Interview: Asif Akbar Talks Mojave Diamonds, Boneyard and More

Asif Akbar has directed movies like The Commando starring Michael Jai White, Astro starring Gary Daniels and Mojave Diamonds starring Cowboy Cerrone, Chael Sonnen and Rampage Jackson. Asif stopped by to chat with me about Mojave Diamonds as well as working with Mel Gibson on Boneyard and several of his other upcoming projects.


First of all, I really enjoyed Mojave Diamonds. How did you find working with all the fighters? Was there a lot of testosterone on the set?

Thank you, I’m glad you enjoyed it. It’s meant to be one of those fun throwback action films we all kind of grew up watching in the 70s, 80s and 90s with some real-life fighters and to answer your question, it was actually a really fun time on set. Everyone got along very well and those guys Cowboy Cerrone, Chael Sonnen and Rampage Jackson, they come from the fight World with MMA, and UFC and they were all friends. We were all friends; nobody had an ego. Nobody wanted to show off or anything. It was like we were out there having fun and playing around. Even the fight scenes we choreographed and designed were just kind of all of us on the spot, playing around and coming up with what works best for that scenario. With that location, it was just one of those things where we took an old school filmmaking attempt of just going out there with friends and making a movie.

Speaking of the fight scenes, can you discuss some of the challenges you face in making good fight scenes whenever you’re working on a budget?

Yeah, so when I wrote the script, obviously I had certain action beats that I implemented throughout the script that kind of helped drive the story forward, but at the same time, it gave the audience what they want to see in an action film like this. We tried our best attempt to bring it to life from paper to screen. Obviously, there’s always challenges of limited schedule times, and then locations sometimes don’t work out the way you thought. So, now you have to adapt and compromise or even sometimes redesign things that end up working in our favor or against us. But it’s hard to hit the mark 100% all the time; we shoot for 100% but we have to be able to adapt and making it work with what we have to work with. When we get to set maybe something’s not ready on time and now we have to wait, wait, wait, but there’s only a certain point we can wait till and then we’ve got to shoot. Sometimes we catch lightning in a bottle, sometimes we miss the target we’re trying to hit but at the end of the day, it’s about getting it on screen, moving on and delivering a film.


I think just completing a movie and getting it out there is amazing in itself really, isn’t it?

Well, it’s a miracle. I mean, every film is a miracle, no matter how big or small, especially to bring all these people together and to bring the story to life on screen. It’s always a challenge. I mean, our job mainly as filmmakers, is to be problem solvers; we’re problem solvers, every minute of the day we’re on set. What we’re doing comes with challenges and problems that we have to solve, and keep moving forward. It’s a 24/7 job but at the end of the day what you capture on screen, in camera is what’s going to live on forever on screen, right? So, we try to do our best work, but at the end of the day, it’s a business; we’re artists, but we have to keep in mind and remember that it is a business. It’s about delivering a product or finished product by a certain deadline. So, take two can always be better, but, we’ve just got to get it done and get it out there. It wasn’t a movie that we were looking to win an Oscar with. It was again, like I was saying a fun action ride seeing some real life badasses kicking ass.


I interviewed Chael Sonnen a few weeks ago, and he was one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever spoken to…

Yeah, I mean, he’s a real life character as it is, so it was easy to write for these guys because I kind of wrote it as them and when we were shooting with Chael especially, he has such a great mind for improv that I just let him loose. I told him, “Hey, just be you and I know, this is how it’s written, this is just the face, use that idea and make it your own and say what you would say to your brothers if this was going down”, and he did it perfectly. There were times where he would do it in one take and that was great; we’d move on, we do a safety and then move on. Even though this was, I believe, his first film as an actor it didn’t feel like I was working with a rookie actor, because he’s already such a character and persona. He can own the camera; he knows how to play to the camera, how to play to the audience, and to deliver a performance. So, it was fairly nice and easy working with all these guys. I mean, they just brought their own persona on the screen.


I’m particularly excited for your upcoming picture, Boneyard with Mel Gibson and 50 Cent, which I believe you co-wrote, and it was also inspired by true events. Can you talk about where the idea for this movie came from?

