We also reminisce about the Gary Daniel’s classic Recoil, working with Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock and how action movies have changed over the years.
First off, tell us about your short film Flawed written by and starring Stephen Dell?
Believe it or not I hadn’t done a short film before so I was very apprehensive going into it as it was something very new to me. Steve to his credit, has a lot of energy and a lot of drive and I had like 3 different calls from Don Wilson and two other friends who said “Hey, talk to Steve!” So I said OK because he’s such a big fan of the genre. Steve said “I know it’s a small thing but would you consider directing it?” So I said “well send me a script first” and once I saw the script I was really, really blown away. Then when I saw Steve’s commitment to it as a performer I said “OK, let’s do it; I am sold!”
He managed to get a really good team together from the producers to the DP and it really became one of my favourite projects. A lot of times with the action genre, the movies are straightforward; this one wasn’t. At the end of the day it isn’t what you expect, in terms of the ending. You’d normally expect the guy to make the best choices and maybe end up with the girl. What really drew me to it was that it wasn’t like that; it was firmly rooted in reality.
It was about the choices that we make and life and relationships. That really turned me on as a filmmaker and director; it’s now become one of my favourite projects. It turned out really well; we had great actors like Sydney Tamiia Poitier who was phenomenal. It was so good and when you work with really strong performers like that, it makes your job so much easier and it’s such fun to work with.
I like how you’re saying it’s different from what we might expect from a genre picture as modern audiences are more sophisticated and expect a bit more from their movies…
Yes, when I first started in the industry it was supply and demand; there was a lot of good product and a lot of bad product because there was just such a demand for it. Then when the bottom dropped out of the marketplace, then only the strong survive. Basically now, we have to make better films on tighter budgets than say 15 years ago.
Following on from that, as someone who comes from a stunt background, how have you found the advancement of technology has changed the action genre? Has it made stunts/action scenes better or worse?
I think to a certain degree it is better but at the same time I still like to see real stunts. Don’t get me wrong, I really fantasy films like The Avengers but when I see just straightforward action films I really like to see real stuff; real car crashes and real guys getting hit *laughs*. A film I saw recently had most of the big action sequences done by CGI and it took me out of it a little bit on a personal level. Obviously now we’re doing a lot with enhancing the stunts but I like the stunts to be real.
You can always tell when it’s not real too…
Yeah, generally you can whether it’s CGI bullets or CG blood; one thing I like is when they use both and you still feel it and it’s real. That to me is still exciting.
That’s why my two favourite films from this year are John Wick and The Raid 2, because I love movies where the action is more practical and real as it draws you in more.
Absolutely; that reminds me of a few years ago when they were revisiting Bruce Lee and one of the reviewers said technology is always going to change and there is always going to be different types of action. We’re gonna come up with different gadgets but the fact that somebody like Bruce Lee is the real deal and you feel the physicality of what he does with no enhancement. That’s never gonna get old.
Stephen Dell has a role in your new film The Chemist which is almost a who’s who of the action genre. Olivier Gruner, Patrick Kilpatrick, Martin Kove and Sasha Mitchell to name a few. How did such a great cast come together?
You know, I was very blessed! I was in New York and one of my friends Tom Renner who said they wanted to produce a film. I said OK and literally within a few months we were in pre-production. Obviously I’d known some of these guys for years like Martin Kove and Oliver Gruner and they are friends of mine. So I thought let’s get a cool team together, have some fun and do good work.
For this film I wrote the story and worked with the writer on the script. It’s one of my favourites in a sense because I challenged myself a lot in terms of story elements so it’s not just a shoot ‘em up. It starts off in so many different ways and takes you in different directions which is something I haven‘t challenged myself with in a long time. It was very challenging and stressful as all heck but it was really exciting.
Did the final film come out the way you envisioned?
Right now, it’s still in post and we’re editing; yesterday I was sitting with the editor who is great. One I think I don’t do is micro-manage my people. I like them to get to know me and for me to get to know them. I want them to aspire to their own greatness. If I was going to do that I might as well just shoot the film by myself, but I want them to expand my vision. In that regard, yes I’m very excited because despite limitations like time or equipment it’s not as predictable as you might think. Most films you can predict the setup like who is the good guy or the bad guy but here there’s a very big twist towards the end. That’s why I brought in my friends Sasha Mitchell and Richard Greico; it’s really cool and I’m pretty excited about it.
