Interview with Born A Champion writer and star Sean Patrick Flanery
by Bobby Blakey
Sean Patrick Flanery has had an impressive career through numerous genres with films like Powder the awesome Boondock Saints films, The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, SA: The Final Chapter, the Dexter series and too many more to count. He has also been a lifelong martial artist and his latest film Born A Champion, that he both stars and wrote brings his passion of the martial arts to the forefront. I had the honor sitting down with him to discuss the film, martial arts and the personal journey of getting this film to the big screen.
Bobby: Before diving into talking about Born A Champion, can you tell us a little about your martial arts background?
Sean: I started martial arts when I was 9 years old. Unlike most who saw a Bruce Lee film and became interested, mine was Elvis Presley. I saw him to “Suspicious Minds’ on the Vegas stage he was singing and throwing kicks. I told my dad who was a golden gloves boxer “Look Elvis is doing Karate!” He knew Elvis had trained with Ed Parker in Kenpo and when he told I wanted to do that stuff.
So I got into it and then in the 90s Rickson Gracie had a school in the Palisades at Jerry Banks Karate studio. They were putting mats down and had this patch with Rickson Gracie on it and I had no idea who this guy was, but I knew the Gracie name and I had always wanted to try jujitsu. It was the 90s so you really couldn’t just Google it, but some guy just threw me a gi and said “You train, let’s go” and it was Henzo Gracie. I didn’t know who they were I was just blown away they knew Royce Gracie and no idea that this was the Michael Jordan of Jujitsu.
Being a lifelong martial artist and I was doing triathlons at the time, my first day sparring was against a blue belt and this kid utterly destroyed me. Wrist locks, arm locks, etc. The clouds parted and I could not make sense of it. I thought there is no way something can be that dominate over a life-long martial artist. I basically camped out at the Academy for a large portion of my life after that because I was obsessed. Nothing had shaken my perception of combat reality like that day.
Bobby: I love that. Diving into this movie, your passion for martial arts is obvious so where did the idea for this movie come from?
Sean: I wrote this in 2007 and was on the MMA Underground forum and someone said give us your best original story. So I wrote a story about a girl that got me into martial arts. After seeing Elvis and wanting to train I had saw this girl in gi pants pushing a bicycle with her kimono top in the basket. The bike had a flat tire, but she pushed it every day to carry her kimono so I followed her and next door to a Piggly Wiggly there was a karate academy. So I wrote that story and people loved it and then I wrote a second one that I ended up not posting on MMA Underground about Mickey Kelly. The minute I wrote it I realized I wanted to make this a real film.
It took us 12 years to get it made. It’s about martial arts in the 90s and everything
I know to be true about that time. I tried to be authentic as possible in the fight sequences. I didn’t want to flash it up with anything fancy, I wanted it to be the true martial arts that has real world application to me. That’s not near as cinematically friendly. It’s ugly, slow, and methodical, but it’s what is in my heart and is true that has been engrained in me as a martial artist since day one.
Bobby: I applaud you for that approach because while I love the flashy fight sequences in films it tends to lose the purity of it. Was it something you ever had issue with studios in them wanting to try to get you to push for the flashy Hollywood fights?
Sean: Not at all. One of the reasons for that was this is a tiny little film. I imagine it was a bigger studio film then they would have tried to make those changes from top to bottom, but you never know. This is the story that I wanted to tell and a very fundamental Rickson and Henzo Gracie jujitsu film. It’s my love letter to the martial arts top to bottom and I wanted it to be very true to the self-defense aspect of real world application of jujitsu. It’s not a pretty thing to look at and the first time people saw UFC 1 and Royce Gracie most people had no idea why those fights stopped. It’s not dynamic or flashy, but I wanted to leave something behind that is a true representation of what fighting looks like. I started in Tae Kwon Do, but the amount of times you are going to throw a spinning wheel kick in the real world is slim to none. I wanted this to be real homage and love letter to those things that changed my life.
Bobby: Did you have a specific set of techniques you wanted to showcase for this film going in or did they just kind of develop with the choreography?
Sean: A lot of the fundamental movements you see warming up with are in Rickson’s warm-up curriculum that I have done since the 90s. They are engrained in me and are things my class does every single day. I wanted all of that in there because those are the elements of Jujitsu that if I had to take away and just use the core, I wanted this film to be that core of the game you could rely on. The Rickson and Henzo Gracie system is about fighting and not a sport variant. It takes into account blunt force trauma and that strips the game down to its essential core. I wanted those elements to be profound and pronounced in the film.
Bobby: Were there any changes to the script from when you originally wrote it to this version?
Sean: No, this was a part of the original story. It was a wonderful experience to have the story I wrote in 2007 remain so true to its core in execution.
Bobby: Did you feel like you needed any special preparation to do a film so personal to you?
Sean: There are all kinds of actors that approach things in different ways. I have never been a method actor, but this is a world I have always lived in. I’ve spent more time in the martial arts by a comfortable margin than I have on movie sets. I teach and on the mat all the time. The preparation for this is just going to set and doing it. Its part of my heart and soul and the legacy I want to leave behind for my kids. This is one of the most important aspects of my life that I can hand down. It was a joy and pleasure that didn’t really require any preparation. To have the three things I love family, martial arts and film merge on film forever is a dream come true.
Bobby: I loved the film as a whole, but there is a beautiful sequence during the credits. Was this actually shot for the film or just a random training session that you used?
Sean: I wrote that and shot it myself in my backyard studio with my iPhone with my son. The youngest version of this character is my youngest son and the older version of is my older son. To have them doing something that is a huge part of their life on camera is just amazing. That’s my son in that sequence and he has been doing jujitsu for five years now.
Bobby: That’s awesome. Before I run out of time, do you have anything else coming up you can tell us about?
Sean: Yes, I have a film called Assault on VA-33 coming out that’s a Lionsgate film as well. I am also going to be shooting a TV show for season three of a show on Amazon Prime that everyone is digging right now. It’s cool since I don’t get to be on popular TV shows very often. I also wrote my first novel right around the time I was writing this film that was published in 2016 that got flattering reviews and I am planning to produce that as a film as well. And of course training every single day.
Bobby: Nice. I loved this move and want to you thank you for making something that connects to true martial artists like this.
Sean: Coming from someone like you, this is who I wrote this for. Against all those indicators that might make it more cinema friendly or attractive to those that don’t know martial arts, I wanted to stay true. I sent screeners to friends that are huge names in the martial arts world and those are the people I want the check from. I want them to go “Yo Flanery, well done!” If I get a thumbs up from people like you, bro God bless you.
Bobby: You not only get two thumbs up but a bow and Osu as well sir.
Sean: Thank you man!
Bobby: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me and look forward to everything else you have coming up. It was an honor to speak with you sir.
Sean: Likewise brother, God bless.
Check out Born A Champion available now On Demand, Blu-ray and DVD from Lionsgate Home Entertainment.