An Actor's Life — The Trilogy

An Actor's Life — The Trilogy

The lovely and talented crew! – Guillaume Arsenault, Mathieu Coderre, Marc-Olivier Guindon, John Koensgen, Johny Hendricks, Alex B. Carrière, Christian Roy, Pete Dillon, Luigi C. Saracino, Chris Newton and Pierre Beaulne (Photo Credit: Marilou Simard)

Disc 2: Fight For Your Life Club or Just What DoYou Talk About When Standing at a Urinal with an MMA Superstar in a Cage Aux Sports Bathroom in Downtown Montreal for Two Straight Hours (Hint #1: Be Polite. Hint #2: Fresh Breath. Hint #3: Always Make Sure to Lock Eyes.)

Story is far older than the art of science and psychology, and will always be the elder in the equation no matter how much time passes. – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. – Robert McKee

Over my last few blogs, I've talked about working on a feature-film called Crook, starring Adam Beech, which you can check out here:http://www.ottawalife.com/2013/04/an-actors-life-or-how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-standing-in-an-alley-in-the-dead-of-winter-for-12-straight-hours-with-only-linty-pocket-candy-to-eat/

As well as a project called The Gamechanger – We Work Ottawa, a short film starring Dan Aykroyd meant to promote Ottawa's burgeoning film scene, which you can see here: http://www.ottawalife.com/2013/04/an-actors-life-the-sequel/

Me, Johny Hendricks and Peter M. Dillon. Hells, yeah! The boys are back in town! Well, back in the basement of a Cage aux Sports in downtown Montreal, in any event.
Me, Johny Hendricks and Peter M. Dillon. Hells, yeah! The boys are back in town! Well, back in the basement of a Cage aux Sports in downtown Montreal, in any event. (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino )

I've had the tremendous blessing and good fortune over these past few months to be involved in a television pilot called MMA Super 8, written and directed by the extremely talented and driven Alexandre Carrière. Along with producer and business partner, the ingeniously creative Ghyslain Simard, Carrière has put together something very special with MMA Super 8, namely, a relatable story with lots and lots of heart.

MMA Super 8–Night #1 - http://blip.tv/mmasuper8

The backdrop for the series, as the name implies, is the fiercely competitive world of Mixed Martial Arts, but while it's a series rooted in that world, it also isn't a show about fighting per se, in the same sense that The Walking Dead is not really a show about zombies. It's about the interplay between the characters who happen to be living in this zombie-infested landscape, and their personal stories. To be clear, I'm not comparing MMA fighters to zombies here, as I do not wish to be on the receiving end of some pissed-off fighter's “flying-nut-cruncher-monkey-groin-kick” or whatever. I’m just trying to make a point.

Mama said knock you out! Apparently, Mom's in a bad mood. Also, right now, I'm humming the theme from Rocky in my head. Awesome!
Mama said knock you out! Apparently, Mom's in a bad mood. Also, right now, I'm humming the theme from Rocky in my head. Awesome! Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino

The heart of MMA Super 8 is built around the relationship between two struggling and semi-washed up MMA sports agents, Brad “Buck” Huck (Peter M. Dillon) and Enzo “E.T.” Torres (yours truly, Luigi Saracino). Both characters are more than down on their luck, and desperate to claw their way back to the top of the MMA sports agent game. How? By criss-crossing North America and recruiting only the best damn MMA fighters they can find, and then facing them all off against each other in a butt-kicking, bone-snapping, kidney-punching, jaw-dropping final battle, re: The Super 8, that's how! MMA is about the kind of heart that it takes to sacrifice and train hard to get to the top of your chosen field, to persevere and prosper, particularly in the hyper-adrenalized, cut-throat world of the MMA sports agent. And if there's anything that Buck and ET have, it's heart. In spades.

Carrière explains: Buck and E.T.'s motivations for wanting to be the very best MMA agents out there are sometimes totally different, but it's the complex and dynamic interplay between these two characters that adds a genuine and heartfelt depth, humor and resonance to the stories. Buck, while admiring E.T.'s skill in finding and signing top-notch MMA fighters, as well as his ability to just say what's on his mind, is also frustrated and angered by E.T.'s seeming lack of focus, and what some would call exceedingly poor life choices. E.T. meanwhile admires Buck's almost prescient-like ability to spot a great fighter as well as his drive, confidence, tenacity and ability to stay on point. They're both misfits, but in different ways and for different reasons. But incredibly, somehow, when they work as a team, it works for them.

