Asif Akbar on The Commando, Pandemic Shoots, and Delivering Consistently
Indie Film Junction | December 10, 2020
Indie Film Junction | December 10, 2020
Asif Akbar spoke with us about maximizing production days with two units shooting simultaneously, staying safe and finishing the shoot during a pandemic, and having the right mindset for a successful shoot (things will go wrong).
IFJ: Your latest feature, The Commando, is scheduled to come out soon. Can you tell us what it’s about?
AA: It stars Mickey Rourke and Micahel Jai White who plays James Baker a DEA agent. Baker returns home after a failed mission and is suffering PTSD. What he doesn’t know is that the house he is living in with his family has millions of dollars hidden all over within the walls and floors of it. Rourke plays Johnny. Johnny has just been released from prison and coming to get his money. Along with his goons, they will stop at nothing to retrieve the loot, except they don’t know they picked the wrong family to mess with. The film has a great ensemble cast as well, with supporting by Jeff Fahey, UFC legend Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, Gianni Capaldi, Cord Newman and Brenden Fehr to name a few of the other guys. I hope everyone is going to enjoy what we have accomplished with this film as my vision with this was to make it a bit different from the recent typical action flicks. One of my greatest highlights of course on this one is working with the legendary Mickey Rourke. Mickey returns to the screen in top form. Physically and mentally. He is doing what he does best and even did most of his own stunts and fights on camera himself after many years. He plays a bad ass villain that I can’t wait for people to see. Working with Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone again after some years was also great. The fights in this film, including the between martial arts action star Michael Jai White and Cerrone will also be exciting for the fans to see.
IFJ: How did the movie come together?
AA: A producer I work with came to me and told me he was interested in action films and would like me to direct. He wanted a movie like The Expendables. An action packed, typical shoot em up with a few action stars and great action, fights, etc. So I thought of this one that I had developed months in the past with my friends and partners Al Bravo and Koji Sakai, we felt it fit. The producer was interested with the concept, but wanted a few changes. After a some more rewrites they decided on something all together different and was now rewritten again and became a completely different script and went into development as a separate film. Eventually, we went back to the original script, which was The Commando and another producer was interested in making it the way we had planned originally, then two months later it was shot and everyone now is excited and proud with what we have achieved, especially under these challenging and unfortunate times during this covid-19 pandemic. We managed to stay healthy and not get shut down as many other productions have been.
IFJ: What has it been like navigating a film release in the midst of a pandemic?
AA: We were being monitored with strict guidelines enforced all the time and we followed all the safety protocols in currently place. Safety was our number one priority. If not we would of been shut down. You have to come to terms that we are living in a new world with new rules and we all must be willing to adapt in it, we are all in this together. These are life and death rules and should be taken seriously, but at the same time the show must go on, so we must adapt and be creative in getting the business done. You have to get in your head, that every day going to set is a risk, so now we have to think of more ways to utilize the time and be more efficient with our shooting schedules. The faster a movie can be shot the less riskier it is for people to get sick or the production to be shut down. We all have to adapt to the way we work and approach each film we start under the circumstances and with resources available for every production differently. Once we know we are all safe, then it’s all business as usual on set with the cast and crew to get the best job done possible.
IFJ: Can you give us a breakdown of the crew and production schedule?
AA: We had had about two separate full crews and running four camera setups almost throughout the full shoot, I think we did 1st and 2nd unit split shoot together full time in eight of the eleven shooting days we had. It made our work flow much faster and enabled us to shoot twenty days worth of footage in about eleven days. Again that formula minimized the risk factors and kept us safer.
IFJ: What’s something you learned from your first feature, Sweden, that helped you during the production of The Commando?
AA: I shoot to edit. When I am making a movie even when younger I vision it in my head then begin the shoot with options to adapt as need be. It makes things easier during post for the puzzle pieces to all come together to make the final picture and this way I know if things will work or not. Regardless of the budgets, my workflow don’t change. I give 100% regardless of budgets or type of movie and try to pick the right team for the right movie. I will always listen to suggestions and work with my producers, cast and crew to accommodate to make the best movie we can. Filmmaking is so me of the most collaborate art forms and that’s what I love about it so much and we learn something new from it everyday.
The only certainty of production is something will go wrong. What are some challenges that popped up during production or in post, and how did you deal with them?
We had a snowstorm in New Mexico during filming in the middle of October, that never happens in New Mexico that early in the season. It was so bad it shutdown production for a day and half. It was a record snowfall for this time of year. We made the best of it and adapted to cut the shoot in half that day, but still managed to get what we needed for the story on screen. We had to assure the safety of our cast and crew. The roads were getting bad and we didn’t want anyone getting hurt traveling in it in the dark. We did lose one day but made up for it and finished the shoot with what we needed.
