March 17, 2016

Interview with Robert Chapin


One of the very few martial arts action stars who is proficient in swordplay is Robert Chapin, the writer and star of Ring of Steel from the early 1990’s. He starred in several other feature films such as Dragon Fury and Dragon Fury II, but he’s long been out of the action star game since building a solid career out of working in the special effects industry. After a long hiatus, Chapin is back with his web series-turned feature film The Hunted, which is designed to be the pilot feature of a series of shorts featuring vampires, martial arts, and special effects. Filled with Chapin’s signature sword wielding martial arts, comedy, and Chapin’s own brand of action, The Hunted is a welcome return from one of action stardom’s most missed stars.


I’ve been a fan of yours since the VHS days, man. I remember vividly the first times I watched Ring of Steel, Dragon Fury, and Dragon Fury II. 

Oh my God. How can you remember that? Thank you, dude. I’m very flattered. Ring of Steel and Dragon Fury were on two different levels. Ring of Steel I had written, I had some creative input in it. They gave us a couple of million dollars to shoot it, but Dragon Fury was … directed by David Heavener. We shot it like in someone’s backyard for a hundred grand. It was about as indie and cheesy as you could possibly get.


How did that transition happen? Ring of Steel was a Universal Studios release. I know David Heavener as well. I interviewed him years ago. But listen: I actually like the first Dragon Fury. 

(Laughing.) It’s funny. I had written Ring of Steel for myself. I had come out of nowhere. I’d been in LA for only like three years. I decided that I wasn’t going to wait around for a part, so I wrote a movie. We shopped it around, sold it to Universal. Here I am, and I’ve got one starring role under my belt. That’s it. Trying to find another film after that was really hard. I figured, okay, I’m going to get some experience. I was offered another starring role in this other film, and I thought, okay, a film is a film. I wanted to get some more roles under my belt. That was the transition to Dragon Fury.


Something that’s really unique about you versus all the other action and martial arts guys out there is that you’re a martial artist who also has sword skills. You’re a sword guy. That’s actually very rare. Anthony DeLongis is also one of those guys with those skills. I’m glad you put Anthony in your new movie The Hunted because he elevated the movie quite a bit. Say something about bringing a unique skill set that not a lot of guys out there bring to their projects. 

Yeah, it’s funny because I take it for granted that martial artists should be able to pick up a weapon and then use it. When I worked on Dragon Fury, I worked with an amazing martial artist who’s done tons of stuff since then named T.J. Storm. It was his first film. I put a sword in his hand … David Heavener liked the idea of swordplay, but he didn’t want to star in this thing, but he didn’t know anything about swords. He decided to step down and just direct. He hired me, and then he hired T.J. Storm to play our bad guy. It was one of his first roles. He was like, “What is this? I can’t do anything with this.” It was like Kryptonite in his hand. He was like, “Lets get this out of my hands as fast as possible.” That’s why in one of the final fight scenes he dropped the swords and we just went hand to hand, which is where his strengths are. I don’t consider the swordplay stuff a specialty. I think every martial artist should take a little bit of that. I’ve taken a little bit of everything. Some Kali with Dan Inosanto, and I took Wushu with Eric Chen – and that’s a ton of different weapons there – and as a martial artist, you can’t really afford to not have some sort of training in everything. I do find that it is common in LA that people are not really trained in swordplay. Most swordplay is done as period dramas. Not a lot of them shoot in LA. A lot of those shoot in Europe. Part of their training in Europe is training in everything. Here you don’t need that. What you know is usually good enough for people.


The Asians have the swordplay down with all the kung fu movies, but it’s so rare for a Caucasian to have all the skills. I might be able to name all the sword guys on three fingers. You, Anthony, and maybe Adrian Paul. You’re about as Caucasian as they come. You even rocked the mullet for a while there. 

(Laughing.) That’s hilarious. I don’t have the mullet anymore. My wife saw to that! Yeah, it’s funny. Adrian Paul is a fantastic swordsman. He learned that from Highlander. He learned a lot on the show. Once again, not a whole lot of people are trained in swordplay. When we had auditions, we’d all see each other. “Oh, it’s you again.” The usual suspects.


The era of the action star faded with the advent of DVD and especially in the downloadable era with streaming. The big guys like Van Damme and Seagal stuck around on straight-to-video movies, while guys like Jeff Speakman sort of faded away. What happened there with you? I know you went into the special effects industry. How did that happen? 

Actually, I was doing special effects all along the way. My degree is in computer science. When I came out here, I started special effects at a shop in ’92 or ’93. If there’s anything unique abut me doing action movies, it’s not necessarily being able to do swordplay, it’s a couple things. Number one, I like to start my own projects. Number two, I’ve got skills in all sorts of different areas. With visual effects, editing, and music. Yeah, I started effects around ’92, around the same time I did Ring of Steel. I’ve been pursuing both for quite awhile. It’s funny that those two have kind of merged since then. Stunts have merged with visual effects, and vice versa. I’ve been on the cutting edge for quite awhile. There’s a lot of animosity between the two mediums because stunt people feel like visual effects are taking over their jobs. When in fact, it’s making things safer and it’s enhancing them. If you’re overdoing the wirework, you’ll say, “Oh, that looks like crap.” If you do it right, it’s pretty amazing.


