By Alex Lee
In-the-know movie aficionados know that Kazakhstan’s movie industry has been on the rise over the last few years. Renowned Kazakh director Timur Bekmambetov has directed blockbusters, such as “Day Watch” and “Night Watch,” “Wanted,” with Angelina Jolie, and the 2012 summer hit “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.” The nation’s movie industry also received international acclaim earlier thisyear with the release of the sweeping epic tale of Kazakh history “Zhauzhurek Myn Bala.”
But what is less known is that a niche industry is also building alongside Kazakhstan’s Hollywood-style success. The country is quickly becoming a reliable, go-to source for some of the best stuntman talent in the industry. Over the last decade renowned stunt troupe Nomad and successful training academy Kun-Do for would be action film heroes have sprung up to produce the next generation of major motion picture stuntmen. EdgeKz took a look at the institutions and the individuals who are on the cutting edge of this new industry.
Nomad: Local Stunt Troupe Makes It Big in Hollywood
Most visitors to Almaty who busily crisscross this beautiful mountain city from business meeting to business meeting have no idea that one of Hollywood’s most renowned stunt teams is actually based out of this corner of Central Asia. But that is exactly where Kazakhstan’s own Nomad stunt troupe practices their skills. The team was founded in Almaty in 2003 by now 43-year-old stuntman ZhaidarbekKunguzhinov. Prior to founding the troupe, Kunguzhinov had stunt doubled for such starts as Jason Scott Lee, Mark Dacascos, Kuno Becker, Asano Tadanobu and others. In the beginning, the troupe simply performed acrobatic and horse tricks for the Kazakh Circus, but the troupe got its big break in 2005 when it was featured in the movie “Nomad.” The troupe adopted the name of that movie and has gone on to work on such blockbusters as “The Way Back,” with Hollywood star Colin Farrell and last summer’s megahit “Expendables 2,” starring some of Hollywood’s top actions heroes, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis and Chuck Norris. The troupe has also worked on more local films, such as Russia’s “Day Watch” and Kazakh films “Liquidator” and the recent internationally acclaimed Kazakh epic “Zhauzhurek Myn Bala.”
But it was working on the “Expendables 2” that provided the young Kazakhs in the troupe with experiences they won’t soon forget. “The Expendables 2” came out in August of 2012, with Nomad stunt men playing a vital role in explosion and fighting scenes with Hollywood stars Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham. “These (Hollywood action stars) love to have fun. They mocked each other the whole time, and these guys were great to work with,” Kunguzhinov said. Apparently Bruce Willis teased Chuck Norris – one of the toughest men in Hollywood – for showing up with body guards, and Arnold Swarchenegger joked the entire filming about how old he had gotten and spent most of the time between scenes leaning on his knees and catching his breath. “But no matter the age, all these guys are in great shape and I respect that,” said Kunguzhinov.
The Nomad troupe’s 35 members, including three women, and 30 horses are also in great shape. Troupe members “practice full-time, five days a week and even harder during filming!”Zhaidarbek said. The troupe trains primarily on the grounds of the Kazakh Circus and at a second training facility roughly 40 kilometres away at Lake Issyk. In addition to horse riding and traditional fighting, the troupe has recently introduced Muya Thai boxing, which is currently popular in movies and on television. But Nomad isn’t just about acrobatics. The troupe is renowned for its extensively trained horses. “We train them, bring them up, they also work hard as we do,” he said.
Despite Kazakhstan being thousands of kilometres from the heart of Hollywood, the Nomad troupe provides a glimpse at the dream of Hollywood for the lucky few with the physical skills and discipline to make the cut. “To be a part of our team, one has to be mentally strong as working on film sets is tougher than being in the army! There is a lot of pressure. This is why we only take kids over 18 years old… who constantly work on themselves and perfect their skills,” Kunguzhinov said. So far, the formula is working and the troupe continues to get work in some of the world’s major films, says the troupe's fight and stunt coordinator BaurzhanAbishev. ”We don’t have a PR department and we are not spending millions on ads. We don’t have that money, but we are still approached and offered a lot of projects. They find us, because they know, they hear about us, mostly where there is a need for Asian horsemen. We have built a great reputation.”
Nomad Stuntman Makes it Big
As a kid, BaurzhanAbishev loved watching Jackie Chan movies. He wanted to move like Chan, do tricks like Chan and work on films like him. Today, Baurzhan is 30 and his Jackie Chan dreams have come true. Influenced by his father, who loved martial arts, Baurzhan began early taking gymnastics, wrestling and Tae Kwon Do classes. These disciplines gave him the range of physical tools necessary to become a successful stuntman and, more recently, a fight coordinator and stunt choreographer with Nomad.
Baurzhan got his big break, along with his fellow Nomad troupe members, on the set of the 2005 film “Nomad” when well-respected Hollywood-based Russian stunt coordinator Vladimir Orlov picked Baurzhan out of the crowd and asked him to coordinate action scenes. He had previously only worked with the state circus. He has since worked on more than 20 projects around the world, including in Russia, Kazakhstan and Hollywood. “In the sequel to ‘Expendables’ that was shot in Bulgaria and is coming out this fall, I had to coordinate fights with Sylvester Stallone and Jason Statham. It was a privilege for me to work with such Hollywood names,” Baurzhan told EdgeKz.
