Scott Shaw: Rising From the Ashes
Rising from the ashes of the seemingly endless list of martial art filmmaking which has been going on in recent years is Hapkido Master Scott Shaw. Shaw, who’s involvement in the film industry encompasses Producing, Directing, as well as Acting, has not only starred in several action-adventure feature films shot in the United States and Asia, but unlike many of his martial art acting contemporaries, who choose to follow the path first laid by Bruce Lee and delve solely into martial art films, Shaw has been featured in several non martial art roles in such television series as: MacGyver, Coach, and Saved By The Bell. In the A-film market he has worked along side Sylvester Stallone and was even asked to take his place among the vast number of film notables performing cameo performances in New Line Cinema's, spoof on Hollywood, The Player.
Shaw, a Korean martial art stylist for almost thirty years, has recently completed an instructional videotape series on Hapkido for Unique Publications. A native of Hollywood, California he has an insightful and often times outspoken perspective of the Korean martial arts and the film industry.
KI Tell us about your martial arts background
S.S. I begin by studying an early version of Hapkido called Yul Sol or Ho Shin Sool when I was six years old. From there, Hapkido being a Korean martial art, I was also exposed to Taekwondo. So, all through my adolescence I bounced between the two arts.
KI Do you prefer one Korean art over the other?
S.S. On the whole, I believe Hapkido is one of the most comprehensive martial art systems I’ve encountered.
S.S. In Hapkido there are the punches and kicks associated with martial arts like Taekwondo, plus there are over five hundred of what we call, “Hand Techniques,” between white and first degree black belt alone, and more beyond that. These techniques teach you how to manipulate an opponent’s energy against himself, disengage his holds, deflect his kicks and punches, throw him, and take control of your opponent with the slightest of joint locks.
KI Taekwondo doesn’t teach any of that?
S.S. No, not really. Not anymore. Taekwondo is more of, may the strongest man survive, type of system.
KI You believe Hapkido is a superior to Taekwondo?
S.S. Not superior... From my experience with the two styles, I’m just able to see and appreciate the differences. I’m not criticizing Taekwondo, because I have been a practitioner of it for almost as long as I have been a practitioner of Hapkido. But, I believe Hapkido is a more expansive martial art system.
KI Taekwondo doesn’t have as many self-defense techniques?
S.S. Exactly. What happened is, Taekwondo all changed when the World Taekwondo Federation began its big insurgence into America. Before that, the Taekwondo instructors would teach defensive techniques based in Hapkido ideology along side the extensive kicking arsenal of Taekwondo. Then, came the WTF and all stopped.
KI So, you are not in favor of the WTF
S.S. I’m not putting down the WTF. In fact, I’m also certified by the World Taekwondo Federation. I think the WTF President, Un Yong Kim, who I’ve met with several times, is a master of public relations and marketing strategy. Look where he has taken Taekwondo; to the Olympics. But, I think the WTF has done the original art of Taekwondo a great disservice by focusing so much on Sport Taekwondo.
KI You don’t think Olympic competitions are good for Taekwondo?
S.S. WTF Sport Taekwondo has become the soccer of martial arts, you effectively can’t use your hands. Look at it this way, if you go up against a trained boxer in the ring or on the street, he’s going to give you a run for your money; no matter how good of a martial artists you are. That’s because he’s highly trained in a very effective fighting system. But, Sport Taekwondo does not even allow you to punch to your opponent’s face. That’s very unrealistic. Sure, the kicks are powerful, but you need to develop all aspects of fighting ability. WTF Taekwondo doesn’t allow you to do that. In fact, at one point when I taught martial arts full time, my Taekwondo instructor came to my studio and told me to no longer teach anything but WTF fighting techniques; no more joint locks or throws.
KI How did that affect your students?
S.S. Students are there to learn. You need to teach them new techniques almost every day to keep their mind expanding. I mean most people get very bored very fast by just doing the standard blocks, punches, the same kicks, and traditional forms, over and over again. So, I told him to forget it.
KI There’s a lot of controversy about the effectiveness of using traditional forms as a teaching method. What is your feeling about the issue?
S.S. Personally, I just don’t see the point in forms. You can practice the individual techniques used in forms much more efficiently if you do each one by itself. I know there is all this philosophic debate of the metaphysical reasoning of performing forms. But, even the Taekwondo Masters in Korea, and I’ve spent a lot of time studying there, do not proclaim any deepened awareness due to the practice of forms. I think it is more of a Western thing, believing that anything developed in Asia has some deep meaning.
