Here is an article I was asked to write in about 1997 for an indie film publication called Thunder Magazine. I am presenting here exactly as it appeared in the magazine for your reading pleasure and to maybe/hopefully provide you with some new insight and inspiration in the world of filmmaking.
In a simpler time, I used to sit down with friends, pop in a bad movie and drink some beer. It was a sick pass time, but one that provided an endless amount of cheap entertainment. Because of this experience, titles like Curse of the Queer Wolf and Roller Blade will forever remain as grade A entertainment for me. Little did I know that Rollerblade would not only spawn sequels, but spin-off sequels? And if you’ve never heard of these films, then you’re probably sane and not much into watching bottom-of-the-barrel budget flicks that will occasionally offer more excitement than Hollywood’s by-the-numbers bullshit. That said, you’ve probably never heard of Scott Shaw, Donald G. Jackson or the bevy of direct-to-video quickies they’ve amassed over the past few years. So for those of us interested in the art of filmmaking, or zen filmmaking as you are about to learn, here’s a real eye opener for independent film buffs interested in breaking into the action/adventure film biz.
The Good, The Bad and the Art of Zen Filmmaking
By Scott Shaw, Ph.D.
Whereas most people aspire to come to Hollywood, walk down the boulevard of the stars and hope to rub elbows with the rich and the famous, I was just the opposite. Born in L.A., I grew up in Hollywood and attended Hollywood High School—where more than a few of my classmates were already ex-movie or TV stars struggling to adapt to life in the mainstream. Others were the children of famous actors or directors who knew that any day they would become stars. It all seemed like bullshit to me: the egos, the insecurity, the drugs to provide courage and the never enough money to pay the bills for the high lifestyles they all lead. Though these adolescent relationships got me onto the sets of some marginally memorable films, I swore I would never get into the industry. Or, should I put that in quotation marks, “The Industry.” So, I spent most of the next decade or so in various geographic locations of Asia, refining my lifelong involvement with the martial arts and Zen Buddhism.
Back in the States, I was continually receiving offers to be in martial art films. I finally accepted. That was my big mistake. I got bitten by the bug.
I spent my early film career doing starring or co-starring roles in the then very lucrative independent action/adventure market, performing small roles in A-films, guest starring roles on TV and shooting documentaries in Asia. One day I got a call. The voice on the other end of the phone line said, “My name is Don Jackson; I make movies. Can you really use the samurai sword as good as everyone says you can?” From this phone call our initial meeting took place at the Gower Gulch in Hollywood. The rest is Zen Filmmaking history...
PARTNER IN CRIME
Don Jackson, or more properly Donald G. Jackson, had spent his early adult life in Ann Arbor, Michigan working in an auto factory for fifteen years and struggling against the odds to become a filmmaker. He finally made the feature, Demon Lover and the wrestling film, I Like to Hurt People—which was purchased by New World Pictures. This financed his move to L.A. Once here, he made a film called Roller Blade—a futuristic piece referring to samurai sword wielding girls on skates. It was shot on his credit card for $5,000.00—New World purchased it and the film made over a million dollars. From the video market success of these two films, they asked him what he wanted to do next. An actor named Sam Mann and him had been toying with an idea which eventually lead to his next film, Hell Comes to Frogtown.
Upon meeting, Don and I, both influenced by the films of Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, set about on the path which became Zen Filmmaking—though it took a few swings at bat before we hit a homerun...
THE FOUNDATIONS OF ZEN FILMMAKING
When I first met Don he had financing in place for an action adventure film in which he asked me to perform the lead. We started the film in December of 1990. Due to the fact that the screenwriter was backstabbing Don to the Executive Producer, midway through the production, the financing was pulled. The screenwriter wanted me to finish the film with him as the Director. Fuck that, if you don’t have loyalty to your friends in this cut-throat industry, you have nothing. Thus, the film went to never-never-land and Don and I moved on.
Don directed another film and I acted in several. Perhaps most ironic of my performances during this interim came when Robert Altman called me up and asked me to do a Cameo in his film, The Player. As if to hail the coming future, when we were shooting one of my scenes, I really did like what the script had my character say, “Can I change this?” “Sure, just say whatever you want,” answered Altman...
THE FIRST ZEN FILM
In November of 1991 Don and I regrouped and made the first Zen Film, The Roller Blade Seven. For this film we continued Don’s Roller Blade concept, combined that with two books I authored which were made up of spiritual aphorisms (to use as a basis for dialogue), added some samurai swords, some semi-naked girls and we were off...
Though relatively obscure, this film has been credited with influencing everything from Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, to the TV series Homicide, onto Six-String Samurai, (though now that the Six-String boys are on top, they probably wouldn’t admit it). Even today, RB7 has a big cult following in the U.K., (the only place where the Director’s Cut was released). I get E-mails all the time from people who form groups to discuss the true meaning of the feature.
Though we played equal philosophic roles in the creation of Zen Filmmaking, during the filming of RB7 Don really showed me the ropes of how to make a low budget art film. So, there is no doubt that he holds the title of, Godfather of Zen Filmmaking.
