VOD - Embattled : Conversation with Nick Sarkisov

By Mulder, 20 november 2020

Embattled is an American sports film starring Stephen Dorff as a reigning mixed martial arts fighter (largely styled after Conor McGregor) whose harsh and abusive nature brings him into conflict with his son, who he attempts to train. The film was written by David McKenna and directed by Nick Sarkisov. IFC Films acquired distribution rights to the film in July 2020.

Q : Why was it important to cast an actor with Williams Syndrome for the role of Quinn ?

Nick Sarkisov : Approaching the role of Quinn was one of the biggest challenges that the script presented. Our writer David McKenna based a lot of the script on his experience raising his son Colin. Colin has Williams Syndrome and is the reason why David is so aware of the challenges that presents to the family and individual. David was adamant that we try and find an actor who has WS. I had some initial concerns, but once we put out a nationwide casting call and the families responded, I saw that there was no other way to do it. Amongst everyone who read for the role, Colin just stood out. I guess you can say the role was written for him. Once we got to set I was ashamed of myself for doubting the notion of casting someone with special needs in the role. Colin was fun to work with and a joy to be around. He really lit up the set and brought the team together. At the risk of sounding cliché, I would say that Collin became the soul of the production.

Q : What were the challenges and how did you approach working with Colin and the other special needs actors ?

Nick Sarkisov : Honestly, anything I can say about special needs actors would apply to anyone. Create a safe environment, be respectful of the process, be patient. Working with the kids didn't feel that different from working with any other actors. It's a hard job, and everyone needs support while doing it. The crew was amazing, they created an atmosphere where I feel like Colin and the others were genuinely enjoying being on set (or at least they told me so). Seeing some parents cry in video village when they saw their kids on screen is one of the most emotional moments in my life.

Q : What led to Darren Mann being cast at the last minute? What about him drew you in ?

Nick Sarkisov : With martial arts movies, or movies involving martial arts, you want as much rehearsal time as possible. We had another actor cast as Jett and started rehearsal with him, but unfortunately, that actor quit two weeks before production. We had to ask our casting director, Samy Burch for a miracle. We needed an actor who could play a teen, was proficient in martial arts to compensate for the lack of rehearsal time, look like he could be Stephen's son, be available for our dates, and, most importantly, be a good actor. It was a really tall order, but Samy delivered. She said, "Darren Mann is your guy". She didn't say that exactly, but you get the point. Luckily, his film GIANT LITTLE ONES was playing at TIFF 2018 and our producer and beloved collaborator Eryl Cochran was in Toronto at the time. We had a Skype audition with him, Eryl saw the movie and loved both the movie and Darren's performance in it. Finally, we spoke to the producers that had worked with Darren before and they were all in love with him, so we offered him the part. Darren took it and took to work. He absolutely crushed the fight camp and was ready for the physical part of the job, but where he really amazed us was his performance, and the rest is history.

Q : What was it like working with Stephen Dorff as Cash in such a divisive role ?

Nick Sarkisov : Stephen is an amazing actor. The depth to which he goes with a character is unparalleled. I was enthralled by his performance on set, but it was only when I got to the editing room, months later, that I saw how much depth there was in his performance. To put it shortly, Stephen is very good at what he does until you look more closely, then you see he is brilliant.

Q : What attracted you to the story of Embattled ?

Nick Sarkisov : I came upon this script completely by accident. I was asked for my notes on it, and after reading it, I knew that I had to direct it. I think no man has a simple relationship with their father, and I loved the nuanced approach that David took. Setting this relatable story in the world of MMA was the cherry on top. I knew I was born to direct that.

Q : How was your experience working with David McKenna, considering the film is partly based on his personal experience ?

Nick Sarkisov : I remember seeing American History X and being shocked by it. By how it felt so true and at the same time it was so impressionistic in its delivery. Watching that movie I was shocked by the courage of the writer and his nuanced approach – no broad strokes, really honest character investigation. When I first went to meet with David I was a little starstruck, obviously, but it turned out David is really easy to get along with, for some miraculous reason he never pulled rank and never appealed to authority. He fights for the ideas he believes in but does so on their own merit, and he can be convinced. Truly David turned out to be a great collaborator, not just in his direct job as a writer, but he lent his experience to the film in all the other aspects too. David is a big part of what made the movie what it is. As for his personal experience, I have to thank him for being so open about it because that honesty, you can see it on screen, the realness. I cannot forget to mention David and his wife Marcy's parenting skills – they gave us Colin McKenna, who is incredibly fun to work with, a joy to be around, and most importantly, an incredibly good actor.

Q : How did Karrueche's real-life history of abusive relationships affect the portrayal of her character ?

Nick Sarkisov : Actors are incredible human beings. Some can conjure up impossible emotions based on their interpretation of possible events and their repercussions on their character, and some draw on their life experiences, digging into their past and bringing out ghosts. We talked very briefly with Karrueche about her past. She's an actress and I only get involved in the process when I am asked. Karrueche made a powerful choice of not leaning into Jade's victimhood and I can only admire that. Karrueche created a strong character who can be a role model. Whatever was in her past, I believe it made her stronger.

Q : Describe the training process for getting Stephen and Darren ready for the fight scenes.

Nick Sarkisov : Before our fight choreographer, Fernando Chien came on board, we had a very loose understanding of what the fight scenes in the film will be. We knew where we wanted them to start, and where we wanted them to go in the emotional sense. Fernando came and wrote almost an entirely new film within a film. The fight had its own motivation, progression, three-act structure. The moves were dictated by characters – every choice in the fight was motivated by the background of each fighter. Once this intricate design was created, the challenge was to get the actors to bring it to life. Thankfully Darren had a martial arts background, and Stephen is no stranger to fight choreography, so we could skip the basics. When trained fighters compete, moves are second nature to them. They make the choice before they have time to think about them, implementing drills that they ingrained in themselves through countless hours of training. To recreate the feeling of that, all the actors drilled for weeks, with the help of the stunt crew and the fighters in Birmingham’s Spartan Fitness. The key to having an amazing fight scene in your film is an incredible dedication and work ethic from the stunt crew and actors.