KI What do you say to the adamant Taekwondo practitioner who practices the WTF format?
S.S. Once again, I’m not putting anyone down. And certainly, there are many Taekwondo Master out there who teach a much wider ranging Taekwondo; more closely linked to the original art. But, I would just suggest to anyone that they ask themselves, is it better or worse to understand all fighting techniques possible and then have the ability to choose which ones you will use in a given situation or simply limit yourself to just a few very limited fighting techniques?
KI Turning to the film industry; has being a martial artist been your biggest asset as an actor?
S.S. Well, martial arts has set me apart from other actors who haven’t trained but there’s a lot of good martial artist out there now. And, these days, you have to be very good to be taken seriously. In terms of actually acting though, I believe that studying the craft of acting is the most important thing any actor can do. So many martial art actors don’t study, they believe it’s unnecessary. I mean, they’ll study martial arts for years to become proficient at martial arts, but they think anyone can act. It’s not true; they maybe can play themselves well, but to do diverse roles; without study, they just do not have the technique.
KI So, acting training has helped you break into the mainstream film market?
S.S. Yes, basically, that is the reason I believe I can audition and get roles that do not require any kicks or punches. Like good martial artists, there is a lot of great actors out there. This is a very competitive business and without study, you are just not in the league with the hardball hitters.
KI Do you prefer acting in martial art films?
S.S. We as martial artist are very aware when a martial art film is released. But, you have to understand that the majority of the world doesn’t know or even care about martial art films. They don’t know who people like Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, or even Scott Shaw are. If you want to be taken seriously as an actor, you have to go outside of the genre.
KI You did a cameo performance in, The Player. Tell us about that?
S.S. I had starred in a feature film, The Roller Blade Seven, where the actress, Karen Black, had a supporting role. Bob Altman, the director of, The Player saw the film. He had previously directed Karen in the film, Nashville. Anyway, he liked what he saw. His office gave my agent a call and asked me to be the action-adventure cameo guy in, The Player. To me that was like receiving an Academy Award, having a director as great as Robert Altman ask me to be in one of his films.
KI You’ve acted in films in Hong Kong, as well, haven’t you?
S.S. Yes, I have.
KI How did you get you’re first role in Hong Kong?
S.S. I had just returned from Mainland China. I had Producing and Directing a documentary, which was shown on P.B.S. entitled, Guongdong Province, China; Poverty and Promise. I was having lunch with Sir Kenneth Fung in Hong Kong and he said he would like to introduce me to Sir Run Run Shaw, head of Shaw Brothers Pictures. When I met Sir Run Run, he said, “Oh, your name is Shaw. My name is Shaw. I make you a movie star in Hong Kong.” So, that was the first film I did there.
KI What are the conditions like filming in Hong Kong?
S.S. Well, it’s definitely not like shooting even a low budget film here in the States. I mean, they put you up in bad hotels, they feed you rice, they don’t pay you much, and the martial arts is virtual full contact. All the fight choreography takes place in about five minutes before they shoot the scene.
KI Did you ever get hurt there?
S.S. Oh, sure. I mean I’ve had my ribs broken, my nose broken. The thing that works to my advantage is that I’m generally bigger than most of the actors there. So, if they hit me hard, I would just hit them harder.
KI Are all the actors treated that badly there?
S.S. You have to understand, there is a very large talent pool in Hong Kong. The movie companies have these big dormitories, which house at least five hundred people. All of these people are contract actors for the film company. Some of them eventually become more and more noticed and they get to be stars like Jet Lee or Jackie Chan. So, the film companies really have nothing to loose by treating their actors badly.
KI You’ve also starred in a Japanese film. Was that any different from working in Hong Kong?
S.S. Yes it was. Filming in Japan is very different. I did a film called, Katana Shibo there. They treat the actors with a lot more respect. In general, the whole atmosphere is much more professional. But, you pretty much need to speak the language to get a role there.
KI Between the action-adventure industry in the United States and Asia what do you see is the difference?
S.S. The biggest problem I find with the action-adventure people in the United States is that it is all about making money. There is just no room for art and vision in the films they make. Most film companies believe if they make a low budget adaptation of a major A-film they will sell it for tons of cash. And, that just doesn’t work anymore. The films here take themselves so seriously, they just look stupid. I mean, you go to the film markets now and they are just filled with bad martial art films. And, I’ve learned this the hard way; I’ve starred and co-starred in some films which turned out to be very embarrassing when I see them now. Luckily, many of them have not found distribution so they are lost in never never land.
