I am super honored to have the opportunity to meet and interview one of the truly coolest, genuinely down to earth, badass in the martial arts action cinema industry: martial artist/fight choreographer and longtime friend/collaborator with Donnie Yen, JOHN SALVITTI.
(Jay Chou LA Weekly Special – Double Blade – John Salvitti)
Listening to John speak about his experience in the industry, I can instantly sense his passion and devotion to the arts. He was born and raised in Boston and have devoted over 38 years of his life to Martial Arts. His martial arts credentials are 2nd to none. John holds a 5th degree Black Belt in Shotokan Karate under Sensei Lou Hopkins, studied Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu under the famous Gracie family, and most importantly he trained in Wushu under world-renowned Martial Arts master BOW SIM MARK and her son, DONNIE YEN.
(John Salvitti Archives – Tournaments & Competitions)
This was where the journey started for John, as he became very close friends with Donnie. Donnie helped arrange a meeting between John and Hong Kong action film master YUEN WOO PING and everything was history. John was immediately cast opposite Donnie and assist with the fight choreography in a number of Woo Ping and Donnie’s classics such as TIGER CAGE 2, IN THE LINE OF DUTY 4, and CRYSTAL HUNT. He eventually became a lead member of the Donnie Yen Fight Choreography Team and worked on a number of high profile projects such as BLADE 2 with WESLEY SNIPES, the Oscar nominated film HERO with JET LI, and the MMA infused FLASHPOINT & SPECIAL ID.
Without further ado, here is our interview:
MAAC: I want to start off by saying how big of a fan I am and it’s such an honor to meet you! Our first question for you is considering how Donnie Yen is very hard working and passionate about film, especially the martial arts/action genre, what do you think has contributed to you having such a lasting friendship and working relationship with Donnie over the years?
John Salvitti: Thanks David! It’s a pleasure. Donnie and I go way back. Straight away brothers. That simple. But when work happens, it’s ON. How this movie thing all started it’s like a blur to me, it really is like a dream. It wasn’t something I was looking for. There’s luck, there is people you meet. As far as any success and credit I share in, it really comes down to when my training started. Your family, your roots, your city, your support system. The BIG ONE: martial arts training. Key was my Sensei Lou Hopkins from East Coast Karate. The foundation, the competitive fighting. Starting my own dojo. My MMA bros pushing me.
Of course meeting Donnie, you gotta remember, before movies, we trained together a ton. We would train at any given time. Night, day, seven days a week, in the rain, snow. It was purely about striving to get better. His mom and him are my Wushu instructors. It was almost like Donnie knew he was preparing me. He was challenging me and preparing me for the stresses of film-making. This is where the heart comes in, your roots. The heart, the mental toughness and the skill sets to survive the level of someone I consider to be one of the BEST in the business, Donnie Yen. Not to mention Yuen Woo Ping and his brothers all over you. It really is about being prepared for these opportunities.
MAAC: Is there any chance of you and Donnie squaring off in front of the camera again?
John Salvitti: I get tons of emails about this question. I would say it is something we’ve discussed. But you never know.
MAAC: Can you tell us about how the idea of infusing MMA into your choreography (as seen in Flashpoint and Special ID) first started?
John Salvitti: I saw my first UFC fights. I loved it. I knew it is only a matter of time. This stuff needed its own chance. It was good for me that I had some time for training in MMA. I just loved it. Opportunities came with 2003’s TWINS EFFECT. I was actually doubling for the main villain. I put on a wig and I banged out some MMA there. A little guard work, ground and pound. And then came FLASHPOINT. Here, Donnie really pushed me. He really wanted to go all out to feature MMA, really lighting it up, embracing that stuff. With that said, for the modern film, for me it was back to training and preparing for the next opportunity.
