The Entire Three Part Article originally published in Film Fantasy Magazine
Speaking with the Zen Film Master
By Cori Tate, M.F.A.
Scott Shaw has spent the past twenty years making some of the wildest no-budget independent films that the world has never seen. With titles such as Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, Max Hell Frog Warrior, Super Hero Central, Vampire Blvd., and Count Vlogula, to name just a few, Scott Shaw has etched a niche for himself as one of the most eccentric filmmakers in the industry.
Hailing from Hollywood, California, Shaw is much more than just an independent filmmaker. He is also a respected martial artist who has written an enormous amount of articles and books on the subject as well as being an accomplished musician and photographer. When he is not making movies he teaches courses on filmmaking at colleges and universities.
Whereas many independent filmmakers try to climb the Hollywood ladder, Shaw has turned his back on the traditional film industry and focused his career upon his self-developed philosophy of Zen Filmmaking. What is Zen Filmmaking? I will let Scott Shaw explain that in his own words.
Cori Tate Before we begin I want to tell you that I have been a fan of your work for some time and I believe I have seen all of your films.
Scott Shaw Thank you. Which one is your favorite?
Cori Tate Undercover X.
Scott Shaw That’s one of my favorites too.
Cori Tate I also really like the editing in Killer: Dead or Alive.
Scott Shaw Yeah, that’s a fun one as well. Which of my films do you like the least?
Cori Tate I don’t want to answer that. Aren’t I the one who is supposed to be asking the questions?
Scott Shaw Sorry. Ask away.
Cori Tate I know in the past you said that while growing up you saw the downside of the film industry and that is what kept you from becoming involved in it until much later in your life. Being from an industry family myself, I too have seen that side of it. Have you been able to stay away from the turmoil?
Scott Shaw For the most part, yes. I really don't run in those circles and I do not go around asking people for money to finance my films like a lot of indie filmmakers do. So I am able to stay pretty clear of all of the nonsense and the melodrama.
Cori Tate As a filmmaker how would you define the kind of films you make?
Scott Shaw Zen Films.
Cori Tate Yes, I know that but your films have a very unique characteristic. Can you explain that?
Scott Shaw That’s just it. They’re Zen Films. There is no definition for a Zen Film. What they are is what they are. Each one is whole and complete onto itself. Each one is different. There is no formula. There is no dogma. There are no requirements. You just go out there and do it and that is what you do.
Cori Tate Do most people understand your Zen Filmmaking style?
Scott Shaw You know, ever since Don Jackson and I made the first Zen Film, The Roller Blade Seven, we knew that people who had an eye for the cinematically abstract and who really studied the intricacies of what we were doing would understand and like it and the people who expected to see a traditional mainstream film, would not. To answer your question it is 50/50.
Cori Tate Now that you brought up Donald G. Jackson how did you two function as a filmmaking team?
Scott Shaw As artists, Don and I had a very similar mind. He, like I, appreciated the bizarre and the abstract. As people, we had very different personalities. He was very explosive. He liked to yell and scream at people and mess with their heads. Me, I am the total opposite. I’m all about making people comfortable and making the world a more calm and peaceful place.
Cori Tate Then how did you work together?
Scott Shaw When we worked together we were of one mind. We never questioned the other’s insights. Whichever one of us had the inspiration, the other one just flowed along.
Cori Tate In the past you have stated that Donald G. Jackson used a script for all of the films he created when you were not involved in the project. Is that true? Isn’t that against the primary premise of Zen Filmmaking?
Scott Shaw Yes, for the most part that is true. But Don was a very spontaneous guy, if someone wanted to go in a different direction he never forced them to speak only the lines written in the script. But you just expressed a really big point that many people misunderstand. Everybody seems to think that Zen Filmmaking is simply based on the premise of not using a script. That’s totally wrong. The use of no screenplay in the filmmaking process is simply a tool to open up the filmmaker’s mind to allow spontaneity to be the primary guiding force in a film’s creation. By allowing artistic freedom to guide you in the filmmaking process you allow magic, and by magic I mean you allow and accept magical things to happen that you would or could never expect.
Cori Tate So far you’ve written two books on filmmaking, Zen Filmmaking and Independent Filmmaking: Secrets of the Craft. What are the differences between the two books and what information do they provide?
Scott Shaw You know, I’ve been making films for a long time now and not only have I been teaching classes and seminars on the subject for years upon years but I receive a lot of questions about filmmaking all the time. What I realized a long time ago is that everybody has the same questions and everybody, including myself, runs into the same problems. The two books spell all of the problems that I have run into and the problems that other indie filmmakers have run into and then the books provide answers and ways to avoid these problems as much as possible. The difference between the two books is that Zen Filmmaking is more of an illustration of my personal filmmaking journey in association with a lot of how-to. Independent Filmmaking is more of an overall nuts and bolts discussion and a how-to for the independent film industry.
