Films of Fury Interview

This interview was originally conducted by Ben Johnson for martialedge.net. It has been expanded for your reading convenience (or maybe mine).

Q: What is the background to the Films of Fury project – did the idea for the book come first or the doc?

A: The doc came first. I was contacted in 2008 by Lux Digital Pictures, which has a history of making documentaries about film genres close to my heart (like Nightmare in Red White and Blue, which charts horror films’ creations via notable historical events). Apparently the big boss in Germany, where the company is headquartered, asked Tom Coleman, their producer in L.A., to contact me, and ask if I would direct, produce, and write a film about kung fu movies. But the money they were offering wasn’t enough to cover what I knew would be at least two years work, so I regretfully turned them down. But then Tom came back and offered me half the money to just script it. A third of the work for half the money? Yeah, I could do that. Now, though, honestly, after all is said and done, my egomania is kinda sad that I didn’t direct it … even though I would’ve been in debt and I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to write the book as well.

Q: Is the book a continuation of your previous guides or a whole new concept?

A: Both. As I mention in the book’s introduction, there are not only more films now (my previous book on the subject came out in 2001), but I know more about kung fu. Before, I had studied martial arts, but I actually started practicing kung fu in 2002, so I saw the new book as a way to incorporate everything I’d learned about the real deal, not just the flicks. At first I tried to be subtle and suggest new ways of looking at the films, but now, after my umpteenth rereading, I wish I had been more “in-the-readers-face” about the true nature of kung fu and how it relates to the movies. In fact I went back at every so-called “final” stage to add more until the publisher cut me off from the proofing process.

Q: What’s with the title font on the book? It looks a little “chop-socky” (and makes your first name look like “RK,” especially on the spine).

A: Yeah. Originally, the entire cover was designed to be a spin-off of what the film poster’s design was. That’s why there seems to be a patch saying “book” over where the “Movie” had been on the original film’s title design. The only reason I chose that typeface was to match the lettering that was on the home page of the filmsoffury website and coming attraction trailer title. But given the inequities of production time between the film and book, we had to lock in the book cover’s design a few weeks before Tom Coleman and our two directors totally changed the movie poster design. I still like the book cover, but I might have changed the “chop-suey” style lettering if I had known.

Q: There appears to be a lot of animation in the movie – whose idea was this?

A: Tom’s! Argh! Heart-breaking! That still tears me up. I was at the San Diego Comic Con in 2009, doing my annual Kung Fu Extravaganza, getting all excited about the opportunity to go back to Hong Kong and interview all the kung fu film greats in the way they always should have been interviewed, when I get a call from Tom (Coleman, the producer). He says, “I’ve seen all the other kung fu film documentaries and I decided we shouldn’t have any interviews. Instead, we’ll do all the intros with animation.”

I resisted screeching in agony. I had worked in Hollywood a bit, and learned that screeching in agony only solidifies producers’ decisions. So I said, “hmmm, interesting. Why?” He told me that all the talking-head-interviews in the other films were boring and confusing. I explained that was because all the questions had been ignorant. If you ask a baseball player why a touchdown gets the team seven points, his answer might seem bored and confusing too.

But Tom’s mind was made up. “Animation will cost us more,” he said, “but it’ll be worth it.” We’ll see, I guess, but I’m still smarting from that.

Q: Being a comic book fan, has it always been an ambition of yours to work with animation?

A: By that time, I already had. I was the last minute special media consultant on CBS’ Hagar the Horrible animation special as well as the New York animation reporter for Millimeter magazine way back when. Ironically, although my final draft of the script included my suggestions for the animation, that became the pervue of our new directors: Andrew Robinson and Andrew Corvey. The only piece of animation I’m responsible for in the initial rough cut was about casting David Carradine over Bruce Lee for the Kung Fu TV show. But I’m still a few weeks away from seeing final cut, so I’m not sure how it all turned out.

Q: How does the film differ from your previous documentary work?

A: Well, it’s the only one I scripted. The others I was merely the creative consultant. There I could only make suggestions on how to build the skeleton. This one was my skeleton. Even so, I’ve found that the two Andys will pile on weird muscles and skin if they, or Tom, feel it necessary.

