Mindy Kelly is a world-renowned martial artist who has won multiple awards in both national and international competitions. She has worked on music videos for many artists such as Lady Gaga, Childish Gambino and Metallica, but her work also extends to the film industry. Apart from being a stunt performer and coordinator, Mindy also does fight choreography. Her most recent project saw her taking on the role of fight choreographer and designer for The Art of Self-Defense, written and directed by Riley Stearns and starring Jesse Eisenberg and Imogen Poots. The dark comedy explores toxic masculinity, martial arts and how they intertwine in a karate dojo run by Sensei, a man who pushes his students to their breaking point physically and emotionally.
I recently had the opportunity to speak with Kelly about her process as a fight choreographer, using martial arts to tell a story, and her career in the film industry.
Mindy, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me. I’m excited to talk to you, a female stunt choreographer, about your work on the film.
Mindy Kelly: Yes, I stunt coordinated, fight choreographed, and taught the actors martial arts. We had a very limited amount of time. There was only a week to train Immy (Imogen Poots) and Jesse before we started action production, and then a day to teach Alessandro [Nivola] their character development in terms of what they were portraying in this film, so it was fun.
When you have specific characters like the ones in this film, how do you go about developing the fight styles or mannerisms into the fights and how they move their bodies?
MK: So basically, my main focus was bringing Riley’s vision to life, and each character had their own world that they were living in. So, Jesse, his whole world was only supposed to be a yellow belt. That was the world that Jesse lived in, and we created, plus the intention of where his development went to in terms of the stunt choreography and the fight scenes and everything like that. So, we started off with basics and then the way that I work with talent is I analyze how they retain information and then choreograph to enhance that, plus also tell the story.
The way I like to choreograph is that you’re storytelling through movement. Instead of just throwing choreography at them, you enhance what they’re good at. So understanding how they retain information. Jesse was a yellow belt, Imogen a brown belt, Sensei, obviously a sensei. So it was like a crash course in teaching them what was required, starting from how do you bow and they were all just incredible and they gave me 110%. It was a dream. It was a dream to be able to work with such talented actors. So yeah. I worked with them and had a day to come back to L.A. and map out choreography and I didn’t have an assistant or fight choreographer or anything. I was the entire stunt department besides from when I flew in stunt doubles for specific scenes. It was a bit of a challenge, but we made it work, and I think that I wanted it to be very much…the imperfection is what makes things interesting.
I didn’t want to see the back of Jesse’s head in the action. I wanted it to be Jesse. I wanted it to be Imogen, or I wanted it to be Alessandro, you know? I wanted to story-tell through movement and that you’re following their journey, so that in the movie you’re not taken out [of it] by being “Oh that’s an automatic stunt double, and I think that we accomplished that. I’m really, really excited and proud of that.
It was great! As we’re talking about developing characters through their fight styles, when you receive a script, what’s the first thing that comes into your mind when you read it and look at the characters?
MK: Well, when I first received the script I was excited that someone had created something that was an original piece, that was so relatable to me and also Anna’s character. The underlining tone and message within the film was something that I connected so much with and also my childhood in competing in martial arts, and giving each character a little piece of myself with their movements, and then creating within that. You break it down, the problem-solving in figuring it out, like I don’t know until I start working with the actors what’s going to happen, you know? Then once we start playing and then choreographing and building to see what they’re capable of doing, then basically we’re taking what Riley has on the script then adding color to it.
Right, that’s a perfect segue to my next question. There are a lot of things with Anna that I related to, such as the challenges that she had as a woman existing in this very hyper-masculine and toxic environment. As a woman in the film industry and in the martial arts field, have you ever faced similar challenges or stigmas, and how did you navigate it and push through to becoming the success you are today?
MK: Very much so; you adapt and survive. The art of self-defense for me is survival, you know? That’s one thing that I find uniquely interesting, is Riley’s background is jiu-jitsu, and Anna has that almost like her secret weapon, where no one really knew she was training on the side and that she was teaching the children. I felt it was such a cool thing that these kids are exposed to a woman teacher by default because she was forced to teach them. But for me, the kids had a strong woman mentor, and so there are layers to the film I felt were hidden messages in a way, that were things I connected with, that I cared so much about in this character Anna I related to on multiple levels.
