Keoni Waxman Interview: Directing Steven Seagal

The director of Mercenary: Absolution talks to us about international appeal, tough guys, and all things Seagal...

I’m Den of Geek’s go to guy for Steven Seagal movies and, as such, was very excited when the opportunity to interview Keoni Waxman arose. He’s directed six movies that have starred Seagal and worked on the TV series True Justice with the big man.

Not only was I excited to speak to Waxman because I like his films, I thought he’d be an interesting interview subject. While I understand that interviews with big Hollywood stars are more popular, I felt like I would have a chance to speak to someone that many Den of Geek readers wouldn’t know much about, and that he’d be able to offer us an interesting perspective on a part of the film industry that we don’t have much access to. Those are the kind of interviews I like to contribute. I really enjoyed my chat with Keoni Waxman.

Keoni was in Romania preparing to shoot his next movie, which you can find out about below, and I’d had some trouble getting through to him. I blamed my phone, when it may actually have been my fault. I also dismissed my phone as a piece of junk, in spite of the fact that I then used it have a conversation with someone in Romania and the line was as clear as when I call someone in the office next to mine.

After that, my conversation with Keoni Waxman went like this.

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I’m really excited for this. I’m a legitimate fan. I’ve seen every Steven Seagal movie. I genuinely love them.

Right on. Steven is definitely a brand. He’s definitely one of those guys that, as we always say, he plays the same guy but he’s always doing a different thing.

I want to start by asking about my favorite scene in Mercenary: Absolution. It’s a scene that takes place in a club, and someone actually tries to intimidate Steven Seagal.

Are you talking about the scene where Nadia first comes to see him?

Yes, that’s the one. 

She first runs in, and she pleads with him and one henchman comes over and says something to him?

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Yeah. What I liked about that scene is that there’s a building of anticipation. Because we know what’s going to happen when do they fight. Were you conscious of building the anticipation towards that moment?

Absolutely. The thing with Steven’s action is, like you said, people expect ‘here he comes, he’s gonna do this, these guys shouldn’t mess with him. Why would anyone mess with a man like this?’ and so forth. You have to always be conscious of how you build up the expectation and how you build up the excitement to when Steven does his thing. 

I’ve worked with him a lot; Steven is always very specific about how the fight has to start. He wants it to come out of something that has a suspense build. If you pull that off right, it feels like the drama is preceding the action. 

So, with this, the idea that this girl is ‘running away, running away, running into him’ is a bit of a contrived moment. But if you build it up to the fact that Steven is in the bar, he’s relaxed, as much as he can his character is aware of his surroundings, then you’re playing into the idea that of course, the one guy who doesn’t want to be messed with is the guy the girl runs up to. I think that builds up to the suspense because as soon as the guy comes over and grabs the girl, and Steven says “Don’t touch me”, you know it’s on! 


And you know that those guys went to the wrong bar.

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The response to Absolution seems to be really positive. You guys have a limited theatrical run in the US. I know there’s been some buzz around the trailer. You guys have made a lot of movies together, what do you attribute the increased interest in this one to?

Honestly, I think that Steven, we’ve done a lot of movies together, we did a TV show together; we’re always trying to figure out different ways to not just present the movie, but make sure that the fans are getting Steven doing his thing, but doing it differently so that we’re not watching the same thing. 

With this movie in particular, we were shooting the last one, and Steven wanted to have a conversation with us about an idea for Absolution. The whole monologue that we open the movie with, and part of the monologue that he says later, it really was pretty much as he said it. He was very reflective about it, he plays this guy who does bad things to bad men. He was feeling like he wanted to play a guy who, it’s the same character, you know, he’s John Wayne, right? Or he’s Robert Mitchum. But, he’s playing that guy but he wanted to have some absolution. 

So we said, why don’t we try to come up with some back story with you. So hence the flashback to his wife that you don’t really get into too much, but you show that he’s a man who had a past. And why don’t you build it up to it’s a personal thing? And the personal aspect of it came from that monologue, which, really, he said to me when we were talking about the movie, and that just became what the movie was about. 

Back to your question, I just think that when we started getting into the movie everyone was just a little excited, from Steven to my team to the crew that we just worked with. Everyone was just a little bit excited about the idea of hey, this one Steven wants to do something a little different. He was much more engaged with the character, much more engaged with the storyline, much more engaged with the idea that he had to have this absolution for this thing. 

So, for me, a big part of it came from the excitement of Steven wanting to do this one. And it felt different.

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Do you think there’s maybe been a shift, too, in how people view straight-to-video action films? 

Oh, I think so, sure. 