Alex and Pete discussing the particularities of a scene.  Later, we all went for hoagies. Once again, awesome. (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)
Alex and Pete discussing the particularities of a scene. Later, we all went for hoagies. Once again, awesome. (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Torres and Huck are rabidly driven and insanely hopeful, fueled by ambition, naked optimism, bulk-store size cases of Red Bull ,and lots and lots of those tiny pink “Wake-Up” caffeine pills. A modern day Felix Unger and Oscar Madison, with a touch of Bing Crosby and Bob Hope “road movie” thrown in for good measure. Theirs is a reluctant partnership at best, not so much oil and water as peanut butter and hamburgers. It shouldn't work, but somehow it just does, and it's delicious.

We also wanted them to be fun and relatable, Carrière continues, and the characters are actually loosely based on myself and my business partner. The Enzo character has no shield, so to speak, like a kid who's not afraid of telling the truth. He has a very poor “internal editor” and is a bit immature. But he is also willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done. He's a very charming and authentic human being with actual good values, but he also has some... "problems”. But, hey, who doesn't have problems?, Carrière adds jokingly.

Sometimes, in conversations and in life, you need to self-edit, you have to choose your words carefully, he says, and while there's so many advantages to acting on impulse, sometimes acting that way hurts people's feelings. E.T. is all impulse but with good intentions, which pisses his partner off, as Buck's the kind of guy who thinks way too much. He wants everyone to love him. He wants to always do what society dictates as “the right thing”, but he starts to learn that maybe being authentic works, that being himself and not having his shield up and constantly worrying about saying the right thing isn't the best way to live his life.

Peter M. Dillon, Alexandre Carrière and Luigi Saracino (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)
Peter M. Dillon, Alexandre Carrière and Luigi Saracino (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Carrière adds, Buck's driven by the desire to be the best, and to get back at his old boss who unceremoniously fired him, but being a newly-separated single dad, he's also driven by his love for his young son, for his desire to take care of him. The interesting part is that the learning curve goes both ways for Buck and E.T., they both end up adapting and adopting each other's more positive traits. Like all of us, they're flawed human beings doing their best to move forward. But there's an “everyman” kind of quality to them too; they vocalize the things we all think, that we don't tell anyone else, the things that make us feel like there's no one else who could possibly think the same thing.

It's this character-based approach that gives MMA a unique sense of intimacy and openness. Peter M. Dillon effortlessly brings my partner-in-crime, Bradley Huck, to life. Dillon's sense of character, nuance and timing add depth to each scene, and speaking selfishly as an actor, it always gives me plenty to work with and give back. I've known Dillon for over 20 years, but we've never had the opportunity to work together to such an extent or frequency. Dillon is both a hoot and a holler to be on set with, and his naturalness, good humor and generosity as an actor never fail to impress. Dillon shares Carrière's take on Buck and E.T.'s dysfunctional “Bro-mance”:

Pictured: Goofiness ensuing
Pictured: Goofiness ensuing (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

On paper, there's no reason that any kind of relationship, much less a financial one, between these two would be any more than ill-advised at best, but there's a chemistry between them that makes their exchanges insightful, playful, maddening, frustrating and, above all, entertaining. So much of the series revolves around the chemistry that these two guys have, and how it's essentially that bond that keeps them going, it's how they deal with the insane challenges that come up in the world of MMA. They're both misfits, but that's why it works: they both seem to share this strange disconnect with the world. It's like there's something missing from both of them that evens out when they're together. A certain playfulness that allows them to deal with their conflicts. They hate and love each other at the same time, but they're like two brothers. Two really messed up brothers, but brothers nonetheless. They both are forced to reluctantly acknowledge and realize deep down in themselves that they're much closer to being a functional human being together than when they are apart.

MMA Super 8 has drama, Dillon adds, but lots of humour as well, so you don't necessarily have to be an MMA fan to enjoy the chemistry and to enjoy the storyline. But if you are a fan, the bonus is that there are some amazing fights and some wonderful appearances by some MMA stars, an aspect that we'll see more of as the series goes on.

Working with Carrière, Simard and crew has been a phenomenal experience. The writer/director and producer, respectively, bring a unique and seldom-seen sense of inclusion and camaraderie to their projects that I have not often had the good fortune to be a part of. What started as just a gig, has become so much more than being only about acting. Working on this series is a collaborative, communal and symbiotic relationship that has everyone involved – cast and crew – driving for the same goal. Namely, to produce an entertaining, human, insightful, funny and genuine television series. Dillon echoes my excitement, commitment and gratitude.