Q: What first sparked your fascination with martial arts cinema?

A: I started my writing career working in comic books back in the mid-70’s, and, at that time I was frustrated by the Batman TV show and the Superman movie because producers seemingly couldn’t resist putting in unwelcome campy elements. I was woe-bemoaning this in Larry Hama’s office at Marvel one day in 1978, so he and his then-girlfriend, Linda Sampson, took me right down to Greenwich Village where a matinee double feature of Lightning Swords of Death and Baby Cart in the Land of Demons was playing. I was amazed by that, but they weren’t done with me yet.

We literally went from that down to Chinatown, where Drunken Monkey in a Tiger’s Eye (aka Drunken Master) was playing in the evening. I was flabbergasted. This was a comic book come to life, with the actors actually being Daredevil (you can imagine how disappointed I was when Daredevil was finally made into a movie … what a waste). I was hooked.

And back then there were six movie theaters in Chinatown, each playing a different double feature of Hong Kong films every week. There were also at least three uptown theaters showing samurai film fests all the time, so between them, I was seeing at least ten movies a month for the next seven years.

Q: How did you start writing about the genre, and was it always your ambition to get into movie journalism and publishing?

A: No, I wanted to be an actor. I was working at the Tony-award-winning Long Wharf Theater doing walk-ons, managing the ushers, and working on the stage crew when I made the disastrous decision to follow my father’s wishes and go to college … for theater! I was being paid $450 a week in 1972 money to learn at one of the greatest theaters in the country, only to have my dad pay thousands for me to go to what turned out to be one of the worst.

Don’t get me wrong: Emerson College and Boston University were both great schools, but I learned a vitally important lesson: some teachers want you to do the best you can do, but most in the creative courses seem to want you to do only the best THEY can do. After three years of what I termed mental masturbation, the theater world was irrevocably ruined for me. I left school with one semester to go. Damned if I would get their paper reward for what I perceived as ruining my talent.

So I enrolled at the University of Bridgeport for cinema classes and started writing comic book scripts just as a way of blowing off creative steam. Writing was a craft where I had total control. At the time, UB had a great theater department, so I indulged my acting bug by auditioning for plays there. One was The Threepenny Opera, where I had to stand so the stage crew could build a paper-mache swan around me (don’t ask).To keep us all entertained, I told the crew stories. One of them said: “My brother is starting a comic book company in New York. You should see him.” To make a long story short(er) I did, he took a liking to me, and four weeks later he hired me as assistant editor.

When that company, Atlas Comics/Seaboard Periodicals, exploded, I finally caved to my parents’ pleas and went back to Emerson to finally get my diploma. But now I had the writing bug. My mentor at Atlas, Jeff Rovin, started sending me non-fiction book assignments (resulting in my first five non-fiction books: The World of Fantasy Films, The Great Science Fiction Films, Movies on Movies, TV Superstars, and even The Illustrated Soap Opera Companion), while my dad sent me an ad from the local newspaper which read: “ghost writer wanted: no glory, lots of money.” It turned out to be Warren Murphy, co-creator of the best-selling paperback series, The Destroyer, who gave me the job for my first three novels.

From there I was off and running.

Q: When you started writing about the genre, how much harder was it to get hold of those rare titles than it is today?

A: Impossible. Luckily I was seeing all the films in movie theaters, and was writing my first book on the subject (Martial Arts Movies: From Bruce Lee to the Ninjas) at a time when the burgeoning home video companies and TV stations wanted to educate the masses about these films. So they threw open their doors and gave me anything I wanted. They even financed my first few trips to Hong Kong and Japan, and arranged meetings with Jackie Chan, Wang Lung-wei (the great Shaw Studios villain), Lo Lieh, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Yuen Baio, and many others.

Kung fu video tapes were just starting, and most of my first samples were on huge three-quarter-inch cassettes. In the mid-eighties World Northal even offered me more than a hundred 35 millimeter prints of their Shaw Brothers films, but, at the time, I had nowhere to store them!

Q: As an obsessive myself (which is no bad thing!), do you think things like the internet has taken some of the magic out of hunting for those hard-to-find classics?

