Nick Sasso Haymaker (2021)-filmmaker

Nick Sasso on casting a transgender actor who leads by example in Haymaker (2021)

Nick Sasso is a filmmaker from LA who decided ‘it’s now or never’. Having spent more than two decades in the film industry, largely in visual effects, he went all out to write, edit, direct and star in Haymaker (2021), about a retired Muay Thai fighter and a transgender popstar. Not an immediately obvious pairing, right?

In this fascinating conversation, Nick discusses the challenges of making a movie on a budget, getting hold of the car from Death Proof (2007), and being inspired by Health Ledger’s performance in Brokeback Mountain (2005) to cast trans actor Nomi Ruiz in a lead role.

FF: Would you like to introduce yourself?

Yeah, my name is Nick Sasso. I’m a filmmaker. I live out here in Los Angeles and, yeah, I’ve been at this for a while; about twenty-something odd years, trying to get a movie made, working in and around production and in post-production visual effects for a number of years. And that sort of led me here.

Muay Thai fighter meets trans singer

FF: I just watched Haymaker (2021) now, literally about an hour ago, and loved it. I could go on for ages – I love the whole, just, vibe of it, the characters, everything. But, would you mind just giving our readers a bit of a teaser perhaps?

Sure, yeah. Haymaker (2021) is a story of a retired Muay Thai fighter who falls in love with an alluring, transgender, former popstar of sorts. The story sort of leads the main character back to the ring, to find a personal redemption.

FF: And is it like kickboxing?

Well, kickboxing is sort of a derivation of Muay Thai, which is the national sport of Thailand, also known as the ‘art of eight limbs’. It’s one of the more ancient martial arts out there and it’s something I’ve been doing for a really long time. Yeah, so I was able to bring both of those together for this movie.

Nick Sasso Filmmaker, Haymaker (2021)
Nick Sasso, filmmaker, Haymaker (2021)

A ‘docu-narrative’ approach & musical melodrama

FF: I noticed a kind of mashing of genres; it was really cool. There was a whole Karate Kid, 80s kind of vibe, especially with the music as well. Was that all deliberate?

That’s a really good question. When we set out to make the movie, our original plan was to do something – and when I say “set out to make it”, I had the script in mind and we had gotten Nomi attached. Before we had attached the producer, Andrew van den Houten, to help with the film, our plan was to do something somewhat like the Safdi Brothers did with Heaven Knows What (2014), which is a great film.

It was important to Nomi and I that we really move the conversation, at least around the trans conversation here in our country, past the transition story; past the classical, sort of negative – I don’t want to say ‘negative narrative’. But, those stories are not as uplifting as we wanted this to be.

Haymaker (2021) is sort of a docu-narrative approach, because I actually train Muay Thai and Nomi actually is a musician. So, our plan was like, ‘let’s just do this blurring lines sort of docu-narrative approach to it’.

Once we got our producer on board, he was like ‘I think you guys should really slow down. There’s some real potential here for a more calculated approach to the movie’, and I think he was right. And so, in doing that, the story sort of takes on a life of its own. I know that, from other projects I’ve worked on, but this one in particular – I really didn’t set out to make a musical melodrama, but that’s sort of what ended up happening.

FF: I noticed that the characters have the same names as yourself and Nomi. I just wondered if there was an element of truth, maybe? What inspired the story?

Well, it was like I said with the docu-narrative… Originally when we were rehearsing this, our plan was to actually be – because I was living in New York at the time; I was actually in that world, in the Muay Thai world in New York, and we know that Nomi actually performs.

So, at the end I was going to actually fight. And so, our whole thing was like, if people that we knew there were going to be interacting with me, we didn’t want my name to be ‘Joe’ and people say ‘Oh, Nick, what’s up?’, you know?

So, rehearsing some of the more dramatic scenes and when we finally decided – by the time we decided to calculate the shoot, it was like, we’re already sort of locked in on those names. We felt it had a nice ring to it, and we felt like it would sort of stimulate the conversation and so, that’s how it came to be.

Nomi Ruiz, Transgender Actor, Haymaker (2021)
Nomi Ruiz, transgender actor, Haymaker (2021)

A small indie movie in Mexico City

FF: That’s really interesting. So, was it all completely scripted then? When you say ‘docu-narrative’, was a lot of it on the fly?

