Tea with F.J.: An Interview With Ottawa’s Colossus Pascal Aka

Not too long ago, I conducted an interview with the Ottawa filmmaker known as Pascal “Colossus” Aka. A former Carleton University student, Pascal proved to his peers that a strong-willed and motivated person can do anything. He made a film called Jamie and Eddie: Souls of Strife that was completed in 2007 after a grueling two-year process. The movie went on to be nominated for several awards at the Los Angeles Action-on-Film Festival and was met with much acclaim. Pascal has also recently completed his latest flick known as Evol. The movie was a huge success when it was screened at the Action-on-Film Festival again, as well as here in Ottawa. Although Pascal has more projects on the way, he was kind enough to take the time to participate in this small Q&A with me. Sit back and learn about a man who made it in the Back Row’s hometown! And no, we did not have tea.

F.J.: First, tell us: what is the history of the Ottawa Action team and how did that come about?

Aka: I was an immigrant international student at Carleton University, in my second year. After being trained at IFCO (the Independent Film Cooperative of Ottawa), I decided to go ahead and make my first project. After a 30 minute version of the Souls of Strife script was written and storyboarded, I sent my grant application to Canadian Council for the Arts and the OAC (Ontario Arts Council) just to find out if I was eligible as an undergraduate student, and an immigrant. Another factor would have been the fact that they felt the idea was better as a commercial project, whatever that means. One of my masters supervised my application, and he ended up sending me a very long email that would have been very painful to read if I was younger. No one had done a project like that in Ottawa, but I decided to go forward with it no matter what. I set up auditions and advertised the movie; about 250 people in total responded and showed interest in being part of it – it was surprising and overwhelming. February 11th 2005 was the first day of auditions for the movie, and that is where I met Jon Welch, André Givogue and most importantly Dennis Lafond. They all auditioned for me along with about 50 other people in total and they easily got in. Dennis and myself eventually built our hierarchy system, where he would be in charge of choreographing the fights and training everyone (including myself). It’s like having a music composer, for example: I write the story and direct the movie, but a specialist is there to interpret the story through a different art form, under my direction.

F.J.: As a film student, it seems to me that most people who are interested in the world of film try making their own movie at some point. What convinced you that this was indeed your true calling?

Aka: I make it clear all the time and people know this without second-guessing: this is not something I do for fun. I’ve never drank, smoked, done drugs, you will never see me at a social party, even my relationship life is kept to a minimum. This is something I knew I wanted to do since I was just 4 years old. There are so many different art forms that I am good at (music composition, acting, graphic/web design.) but what people don’t realize is, these are extensions of me as a director. I love creating, art is my life.

F.J.: Did you like the program at Carleton, which is almost entirely academic as opposed to practical, or were you unhappy with the system? And how did the program inspire you to begin developing your first feature film, if at all?

Aka: I did not like or respect the program whatsoever. The only thing that I take from being at Carleton U was being in Ottawa, which is a city that I ended up loving because of the success I was blessed to achieve here and the professional friends that I was able to make. I can go to a Tim Hortons or Starbucks right now and show you master graduates from that program. I want to be a director, making films, producing films. I won’t spend 4 years talking, hearing and writing about them. If I didn’t start JnE in my second year I would have went insane in that program. My dedication to the project affected my grades but I have no regrets whatsoever, because every job, money, or success I’ve earned stemmed from my actual practical experience as an independent filmmaker and DOP, not as a film student. That program has a lot of issues, because so many people who take it are clearly taking it for the sake of just being in school, not as a tool to help them fulfill an ambition, a lot of them don’t have one.

F.J.: How did the idea for Jamie and Eddie: Souls of Strife come about, and what inspired you to write it?

Aka: I am a huge fan of martial arts movies, and one of my favourite movies at the time was Tai Chi Master/Twin Warriors starring Jet Li and directed by the legendary Yuen Woo Ping. I loved the idea of a feud between 2 people who were best friends in a Shaolin Temple. In my case, it was a secret agent academy. I also wanted to play around with the image of Canada as a peaceful country separated from the political conflicts of the world.

F.J.: Now, I’m pretty damn sure that you are a fan of the action film genre. Are there any particular films, actors, stories or directors from any genre that influenced or inspired you?

Aka: Action films are what I grew up watching. They’re pretty big in Africa so it sometimes surprises me how the genre is not as popular in North America. The genre is extremely big in Asia, from China, Japan, India (Bollywood) so at times it can be uncomfortable when presenting or talking about the genre to North Americans because they are not as familiar with international art, usually just their own. I actually grew up on the double-J’s, Jet and Jackie, especially Jet. I loved the creativity of the action in his films and the way they were shot, I am very big on cinematography and creating a visual roller coaster for the audience. Other than that Arnold and Stallone were the presidents of the larger than life hero that I felt was what should be the norm for North American protagonists. Stallone took an effort to bring in emotion and positive messages that are often ignored, the first Rocky and the first two Rambos are good examples of entertaining action films that inspire with a positive moral at the end. That’s what I love to do.

