Eoin chatted with Art a few months ago but today it’s Corey Danna’s turn to sit down and have an in depth conversation with Art about his career and more.
Check out our new interview below.
What led you to training in the martial arts?
There were several factors that led to my training in martial arts but the two main ones were getting beat up by rival gang members and of course being introduced to the great Bruce Lee. Bruce Lee died long before I discovered his movies but I can’t forget the first experience I had watching my first Bruce Lee film, which was The Chinese Connection. It was one of those experiences that almost seems like it was fated to happen. I was in my teens and my life began to spiral away. I grew up in a barrio and gangs and drugs were all around. I was barely hanging on by a thread in school. I was failing almost every class and I cut classes so much that one day I was picked up by the local cops and taken home. Then one night I decided to walk to the local liquor store around midnight. The next thing I remember was someone calling out to me and I turned around and got smashed over the head with beer bottle. What happened next was surreal. I remember fists and heavy shoes slamming into my body and face and smelling my own blood as it was pouring from my face, head and mouth, and thinking how warm the blood felt pouring down my face. When this was happening, I didn’t feel any pain whatsoever, just the hard impact of the hits. Shortly after that, as I was recovering with 11 stitches over my right eye and several wounds all over my face and head, I saw one of my first Bruce Lee movies and that was it. I started training at first to beat the crap out of people. I had so much pent up hostility – and still do to this day – but as I got more and more involved in the martial arts, my outlook on life began to change. I was never a stellar martial artist. In fact I was always one of the slowest learners in class. It wasn’t until years later that I began to channel my martial arts into movies.
Did you ever compete competitively?
I only competed a few times in sparring. I did not do too well and felt it was very confining for me and I never pursued it. I did however get into some amateur boxing matches and that was more my style.
How did you manage to get your start in the film industry?
Ever since I could remember, I always had an affinity for film and didn’t know how to break in until one day when I decided to give it a shot. I quit a steady job I had and just jumped into doing some extra work in movies to get an idea of what it was about and that led to eventually doing some non-union films as an actor/stunt fighter and I was hooked. My Sifu (master), Eric Lee, was one of the first people to give me an opportunity to work in movies.
You started out as an actor. How did that lead to stunt work and fight choreography?
I began doing small parts and then some leads in independent action films and I got them because of my acting and martial arts skills. It was very fun and rewarding but those roles in films were few and far between so when I started getting asked to do stunt fights in films, I jumped at the chance. I had already had some experience behind the camera directing and producing Spanish language commercials and so when I started doing fights on film I understood the camera, which is very important. I did my job so well I kept getting asked to appear in films and then on one film in particular I not only performed my role but I also helped coordinate the other fighters and fights and made things run so smooth by helping the director’s getting the shots he needed. That impressed the co-director/writer so much that he asked me if I was interested in choreographing his next project. I wasn’t sure about it at first until I consulted with my Sifu, Eric Lee, and he encouraged me to take the job. From then on in, I became in demand in the independent circles as a fight choreographer.
When choreographing a fight, what is your method and how do you piece it together?
The very first thing I do once I get a movie is read the script. I do this to understand the characters and their strengths and weaknesses. I then consult with both the star and the director to get a feel for the tone and what type of fight action they’re looking for. Then I review the locations and also how they intend to shoot the fight. It’s only after I have an understanding of all these elements that I begin the physical choreography. Every film is different and the physical approach I use varies with the style and the tone of a film. For instance, I just finished an MMA action drama. With this film I was going for a gritty feel and look to it so I staged it in such a way that you really get a visceral response to the fights, whereas in a film I did with Don Wilson some years back called Sci-Fighter, that was more of an over-the-top action family film so we made it a little more spectacular and stylized with techniques and editing. I kept the camera in place to capture the impact and see the different martial arts techniques, whereas in the MMA film it is a little bit grittier. I shot the MMA film with master shots and handheld cameras, which gives it a more visceral feel.
Does the choreography of the fights differ when you’re actually directing the film?