Cori Tate Having seen most of your films I realize that you are constantly changing as a filmmaker from how you tell a story onto editing and all the various visuals. How and why has your filmmaking evolved?
Scott Shaw The main component is that technology is constantly making things easier. I couldn’t do, or maybe better put, I couldn’t afford to do a lot of things, particularly in editing, that I wanted to do in years gone past. Now it’s all on your PC. You can do pretty much anything. From the advancements in technology I have been allowed to continually expand and push the barriers within my visions for artistic filmmaking.
Cori Tate You say there are no mistakes in filmmaking. What does that mean?
Scott Shaw Most people who want to make a film have the hope and the desire that their film, made with no money, will come out looking like a hundred million dollar feature. Moreover, the people who view independent, low and no budget features expect them to look like they had a hundred million dollar budget. That is just not the reality of making an indie film, especially when you have limited financial resources. What I mean by there are no mistakes is that you have to enter the process with the understanding that your film is going to turn out the way your film is going to turn out. That is not to say that you don’t try to make it look good. But you have to accept your limitations. And the viewers should also be of that same mindset if they are planning to watch a film of this genre. By entering the filmmaking process with this mindset, the freedom of Zen is experienced.
Speaking with the Zen Film Master
Part Two: Zen Filmmaking: The Process
By Cori Tate, M.F.A.
As detailed in part one of this article, Scott Shaw has spent the past twenty years making some of the wildest independent films that the world has never seen. With titles such as Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, Max Hell Frog Warrior, Super Hero Central, Vampire Blvd., and Count Vlogula, to name just a few, Scott Shaw has etched a name for himself as one of the most eccentric filmmakers in the industry. He has created these films while employing a method of filmmaking that he calls Zen Filmmaking. In this segment of the article we will delve into the actual process of Zen Filmmaking and allow Scott Shaw to explain how to make a Zen Film.
Cori Tate For this part of the interview I would like to speak to you about some of the practical aspects of Zen Filmmaking and how you make your Zen Films.
Scott Shaw Let’s do it.
Cori Tate Why no script?
Scott Shaw Like I have discussed for many years, when someone writes a screenplay they believe they have a great idea. And, maybe they do. When they move forward to creating their film they believe it will be filmed with precise camera techniques, in perfect locations, with excellent actors portraying the characters. The fact of the matter is, unless you have a lot of money, which most new filmmakers do not possess, that is just not going to happen. Things are not going to turn out perfectly. This is one of the main reasons that many new filmmakers throw in towel and do not complete their films -- because they cannot equal what’s in their mind’s eyes. But, if you take away the obstacle of a script and remove what is suppose to happen, you become free, you are not forcing yourself to equal what you have conceived in your mind. If a filmmaker operates at this level there is a much greater chance that the film will be completed.
Cori Tate Without a script, how do you get your stories told?
Scott Shaw For each person it is a little different. What I do is to start out with a story idea. Then I get my cast together and have a few places in mind that I plan to shoot. For each day I construct a shot list that will explain the characters and the story, and then I go out there and do it.
Cori Tate So you guide your actors on the set?
Scott Shaw Exactly. But they are not gong out there blind. Before we ever begin to film I discus each character with each actor so they know what they are going to portray and how they are going to achieve that portrayal. If we have the time I allow actors to meet the other actors in the film. Then when we get on the set, I tell them the basics of the information that they need to discuss for a particular scene, and I let them have at it. This keeps the performances very natural.
Cori Tate You generally work with unknown actors. Why is that?
Scott Shaw Hollywood is an impossible game to win. Yet tons of people come here all the time hoping to be stars. The reason I invite new people to be in my films is I want to offer them the opportunity to actually get in front of the camera and get their feet wet. What I am providing them with is a stepping-stone. They are going to be in a film that will be completed. If they never do anything else in the film industry at least they can say I was in that film. But some of them have actually gone on to become very successful actors and actresses.
Cori Tate What is the average budget for your films?
Scott Shaw I try to stay right around $300.00.
Cori Tate $300.00! I have seen your films. You mean to tell me films like Hitman City and Vampire Noir only cost $300.00 to make?
Scott Shaw Yup.
Cori Tate How do you do that?
Scott Shaw Well, first of all you have to know what you’re doing. Then you have to have the right equipment and know how to use it. Like I tell my students, if you can’t make a movie using only natural light then you have no business being in the film industry.