F.J.: I understand that it was a bit of a struggle to film Jamie and Eddie: Souls of Strife, as far as funds, time and manpower. Over the course of two years, how were you able to get as many people involved in the film?

Aka: There was a large pool actors who were looking for experience at the time, some more serious than others. I believed in the project very much and everyone else followed, I guess. I knew that the more I exercised my motivation and dedication, the more everyone would be inspired to follow.

F.J.: I’m guessing you filmed a majority of the film at nighttime and after the university hours?

Aka: Most of the film was shot on the Carleton U campus, after university hours, a lot of it during weekends. We always made sure everything was left clean after shoots, though.

F.J.: How did you come to meet Andre Givogue and Dennis Lafond, two of the stars of both of your films?

Aka: A lot of people who know me from EVOL tell me that I’m lucky that I have talented friends. But they don’t realize that I had to build those friendships, and we first met professionally. Dennis and André auditioned for me about 6 years ago at the JnE audition and Dennis’s interview was more of an interview/conversation, which was followed by a demonstration. My jaw dropped to the floor, I felt like we were a match made in action movie heaven.

F.J.: The heart of Jamie and Eddie seems to be about loyalty and brotherhood. Was that a theme that you felt strongly about?

Aka: It was an interesting theme to tackle. I felt there were so many things you could do with that theme with the different relationships and groups that were contained in the setting of the film. Conflicts between family members, the older generation and teenagers. I also felt Jack Michaelson’s character (played by André) was interesting because he was the character that was in the middle of everything, so to him it was a matter of picking a side or finding an unorthodox way to end it all.

F.J.: Mixed Martial Arts makes up a huge part of your films. Were you experienced with that sport prior to filming this project?

Aka: I wouldn’t say that my Tae Kwon Do training was enough to say that I’m experienced in martial arts. My music-making, acting and fine arts kept me very pre-occupied as a teenager, directing is my main thing. I believe I got very good at performing on camera as a fighter After Souls of Strife, for a while I was Dennis’ go-to guy for test fights, but not too long after that I stopped. My character in EVOL also ended up being a non-fighter, that’s when it became official that screen fighting for me is in the past.

F.J.: How often did the actors train for their stunts? And how many of the choreographers went on to become part of the crew for Evol?

Aka: There was a lot of training for JnE‘s fight scenes, but a minimum of 3 months of training and rehearsals through Dennis is required before you go on camera. Some people are better than others; my performance was not that great, in my opinion. There’s only one choreographer and that’s Dennis. Dennis and André had a great popular fight scene in JnE, it’s currently circulating on YouTube somewhere. It took us 7 days to shoot and it was the first thing that we did that won us respect from independent action filmmakers/performers online. Dennis and Andre are the only real fighters from JnE who are part of EVOL. We have another guy, Aaron Thompson, who was a trained stuntman and part of our team. He’s now working in the industry in Vancouver, you might have seen him on TV a couple of times.

F.J.: Is acting something you were always interested in? And do you plan to act in any future films that you direct?

Aka: I take acting very seriously; I won several awards in high school for it. I actually think it’s silly if someone directs actors without having much knowledge of the acting method, or if someone tries to be a fight choreographer without any martial arts education under their belt. Acting is a big passion of mine, which is an extension, a branch of my filmmaking passion. It’s not something I do for fun, I practice and work on my craft constantly. I co-starred in JnE, and due to popular demand I returned in EVOL as Miles Harrison. I am thankful for the numerous positive emails about my acting that I got after the premiere. People really loved my performance.

F.J.: How did Jamie and Eddie rise to success once you were done filming?

Aka: Well, once we were done shooting in 2007 we had a small-scale premiere at Carleton U. Afterwards the film collected dust while I finished school, worked on other projects and trained some more. I sent JnE to Action-on-Film Festival in the summer 2009. It was not hard to get the press excited about it. The buzz was used to spark initial interest about EVOL. It was around that time that I released the first trailer for EVOL and the response was insane.

F.J.: What led you to go on to film Evol?

Aka: Making JnE was mostly my team and I asking the questions “Can we do it? Can it be done?” The answer was yes, at the end of the day. I was not particularly happy with JnE‘s end result, so I felt it was best to use what I had learned to make a brand new project from scratch with a better story, better acting, fighting, cinematography and editing. It was a huge improvement from the first project, considering that the budget was the same. The result was close enough to what I wanted; it was very satisfactory and successful.

F.J.: One thing that originated from Jamie and Eddie: Souls of Strife is that you became known for taking part in many facets of production, like filmmaker Robert Rodriguez: writing, directing, editing, acting and composing music for your films, among other things. Leaving directing out of the picture, which of those “chores” do you enjoy and which one is your least favourite?

Aka: Acting and composing music are my favourites. It’s harder to enjoy acting the way I’m supposed to, since I’m usually under other challenges. Not a lot of people know this, but most of my big scenes had to be done in very few takes, even when they were long monologues. So much time had to be spent on other actors’ takes, especially André who is not too good as an actor and was always a struggle to work with. Acting aside, composing is what I enjoy the most because it’s just me in my home office with my keyboard and the movie; it’s an environment where I feel very connected and intimate with the scenes. Composing has its disadvantages as well, since movie soundtracks are usually overlooked. At the moment, there’s not a huge audience that cares for the music that much.