It does differ because as a director/choreographer it is completely my vision and I can move much faster as opposed to when I am working to fulfill someone else’s vision. The end result is the same but just the process is different.
How were you introduced to Don “The Dragon” Wilson?
It was on Ring of Fire. Eric Lee was the choreographer and he needed some martial arts stunt fighters for a big fight scene in Chinatown and he called me up and asked if I wanted to get paid for getting my butt kicked on a movie and I jumped at the chance. I remember meeting Don Wilson at Eric Lee’s house for the first time and I was star struck. I could not believe how down to earth he was and how generous he is as a person. I ended up working on Ring of Fire and many others with Don including Out for Blood in which he proceed to demolish me, but I enjoyed every minute of it.
How has your professional working relationship with him evolved over the years?
I started out as a stunt fighter in his movies and for several years became his fight choreographer. We traveled all over making movies including India. Don and I got along as martial artists, peers and eventually friends. I ended up directing him in three films in addition to choreographing the fights for over 20 of his films.
The Power Within was your first film as a director. How was that experience and were you ready for what you were getting into?
You know something funny? I never asked any producer to direct movies; I just naturally gravitated towards doing it without the credit, but in about a year, two producers asked me to direct movies for them and the one I chose was PM Entertainment’s The Power Within. I was actually slated to direct Fists of Iron, starring Michael Worth, but I had too many commitments at that time. I ended up being the choreographer on it. Richard Munchkin did a great job on it. I was ready to direct features, but I didn’t know that at the time and I was so stressed out about it. You have to imagine, I am a high school dropout, ex-gang banger and all around screw-up and here I am in the director’s seat. I was so afraid of being fired on my first day. One thing I did have going for me is experience because I had not only choreographed the fights for over 30 features but I had also directed over 100 Spanish commercials prior to getting into directing. I was very blessed to have started out very early in life. The stress eventually eased up and I got into the zone of it all and began to flourish with my vision. I am still very proud of that first film. It is an indescribable feeling to direct a movie because I am not a trained director and I only go by instinct. The movie itself plays out in my head and the shots come to me.
You’ve also spent some time working in television with shows like L.A. Heat and more recently Banshee. How has the medium evolved and changed over the years from the perspective of a stunt guy?
It really hasn’t changed much. It is pretty much the same in the sense that many of the really good shows still rely on good old fashioned human bodies to do the fight action and in terms of getting the jobs themselves, it’s the same except it’s become much more of a clique in the stunt community than ever before. When I started out I was giving so many people opportunities to hone their craft and create careers for themselves and unfortunately that is much different now. It is next to impossible to get in unless you’re really lucky. Skill matters but what matters more is being in with the right people.
You directed Michael DePasquale Jr.’s passion project, The Cutoff. How did that come about?
I had met Michael a few years before through Don Wilson and we got along great. We became close friends and when he was putting this film together he asked if I could help him. I was drawn to the story and Michael’s passion for the project but the script needed some work so we all set out to make it great. It was awesome working with Danny Lane who I think is great writer as well as great martial artist. To this day this was one of my best experiences. It wasn’t like work at all. It felt like we were just a bunch of martial artists and artists just going out there and having fun.
How was your experience working with Gary Daniels on Recoil?
Gary is first and foremost an incredible martial artist and a really good actor. We had known each other for years and had worked together on Firepower prior to this. Recoil was a challenge in that it was one of PM Entertainment’s tent pole films. So even though I had a great time working with Gary, it was a very stressful film to work on.
The chase scene at the beginning of Recoil was pretty spectacular. What was it like filming that sequence and what sort of time and preparation was put into it?
