“Dominiquie Vandenberg is a modern-day warrior poet whose fight choreography is like a ballet that he mixes with images from a brutal past. A natural talent that was born in blood.” – Martin Scorsese
Once described as Jean-Claude Van Damme envisioned by Hieronymus Bosch, Dominiquie Vandenberg has lead quite the life, he’s been a world class martial arts champion, an elite member of the French Foreign Legion, he’s honed his martial arts skills on the mats, on the street, in the ring, in the cage and on the door, while his Film & TV credits include everything from Mortal Kombat, Gangs of New York, Beowulf, Pitfighter , The Perfect Sleep and more.
His most recent project is LEGION MAXX directed by Jesse V Johnson (Triple Threat, Accident Man) , with Vandenberg playing the title character, a Legionnaire turned mercenary. When a mission goes wrong, he’s left for dead but is found, nursed back to health and given a shot at new life and possible redemption. But his peaceful days are short-lived, when his brutal past and violent associates reenter his life. And Maxx is forced to fight one more time.
Thanks to Evolutionary Films, Legion Maxx made its market debut to good response at the recent Berlin Film Market. Mike Leeder caught up with Dominiquie for the following interview about the film.
Mike: Dominiquie, can we begin with you telling us a little bit about LEGION MAXX, and the character you play?
Dominiquie: I created the character of Maxx about 7 years ago, it originated from a comic book that I created called Vive La Mort (Long Live Death) . At the time, I pitched the comic book to Magic Leap Studios, its ARVR company that I am a board member at. After mega corporations like Alibaba and Google invested big money in Magic Leap Studios, the company shifted their developments more towards projects that were PG 13. So I decided to take the Maxx character out of the comic book, and make an independent action film. By funding the film and being an Executive Producer, I could have full creative control over the project.
The Maxx character is a former French Foreign Legion soldier who became a mercenary. Maxx is beginning to get burned out by the job and the lifestyle that comes with it. By an accidental and unfortunate circumstance, he discovers a completely different path in life and finds a way to redeem himself until violence and war come looking for him again.
Mike: Now you were a real life member of the French Foreign Legion, does the film draw upon some of your experiences and the people you knew from your time in the Legion?
Dominiquie: Yes, I served in the French Foreign Legion 2 Rep, which is the Legion’s only Airborne Para Commando Regiment. It is a shock troop that is also special forces trained. We have guys from every country you can imagine and the majority of them were elite or special force soldiers in their home country prior to becoming Legionnaires. The regiment was only about 790 men when I was in. I served in the 1st company and also in the 4th company in the sniper destruction specialist group. In between training and interventions, things sometimes get mundane, I got into troubles for street fighting and was sent off to the CCS (Workforce/pioneer unit) sometimes after the Legion jail time. I always draw from real life experiences when creating or playing characters but some of the real life stuff is so brutal and unimaginable, it is better to tell them as fictional stories so I can leave it up to the viewers to figure out what is real or not.
Mike: Now how exactly did a young martial artist end up in the Legion, and how long did you serve for and where?
Dominiquie: I got into a car accident and I broke my leg really badly and suffered from major injuries. Doctors told me that I would not be able to compete for years and maybe never again take part in any full contact sports. Now although I was raised by a middle class family who were decent people in a small village in Belgium, I never felt like I belonged there. Somewhere in my heart I knew that I was not cut out for a normal life. I felt as if possessed by the demon spirit of some long dead warrior. When I look back on my life, I realized that even before the car accident, I was looking for more than competing in martial arts. I wanted to feel the fear and thrill of live and dead like my childhood hero Miyamoto Musashi. I knew that only war could give me that experience and so I ended up in the Legion and later became an independent soldier. Legion life has moments that are very mundane and extremely exiting but the real training begins after basic training. In the para regiment, we always joke how basics training is to learn French language and get rid of the little boys who cannot hack it.
Mike: Now you came from a very hardcore martial arts background, would you like to talk a little about that? And how that has served you over the years from competing in Europe, through the intensive training in Japan, through your military service and working as a doorman, close protection before making the move into movies.
Dominiquie: I began training in judo at age 4 at a local athletic club. When that place closed down, I started practicing at a different dojo in a nearby city where I trained three times a week in Judo and twice in freestyle Greco Roman wrestling, and I began to compete in both shortly after. At the age of 9, I also began training in Karate because a friend from Judo class had started practicing it. By 12 years of age, I began training at SGF and at Top Kick Hasselt, and both of these schools had Knock Down Karate, Dutch Style Kickboxing, Savate and Thai Boxing. I took all classes and began competing as a junior. Later on, I found a non commercial Karate group that practiced the old way, applying full contact sparring. This organization was formally known as the Kundokan Karate Budo Group. Martial Arts shaped my character and helped me in so many ways as a soldier, a bouncer, in private security and in everyday living.
Mike: How did you make the transition from real martial arts to reel martial arts and the world of film- making, was that something you’d always been interested in?
Dominiquie: I had always loved cinema and action films. I used to watch Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson with my dad and later became a huge fan of samurai films. After I came to America, I wanted to make a living doing something creative… something I can be good at and I truly love doing it. I did not want to hurt or kill people anymore. I have Karma debts to pay and want to live a positive-thinking good life. As far as fight scenes and real fighting, everything is big and wide in movies. But in real life, it is the complete opposite, not telegraphing what is about to come and hit you and never showing pain to your opponent.
Mike: You’ve worked as an actor, a choreographer, advisor and trainer (Gangs of New York etc). What would you say was the hardest thing for you to adapt with regards to fighting for real and fighting for film?