I don’t know whether it’s Netflix offering people increased access, but people seem to be responding to them with a bit more respect now.

Well, you know, I agree. I think Netflix, VOD [Video On Demand]… it used to be that you’d go to the movies, right? And then you didn’t have to go to the movie theatre, you could rent it on DVD.

So you had your A and your B movie titles. But remember, film noir was a B movie title. The studio owned the director and the actor and they’d say ‘You’re gonna do the big one and you’re gonna do the little one’. A lot of our favorite movies from the past are B movies. Our film noirs. The B side of a record. I think that these VOD movies, these DVD movies, are now becoming acceptable like that. 

I know my kids, they’ll go to the theatre because it’s fun. They watch Netflix. They watch it on demand.  They watch it on their computers. These days it’s not ‘I can see it on the computer instead of going to the cinema’, it’s ‘I like to watch it on the computer, I like to watch it on TV’. 

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So, I think the broader answer to your question is, I think that people don’t make that big of a distinction any more. 

I also think that when you go back to these action films, you know, Absolution is a $400 million studio movie if you have all of those elements. Those actors, that money, those visual effects. The stories aren’t very different, you know? Because the story doesn’t cost anything. What costs is, the effects and the $20 million star and the this and the that. So, I do see that that line and distinction has been blurred quite a bit. 

Our movies are in that VOD/DVD genre, I like to look at it as maybe it’s just that people are starting to realise that some of the B titles, the film noirs, are kind of cool. Kind of fun to watch. Just as respectful, just cost a little less to make.

And you guys will actually show us violence and all the good stuff that they won’t let us see in movie theatres any more. 

Absolutely!  We’re still gonna put that in.

One of the things that’s interesting to me about VOD films is that there’s a little bit of mystique about how they’re made. I feel like we have a broad idea of how big blockbusters come together. Now, I know from this interview that the idea for Absolution came from a discussion you had with Steven, but from there I have no idea how it gets to the shelf in my local video store. Could you go through, roughly, the production process for me?

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You mean just in general or Absolution?

How about for Absolution?

So, using that as an example? 

Well, Steven has a huge following still. Steven was one of the biggest stars around, and he’s still a star. And his name value and his fan base, they may not be stronger than ever, they were bigger before, but he still has a very strong fan base. He’s a brand. To me, he’s like Robert Mitchum, he’s a guy who does that guy, and people want to see to get their taste of that guy. So there’s always demand for a Steven Seagal movie. I’m always getting called saying “Do you have a Steven Seagal movie?”

And you can talk to Steven, Steven has always had a lot of control over what he does and he has always had a lot of input in what he does. So he and I have a shorthand, so when he wants to say “Hey, I want to do a picture,” my producing partner, Binh Dang, and I, we sit down and go through various ideas of story lines with him, and he usually has an idea that he throws at us. So, the genesis of them comes from the financial desire in the market. And, also, Steven loves to have these ideas and he has a conduit with us to talk about them.

From that point, at least for our pictures, we have a team that puts them together. We have the same producers involved. I work with the same crews and the same key people who know what Steven does, so it’s a very well-oiled machine. 

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So, for the idea to go from Steven into your local Blockbuster, that part of it is sort of the fun part, because the demand is there and the machine is there, so people sort of turn us loose. We have this amount of money, and they just sort of say go ahead and do it. There’s a tremendous amount of freedom. The producers we work with, they know the market very well, they know what we do very well. So everyone makes the consideration towards ‘let’s make sure Steven has some action here, let’s make sure that we bring in this actor for this.’

You know, Byron Mann is in this movie, we’ve worked with him before, so when we were talking about the idea of Steven’s partner in the movie being from Hong Kong, of course we want it to be Byron. Call up Byron. “Byron, do you want to do it?” “Absolutely.” 

So, for us, it’s a very organic and fluid sort of production. It’s not always the case. Usually you have to go and sell the idea in the marketplace, then you work it back to how much money you have to make ii, then you build up the movie. For us it’s been, fortunately, the demand for Steven’s character and Steven’s movies is a very steady thing.

So for us, it’s been finding a reason to make it, and what can we do different and how can continue to try to make… you’re battling the cost of living. So, we end up going to different places to make the movie where it may not fit the storyline at first, but it fits the storyline when we’re done because you need to be able to maximize what you have. But trying to draw a distinction between what we do on Absolution to how the DVD market is put together, we’re a bit of an anomaly, but at the same time it follows the same steps. 

I have a couple of questions regarding locations, actually. As someone who has genuinely gone through and collected a lot of Seagal movies, and as someone who likes HD, I’ve had to do a fair bit of hunting online. It seems like you can get a lot of his films on Blu-ray in Germany, for example. What countries are you guys most popular in? Where are your biggest audiences?

