*Interview* Action Director Keoni Waxman Comes To Chat With Me


AR: Thank you for coming to chat with me Keoni, you are renowned for making some of the greatest action movies of the last two decades, what initially made you want to pursue a career in the industry?

KW: Yes great to chat with you too, Jeff – stoked you like the movies. I definitely have a blast making them. I’ve always been interested in the quiet moments in films. My earliest memory of seeing a film was in Hawaii where I grew up – I was five years old and my father would take me downtown to see samurai films. He loved them and my mom wouldn’t see them with him so whenever a good one would come to the Islands he would take me. I would sleep through most of them but my earliest memory of watching a movie in a theater was seeing two samurai in an epic battle in a black and white snowstorm. Completely silent. All atmosphere and “moments”. And then one guy chopped off the other guy’s head. I’ve said this before, but I’m still trying to recreate that moment in my action films today. Anyway – I started making skating and surfing films with my friends on Super 8 as a kid and then when I went to University in Colorado I realized that I could do the same with snowboarding films and eventually got into the (very small) film program there.

AR: Your first movie was ‘I Shot A Man In Vegas’, how did the opportunity for this movie come your way?

KW: Actually my first film was a jazz film I wrote and directed after I dropped out of film school (I was 19). It was called ‘Almost Blue’ and it starred Michael Madsen (‘Reservoir Dogs’ was about to drop and the buzz was Madsen was going to blow up). I loosely based it on Chet Baker’s life and I had Michael playing a tenor sax player. He learned to play all the tunes on the sax and we produced the music with legit af local jazz musicians and shot it in Denver at a famous old beat club called El Chapultapec. We took it to a number of international film festivals and that’s where I met people like John Stockwell and Janeane Garofalo and came up with the idea for “I Shot a Man in Vegas”. Kurasawa’s ‘Rashomon’ (a big favorite of mine) was the main influence for ‘I Shot a Man in Vegas’ (as well as ‘Mean Streets’ and ‘Laws of Gravity’). We put that film together quickly and shot it in Las Vegas, downtown Los Angeles and the Palm Springs. The car we used in it was my roommate’s car. What I loved about that film was that we rehearsed it for a month (longer than the actual shoot). I cut it in my apartment on an old stand-up Moviola – it was a lot of fun. We did a lot of festivals with that film. It’s still one of my favorites.

AR: Three years after your directional debut you got the opportunity to work with Dolph Lundgren in the actioner ‘Sweepers’. This was your debut solid action movie, how did you find the challenge?

KW: ‘Sweepers’ was around 1997 and back then Dolph was the greatest guy you could ever meet on an action set. Really smart and cool guy. I remember being excited shooting with him every day. We shot in South Africa so I was out of my element but Dolph was super cool and made me feel at home. I ended up doing ‘Sweepers’ because I had a deal with a company that optioned a script I wrote about Hollywood pool hustlers and asked me to do a couple of action films for them. Other side of the world, huge sets, tons of things to blow up, amazing animals to film and a budget bigger than all my previous films combined. Okay, done. I was shooting for weeks upon weeks and meeting people who became lifelong friends. The coolest thing was lining five boxcars with det-cord and attaching them to a classic “Thomas the Tank Engine”-style engine, then running the train across an old water bridge with my friend Wade Eastwood doubling for Dolph and leaping off of the moving train as it exploded and pitching into the water. Talk about heaven. Then we set the entire side of the mountain on fire and it took our whole crew running around with branches to put it out. Perfection, right? Anyway, that was the kick-ass part of ‘Sweepers’. The not-so-kick-ass part was when I wrapped and got back to LA to post the film. And I’ve said this before, but that’s when the cliches happen in Hollywood they aren’t as in the movies – they just happen and you deal with it; Producers wanting more action and more explosions, demanding things being cut into the film that are terrible or don’t work all for the sake of a bigger, louder trailer – anyway you’ve heard the stories. Short of it is – ‘Sweepers’ was an amazing experience that turned into about 2/3 of a good film and 1/3 of a learning experience. So after almost two years of fighting, I decided to take a break from action and go back to the quiet moments in films.