A: No. I love the internet. I only wish the majority of fans didn’t have what I call “Bruce Litis,” which results in bootleggers seemingly going out of their way to produce dubbed, pan-and-scan, crap-heaps rather than seek to restore the film to its original pristine HK condition. It seems that, because that’s the way most American fans saw the films – in grindhouse movie theaters, on old TVs, or on cheaply done videotapes created by distributors who didn’t respect the genre or its audience – that’s the way most producers still treat the genre … despite the fact that the most successful kung fu films were created for the discerning adult, or even family, audience (Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, the new “Karate” Kid, Kung Fu Panda, etc.). Remember, I first saw all these films in movie theaters in all their wide-screened, subtitled glory, so that’s how I remember and love them.

Q: Given the advent of computer generated technology and modern filming techniques, are we now making better martial arts movies than we were in Bruce Lee’s day – or has some of the ‘art’ been lost over the years?

A: Some? It seems damn near all. What constitutes “modern filming techniques” anyway? Editing with a lawnmower? In my new book I call this “standard operating ignorance.” Since very, very few in Hollywood even know what kung fu is, they don’t know how to film it…or, for that matter, choreograph it. Almost everybody thinks “kung fu” means “martial arts,” but it doesn’t. It generally means “hard work.” “Wushu” means “martial arts,” but that’s more a Chinese Government marketing term for the sport they’ve turned kung fu into.

Kung fu is a form of self-improvement that combines internal healing, powering properties with external martial applications. Everyone in the English-speaking world seems to think taichi is a slow dance for old people, but it’s actually one of the most powerful, effective fighting techniques ever created. But to make it work well, you have to know both internal and external, but only rarely in the Western world is the external even known about, let alone taught. As I tell my students; if you know only half of what you should, you’ll always be half of what you could.

The films I always use for comparison are Forbidden Kingdom and Kung Fu Panda, which were made and released at about the same time. One gets it absolutely right and the other gets it totally wrong (guess which is which). They get the three greatest kung fu film minds in the world on one movie – Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Wo-ping – and they don’t even let them do kung fu! Sure, occasionally they’d hit a recognizably Chinese stance, but as soon as they started fighting it was all muscle-driven, hipless, straight punches, kicks and balance-robbing wires, which have as much to do with kung fu as a football has to do with a baseball glove. I go into great detail on how these two differ in the new book.

Funny. It was just the opposite in Kill Bill. There they had loads of samurai swords, but because Wo-ping choreographed the film it was all Chinese sword-fighting disguised as samurai sword fighting. Again, like watching a team play football with a baseball instead of a pigskin.

But that’s just the start of the problem. Almost always kung fu is lumped in with what producers think Americans prefer, which is karate, kickboxing, jujitsu, or whatever – which are Japanese martial arts. The way I describe the difference to my students is, in a wild generality, Japanese martial arts is ice … Chinese kung fu is water. Most Japanese martial arts is like kung fu with the 50% internal component removed (like cleaning your house with a vacuum cleaner that’s unplugged) … only, as kung fu movie master Liu Chia-liang pointed out, Japanese martial arts is all emotion and muscles while Chinese kung fu is serenity and chi (inner energy).

One of my favorite parts in the new book is when Master Liang, who knew Bruce Lee quite well when they were both younger, compares what Bruce did to what he did – which was full of what he called “martial chivalry” and “using the soft to power the hard.”

I think the heart of it is that American producers like to portray their heroes as bad asses. That’s why you keep seeing that ridiculous scene when some emotionless schmuck walks away from an explosion without blinking or flinching. American filmmakers want their heroes to “be tough.” When someone does kung fu beautifully they use the adversary’s anger and energy against them (hence the final fight in Kung Fu Panda). One of my kung fu teachers can cause personality-changing, indescribable pain with both hands in his pockets and a smile on his face….

Q: Why didn’t Jackie, Jet, or Yuen say something?

A: I think it’s the Chinese approach. I’ve known Jackie since 1983, and watched his relationship with America grow. In Asia, his fans say: “We love you, Jackie, what can we do for you?” In America they said: “We love you, Jackie, what can you do for us?” In Asia, they say: “I’m mad at you Jackie, I’m going to kill myself.” In America, they said: “I’m mad at you, Jackie, I’m going to kill you!”