Yeah, so Boneyard was a script that one of my writing partners and producing partners Vincent McDaniel, and I’ve been kind of toying with for the last several years. It was just about timing to finally get it made. It’s inspired from the true events of the West Mesa serial killer that was labeled as the Bone Collector in the media. That was discovered in 2009, of 11 bodies that were discovered in the West Mesa Side of New Mexico. It opened up a huge national investigation to find the serial killer, which they never really ended up identifying. But it was a very fascinating story that hasn’t really been told, but at the same time, we didn’t want to exploit that story, either. So, we were inspired by those events, to retell our own version of a story, to also educate people on these missing persons cases, that happen all the time, and how the investigations can kind of unfold and all the ins and outs that surround an investigation like that. At the same time, it was a fascinating story that I believe, needed to be told, again, for a lot of educational purposes, as well to identify and be aware of predators that are out there preying on young women and vulnerable victims.


How did you find working on a project when it’s based on true events? Did you find the process any different where there was pressure to keep things as real as possible?

Yes and no; it comes with challenges of definitely telling a reality based story, where I have to keep it grounded and realistic and also have that human connection with the real story and what we’re portraying on screen with the characters that we’ve created. There are challenges because again, when I’m making it, I’m looking at it like this is something that has happened and does happen all the time. It’s a very common case and I believe there’s like, over 2000, active serial killers, they say, just in the US alone, not even the whole world. So, that’s scary, that somebody that maybe you’re even running into in the grocery store, your neighbor or anybody out there could be a serial killer like that, or the danger could be right there in front of you without knowing that. So, that’s something that should be talked about more and people should be aware of their surroundings and just take certain safety precautions to make sure that they’re not being preyed upon because there could be a predator lurking around the corner anywhere.


How did you find working with Mel Gibson?

Amazing. I mean legends are legends for a reason, I guess, and he’s proven that, obviously for many, many decades on screen. Even working with him it’s been a pleasure; obviously he looks at you and sizes you up to make sure you know what you’re doing when you’re working together, but as long as you can show him your vision and collaborate, he loves to collaborate, he’s a director himself. I mean, who wouldn’t love to be in a room and writing scenes and directing Mel Gibson? That also comes with I guess an inspiration and motivation to just learn and be a sponge and soak up those minutes of experience that you gather from legends, like Mel Gibson, where not only are you learning, but you’re also working together, to create something. That’s what we all do best in our field, and we learn from and that’s the most fascinating thing about what we do is, film is the most collaborative art form. It’s also the most educational across the board, I believe with just everyday life skills and everything. Even one of the cool things that Mel told me that him and I both agreed on was when he looks to cast actors for movies he directs he doesn’t really go through the traditional auditioning process; he’ll just spend time with you. Within five minutes by just talking to you about normal life, he’ll get to know you enough to know what you can and can’t do; if you can act that character or not. I truly believe in that and I follow a lot of those same methods. Mel and I talked a lot, we talked about everything, life and just about anything and everything to be able to be comfortable and know each other. When we work together it’s like just natural, so that was really cool.


Having worked on your music videos, commercials, short films, TV shows, feature films and documentaries, do you feel it’s important to work in all these various kinds of projects to help you grow as a filmmaker?

Yeah, because at the end of the day the craft is almost the same across the board, even though there are different styles of work. It keeps you polished and it also gives you diversity in the different styles and genres and formats of creating content. It helped me along the way, it was very educational; every experience we can gather on any set is beneficial in what we do. At the end of the day, we’re showmen and we’re also people that have to manage different talent, and different artists and even outside of it, like just being educated and skilled across the board. Any skill set is beneficial in filmmaking, even to the simple part of writing script, the more about basically everything helps you to identify and connect with different characters and different experiences and scenarios you have to write, so it all comes in as a set of tools.


Although you’ve worked on all kinds of various genres, like horror, you do seem to gravitate back towards action, what is it that brings you back to the genre? We all know, it’s the best genre…

(laughs) Yeah, exactly. Like you said, it’s probably the most commercial and entertaining genre. Universally I think we’ve all especially young boys, from our times growing up, action has always been like a driving force and just in our lives, I believe, especially kids that grew up in the 80s and 90s. Even now, it’s always about those action films, everyone at the end of the day, will get entertained more from action than probably anything else. I mean, horror is another one up there, but action is difficult to do good; it’s difficult to do well, and at the same time, it’s the most entertaining. I think for me it’s not just about making something that I would watch, but also having fun doing it. I mean comedies are fun to do; the other genres like dramas are very fun and easy and thrillers are fun. But with action, the adrenaline that comes with it on set, even while you’re making the movie is another level of joy. For example, on Mojave Diamonds we’ve had all those action elements from chase scenes to big shoot outs to even an explosion. When you’re there, and you’re blowing up a Corvette, and going on a big car chase through the desert, those are thrilling moments, so it’s never a dull moment when you’re doing an action film, and then to design the action and to see it come alive and to work after you film it in the editing and with all the other elements put into it, it’s like creating something. That’s not easy and that’s part of the fun of it all.


