It was Hong Kong martial arts exponent and actor Donnie Yen who triggered Saiful Reza’s (left) interest to try his luck in the film industry.

Movies entertain us and sometimes they even inspire us. And for some, it even moves them to get into the movie-making industry. Saiful Reza Abdul Shukor studied psychology and was headed into that profession when a movie he saw got him thinking about following the lead actor’s footsteps.

As a martial artist, he used what was available to him to get a foot into the industry. Although he started off as a stuntman and a fight choreographer, today’s he’s a production executive involved in all aspects of the creative process of making a movie. It’s a dream job for him but he has only just begun.

Saiful Reza talks to Savvy about his love for martial arts, the value it imparts especially for children and his big ambitions in the film industry.

How did a psychology student end up becoming a martial arts instructor and film production executive?

I’ve always been involved in martial arts and probably would have taught that part-time even if I had become a psychologist. But what made me go into film was when I saw Donnie Yen’s movies. I was really inspired by him. He’s a bona fide martial artist but also an actor, director, producer and action choreographer. He’s everything I wanted to be.

How old were you when you started doing martial arts and how many different styles have you practised?

I was just 6 when I started learning karate. That was my main martial art in my youth and I eventually got a black belt in it. Over the years, I’ve learned Muay Thai, Silat, Brazilian Jujitsu, wrestling, judo and kali, a Filipino weapons-based martial art.

What is it about martial arts that appeals so much to you?

Martial arts training is more than just the physical component. I truly believe the life lessons it teaches is very relevant and important too. It certainly changed my life and made me what I am today. If you want to become good at any martial art, you have to train really hard. You have to persevere and overcome all kinds of setbacks. Being able to overcome those obstacles in my training has given me the confidence to overcome difficulties in real life. My martial arts training affects the way I conduct business, the way I interact with other people and the way I manage relationships. It’s really a big influence in my life.

Do you love the physical aspect of it too?

Of course. I love fighting. Not fighting as in a street fight or a bar brawl. That’s not what I’m looking for. I don’t think I’m a violent person by any means but I do know that I enjoy the physical sensation of battling it out with another person. I believe most people have some “fight” in them. It’s a very primal thing that goes all the way back to caveman days when people literally had to fight to protect themselves and their families. That basic instinct is still within us.

What would you advise parents who want to send their child for martial arts training?

Combat sports is good because it allows kids to expend their energy “fighting” in a safe and respectful situation. They’ll learn self-discipline and self-confidence. Most importantly, they’ll learn to stand up for themselves.

Is there any danger that a child who learns martial arts will use that skill to bully others?

I don’t think so. Look at me. I know so many different martial arts but I’m not a violent person at all. I’d teach the child to respect himself and to respect others. In my experience, if a child learns martial arts, more likely than not, he or she will not get into fights outside the training hall.

Why is that?

For one thing, martial arts teaches you respect and self-discipline. The bullies and the ones who always get into fights are the ones who are untrained and undisciplined. Secondly, when you take up combat sports and do it seriously, you understand your body more. You know what your body is capable of and what its limitations are. That alone will make it less likely that you get into a fight.

What about the potential of injuries?

I won’t lie and say there’s no possibility of injuries. Accidents happen in any sports and what more combat sport. So there’ll be injuries but usually not so serious ones because combat sports have rules. Sprains and bruises are common but injuries will heal. What’s worse is if the kid doesn’t know how to defend himself against bullies.

You’ve trained in so many different martial arts. Do you have a favourite?

It varies over time. I started out in karate and obviously that’s what I was into in my youth. I’ve taken up different types of training obviously because I have an interest in learning many different styles. But at this particular moment in time, I’m most interested in grappling. My body is small so it makes sense for me to be more of a grappler rather than a puncher or kicker because I don’t have the reach. Grappling is close contact fighting so that’s suitable for my body type.

When you say grappling, which systems are you referring to?

Grappling systems include judo, Brazilian Jujitsu (BJJ), wrestling and even silat. But for grappling, the main system I look at is judo.

Isn’t BJJ more popular for grappling? Why judo?

BJJ is more popular mainly because of its connections with Mixed Martial Arts or MMA. Many people are drawn to it because they like MMA but BJJ tends to focus on groundwork whereas judo has both groundwork and throwing. I like to be able to do both.

How did you end up in the film business?

When I decided to get into film production, I didn’t know anyone in the industry. I got my foot into the door by being a stunt double and doing some fight choreography. But it wasn’t smooth sailing. I got exploited and cheated. There were a few times when I didn’t get paid. But eventually I came across the right person who decided to give me my break.

What was your lucky break?

One of my friends, an actor named Zul Ariffin, told me that the producer for the film, J Revolusi, was looking for a person to teach knife fighting. I interviewed for that job and got it. I made a point to post production pictures on Facebook and Instagram. That generated more leads and I started doing stunt and fight choreography work part-time. But I wanted to do more than just that so one day I asked the producer of one of the local production houses whether I could be an apprentice and learn film production. After apprenticing for six months, I was offered a full-time job as a production executive and so my dream came true.

What do you do as a production executive and do you still do fight choreography?

I get to be involved in all aspects of the creative process. For example, if we get a good idea for a movie, I’m involved in developing the script. I’m also involved in working out the budget based on the script. At post production, I work on sound design, colour grading, editing. I’m involved in all that. And yes, I still do fight choreography when the script calls for it.

Have you ever been in front of the camera?

Only as a stunt double so far but acting is something I want to get into. I told you my hero is Donnie Yen. I want to be like him. Eventually I want to get into acting and even directing. Those are my long-term goals.

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