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SDCC 2022 Panel Report – Live-Action Knights of the Zodiac Film

by Kalai Chik,

Comic-Con attendees were treated to the newest information on the live-action adaption of Masami Kurumada's Saint Seiya. Knights of the Zodiac is set to release in 2023, and the movie's social media accounts revealed a teaser poster on July 20th with the promise of even more details during the panel. However, eager fans will have to wait a little longer for a trailer. The panel provided more information on the movie's original plot, as well as a first look into its world in an exclusive behind-the-scenes clip.

An excited, packed room cheered as the panelists arrived on stage. Tomek Baginski (director), Yoshi Ikezawa (producer), Andy Cheng (stunt coordinator), Josh Campbell (screenwriter), Matt Stuecken (screenwriter), Madison Iseman (Sienna), Diego Tinoco (Nero), and Stef Woodburn (moderator) welcomed new fans to Saint Seiya's long history with a 101 video. The voice in the video highlighted that “the time has come for a new beginning, as the saga of Knights of the Zodiac is reborn in live action.”

As the latest installment in the franchise's thirty-six-year history, the panel emphasized the movie's new and original story. Director Baginski kicked off the discussion by answering a question about how he brought the manga to film and provided a short synopsis of what audiences can expect. As a fan who grew up with the series, he was gave a detailed summary of the series from the eyes of Seiya. “In manga and anime, one of the most important things is the balance between the emotion and absolutely powerful action.” Baginski gestured to Andy Cheng as he spotlighted the violence in the series and how effective Cheng is at bringing it out on screen.

The attention then turned to Yoshi Ikezawa regarding why they decided to shift to live action now after the series' various animated productions. Since Ikezawa also grew up with the series as a child, he joked how his zodiac sign is Cancer, who is considered the evilest among the Golden Knights. One of his goals coming out of Japan was to make a Hollywood film that would carry the heart of the original work. “We have seen a lot of live-action adaptations based on Japanese anime or manga, and not necessarily all of them convey the original heart.” Taking those learnings, he guarantees that the audience will enjoy the movie when it comes out in 2023.

Woodburn then turned to broader questions on the movie's story and how the cast and crew were drawn to working on the film.

What makes the Knights of the Zodiac such an important and relevant story to tell today's movie going audience?

Matt Stuecken: Seiya is such a fascinating character. He's an orphan. His sister, the only person he's ever loved in life, gets taken from him when he's just a kid. That's such an emotional place to start him at. He grows up feeling lonely, feeling like he has no allies. I think that's something we all can relate to. Feeling like those moments where no one's in your corner and no one is defending you. But that's his entire life. This is all he's ever known. Because of that, he builds up some walls. He's got some anger issues. He's afraid of letting anyone in because he's afraid of making themselves vulnerable, only to get hurt again. Then this guy comes to him and says, “You're special. You have this extraordinary gift, and I need you to help me save the world.” That's such a great place to put this character because he looks at the world as something that's turned its back on him. So why should we fight to save it? I think that's what makes it so relevant to today's audience. There's so much conflict, and a lot of people are feeling disenfranchised. They can't find their place in the world. What do you do? Do you draw lines in the sand? Do you go back in your corner and build up walls? You can, but that's not going to make the world a better place. And that's the big question. Can you put aside all that past trauma, and fight on behalf of the better good of the world? That's such a universal journey. I think it's one of the reasons that Knights of the Zodiac feels like such a timeless story.

This film is layered with empowered and powerful women. Sienna gradually shows her powers as Athena, who is a goddess. How much does the chance to play that kind of character influence your choice of roles? And what specifically drew you to this character?

Madison Iseman: What drew me to Sienna was that even though she is a goddess, she's a young girl. She quite literally has the weight of the world on her shoulders. And even though she has all of this responsibility, part of her wants to be a young girl who can fall in love and be a kid and go have fun for a couple hours. I know I was that girl. She also struggles with imposter syndrome and loss of identity, which probably everyone in this room has felt at some point. I know I have. I just felt a deep connection with her, and our version of Knights of the Zodiac. All of these characters are so grounded and human, and it's just another way everyone is going to really fall in love with all of these characters.

There was a brief pause in discussion to show behind-the-scenes action footage of intense fighting between stunt actors. The clip displayed Cheng's prowess for impact in an incredibly chaotic and violent interaction. After the cheers quieted, panel continued with a deeper dive into Cheng's perspective on the work he put into the movie.

Andy, you have an incredibly rich past body of work, including working with Jackie Chan and on movies such as Shang-Chi and projects like Into the Badlands. How would you approach a film like this and continue to raise the bar to top themselves?

Andy Cheng: Saint Seiya is my childhood. I followed all the cartoons in Hong Kong, and in Hong Kong its called 聖鬥士星矢. I love the characters…Whether they are using a style, or a move, they have to have emotion and a story behind them…Knights of the Zodiac has a lot of great characters and all have their own signature move, style, and symbols. But they're in an anime. My challenge is transferring it to action. Luckily, I have a great director like this gentleman, and he's very specific in what he wants. He likes more practical stunts than CGI, so we try to do mostly practical stunts. But there are a lot of things that human beings cannot do, such as the speed.