This was all scripted. I will say, because we did get away from that, but some of the things we actually did shoot live, because we’re a small independent movie. So, there’s a performance of Nomi’s in Greece where we basically had one take. We were actually in a club in Litochoro, which is by Mount Olympus. So, she actually did that performance; I’m actually standing on the stage posing like a bodyguard [Laughs]. It was so awkward, because they were like the most harmless crowd on the planet.

When she went to Mexico City, that was another interesting story, because we always felt like – in speaking to Nomi when I was in post, “we need a big performance, a big show. I just feel like we didn’t quite get it”. There’s a scene in the movie, also, where the character’s in Greece and he’s looking at a TV monitor of her performing a stadium show – that’s actually archive footage that she has, performing for Jessica Six at a stadium show in Greece. But, it didn’t quite translate when we started looking at it in post, the way that we’d hoped. And I really wanted to showcase Nomi’s musical performing prowess, which is, I think, fantastic in its own right.

What we ended up doing was thinking, like, “man, I guess this is just going to miss it”, then I got a call from Nomi just randomly and she’s like “hey, um, I’m performing in Mexico City tomorrow” – or like the day after tomorrow – “check out this venue. I think this is kind of like what you had in mind”. She sent me a picture and I was like, “oh my god, we have to shoot this!”

I called my DP and he helped me get a camera. And, I’m not a DP – I mean, I can operate from when I was working in commercials, but I’m not a DP. So, he set up the camera, we literally wrapped it up in towels, I put it in my backpack, and Nomi and I flew down to Mexico City. That’s me doing it sort of ‘documentary style’. But, outside of that, it was all very scripted.

FF: That’s so cool. We talk to a lot of indie filmmakers and love hearing about the graft that it takes. I mean, you literally carried a camera on your back! That’s so cool.

Yeah, we didn’t even have a case! We didn’t even have a case for the camera, you know. It was in my boxing bag. It only fit in my bag with my boxing gloves. It was so funny.

The car from Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof (2007)

FF: Love that. I was going to ask you about those concert scenes, because I was curious – in an independent film, I mean – I didn’t know how you pulled that off. But, that was better than I would’ve thought!

I really wanted to mention the car, too. I’m a bit of a car fan – was it a Dodge Challenger?

Yes! It’s actually the same car with a different paint job that Zoe Bell is clinging to in Death Proof (2007). And that’s a coincidence.

FF: No way!

Yeah, again, with independent film – one of the things you’re trying to do is scrape the pennies together to make something. I was trying to make something that sort of stood out, outside of the fray, especially with the budget we were at.

So, you take advantage of anything you can get your hands on. Through social media, this kid I used to go to high school with – I wasn’t even really friends with him – but I just knew he was into cars in high school, and here we are 15 – 20 years later and he’s still working on cars. And I’m like, ‘Hey dude! Been a long time. You wanna bring your car down to do this movie?’ This guy works in finance and he’s like, ‘Sure!’

So that’s him doing the doughnuts. You know, you do whatever you can. It just so happened that we had a crazy connection with the challenger from ‘Death Proof’.

One last chance to make a movie…

FF: And it added to the 70s, 80s vibe style, right? I didn’t know if that’s why you chose that car or not?

Yeah, well I liked the idea, just metaphorically, of a guy who – he’s got this one other thing that he likes to do other than fighting and it’s working on old things and, at this point in his life, he’s an old thing [laughs].

It’s sort of metaphorical to part of the story, which is the idea of this ‘haymaker’; this idea of the last inning, the Hail Mary Pass kind of idea. Because, in a sense, that’s what the movie, professionally, was for me. I’ve been trying to get movies made for a very long time and this was also me sort of saying, ‘alright, well this is my last – I’m going to leave it all on the field’, as they say.

Nick Sassso and Nomi Ruiz in Haymaker (2021)
Nick Sassso and Nomi Ruiz in Haymaker (2021)

Moving past the transition story: a transgender lead

FF: Yeah, yeah, why not! I was thinking afterwards that, and you mentioned a minute ago and I read the synopsis, obviously Nomi’s character is a transgender woman. And, when I was watching the film – correct me if I’m wrong – but I don’t think there was much mention of it, if any?

Some people miss that aspect entirely.

So, he set up the camera, we literally wrapped it up in towels, I put it in my backpack, and Nomi and I flew down to Mexico City.

FF: Yeah. I thought it was really refreshing to see a film where it was about the relationship and the love, rather than the fact that she’s a trans woman. And I just wondered if that was intentional from the beginning, to do it that way.