Dominiquie: I have faced different types of difficulties and challenges partaking in different roles in films. But whatever I do, I have to be creative. For example, as a choreographer, the biggest challenge is working with editors that don’t understand the flow of the martial arts techniques. Working with producers that think they know about martial arts techniques is very difficult because they really don’t know anything most of the time. That’s why I stopped working as a fight coordinator for a while.
Mike: Now Legion Maxx sees you re-teaming with longtime friend Director Jesse Johnson, with whom you’ve worked on everything from Death Row: The Tournament, through the Doorman/Honour, Pitfighter, Alien Agent, and most recently this and Triple Threat. How did the two of you first meet and how would you describe the working relationship you have?
Dominiquie: Jesse and I met on Mortal Kombat (Dominique did some doubling for Sub Zero and also played the hyper muscled fighter who falls foul of Sub Zero too) and we hit it off very fast because we liked the same types of films, especially Akira Kurosawa’s films. Sometimes we take a break from each other but when we come back together on a project, we give it our all. He is one of the best action film directors out there right now.
Mike: How did you prepare for a role like this, in terms of both physicality and also as an actor. It seems like you’re playing a character who walks a fine line between the dark and the light, he’s not really looking for redemption, but more a reason for what he’s doing, something to justify his actions?
Dominiquie: I studied Method technique but found it too draining to constantly stay in character. I much preferred the repetition of the Meisner technique and I was studying with a teacher from Yale who teaches a Stanislavsky Deriven technique before I began filming. The Maxx character was somewhat close to who I once was in real life so I went off to the side before certain takes and revisited my old self. I also watched an old Japanese Samurai film, Sword of Doom starring Tatsuya Nakadai and I studied his physical acting and body movement.
Mike: You have an interesting relationship and chemistry with Louis Mandylor in the movie. The two of you spark off each other, and play almost two halves of the same person, one who is enjoying the darker side and one who is looking for that way out. How did you find Louis to work with?
Dominiquie: I really liked working with Louis. He is so talented and very giving as an actor which is hard to find in this ego driven business. (SPOILERS) I hope to be able to bring him back as LeClerc’s twin brother who is now hunting down Maxx in part 2.
Mike: Now the visual and ethical idea of a warrior priest (even if he’s not really a priest) is a very strong one, was the idea of the seemingly peaceful priest letting loose a jumping off point, or was it something that you were worried could be taken as controversial?
Dominiquie: Now I like controversy, but it really came along by mistake. I was supposed to change into a different outfit for the next scene but we were short on time and it was beginning to get dark. We had many more scenes to film so I told Jess “Fuck it, let’s film in this outfit.” Honestly I liked the look and always thought the character could become like Caine in Kung Fu or Zatoichi traveling from place to place dealing dead to bad guys.
Mike: The film features plenty of action, there’s gunplay involving pistols, shotguns, sub machine guns, heavy machine guns, knife work, and hand to hand combat. You’re obviously very comfortable with the weapons and physicality, but when you’re working against a schedule is it difficult to be able to bring the best action to the screen?
Dominiquie: I wanted more hand-to-hand combat scenes in the film but budget and times did not permit it. I was surprised that we pulled it off. We faced many challenges throughout the production but we prepared very well and it seemed like everything fell into place. Without Jess’s rich experiences in making action films, we probably would not have a finished film right now.
Our choreographers, Malay Kim and Luke Lafontain really understood the direction I wanted to go in. Malay would shoot some basic movements on a video. Later, I made my changes to it if needed. Then, we shot previews for Jess and Luke to go over to look at. Malay is very talented with choreography and Luke is a top expert of swordsmanship in Hollywood. Both guys are very underrated. I wanted to create an unique style which I will build on for Legion Maxx part 2. Think of it as Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire but with knives and guns.
I was shooting from the hip and hoping not to get injured during that crazy schedule. On some of the big budget Hollywood films I worked on, we took more time to film one fight scene than we filmed our entire film. I was very lucky not to get hurt on the project.
Mike: The film kind of leaves the ending open for possible further adventures of Maxx, was that intentional and where do you see the character going after this adventure?
Dominiquie: That was intentional because I want to turn this into a franchise or series. I am working on a script where Maxx is in Chechnya working at an orphanage when terrorist come and take the kids and women as slaves and killing the kids with special needs.
Mike: Now you will also be seen alongside Tony Jaa, Iko Uwais, Tiger Chen, Scot Adkins, Michael Jai-White, Michael Bisping and co in Jesse’s Triple Threat. How did it feel to be a part of what a lot of people are calling a martial arts expendables?
Dominiquie: Its a smaller part, but I get to play a cool mercenary in the film. Once again it was close to my real life experience so I felt comfortable playing the character. In Thailand shooting an action film is very raw compared to filming in America. So it was exciting to be there but also very humbling experience for me. I cannot wait to see the film. I hope the film kicks ass at the Box Office.
Mike: What’s next for Dominiquie Vandenberg?
Dominiquie: I hope to do Legion Maxx part 2 soon. I’ve also rewritten a script called the Forever War, its the story of holocaust survivor who joins the French Foreign Legion after WWII. And recently, I found a joy writing poetry. I have been working on that for a few years and I am planning to publish a poetry book, BEAST, in the near future.
Mike: You’ve lived quite the life to say the least. Much of which is chronicled in the Iron Circle book.
Dominiquie: I wrote the book many years ago with my friend, Rick Rever and I am still proud of it. However, so many cooks came into the kitchen at the publisher; they edited some of the facts and took many liberties on how they spun the story and made the martial arts part like a Hollywood b movie. Thank god, they did not touch the legion parts in the story and kept it the way we wrote.
Legion Maxx is being sold internationally by Evolutionary Films, Dominiquie can be seen in the upcoming release of TRIPLE THREAT which hits the screen in China at the end of Feb, North America in Mid March with the rest of the world to follow.