We had at one time three full units running simultaneously and I had an incredible stunt coordinator and second unit director guiding and working with me. In fact I remember the scene where we filmed a limousine splitting in two. We were sitting and discussing the scene involving the limousine. The stunt coordinator wanted to have it roll down the river bed in the finale but I thought about it and I realized that was boring. I looked at the length of the limo and asked, “Why not split it in two?” I got a weird look from everyone for a few moments, but then the stunt coordinator said, “Absolutely!” He meticulously planned the stunt and we did it. We sawed it in half and anchored it to the highway and had a cable attached to Gary’s double and right when the 18-wheeler hits the car, The cable yanks the stuntman and the 30 gallons of gasoline explodes as the 18-wheeler goes through the car. It was spectacular.
Any other stories from your time with PM Entertainment?
I can’t say enough good things about that company, especially about Joseph Merhi. He is a throwback to the Louie B. Mayor type of producers who lead with their gut. To Joseph, a handshake is just as good as any contract on paper. I remember my early experiences with them were so great. PM Entertainment not only got me my SAG card but they gave me my first fight choreography job and my first directing Job. In the PM Entertainment days you had to know your craft or learn it quick. If Joseph saw potential in you, he would put you into these really precarious situations to give you the opportunity to either “sink or swim”. I remember the first time he officially had me direct the fight action. It was on To Be the Best. It was the opening fight on the roof of a casino in Las Vegas. I had choreographed the fight featuring Michael Worth and Manuel Sanchez and was ready to step back and let him direct when he came out to the center of the rooftop and told me in a loud voice, “Art, you direct this fight!” He then turned to the first assistant director, Jerry Jacobs (who is now producing with Lionsgate pictures and was a director himself), “Jerry, don’t help him. I want him to do it on his own.” I felt sick to my stomach but after a few moments Joseph left the set. I turned to the camera guy and said, “Well, you heard him, ummm … put the camera … there,” and I pointed to a random corner and the cameraman told me, “Wouldn’t it be better here?” and he pointed to a better location. “Umm … okay!” and it was on! After the first couple of stumbles I was cooking. It was shortly after that time that I became PM’s go-to guy for fights. And one day on the set of Magic Kid, Joseph came up to me and asked me if I wanted to direct movies. I didn’t know if he was serious or what, so I nonchalantly said, “Yeah, that’d be cool.” Within two weeks I was a feature film director.
Walk us through your day on a film like Gangland. You directed, produced, did the fight choreography, and performed stunts on the film. How is that humanly possible?
Now that movie kicked my butt big time! I had worked for Dominion before and I knew that things can get chaotic but we had an impossible delivery date for the movie and went in with a script that was incomplete! So I would sit down every morning with the actors and we would literally be writing the scenes of the day and tweaking the script as we went along. Anything that could go wrong, did go wrong! Our effects shots didn’t work as planned and one morning this disgruntled crewmember organized a set stoppage for reasons I never did figure out. My line producer and I got in front of the crew and told them to go ahead and quit. I had a back-up crew just in case. Fortunately for them they stayed on to work. Same thing happened on Point Doom, but in that case they were threatening to steal our generator and that ticked me off. I had hired two great martial artists as personal assistants on that movie and I told them that if anything went down I wanted them to back me up. My plan was to take out the biggest guy on the set myself if he caused any problems and have them back me up if anyone jumped in. Yeah, pretty crazy, huh? Fortunately, it didn’t come to that but I was fired up so much it reminded me of being back in the barrio. So many things went wrong on Gangland. If it hadn’t been for my great cast – Costas Mandylor, Sasha Mitchell and Kathleen Kinmont – I don’t know If I would have made it through the shoot. I was choreographing fights every day on the spot and the actors would learn them and perform them with no more than a few minutes’ practice while I was having to deal with minute details such as lunch for the crew, locations permits, and everything else.
You had a really large cast of genre favorites in Gangland, some of whom you just mentioned. Were they all offered roles or was there an audition process?
For the leads, no one auditioned. We knew who we wanted and got them. The opening scenes with Ice T and Coolio were shot long after principal photography was finished. And the two were just offered their roles. The funny thing is is that I shot them for so many hours that Ice T actually had barely enough time to go home and pack up to fly out to New York to do his first day on Law and Order. For all the smaller roles, we auditioned actors. But many films in this time period were already pre-cast or had actors attached for the lead roles.
