There is nothing put on about Dominquie Vandenberg. No pose or pretense necessary. He is, as he blithely confesses, the real deal. A martial arts prodigy turned elite French Legionnaire who spent years in Thailand in an attempt to retreat from painful and disturbing memories, the Belgian-born Vandenberg devoted himself with great success to Thai-style kick-boxing in bare-knuckle, full-contact competitions before meeting an American Vietnam Vet turned Buddhist monk who stopped him cold in his self-destructive tracks. “He knew the way I was feeling and the way I was thinking,” says Vandenberg. “He helped me move on from my past.”
Vandenberg eventually landed in Los Angeles, and found work in movies like Mortal Kombat, Gangs of New York and Beowulf as a fight coordinator and choreographer. But his own life story was so much larger than those larger-than-life action movies. In that town it was bound to come to the attention of a filmmaker sooner or later. That the filmmaker turned out to be the late Zalman King, best known for the soft-focus erotica he perfected in films like 9 1/2 Weeks and Red Shoe Diaries, is not as incongruous as it might first sound. King also had a thing for rebels and tortured outsiders, having already made documentary portraits of musicians Willie Nelson and Dale Watson.
If King’s March with the Devil is a moody and inward film, in a contrast to most warrior profiles or martial documentaries, it’s in keeping with the intense yet pensive demeanor of its subject. It is just possible that King’s own mood had something to do with it too—he was ill at the time with the cancer he knew would soon kill him.
In the film, and in almost every photograph one comes across, Vandenberg has broodingly handsome looks and an intimidating stare that, when his eyes veer from the camera, can become a gaze of endless sorrow, abject and lost. But on the phone, from his home in Los Angeles, he is warm, friendly, extremely courteous, quick to laugh, the nicest of guys. It’s at first hard to square the two, the image in the film and the voice on the phone. But then he speaks about his past, and you recognize the sincerity, thoughtfulness and modesty of the man in the documentary, and recall the depths of experience and reflection that make his journey so hard to deny.
Keyframe: The film draws in part on your memoir, The Iron Circle, which I just finished reading. How did that book come to be written? And did it furnish the initial inspiration for the filmmaker?
Dominiqiue Vandenberg: I actually wrote the book years ago with a friend of mine, Rick Rever. Back then my English wasn’t very good yet because I was fairly new to this country. We wrote this thing before I even worked on the movie Gangs of New York (2002). After I did the movie—I was a choreographer and coordinator for all the fights in that for Martin Scorsese—there was an article about me in the Los Angeles Times. They just wrote a piece on me. The piece talked a lot about my background. The publishers contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write a book about my story. I told them, well, my friend Rick and I, we already wrote it.
Keyframe: Did you go through a process of rewriting at all?
Vandenberg: The publisher, he brought in other writers. I forgot their names. It was two people. But they kind of took a lot of liberties with the story. It’s not all the facts. When Rick and I wrote this thing, it was all based on facts. Then in the rewrites, especially the martial arts part, they kind of made it Hollywood, you know? Thank God, as far as the Legion stuff—most people they don’t have a lot of info on the Legion, and back then there wasn’t a lot of it on the Internet, so they couldn’t do research. So the Legion stuff they pretty much kept the way it was. Now if you look up the Legion on the Internet there’s a lot of stuff there. But back then, before 2005, there was very little. So they kept it the way Rick and I wrote it, which was good.
Keyframe: I saw The Doorman, a film you made with Jesse Johnson. It’s clearly fictionalized but is it also loosely based on your story?
Vandenberg: Right. Yeah, that was very loosely based on my story. When I first came to America, after the Legion and Thailand and all of that stuff, I worked as a doorman at a place called The Gate. Back then it was a pretty well known nightclub in Los Angeles. I used to do a lot of private security too. In fact, my Serbian friend Oliver and I, we did private security for Tupac Shakur the day before he got killed in Vegas, which was kind of weird. It was so surreal. I got into the movie industry because I started working for this famous kick-boxer, Benny ‘The Jet’ Urquidez—because I fought in Thailand a lot, in Muay Thai and in Burmese-style boxing. Bennie was coming out of retirement to fight this Japanese fighter. And two of his fighters, Petey Cunningham and Ricky O’Kane, they were fighting top guys to defend their world titles in the Thai system. So Benny brought me up to Big Bear to the training camp with them, to train his fighters and to help him prepare for his coming-out-of-retirement fight. After that I started going to the Jet center with Benny. That’s where I met people who were in the movie industry. I got my first job in the movie Mortal Kombat. That was my first acting gig.
Keyframe: How do you feel about the way March with the Devil came out?
Vandenberg: I was very happy with the film. I’ve been friends with Kevin for quite a while. Kevin was working with Zalman King. I had never met Zalman before, but he introduced me and Zalman became interested in my past. To be honest with you, I don’t think it’s that special, my past, but Zalman got intrigued by it. He just had done a documentary on Willie Nelson [Willie and the Wheel (2008)], and he wanted to do another documentary. When we started, Zalman got sick. He passed away, actually, before the film was completely edited. It was his last documentary.
