Zen Talks with Scott Shaw the Original Samurai Vampire Biker from Hell.
Here is a 1993 interview with Scott Shaw that was published in issue 18 of Draculina magazine.
Special Thanks to Hugh Gallagher the editor of the magazine.
Rising to the top of all the low-budget action adventure filmmaking that has been going on in recent years is, Scott Shaw, a martial artist with twenty-nine years of experience under his black belt, who has gone on from not only Starring in, but to Producing and Directing Cult-Orientated Action Adventure Feature Films, as well.
Scott Shaw has starred in such films as Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, The Atomic Samurai, Katana Shibo, and The Roller Blade Seven. He is unique, among low budget action adventure stars who often times find their fame in Asia, as he has performed numerous non martial art roles on such television series, as: MacGyver, Saved By the Bell, Head of the Class, and Coach, and has acted in several major A-films. Most recently to have been released is New Line Cinemas, The Player.
Scott Shaw grew up on the mean streets of Los Angeles where he was forced to put his martial arts to the test many times. He emerged as a dynamic, dedicated, humorous individual; who, with his combination of experiences, holds a unique and surprisingly philosophic approach to the film industry that has left so many hopefuls stranded.
It may be a strange question to start with but for somebody who has done so many things in the film and video industry, is it true you never wanted to be a part of it?
Yeah, I never aspired to it. I went to Hollywood High School and got to be friends with some actors and some kids of very famous people; all I saw was the down side of it all: all the insecurity, all the backstabbing. I said I would never get involved in that.
So, what changed your mind?
I got offered a part in a martial art film. I kept turning the guy down and he kept calling me up. Finally, I said, “Yes.”
What happened next?
I liked it. I kept getting offers, so I kept doing it.
You are unusual among cult and martial art film stars, in the fact that you’ve also acted in A-films and television.
Yes, I have.
What’s the difference between acting in low budget and high budget films?
Mostly, the money’s a lot better in high budget. But, there isn’t as much creativity. You always have somebody telling you to look a certain way, behave a certain way, and stuff like that. And there’s always somebody to answer to.
Even though you’ve acted in A-films, as a filmmaker all your features have been low budget; haven’t they?
Yeah. But you know, everybody is always putting down low budget films, but really, that is where the art is. As long as they are not just formula junk put together for some Executive Producer to make money. And, that’s the biggest problem I see in low budget filmmaking today; everybody does it for the money. They figure that this will lead them to the big time, like that guy who did El Marachi. That’s all bullshit. If you’re going to make a film it should be art. Whatever you see art to be. And, don’t worry about the money that you may or may not make.
But, does the industry accept artistic features?
No, the film industry, in general, doesn’t but certain groups of people do.
Why do some low budget features cost so much money?
You have all of these production companies, out there to make a buck, paying the real stars of the films little or no money and then pulling in these has-been actors, with “Names” as they are referred to; tossing them several thousand dollars a day, shooting a few scenes with them, and then on the poster they put starring the “Name,” and totally screwing the real actors of the film. I really think that is so uncool.
Sounds like it has happened to you.
Yeah, it has. But that’s not the point and I’m not putting these “Name” actors down, for I’ve worked with a lot of them and for the most part they are nice people; just trying to make a buck. It is just that the production companies who make these, “Seen it all before,” film garbage and the distributors who distribute them are all about money. They don’t give a damn about art or creativity and they think that by putting the Name of some guy who had a TV show in the seventies up there front and center is going to make them more money on a feature that’s just junk. It’s like my good friend Joe Estevez. He’s a great actor, one of the very few that really take my breathe away when I work with him. And, just because he’s Martin Sheen’s brother people pull him in on all these projects. I mean he is really good, really A-film material and he just hasn’t made that big break. He tells me how he just feels used a lot. Yet, like everybody else, he has bills to pay.
So you feel potential sales dominates this industry?
What about the budget of a film, does that affect the quality of it?
Of course, but in more ways than you may think. I mean, I have worked on so many projects where everyone who has any control is putting their hands in the till at every opportunity. The Producer is lying and ripping off the Executive Producer the Director has this new chick that he’s going to make a star and he’s spending all this money on her. All this stuff is fine but it really chips away at the final project. The sad thing is, the majority of the people, especially here in Hollywood, are making movies for the money and for the perks, not for the art of it.
How do you feel when people criticize your films?