Cori Tate How does someone learn how to use equipment and make quality films like you have with such a low amount of money?
Scott Shaw It is all about practice and getting out there and doing it.
Cori Tate So you suggest people practice making films?
Scott Shaw Absolutely. You don’t have to go out there and make a feature film your first time out like I did. Just get out there with a camera everyday and make film shorts or just practice with it seeing how it captures images and how it reacts to light. From this, when you actually get ready to make a film you will have the techniques in place to do it right.
Cori Tate What kind of equipment do you use?
Scott Shaw That really depends on what I’m doing. Over the years I have used pretty much every camera and every format ever created. I own a lot of equipment. Which is one of the ways I can keep my production costs down. But I always like to tell people; you can even shoot movies with your phone. I mean phones shoot 1080 HD, which has a much better image quality than Super 8 and even some 16mm cameras. If the phones had a mic input, because they have pretty lousy audio, you could shoot a whole movie on your phone. I imagine someday some phone company will add a mic jack and then there will never be a need for full-on cameras anymore.
Cori Tate Have you ever used your phone to shoot a scene that made it into one of your films?
Scott Shaw Of course. Like most people I always have my phone with me and I have used it several times to capture footage. But personally what I do is I always carry a small Nikon or Canon with me. Then not only can I take a photograph if I see something but I can also shoot high quality footage for my films if an interesting situation presents itself.
Cori Tate You are against getting film permits. Is that true?
Scott Shaw It’s not that I am against film permits. It is simply that most indie film people do not have the money to rent a location and pay for film permits. The other problem is, once you lock into a single location then your options are severely limited. You have to stay there and that really holds back spontaneous creativity. The fact is some people believe that it is illegal to shoot a movie without a permit. That is not true. If it is a public place you have just as much right to be there, doing whatever you want to do, as anyone else. You can’t go in there with a Panavision camera, 10-K’s and a big crew, but if you stay low key you are usually fine.
Cori Tate Have you ever been asked to leave a location you were filming at?
Scott Shaw A couple of times, but it’s rare.
Cori Tate What do you do then?
Scott Shaw Just go and shoot somewhere else.
Cori Tate In you films you’ve shot in places like Tokyo, Taipei and Hong Kong. Why do you film there?
Scott Shaw Interesting locations are one of the number one things you need to add to your film if you want to make it look big and give it depth. Whether you film in your community or whatever, the more interesting your locations the better your film with look. As I spend a lot of time in Asia, I add those locations into my films whenever I can. Tokyo is great. It is a very visually spectacular place and nobody cares if you film there. You can film anywhere and nobody even takes notice. Everybody from the Beasty Boys to Katy Perry have filmed in Tokyo just by showing up and doing it.
Cori Tate How do you respond to film critics? Which is something that each filmmaker must be prepared for.
Scott Shaw I don’t. I don’t care what any negative person thinks. First, let them make a movie and then we’ll talk about it.
The fact is, the minute you get into any of the arts you are going to have your critics. That’s just the way it is. The sad thing is, their voices always seem to be the loudest. It would be great if the people who had positive things to say would be more vocal but it doesn’t seem like that is going to happen. Positive people always seem to be the quiet ones.
Cori Tate Why do you think some people are so critical?
Scott Shaw I don’t know. There’s a lot of reasons, I guess. Some people want to make a name for themselves and critiquing and criticizing the work of someone else is an easy way to do it. Some people may not like a person or what they stand for and that is their reason. The one thing I do know is that negativity only equals negativity and that is never a good thing.
Cori Tate Do you ever think you will return to acting on the A level or directing a big film?
Scott Shaw Well Cameron, Spielberg, Tarantino or Rodriguez aren’t knocking down my door. And Weinstein or Lion’s Gate isn’t ringing the phone of my agent off the hook. So I don’t know? But that is really not important to me. I think I have made a niche for myself in the film industry, doing what I do. I make films for the love of the craft. And the reason I teach filmmaking and talk to people like you is that I want to help other filmmakers get out there and live their dreams of making a film. That’s the whole basis of Zen Filmmaking and that’s why I have continued to keep my focus on it. In simple terms, Zen Filmmaking removes a lot of the obstacles from the filmmaking process so that films will get completed and filmmakers will get their films made. Remember the main mantra of Zen Filmmaking, Fun is what it’s all about.
Speaking with the Zen Film Master
Part Three: Scott Shaw the Filmmaker
By Cori Tate, M.F.A.