What can you tell us about your experience doing 13 Dead Men with Lorenzo Lamas?
13 Dead Men was a film that I was not going to do. It was an impossible schedule and the initial script made no sense. In fact, York Entertainment had given me a deposit check that I refused to cash for several weeks because I wasn’t sure I would do the movie. I had wanted to work with Lorenzo again and Mystikal but the script didn’t make sense, so one day I asked the producer to give me a crack at the script and I spent two days mulling it around until it came to me. I started writing, and by around nine o’clock in the evening I had written 40 pages! I sent it to producer and he loved it, so it was back on. I worked with another writer finishing it and then polishing it in a matter of two weeks and then we shot the movie on a schedule of 11 days! Lorenzo, as always, was a pro; he not only delivered in his acting performance but in his fight scenes.
Can you talk a bit about working on Half Past Dead? Do you have any stories about working with guys like Steven Seagal, Ja Rule, or Mike Moeller? You appear in the film as well.
To be honest, when I got the call to meet for Half Past Dead, I really didn’t think I was qualified for what the director’s had in mind. He was looking for someone from the Hong Kong-style of screen fighting. I still took the meeting and was gracious, but every time he’d bring someone’s name up like Donny Yen, I would tell the director to just hire whomever he was referring to. I meant it because these guys are my idols. But after a few weeks I got a call and they told me they had hired Xin Xin Xiong and the stunt coordinator from Resident Evil. I told them, “Great, now why are you calling me?” The studio still wanted me on board. I didn’t see any position for me but they really wanted me to work on this film so they made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. It was great working with Steven and I not only worked with Ja Rule but I trained him a bit in screen fighting. He was awesome. I also met and worked with some great talent from Germany, including Mike Moeller. Mike not only impressed me with his skills but with his overall humility. He was an incredible martial artist, but he wasn’t used enough in this film in my opinion. I had no intention of appearing in the movie but they needed someone at the last minute so I filled in.
Your film Redemption is one of Don Wilson’s best films, and certainly a high mark in your career as well. Talk about directing this film and working with all of the great action guys in the cast like Richard Norton, Sam Jones, Steven Vincent Leigh, and Ms. Cynthia Rothrock.
Redemption was a film I was not slated to direct. In fact, I almost turned it down. They had offered it to another director and he wanted too much money for the film and they came to me and told me the other guy was too expensive. I wasn’t going to take the job just because I was cheaper than the other guy, so we went back and forth and finally agreed to a fee that I thought was fair. I did it because I believed in the film. If I hadn’t believed in it, I would’ve kept turning them down. I’m glad I did direct it because in spite of all the issues we had, it still worked. There were some really crazy incidents on that film that I will share one day that will blow people away. We had a physical fight on the set. An actor who kidnapped a production assistant, a producer who promised to fund pick-ups, but reneged at the last minute, and so on. But I kept my head in the game and forged ahead, working with a bunch of great people including the ones you just mentioned and one of my favorite actors, James Russo. Again, a challenging film but the saving grace was my friend Don Wilson and a really strong premise and script. Half the time on these films I have to troubleshoot in almost every area.
With Sci-Fighter, you make it a point to show off different fighting techniques. What were you trying to show the audience?
The general idea behind the Sci-Fighter action was to showcase not only different techniques but different iconic martial artists as well and make it action-driven without being too violent. To me, there is a difference between fight action and violence. That film came about because Don Wilson wanted to do a real family film and it was going to be Bill Gottlieb’s first film (Bill Gottlieb is president of Gorilla Pictures). As with other Don Wilson films, we called in a bunch of friends to help out. I did want to feature many types of martial arts and icons in that field, but more importantly I wanted to tell a story of a dysfunctional family. As much as Sci-Fighter is about action, it also focuses on a family dynamic. I felt that way because if you don’t care for the people and their plight you, as an audience member, will not go on this journey with them.
You worked with Jeff Wincott on several films and he’s certainly an underrated performer. What was your impression of him?