Q : What was it like to film in Birmingham ?

Nick Sarkisov : I have nothing but great things to say about Birmingham. Going to the Deep South can be scary – there are a lot of stereotypes. But I am glad that those stereotypes did not stop the production team. Birmingham turned out to be a welcoming and diverse city with a great art scene. And the Boykins family fits right in.

Q : What did the real MMA fighters add to the filmmaking process ?

Nick Sarkisov : No one knows what it’s like to be an MMA fighter better than an actual MMA fighter, so having the guys on board was very important for authenticity. Kenny Florian is a legendary grappler with amazing energy and having him on set was great for the actors, as he would get them in the zone. When the time came to record his commentary, his lingo added greatly to David's writing. Tyron Woodley is also an inspiring presence, incredibly smart, imposing and yet humble. Talking to him was a great way to understand that someone who can smash champions with a single punch can have a lot more to offer. Having him on set was great to create that atmosphere of the fight world. The guys at Spartan with their head coach Chris Conolley helped us a lot with everything from training our actors to showing us minute details so we stayed as accurate to the fight game as possible. Overall, being embraced by the fight world helped a lot with the creative process.

Q : Is there a reason you focused more on the background of the MMA business and how they treat their fighters? That hasn’t been done much in film before.

Nick Sarkisov : I think that's the answer – because it hasn't been done much before. In fact, I wish we could have focused on it more. I feel like there is a certain responsibility you have, as an artist. I love the fight game, I always have, but I am also painfully aware of the price the fighters pay. The gods of martial arts punish as much as they reward, if not more. And while we love watching fighters fight, and while money might not be what they fight for, money is what they will need when their career is inevitably over.

Q : The topic of racism, sexism, and abuse is larger than ever in today’s society. What made you feel comfortable taking on those subjects and how did you feel it was best to tackle them in the film given the current cultural climate ?

Nick Sarkisov : I was not comfortable taking on those subjects, I hope I will never be, but art dies in comfort and you have to challenge yourself and your audience. That’s the job. I hope we managed to be considerate and didn't punch down. David McKenna is famous for not shying away from difficult subjects, and he didn't this time. We need to shine the light on some subjects and we need to be able to talk about it – if it's ignored, it festers. The best approach I think, like with everything in life, is an honest approach.

Q : Why did you portray Mr. Stewart as a war hero? Was it important for you to show that soldiers are the real warriors ?

Nick Sarkisov : François Truffaut said that there's no such thing as an anti-war film, and I think I agree. The way I said I would like to be able to deal more with the consequences of fighting, I think it's important to deal with the price of war. It was important to us that if he is a war hero, we also show the price that can be paid for it.

Q : With Embattled being your American feature film debut, how was the development and production process different from what you’ve experienced previously ?

Nick Sarkisov : "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I would say the same applies to film production. Every bad production I have been a part of has been bad for very different reasons, but the good ones are all alike: driven by the vision and not ego, strong collaborations and responsibility taken. In that sense, Embattled has been the best production I've been a part of, just bigger. Everyone in front of and behind the camera was a dream to work with, and I'm truly thankful for being this welcomed.

Q : Were there any major influences or other filmmakers which had an impact on your work ?

Nick Sarkisov : How do you know what influences you? Just like accents are formed by layers of things – other languages you speak, regional pronunciation, and the specifics of your biology – so is film language. I grew up in the USSR and the media was permeated with the ideas of collectivism. Did it make me lean more towards them or made me averse to them? I truly do not know. I also started to watch western movies before I spoke the language, I think that made me lean more towards visual storytelling, but to what degree? I do not know. As for major filmmakers that influenced me, I think they did not influence me as much as the bad ones. The work of great filmmakers is so... seamless. But when you see a bad film, you can clearly see what went wrong, why, and then try for dear life to avoid it.

Q : What do you hope audiences will take away from this film ?

Nick Sarkisov : Love conquers all.

Synopsis :
Raised by an abusive father, Cash (Stephen Dorff) channels his aggression to become a World Champion MMA fighter. Now accustomed to wealth, adulation and global popularity, he faces a new challenge when his second son is born with Williams Syndrome. But this time, rather than stand and fight, he runs. While Cash continues to make his fortune in the ring, his eldest son Jett (Darren Mann) becomes the caregiver to his younger brother Quinn (Colin McKenna). When Jett decides to follow his father's fighting footsteps and take to the fight game, he faces his past head on, embarking on a course inevitably pitting father versus son in a battle which, no matter the outcome, neither can win.

Directed by Nick Sarkisov
Produced by Eryl Cochran, Scott LaStaiti, Sergey Sarkisov
Written by David McKenna
Starring Stephen Dorff, Elizabeth Reaser, Donald Faison, Saïd Taghmaoui, Darren Mann, Karrueche Tran, Drew Starkey, Drew Scheid, Ava Capri, Charles Green, Mimi Davila, John Flanagan, Donald Cerrone, Michael Wayne Foster, Adam Karst
Music by Michael Brook
Cinematography : Paul Ozgur
Edited by Mark Sanger
Production companies : Blitz Films, Straight Up Films
Distributed by IFC Films (USA)
Release date : November 20 2020 ( USA)
Running time : 117 minutes

Photos : Copyright IFC Films

(Source : press notes)