American Fighter movie director Shaun Paul Piccinino is not kidding when he credits the martial arts for his success, but the secret sauce is actually the drama.
“I grew up in the theatre scene,” Piccinino, 42, explained to MMA Crossfire from his home in Los Angeles. “My father was a drama professor who directed two plays a year. He did a variety of shows and different genres from musicals to comedies to dramas. So maybe that is a big influence on my love for all the genres and finding a voice in all of those.”
Born in Santa Barbara but raised in the small Northern California town of Chico, Piccinino’s ability to adapt and form strong relationships amid developing black belt-calibre martial arts skills are instrumental factors in his career, including his recent MMA drama film American Fighter, a sequel that builds on the 2016 picture American Wrestler.
“At the time, I was busy directing this World War II true story project (For Honor) that I had and a wonderful actor, Shane Graham, who was playing one of the leads,” Piccinino explained. “He was just starting this movie with ESX Entertainment and he knew they were looking to do this film (American Fighter). And he amazingly suggested me to them so they came and visited me on the set. Luckily, they liked me and wanted to follow up with a meeting and tell me about this project.
“They had done this film called American Wrestler and they gave me a copy of the movie and said this is what we’re doing,” Piccinino continued. “They told me about the project. This is kind of the prequel to it. I took that movie home and watched it. I was really impressed with what they did.
I liked the premise, I liked exploring and taking it to this darker, underground world of pit fighting – pre-mma of course – but it’s mixing those elements
“You’ve got street boxing mixed with wrestling, and then bringing a jiu-jitsu element to it. That excited me, being a life-long martial artist. I’ve always been fascinated and always loved the martial arts, so it was a no-brainer getting to explore that world with this film. I was wanting to do this movie as soon as I found to about it. Then when I watched their previous film, I said, “Okay, I see what they’re doing, I see the kind of quality they’re doing,’ and I wanted to be a part of telling this story.”
American Fighter was written by Piccinino and Carl Morris, tightly filmed on an approximate 16-18 day film schedule and $2-million budget. But delivering on the expectations of a sequel movie without the big-budget backing required some hard thinking and problem-solving.
“It was one of those things where there was going to be challenges, I could tell,” Piccinino acknowledged. “Especially with the fight choreography and having a solid stunt team. Luckily, some of my background was in that as well because of the martial arts. I started off directing commercials and through the martial arts I started doing stunts and then eventually choreography, and then eventually co-ordination, which then led to second-unit directing action, which then led me back to directing, kind of full-circle there. Made wonderful friends and relationships in the business and it stuck with me. I had to lean heavy on a lot of that stuff.”
Lead star George Kosturos talked about his experience as the lead star working with the choreography team. From Piccinino’s perspective, the smaller budget and tight schedule nudged him towards a versatile and reliable team who could keep things rolling.
“All the fighters in this movie are all legitimate martial artists and stuntmen,” Piccinino said. “So they really helped our other leads who are fighting like George who plays Ali and Bryan Craig, who plays Ryan. They both did all their own fights. We did have stunt doubles, but they both were able do all of their own stunts. The stunt doubles were learning all the fights and teaching them to the actors, but they didn’t have to jump in there.
“Even in the scene where Tank, who’s been two-time Mr. Australia, is his name,” Piccinino elaborated. “He was a cagefighter in Japan at one point in real life. Guy Grundy, I had worked with him before so when we were creating the script and reading Tank – I knew Guy was for Tank. Even when he was picking George up and slamming him on he ground, I had a double ready to go and George was like, ‘I want to do it, just give me one take’ – and that was the take. I was like, ‘Okay, we got it, you survived, I’m moving on, I’m not having you dumped on your head again.’ So we knew there were going to be challenges, but luckily I was confident in the team that I assembled. We weren’t doing wire-work Matrix style Crouching Tiger fights. We wanted it to be gritty, feel kind of visceral, brawling style that made sense in 1981 in America. It’s not even Kumite in Japan, so.”
“I just wanted really solid guys who could jump in there and sell these fights.”
In talking to other involved directors like Bey Logan, and fight and stunt co-ordinators like Roger Yuan and John Salvitti, each have different ways of going about the business of choreography and action. As you might have guessed, Piccinino is no different.
“A lot of actors want to do their own stunts and say they want to do their own stunts, but they’re not trained for that and they might not have the athleticism to pick it up in just a couple months,” Piccinino said thoughtfully. “And that’s where George and Bryan Craig were very different. Both of them had training before and are solid athletes. They had to prove it to us of course, but we wanted make sure we surrounded them with seasoned guys so that they wouldn’t get injured. When you have your actors who have to be in the rest of the movie, if they get injured that could mess up production. Especially on these smaller-budget things, that can really mess up things.
