Fight choreographer John Salvitti grew up in the Boston area. He was still a teen when he joined the kung fu school in Chinatown run by Bow Sim Mark. Yes, that Bow Sim Mark. Donnie Yen’s mom. After Yen got his start in the Hong Kong film industry in the mid-eighties, it was only natural that he would recruit his ‘bros’ from his mom’s school for his stunt fighters. Salvitti was one that got the call, and it was on. The movie bug bit him hard. He kept at it over the years, working with Yen as well as on his own. Straight away, creating quality fight choreography and putting cool fight moves on screen became his passion.
Salvitti’s early grounding may have been in kung fu and karate, but he was quick to recognize the value of of the newer hybrid arts. By the early nineties, with the rising popularity of UFC style matches, Salvitti knew he could put it all together (the punching, kicking, and grappling of modern MMA) and so began his immersion in submission wrestling and MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) which flowed into training/competing in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. This expertise would prove to be a valuable resource in Salvitti’s ongoing film collaboration with Yen and others.
Salvitti has branded his film choreography as ‘Salvitti Style Supa Scraps,’ a combination of old and new, traditional and cutting-edge. He has the practical knowledge: he holds certification as a US Marine Corps instructor/contractor to teach Specialized Tactical Training; and he has the artistic expertise: he’s worked for years on classic movies with one of the best, Donnie Yen. How many other fight choreographers can point to such an eclectic resume? Salvitti calls it the 38-25, 38 years training, 25 years in film. His work in Chinese cinema has been well known to fans for a long time. Now the larger world is starting to take notice. Salvitti just finished choreographing the new Jean Claude Van Damme vehicle, POUND OF FLESH, and the buzz is starting.
“JCVD was aware of my work,” Salvitti, now home in LA, told me earlier this week. “Mike Leeder (a mutual friend who is also a producer on the film) was keeping him updated. Eventually a project came along where he wanted to give me a chance. I was introduced to the director (Ernie Barbarash), read the script, and we were off!!” POUND OF FLESH is an action-thriller, shot in China. JCVD plays an ex-military man who wakes up one day to find his kidney was stolen. Ouch!!! For Salvitti, working in China again was like coming home.
Getting access to the script a couple of months before going into production was a luxury for Salvitti. That kind of advance notice is not always the case in the Hong Kong industry. Early familiarity with the script allowed time for the fights and much of the choreography to be devised and blocked in his home gym in LA. “I lived with it and churned it in the weeks before setting off to China,” he recalled.
Once in China, Salvitti trained his Chinese stuntmen, and he shot and edited a series of pre-visuals (mock ups of the major fight scenes) for the director and JCVD with Salvitti standing in for the star. “On our first meeting, JCVD really loved the pre-visuals. That meant a lot to me.”
So what about those fight scenes? According to Salvitti, “There’s lots of action. I’ve drawn from much of my martial arts experience to create the fights and concepts. With encouragement from both JCVD and director Ernie, I’ve mixed and matched the fights to enhance the martial arts for the characters. Our main villain, Darren Shahlavi, was a pleasure to work with. This dude is a beast!”
“The MMA is there, with my jiu-jitsu and judo, my military tactics, karate, kung fu, Thai boxing, silat. My love for blending my traditional/modern combat styles is there and it flows naturally. Like in a real fight, at any given moment, things can flip. You have to pull from your roots. For me it’s what I rely on to create.” What is Salvitti Style? “It’s that pure bangin’, hard hitting, unapologetic, unforgiving, NON CO-OPERATIVE CHOREOGRAPHY that has become the signature Salvitti Style Fight Choreography. It’s what I do. With my tuff-as-nails stunt guys, my China utility guys, I have an international crew of men who know what I’m looking for. They’re from Hong Kong/China, the US, Brahim Achabbakhe out of Thailand, Temur Mamisashvili out of Hong Kong, Mike Möller from Germany, Kimekai MMA out of Australia,and they are tuff-as-nails brothers. I share my brand/style, they learn the choreography and deliver. They take the bull by the horns and I encourage them to make what I do their own. A great feeling of TEAM.”
He went on to say, “With each film I do, I have the hindsight of the MMA evolution regarding what I’ve done in past films and what was left in the tank, where the combat has been and where its going. Directors I’ve worked with appreciate and have come to expect this of me. I don’t leave it to chance. What you see in a fight I’ve designed is a thought process of combat fight choreography. From big moves to the tiny morsels of combat, a clean punch to a messy punch, it’s a game plan that’s implemented and executed. I take responsibility to find, discover and create the heavy hitting fight choreography I’ve become known for. Stunt men and fighters then step into position. Then, like a pro sports team, it’s backs-against-the-wall bang time! Light it up! Game on!”
On POUND OF FLESH, Salvitti is credited as fight choreographer and stunt coordinator. Salvitti says, with enthusiasm, “It takes a team, and I’m more than appreciative that we got the support to be successful. JCVD is dope. He and director Ernie and the producers really showed much love for me and the fight guys. This inspired us all to really get after it. So many times I found myself at the monitor barely able to contain myself. Dat-la is Cantonese for ‘GREAT’, and I would scream IT OUT!! You could just feel the fire! That’s what we strived for in every shot. I felt like I was back in high school watching my all time favorite, BLOODSPORT, with the same dope skills. JCVD commands, he was puttin’ it down in China. He’s a legend. It was an honor working with him!…and we are in talks for round 2!”
At the end of our conversation, Salvitti added that he wants to say “Thank you!” to all the martial arts brothers and sisters out there.
For more information about John Salvitti, and ‘Salvitti Style Supa Scraps,’ go to his website.
IN THE LINE OF DUTY 4 (1989)
TIGER CAGE 2 (1990) – check out the Youtube clip below!
HEROES AMONG HEROES (1993)
BLADE II (2002)
FLASH POINT (2007)
SPECIAL ID (2013)
KUNG FU JUNGLE (2014)
POUND OF FLESH (2015)
Donnie Yen • Jean-Claude Van Damme • John Salvitti • Mike Leeder • MMA • Pound of Flesh