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Interview – Director Bailey Kobe’s new film ‘Rag Doll’ focuses on the violence in life that drives fighters

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Director Bailey Kobe, of Double Entente Films, has a new upcoming feature depicting female protagonist Nora, played by Shannon Murray, who uses MMA as an outlet to manage the various burdens in her day-to-day life. Nora signs up for an all-women MMA tournament, but ultimately many of her biggest battles come way before fight day.

This isn’t some cheesy fight flick. It’s a sports drama with layered characters, real world dialogue, and MMA action scenes that are rooted in actual techniques seen in the cage and on the mats. The film features everything from rear-naked chokes to kneebars, and flying armbars to omoplatas.

Kobe caught up with Bloody Elbow to discuss how his film came to be, as well as his own background growing up in martial arts. The director credited the MMA community for helping bring realism to the table, and detailed how he casted his characters by having them perform actual fight moves as a litmus test. (Who needs stunt doubles anyway?) Kobe also touched on how people of any gender or ethnicity could have very different takeaways from his creation thanks to his layered characterization.

Rag Doll can be seen in select theaters on February 21st, and then on Video on Demand on iTunes and major cable providers on February 25th.

Check out the trailer for Bailey Kobe’s new film, Rag Doll:

  • You have a new film coming out that you directed called Rag Doll that takes place in the MMA world. I would call this a drama for sure, but there’s also a huge dose of realistic action and humor. After reading the script, what was your intentions for the type of movie you wanted to make?

“What we got was a gritty sports story, and it was female led, and that was exciting to me. Shannon Murray, the lead, is actually somebody I’ve produced with in the past, and she brought me this script. She says, ‘I need to play this girl.’ I was like, ‘YES!’ I haven’t seen this girl. We all grew up in MMA and martial arts, and I’ve never seen that girl before in a movie.

“…these are the girls that are in my gym. They’re working their ass off. Maybe they’re in the gym for not a good reason; maybe something happened. There’s a lot of reasons why they get in the gym. I was like, if I can make this story about that, about the violence in the life that got them to the gym, that’s what I’m interested in. So we were off after that.”

  • You said you grew up in martial arts; what is your background?

“Back in the day, everything was so, you know, stylized. So it was like you had Kenpo, you had Taekwondo. I did Kenpo with David Torres, who came out from Ed Parker. So I did that as a kid. My mom kicked my butt into there and was like, ‘Learn discipline. Learn how to be controlled and focused,’ and all these great things that martial arts promised to be. And I think it does for young men and young women.

“When I grew up, I did a lot of travelling. I was in Russia, and some Russian friends were showing me these videos on their phones. And I’m like, ‘What is this?’ These people were hitting each other, like hard, like not holding back and moving in ways I had never seen before. They were like, ‘This is Systema. This is like the Russian distillation of all the best martial arts into the killing style that they teach the Spetsnaz guys… It’s amazing how they move, and how they think. It’s such an interesting sport when you see the world through their eyes. So I’ve been with the academy off and on. I’m not by any means very good, or good at anything other than really enjoying the sport.”

  • Have you ever competed in any of those disciplines at all?

“In Kenpo. I got my trophies, you like kind of stack up. It was great. You get to learn a lot about yourself and preparation. I’ve learned so much doing those tournaments, and the intensity. It was a lot of fun when you’re a kid, just to compete for things while punching and kicking. It was a lot of fun. I did okay, but it was just more to enjoy the sport. It’s just something I was passionate about to explore and augment into my life. I just never thought I was good enough to try and do what you did. OH MY GOSH! Like get into a professional, I saw this. That pro fight. We can talk about that later, but holy cow, that blew my mind.”

“It takes a mindset to get to that point. That’s what we learned about our characters. You build up this confidence in sort of the ring and this controlled environment. Does it work outside of that environment? Can you win in that same way in your life. I think we have a mentality in sports stories. Like, yeah if we stand over the body of the people we’ve beaten, we won. It’s like, in real life, you go to jail. There’s consequences. It’s a little more complicated than that.”

  • You brought in Shannon Murray to play the protagonist, Nora, and I believe she absolutely nailed the part. You really get a feel for her character, who has a pretty rough life. She’s taking care of her sick mother, and it seems like the bulk of her encounters in her day-to-day life are filled with unsavory characters. Her attitude really reflects that and she tries to channel it through training martial arts. You said that she actually brought this script to you?

“Yeah, she said, ‘I want to be an actor.’ I’m like, ‘That’s awesome. You need to find great roles that really sort of meet you where you have a great passion for.’ She found something based in this world, martial arts, because she studies at The Yard Muay Thai, here in Los Angeles. She was just really passionate about this sport as well. So it was just like, ‘Great, we can find resources to make the story work.’ But it was that kernel of really understanding these characters in a fundamental way, and what the sports mean to them.”

  • When it came to casting, how did you go about finding people that could portray martial artists?

“There were a lot of big name actors who wanted to play these roles, because I think they saw a great opportunity to play great dramatic roles. We would do these casting sessions, and I would say, ‘Okay, punch this bag.’ It was a sort of litmus test. If you weren’t really that ethos, if you really didn’t work out, you weren’t really striking well. Your form would show that. So we kind of had to really start to slim down who we were looking at, because we wanted to have no stunt doubles. We wanted these girls to actually do the moves.”

  • There are so many actual real-world techniques on display. There’s submission chaining, rear-naked chokes, defense, kneebars, flying armbars, omoplatas, and even silicone wedding bands. Of course, you have a background in it, but how much research did you have to do on top of what you already knew to prepare for an MMA movie?

“That’s the great part of working with actors who also are in this world. They’re helping to make decisions about the character. So I sat down with each actor and we talked about everything about that character. What’s going on with the, what are they wearing, why are they wearing it. Getting to that wedding band, that’s exactly a decision we came to. I was like, ‘Okay, are you going to wear it?’ ‘No no no. I know people and they do the silicone ones.’ ‘Genius, we’re going to get one of those.’ It’s about working collaboratively. It’s a collaborative art form, so when you’re working with great people who know the world, who love the world, they’re going to express what they know about that world.”

  • What do you hope is the biggest takeaway from the audience after watching this film?

“I think there’s going to be a lot of different takeaways we found from audiences. A lot of different people see a lot of different things. I find it so interesting. Whether that’s Asian males, because I have Dante Basco [Rufio from Hook] who is an Asian male romantic lead… Asian males see it in a very different way than perhaps a woman. Everybody sees this story in a very unique different way, because I think the layers within the characterization. They kind of latch on to a specific character. Like Roxana Sanchez [Aisha]. This badass Latin American fighter. Latin American guys are like, ‘Oh hey, cool.’ There’s representation and they catch on to her track of the story, because she’s doing a lot of stuff with her husband and control issues. Even though she’s a badass and a fighter, she has somebody that’s manipulating her to a degree. So that’s the challenge for her.”

  • I definitely dig it. I think you hit a home run here. How can people watch Rag Doll and check it out for themselves?

“We have a limited theatrical release, February 21st. It’s going to start in Los Angeles. Then, it’s going to go on iTunes and across VOD, all the cable platforms on February 25th. We’re just now getting into the big ramp up. People will be able to see it very soon. Again, February 21st in theaters and February 25th from the comfort of your own couch.”

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