Jeff is a great guy and a hard worker. I really am surprised that he didn’t do bigger projects. He’s got a sort of Paul Newman-esque charm about him on screen and he’s got sort of an everyman persona. He’s a great actor and a really good onscreen fighter.
Crooked was a film loaded with talent. Can you talk a bit about being with that group of guys on set?
Crooked was an extreme challenge from the onset. We had a script that had many strong points but it needed some work. So we kept on working on it even during shooting. This was a Don Wilson vehicle but as we proceeded to move forward we began attaching other talent including Olivier Gruner, who is also a great screen presence and Fred “The Hammer” Williamson. I ran into Martin Kove as we were filming and we wrote him into the film. Another actor that we attached was good old Gary Busey. He was definitely a handful to work with, to say the least. One of the most challenging actors I’ve encountered, actually. Deep down he’s a really good guy but you have to dig real deep to find it. So as usual it was up to me to maneuver my way through several cinematic minefields and get at the core of the movie. But you know, what has made it really worth doing was my friendship with Don. He and I have been through thick and thin together from films shot in India to films shot on top of moving trains, and when you work with friends, it makes it all worthwhile. People on the outside would be shocked at what it takes to get films made from inception to completion.
How did you end up as director of Half Past Dead 2?
That was one of the quickest films I have been involved with. It was simply a phone call from Andrew Stevens, the producer, and he said, “Hey, how would you like to direct this sequel?” It was that simple. However, as it always is, it came back to script. The story and concept were there but the script needed a lot of work. Also, it was made for Sony Pictures, so the challenges are different when you work for a studio. Many approvals from top to bottom are needed as opposed to indie producers where you just go to them directly on the set and you have your answers. But overall it was great working on this and especially working with Bill Goldberg. He is truly a rare talent. I think he managed to find the right balance in his role.
Why do you think Bill Goldberg hasn’t gone on to be a bigger action star?
I ask myself the same thing. He really looks great on camera and comes across very strong and has some depth about him. It’s much like Gary Daniels who’s also a pretty good actor and has some presence. It’s really something intangible. I remember years ago meeting Cuba Gooding Jr. before he became successful. He was acting and I was doing stunts on a project and he was interested in training with me for a boxing project that he was about to do. He told me that his agent was really hooking him up with jobs and that he was on his way. We never got a chance to train but he did have something about him that was likable and “that intangible quality” I mentioned. Bruce Lee had that. If you look at Bruce Lee’s choreography, it’s great but not out of this world but he had that “it” quality about him. With Bruce Lee, you never felt the need to cut away for insert shots. The camera loves him so much that you want him to stay on camera all the time and even the way he executes the simplest of techniques its exciting to watch. Same thing with Steven Seagal.
You’re one of the few directors who seems to prefer to keep things real in your grittier action films. How do you feel about the current state of the action film and the excessive use of CGI and fast cutting?
I think part of my preference in keeping things real on screen is that visceral quality to the action. Because to me, and again it’s just my preference, I just get so removed from the action when it’s CGI unless it is a surrealistic film or a super hero type of movie. It works great in The Avengers and Superman, but when you’re making a contemporary action film, it takes you out of the moment. Don’t get me wrong, you enjoy it but you have to suspend reality for the action then go back into the drama, whereas if you have a gritty visceral fight you stay into the characters and the movie. I am working on a Batman type of project right now and we will get a little over the top, but not too much because the person doesn’t have superpowers. Also, I feel you have to find the right balance between long shots and quick edits on a fight. Sometimes if the shot is too long it gets boring and slows down the pace but, on the other hand, if you have too many cuts you feel cheated because you can’t get into the fight action and it’s just an assault on the senses because along with quick cuts comes the loud pounding of bone-crunching sound effects to mask something. But in the batch of super hero-type films it’s great because you’re watching a live action cartoon and you buy into it the minute you sit in front of the screen. The exception to the rule of long boring shots is Bruce Lee; he’s so poetic and exciting to watch. I don’t know of anyone else who has as much raw charisma as he did.