It looks like it has some great action scenes; what was the toughest scene to put together?
I’d say the toughest thing was using some CGI as I hadn’t really worked in that realm much; in some scenes we were combining CGI with real stuff and some of that was challenging. I had to rely on different people but it’s working out good and we’ve got a really good team working on the effects. When it comes to the fights, I wanted to make it very visceral and real and less stylish. I thought this was a very gritty and story driven movie; I thought if I made it too stylised then you’d be thinking of the fight more than the characters. I really pushed Oliver Gruner for some of the fights; he’s phenomenal and a great martial artist. When you let him do his thing as an actor he really excels. So when we discussed the action I told him I didn’t want fancy stuff; I want it to feel like we’re eavesdropping on a street fight on a lot of the action. So some of the action will be very visceral and very real which is exactly what I was going for. Some films I’ll sometimes make it more stylish like, let’s have more slo-mo here, etc. Stylistically yes, for the film yes but in terms of the action I wanted it to be real.
Yeah, sometimes you can watch an overly-stylized fight scene and it takes you of it because it just looks to choreographed and unreal.
Yeah! I was just in Mexico doing some fight choreography, which is a total passion of mine and I’ve done seminars all around the world. For this one I really wanted to stress this because there was a lot of talented martial arts people there who were putting together some of their moves but they looked choreographed. Sometimes people forget when you’re doing this sort of stuff that there is character awareness and there’s the actor/performer awareness. The performer knows the choreography; he knows how to throw a punch, then it’s blocked, etc. The character in the film should not know that so that when it actually happens and say someone throws a punch and it gets blocked, the physicality, the emotional content should be a surprise where they think “Oh my God, it got blocked!” *laughs*
That’s what makes people like Jackie Chan so great because it is choreographed but it doesn’t feel like it and it looks like the guy’s going to get hit.
You’ve worked with Don Wilson and Cynthia Rothrock on several pictures; can you tell us about your working relationship with them?
My only problem with working with Cynthia and Don is that we have too much of a good time. We’re always laughing; we’re friends and more than anything we’re very close in that regard. I’m serious; I come away from a Don Wilson film with so many laugh lines. Early on that’s how I started my working relationship with him, choreographing some of his films and then directing him in 3 or 4 movies.
It was an easy transition because he’s a great martial artist and stylistically we move very similarly, so it was easy for me to get into him, in terms of his body mechanics. It’s the same with Cynthia; I met her and we got on really well and again I’m very collaborative. Sometimes I can be a dictator on the set but a lot of times I’m very collaborative depending on the martial artists I work with. With them it’s such an easy thing and they are generally very, very humble. I have a lot of love and respect for both of them; they’re really incredible people.
My only problem with working with Cynthia and Don is that we have too much of a good time
Any plans to work with them in the future again?
We actually have two projects that we’re putting together; one is going to be with Cynthia, Don and some other martial artists that I can’t name at this point and I’m looking forward to it. It’s going to be like a vampire/martial arts/sci-fi film and it’s going to be a lot of fun. At this point in my life, I keep stressing story/character and that’s going to determine the action to me. Without that, there’s only so many ways you can kick and punch and if you aren’t drawn into the characters then people aren’t going to go on the journey.
That’s the thing about The Chemist, I really wanted to tell a story; at the beginning it’s like what’s a cool shot to do but now it’s about the story. When we started taking apart the character and looking at the issues he had and the main one is about him letting go of his past. That’s what informs his decisions and his whole life. At the end of this journey he’s able to let go and move on with his life. That to me is what The Chemist is about and the type of thing I want to exorcise in my movies now.
What I like to do with movies now is if you take out the action and all the rings and bells but you’re still left with a good story; then it will really resonate with people.
Is there any word on a release date?