Thank you. It definitely was. It was sort of two phase…

It was important to Nomi and I that we really move the conversation, at least around the trans conversation here in our country, past the transition story; past the classical, sort of negative – I don’t want to say ‘negative narrative’. But, those stories are not as uplifting as we wanted this to be.

At the same time, when I was writing the script I was very much more interested in the musical aspect of the character. I felt the less we said about it, the more the viewer could bring their own thoughts to that experience.

So, we didn’t have to tell you how to feel about it. Watch these two characters from really opposite walks of life, you know – different parts of New York; Nomi being cool and popular, and successful professionally and financially, and then this other guy who’s just sort of down and out and a bit of a schlub, but has got a heart of a lion.

Seeing those two very different folks coming together, it’s a very universal story. There’s all sorts of people out there who find love and connection in unexpected places, and that could be for a whole host of reasons.

Inspired by Heath Ledger

FF: Yeah, definitely. I think it’s really powerful in itself to just put it on a plate and say ‘Here you go’. Yeah, I just liked that you didn’t really reference it a lot, it was just about the characters.

I mean, I will say, I was very inspired by Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain (2005) and how Heath Ledger’s character was portrayed in that movie. It invited a certain sensitivity that gave audience members, despite their sexuality or orientation, a way in to route for someone like Heath’s character to find love and connection.

That was a huge inspiration and something I felt like would be interesting to combine with a sports, fight movie, that you hadn’t sort of seen before.

Nick Sasso on set of Haymaker (2021) in Muay Thai
Nick Sasso on set of Haymaker (2021) in Muay Thai, Bangkok. Image: by Mitch Viquez.

Advice for aspiring filmmakers: wait for nobody

FF: Yeah! I love that film. I can definitely see that coming through.

It sounded like you had a lot of grafting and thinking on the fly, so what advice would you give to upcoming filmmakers? What did you learn from the shoot?

Wow. There’s like so many things. I don’t know advice to give –

FF: The top one!

Yeah, well, the top one… It sort of depends where young filmmakers are in the process. I think the two big things I would say is, one: don’t wait for somebody else to give you permission to make your movie, or to make movies. You’re really going to learn trying and failing and trying and failing.

Save money: if you can, write

Second to that is: the cheapest way to do that is to write. The one sort of guarantee when you’re making an independent film, or any film for that matter, or any artistic endeavour, is things aren’t going to go according to plan. And I think that the more you struggle through the puzzle of the story and the screenplay, the more you have a sense, not of exactly how the story should be plotted, but this un-intangible truth to the story.

I think that’s just so important and it’s only really developed through the writing, for me at least. So, in trying to write scripts and write stories and make it work on the page, you’re going to be prepared. When you get on set and things go completely wrong, it’s knowing how to solve those problems. So, I think, that would be my best advice, is to write those stories.

And, you know, with technology today, there’s so much you can do on your own. You make your own movies and put them up there. As Guillermo Del Toro says, ‘Kick down the door’. Which I’m still trying to do by the way!

FF: I think that’s great advice. I felt like I should’ve been writing that down.

You’re recording it, thank god! *Laughs*

FF: That’s true, that’s true!

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006)

What is your favourite film of all time?

It depends on what day you ask me! I’ve got so many.

FF: Yeah, I’m the same!

Do I have to just pick one today?

FF: Maybe the first one that comes to your mind, today.

Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006), probably. Yeah, I get goosebumps thinking about that movie. It just always comes back to me as just such a beautiful movie. I love that movie. I love so many movies! I mean, that’s the thing – I love cinema, I love movies, but I could pretty consistently say that movie is at the top of the heap, for sure.

FF: I think it’s a strong choice, yeah. And I’ll leave you on the final question, just to say, what’s coming up next? I mean, other than getting this film out there.

Oh thank you. Well, what I will say is this – I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say this – that I’ve had a number of UFO experiences, in actual real life.

FF: Really!

I’ve never been abducted! But, I’ve seen a whole heck of a lot of them, so that’s a little sneak speak to what’s coming up.

FF: That was not what I was expecting at all.

NS: [Laughs]

FF: I’m very intrigued now, I’ll have to keep an eye out. Are you on social media or anything?

I am! I’m sure you can find me at Nick Sasso on Twitter @thatsasso.


Transcription & Edited by: Kristen Brookman
Second Editor: Richard Williams
Artwork: Kristen Brookman & Richard Williams (original design)
Images courtesy of: KWPR