AR: Would the action genre be your own personal favourite & do you have a personal favourite movie?

KW: Even though I grew up on samurai films, I was always into many genres. I lived near a drive-inn theater (an American oddity, for sure) so I would watch all the movies from a distance (without sound) or sneak in to watch whatever was playing when it interested me. My own ghetto screening room. Specific films that made me want to make movies at first were my dad’s favorites. Every time one played he would either wake me up to watch it or take me to some crazy theater in some sketchy part of Hawaii to see it with him: He loved Sam Peckinpah (‘The Wild Bunch’ and ‘Pat Garret & Billy the Kid’) and anything by Sam Fuller. I loved the tone of these films and how cool but real everyone in them were. Later, on my own I discovered Alex Cox (‘Repo Man’ and ‘Sid and Nancy’), ‘Raging Bull’ (anything from Scorsese really) and Abel Ferrara’s ‘The King of New York’. I still think it is one of the coolest gangster films ever made with kick-ass music, totally unpredictable and out of nowhere violence. For a while now, my favorite film has been Alexander Payne’s ‘The Descendants’. I love the silent moments in this film. And it’s set in Hawaii.

AR: In 2009 you made the solid actioner ‘The Keeper’ with your first of many Waxman/Seagal movies. How did you and Steven Seagal cross paths?

KW: I was talking to some producers about doing a movie with Wesley Snipes -which didn’t come together for some reason or another – and they sent me the script for ‘The Keeper’. At that time it was set in Eastern Europe (this was years before I started shooting there) but after I got involved we moved it back to the States and gave it the Texas lawman angle (we shot it in Santa Fe, New Mexico even though it was set in San Antonio, Texas). Anyway, I thought the script was cool but it really depended on if Seagal wanted to do it with the Southern charm that I thought wold give his character some heart, or the (as written) Eastern European “minder” which was cool but not as interesting to me. Then one of the producers called me from New Orleans and said that Steven wanted me to fly down and meet with him. Steven was in New Orleans shooting his reality show and touring with his band (he’s a legit blues guitarist). So I went down there and I have to admit I was skeptical about things at this point seeing as Steven was so busy and I didn’t know much about his films (as I said, I didn’t grow up watching them). Long story short, I end up at the House of Blues watching him play with some of the Neville Brothers, then we sit down and talk about everything except the film. Steven had lived in Hawaii for a period of time and not only knew my neighborhood but we had many friends in common. Talk about Southern charm, right? Anyway, I went back to LA and signed on to do the film, we re-wrote and re-set the film in the States and Steven and I ended up collaborating for years after than night. I really like ‘The Keeper’.

AR: Were you a big fan of Seagal before you callaborated?

KW: Like I said, I didn’t really watch his films growing up. Of course I knew who he was and I knew what he was good at and before we started working together I did all my homework on his style of fighting, his collaborators, etc. You go back and look at his early films, you see him doing something that none of the other action guys were doing back then. His style of action was the real deal.

AR: 2009 also saw you guys re-team for A Dangerous Man, a movie you also wrote, did you always envision Seagal in the lead role while writing this movie?

KW: Steven and I spoke about it on the set of ‘The Keeper’. Steven, as you know, has lots of roots and interests in Asia and particularly with the Triads, Yakuza, etc. We knew we were going to be shooting in Vancouver so it fit perfectly with the locations. I really like how that film looks. My cinematographer, Nathan Wilson, brought so much to that film. It was also my first time working with Byron Mann – we have collaborated many time since then.

AR: 2010 you nabbed ‘The Expendables’ villains, Gary Daniel’s, Eric Robert and Steve Austin for ‘Hunt To Kill’, the scenery was magnificent, where was the movie shot?

