By Scott Shaw
As we have recently passed the twenty-year mark of the beginning of the creation of the Zen Film, Guns of El Chupacabra and as I continue to receive a lot of questions about the process of filmmaking used in making that movie, I thought I would take a few minutes and write a little bit about this Zen Film. I should begin this piece by stating that there is a chapter devoted to the creation of Guns of El Chupacabra in my book, Zen Filmmaking. That chapter is a great source for a lot of the inside-inside and the philosophy about what went on during filming. But here, I thought I would spell out more of the A to Z about the film, to give all of you who have wondered a bit more insight into the film’s actual creation.
To begin with, Donald G. Jackson and I were friends. That is the best way I can describe our relationship. Being friends, sometimes you are more forgiving of a person’s behavior than you would be of someone with whom you are not friends. In brief, Don was a psychologically complicated guy who had a lot of inner-demons. I say this to illustration how and why he and I had a bit of an on-again/off-again turbulent relationship, even during the filming of Guns of El Chupacabra. …We were two very different people. I guess that he had undiagnosed bipolar disorder as one minute he would be fine and the next moment he would be completely freaking out. For anyone who knew him they will instantaneously confirm this fact. With this stated, he always treated me with the utmost respect—at least to my face. From this relationship, even amidst Don’s chaotic mindset, we made a number of seminal films together, including what eventually became Guns of El Chupacabra. This film is one of the two films that we made together that Don and I both considered to be Zen Filmmaking masterpieces. The other being, The Roller Blade Seven. Though I would add The Rock n’ Roll Cops to that list, as well, but Don never got to see the finalized version of that film.
The reason I begin by discussing the mindset of Donald G. Jackson is to illustrate what it was like to work with Don. It was not easy. Moreover, it is also important to note that Don was a horrible confiscator of other people’s creative ideas: i.e. my idea about doing a film about the Chupacabra or a similar creature which I had relayed to him a few months previous to the beginning of filming. We even started to do my film, Surf Samurai from Atlantis, which was to highlight a Sea Monster—artistically referencing films like Creature from the Black Lagoon and Return of the Creature. But, we got sidetracked and that film was never completed… In any case, I hadn’t seen Don in a few months before we began filming. I had gone off to Southeast Asia and, as I tend to be, was very happy living in Thailand. But, I had gotten attacked by a few knife wielding foes one night. Bangkok can be a very dangerous place. Though I overcame my five attackers fairly readily, I did have a serious cut down the center of my face which brought me back to L.A. in a rush to see a plastic surgeon. I had been home maybe a week or so and one day, out of the blue, nearing the end of 1996, Don called me up and tells me that talk of the Chupacabra is all over the internet and we should do a film about it. Okay, but didn’t I already suggest that a few months ago… In any case, we got together and we started preproduction. The only missing fact was, he had already taken my idea and had started filming. I guess he had hoped to grab my idea and create a film about the Chupacabra without me. But, I didn’t find this out until later.
The problem was, as was always the case with Don, he had great creative ideas but he couldn’t get anything done. He always surrounded himself with a less than ideal cast and crew. So, in essence, due to his lack of precision crewing, everything he had previously filmed was basically uselessly. …At least in terms of the technology that was available at the time. And, he had filmed it on 16mm so that process wasn’t cheap. Enter, me… My acute focus and my ability to get things done is what made Guns of El Chupacabra move forward and finally get finished.
Initially, we called the movie, El Chupacabra. With that as our inspiration we went out and began to film.
A friend of Don’s, Bob Mizrahi, was living at this great ranch north of L.A. I am told that it was originally owned by Hoyt Axton. The great thing about this ranch was that not only was it secluded but it had hills surrounding the property. From this, we could fire live ammo, (of which a lot was shot during filming), with no worry of stray bullets traveling onto other people’s property. Moreover, there were several abandoned bulldozer and other heavy machinery that gave the place a great look. We filmed many scenes at this location over several visits.
Initially, I was not sure about who my character would be or how I wanted to guide that character’s development. Originally, I had thought about doing a professor sort of thing. From this, on the first day of shooting, I brought along some old-school desert expedition sort of wardrobe. But, as I always wear a sport coat, slacks, and tennis shoes, I just kind of ended up in front of the camera wearing what I wear. It was shortly after that Don and I realized that we really needed to take the storyline to the next level and not make it simply Earth based but intergalactic. Thus, it was Don who came up with my character’s name, Jack B. Quick, Space Sheriff.
