The Never Back Down franchise moves in a different direction with Never Back Down: Revolt. The new film is female-driven, focused on an amateur fighter (played by Olivia Popica) who holds nothing back in saving herself and fellow captives from a brutal underground organization.
There’s also a woman behind the camera—Kellie Madison, who spoke to me about directing an action-packed film, how it compares to the previous entries in the series, and what it’s like when UFC Hall of Famer Michael Bisping plays your villain.
Brittany Frederick: What did you connect with to direct Never Back Down: Revolt? As it’s different from many of your previous projects.
Kellie Madison: It was the script. I loved it right from the get-go. It’s a really unique storyline. We’ve seen human trafficking from many different angles, and it’s usually sexually-related. Those tragic stories are important to be told. I thought this was an interesting angle where women are being trafficked, but for their fight skills, and put into this dark, seedy, underground fight ring—which I thought was an interesting world to be able to create. Then watching them rise up against their oppressors and fight back. It ends up being very gratifying and very empowering for women. It was super-fun and exciting. It just checks off so many boxes.
BF: Speaking of fun and exciting, Michael Bisping plays the main antagonist in Revolt, and he steals so many scenes in the film. How would you describe working with him?
KM: I’m so happy for him. He’s an absolute joy off-camera. Laughing, joking all the time. Smiling, beaming, comes to set on time, does his job. In fact, the only complaint I would have is that you’re laughing too much. (laughs) He was such a lovely person. Then [I’m] watching him switch to this horrible person. When I was in the edit I didn’t have more fun than watching his performances, because he’s such a dick. My favorite line that I actually wrote is the line where Anya says”I didn’t catch your name.” [He says] “No, you didn’t.”
BF: The action genre has always included people like Bisping who are not lifelong actors. Other MMA fighters and lots of WWE wrestlers have expanded into acting. Does it change the way you direct when you’re working with someone who hasn’t been acting their whole career?
KM: It does. It gives you a freedom, too, because they really take your direction well. The fighters are very flexible because they know they’re not Meryl Streep. Take the Indonesians, for example, that I worked with on The Gate, and then Cecep Arif Rahman ended up choreographing two of my fight scenes in Never Back Down: Revolt. I love working with him. He’s not a trained actor, but he just takes direction so well, I can’t even tell you. Just nails it. His face is so lush on camera too. Same thing with Bisping. He took direction well. I think it might be their discipline and training. They come on set to work. Actors are a little bit more self-conscious; with fighters, it’s just about the fighting.
BF: The last film you directed, The Tank, was a claustrophobic drama with characters in one space for a lot of the movie. How was it to transition from that to Never Back Down: Revolt, which has a larger cast and a much faster pace?
KM: I just feel I know more. With every film I get under my belt, no matter what it is—short film, commercial, music video, feature—the more you’re behind the camera, the more you’re learning. There’s something new, whether you’re working with weapons or whether you’re doing green screen. You learn some new trick of the trade, and you get better at storytelling every time.
I even find that after I directed these two features this past year, I’m a better writer. I went back to writing, and I’m doing a rewrite on a grounded sci-fi project I’m super excited about called Kexburg. I feel like, “Now I get it.” Also, the more time you spend in the edits, you know what you need. You know what pieces you need to build tone, you know what pieces you need to build character. Each process, I hope I continue to grow. I feel more and more confident and more comfortable.
BF: How did you keep the film so focused? As Revolt avoids the common pitfall of the action genre, where the film moves too fast and spends so much time on the action that the characters get lost or become an afterthought. That doesn’t happen here.
KM: It’s so important to me as an action director to make sure that the story is strong, characters and character arcs are strong. Then you’re rooting for them, and therefore when the action set pieces come in, and the fight set pieces come in, they mean something. That you’re like, “I really like that character. Now that character’s in danger.” Then you’re on the edge of your seat. I worked really hard to accomplish that.
I think in this particular case it was easier to track, in the sense that each girl had a really strong point of view. Each girl was distinct. From Diana Hoyos, the Columbian actress, who was playing someone who struggled mentally because her head was beaten in after attempting to escape. To Nitu Chandra, whose character Jaya was strong, trying to protect Valentina. They each had their own really unique point of view and you cared about them. And then when they revolt, it means something.
BF: Do you have a favorite scene or sequence from Never Back Down: Revolt?
KM: The ending scene with the villain is pretty fun. I was really impressed by what we were able to accomplish in five hours. I always had producers breathing down my neck saying “You don’t have time. You don’t have time.” We were always so rushed. What we accomplished in that five hours, I think, was pretty impressive. Although as a director, you always want more time, bigger budget. With more time, you can do more. I definitely don’t walk away from this film thinking, by any stretch, that it’s perfect, or that I’m satisfied, because there’s so much else that you want to do with those scenes, with more time with your actors to shoot. For the time we had, I’m proud of what we accomplished.
BF: How do you consider success with a film like this? Box office receipts don’t mean the same thing now with streaming, and especially right now with the COVID-19 pandemic changing the business of filmmaking. What makes a movie a success in your eyes?
KM: Talking to people like you, connecting with the audience. Do you like it, do you not like it? Maybe someone’s going to come up to me and say they hate it, but so far people seem to be enjoying it. So far I’m getting compliments on the women, and the diversity, and the villains. Everyone’s raving about it. That’s the success—if people like it. With marketing these days, it’s so hit or miss. Studios are not giving a lot of marketing dollars. It’s got to be word of mouth—social-media based. Hopefully, people spread the word.
I’m curious how the Never Back Down audience is going to feel about it because it’s such a departure from the rest of the series. I think if you went back and watched these films now, because they’re older, especially Never Back Down I, for example—people really liked that movie, but women were beyond poorly represented in that movie. They were exploited. There were just party scenes and bikinis. That’s the only place you saw a woman. There’s no fault to this franchise; that’s how women were perceived back then.
I’m so grateful that we’re evolving in our consciousness, and I’m so glad that we’re evolving in the entertainment business. We’ve now demanded change. I remember watching an interview with Jessica Chastain and she said, “I like to work with female directors, because they don’t start the shot on my ass and then come up.” It’s stuff like that; small changes. I’m so glad we’re making these evolutionary changes. It’s so exciting. This particular movie in the franchise is completely different.
Never Back Down: Revolt is available for streaming and video on demand now. The film is also available on Blu-Ray and DVD through Amazon.
Article content is (c)2020-2022 Brittany Frederick and may not be excerpted or reproduced without express written permission by the author. Follow me on Twitter at @BFTVTwtr, on Instagram at @BFTVGram.