It's so much different than just showing up on set and learning your lines, Dillon says, to be able to act, to have such a large role. It's become an experience where we're all really contributing to the overall feel and to the whole. To be able to discuss lines, and formulate and build these characters, makes it a much more personal project, and much more of a collaborative creative process than anything I've done before. We have an amazing group of people, cast and crew, all pushing ahead, without any of the drama or b.s. sometimes associated with film sets. Whenever I'm on set, I think to myself: this is amazing; this is living the dream.

But that's the sense you get working with Alex, Dillon says, that anything is possible, that great people and projects are out there. When I get to the set, I’m like an excited kid. Everyone is; there's always a real high working with Alex and the crew, and I know it sounds corny, but there's a genuine sense of family, of respect and love there. Alex really believes in the actors and crew, and it never feels like work: everyone is contributing ideas and feedback; everyone is so positive, I just feel lucky to be there.

Prepping for the big scene! (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)
Prepping for the big scene! (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Quick quiz? What do sitting in the back of a beat-up pickup truck in a CEGEP parking lot, the Hull Casino, a highway underpass, an Italian restaurant, a martial-arts Dojo nestled deep in the wilds of Quebec, an old barn and stable nestled even deeper in the bush, a Las Vegas-calibre magician's sprawling, multi-level, eight-bedroom home – complete with 12 ft x 4 ft outdoor hot tub and sauna, and a Men's urinal in a Cage aux Sports in downtown Montreal, have in common? MMA Super 8, that's what!

The varied and extensive shoot locations for MMA has made this one of the most extensive artistic processes I've been a part of, and that, along with the amount of collaboration this project has involved, drives home the point that this isn't the typical experience for an actor. I can honestly tell you that in the two decades that I've been acting, it's very rare for these types of golden, remarkable opportunities to come up. Over the last few months working with Carrière, I've sat in the back of a beat-to-hell pickup truck for six hours. I've been punched in the face in a barn. I've splashed around in a 12 ft x 4 ft hot tub at a magician's house (no guff) on one of the coldest damn winter days ever (seriously, it was cold enough to actually “invert” my nipples: that can't be right).

James Brown hot tub party! Not pictured: inverted nipples. (Photo Credit: Dominique Binoist apbw.ca)
James Brown hot tub party! Not pictured: inverted nipples. (Photo Credit: Dominique Binoistapbw.ca)

I've entered a ring and sparred with an actual MMA fighter. I've been thrown out of a Dojo in the woods. I've stood next to MMA superstar Johny Hendricks in a urinal for two hours. https://www.facebook.com/pages/Johny-Hendricks-Fan-Page/257511507645384

To say Hendricks is intimidating, is like saying that Bruce Lee was only “kind of” fast, but I'm happy to say that he was a truly genuine and genial person with a keen sense of humor, a true professional through and through, and it was great to have the opportunity to act alongside an MMA athlete of that calibre. While the series revolves around the hijinks that ET and Buck find themselves embroiled in, making the series as authentic as possible was just as important to Carrière, and he says that one way to do that was by talking to actual fans of the sport.

The best thing, we thought, was to speak to fans directly to see why it hadn't worked. We quickly realized the issue was that while those shows were mostly well-written and acted, their choice to have MMA fighters act, or to have actors fight, took away from the credibility and flow of the shows. That's not MMA, that's just a movie. We found that people wanted the action and the fights to be real... that was what drew them to the sport in the first place. We wanted to have true representations of the sport, and not cheat it using camera tricks. It started with the simple concept of having actual MMA fighters fight, and having actual actors, act. Sports agents, particularly MMA ones, lead very interesting, insane, pressure-filled lives, and we wanted actual actors to be able to fully flesh that out. While the topic of sports agents has been looked at in movies like Jerry Maguire, this is something that to a large degree has never been done before – a running television drama set against the MMA backdrop, and we felt like that backdrop would be perfect for a good story because it's got it all: drama, action, humour and humanity.

Carrière recently took top honors as best director in the Spiralfilm festival for his beautifully haunting and evocative short film, Mika, http://www.cs1films.com/home.html and has what is referred to in the business as a great eye. He is able to draw you in with beautiful images, and keep you rooted with an entertaining and insightful story. That same aesthetic sensibility is used equally well in MMA Super 8, but Carrière is candid with regards to the realities of being an independent artist.

We wanted to make a web series to be able to keep creative control of the project, but the reality of it is, you can't make money on the web in that way yet, because advertising rates are still quite low on the internet. But I think that in a couple of years, the majority of people will be watching their favourite shows via the web, and advertising rates at that point will obviously increase because of it. But what's really exciting is that we're going to start to see more and more projects from independent filmmakers as well, because the technology has increased to the degree where it's much easier and cheaper to make a film or a series, and get it out there. What's really exciting is that at that point, the filmmakers will also be the writers, the editors, the composers. They'll be the ones making all the decisions, and they'll be the ones in charge of all the content. I think it's going to change the face of television forever.