As was the case whenever Don and I worked together, we would meet at the office everyday at about eleven, do preproduction, location scouting, casting, and other stuff during the week and film mostly at night or on the weekends. Those were always fun and fulfilling days. This was the same path we followed with El Chupacabra.
When we began filming the movie we didn’t have a monster. We simply did character development. It was Don who contacted the Executive Producer of Roller Blade Seven, knowing that she was in possession of a monster costume. This suit was originally made for a movie that never was filmed. One Saturday morning we went over to her house and picked up the costume. El Chupacabra was born.
While we were there she made Don promise her that he would not damage the creature costume as she wanted to use it in an upcoming film. He, of course, promised her that he would keep it safe and sound. But, I will discuss what came next in a moment…
For anyone who has seen the movie I am sure you will agree that it is a really great monster costume. When it was created, it cost a lot of money. The problem was, it was made for a fairly small and thin person. So, none of the men we knew could fit into the suit. But, the girl who was playing the character Linda Marshall was willing to climb into that costume. Me, I would have been way too claustrophobic to have ever gotten into a monster suit like that, as there was no self-way in and no self-way out. It had to be put on and taken off by someone else. As such, on the first day we filmed with her in the costume, she brought along a friend of hers whom we dubbed, The Monster Wrangler.
The first day we used the suit was a few months into production. We took our skeleton crew, our monster, her Monster Wrangler, and we went to Bronson Cave—which is a great Hollywood landmark that has been used in an untold number of films and TV shows. We filmed the reveal of the monster and my character fighting the creature.
An important note to keep in mind is that in the traditional Monster Flick, the monster is never revealed in broad daylight. The monster is always kept somewhat hidden and allusive to the seeing eye. We totally broke that rule with Guns of El Chupacabra, however, and let the monster be right in the face of the audience.
Filming went along for several months. Don and I also did a few other films in the interim. I was also very active in writing books and article about the Martial Arts and Zen at that time, so those projects took up a lot of my time when I wasn’t working on the film. I also completed another Master’s Degree during this period so it was a busy and productive period of time for me.
Filming on Guns of El Chupacabra took us over a year. In fact, it took us close to two years to actually finish the film. I have one of those very prominent memories etched into my mind where Don and I were on the roof of the Broadway Building on the corner of Hollywood and Vine, where we filmed many a scene, and Don looked at me, shook his head and said, “We’ve been filming this for over a year…” Yeah, we had… Pretty scary… Where did the time go?
Speaking of the Broadway Building, that is where my character encounters the crew of ninjas and martial artists. That team was brought on by a guy who Don had met several years the previous who wanted to make martial art movies. As Don told it, that guy simply walked into his office unannounced one day and said he had money from a guy in prison who could finance films. But, the money never came through but that guy, like so many people who inhabited the world of Donald G. Jackson, continued to pop up hoping to break into the game.
This is one of the things that needs to be said about Don—he promised everybody everything. He told people what they wanted to hear. If they were an actor, he promised them a starring role. If they were a writer, he promised them he would produce their script. But, he never did… Hollywood is a cutthroat place where everyone expects to be a star and when someone promises you this dream… Well, when they don’t follow through, things can get sketchy. Don made a lot of enemies.
The martial art troupe that the aforementioned guy brought into the production were all great martial artists and very professional. I think they added a lot to the overall presentation of the film. They guy himself, however… Well, I guess he suffered from a Napoleon Complex as he was very short. The day we filmed those scenes he kept insinuating that he wanted to fight me. Oh please… Get a life…
I only saw him one time after that, a couple of years later, when Don had an office in Santa Monica. He showed up out of the blue, was friendly and kept saying, “You’re like Don’s son. Look at you two. That’s why you never wanted to work with me, Don. You have a son…” Again, Oh please… I’m told that guy died soon after that. Though much younger, he died even before Don passed away. RIP.
If I sound all over the place in talking about this film, that is because that is how it was created; very randomly. If I looked at my notes, I could tell you exactly happened when but that is not at all how I remember the creation of Guns of El Chupacabra. It went in spurts. We worked on it and then we didn’t.
At the 1997 American Film Market (AFM) Don showed up having created a twenty-minute trailer for the film. I had been in Hawaii with my lady for a time and returned the day before the ’97 AFM was to begin. Don had the tendency of being jealous and vindictive. Thus, he created the trailer without my input and I, the star of the film, was barely in it. Though I suppose I should have been angry, knowing Don I found that very-very amusing.