KW: ‘Hunt to Kill’ was shot in Vancouver. I was developing another film with Steven (‘Born to Raise Hell’) which was to be my first film in Romania. I was still in BC when I got the script for ‘Hunt to Kill’. One of my favorite films when I was a kid was the Sidney Poitier film ‘Shoot to Kill’. So when I read the script I immediately liked it but I was already doing another film and I didn’t want to do a knock-off version of a (my opinion) classic. Then I heard that Steve Austin was going to star in it and I thought that now we could be making something totally different – loud and quiet moments. I met with Austin who is hands down the most real-deal this-is-what-you-get guy I have ever met. Again, living in Hawaii, I never watched wrestling growing up. So with meeting Austin, having a good script, being a fan of the “trapped in the wilderness” story-line AND having just shot in Vancouver – I called Seagal and told him I had to take the other film. Of course, he wasn’t happy with that news. Luckily my friend Lauro Chartrand who was directing second unit for me on the film sat down with Seagal and I and we decided that Lauro would take over ‘Born to Raise Hell’ and go to Romania if I worked with Seagal on the script and I would stay in BC and do ‘Hunt to Kill’. It kind of worked out for all of us and once it was settled I drove out to the rainforests in Golden Ears Provincial Park and began scouting. Two funny stories about that location. True it looked amazing (it was) but when we scouted it was October/November. By the time we shot it was December and EVERYTHING had frozen (including the waterfalls). Cold af. And as an example of how genuine Austin is – he not only didn’t care that he was now running around wet in a frozen forest, he stayed the entire shoot in his trailer ON SET in the forest. We would arrive in the morning and he would be out front grilling his breakfast. Amazing guy.

AR: You re-teamed with Steven Seagal for the TV series True Justice. Even though it was cancelled after two seasons was their further adventures planned for Elijah Kane?

KW: Yes! We did 26 episodes of ‘True Justice’ and had a third season ordered and written but never went into production. Steven and I had the entire team going to the Arizona desert for the third season. If you’ve seen both seasons you know it started out as a cop show (Sarah Lind, Meghan Ory, Warren Christie, Big Sleeps and Alex Millari Jr.) and when I took over the second season, Steven and I immediately made the team go underground and made them fugitives. Making it more like his films – Elijah Kane can now kick a guy in the nuts and throw him through a wall, right? So in season three Elijah Kane was going to be even more Steven Seagal and the show (which always had a lot of action in it) was going to cover the ground the last few Seagal movies covered storywise and thematically. I’d still like to do that third season.

AR: After seeing you shoot a small crafted movie with Austin, people wanted to see you helm a full ‘blow the doors off’ action movie. Which you delivered in Maximum Conviction. You also brought Steven Seagal in on the action. The two didn’t get much screen time together, was this due to scheduling? (that being said it was good to watch them rack up their own kill counts)

KW: That film happened because we were between seasons of TJ and Austin wanted to do another film and so did Seagal. Richard Beattie and I wrote it while sketching out season two of TJ and we shot it in Vancouver while prepping the second season pilot episode then rolled right into 13 episodes of TJ – it was crazy. It was awesome actually – we had a lot of fun – but yes, scheduling as you can imagine, turned out to be a nightmare because of it. I think we had 1 or 2 days of Seagal and Austin together. Obviously everyone wanted more screen time with the two but we were just under a crazy amount of pressure to shoot the film and get the season started. Plus I think it was Nov/Dec and the holidays were creeping up on us as well. Incidentally, MaxCon is the first time I worked with Bren Foster who went on to co-star in ‘Force of Execution’ with Seagal, Ving Rhames and Danny Trejo. I just recently finished another film with Bren – this time a sci-fi thriller that we shot in Czech Republic (called ‘Alpha Code’). It should be out this year. Bren kicks ass for sure.

AR: The movie set up room for a sequel, was anything ever discussed?

KW: Talk about wanting to do a sequel – I’d love to do MaxCon2. We have a script (two actually) and the idea was to shoot it in South America (like ‘Predator’). We scouted Colombia after season two of TJ. We wanted to bring the entire MaxCon team back and in one draft we wrote a role for JCVD. It came close to happening but it’s a bigger project and the logistics crazy. Still, how cool would that have been?