IFJ: How did you get into filmmaking?
AA: As a kid growing up, I had a very good imagination. I loved to write and share my stories from as early as I can remember. As soon as I was old enough I took that talent and started creating home movies with my dependable Prehistoric home video camcorder. Even then, I did everything I had to get the job done. Write, shoot, act and even edit the ole fashion tape to tape editing with a VCR way. By chance, my father Enayet Akbar Milton was also a young theater actor and media producer in Bangladesh, so when he saw I took interest in this field he was happy to tell me I could do what I want as long as I worked hard for it and never gave up. He inspired and supported me to peruse a career in the industry in a serious manner from an early age. I was Immediately drawn into every aspect of filmmaking. I was from an early age given the opportunity to be involved in front, back you name it. I excelled quickly and absorbed everything I was fortunate to be involved in. Those opportunities carried on through high school, college, film school and my career for just about over the past twenty years now. I continued growing, progressing and striding to be the best at what I was capable of. I try not to put a lot of pressure on my cast and crew during production. That pressure is saved for me. When the production ends it’s not over for me. I participate till the end to have the best Product delivered and I never quit, I always finish what I start.
IFJ: You’ve worked in both narrative and documentary features. Does your documentary experience influence your approach to directing narrative films?
AA: It sure does. Making documentaries in the past has helped me tell stories in a more detailed manner. I also approach every subject matter I do with extensive research to be able to create something authentic and close to what it should be as much as possible.
IFJ: My Foreign Desh, one of your first features, played in several festivals. Can you tell us what it’s about and what the experience of making and releasing it taught you?
AA: My foreign Desh was true to the heart and I got to make an experimental film involving my heritage. It was a great story about a journey to find out who Adam, a young man adopted by Americans, becomes curious to find out who he really is and his roots. While it is fiction it is very real for many people in this world. I also got to go back where I am originally from and explore my culture like the character. I showed people where I was from, basically.I got to explore every aspect of making movies. It was a low budget and very limited cast and resources but it was a learning experience for me at 18 years old. I was able to do what I love with traveling and making a movie that touched people. It had a good run in festivals at the time back around 2008.
IFJ: The pandemic has delayed the production of MR-9. The character has been around in novels and films for over 50 years. Can you describe the character for our readers that might not be familiar?
AA: It is about a Bangladeshi Secret Agent Masud Rana, with code name MR–9 of the Bangladesh Counter Intelligence Agency. This superstar agent has been popular for over 55 years and is considered to be like the Asian James Bond. He has appeared in the widely popular novels written by Qazi Anwar Husain, with over 500 and counting novels published in the series to date by his publishing company Sheba Prokashoni. I have adapted the novel into an action packed Hollywood screenplay and we hope to get into production as soon as we are cleared to shoot internationally this coming spring 2021.
IFJ: What did it feel like stepping up to direct a film featuring a character with such a rich history?
AA: I was amazed that the opportunity came to me so suddenly. I was so honored to be part of such a legacy as I have known about the books my whole life. I grew up with this franchise as a fan. But I also knew this was the greatest challenge of my career yet and would push all boundaries of my filmmaking skills to a new level. This movie will appeal globally and create a bigger fan base worldwide. The outlook is amazing for this story. It’s also coming at a great time. We need action packed escapism with diversity. I’m so excited to get going on this an unleash to the world Agent Masud Rana….MR-9 in the silver screen.
IFJ: In addition to directing, you also produce a lot of films spanning a wide array of genres. What qualities do you look for in a project that make you want to produce it?
AA: I am looking for something that appeals to not only me but something that can appeal to a wide and diverse audience. I want something that will draw the audiences in and really give them that cinematic and entertaining experience. Does not have to be a specific genre. But a well written story, regardless of the genre I want to be behind and support to make. I look for a great story and see who is behind it and want type of track record they have. Everyone pitches a great movie but to pull it off and execute it properly is the most important part of movie making. Delivery is everything in our business. You don’t have to be a well known big Hollywood Director or have 100 million budget to impress. If you can show a track record to deliver and get the job done then you get the job. We all want talent and a dedicated professionals behind any project. There are so many talented filmmakers that need to be seen. I’m looking for them and will support and collaborate with those fellow filmmakers.
IFJ: Do you have anything else in the works?
AA: I have a talking horse kids Christmas movie called Ace and the Christmas Miracle. It was shot earlier this year. It should be releasing Christmas 2021. Due to the unexpected arrival of the Covid-19 and restrictions of travel there has been delays on most of my other projects, but I do have another Christmas movie I am set to direct soon as well.