A doctor telling you that you’ll never walk again, or ever practice the martial arts, should never be a factor when chasing a dream. Paul Mormando knows these words better than anyone, he had to hear them from his own doctor when he was in a car wreck just when he was about to begin filming his first feature film. The actor and martial artist was sidelined for many years but fought hard and never gave up until his dreams were realized and now his first feature film as a lead actor is 90% complete. BOUND BY DEBT is almost ready for audience consumption and Paul was ready to tell me all about it and the difficult road getting to this point in his life.
Corey Danna: Can you tell me a bit about when you first became interested in the martial arts and when you began training?
Paul Mormando: I was really young and going through some bullying problems. Back in the day there were only a couple of cable channels and I came across Bruce Lee. He was beating the hell out of guys twice his size and he’s this little small thing. There was hope for me after all! If he could do it then I could. That was my first experience with martial arts. I was a mama’s boy so it took me a little while before I began training. Back then, there were only two dojo’s in the whole area and I eventually convinced her to take me to a Tae Kwon Do school and I tried that for a couple of years.
CD: You’re the mastermind behind the Real Life Defense System and Cha Ki Do, what led you to developing these?
PM: Back in the late 80’s, I was young still and really active with training, and as I became more proficient with the training, I would go to tournaments and other things. We would spar on the streets with students and friends, so I realized different fighting styles would have their limitations. A boxer would start throwing punches or a wrestler would take you down to the floor. So I realized there were limitations. While reading my mentor, Bruce Lee’s book “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” it really opened my eyes. There isn’t one form of martial arts, there is numerous styles. It really hit me when I thought I was good enough to defend myself . I was in a confrontation in the park and this guy probably had no training. I was training and at the green belt level and I thought it wouldn’t be a problem and that I would take his ass down. As soon as the fight started I was overly filled with adrenaline and my legs felt like iron. I couldn’t move and everything I had learned went right out the window. We rolled around on the ground and we threw a few punches but it was all really disheartening. It really opened my eyes and I knew there was so much more for me to learn. Traditional martial arts styles weren’t as effective in a real life fight as I thought they would be in a street fight. Years later I put together Real Life Self Defense. I was training police officers and even a Navy Seal and he had come into my school. He was off- duty and I learned that these military and police guys went through their academies and training but never learned much combative stuff. It intrigued me that people could learn these physical things in a short period of time and realized this could be applicable to real life self defense. You don’t need to learn all these fancy moves and wanted to focus on simplicity. I wanted to take all these simple techniques that could be used under duress or in stressful situations which I put together. It’s not a martial arts system but a system of self defense and using things that work best within a stressful situation, using simple moves to protect yourself.
CD: Now it’s been a long time since I’ve seen the film but your first appearance in a movie was in AMERICAN SHAOLIN: KING OF THE KICKBOXERS 2. Could you tell me a bit about being involved in that?
PM: Aside from a TV commercial, I had never acted before. I had heard that Keith Strandberg and Lucas Lowe were doing this film and I loved these guys because NO RETREAT, NO SURRENDER was my favorite movie growing up. Jean-Claude Van Damme is probably my favorite martial artist of all time, I loved his kicking style. So when I found out these guys were doing a movie on the east coast I figured it would be the perfect opportunity to get on the inside. I called my agent to try and get me in but I couldn’t get an audition. We had these things called FAX machines back in the day so I faxed my head shot, action shots, and some press clippings and it caught Keith’s attention because his assistant called me in for an audition. I was ecstatic! So when I came in for the audition, there was like a hundred people in the waiting area so I wasn’t quite as special as I thought. I actually read for the lead, I didn’t get it, my acting skills weren’t up to par. They did keep me in mind and remembered me so they offered me a part as one of the fighters in the opening scene. This is when the bug bit me and I knew I had to start training as an actor. It was an amazing audition because when I walked in room, and I don’t want to sound cocky or gregarious, but I walked in the room and most these people were ballet dancers or just actors, not martial artists. I put on my sweat pants and started to stretch out, did some kicking and punching, and a handful of them left. I guess they figured they were looking for real martial artists but it was one of the greatest experiences of my life.
CD: The first project you actually developed for yourself was DOUBLE FIST. At one point I had heard it was to be a feature film and I also heard it was going to be a web series. Can you shed some light on the subject?