There’s a nifty stunt with special effects in your latest film The Hunted where you fall off a building and hit the concrete. I watched your end credits where you showed how you did that with the airbag. It was a great little gag.

Yeah, it’s one of the simplest gags you can do. I took a 30-foot high fall, and it’s a really small airbag. If you miss your mark the first time, it’ll bounce you right out of the bag. It’s a combination of practical and special effects. It really helps to sell a gag like that.

Ring of Steel

When I was researching you years ago, I remember coming across news about a series called The Hunted. I couldn’t find anything on it other than you were working on it. It’s taken years for you to finish this thing, but now it’s out, and it’s the first thing you’ve starred in as an “action star” in decades. 

(Laughing.) This is true. The Hunted was never really advertised. The idea behind the show was that I started teaching a stage combat workshop, and I realized that you can train people all day long, but they need practical experience. I needed to create a project for my students in the class. So I came up with the idea for this back in 2001. It was originally supposed to be like a cable access show. The internet was just going online, and this was way before YouTube, and I thought what the hell – maybe I can make this an internet series. It was even before the internet had shows. This was originally a venue for my students to be able to perform, and we came up with vampires in the modern day and had a crossover with swords, making it very easy to shoot these episodes. The intent was to shoot a couple of episodes and then shoot the pilot episode, which would explain everything. Then we got carried away, and before we knew it we had 13 episodes, and we never really got around to shooting the pilot. We kept going and going. Three years ago, we shot an episode that was like a two-parter, and I said, “Why are we not shooting the feature film?” Fortunately, Kickstarter had come around by that time, and I realized we should just do it. We wanted to create a web series that goes into a TV series that ends up going into a feature. Pretty much every end goal of a web series is to become a feature. So why don’t we just do that? I know how to do that, so let’s do that. We created a quick Kickstarter campaign, and I called in a lot of favors from a lot of friends, and we just did it. We put together a whole new script, which we rewrote. We took 18 days to shoot it, and it was an insane shoot. We had exploding RV’s, to losing locations, and all sorts of chaos happened. This feature is about as indie as you can get. There are a lot of professionals involved. Anthony DeLongis is in it. I have some friends from Ring of Steel in it. And Monique Ganderton, who plays the female lead, is just fantastic. She’s doubled pretty much everyone in the business. She’s a fantastic actress. She’s been in X-Men, Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hunger Games, and just about everything else. She’s pretty amazing. So she came in, and everyone came in and just donated their time just to make this happen. The budget on this is less than the price of a used car. It’s like a fifth of the budget from Dragon Fury. Yet, what I think we were able to accomplish … mixed with the fact that I have a visual effects background, and fortunately I work for free when I’m working for me. It was a big advantage.


So let me understand this: You shot a bunch of episodes of something called The Hunted, and a considerable time later you shot a feature film called The Hunted, which is what I saw, and so what happens with all of those other episodes? That sounds like a lot of content. 

There are over a hundred episodes available now online. The show is based on user content. People can create their own episodes. We have contests to help promote that. The annual contest is like $1000 for best episode. We’ve had episodes come in from all over the country, and all over the world. We had one submitted from South Africa, a couple from the UK … and the winners are asked to become affiliates. We have four affiliates in the country. One in Tampa, one in New York, one in Oregon, and one in LA. The episodes are kind of like going on YouTube. You never quite know what you’re going to find. Some of them are very amateur, but some of it is just amazing. I had a buddy of mine who was working on The Dark Knight on the visual effects, and he was the camera operator on the show. He said, “This looks really interesting, I think I’m going to do an episode.” I said, “Yeah, right.” Sure enough, three or four months later this episode shows up and it’s fantastic! It’s way better than I could have done. He ended up becoming one of our affiliates. The feature is intended to open the door to finally … up to this point everything has been word of mouth. Right now, we’re going full-on PR with it. We’re approaching film festivals for the feature.


In embarking on this whole Hunted endeavor, were you missing your days as an action star? Or was it just the desire to be productive, creative, and busy? 

Well, that’s just it: just because you do a feature film, people think “Oh, you’ve done a movie, now you’re driving around in a hot looking car and you can do a movie anytime you want to.” No, your last film is your last film and doing it again is really freaking tough. Right after I did Ring of Steel I created another script for something called Manhunt, which was a Tarantino-type desert chase movie. It was just too weird. I tried selling it at AFM like I did Ring of Steel, and it just didn’t work. So I went back to my roots and wrote a sword movie called Pirate’s Blood, which was a pirate movie. This was back in ’95 or so, and I had a distributor set up, and around that time Renny Harlin came out with Cutthroat Island, which was a huge box office flop and killed the pirate genre until Johnny Depp came back with it with Pirates of the Caribbean. Those are two films that were set to go and I was set to star in, but it didn’t happen. There were a couple of films I did along the way. I went to Jordan and got a lead role in a movie called Sinbad and the Battle of the Dark Knights.