Don was one of those people who like to subtlety mind-fuck people. He thought that was how he could get over on them. Me, I was at one of those points, that happened several times throughout our partnership, where I was just going to tell Don to, “Fuck off.” But, he kept insisting that I needed to be at AFM as I was the star of several films and he was distributing a couple of my Zen Film… So, I showed up. Though we didn’t offer El Chupacabra for sale, we test-screened it to several buyers and they were all very impressed and interested.
Sometime soon after the ’97 AFM we went into our second segment of filming. We changed the name of the film to Guns of El Chupacabra and we had recruited a few new interesting cast members. This is where the Santiago Kid as well as Maria-Maria came into play. This is also where we recruited a few porn girls to take part in the movie. Which I guess is an interesting story in and of itself to tell…
Don and I wanted to add some nudity to the film. Like the creature, we wanted this nudity to be in your face with no explanation or reasoning. We tried casting actresses for these roles but it just did not work out. In one case, the cast, the crew, he and I arrived at the office early on Saturday morning, we packed up all the equipment, but the girl who was scheduled to do the nude role did not show up. We called and called but nothing… So, all that time and energy had been wasted.
It was at that point Don came up with the idea that we should go to the major adult film casting agency here in L.A., where he was sure we would easily be able to get some female talent who were willing to work in the nude. As there was no on-screen sex involved, something that these girls did for a living, he was certain we could find the right actresses. We went there, paid the two-hundred dollar casting fee, looked through their books, chose some girls, and got their numbers. Over the next week, we had them come by our offices, take off their clothes, and see how well we would be able to work together. A few girls were decided upon.
As Zen Filmmaking is all about living in the moment, we rarely planned what we would do next. On the day we were scheduled to work with the first two (nude) girls, both high-end adult stars of the time, we had them meet us at our North Hollywood offices along with other cast members such as the Santiago Kid and Maria-Maria very early on a Saturday morning. We planned to go to Bronson Cave to shoot. With a few cars of cast and crew following us, we arrived. But, the Power Rangers TV series was filming there. There was tons of star trailers and crew trucks. …Couldn’t film there…
Next stop, we thought to go out to the Mizrahi Movie Ranch as we called it. Don’s friend’s place. We drive all the way out there, cast and crew following us. We pull in and a new owner of the property had taken over. He had evicted Bob. He tells us, “Get off my property!” Wow… Okay, now what?
Finally, the Santiago Kid, who lived out in the Palmdale area, suggested the desert ranch of one of his friends. Having already paid for the talent, and with no where else to film, we had no choice but to check it out. Again, with several cars in tow, we made our way a hundred miles northeast out to the desert.
Arriving at that desert ranch, it was a visual very nice location. It reminded me of an old run down chicken farm, though I do not actually know what it once was. But, we were free to shoot there.
With no real storyline in mind, we looked around and noticed a few chicken wire cages. Don and I decided that would be a great place to put the girls, detailing that they had been capture by El Chupacabra to be eaten later. Then, my character would arrive to rescue them. Finally, filming was underway.
I can only imagine what the porn girls and their manager were thinking with all of the running around. Zen Filmmaking and all… But, they were getting paid their day rate so I guess they really didn’t care. Overall, we became friends and used the team in a few other films.
Filming went well at that ranch. We shot there a couple of times. Like the Mizrahi Movie Ranch, it was isolated and cinematically very interesting. We did have a problem when we were firing some AKs out there one time, however. Not realizing how far a bullet will actually travel, I guess one of the distant neighbors had a few shells flying by his head and had to drive over and ask us to stop firing in that direction. Luckily, nobody got shot.
The third phase of filming Guns of El Chupacabra came about when Don enlisted Julie Strain and her then husband Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, to get on the bus. They were and are both very nice, very talented people. And, at the time, Julie had a great PR team behind her. From her being a part of the production we got interviewed on a couple of TV shows and a few magazines wrote articles about the film due to her being a part of the cast.
The majority of the scenes involving Julie and Kevin were shot at a location close to the L.A. River not far from Downtown. This space was owned by an artist who did some great gothic paintings. You can see some of them in the background of their scenes.
All of Julie and Kevin’s dialogue was created a few moments before filming by Don or myself. We would roll camera and Don or I would feed them their lines, one line at a time. Then, cut. They did a great job. This is also the place where Julie knights my character, the Revered Doctor Saint Francis Blade.
This is a character evolution that was developed by Don. He thought my character should have some reward upon the completion of his mission. And, that was it, being knighted. Don, who was very Christian and very religious in his later years, wanted to evoke the power of Christianity in all of our films whenever he could.