F.J.: What are you thinking of when you write your music?

Aka: It’s the same process as when I act or write a script. I meditate and alienate myself from the outside world as much as I can in order to transport my mind into the realm of the movie. The music needs to fit the mood, every note and every instrument; percussion sequences need to flow to the rhythm of the movie and the characters in it. It needs to be in sync to the point where the audience could easily guess what’s going on in the film just by listening to the tracks.

F.J.: Obviously Evol was your next official feature, but did you have any other projects in mind besides Evol? If so, why did you turn them down?

Aka: Originally, the movie that I wanted to do with the name EVOL was supposed to be a romantic thriller. It was going to be controversial and violent. I came up with the story at a dark time in my personal romantic life. I plan on working on that project not too long from now. I decided to make the action EVOL mainly because, well, who wouldn’t want to make an action feature with Dennis Lafond as the lead star? He’s doing well right now working as a stuntman in the industry, but selfishly, I don’t care how big he becomes, because I get to brag about being the first director to make two features with him. One with him as the villain, and another one with him as the hero, and he choreographed the award-winning fight scenes for both of them. Other than that, my personal bad taste for JnE‘s technical and artistic flaws motivated me to work on something better from scratch, something that I felt would be a better representation of me as a director as well as everyone else’s talent.

F.J.: With Evol, the stakes are higher, and the themes are broader than Jamie and Eddie: Souls of Strife. Do you feel there is a connection between the two films? And how personal were the themes of Evol to you?

Aka: JnE was about war and peace, Evol is about good and evil. The themes tackle more of the internal moral battles that human beings face. Regardless of what story I write, I always tend to have a moral premise, the story needs to end with an inspiring lesson or something universally deep to think about.

F.J.: Were things less stressful during production of Evol or was it worse than Jamie and Eddie? And how have the availabilities of the cast and crew members, as well as other resources, improved since your first feature?

Aka: Things were a lot less stressful while making EVOL. I was more mature, experienced and wise. We did not have an actress quitting in the middle of production after her third day of shooting like JnE. I also felt that the cast and crew respected and trusted me a bit more with EVOL. I created a much better shooting system that worked very well, the shots looked great and I felt that every shoot was a lot more organized than they were with JnE. In this case, I owned about ten grand worth of equipment which all helped make my shots more creative and professional than those in JnE. Other than that, the handicaps you get working with a volunteer crew are always there, it’s just a matter of knowing how to handle them.

F.J.: How did you come to meet Gary Peterson and have the opportunity to work with him on Evol?

Aka: I always have my eye out for local actors. His previous work was okay, but after having meetings with him and exploring Officer Wintley’s character, I gradually began to notice that he had something powerful to offer. People really love Gary’s performance and his character. It was neat how he applied method acting for his role, going to work as an officer.

F.J.: One of things I liked about this film more than Jamie and Eddie is how you managed to cross over different genres into one film. You have martial arts mixed with a gangster film, which comes off as a neo-noir action film overall. I understand the writer crafts his own world where things are created the way he wants them to be. Did you have any concerns that audiences may not take the blend of martial arts with the gangster/cop battles in an Ottawa film very seriously?

Aka: The only type of people who may not be used to this blend are North Americans. You go to Asia and they will welcome it in two seconds because that is exactly what they’re used to; from Yakuza films in Japan or the modern martial arts films in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, gangster films have martial arts in it 90% of the time. As far as Ottawa is concerned, yes we made the movie here but the film itself does not reference it. The movie is set in “the city”, and people do not realize that the actual name is not once mentioned in the movie.

F.J.: Looking back at both features you’ve made, which of the two is your personal favourite, as far as all aspects are concerned?

Aka: Evol is by far the better movie, in my opinion.

F.J: Do you see yourself working in Ottawa for your next project or will you be leaving for other endeavors?

Aka: As it is right now, it looks like I will give Ottawa 2011 and that will be it. I do plan on going to California someday, but I will tackle Toronto and Montreal before I go. So far, I have a few big projects that I’m excited to do which I cannot talk about in detail at the moment. I am very active on Facebook, so anyone who is interested in what I am up to could add me on there.

F.J.: How optimistic are you about your future career in the film industry?

Aka: I am very optimistic, when I receive three to five emails a month from people I don’t know telling me that I inspire them or they’re very impressed with my work, it’s very refreshing. It means I’m actually doing something right. The people who trained me are treating me like one of their own, I’ve received offers to do some guest speaking and teaching at schools and universities. It is quite a huge difference from where I started. There are many big doors open to me right now and I hope to be one of the people to make my continent proud in the film industry. I’m 25 right now and the future is very promising.

F.J.: Pascal, thanks so much for your time!

To buy the Evol dvd, you can visit the film’s website: http: www.evolthemovie.com

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