A few weeks back, I wrote a blog regarding the use of Rap Artists in motion pictures. Anyone with a modicum of intelligence knows this is a money grab. Brand name rapper attracts his “followers”, instant name recognition. Sure fire hit. Sure. And since the rapper usually has the acting skill of a depraved ground-hog, the film quickly fades into the discount racks at Big Lots.
Rap stars are probably not your biggest problem, especially when you are doing an action film. Martial artists can be your worst nightmare.
People who know me, know I have many hard and fast rules when making films. Among those rules is this:
“It is easier to train an actor to look like a martial artist, than it is to train a martial artist to become an actor”.
Now before all of my martial arts buddies start hitting me up with nasty emails and tweets, allow me to explain what I mean.
I have been involved in martial arts since 1972, right at the start of the kung fu film boom. I was a slightly overweight kid, and with the added issue of being a New York born kid growing up in Dayton, Ohio, my accent and way of carrying myself opened me up to the purest, harshest forms of bullying. Not notes on a computer screen, or trolls online.
I got my ass kicked.
Many, many times. I was called “Oreo”, because many of my black school mates told me I “Acted white” and “thought I was smarter than they were”. I was chased, ridiculed, threatened, punched, I was even literally stoned by a charming black bastard named Tim Cole.
Looking for a way out, I considered suicide, trying to run away from home and going back to New York or, fighting back.
One summer night in 1974, I saw Bruce Lee on-screen and my life as a “victim” ended. Through many years of traditional, hard-core Kung Fu training equal to the scenes from the movie “36th Chamber of Shaolin”, I got the training I needed to restore my self-esteem, and the ability to kick the shit out of all the bastards who were fucking with me all during grade school. By 1978, people were staying out of my way.
All of this is to say, great martial artists have had to overcome many trials to become experts. Some handle it well, and martial arts becomes a lifestyle, instead of a means to threaten people or get into fights. My teacher instilled that in us by beating us, quite brutally, during our many years of instruction. He said that by learning what it felt like to be beaten, you’d be less apt to beat others up for no reason. Unfortunately, many martial artists are not given that type of instruction. Whether it’s ego, poor instruction, or misunderstanding of martial arts philosophy, many martial artists are always out to prove something.
So, when your “martial arts expert’ shows up on set, he’s not there to be part of a team. He’s there to be the next Bruce Lee. It is at this point, you show the “master” the door and move on. I don’t give two craps if the dude can do spin kicks and gymnastic stunts like nobody’s business. An unchecked, egotistical martial arts fighter will hurt you or someone on your set, and then, we’re talking legal action and possible financial ruin, if not serious injury or God forbid-death.
I learned this several times on my own sets, until I finally realized I had to give every martial artist who auditioned for my films, a thorough vetting. Some of them were too egotistical to get the message, and left the production calling me every name in the book. Some got it, but were terrible actors and couldn’t perform on-screen in the same fashion they did in their martial arts studios. You have to find someone who can take instruction, and execute your instructions without trying to show up you–the director– or “out duel” other actors on the set.
When we shot Treasure of the Ninja in 1987, we welcomed some guy who claimed to be one of “Bruce Lee’s first students” to the set, in the role of the lead bad guy. As it turned out, his timeline for being a student of Bruce Lee, didn’t quite add up. In fact, it was impossible. As I recall, the only real pre-teen student Bruce Lee ever had, was his son, Brandon lee. But what do I know, maybe Bruce Lee’s “student” was indeed on set. Be that as it may, this guy had none of Bruce’s humility or skill. He was a braggart, an egotistical, loud mouthed prick, constantly challenging people, showing off, and in one scene he hit me. I took a step back and just stared at him and said
“Hey, don’t ever hit me again.”
He chuckled, and said “Hey, that didn’t hurt! Come on!”. I repeated my admonition: “Don’t ever hit me again.” Then before I knew it, my co star, a guy named Mark rushed on to the set threatening to take “Bruce’s student” apart. Luckily, (For Bruce’s student) we calmed Mark down. You see, Mark was also a talented fighter and filmmaker, who had gotten into film for the same reason I had. He could also really kick people’s asses. And Mark didn’t have an ego, just a devastating kick which often found it’s way into people’s skulls. Thankfully, cooler heads prevailed, but I never forgot what effect this “Kung Fu goon” and on the cast and crew. The rest of the film went without incident, but I made it a point to never let jerks like “Bruce lee Jr.” on my set again.
Quick safety tip: When a martial artist spends most of his time telling you how great he is, time to cut the ties.
On another film, we had a fight choreographer who said he was an expert at many different styles and weapons. He also claimed to be an expert cook, a massage therapist, and special effects makeup artist! He was a one-man Kung Fu movie making machine!
Uh, not so much.
Before filming was over, this loser had almost gouged my eye out with a staff, tried to steal $1000 in make up and effects, and got involved in a sexual liaison with the female lead. He also faked an illness when it came time for him to “choreograph” fights–the main reason his ass was hired. You have no idea what I have seen. And you don’t want to be there in your film work. Ever.
If you do plan to make an action film, the best piece of advice I can give is to get someone to choreograph the scenes, and have that person train your actors to do the fighting. If you are lucky enough to find that martial arts fighter who can act and fight, and thankfully I do work with a few, you’re gold. If you’re new to this kind of thing, go the safe route and let all the “Kung Fu masters” who have something to prove, go fuck up somebody else’s movie set.
If the martial artists you have in mind are well grounded, and they understand that YOU are the MASTER on set, give it a go. But at the first sign of a “karate master” ego moment, you’d better get them off the set and out of your hair. Trust me. You’ll have a much happier life and a much better film in the long run.
And you won’t have to call Mark to kick ass and take names.
Wherever you are Mark, I miss you.