It would be impossible to discuss the making of Guns of El Chupacabra without mentioning Conrad Brooks. Though he did not end up having a large role in the film, he was elemental to several important moments.
First of all, Conrad is a great guy. He comes from that old-school of acting (or should I say overacting) and I simply love his performances.
Conrad is a very nice guy and perhaps that was his downfall—at least in terms of working with Donald G. Jackson. For if Don found someone he could vent his anger upon, look out. Conrad often served that purpose as Don would just scream and scream at him. For example, when we were filming at the El Mirage Dry Lake Bed and my character was driving up to meet Conrad and a female cohort, Conrad kept missing his mark as he walked into the scene. Don just let loose on him several times. But finally, Conrad explained that he had cataracts and, as such, the high light of the desert made everything just a blur. From this, he was unable to see where his mark actually was. In the next take, as Don filmed from the backseat and my character drove into the scene, Don said, “I guess I shouldn’t have been so hard on him.” But, he never apologized. That’s just who he was.
I believe this abusive mindset was one of the key downfalls to the overall career of Donald G. Jackson. He would test people and if he would find them venerable, he would go after them nonstop. Conrad was often on the wrong side of this abuse.
Though Don was certainly one of the most instrumental figures in relaunching the career of Conrad Brooks, why Conrad put up with it, I do not know? But, he did. In fact, Conrad loved Don. I think back to a time when I was teaching a course on filmmaking at U.C.L.A. and one of my students needed an actor for a scene he was shooting for his class project so I suggested Conrad as his day rate was only $100.00 and, hey, he was in Plan 9 from Outer Space. The moment Conrad got on set he thanked Donald G. Jackson. This made me smile, “Hey Conrad, it was me who got you the gig!” But Conrad, like so many other people, simply assumed that Donald G. Jackson and myself were one inseparable team, but we were not.
I know I have told this story somewhere before but when Don and I were filming The Rock n’ Roll Cop, just after Chupacabra, we had brought on this one guy who was the godson of actor William Smith. Good guy. I really like him. But, he pissed Don off for some nondescript reason and Don just went off. I was driving in the car behind them and for nearly an hour I could hear Don screaming at the top of his lungs at this guy. When we finally got to the shooting location the guy gets out of the car a bit shell shocked and asked me if Don treated me like that. “Hell no,” I said, “I’d kick the shit out of him if he did.” But, here was this guy; my age, healthy, and I’m sure he could fight, but he let Don treat him like that. But, Don behaved like this all the time as long as someone would let him get away with it. Again, Don made a lot of enemies. That’s why he always needed someone like me around—someone who was willing to fight. There was more than a couple of times when I had to step in to keep Don from getting his ass kicked.
In fact, near the end of filming Chupacabra, it had gotten so bad, as Don was getting so many treats, that we both ended up carrying loaded guns with us all the time. Don had his Smith & Wesson and I had my Glock. I thought then and it makes me think now back to that Rappin’ 4-Tay song, Playaz Club, “I don’t need a Glock but I bought one just incase some sucka tries to stop me from pursuing my paper chase.” Don was really afraid that someone was going to burst into the office and shoot him. He always told me if that happened to please just shoot the guy and then give him my gun, he would say he pulled the trigger. As you can see, things got very strange, chaotic, and dangerous due to the behavior of Donald G. Jackson during the filming of Guns of El Chupacabra.
But, I have gotten off point… Another interesting moment, during the filming of Chupacabra, involving Conrad came when we were filming at the aforementioned space of the artist near the L.A. River. One of our crew had brought his girlfriend along. She was a showgirl from Vegas. This being Zen Filmmaking, we, of course, offered her a part in the movie. We put her in a scene with Conrad. Now Conrad, any time he had the chance took advantage of it and shoved his tongue down the throat of any actress in a scene with him. Thus, the showgirl got initiated into the acting technique of Conrad Brooks. The crew guy was fuming. I told him to step in and stop the scene. She wasn’t my girlfriend and, as such, it wasn’t my call to make. But, he did nothing. Thus, Conrad got the kiss, the showgirl got her major motion picture film debut, and the filming of Guns of El Chupacabra moved forward.
As stated, Don promised to keep the monster costume in good shape. As we got near the end of this period of filming, this is where my character kills the creature. For those of you who have seen the film you know that, among other things, I shoot arrows into El Chupacabra. That does not keep a monster safe, sound, or intact. Thus, by the time we were done filming with the monster that costume was pretty much trashed.