PM: DOUBLE FIST was something I had conceived a really long time ago, after AMERICAN SHAOLIN I had did a couple of other little things but I was starting to get frustrated with the auditioning process and the politics behind them. I was lucky enough to have a mentor who was in the business, he represented some real high level entertainers. He wasn’t able to represent me since he was on a totally different level but he did teach me about movie packaging and how to work with the major agencies. He basically taught me how the business portion of it worked. I didn’t know that the director was in place, the stars are in place, all before the audition process begins. As he schooled me in it I realized a better way to do it was to create your own destiny because everything in my life up to that point I had created for myself. I never wanted to rely on what others could do for me, I wanted to get the ball rolling myself. When we conceived DOUBLE FIST back in those days, it was a completely different movie and we were looking for a co-star and on comes this music video by Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch, aka Mark Wahlberg. I had seen him in the video and wanted this guy to play the co-star role. He wasn’t a huge star but I figured he was somebody with notoriety. We reached out to his road manager and he was interested since he hadn’t done a film yet. Things were coming together pretty quickly, funding wasn’t an issue, we had some higher ups in the industry interested, but I ended up getting into a car accident. This happened a couple weeks later and they were telling me I would never walk again or even do martial arts. So the film version was conceived in the early nineties but it was put on the back burner. A couple of years back in 2013 or 2014, I ran into somebody who was sort of in the industry and they really encouraged me to be my film and get out there. I was doing my martial arts again, I was able to do it. They said I should just do it myself since it was so much easier these days to pull a film together. With technology being so much easier, you don’t need millions of dollars to make a film. My first thought was just to make it a web series and I thought it would be easier to do a couple of episodes, put it online, and see how people responded. As we started to shoot it, it developed more and the script was completely different now that I was older. So we just decided to make it into a feature and that’s what we did, it took us two years to shoot. But what happened with DOUBLE FIST was that since it was such an independent film, I really didn’t take to the business side of it so it ended up being a technical nightmare, as far as cinematography and sound goes. I was pretty bummed out because people were really interested in it. It wasn’t Warner Brothers or anything but a couple of the independent companies were interested after seeing the trailer, they loved it. It was an urban action film and there weren’t too many out there at the time. Sadly, after I showed it to a few people, they told me not to show anyone else since the cinematography wasn’t up to par. So I was bummed out but I always like to follow through with everything I start and I like to pass that philosophy on to my students. They would ask me what happened with the movie and they all wanted to see it. It was hard to tell them we had went through and made this movie but it wasn’t up to snuff to release it.
CD: You didn’t let that keep you down and you moved on to the next project, BOUND BY DEBT.
PM: I was depressed for a little while but I didn’t want to let my students down so I decided to do it all over again. I had a concept, as usual, and took it over to my wife who loves to write. She pulled together the script in week or two and we filmed BOUND BY DEBT which is the new project. As of this moment, the movie is 90% complete. It’s a completely different film from DOUBLE FIST, it’s more of a mafia oriented action film. DOUBLE FIST was more of an urban action film.
CD: Did you choreograph all the fight scenes yourself and what sort of action were you going for?
PM: This was the first time I didn’t take total control and I had a couple of martial arts guys helping me. I do have a style I like, I was never a fan of wirework. I think when people go see an action film they want to feel as if they can actually do it. As much as people want to be entertained, I think they appreciate and enjoy the more realistic approach. It’s like the old action movies from the seventies, I like to take the old school approach and make things gritty and realistic. I think the choreography in the Jason Bourne films is so well done. I try to emulate that style a little bit mixed with my own style.
CD: This was your wife’s first time as a director, how do you think she fared in her debut?
PM: She did wonderful and with the help of our Director of Photography, who is also phenomenal and a director, he was able to help out with the technical stuff. This was her baby, she wrote it. If you write something, directing is probably the best bet so you know that your vision will come out as you wanted it. She did an amazing job and it was great seeing a woman directing an action film.
CD: When you’re out shopping the film around you would think it would be a huge selling point. We don’t hear about women directing action films as much as we should.
PM: Absolutely!! Another thing is the fact she’s an actual black belt so she’s actually the real deal.
CD: The action film landscape has changed so much over the years, it’s actually to the point now where it’s barely existing and we’re left with all the CGI superhero crap. Do you think at some point in the future the tides will change and these types of action films will become popular again?
PM: My age has set me back some and I wish I could have accomplished this when I was a bit younger. The movie business is a trend type of business. I was never a big horror fan but I remember back in the old days horror films were really popular. All the sudden they just died out and no one wanted to make a horror movie anymore. The genre died out but it re-emerged and I think that growing up and watching Bruce Lee in the seventies, then in the eighties you had the KARATE KID which made way for Van Damme and Seagal but then it died out again. I think it’s going to take the right vehicle and the right person to bring it back. I mean, really, how many times can you watch a TRANSFORMERS movie. They’re good movies but it’s a different type of action. It will come back, I just don’t know when or how long it will take. It’s just a matter of time before people will want to see something different again.
CD: You brought up your age but I think some action stars have done some of their best work later in their careers after they’ve matured. Jean-Claude Van Damme is a prime example and has done some amazing films in the last decade. Since you’re jumping into the market later in your life, what are your thoughts on that?
PM: Van Damme and Bruce Lee are my ultimate favorites but one of the greatest things about Van Damme is that he started off in low budget films then went to theatrical releases before going direct to video. Then he decided to re-invent himself and is trying his hand at these dark comedies and he’s not afraid to try different things. Someone like Seagal, he just sticks with the same thing over and over again. People just wrote him off. Van Damme will re-emerge since he is willing to try different things. As for me, age and wisdom helps on set so I’m hoping there will be a market for a middle-aged dude like myself.
CD: So when can we expect to see BOUND BY DEBT and do you have anything else planned for the future?
PM: One of the great things about making noise with this film is that I’m getting a lot offers, I have offers for two comedies and a TV series. I also have another project in the works called THE AMERICAN SENSEI, it’s a web series we can hopefully sell to Netflix or Amazon. I did that project specifically for my audience and my students are my audience. I like to keep busy and I always tell everybody that it only takes one project to make it and for the world to see your work. I’m hoping to put out as many action films as I can without changing the action films I grew on. I love the idea of being independent and doing things independently. The creative thinking behind independent filmmaking is just phenomenal so you don’t even need a studio or tons of money to release a film. There’s a lot of opportunities for action films to go that route if you’re smart enough.
CD: Thanks Paul for taking the time out to chat for a bit.
PM: Thank you, anytime!