Well, that’s a good question, because Steven is big internationally. And you would think, internationally, where action is an easily translatable genre, and I don’t mean in terms of language, just in terms of, you can follow an action story because that genre is something that everybody understands. The damsel is tied to train tracks, here comes the train, right?

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So, in terms of Steven universally, his appeal is international, but ironically enough, in North America, he really has a strong base, still. So when we’re making the pictures, we’re thinking about ‘Well, let’s go to Asia, let’s go to Europe, let’s go to Eastern Europe.’ We were going to go down to Colombia and make this one picture and ended up at the last minute going to Eastern Europe, and so you end up adjusting the storyline. But we try to go where we can do something interesting. That’s always up against where can you get the most bang for your buck, so to speak, because it costs a certain amount of money to make a movie. 

So we’re always trying to say let’s go to, let’s say, Asia, because he has a strong demand there. Great, but it may be difficult to get the right project in Asia, so let’s go into Europe. Why? Because Europe has strong demand. Germany loves him.  I don’t know all the markets that are very specific for him, but I do know that internationally he still has a strong appeal. So, we try to make the pictures where we can give the fans a different look, we try to make the pictures where we can tell the story where the fans are. 

This movie is set in Ukraine. Where did you shoot?

This was shot in Romania, which is where I am right now shooting a picture. The idea was just to give it less of Romania, Bucharest kind of feel, and more of a ‘OK, we’re in Europe, the spotlight is on Ukraine, it has a lot of, a sort of life to it right now, with, obviously, what’s going on politically, but in terms of people are aware of Ukraine.’ So we wanted to be able to say, look, we’re telling stories in areas that people are not only familiar with, but are in the news and are current. 

One of the ways I think you guys benefit from that is, the club in Absolution, for example, looks really unique. How helpful is that?

Oh, for Absolution the club was fantastic. Everything behind Steven had an Asian influence, all of the LEDs behind everyone. We tried to put everyone in front of a different look, for the picture before. The picture now, we’re trying to give it a whole different look.

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Obviously, you go in there, you try to find these great locations. There’s wonderful locations anywhere you go. But you want to not only make it make sense in the storyline, but you also want to be able to say ‘hey, look, Steven’s in Colombia, Steven’s in Vancouver, Steven’s in Seattle, now Steven’s in Thailand.’ You want to put him in an arena where people ‘Oh great.’ This is all part of the production value and all part of the film.

Moving slightly on, in some scenes in this movie, you have Byron Mann, Steven Seagal, Vinnie Jones and Josh Barnett all on set together. What’s your plan for if they turn on you?

[Laughs] I’ll tell you what, the cool thing about when you make these movies is all these guys are super cool. They’re all fans of action and they’re all fans of the genre. So when you get into it, the main thing you get is guys going “When do I get to go in there and kick some ass too?”

What’s fun about it is, you get to think ‘what’s the best match ups?’ and then you just see how much time you can take choreographing the fights, covering the fights, seeing if you can mix the fights together, and so forth. But at the end of the day, the four guys you just named, they’re all fans of the genre. 

Josh Barnett is, I mean he’s a badass fighter. Byron Mann’s been in a lot of Hong Kong action, he loves to get into his thing. Vinnie Jones, he’s a tough guy. And Steven? We know Steven. So with these guys, if you’re looking to a fight, and everyone has something to do, and everyone has something to add to it, it sort of becomes the opposite. They’re all happy to be there. 

I think I’m coming to the end of my time, so I have a couple of quick ones for you. You’ve mentioned you’re in Romania shooting now. What are you working on?

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I’m working on a film called Killing Salazar and Steven’s in it and it’s Steven versus Georges St. Pierre.

Oh, man. 

They haven’t been on screen together so right now we’re working out how we can see a couple of masters, Steven you know, and Georges St. Pierre in many disciplines, how they can come clash and give people what they want. 

I’m really excited about that. I had no idea they were working together. I’m a big Georges St. Pierre fan. 

We start shooting on Monday. It should be fun.

And, finally, what’s your favorite Jason Statham film?

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Alright, I’ll tell you right now, you know what I’ve been watching? I don’t know if it’s a favorite but the one that I’ve been watching is Revolver.

That’s a weird movie.

Yeah, it’s kind of cool though, right?


Yeah, Jason Statham, I love him. Watching Revolver, just checking that out, I’m going wow man, this guy has got it. He’s got it.

Thank you, Keoni Waxman!

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Mercenary: Absolution is available digitally (on iTunes and the like). It’s also out on DVD now.