Dude! I need to see that movie. I’ve been looking for it, but it’s nowhere to be found. 

No, you don’t. It’s terrible. (Laughing.) The stories behind it are way more interesting than the movie. We got to stay in Jordan for a month and a half with a wonderful English crew, and I don’t know what the budget on this thing was, but it was huge. They wasted it. They ran out of money at some point because it was so mismanaged. The director was rarely on set. There are all sorts of stories. It shut down and they relocated to Bulgaria. They tried to piece the movie together with this rough storyline they had. It was atrocious. The locations we shot at were amazing. We got to shoot at Petra, which was where they shot Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. The stories we got out of it were amazing. The movie, not so much. It was tragic. You mentioned Jeff Speakman and other guys just dropping off the map. Sometimes it’s just not under your control. You’ve got to trust someone to give you several million dollars, and what they have is a sheet with numbers on it. They’re looking at who can bring in money overseas. Like when I did Ring of Steel, they were trying to figure out who to cast as The Man in Black. He’s a cameo role for a star. I was thinking Christopher Lee. The people who were producing the show said, “Who’s that?” We could have gotten him for a song, and the movie would be famous now. They took the original script I wrote and rewrote it and tore it apart. The original script I wrote was like The Deer Hunter. My character went through this transition. They steal his girlfriend, and they force him to fight. He starts getting into it, getting into drugs and money. By the time she’s released, he doesn’t recognize her. Completely different and dark, and people die in the ring. Shapiro / Glickenhaus rewrote it and they paid a writer ten times as much as I got, and then they decided to trash that script and go back to my script and have the director rewrite it. It turned out okay, but it wasn’t exactly what I had intended.


What are your hopes for The Hunted? What’s next with that? 

Everybody wants me to produce the feature within that feature, which is Vamp Slayer. Vamp Slayer is obviously Dragon Fury. It actually has the same line in it. Dragon Fury is now licensed by Troma. I actually called Lloyd Kaufman at Troma, and asked him for the rights to it so that I could promote Dragon Fury. He said, “Ahhhhh, I tell you what …. I’ll give it to you for fifty grand.” Ah, no, I don’t have fifty grand. I had to come up with a whole new thing. Everybody likes it. I may have to do that one. The plan for this has always been to create a show that propagates user content. It was intended for aspiring filmmakers to be a part of a show. If you had an opportunity to create a five-ten minute short and be a part of this show … if I was back in Florida where I grew up, I would jump on that chance. No one’s quite figured out how to use user fan content as part of a show, so I’d like to see this develop in its own way and feed itself.


Robert, what would you like to say to your fans who’ve waited for you to come back. You’ve got some. I’m one of them. 

(Laughing.) Oh, thanks. Come back in what respect? It’s all about creating your own work. No one is going to offer you anything. There are plenty of missed opportunities. One of the first missed opportunities I had was right after Ring of Steel. Joe Don Baker set me up with his agents, which was a very big agency. They asked me to go to an audition for a crappy film, and it was terrible. It was worse than Dragon Fury. It was some sword and sandal fantasy film where this guy runs around and kills stuff. It was just so terrible that I asked a buddy of mine, “What do I do about this?” He said, “If you don’t feel it, don’t go for it.” I felt that I would have been completely miscast. They wanted some big, beefy sword guy and that wasn’t me. I turned it down, and they said, “No, no, no, they want a regular guy.” I said, “No, no.” I turned it down. It was for an independent film much like Ring of Steel, and they produced the film, and Action Pack turned it into Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. It got picked up. Action Pack was looking to turn movies into shows. Actually, they were looking at Ring of Steel as one of those shows. The problem was that they couldn’t figure out how to make it episodic. Meanwhile, they picked up Hercules. Kevin Sorbo was in my acting class at the time. He was quoted as saying, “I don’t care what I get, I’ll just take anything right now.” This was a film that a lot of my friends had passed on, and he just went for it because he just wanted to work. He did a brilliant job and he was perfect for it, and that went on for how many seasons and led to other things. That happens, but it doesn’t happen for everyone. The odds are so, so very slim. If I set myself apart from the rest of the action guys, it’s because I didn’t wait around to be cast in anything. I’ve created my own work. That’s kind of what I’ve done with The Hunted on a much smaller scale because I didn’t want to wait around. I didn’t realize how lucky I was with Ring of Steel that I could just come into town and write a script, pitch it, and sell it at AFM. We put 10 grand into a trailer, and we sold it that way. It was a huge risk, but it eventually paid off. It’s not like I made a fortune off of it, because I barely broke even.


You can rent or purchase The Hunted here:

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About the Author

david j. moore
david j. moore is the author of World Gone Wild: A Survivor's Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Movies and the upcoming book The Good, the Tough and the Deadly: Action Movies and Stars, coming April, 2016 from Schiffer Publishing.



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