Keyframe: So Kevin Lynch took over in post-production?
Vandenberg: Kevin Lynch finished it up. But Zalman really had the idea, because he was intrigued by the Legion. A lot of people are intrigued by the Legion; it’s a very mysterious institution. The unit that I was in, the Deuxième Reg [2nd Parachute Regiment], is the Legion’s top regiment. It’s sort of like the Special Forces. We had soldiers from all over. We had ex–Navy Seals, we had ex-Rangers, we had ex–British Special Forces. And sometimes it’s vice versa. And sometimes people are criminals. It’s still like it was in the beginning, where they pick people with dubious pasts. The Legion welcomes people with problems in civilian life. They do. Problems are what bring them to the Legion, and problems outside will keep them there. The Legion can help you get rid of the burden of your past. You cut ties; you change your name. In a way, you’re reborn anew.
Keyframe: How did you start out in films, and how much does fight choreography for films tend to veer from reality?
Vandenberg: I started doing stunts first, then I became a technical advisor for weapons, and then I started coordinating and doing fight choreography. The funny thing is, when I read the script and I read the fight scene, immediately I start seeing stuff, and I mix the reality with ten percent of fantasy. I like to keep it realistic plus ten percent. That’s why after Gangs of New York I didn’t do a lot of coordinating gigs, because the editors, they butcher the stuff because they don’t know anything about the techniques that are being used. After Gangs I could have done anything. I said no to Avatar. I gave it to my friend Garrett Warren to do. Years later I took Beowulf because one of my friends was losing his house, so I took it so I could hire him and he could pay his bills. But I never really liked coordinating much, because it’s so Hollywood.
Keyframe: It sounds like your experience with Gangs of New York was a positive one. Can you tell me a little about it?
Vandenberg: Oh, yeah. Marty was a great guy. Leo was friendly, but we had nothing in common. Leonardo, when I met him, was a boy in a man’s body that started making a living when he was fifteen or whatever. You’re not in touch with the real world. I really hit it off with Marty. And he liked me I think, and that’s why he still gives me stuff, documentaries and books or whatever. I think he always had a respect for me, and he knew I was the real deal, I wasn’t some Hollywood actor, you know? The fight stuff, he kept it pretty much the way I would give it to him. He would call me sometimes at 1:30, 2:00 in the morning when we were working on the movie to talk about the fight scene the next day, and that was after a sixteen-hour day on the set. He’s a fantastic director. I have a lot of respect for Marty.
Keyframe: How was working with Zalman King? There’s a real mood, melancholy but intense. How was that mood created on the set?
Vandenberg: Zalman is an artist, and so is Kevin Lynch, he’s a fantastic artist and photographer. I think that’s why it turned out that way, because when you look at a lot of Legion documentaries or Special Ops documentaries, it’s very gung-ho with these guys, ‘We’re the best! We’re the best! I never wanted it to come out like that, because that’s not who I am. My book kind of came out that way, like, the baddest, gung-ho guy. That’s not who I am. Zalman really understood that. And he was at a stage in his life where he understood that his cancer was terminal. I think that really influenced how this film came out. I actually saw Zalman a couple days before the passed. He knew that I had flat-lined when I had Malaria really bad. And he asked me, what is it like on the other side? It was really surreal that he asked me that question. I felt that he had made peace with what was going to happen to him. I told him, it’s peaceful. There’s no worries, no nothing. It was funny too, because he made all these blue movies and stuff, and when you meet him, as a person, he was one of the nicest people in this industry that I’ve met. Because most of the people in this industry, they’re not that nice. That being said, I don’t think people come to Hollywood looking for real friends, honor or loyalty, that’s not what you come to Hollywood for, you know what I’m saying? [laughs] But Zalman, he was so different.
Keyframe: He was an actor too, beginning his career as a child actor, was he helpful to you as an actor?
Vandenberg: He made me feel comfortable enough to talk about a subject, with a camera on me, that I don’t necessarily like to revisit. But he was so comfortable to be around. He brought stuff out. It’s funny, when I first came to the U.S. and I started doing stunts, my friend said you should take some acting classes because it helps with the stunts and sometimes they look for guys that act a little bit as well as do stunts. I went to a school that taught method acting. In the method acting style you have to revisit your past all the time. That’s ok if you’re some guy who’s just game to become an actor, but I don’t want to revisit my past all the time. So I went to a different school where they teach the Meisner technique, where it’s just a repetition of the scenes and of steps that they do. I liked that a lot more. I don’t want to be training in the method and revisiting me past all the time, that’s not what I want to do. I don’t need to be revisiting my past to get in a sad mood! Let’s just act already.