Then came SPECIAL ID. This film was the one that allowed me to have a nice opportunity to really set the tone, and BANG. Had me really digging into my training experience and mat time. This was a rewarding position to be in to contribute and give back what I have learned on my early films with Donnie. Kudos to ANDY ON going at it with Donnie. Those two were literally banging out there! Andy would come up to me during break and be like “dang, its WAR out there!” Donnie allowed me a lot of freedom weather it’s the choreography or being at the monitor studying the shots. These kinds of blessings are invaluable. From the martial arts stand point, for us choreographers being trained up for what we ask of the talent is crucial in getting these high level stars to buy into your brand of choreography.
MAAC: I know that you just wrapped filming POUND OF FLESH (POF) with JEAN-CLAUDE VAN DAMME. Can you tell us a bit about this movie and how you got involved with the project?
John Salvitti: A mutual friend and producer MIKE LEEDER was updating JCVD on my work, and JCVD gave me a shot. I can’t say enough about this guy Mike Leeder, he has been not only about the unconditional support and commitment to the project as a producer, but I’m honored to call him my friend. He was key in bringing me to JCVD ‘s attention. I paid him back with some banging fight choreography as he played the part of ‘Boris’, but he embraced it and what a gamer this dude is! Watch for his scenes, straight away dope!
There’s a lot of buzz about the team that was assembled. Of course it all started with the man who inspired and paved the way, Mr. JEAN CLAUDE VAN DAMME. Then there’s our director ERNIE BARBARASH who was very inspirational, DARREN SHAHLAVI (from Ip Man 2) our main villain was solid, puttin’ down, REAL. There was a really strong cast and story. The writer JOSHUA JAMES wrote a slammin’ script. For my department, I can’t say enough about the support I got from all the artists and the producers.
MAAC: To be honest with you, when I first read that you were involved with this film, I haven’t been this excited for a JCVD flick in a very long time!
John Salvitti: Thanks for that! Fortunately I got the script several weeks before the shoot, got my pen and paper, visualizing the star and churning the choreography. Really looking for that non co-operative combat. Ed Bavelock and my bros over at Kimekai MMA dubbed me with the 3 ‘S’, SALVITTI SUPER SCRAPS. We have fun with it because it’s a release from the intensity. Think musically, a dope rapper like Eminem. Intense, fiery, sometimes light, and then BOOM, he stops on a dime, breaks rhythm. This is a feeling/a style of what I consider is a bit like my brand of choreography. This is where I want to tell you about the difference between connecting the ABCs of cooperative choreography vs. the AGZs of non-cooperative choreography. For example, grab my wrist (NOTE: THIS IS WHERE I PHYSICALLY GRABBED HIS WRIST), ok next move is gonna be a punch and a block? No, in my way maybe I’m just gonna let you have it and turn your elbow right onto to you, but I’m also looking far back to see how instinctively do I deliver the aggression…combat.
(NOTE: This was very cool to experience a taste of that ‘Salvitti Supa Scraps’ choreography first hand!)
MAAC: So how would you describe the style of action in POF?
John Salvitti: Very kinetic, lot of pace, nice MMA real world mix.
MAAC: When should fans be expecting the release for POF?
John Salvitti: I’m not sure, but I’m thinking early 2015.
MAAC: From all the films that you’ve worked on, which one are you most proud of?
John Salvitti: As an actor or a fight choreographer point of view?
MAAC: As an actor.
John Salvitti: I would have to say TIGER CAGE 2. That sword fight, I still get emails about that fight!
MAAC: Yes! That fight was awesome! Was that your REAL hair by the way?
John Salvitti: Half was real, half extensions (laughs)! As for the choreographer point of view, SPECIAL ID and POF. My contributions to these two films were really personal and rewarding. Got to give a shout out of thanks to D-Yen and JCVD.
MAAC: If you could name any actor that you’ve never worked with before, who would you love to collaborate with in the future if given the opportunity?