AR: Your next three movies with Steven Seagal were Force Of Execution, A Good Man and Mercenary: Absolution. Some people say this is a silent trilogy, is there any truth in this?

KW: Yes.

AR: You Steve still had three more movies together, End Of A Gun, Contract To Kill and Cartels. Contract to Kill returned Seagal to his ass kicking best with a solid story, it seemed like it could have been a potential series? Can we expect to see John Harmon again?

KW: Yes.

AR: Your latest movie burst onto Netflix, The Hard Way, a Michael Jai White lead Actioner with Randy Couture and Luke Goss, how was it working with Michael?

KW: ‘The Hardway’ was the first time MJW and I worked together. We almost did a few times but when we first set up the film at Netflix Michael was the only guy we wanted to play Payne. Michael and I met and just talked about the character and what Michael likes in action and movies for 2-3 hours. From that conversation I did numerous re-writes (as always) but I think the opening and ending of the film was pretty much written in that first meeting. Michael is a writer and a director as well as a kick ass action guy and damn good actor. It shows in the film and his understanding of his character. Here’s an example – in the opening scene with Payne he is playing chess and talking to his bartender played by Bogdan Farcas, a terrific Romanian actor. Thing is, this scene is supposed to be in New York. Now there’s nothing to say you can’t have a Romanian bartender in New York – but since the rest of the film is set in Romania, it doesn’t work. Bogdan is perfect for the role, and I have no intention of recasting so… I decide to make the bartender deaf. Great idea – Bogdan is a gifted comic as well as an intense actor so, again, perfect. I write it in and we move along. Then I get a call from Michael – “Keoni, you do know I need to learn how to sign now, right?” I’m like, yes but just a few lines, I’ll get you a tutor, videos – you have to remember, I’m in Romania and MJW is in LA. Turns out there’s a difference between American Sign Language and European Sign Language (I guess I should’ve known that ha). Anyway, here’s what I’m getting at. The day of the shoot, Michael shows up and has learned how to sign. Not just learned how to play the scene – he’s able to improve the dialogue. He’s even sat down with Bogdan and they’ve rehearsed in sign. That pretty much sums up how it was working with Michael Jai White.

AR: The man is sure quick with them hands and feet right?

KW: Quick is an understatement.

In your years directing movies what would you say has been your biggest challenge?

KW: Every film comes with it’s own set of uniquely impossible challenges. From the weather (it’s rare that you get to shoot in the weather as outlined in the script), to the gag being safe (as much as I respect and absolutely trust my life and actors lives with the stunt and EFX teams, action movies are cool because they give us a dangerous thrill, sometimes that danger creeps up on us no matter how safe and skilled we are) to scheduling conflicts (Maximum Conviction). But the biggest challenge is always getting that “one special” project off the ground without having to compromise the film. I did a film called “Shooting Gallery” that took me seven years to get made. We have an epic mini-series that we have been trying to make for five years now. So I guess the answer to your question would have to be to keep making the next film and make it better than the last.

AR: Do you find with the action movies you make and the budget given, piracy must play a big factor in the actual grossing of the movie? Thus hindering the chance of potential sequels to movies fans find awesome

KW: Let’s take ‘The Hard Way’ as an example, which did great for Netflix but I think it was pirated the same day of release. Netflix doesn’t have to worry about box office since its a streaming service, but they do track their films based on user algorithms. So THW does great for them but how much better would it have done if people streamed it only on Netflix? Did it do well enough for the sequel? Yes. Are they going to make one? As of today, they are still looking at the streaming data. If they only had to make a determination from their algorithms we would be shooting THW2 right now.

AR: After The Hard Way, what does the future hold for Mr. Keoni Waxman?

KW: Right now there are two action films that we are planning to make with Netflix this year. I also have a really cool martial arts film called ‘Blind Fighter’ that we hope to be shooting early next year in Vancouver. I’m currently writing a ‘Hangover’ type of film set in the modeling world in Hong Kong that should be cool change of pace. And with any luck we get that mini-series going soon!

AR: It was great chatting with you Keoni and good luck with the upcoming movies & thank you for coming to chat with me.


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