As was revealed in Part One and Part Two of this interview, Scott Shaw is a truly unique individual and revolutionary filmmaker, creating films via the style of filmmaking he created, Zen Filmmaking. Hailing from Hollywood, California, Scott Shaw has spent over twenty years making some of the most cutting-edge no-budget independent feature films, documentaries, and music videos that the world has never seen. After detailing the foundations for (and the techniques of) Zen Filmmaking in the previous two segments, in this final section we are going to peer into the mind of Scott Shaw and see just what makes this filmmaker tick.
Cori Tate In this part of the interview I want to peer into Scott Shaw the filmmaker and ask you why you do what you do.
Scott Shaw That’s scary. But let’s go.
Cori Tate One of the main things I have noticed about your films is that there is always movement. The character you play or your other actors portray are either riding on a motorcycle, driving in a car, riding on a ferry in Hong Kong, on a subway in Tokyo or on a ship in Canada. If you or your actors are not on some vessel then the characters are frequently seen walking or running. In fact, one of your recent films I saw, The Drive, revolves around a constant state of movement. Why is that?
Scott Shaw First of all, thank you for realizing this, most people don’t.
Cori Tate You’re welcome.
Scott Shaw At its root, the simple answer is, all of life is about movement. That movement may be small or it may be large but it is constant. Everything in this universe is in a continual state of flux. I want my films to represent that understanding on a subtle, subliminal level. That is why I always have movement in my films. From a less philosophic aspect, movement adds a great level of visual stimuli for the audience. It draws them it. For example, on a subtle level the audience begins to study what is going on outside the windows of a car as the character drives it down the street. Life and the world we live in is very unique. It is a work of art. I like to bring that art into my films as much as possible.
Cori Tate I understand that you shoot your films wherever your inspiration guides you. Yet where you shoot your films and the sets you use have a very common theme, namely the old or the dilapidated. Why is that?
Scott Shaw I’m a city kid. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in L.A. In terms of the cityscapes I use, I have forever been drawn to the rundown parts of the city. There is simply something very artistic and beautiful about structures that are in decay and an area that is in its latter stages of existence. In terms of my internal sets, my inspiration is the same. But, they are more of a creation than where I film outside. A good example is, I was watching an old episode of the T.V. series Adam-12 the other day. Malloy and Reed were supposed to be at three different apartments in a rundown building. But all the production team did was to shift the camera to the other side of the hall. In each scene you could see the same spots on the walls and the team entering the same apartment but they were supposed to be three different apartments on three different floors. I love the cinematic ridiculousness of stuff like that. So I embrace it. I recreate it.
Cori Tate You have said that there are hidden elements in all of your films. Is that an example?
Scott Shaw Yes. But it is more than simply the sets and how they are used. Like you realized about the movement in my films, the items I place for the camera to see: the things on the walls, the floors, and in the distance are all very revealing. There are hidden objects in all of my films and abstract expressions in the dialogue. It is the viewer that must find them and decide what they mean.
Cori Tate Why do you do that?
Scott Shaw That is one of the things that makes watching a Zen Film so interesting. Once you understand this, figuring out the underlying meaning of the locations, the dialogue and the scenes become part of the whole process of watching the film.
Cori Tate In terms of your editing style you have always used exaggerated edits. Why?
Scott Shaw Some filmmakers believe that they can draw the audience into the film. They think that they can cause the audience to lose themselves in a film. That’s just not what I’m about. First of all, I don’t believe that you can do that. A movie may emotionally affect you but you never forget that you are watching a movie. It’s not real. So I don’t even try to do that. In fact, I do just the opposite. I want the audience of my films to have a unique experience. Something jarring. Something different. I want them to say, “Wow, that’s a cool edit. How’d he do that?” Or, “I didn’t expect that. That really changed the mood of everything.” This is also why I either have myself or one of my actors glance directly into the camera during each film. As I am sure you know, this is something that is forbidden in all realms of traditional filmmaking. I do this very subtly. You really need to look for it. This is just a subtle reminder to the audience that they are watching a film and the film is not real. It’s also based in the fact; we’re watching you watching us. Look out!
Cori Tate The next question is rhythm. You always have very rhythmic soundtracks. Why is that?
Scott Shaw Again, there is the deeper level and there is the more mundane answer to that question. Rhythm is so primal. It is so at the root of humanity. It touches something deeply inside of everyone. I want the audience to feel the movement in my films. So I use rhythm based soundtracks. The other side of the issue is, I like that style of music.
Cori Tate In the past people always seemed to try to draw parallels between Zen Filmmaking and other forms of nontraditional filmmaking. That seems to have stopped. Why do you think that is?
Scott Shaw I think it is due to the amount of product that has been released using this unique brand of filmmaking. New Zen Films are made all the time, not only by me but also by other filmmakers who are employing various aspects of the philosophy. From this, it has carved out its own entity.
