Action Through Character: Interview with Naledi Jackson

Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s 2002 thriller Infernal Affairs screens Sunday, July 28th at Christie Pits Film Festival, as part of the summer-long Dynamic Duos series at parks across the city. It follows the story of a police officer and a member of a crime syndicate who infiltrate each other’s organizations, leading to a high stakes game of cat-and-mouse between the two of them. Paired with Infernal Affairs is Naledi Jackson’s utterly dynamic short film The Drop In. It pits a former special agent, now working at a hair salon, against an unusual - and possibly familiar - client.

We spoke with Naledi Jackson about her short film. 

TOPS: This year's festival theme is Dynamic Duos. Your short film deals with the very disparate, and conflicting, lives of the hair stylist and the drop-in client. How did you conceptualize these two characters, who despite sharing a past, lead very different lives?  

Naledi Jackson (NJ): Most of the time, I have no clue where the ideas in my brain come from. The quantum field, I guess.  But for this particular project, I knew that I wanted to do a film that held tension, that explored themes of identity and home, and that took place in an environment that was familiar to me. Black hair salons have always been a source of fascination for me ever since childhood; it’s a place of community, but also for exchanging information and gossip. Also, the relationship between a stylist and a client can often hold quite a bit of tension... you don’t really know the person who holds the sharp scissors to your head and you are at their mercy. I wanted to dig my heels into this and create a backstory for two women that flips the tension and then explodes into something completely unexpected.

The stylist, Joelle, is a former special agent who just wants to keep her new life. And her drop-in client is a malevolent government representative hell-bent on bringing her back, at whatever cost. I felt like a salon was a perfect place for this pairing to take place; there was room for intimacy, vulnerability, and conflict to unfold in a dynamic way. 

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TOPS: Both The Drop In and Infernal Affairs, the feature film paired with it that evening, feature impressive choreography. Tell us about that process on your film.

 NJ: It all started with the 13-page script, which had a half-page fight scene. I had a strong visual idea of how I wanted the fight to look and feel, but actually shooting action was new territory. So the first thing my producer, Priscilla Galvez, and I did was seek help. We approached Paul Rapovski of Fast Motion Studios. He had worked on Scott Pilgrim and I admired his work. He was incredibly supportive and suggested we put a team in place. He then linked me up with Jason Gosbee, Eric Daniels, and Dennis Lafond, three amazingly skilled martial artists from the Toronto stunt community.

Jason helped me with the pre-visualization process, and Eric and Dennis helped with the choreography, working with the references I already had in place (The Matrix, Crouching Tiger, The Grandmaster). Once we had the choreography set, the entire team worked around the clock to get Mouna Traore and Olunike Adeliyi trained to do the fight, wirework and all!  It was a crazy few months but we managed to pull it off. Our D.O.P., Jackson Parrell, and our editor, Christine Armstrong, were integral to everything coming together.  The best advice I’d give to any filmmaker is, go forth with boldness and surround yourself with awesome people! 


TOPS: You mentioned in the TIFF original "How to Design a Fight Scene" that it is difficult to find martial arts stunt doubles for Black women. Was that part of the motivation to create this film? 

NJ: I wanted to make a kick-ass action film that put women of colour at the centre of the narrative. That was important to me. I didn’t actually think too much about stunt doubles going in. I figured that we'd cross that bridge when we got to it. Mouna and Olunike were true gladiators and ended up doing 90% of the stunts anyway, but that took an enormous amount of training and support from our amazing stunt coordinators. There were, however, a couple of stunts that were just too dangerous for them (like a table smash!!), and it was a struggle to find stunt doubles. 

I was fortunate enough to work with an up and coming stunt woman from the black community, Dajon Durante, but we had to get her accredited into the union for that scene, as it was her first official gig!  So that was a bit intense, but well worth the effort as she is so talented. I do hope that with the increase of productions in Toronto, there will be more opportunities and support for black women in the stunt community. Many productions simply cannot train their actresses to the extent we did, and will need stunt women to execute action sequences in a professional and timely manner. The work that stuntwomen do is enormously important and needs more nurturing and recognition.  

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TOPS: Who is your favourite cinematic duo, and why?

NJ: There are so many! But Michelle Yeoh and Zhang Ziyi will forever hold a special place in my heart for their work in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That final duel for the Green Destiny was such an incredible sequence —  the emotional and physical tension in that scene is a masterclass in storytelling through action. It’s the film that inspired me on my path as a director.  

I'm also a bit obsessed with Miguel Sapochnik's recent collaborations with David Benioff and DB Weiss for Game of Thrones. I know that's technically a threesome, and there's a lot of grumpiness around the series right now, but the Battle of Hardhome and The Battle of The Bastards are some of the most incredible action sequences I've ever seen. I feel those battles elevated the genre by truly leading the action through character in such a striking, innovative and heartfelt way. Emotional punches are just as important as physical ones!

 The Drop In screens alongside Infernal Affairs (Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, 2002) on July 28th at Christie Pits Park.