Cheng gestured to Iseman since she was enthusiastic about doing her own stunts. He highlighted that his job is to figure out how to make animation become live-action. What would fit the character, how to tell the story, and how to see the character's emotion through their motions. After seeing firsthand the reaction to the BTS stunt clip, he is confident that he did a good job. Iseman chimed in to vouch on his behalf to say “Andy is the best!” Cheng couldn't get enough and asked her to repeat her words.

Because Iseman and Tinoco worked closely with Cheng on their stunts, they explained what the experience was like and how BTS videos helped them during filming. According to Tinoco, Iseman and him flew straight from LAX into Budapest. After their 13-hour flight, he was stiff and was nervous to be working with Cheng given his work. Tinoco reflected that he felt they were “in the best hands” under Cheng and his team as they gave them the “mental confidence” that they needed to get into their roles.

Diving into his character, Nero, Tinoco revealed he didn't see him as a villain but a “guy with a very complex mind and a strong point of view.” Complex characters like Nero makes it a challenge, and is exciting for him. He admitted he could understand how people view his character as someone who is cold and heartless. “We're really going to see in the third act of this film, how dirty Nero is willing to play to get what he wants,” disclosed Tinoco. But director Baginski interjected with, “His point of view includes killing people,” which caused both Tinoco and the crowd to erupt into laughter.

Baginski was asked about the challenges of directing a full-length feature film, given his experience as an executive producer for The Witcher. “Usually, the challenge of this type of project is time because you want to have as much time as possible spent on set and shooting actual material.” He further elaborated how much time the crew spent on the script. They went to multiple rewrites and versions “to make sure that we have a very, very consistent story” where they wouldn't have to reshoot or change things down the line.

The next question turned to the screenwriters, which focused on what they wanted to focus on within the source material.

What source material did you focus on as a launchpad for the film? Why did you choose to start the story there?

Josh Campbell: Well, you're not kidding. There's a tremendous amount of material. There's 28 volumes of the original manga. There's well over 100 episodes of the anime, there's five animated features, there's spin-offs, and ancillary materials. When Matt and I got this job, we had a lot of homework to do. But we did it. At this point, we could talk to you about the Sanctuary arc, the Poseidon arc, or the Hades arc. We can talk to you about dozens of different characters in the story. We love all of it. But once we read through everything, we started talking to each other about what really makes a Knights of the Zodiac story. Ostensibly, there's these great fights between these various characters. If you dig deep, these characters are almost always people who come from tough backgrounds. They're outsiders, they're underdogs, and they're put in terrible situations. They think they're probably not going to win, and they don't have anything more to give. But then they find something more to give. They dig deep, and they find a way to keep going. To us, that's the heart of any Knights of the Zodiac movie. It's the willingness to never give up no matter what. Once we got to the bottom of that, we thought, “Who's the best character to tell the story around for the very first movie?” We went back to manga number one. We talked to Tomek, and we talked to the producers. It was really clear that it had to be Seiya. He's the most compelling character, he has the most hope, and most poignant journey. He starts in the darkest place, and he learns the most. We also thought for both hardcore fans and new audiences, he would be the best character to tell the story around him. So that's what we did.

Switching gears, Woodburn asked Ikezawa about the “heart” of the plot that each panelist had spoke about earlier. He commented the question made her “sound like a studio executive.” Ikezawa found it hard to define what “heart” means as he and other writers have worked on the project for the last 10 years. Ikezawa decided that “heart” is something that is felt rather than “something put it on the paper.” Because it took Ikezawa more than 10 years to come to this point, he sighed a breath of relief since Stuecken and Campbell nailed the script. “Otherwise, I don't know what the film would have come out.”

The latter half of the panel questions comprised of Cheng's favorite stunts, Iseman's preparation for her role, and Tinoco's perspective on the diversity of the cast in the movie.

“It's such an honor and such a privilege to be here. About five years ago, I was just a little Latin kid here with the dream for acting,” said Tinoco. “I wanted to dive into it so badly and now being here. First generation from my father coming from Morelia Michoacan, Mexico my mother coming from Quito, Ecuador.”

Closing off the panel was a pre-recorded message from Mackenyu, each panelist's favorite moment or interaction on set, and a special message from Mark Dacascos before another behind the scenes clip.

Mackenyu was in Cape Town, South Africa but wished that he could be at the panel in person. He thanked the cast for their incredible work on the film and hopes the next time he sees fans is in person.

Although Mackenyu wasn't there in person, Iseman revealed her favorite moment was during a hotel fire alarm. “This fire alarm goes off at like three in the morning. Everyone runs downstairs. I think the fire alarm went off for a full hour. Mackenyu never made it down. He ignored the fire alarm and that was impressive.”

A highlight from the cast and crew's favorite moment on set was director Baginski's story on filming the scene when Seiya first gets his armor. “There's the scene, a minor spoiler, where Seiya is getting his armor for the first time. Seeing Seiya in the armor with the mist and low clouds on the horizon…I will remember that forever and it looks absolutely gorgeous in screen.”

The crew's final gift to the audience was a pre-recorded video of Mark Dacascos introducing another behind the scenes clip. It consisted of some stunt clips shared earlier in the panel, as well as the actual scene of Mackenyu battling another person in a fighting ring. Another moment shows Iseman as Sienna with purple highlights in her hair, reminiscent of Athena's iconic hair. This first look promises action, adventure, and excitement as it closed off the panel with the message, “Pegasus will rise...”

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