You seem to have shifted your focus in recent years to producing. Was that a conscious decision or are you just waiting for something to catch your interest?
The last three films I’ve directed were so grueling and challenging that I really got burned out. The producers were more interested in getting out a product and I was more interested in making a great movie and sometimes those two goals come into conflict and I didn’t feel I was able to do my best anymore under those circumstances, so I took a step back. I love doing stunts and choreography but as a director, I get so emotionally invested in each film and it becomes very personal and if I can’t accomplish what I set out to do due to circumstances beyond my control, it eats me up. And I was getting offered very, very bad scripts to work with so I turned down a couple films, and then I decided to wait until I found a project that would really get me going. Recently I have found my passion for directing again and just shot my first short film and now I’m in talks on two other full length features. I got that burning passion that I had in the beginning of my career again.
You recently produced two Spanish language action films, Once Upon a Fight and Cage Fight. Could you talk about your involvement with those?
I was working on developing a science fiction Expendables-type of movie with some spiritual overtones when one of my friends and student Willy Ramos approached me with the idea of doing a couple Spanish action films. I was really intrigued with the idea. I knew I couldn’t put in the time to direct them, but I gladly helped him produce them. They were experimental films to see if there’s a niche market for these types of movies, and so far we’ve had moderate success … enough to warrant my directing a couple films for this untapped market. In addition to the business side, I’ve always wanted to do films for Latinos as well as the general market.
You’ve also been dabbling in a South African television show. What is you interest in the South African industry?
I’ve had many people reach out to me from various countries to work with them in helping develop marketable action projects in their perspective markets and I really want to support them in any way I can because I know that there is such a strong pool of talent out there waiting to be discovered.
What’s your favorite acting role you have taken in someone else’s film? What was it that connected with you?
The best time I had was on the film To Be the Best. It was great. I was acting in it, fighting and choreographing, and even directing the fight action. It combined all my passions. Even though the role was small it connected with me because it was an underdog type of role. All my life I’ve been an underdog in everything I set out to achieve. I’m not complaining. I’ve worked so hard for everything I have and put myself out there so many times to get doors slammed in my face and I’ve been ridiculed for believing in the possibilities, and that’s why some of these projects resonate with me.
What can you tell us about your upcoming acting role in William Lee’s Architect of Chaos?
This is strictly an acting role with some action but no directing responsibilities, which is great because that is a huge task. It’s a cool script and I really like William Lee’s energyand passion. That’s the usual criteria unless it is a “payday” type of project where you do it primarily for the money.
At one point you were attached to a film called The Unforgiven, which would have brought together actors like Don Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, James Lew, and Martin Kove. Is this film something you are still pursuing or is it in development hell?
The Unforgiven has gone through so much. First off, there was an option purchased and when the funding didn’t come in on time the option expired and then it went into limbo and now there is another source pursuing it on a larger scale. So it is, in essence, in development hell. I tell everyone, “It ain’t real until I’m on the set calling action.” But I am hoping to do this film because I feel this can be a really strong movie. It will have some real strong spiritual messages underlying the story, characters and action.
What does the future hold for you, sir?
I am currently working on creating a slate of pictures to produce and I will direct some of them but others I will find great new directors with great visions to helm them and overall I am hoping to keep doing stunt fighting workshops to help others in the martial arts community and to discover new talent.
Here’s your chance to address your fans. What would you like to say to them?
I want to first off thank everyone for many of the kind words I have received on my work over the years and for watching my movies or reading my articles. I came up in the barrio and dropped out of school at 16 and really had the bleakest of futures ahead of me and the martial arts literally changed my life. I am not where I aspire to be but whenever I feel myself complaining, I look back and thank the Lord for granting me the gift of living a dream. If not for people watching, buying, or renting my movies I would not be working in this industry and I owe a deep debt of gratitude to everyone. From the bottom of my heart, I thank you, David and Corey, for even considering me important enough to do this interview.