While many people remain divided because of their superficial differences, the recent resurgence of the fight to eliminate social and racial injustice during the COVID-19 pandemic has powerfully reminded the world that humanity needs to unite and form authentic connections in order to thrive. The powerful new action film, ‘Haymaker,’ proves that even the words that go unsaid and actions that aren’t taken between people often mean so much more than they think. The romantic drama, which features gripping performances from transgender singer-songwriter-actress Nomi Ruiz and actor-filmmaker Nick Sasso, stunningly emphasizes how despite the contrasting lifestyles of their two lead characters, they can still form an authentic connection.
In addition to starring in the movie, Sasso also made his feature film writing, directing, lead acting, producing and editing debuts. Ruiz also contributed to the score, as she performed several songs in ‘Haymaker.’ Gravitas Ventures is set to release the drama in theaters and On Demand and Digital this Friday, January 29.
‘Haymaker’ follows retired Muay Thai fighter (Sasso) as he’s working as a bouncer in New York City. During one of his shits, he rescues an alluring transgender singer, Nomi (Ruiz), from a menacing criminal, which leads her to hire Nick as her bodyguard when she traveled the world to perform in concert. Their intense, quickly evolving relationship leads Nick to make an unexpected return to fighting, which risks not only his connection with Nomi, but also his life.
Sasso generously took the time recently to talk about writing, directing, producing and starring in ‘Haymaker’ during an exclusive interview over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed that he cherished the opportunity to rehearse with Ruiz before they began shooting the movie, as it allowed them to truly form the emotional connection between their characters. He also mentioned that he cherished having the opportunity to truly develop both the Muay Thai fights and musical performances that his and Ruiz’s characters engage in throughout the story, which showcase that while they have different professional goals, they still understand each other emotionally.
The conversation began with Sasso explaining what inspired to pen the screenplay for ‘Haymaker.’ “I was working on a couple of scripts before this one, but making (this movie) was kind of born out of necessity. The previous script I had written had come really close to coming off the ground, and it was a pure drama,” he revealed.
“When that fell through, I realized that in order to get a movie made, I was going to have to have an easier time putting the pieces together. Being someone who trained in Muay Thai fighting for a number of years, and having also done some acting, I thought if I also star as the lead for my first feature, I can control how the movie would get made,” the scribe noted.
“I’ve never really seen Muay fighting on screen the way I know how to do it. I also know a lot of these folks who are in the fight game, and I knew that we could bring a lot of cool things to the story that people have never seen,” Sasso continued.
“I also thought about what a different take on the classic fight movie would be, and that we could make for everyone. I thought that could be a love story, and looked for inspiration from ‘Silver Linings Playbook.’ Even though we’re a small movie, we hope that we can reach a wide audience” with the diverse story elements that are included in the film, the writer also mentioned.
While Sasso was working on ‘Haymaker’s script, it became his intention to also star in its lead role. “Nomi and I kept our own first names in the movie because we were originally thinking that we were going to shoot this as a docu-narrative. She was actually going to perform, and I was was actually going to fight, and we were going to interact in our everyday daily lives in these scenes that were very scripted.
“But once the film became more developed and we brought the producers on board, we started to feel that we had something that lent itself more to a calculated production. At that point, we had been rehearsing for so long that we decided to keep our own names because we were so used to it,” the performer revealed. “So it was always my intention to star in the film, and not to broadcast my acting chops as much as to get the movie made.”
Once he finished penning the screenplay, Sasso also embraced the idea of then going on to also direct the drama. “I got into it by a good friend of mine who’s a wonderful actor. He said he was told by another well-known actor who was told by another well-known actor who also directs, that you shouldn’t be shy about your own coverage. I thought that was great advice, and is something I took into the production,” he shared.
“It may seem like I’m putting myself out there as a performer, but I also wanted the other people I’m in the scenes with to get coverage. But you also have to look at it that I play the main character of the story,” the filmmaker added.
Speaking of the rest of the actors who appear in ‘Haymaker,’ Sasso then delved into what the casting process was like for the movie. “We had a great casting director, David Guglielmo, who was essential to getting the film off the ground. He had some great suggestions for me,” the helmer noted as he praised Guglielmo.