If somebody gave you a budget and said, “Here’s $100 million”, what type of movie you would make? Do you have like a dream project?

Yeah, I mean, if I had $100 million, I’d definitely make something. A big epic historical film those are definitely hard to do, and you need the right budget to do it properly. Again, it doesn’t matter if you have 100 million, 1 million, 10 million, it’s about how you utilize that; someone could have $100 million, and not utilize it properly and then it’s worse than a million-dollar movie. So, if I had 100 million, I would probably pick the best people around me and we’d definitely make something up.

You’ve got a whole bunch of interesting projects coming up. I saw the trailer to Curse of the Clown Motel the other day. I’ve heard about this place, and I’ve seen videos on it in real life. Was it filmed at the real place?

Yes, so the Curse of the Clown Motel, it definitely was filmed in Tonopah where the clown motel is, and the story was interesting. It’s not like your typical horror movie, because it’s also dealing with a myth from the Native American tribes from that area, and region in the West, kind of like in the Mojave Desert and in Tonopah, Nevada; it was a mining town. So, there’s a lot of history there with the Native Americans, and then the miners, and then the Cowboys that were out there and a lot of bloodshed happened. There are some very interesting stories out there and so that was an exciting film to shoot, because not only was it a horror film with the myths and the legends but it was action as well; we did a lot of action for a horror film there. It was a lot of fun. We had a great team, great actors; Tobin Bell was in it as well as Randy Couture, and some others that really made it a unique project. I can’t wait for that to come out. I believe sometime, maybe later this year, they just don’t tell us the time or the street date.


Did anything weird happen like were you attacked by clowns (laughs)?

Yeah! There were a lot of weird things, especially in the hotels; there were a couple of different things not just the motel that we shot at but one of the hotels down the street that was; I can’t remember the name off the top of my head now but they said that that was actually one of the most haunted hotels in the country. When you shoot in those kinds of areas, sometimes when you smell sulfur randomly in and out of the room and things like that they say it is like a sign of something being there. Then, of course when the temperature drops drastically, and you can feel it, there’s something there. It was a creepy environment and I’m sure there were some visitors around us on set that we weren’t aware of.


I know the hotel you’re talking about. I can’t remember what it’s called but outside of action movies, it’s my not-so-secret shame that I love things about ghosts and the supernatural. I love watching all that sort of stuff.

That whole town has a history of paranormal activities, and it’s been featured on all those ghost hunters and ghost shows. Like every other building there has some really traumatic history, like one of the churches we were shooting in, it was a small chapel and right next door to it was a school building that was all boarded up. We found out the history of that was there was a principal that had buried like nine children below the floorboards and that was found out. It’s creepy. You get those vibes; there’s definitely some dark history. It was definitely a fun experience, but it was also kind of intense.


You have several other projects coming soon like Skeletons In the Closet and some of the other ones; can you give us some details?

Yes, so Skeletons In the Closet was another horror film that I did; it was a horror drama with Terence Howard, Cuba Gooding Jr., Udo Kier and Sally Kirkland; I mean, a great cast with more legends. That was a lot of fun to do. That was challenging as it’s like a psychological paranormal horror film, and that deals with a lot of emotions. That was a hard one, but at the same time, I’m kind of proud of it. It’s a nice story. Then I have MR-9, which is based on an international spy franchise out of Bangladesh, the Masud Rana book series and that’s a very exciting project. We have a lot of diversity in there from actors from all over the world, and multiple industries coming together to tell this very popular story that’s been around for over 60 plus years in the South Asian regions over there. So, that’s coming out at the end of the summer; we’re getting a theatrical exclusive run first around August 25, I believe is the release date on it. I’ve been hard at work in post finishing that up and we’re currently in post on Boneyard as well.


Thanks so much for taking the time to chat and all the best with your future projects.

Thank you for having me. I appreciate it. I’d be glad to come back anytime. I’ve got a lot of stuff coming up.