I’m hoping it will be around May, with any luck. I was sitting through an edit yesterday with the editor and I asked him to give me his take. The opening is very stylistic and interesting; he really nailed it. I was a little apprehensive going into the edit phase but when you see it, it’s like this is something really cool and I’m excited for it. One of the things which is really different about The Chemist from any of my other films is that it really takes you one way and then it takes you in a different direction so by the end you really don’t know which way it’s going, making it unpredictable. I’m really excited for it.
You have a few other movies coming up: Skate God and To Be the Best: The Road Back. Can you tell us a bit about them and what we can expect?
Yeah, Skate God is a really cool story and is along the lines of The Hunger Games or those kinds of films. It’s a coming of age story set in a post-apocalyptic future and right now it looks very promising. We’re currently looking at getting some major talent involved and will begin shooting very soon in New Orleans.
To be the Best I can’t really talk about that at this stage but what I’m really excited about is that it’s a homage to the films I grew up with which is what really drew me it and it’s just really cool. Even to this day I get so many people still digging a lot of that stuff. I’m not an old fart but I get a lot of people saying “Hey, I grew up watching your films!” *laughs*
It’s kinda cool because martial arts in particular saved my life; I never met him but I was blessed to train with some of his students and family. I can say that the biggest influence in my life is that. It took me from doing bad stuff when I was growing up to turning around my whole life.
Talking about movies we grew up watching I’d just like to say that Recoil is one of my favourite action movies. The opening 20 minutes has some spectacular vehicular carnage; the opening car chase is the longest in independent film history…
Yeah, that’s right! It worked for that period of time and it was offered by Joseph Mehri; he was my mentor and gave me my SAG card, my first fight choreography gig and my first directing gig. To this day I always thank him and I am in films because of the opportunities he gave to me.
The way Recoil came about was he said he wanted to do another film with me and we had Gary (who is a phenomenal martial artist) under contract for one more picture. Joseph asked if I had any ideas for movies and we set up a meeting for about 1 week after he talked to me. Honestly, I had so many things going on at the time and was so scattered that I forgot about the meeting.
One morning I woke up and thought there was something I had to do that I’m forgetting. Then I remember I had a meeting today with the producer to pitch a story and I had nothing ready! So I’m showering and I’m racing through my head trying to come up with something. It took me about 45 minutes to get to the office. Within those 45 minutes I came up with the story to Recoil and did it by the skin of my teeth.
At that time in Los Angeles; we had just gone through this bank robbery where two guys literally kept all of LAPD at bay for hours. The Los Angeles Police literally had to break into a weapons store to refill their ammo because these guys were outgunning them. It was known as the “B of A Robbery (Bank of America)” and the pitch for Recoil was The B of A Robbery times ten! *laughs*
Much of the great car action was vintage PM entertainment and the great stunt coordinator/2nd unit director Spiro Razato did a phenomenal job on it. He came in with a lot of great ideas; my pet idea that I wanted to do was with the limousine chase, he had it rolling down the river bed and I said “you know what? It’s been done. We’ve got this long stretched limo, let’s cut it in half instead.” So that was what I wanted to do and what I wanted for the climax.
So we ended up having Gary Daniels doing all the fighting, then shooting the driver and the limousine is literally sideways on the highway as a semi is coming. What we did was we anchored it and put 30 gallons of gasoline on it; the stuntman was on a big harness and the semi comes along and just blasts it. That’s what I’m taking about when I say real stuff. That was really, very hairy and very exciting too. We had some of the best stunt guys in town doing those stunts. That was just great fun for me.
It still stands up well because of the practical effects, which never look dated, whereas CG will look old within a couple of years.
It was very collaborative and a lot of fun; Spiro was a huge part of a lot of that stuff. Back then all our films were shot in about 15 days and so on Recoil we had 3 units running simultaneously. I had 2 units and Spiro had the bigger unit doing all the big stunts/car chases. I was doing the bank robbery; when we were shooting that I was literally running inside the bank setting it up and calling “action”. Then when they were finished I’d run back outside and called “action!” and it was really crazy but fun.
Thanks so much for taking the time to talk with The Action Elite and all the best for 2015.