“Pretty much every great actor we had in the film was our first choice. With the exception of Udo (Kier), who our producer, Andrew (van den Houten), knew previously, we didn’t necessarily go through the traditional channels,” Sasso shared. “But it was a pretty exciting part of the process to start to add such great actors, like Veronica Falcón (who plays Nomi’s mother, Marisol), who’s out there doing big movies. She came in to do a day on our movie, and was so generous with her time.”
Once the rest of the actors were cast, the director cherished having the opportunity to rehearse with them, in order to build their characters’ arcs and relationships throughout the story. “”After I first shared the script with Nomi, it was very important that we rehearsed it for a number of reasons. We knew that we were going to be limited on time and resources, so we felt that if we were able to rehearse it, we wouldn’t really need to track where the character were through the course of all of these different scenes,” he revealed.
“We wanted to develop the arc throughout the process, because we didn’t have the time to develop it on the set; that’s probably my personal preference,” Sasso added. “We also worked with a few acting coaches…because when you can’t really act and direct other people at the same time when you’re filming a scene. That way, I could translate what I wanted to the acting coaches, and they could translate that into a way that wouldn’t interfere with the way we filmed a scene.”
Also being able to collaborate with Ruiz, as well as ‘Haymaker’s composer and music supervisors, in order to decide what style of songs to feature in each scene, was also an important process for Sasso. “I knew that Nomi had a wide range of music, so being able to find those songs of hers that I felt really connected with the rest of the film was an important process. We also have a great score by Chris Thomas…and all of these great musicians who gave us great sounds for their originals songs on the soundtrack. The fact that all of those people contributed their songs on our tiny budget is no small feat, and I give all of the credit to our music supervisors, composer and Nomi for helping us pull all of that together,” he noted.
The filmmaker also delved into what the experience of creating the scenes that feature the Muay Thai fighting was like throughout the production. “The best part about the movie was when I got to put on a lot of weight, but one of the hardest parts was loosing all the weight, and getting into great shape for the final fight,” he admitted with a laugh. “But that helped me get into the mindset of the character.
“In terms of scripting out the fights, I couldn’t have done that without (actress) Zoë Bell. She brought 20+ years of stunt experience to the table. She was integral to helping us map not just the pace of the fights, but also achieve some of the things that I wanted to achieve, in terms of some of the moves,” Sasso continued. “It was a challenge for her and us, as we were fighters, and not necessarily stunt folks…She was really patient with us.”
Besides writing, directing and starring in the film, the helmer also embraced the experience of producing the feature. “I couldn’t have done it without Andrew van den Houten. The producing that I did was out of necessity. I couldn’t lean on anyone else to get many of the resources we had with little or no money,” he revealed. “When you’re an independent filmmaker and trying to make your first movie, you do whatever it takes to get it made.”
Sasso then delved into what the process was like of securing the various international locations where ‘Haymaker’ was shot. “In terms of the locations, Nomi is quite popular in Greece, so she had a lot of great connections out there. Also, about 10-12 years ago, I got lost in Santorini, and stumbled upon this amazing Muay Thai gym that’s in the cliffs overlooking the sea. So I was like, ‘I have to film something here!,’ but I had no idea what it would be,” he revealed.
“We also filmed in 13 Coins Gym in Thailand, which is legendary. So being able to get access to that through our connections was amazing. It looks like the most incredible set. There were guys gambling and smoking there, and we asked them if they wanted to be in the movie,” the director continued. “Also, at some of the hotels in Greece, people were like, ‘You’re filming a movie? Come on in!,” he added with a laugh.
“So we were blessed with some of the places that we got. We lucked out, because I knew that I wanted the movie to have that traveling feel…This is something that differentiates us as a small-budget movie,” Sasso shared. “We approached it, at least internationally, as a documentary crew, and then when we got back to the United States, we did it up a little bit bigger. That may trick the eye into thinking the whole thing is big.”
With the drama being released this week, the filmmaker revealed that securing the distribution deal “was an ongoing process…With the pandemic, films are coming out in interesting new ways, and distribution is much different now than when I first fell in love with filmmaking, when I’d see a poster at a bus stop,” he admitted with a laugh. “Now, you have to build momentum through social media campaigns. Just like every other part of the process, it’s been a learning curve, and it’s been fun to explore that.
“What I think is great about our distributing partners is that they’ve continued to let us have creative control over how the film is put out there digitally, and in terms of the marketing. It’s such a digital world that any images and music that comes out have to resonate with the themes of the film. There’s so much content out there that we have to work harder to not just be another grain in the sand at the beach,” Sasso concluded with a laugh.