Baurzhan says he enjoys the work and doesn’t consider the life of a Hollywood stuntman to be dangerous. But he does recall a few unnerving situations such as being lit on fire and jumping off tall buildings. “Once, I had to jump off a four-story building and land on top of a car. I was all harnessed and tied up but I couldn’t see where I was falling since I had to land on my back. That was probably the scariest moment of my career,” Baurzhan recalled. Baurzhan now dreams of directing an action film himself and encourages the next generation of Kazakh stuntmen. To learn more about Baurzhan, visit www.baurabishev.com
Kun-Do: Training Ground for Action Stars
In addition to Nomad, Almaty offers a school that trains would be action stars. The Kun-Do Action Studio was founded in 2006 by Igor Tsay and is Kazakhstan’s only school for budding action heroes. The Kun-Do school has five major disciplines: acting, fight choreography, martial arts, gymnastics and acrobatics, and dancing. So far, the school has put those disciplines to use in action scenes it has directed and choreographed in such blockbusters as “Day Watch,” “Wanted,” and “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”
“We practice five times a week for two-three hours on average,” the studio’s Training Coordinator KairzhanYegizbayev told EdgeKz. In addition to athletic and martial arts training, Kun-Do also teaches the correct way to fall and trip and how to stage intimate and scenic fight scenes. And they wrap the action training in with acting classes. This combination has worked for rising stars like Daniel Volkoninsky, who started at Kun-Do and was invited to star in last summer’s Blockbuster, “Two Pistols: Diamond Hunt,” and stunt actor VitalyMelnikov who broke through via the Kazakh project “Terra Vita.” “Currently, we have about 40 students who actively attend our school,” said Kairzhan. “Twenty of them are professionals now.”
Kun-Do Founder Succeeds Against Odds
The story of Kun-Do Founder Igor Tsay is one of multiple long shots that paid off. In 2005, at the age of 16, Tsay was well on his way to becoming a Tae Kwon Do master – a feat he achieved in 2008, – when he heard that the film “Day Watch” would be filming in Kazakhstan. So Tsay organized a group of his friends to film a sample fight scene and they sent it to the movie’s director, Timur Bekmambetov. Against all odds, Bekmambetov liked the teenagers’ work and invited the group for an interview. Tsay was hired, worked on the film and the two have collaborated on numerous projects since.
But it was a second long shot that led to the opening of the Kun-Do school. “After watching me in ‘Day Watch,’ BakhytKilibayev (the Kazakh screenwriter, director, producer and actor) suggested I found a studio in Kazakhstan that would be a unique school for action stars,” Tsay told EdgeKz. But Tsay needed startup funds. So Tsay partnered with his associate Robert Kun and they entered the concept of the school in a reality television show in which contestants present business plans in the hopes of winning funding. Their plan won and in 2006 Kun-Do was launched. The type of training the school provides, says Tsay, is vital for the type of work its students hope to do. “A thorough preparation of the skill base expands the limits of improvisation under unforeseen circumstances,” he said. “People think that flying in a plane is more dangerous than driving a car, though the statistics show the opposite. Being a stunt actor there is a risk, but that depends on your professionalism.”
Today, Tsay has quite a resume of experience working with Hollywood action stars and renowned directors, such as Tim Burton. Tsay has also worked in Kazakhstan, Russia, Uzbekistan, India, the Czech Republic, Ukraine, South Korea, the United States and Canada. Tsay also directed, produced and wrote the script for his debut film “Zug Zwang” in 2011. And, he says, he is proud of what his Kun-Do students and other Kazakh stunt actors have achieved. “Since the Kazakh film market is very small, Kazakh filmmakers cannot make big-budget movies: we can’t get enough movie goers to recoup the funds. So it’s really hard to compete, for instance, with American stuntmen who are funded so much better, who have more opportunities and, because of that, more experience. But it is possible to choose a specialty and try our luck at the international level.” Judging from the achievements of Nomad and Kun-Do stuntmen and actors, the success of the country’s emerging action industry is based on more than luck.
Nomad Stunt Troupe Filmography
2006: Day Watch
2007: Apocalypses Code
2008: Mustafa Shokay
2009: The Reverse Side
2009: Who Are You, Mr. Ka?
2010: In Search of Lost Treasures
2010: The Way Back
2011: The Sky of My Childhood
2011: The Liquidator
2011: Your Highness
2011: Conan the Barbarian
2011: Return to A
2011: Zhauzhurek Myn Bala
2012: Soldier of Fortune
2012: 47 Ronin
2012: The Expendables 2
Web site: www.nomadstunts.com
2006: Day Watch
2011: Zug Zwang (directed by Igor Tsay)
2011: Lucky Trouble
2011: Yolki 2
2012: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter
Phone: +7 (727) 2716787
Web site: www.kundo.kz