At first Jackie and company tried to help, but after tinseltown’s “standard operating ego” kept telling them they were “merely” actors, they just shrugged, did what they were told, and banked the money. If they are specifically asked, as in Rush Hour or the new “Karate” Kid, then they’ll do what should be done, but otherwise, you get The Matrix sequels, the Star Wars sequels, the Charlie’s Angels movies, and all the rest of what I call “empty movement kun foo.” It has as much to do with the real thing as chop suey has to do with Chinese cuisine. I quote a bunch of folk at length about this sort of thing in the new book.

Q: As original martial arts performers like Jet Li and Jackie Chan start to age beyond their prime, is there any emerging new talent that you have noticed within the genre that could become the icons of tomorrow?

A: Oh yeah. Right now Donnie Yen is the king of HK cinema, and there’s also Vincent Zhao, Terry Fan, and especially my favorite Wu Jing, aka Jacky Wu Jing. But you’re right to worry. Although a bunch of Chinese universities are graduating entire classes of possible kung fu film stars every year, the great kung fu filmmakers are disappearing … and, with them, great kung fu films.

Stars you can find. It’s the great choreographers that seem hardest to replace. Liu Chia-liang and Tang Chia have retired, but thankfully, Yuen Wo-ping (and his family), Tony Ching Siu-tung, Corey Yuen Kwai, and Sammo Hung are still in there punching, but who knows for how long? Sammo just had stents put in his heart. And just about the only great new choreographer is Stephen Tung Wei (who was the kid Bruce taught at the start of Enter the Dragon). The others are okay, but far from inspiring.

Back when I started I could see more than a dozen great kung fu films every month. Now I’m lucky to find two a year. Thankfully, they remain successful (although increasingly harder to make), so there should always be a market for them.

Q: As an add-on to that question, what new martial arts films have really excited you in recent years, and have you noticed any traits or trends as to where the genre is heading, both in the east and the west?

A: Well, John Woo has escaped Hollywood, and immediately his filmmaking ability shot back up. Although there’s a subplot in the five hour, two part version of Red Cliff I could do without (involving a mentally challenged enemy soldier), for the most part I loved this epic – especially the show-stopping kung fu displays (that were edited out of the 150 minute U.S. version via standard operating ignorance) and the fact that victory rests in a change of the wind (mother nature) and a cup of tea (human nature). I’ve heard that most great sifus (teachers) say: “learn mother nature and learn human nature … then you can truly start to learn kung fu.”

I loved the first hour of Ip Man and Ip Man 2. If you edited those two together I’d be happy to lose the second hour of both films (although there were some worthwhile moments). I also came to appreciate more and more of Yuen Wo-ping’s disjointed True Legend the more I watched it. Gallants was great, but ominous too, since it was about, and featured, the older kung fu stars like Chen Kuan-tai, Bruce Leung, and Lo Mang.

Stephen Tung Wai and Sammo Hung did something interesting in Bodyguards and Assassins, Reign of Assassins, and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Even though the producers and actors seem to want wires to help prevent the kind of injuries that used to be commonplace on kung fu sets, Stephen and Sammo are starting to develop a recognizable “wire-fu” that uses wires’ balance-robbing limitations as an interesting part of the screen technique. Just as Ang Lee did in Crouching Tiger, they’re making the characters’ “light skills” part of their emotions so they don’t seem so jarringly, disappointingly out of place.

As for America, well, you can imagine how happy I was that Kung Fu Panda made more than a half billion dollars. I was asked to give another kung fu seminar to Nickelodeon in preparation for the KFP TV series (I had done one for the original film years before it premiered), so hopefully they took what I said to heart. And since the sequel is being directed by the story department head of the first, hopefully Po the Panda won’t start doing mixed martial arts while screeching like Bruce.

Q: And the hardest question – what are your personal, all-time, top three favourite martial arts films?!

A: Legendary Weapons of China, Drunken Master 2, Once Upon a Time in China 2, Shaolin Soccer, and Hero. That’s three, isn’t it?