But back to the point… Just what the hell is a Zen Film? First of all, and perhaps most importantly, scripts are out the window. I like to say, “Scripts are for sissies.” This doesn’t mean that you let the actors improv. For the most part you wouldn’t want to see novice actors improv-ing. The problem with scripts is that performances become so contrived when people have their lines memorized for days or weeks—it’s just boring.
To create a film what we do is Don or I comes up with a concept, we cast some people who fit the roles we have in mind, we go out to a location, get inspired and then guide them through what they should say and do. As Don says, “Zen Filmmaking is like painting: you get a canvas, you get some paint, but you never know what the painting is going to look like until you apply the paint to the canvas.”
For example, we took our cast out to the El Mirage Dry Lake Bed for our film, Toad Warrior. When we got there, someone was flying an ultra-line aircraft. Don asked them if we could use it. They agreed. My character Max Hell got in, took off, and it became the opening sequence for the film. You just can’t plan or anticipate those occurrences. You just have to live them. If you base a film on a script, all instantaneous creativity is lost.
Instantaneousness doesn’t mean that it doesn’t take a lot of planning. Mostly, you have know what the hell you’re doing, but beyond that, you have to be prepared: have all the technical equipment ready, the film stocks to be used, make sure that the cast has their costuming, and be ready to adapt to any situation. Sometimes the first planned location doesn’t workout, so we move onto the second, and the third, if necessary.
In Zen Filmmaking the big crew thing doesn’t work either. A small crew not only keeps the budget down but it also allows much more spontaneous creativity. If you have too many crew people, they all want silly things like story boards, shot lists, and stuff.
A funny experience I like to relate is when Don and I were doing a film with Frank Stallone. Frank met us, we put him in Don’s car, and we drove over to this location we like to use. En route Frank asked, if the crew was set up and waiting for him at the location? Well, actually he was riding with the crew. Don was operating the camera; I was doing the sound and performing the lead. I would get the tape recorder up and running, go in, slap the slate, walk out, and then walk back into the shot and act with Frank. Needless to say, he wasn’t the kind of actor to get into Zen Filmmaking.
But then there are people like Conrad Brooks, one of the last remaining Ed Wood confidants. He is a great guy and a true Hollywood icon. One night we were shooting with him at our Hollywood studio—there was some down time so he went out and had a few drinks. When he came back, he was a little light headed and couldn’t remember any of the lines we would give him. So, we fed him his dialogue one word at a time. Editing that was interesting to say the least.
That’s one of the great things about Zen Filmmaking; editing is where it all comes together. I look at all the footage and then let my feelings guide me as to where each scene should go.
There are no mistakes in Zen Filmmaking. It’s like enlightenment, it all happens in its own perfection.
Just as editing takes care of itself, so does the budget. In Zen Filmmaking you really can’t draw up a formal budget. There is just no way to budget inspiration. The people who fund these films understand that we are creating art and we must possess C.C.C. (Completely Creative Control).
The main thing to understand about Zen Filmmaking is that there are no rules. You cannot compare a Zen Film with a traditional screenplay based movie. A Zen Film is an entity onto itself. If the story isn’t all that constant—who cares, all the stories have already been told. A Zen Film is more like a rock video in that it moves with a visual essence which is absent from traditional filmmaking.
GET ON THE BUS
Zen Filmmaking is so simple and so filled with art that many people question its results. But we have proven it works in numerous films. It’s generally the wannabe actors who have gone to way too many acting classes and freak when they hear about it. They always question, “Will I get dialogue?” Or state, “I need tape on myself.” Our answer is to pull out a roll of camera tape, rip off a piece, and stick it on them. There you go, you have tape on yourself... In reality, the people who get on the bus and stay with us for awhile get the biggest roles. If they doubt the process, it is better not to take them along, for their negativity can bring the whole thing down.
Real actors, people like Golden Globe winner and two-time Academy Award nominee Karen Black or Clint Eastwood co-stars Don Stroud or William Smith love the process. These are the really creative people; they have nothing to prove, their acting is completely natural and they truly appreciate the art of Zen Filmmaking.
A funny story… One night last year we were shooting my film Rock n’ Roll Cops. We decided to rent a room at the posh downtown L.A. hotel, the Boneventure, and bring William Smith in for some scenes. Not only did we have the bell hops bring up massive quantities of lights and film equipment to our suite, (why they didn’t ask questions, I don’t know), but by the time Don and I arrived, there were like twenty actors and actresses in the room hoping to be in the film. Don, (the Producer), in rare form, kicked most of the people out, including William Smith’s girlfriend. I tried to diplomatically hold Bill back but he is an intense guy and went in and put a chokehold on Don. Had he not remembered they had been friends for more than a decade, I’m sure the whole incident would not have turned out to be the memorable joke it is remembered as.
PAYING YOUR DUES
In the past we have paid neophyte actors hoping it would assure that they would show up, have a good attitude, and so on. It doesn’t work! Everyone in Hollywood thinks that they are going to be the next big star. You cannot imagine how many times I’ve heard, “No, no, I’m the one that’s going to make it!” I wish them all the best but paying a person whose name means nothing to the projects serves no purpose. I’m much more hard-core about this than Don. And besides, there are many ways of compensation that do not involve money. We are giving people the opportunity to be in a film which will receive international distribution. In essence, we are paying for their demo reels.
