various people. There's some roles where I still don't have a clue and would have to throw out a wider casting net for when the time comes.

One last question. Are there any other games you'd like to try this magic on? I mean, you realize if you cut Christian's hair just a little shorter, you could easily turn this into Art of Fighting.

I know, everyone's going on about Terry Bogard and this and the other. I think as a commercial vehicle, if Capcom stocks their stables: Resident Evil. I love that game. I'd love to see it done right. I know the Resident Evil movies have a lot of fans, but they are nothing like the game. Resident Evil 1 was the most cinematic game at the time and it's ripe to make a really chilling, tense action horror. So if ever the rights become available to do a series of Resident Evil, that would be one of the first games I'd go for to do the same treatment of.

Thank you very much for your time.

My pleasure. Thank you.

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