Cori Tate When I was in film school some of the instructors discussed Zen Filmmaking. It interested a few people like myself but others said it could never work.
Scott Shaw Obviously those people were wrong. There have been a lot of Zen Films created. That’s the thing about school, I know because I have spent many years in colleges and universities, first as a student and then as an instructor. The thing is, students say a lot of things all based on the fact that they believe they are soon to be the master of the universe. They believe that all of their dreams are going to come true. They think that they know everything and whatever they believe is right. This is especially the case in a subject like filmmaking where a few people have become the king of the world. But it is rare. Most people do not become that successful. That’s one of the main reason I created Zen Filmmaking and have continued to focus on it. Not only does it remove many of the obstacles from the filmmaking process but it also allows films to be created that are perfect within their own perfection. They can be whatever they turn out to be. No judgment. That’s Zen.
Cori Tate Will you always be a Zen Filmmaker?
Scott Shaw I believe that every filmmaker must base the creation of their films upon a philosophy. Mine is obviously the philosophy of Zen Filmmaking. If you don’t have a philosophy then your film simply becomes an attempt to mimic what others have done in order to gain fame or financial success. So to answer your question, yes, I will always be a Zen Filmmaker.
Cori Tate Recently you’ve been discussing how Zen Filmmaking has evolved to the non-narrative film. What does that mean?
Scott Shaw As I said to you previously, there is no dogma within Zen Filmmaking. It is as free and as creative as the filmmaker chooses it to be. For me, I realized that it was time to move away from story structure altogether. As you know, one of the main concepts of Zen Filmmaking is that the stories have all been told. So why try to retell a story that has been told a thousand times before? Thus came the non-narrative Zen Film.
Cori Tate What does that mean and how do you create a non-narrative film?
Scott Shaw You mentioned you saw the Zen Film, The Drive. That is a non-narrative film. To create a non-narrative Zen Film the inspiration comes from everywhere, anywhere. I don’t know? Where does inspiration come from? But how you create a non-narrative Zen Film is that you capture a series of shots and then weave them together to make a cinematic collage of images that draw the viewer into the space of the abstract, into the space of Zen.
Cori Tate Will you ever go back to making a dialogue driven film?
Scott Shaw First of all, my films have never been dialogue driven. Yes, there is dialogue but they are driven by the essence of pure cinema, artistic cinematic images brought together to shape a collective whole. But sure, if and when the inspiration strikes, I will make another film that employes dialogue.
Cori Tate You mention Pure Cinema. Was that an inspiration to you?
Scott Shaw Think about this, Cinéma Pur (Pure Cinema) was created by filmmakers like Chomette, Léger, and Clair in the early part of the twentieth century. Filmmaking was new at that point in history and these people were already attempting to step back and make it a more pure and organic process. Those people lived in a different age than we live in. They possessed a different set of available tools and influences, yet they sought to bring filmmaking back to an artistic sourcepoint. Me too. That’s what Zen Filmmaking is all about. Is Zen Filmmaking based on Pure Cinema? No. Am I influenced by it? No. But, I do appreciate their ideologies as I have walked a similar path of inspiration.
Cori Tate What made you become an independent filmmaker?
Scott Shaw Wow, that is a deep question and there are probably a million answers. Mostly I’ve always been an artist. Since a very young age I was also a photographer. At a certain point it just become a natural progression for me.
Cori Tate Most independent filmmakers seek out production companies to finance their films. Why haven’t you followed that path?
Scott Shaw Because I don’t want anybody controlling what I do. If somebody is paying you then they control what you create. If someone is controlling you, if someone is telling you what you must do and when you should do it, then it is no longer art. I am an artist. You may love my art, you may hate my art, but my films are made with art as their focus. If someone is financing you, they have one goal and that is to make money. To make money you have to supply a product that the masses will appreciate. You’ve seen my films; do you think the masses can appreciate them?
Cori Tate Yes, I do.
Scott Shaw Wow, that’s a first. Thanks.
With this I end the interview with Scott Shaw the Zen Filmmaker.
Scott Shaw is a truly unique believer in art and the art of filmmaking. Though his words may have a certain seriousness to them, there was never a moment that he did not possess a big smile on his face. As we parted company he said, “If you ever need any help making a film, don’t hesitate to call.” I think this is probably the biggest revealer about Scott Shaw. He is a truly helpful individual who does what he does not only to create art as he sees it but also to lend a hand to all of us who are attempting to climb the ladder in the filmmaking industry. Thank you Scott Shaw.
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