Don being Don, as we were about to shoot that scene, he told me that he wanted to, “Fuck up,” the costume up so that the person who gave it to us could never use it in another film. Not cool. But again, this goes back to mindset and code of conduct that Donald G. Jackson inhabited.
With the completion of this segment of filming we telecined the film, time coded it, and I sat down to edit the movie. Now, this became a very interesting process. Don and I had a full floor of offices in a North Hollywood office building at the time. We set up one of them to be my editing suite. Don rented an editing bay from one of his friends. It was made by Sony and was not dissimilar to the editing controller I used on Roller Blade Seven. The problem was, this system had been developed in some weird way, for some weird reason, in that it only worked in reverse. Meaning, whenever I put the various cuts of a scene together I had to do it in reverse. Therefore, every scene in Guns of El Chupacabra was cut not editing from start to finish but from finish to start. Believe me when I tell you, that was not easy to do…
During the editing, one of my sweetheart’s from Bangkok came to L.A. I took her by the editing suite and showed her some footage from the film one evening. She immediately assumed that Z’Man (Robert Z’Dar) was wearing a prosthetic jaw. Nope, that’s just him… Awh Z’man, you are missed!
I did the first cut and we let the film sit for awhile. The 1998 AFM was still a few months off and we were working on other projects. During that period of time Don and I did The Rock n’ Roll Cops, Lingerie Kickboxer, Mimes: Silent But Deadly and a few individual films. As the ’98 AFM approached, Don had the idea to add our Zen Filmmaking buddy Joe Estevez to the cast which took us to the last stage of filming Guns of El Chupacabra. Don envisioned Joe as being the story teller that comes on and interrupts the movie like in the 1950s and 1960s TV shows in order to narrate and fill in any story gaps. Thus was born, Rocket Ranger Dan Danger.
A funny story here is that Don and I watched the movie and discussed where we needed Joe to fill in the story gaps. I went home and actually wrote out the dialogue that Joe was to say in full screenplay fashion. And, there was a lot of it. I gave it to Joe.
On the day of filming we went to pick Joe up at his place in Hollywood and we headed over to Bronson Cave. Don was doing the camera and I was doing the sound but Joe… Joe didn’t learn his lines. He didn’t even bring the script that I took all that time to write. …I am smiling as I write this as it was so amusing. Me, Mr. Zen Filmmaking, writing and giving someone a script and them not even bringing it. Zen Filmmaking Forever!!! Don and I did the best we could at feeding him lines that would patch up any story flaws.
Post that, I edited the scenes into the film. We then took the movie to online post. And, that was that, the movie was done. It premiered at the 1998 American Film Market.
Guns of El Chupacabra!
From the footage we shot during this period of time I was able to construct three individual films making up the Guns of El Chupacabra Trilogy. Though the title figurehead of this film group is the most relevant feature, the other films each offer a unique view into the Zen Filmmaking legacy of El Chupacabra.
A couple of year before he passed away, Don’s father died. With this, Don retuned to his hometown of Adrian, Michigan. While there he fell in with a group of Christian zealots who preached, “A bible in one hand, a gun in the other.” As he was the hometown boy who had made good in Hollywood they heartily embraced him. They even gave him a radio show on their pirate radio station. …This, until the FCC shut them down and confiscated their equipment. Don was rebaptized and believed he had been cleansed of all his sins. I don’t know about that but while he was there he wanted to show the congregation Guns of El Chupacabra. The only problem was, there was all that nudity in the film and he believed that the nudity would not be acceptable to a Christian audience. As such, he asked me to edit it out. I did so and sent him that version. This is the PG version of the film that was released much later as, Crimes of the Chupacabra. He was very happy with his new group of friends and remained in Adrian for a time until the strain of the relationship with his step mother got too intense and he was forced to leave. I picked him at LAX. This period, and his interactions in Adrian, truly defined the last years of Don’s life.
When Don passed away I knew that he was still in possession of the El Chupacabra creature costume. Though I hoped to get it, have it repaired, and do another film featuring it—resurrecting El Chupacabra, Don’s wife had discarded it before I had the chance to retrieve it. She did this knowing how much Don disliked the executive producer whom had given it to us as she had sued Don shortly before his death due to an unfulfilled movie contract. This, in association with the fact that Don’s wife and his daughter moved out of the house they had lived in for over twenty years in Canoga Park shortly after his passing, as such they were in the mode of rapidly discarding all nonessential items. Thus, El Chupacabra is lost forever.
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