Explosions on the big screen have always captivated filmmaker Asif Akbar, who has wanted to make movies since the age of two. His first directorial feature, My Foreign Desh, premiered at the New York International Film and Video Festival while Top Priority: The Terror Within premiered at the Academy Awards in 2012. Building up a resume of short films, music videos, TV shows and documentaries, Akbar recently made Astro and Ace & the Christmas Miracle, which put him in the fast lane as one of Hollywood’s young elites in his early thirties. He’s directing on a larger scale with The Commando, an edge-of-your-seat thriller starring Mickey Rourke and Michael Jai White to be released on January 7th. Akbar discusses the origins of his career, his inspirations and The Commando in this exclusive interview for Script Magazine.
You started making films at a young age using home handycams and editing tape-to-tape video. Can you tell us about some of those early movies?
Sure, absolutely. When I was growing up, I always knew I wanted to make movies, but at first my conception of filmmakers was that they were actors. They were the face of the movie. The actors that we saw on TV were the ones that were making the movies. And then as I grew older, I realized that there's a lot more to it than that. There's a whole team behind the scenes with the director and writer, producer, cameraman, all that stuff. I wanted to learn how to do all that stuff and bring all those elements together. I started watching more and more behind the scenes documentaries. This was when I was young, like five or six years old, and at that time our technology with home video cameras were like the big, bulky VHS home camcorders. I didn't own one myself, but I had cousins and friends who did. I took the concept of being able to record home movies and even recording anything that played on TV under the VHS tapes using a VCR, and then also doing tape-to-tape recordings from one tape to another by attaching two VCRs together. I just started playing around with all those concepts of putting a picture and video together and editing. And so, what I would do was, I would record on the handycams with my friends. We would just play around, come up with stories and film scenarios to where I would bring that over and do the tape-to-tape editing. I would hook up the camcorder to the TV, have a VCR hook to it and do tape-to-tape editing and create a movie. I successfully completed one when I was eleven years old. Before that, I attempted to make full-length short films, but I would probably complete two or three scenes and then, you know, that'd be it. Most of my friends thought of it as playing games and playing around just like anything else. But for me, I was always taking it seriously like I'm making a real movie, so I always had that mentality of whatever I make, it's serious. It's for a purpose. I'm making a real movie. So, I just kind of grew with that. And then in my early teens, I started going into directing and producing content that was going on TV. I had some experience as a kid actor at a young age, I got into acting theater and then went into some TV acting in my early teen years, and then I just transitioned more into behind the scenes, which was more natural to me. I loved telling my stories and creating my conception.
Which movies made you want to make movies the most?
There are quite a few, but if I had to pick one that stood out the most to me when I was younger, it's crazy, but it was Terminator 2. I watched that at a very young age and, luckily, my parents allowed me to watch all kinds of movies. Nothing obviously too vulgar, but movies like Terminator 2, Jurassic Park, Back to the Future and a lot of sci-fi stuff. I used to love sci-fi growing up because it was so amazing to see these worlds come to life on TV and see those stories. So, that always fascinated me. And then all these actors that were in these movies, like Arnold Schwarzenegger playing this robot but then in other movies, he's playing all these other characters, same with other actors. That always fascinated me. But the thing with Terminator 2 what stood up the most is how innovative it was, especially for its time. I remember back in the early nineties watching it and being amazed at the technology. Obviously, that stuff is very easy to do today, but back then it was a whole different world. Even today when I watch that movie, it's timeless, you know, it holds its own.
How did The Commando come about?
The Commando came together fairly quickly last year. We shot it on location in New Mexico back in October of 2020. Because it was during the pandemic, we were a very safe set and we got through it. The production itself was quick, but it was a lot of fun. We had a great group of cast and crew, and it was one of those scripts that I had in a pile along with a couple of my other producing partners and writing partners where we had a stack of scripts that we were pitching. There were other films we were also working on and even in pre-production with, to start, but because of the pandemic and so many different elements having to come together for those projects, this one just happened to move forward faster because things lined up. It's very strange sometimes in this business, the one film you expect to move the least fast, it ends up moving forward. So, you must always kind of be ready, especially if you have a stack of scripts like that you know you want to get made, you just don't know when, but you just must mentally be ready for that call to come in and say, “Alright, we want to move forward with The Commando.” We had pitched it to a couple different companies along with other scripts and the timing just happened to be right. I had to do a couple rewrites and polishes to make it work with the actors we had and everything that was already set, but once we got the green light, it came together within like two months. It was one of the quicker films of my career that I was able to get made, so I'm very blessed for that.
What drew you to the project in the first place?
The simplicity of the story, but also how effective it was as a thriller and as an action film. It is an action film, but it's considered more of an action thriller and deals with PTSD trauma among soldiers, policemen, law enforcements and how that impacts family members. When we first came up with the concept, it was supposed to be more of a home invasion thriller with a little bit of PTSD issues that our hero goes through but as we developed it more getting closer to the shoot and with the casting and everything, we went deeper on the psychological effects of dealing with PTSD - not only for the person with PTSD, but how it also affects their families and their relationships and how everyone as a unit can cope with it. It's a very serious issue in our society right now, so I wanted to shed some light on it through an entertaining story of this home invasion gone wrong.
How was it working with Mickey Rourke and Michael Jai White?
To be honest, it was quite exciting for everyone, but we also didn't know what to expect because our shooting schedule was so tight, and we had a lot to shoot. I have not worked with Mickey or Michael before so for me as a director, I was a little worried like, "OK, you know, how is this going to go?" But from day one, it was nothing but a great experience with both. Mickey is a legendary actor and Michael is also a legend in his own right. They both came with a lot of passion towards the film and even Mickey was hard at work. I mean, he was there thirteen or fourteen hours. He would even at times just stand there on set even in between takes. I'd tell him, "Hey, Mickey, you got five minutes. You can go rest in your trailer." His attitude was, "You know what? I'm here to work. I'll stand right here, wait for the next shot." Michael, every chance he got, he would go into doing rehearsals or call me up and discuss the scenes and try to prep as much as he could for his character. I believe you're going to get to see Michael Jai White in a slightly different way than we're used to in most of his films where he's just always fighting in action packed movies. This one is a little bit deeper and more emotional, and he did a fantastic job carrying the role dealing with PTSD and these psychological issues, and at the same time being a hero that kicks ass and saves his family. So, you get a whole different side of Michael and I think everyone on set was wowed by his performance. Mickey carried his scenes very well and we all loved it.
The Commando is in Theaters and On Demand and Digital on January 7, 2022.