JUST GOT ON THE BUS
A couple of new friends on the Zen Filmmaking bus are Penthouse Pet and B-Movie Queen Julie Strain and her husband, Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and publisher of Heavy Metal Magazine. We plugged them into our film, Guns of El Chupacabra, and four films after that (Armageddon Boulevard, Lingerie Kickboxer, etc.). Julie, who has been in many script-orientated films, immediately took to the process. She poetically stated after smoking a joint, “Zen Filmmaking unfolds in front of your eyes when you give someone the freedom to expand their mind and let the creativity flow like a waterfall. It’s like Niagara Falls running through my veins. Zen Filmmaking boundaries are limitless. To me it is like a drug. I admit it, I’m a junky.” She calls… us up all the time and says, “Let’s make a movie.” With Zen Filmmaking, we can do that—forget about all of the unnecessary preparation and just go and make art. In fact, one day we shot an entire feature film at the Turtle Mansion (as we have named their Bel Aire home) called Vampire Child. It generally takes a lot longer to make a movie, but when the magic hits, it’s there.
The question is always asked, “How do you get established actors to be in your films?” Well, as the independent film has taken over Hollywood, the unions have begun to fade from the picture, allowing established actors to become what is called SAG Financial Core and do non-union films. As an actor, I find that sad, but as a filmmaker, the unions can really constrict what takes place on a set and throw a monkey wrench into the gears of absolute creativity. Zen Films really need to exist outside the realms of meaningless control.
NICKEL & DIME ACTION
Due to my extensive martial arts background and, of course, the mystical powers of the samurai sword, I generally integrate this heritage into all of my movies. The fight scenes are staged as the movie is created—they are never rehearsed. I never attempt to choreograph more than one or two moves at a time. What I do is stage a punch, kick, block, or sword techniques, film it, and then have the cameraman move to a new location that will sell the next technique. This way it keeps all the movements fresh and the reactions natural.
All of the stunts in my films are created right on the spot. Inspiration strikes and I lead people through the techniques. So, it’s always good to have trained martial artists, wrestlers, and gymnasts in the cast. It’s rare, however, to have an advanced Muay Thai Kickboxer like Kevin Eastman on the set. Most martial artists believe that due to their long years of physical training that they will be the next Bruce Lee—so their own egos really hold them back from getting into films.
Then there are people like Traci Lords. She was scheduled to do a film with us and everyday she would come by and take private sword lessons from me—just so she would look good on film. But, that is a rare thing.
LET’S TALK GREEN STUFF
I’ve acted in several but I have never personally produced or directed a film that I would call a martial art movie—though there has been martial arts in virtually every film I’ve created. The sad truth is that the market has just been flooded with bad, low budget, rip-off martial arts movies—films that are just mimicking what has been done much better on a substantially larger scale.
This style of filmmaking is what has really poisoned the international market. As the quality dropped, so did the prices. There was a time when the U.K. would give you $50,000.00, Germany $100,000.00, Japan $500,000.00 for one film. Now, Taiwan wants to pay $1,500.00, Malaysia $750.00 and Korea $500.00. And, it doesn’t matter what NAME actor you have in it. If it isn’t someone the caliber of Nicholas Cage or Bruce Willis, nobody cares.
There is the occasional breakthrough film, but the whole dynamics of filmmaking has really changed. No longer can you count on quadrupling your budget in sales. Now, you’ve got to make your money from your investor or you may never get paid. Don says it best, “The real art of filmmaking is in raising the money to make the movie.” That’s why it’s great when I’m just hired as an actor to be in somebody else’s film—it’s all so easy...
GETTING IT OUT THERE
In terms of independent film distribution there’s a lot of distribution companies out there, but the days of up-front advances are long gone. Now, they may take your film but they will charge back all publicity and marketing costs. That way they can justify not paying you any money. And more than that, they may decide to reedit and ruin your film. I know that happened to Steve Wang with his film’s Kung Fu Rascals and Drive and to us with RB7—the Executive Producer took the film and its sequel, Return of the Roller Blade Seven, reedited them into one movie, and changed the title. She did this, even though it broke all of our contracts.
The sad thing about Executive Producers and distributors is that they know it is going to cost you more money to sue them then you could ever win in a lawsuit. Justice and honor means nothing in modern Hollywood.
To remedy some of these problems Don set up a distribution company so we would have more control over our releases. But, this is very expensive. From this, our films generally do fairly well, particularly in Asia where I am an established actor and they appreciate our style of comic book action adventure. In fact, my film Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell won me Best Director honors at the Tokyo Experimental Film Festival in 1993.
In reality, getting a film out there is a complicated game. You have to do it for the love of the art and realize if your film doesn’t have a several million-dollar budget, even though it may be released, there will only be a few thousand video or DVD copies of it made. Once those are gone, it will be forgotten. That’s what’s great about Zen Filmmaking—all that matters is the perfection of the moment: it’s here, you live it and then you let it go and move on.
Copyright © 1997—All Rights Reserved.