You can’t afford to lose a day of shooting. You only get 16-18 days to film something. You can’t lose a day. Or God forbid it pushes you back a month. That could kill a film at this level. A film could just not get finished
“So there’s all those factors to weigh in and really the strategy with Noel and myself was to bring in these guys who are super solid that can not only make it look good and hit the ground hard but make the actor look good and keep them safe. So that’s we trusted our stunt team and that was definitely a big strategy – outside of the choreography itself. We wanted to feel visual and gritty and not perfect. These guys aren’t throwing tornado kicks – there were a couple of those thrown in – but nothing like .. no 720s or butterfly twists or anything.
“Obviously, Ali’s background was in wrestling so we wanted to incorporate that and what’s really cool about Sean Patrick Flanery is that he is a BJJ master. He has his own schools and I really respected that. And that’s why I said in the casting process I said, ‘Hey not only is he a good actor, this guy is a legitimate is a BJJ practitioner and teacher. He’s got his own schools. That knowledge will translate on screen.’
“Alan Noel Vega was our stunt-coordinator,” Piccinino detailed. “He and I had done quite a few projects together up to that point and even more now. He was also our producer. We wanted to get a variety of different fight styles and people who could really pull those off. All of those were very strategic. Even the very first fight that Ali in the story has is with Bonecrusher Jones, who is really Lee McDermott, a fantastic stuntman who is a second-unit director himself. He helped design and train the actors for the Vikings series. He’s actually over in Ireland right now doing Valhalla, which is the spinoff series. So you think here’s a fight with a guy but really you’ve got people of that level and honestly, it’s because of the relationship-building that we can get some of the people to come in for this kind of film even though we don’t have a $20-million or $30-million budget.”
“Bas, who is played by Eddie Davenport who is a seasoned action actor and stuntman himself. He’s doubled Hugh Jackman. In Logan, he played the younger version of Logan. That’s really Eddie playing all those parts. He does big moves and television series like that. So there was this wealth of experience and some of that strategy was to keep our actors safe.”
“A fun story I like to tell about this is that the very first day on the schedule that Sean Patrick was on happened to be the training montage with the Ali character,” Piccinino said. “That was Day 1 with Sean Patrick. So we got there and we didn’t have elaborate choreography for it and that part of what I knew that Sean Patrick could bring to it. So I had a conversation with Sean early on and said why don’t you just train George? Train him in these techniques and I’ll make sure the camera’s getting good angles. He said, ‘No problem, got it,’ and went into teacher mode and that’s our whole training montage scene.”
Economics is at the heart of filmmaking and while it cannot be ignored, it doesn’t mean it has to dominate a film determined to tell a story.
“We also had martial arts instructors as well like Master Steve Pisa, who trained Ali in striking and there were kicking and boxing and Muay Thai coaches as well,” Piccinino added. “Bryan Craig also had some boxing training already from General Hospital so he had a great base already. We talked to him early on about coming on to play that role because of that background. Because again, knowing that we don’t have unlimited time and money to create these scenes, we needed actors who were already of a certain level.”
Since American Fighter, Piccinino has directed at least three more films, including the romantic picture Roped, the racing action drama Lady Driver, and the comedy California Christmas, which was No. 1 on Netflix in December 2020.
“I think martial arts in general has kept me very flexible and going with the flow,” Piccinino said. “I think my personality on set and working with these producers … they’ve seen that I can go gritty action, but I can also do the crazy comedy because I think my personality fits those things. I’m a very happy-go-lucky guy. I try and keep everything very positive. At the same time, I’ll jump in there and do some acrobatic stuff.”
And people are paying attention.
“I mainly know him from American Fighter movie,” Salvitti said when asked about Piccinino. “I saw the work. Good solid direction by him. In my opinion, it would be nice to see him get the budget he needs to deliver the next boom action film. That’s my take. These are the passionate folks I try to align myself with, guys who have the spine to allow the boom.”
In fact, Piccinino is already working on his next two films, scouting locations. He confirmed that a sequel to A California Christmas sequel is currently in the works.
“That one I will be directing for Netflix,” Piccinino said. “It’s going to be fun. I really enjoyed the script and the fun we’re going to have with the characters.”
Variety may be the spice of life, but the fighter remains a part of Piccinino, who is married with two children.
“I’d like to do a more modern MMA movie,” Piccinino said. “There are some scripts out there that I am loosely attached to. I do look forward to that in my future. I definitely want to return to that space and tell some more stories in and around mixed martial arts.”
American Fighter was officially released to DVD, Blu-Ray, and Digital on May 21.