As an independent filmmaker, there's little to no funding, but I've the good fortune to be able to work with an amazing bunch of people, or there's no way I could do it. I have friends who work in film and TV, in a good year, sure they'll make $200 000, but you have to remember that in a bad year they'll make $20 000. What I love about indy filmmaking is that I get to choose which shots to use or not use. It's much more open. There's much more freedom to decide on the fly, to go with a feeling in a scene, even if the lighting wasn't exactly perfect. You don't have that luxury with big-budget studios. You shoot exactly what's on the page. I'm very lucky to be able to work like this right now.

Carrière is frank about the realities of dealing with larger studios and TV production houses.

For studios, it's always all about numbers, market share, demographics. It's a science for them: one sex scene, one alcohol scene, three sponsor scenes, etc. The original idea with MMA was to shoot 10 to 12 11-minute webisodes, but now that investors are involved, there's a good chance we may lose the creative control we've had so far. The reason is simple and understandable: investors obviously want a return, and feel that they have a say in the direction and flavor of the show because of their investment, but that's just a reality of the industry. The goal for us and the investors is to attract the attention of a TV studio and hopefully work out a production deal * for the series. And this is where, unfortunately, things start to change a bit. We won't be able to improvise as much, for example, so the environment we're working in now is perfect for learning the ropes of the industry.

It's been an amazing experience, Carrière continues, and I'm so happy and lucky to be able to get to work with such an exceptional cast and crew. Everyone always wants to see the dailies*  after we're done shooting, everyone always has positive, constructive input. Everyone is so excited and invested, it's really been amazing.

I've known the director and crew for only a handful of months, but it's a working relationship that I hope continues for many years. I've been fortunate in my career to be able to work with people who love to tell stories... people who are fed, energized and excited by the craft and by the process. And that's Carrière all over. His knowledge of film history and techniques is detailed and extensive, but more importantly, Carrière is able to create a feeling and atmosphere on set that is rare, and he is able to tell a human, funny and entertaining story. His deep love for his craft, his good humor and joy on set pour out of him, and are contagious to everyone around him. He's just so damn...happy! It's an uplifting and amazing thing to be around a group of people who are all on the same page, who are all personally and emotionally invested in a project...  and that its success means so much to them.

And sure, I won't lie, it would certainly be incredible to be able to work on MMA with this great group of people on a full-time basis, but honestly, and I think I can speak for Dillon here too, we both pinch ourselves every time we're even on set. MMA Super 8 is the kind of project that as soon as the shoot day is done, you just can't wait to go out and do it all over again. When you see that people around you are so happy to be doing what they're doing, that they believe in it so much, that attitude can't help but propel you, can't help but want to make you give as much as you're getting.

Carrière and Simard will be flying down to the City of Angels this weekend to meet with their investors and work out the next steps for the project, one of which will be to arrange meetings with two large television studios, namely CBS and SPIKE TV. With a little luck, perseverance, dedication and a whole lot of hard work, we'll soon be bringing you the further adventures of two loveable and entertaining misfits, Enzo "ET" Torres and Bradley “Buck” Huck, in MMA Super 8!

MMA Super 8 stars Johny Hendricks Gregory Wilson, Alexis Maitland, Johni Keyworth, John Koensgen, Imogen Haworth and Toby Bisson. Casting for the series was ably handled by the amazing Mike Migliara.https://www.facebook.com/pages/Mike-Migliara-Casting-Constructing-Your-Vision/401095523272465

Mike is new to the city but certainly not to the business. His keen eye for talent and extensive knowledge of the industry make him the perfect person to cast the series. Migliara was nice enough to join us in Montreal when we shot with Johny Hendricks, and it was amazing having his energy, positivity and support on set. Thanks, Mike!

Pic 9- Peter M.Dillon, Mike Migliara, Me, John
Peter M. Dillon, Mike Migliara, Luigi Saracino and John Koensgen (Photo Credit: Luigi Saracino)

Check out the MMA Super 8 Facebook page for updates and goodies!

https://www.facebook.com/mmasuper8

And a special thanks to my agents Rachel, Kate, Christine and Laura, the wonderfully lovely folks over at the Mensour Agency, for all their continued hard work on my behalf and for their steadfast and sincere encouragement: http://www.mensour.ca/

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*Production deal: The studio agrees to sign you on for x amount of shows under a finite time line, i.e. x number of episodes over x number of months. All to be renegotiated at the end of the contract's term, based on the show's numbers.

*Dailies: Footage that was shot during the course of the day