We as women, we all… use martial arts or anything as a medium or way to express certain aspects of life that we all can connect with, we just happen to use the platform of martial arts in this world to tell this story. I’m not making any sense, am I? Does that make sense?
No, I do understand what you mean. For most audience members when they see the name of the film, The Art of Self-Defense, they’re immediately going to start thinking of physical self-defense, but when I watched it, for me it was more about mental self-defense. Anna had to almost break herself down and build herself back up to create this protective shell around her, and I related to that a lot.
MK: For me, each character is relatable if you allow them to be because each person is a product of their environment. Each person is surviving with their own defense mechanism… Even Sensei, there’s this sadness to him, and Casey. So each character there is a relatable component to any human being who’s watching it, and that’s what I care about. I found a little bit of myself within each character. I know the action and all those things make people… If you have cool action you can make people sit through content they wouldn’t normally sit through. So the underlining tone and messages, if you read between the lines, are telling [stories] about the human condition. That’s why I found it so interesting. Each character, like I felt sorry for Sensei, I felt sorry for Jesse (meaning Casey), I felt sorry for Anna. It’s all a byproduct of their environment in the world that we’ve created. It’s survival.
Right. You mention Sensei, that you find something relatable and understandable about him because he uses this hypermasculine persona to hide his vulnerability. We see people like that in real life all the time. We expect them to be one way, but they turn out to be completely different. That’s the beauty of the film and also your choreography. There’s a fight with Anna where she completely pulverizes Thomas (Steve Terada), she’s being super brutal, but you see her break and then come back together. I thought that was really well done.
MK: Thank you. For me, it was the fact that she was disrespected in front of everyone by her not being promoted to black belt, and so Thomas was like, “Move over, brown belt.” You know, and that was just her being “Just because you have a higher belt…”. There are underlying messages, even back where Casey finds all the information about Sensei, like his name is Lesley. So there’s a sadness to Sensei as well, he’s just surviving as well. But he then became this person, like I said, who is a byproduct of their environment. They’re only doing what they can to survive and cope, that was the underlying tone and message for me at least, and I used that with creating their movement and also the action behind that.
In your IMDB profile, I saw a term used for you that I hadn’t seen before and that was “Fight Designer.” Can you tell me what the difference is between a fight designer, fight choreographer and stunt coordinator?
MK: As a stunt coordinator I hire all the stunt doubles. I hire what’s required for motorcycles, rigging and anything like that and coordinate all the stunts, so that’s a stunt coordinator. A fight choreographer comes up with the fight scene, the fight designer designs the whole action scene within the fight. So, from start to finish like everything, and then also I train the actors [in] martial arts. So as a martial arts trainer, I was a fight choreographer, which is just coming up with stunts for the actors and also the stunt performers performing the action. A fight designer…I trained the whole entire scene with all the action and the coordinator coordinated all the stunts. There are also budget break downs, coming up with who’s going to be required for Sensei’s double, all the doubles for everybody.
For my last question, I wanted to ask you about your career in the industry. As a martial arts fan and fan of martial arts films, I had a fangirl moment when looking through your filmography because I recognized your name from an episode of National Geographic’s show “Fight Science.” It seems that after you did that show, your career basically took off. What it’s been like for you to make the change from a national and international multi-award winner of extreme martial arts to a fight choreographer in the film industry?
MK: So basically, the first thing I fight choreographed and was a performer for was Lady Gaga’s “Telephone” music video, and after that, I started coordinating music videos. So I’ve done dozens of music videos as a stunt coordinator, and that’s when I transitioned. So by word of mouth…I don’t have an agent or manager and I have built a reputation from my work in that world, which is how Riley also got word about me.
What are the differences between those two worlds that were a challenge for you?
MK: What sells on camera and what sells in real life are two totally different things. A movie is to make it look like you’re actually hurting somebody, when you’re actually not. So I’ve been doing that for the past 14 years, in terms of action design, not only with the fight choreography but with stunts, from doing a music video to the logistics of being 65 feet up in the air with a steady cam operator. That day we did an eight-hour shoot with the team car crashing, and wire on green screen – it was a great music video. But I just kind of found that I like helping directors bring their visions to life. I like that better, it’s a different creative outlet and like with The Art of Self-Defense, you’re always changing, you’re always adapting, always growing and you’re always developing new skills and that’s just the way I should be in my life. It’s always going to be changing, always going to be evolving and I’m going to keep evolving and growing and creating art.