John Salvitti: JASON STATHAM, SCOTT ADKINS, MICHAEL JAI WHITE and definitely some of the top dogs out of the UFC who is making the transition to film (for example GSP & RONDA ROUSEY) which is proven to be huge. This would be right up my ally. There is some dope directors too. ROBERT RODRIGUEZ (Machete), love to work with that guy. SAMMO HUNG…
MAAC: Awesome! To pair you with any of those martial arts/action stars would be phenomenal! Can you tell us a bit about the film that you just finished with Donnie called KUNG FU JUNGLE (KF-Jungle)? What type of action style are you guys going with for this movie? Will it be wire-fu or grounded?
John Salvitti: First of all KF-Jungle, like POF, has a great story. Lot of folks worked hard. Fights I can say I loved. Donnie amazes! I’m talking elevating his game with that D-Yen style and flare. You gotta see it!
MAAC: Nice! The hardcore fans would definitely be looking forward to that. Since you have experience working in both HK and Hollywood, some of our readers and myself see that in Hollywood they tend to use quick cuts and shaky cams and it seems to takes away from showing what the actors can do, compared to HK I understand they have quick cuts too but there is also wide shots and somehow you can still see the choreography! Can you elaborate on that?
John Salvitti: My karate instructor LOU HOPKINS was in MORTAL KOMBAT in the ending fight, big fight, but somehow there is a lot of those quick cuts and its jumpy in the editing. So it turns out you can barely see Lou! Then you take a HK film like SPECIAL ID, you’ve got a world class action director in Donnie Yen, you get a clean, polish, powerfully shot fight scene. You can just feel the style.
MAAC: So what is next for you since you’ve wrapped POF?
John Salvitti: I have two companies, one in China and one in Hollywood, that I am speaking with. I’m speaking with Donnie. Also JCVD has talked to me about a film that is very close to him. It will be an all out MMA style action.
MAAC: Wow. That sounds great! So its one of his (JCVD) passion projects?
John Salvitti: Yup, definitely. It’s exciting, the passion projects. The thing about these movies is that it’s not all about the budget of the film cuz the passion raises the expectations that get put on ya. I like this. I embrace it. That’s where the evolution…the path…gets pushed. I could see another new path and direction of fight choreography and I’m chasing it down.
MAAC: Very cool. I’m pretty sure a lot of our readers will be looking forward to that! Thank you John for taking the time out of your busy schedule to do an interview with us and providing us with these awesome insights! Do you have any last words you want to add?
John Salvitti: You’re very welcome! I gotta shout out to you David (Vo). Great site! Progressive site and info! And to all the MAAC readers hitting us up! Good stuff, good vibe. I just love it that you genuinely love this stuff David. The passion, this is what it’s all about. And may I holla at my tuff as nails stunt fighters who hung with me for the weeks of puttin’ it down in Guangzhou. The 188 Kilo Beast: Brahim Achabbakhe, Young Master Mike Moller (Director of ‘Arena Of The Street Fighter’), Little Sifu, Tiger, Pony, Muscle, Stretch, Brawler, Temur Mamisashvili. My Kimekai boys Ed Bavelock and Loaded, Nick ‘Banjo’ Patterson, Ryan ‘The Ranga’ Pyne, Big Dog Kevin Lee Plume! Writer Joshua James, producer J.J., Jacob, director Ernie! Ouuss! And many others…
John Salvitti: Lastly on a separate note, if I may I would like to acknowledge my first brotha in the arts, RICH BRANDEN, who recently passed away. For years Rich and I trained together under Sensei Lou Hopkins from East Coast Karate, Rich is a Champion, a hall of famer, and one of the people who helped shaped me early on as a martial artist. Our deepest condolence goes out to Rich, all of his family and his Studio Kicks’ brothers and sisters. RIP Champion.
As we prepared to wrap up, the fanboy in me came out and I had to ask John to sign my DVD copy of TIGER CAGE 2 and took a few pictures. It was such a pleasure and an honor to meet and speak to John Salvitti. Yup. One word can describe this experience: AWESOME.
Stay tuned and check back with MAAC as we get updates on POUND OF FLESH and KUNG FU JUNGLE! Also do not forget to visit JOHN SALVITTI’s OFFICIAL WEBSITE to learn a bit more about John and his body of work!