Fighting is in Nick Sasso’s blood—literally. Related to Jake LaMotta, Sasso grew up watching boxing with his father, and started in on the sweet science himself at a young age. Later, he became a devoted MMA fan, showing his father the greatest fights the sport had to offer, and making the argument it was superior to boxing. Sasso himself moved on to Muay Thai, but professionally he was always set upon a career in filmmaking.
He began in visual effects, making a name for himself in high profile advertising work, as well as on landmark shows such as The Sopranos and Boardwalk Empire. When asked at what point he started writing his own screenplays, he told Bloody Elbow bluntly, “Probably when I got canned from a visual effects job,” adding, “I wasn’t all in on the diaper commercials anymore.”
Haymaker is Sasso’s first feature film. He wrote, directed, edited, and plays the lead. The production shot in not only the US, but also in Thailand and Greece.
Legendary stuntwoman and Quentin Tarantino mainstay Zoë Bell signed onto the project after a Skype session with Sasso left her impressed by not just his energy, but also his education. “When you’re in the presence of someone with a vision and passion, it’s inspiring,” Bell told Bloody Elbow. “I was really impressed by him.”
Hailing from a blue collar New Yorker background, Sasso was not born into Hollywood connections, and yet his “mom’s best friend’s uncle” just happened to be legendary screenwriter David Reyfiel. Sasso reached out for help and Reyfiel wound up mentoring him, and helped turn the visual effects specialist into a well rounded storyteller.
Another aspect of the film that spoke to Bell was the love story. Bell notes that trans pop star Nomi Ruiz essentially “plays herself. But it’s never on the nose, just a normal human conundrum.” That Haymaker was a Muay Thai action movie about the redemption of a fighter that also happened to feature a trans love interest intrigued Bell. “The fact that it’s not the point is the point,” Bell says.
Sasso’s lifetime spent in the fight world was hugely beneficial to the production of Haymaker, and not just in terms of understanding action. In particular, Brett Hlavacek played a key role not only on film, but also behind the scenes, helping Sasso find locations in Thailand. The two fought it out in front of the camera, creating genuinely authentic fight scenes—with one unfortunate result. “He is one of my closest friends and he broke my motherf—king rib,” is how Sasso describes the Muay Thai pro.
When Bell arrived on set, Sasso says the stuntwoman took a look at the climactic fight scene and told him, “Okay, this is all wrong.” Bell doesn’t disagree with Sasso’s telling of the story. She gave the director an education in the difference between fighting for real and fighting for the camera, re-choreographing the action and working around Sasso’s broken rib. Sasso and Hlavacek proved quick learners. “They were great listeners,” she says. “They’re tough and they’re great athletes.”
Bell, who plays Sasso’s cornerwoman in the movie, says her role allowed her to effectively act as his stunt coach during filming. “I can see me talking to him, and I am really talking to him” about the fight sequence.
As both a fighter and a fan, one of Sasso’s goals was to create a fight film that would satisfy fellow fight fans. In terms of character development, he looked to fighters like Dan Henderson, “a quiet man of few words who says it all in the ring.” In terms of action, he cites the Lion Fight promotion, with Muay Thai star Josh Aragon as a particular source of inspiration.
As Bell says, Sasso has a “love and appreciation of (fight) culture that is obvious.”
Haymaker will be released in theaters and on demand January 29th.