KI What do you think should happen in the action-adventure market?
S.S. If you watch Hong Kong films, there is always humor in them. Even the works of a great filmmaker like John Woo, he always has a moment for the ridiculous. It is the same with the later Stallone and Schwarzehagger films. They are confident enough to make fun of themselves in their films. I believe that’s what action-adventure really needs; a certain amount of humor, to not take themselves so seriously.
KI Did you get involved in Producing and Directing to take more control over the films your involved with?
S.S. To a degree, yes. But, my motives are not so ego based as that. You see, I have a bit different perspective on the film industry than many actors and filmmakers. I grew up in Hollywood and I spend time both at the houses and on the sets with some famous actors and filmmakers. I saw the down side of it; all the insecurity and the backstabbing. So, I knew long before I ever dove into this industry, what it was really like; a lot of power tripping. But, aside from that, my whole life has been about creating art in one form or another. When I entered the film industry, I realized how it is such an expansive art form; you can do so much with it. You can create total emotions in people. So, what I’m about is creating art on film.
KI Tell us about the films you’ve Produced or Directed?
S.S. Well, I like to consider them art films. Or, Zen Films as I call them. I want every scene to be stuffed with vision and art; from the storyline, to the acting, to the lighting, to the soundtrack. Art is always about something new and different. There’s no art on the set of some Producer driven, “Seen it all before,” martial art film.
KI Do your films involve martial arts?
S.S. To date, they all have, except for the documentaries I’ve done. But, I’m currently laying foundations for some non-martial art films.
KI Several of the films you’ve been in seem to involve the samurai sword, is there a reason for that?
S.S. Well, there is something very poetic about the samurai sword and all the images that it conjures up; of ancient samurai warriors and stuff.
KI Where did you learn how to use it?
S.S. First I studied it here in the States, then in Korea and later in Japan; which is a story in itself.
KI What do you mean?
S.S. I don’t think most Westerners would do what it takes to study traditional Samurai Iaido in Japan.
S.S. Well, for instance, I spent the first six months not being allowed to touch a sword or practice with it at all. All I was allowed to do was just sit there and watch the class. And, I had been practicing Kumdo, (Korea’s sword style) for years before this. So, it wasn’t like I was a novice. I didn’t have to scrub the floor or anything like that, but there still is a lot of tradition associated with martial arts in Japan. In retrospect, I think that it was time well spent, though I’m sure I didn’t think so then.
KI Budget plays such an important role in the film industry. Do you view the feature films you created as, “Art Films,” because they were in the low budget category?
S.S. No. Presence or lack of a big budget doesn’t dominate whether a film is an artistic venture or not. I have come to understand a lot about Film Budgets and how truly little they mean. For example, in the less than memorable Sylvester Stallone film, Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot, I was cast as the owner of an art gallery. Now, we spend several nights on this set, which was actually an old car dealership on the corner of Sunset Blvd. and Wilton Place in Hollywood; not far from where I grew up. Anyway, the climax of the whole scene was that a garbage truck, driven by Sly, crashed through the window of this place and his character gets out with his prisoner and my character was naturally very upset. A funny story that happened in the process of this was, the production company had filled the whole bottom section of the art gallery with stunt players. Sly, with a couple of his people, and I were standing upstairs on the mezzanine level and we were going to watch the garbage truck crash through the window. Now, I had been outside and seen how the truck was measured and chained to two large water trucks, so it would only go so far into the structure. Sly apparently had seen this procedure. So, when the truck crashes through the window, it looked like it was going to keep coming at us. Sly jumped back, obviously scared. Amused at himself afterwards, we walked downstairs together and he was telling all of the stunt people and extras how scared I was when the truck broke through. But anyway, back to the point of budget, when you see the film; where’s that scene? It’s gone. I can only imagine that to set up something that big costs millions of dollars and it didn’t even make it into the final cut. So, budget goes a lot of places it doesn’t need to.
KI What projects are you working on now?
S.S. I just finished starring in and Directing a film shot here in L.A., scheduled for Hong Kong television. Before that, I did a few days on the next Goldie Hahn film. And, there’s always martial art films. So, I stay busy.
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