I figure fuck ‘em. Just joking… Criticism doesn’t bother me because everything is all about personal tastes. What does bother me is, so much of the film industry is dominated by budget. And, that’s the biggest mistake that reviewers and critics make is to compare films or videos that were made for little or no money to the ones they see on the big screen that had a sixty-million dollar budget. You just cannot judge a film or video that was made for no money to that of one that was made for sixty-million dollars.
So, films and video that were made for no money aren’t as good as one’s that had a big budget?
I didn’t say that. It is just a different ball game. The low budget features can be filled with pure art and often times they are. Art doesn’t have to cost money. But, you just can’t expect all the massive production and special effects when you are making a feature with little or no money. You have to view features from that point of view.
When you made Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell what was the budget like on that?
The budget was zero. I had met this chick, Susan Jay, while doing another film and she had a gold card that she wanted to use so she bought me a new camera and the rest is history. I had already developed the idea; I had a whole bunch of locations in mind that we could steal. So, the guy who helped me produce it, Ken Kim and I called in a few favors, we got a few more locations, and we just did it.
How long did it take you to do the film?
Well, it was my goal to do an entire feature film in one weekend. Just to prove that it could be done. And, we pretty much did it. There were a few picks up shots here and there but for the most part we began at 7:00 P.M. on Friday night and finished at 4:30 A.M. on Sunday night.
To do that did you have to do long rehearsals with the actors?
There were no rehearsals and virtually no script. We would just get the lighting up, the actors in their places, and then I would set up the scene and feed the actors their lines. If we needed to have something on paper, Ken and I would talk about it and write it down, then and there.
How do you get your desired results producing a film like that?
I’m a very Zen guy. I just believe in the here and now moment and all things happen as they are supposed to. The no script concept is something Don Jackson and I realized while we were doing The Roller Blade Seven. In low budget, when you are not paying people, you just cannot rely on them. A lot of times, especially out here in Hollywood, people pull this bullshit that they shoot a few scenes and then threaten to not come back unless they get paid, or get paid more. Fuck ‘em. If there is no script then there’s no way to threaten you.
Are all actors like that?
Oh, of course not. There were some people who really helped out with the production of Samurai Vampires, like Ken Kim, Selina Jayne, Roger Ellis, Douglas Jackson. I mean they were totally instrumental in the project; totally dedicated. It would have been hard to get it done without them. You have to understand this is Hollywood, and everybody expects that tomorrow they are going to be the next big star. I wish them all the best. But, for most people, they have to take the steps to get there. And, not everybody is wiling to do that.
How do you get your story told if you are not sure who’s going to be there?
Well, I have the whole concept in my mind of what I want before we ever start and then whatever players are available and willing to be cool and hang out and buy their own food, they are the ones that get the bigger parts and get the story told. I mean let’s face facts, the stories have all been told before. I’m just not into making a feature that has this perfectly scripted storyline. If you want to see something like that go and watch some romantic boring love junk that was filmed for fifty-million dollars. To me, each scene is perfect within itself. It is as best as it can be considering whatever limitations are surrounding it. It is a story within itself. With Samurai Vampires once we had it all done I just sat down and figured out what scene should follow the last one and would give the feature somewhat of a storyline to please all those unenlightened people who seek that kind of thing. Don Jackson and I did the same thing with The Roller Blade Seven.
You Produced, Directed, and stared in Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell and you also Edited it. Why did you do it all yourself?
Why? Because I’ll work for free. This do it all yourself concept, began with the Director’ Cut of The Roller Blade Seven, which I Wrote, Produced, and Starred in with Don Jackson, who Directed it. The Executive Producer just kept forcing us to add more “Name talent “ to the film. And sure, she would pay the six thousand a day to Frank Stallone or the three thousand a day to Karen Black but that would then cost us film dollars out of the budget to add in their scenes. So, by the time we finished the film we just couldn’t pay anyone else, so I did it. So, Editing, Soundtrack, whatever it takes, I’m happy to do it. You gotta get you hands dirty in low budget filmmaking.
Did you begin Producing and Directing films so you would have more control over your work?
To a certain degree, yes, but as an actor I also enjoy working under other Director’s actualizing their vision. As long as they have one. Basically, in general, I just live for creativity.
What was your first step into Producing and Directing?
Well, first I Produced, Directed, and Photographed, a documentary in Southern China and I had written and Produced a few theatrical features and Directed one in Japan. Then, I teamed up with Don Jackson whose made a couple of very successful cult movies, (Hell Comes to Frogtown and Roller Blade). We were both very influenced by filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone. So, we made a couple of movies together. We worked very closely through the whole process, from Producing, Writing, Casting, Editing. At the end of eight months and two films, I had just learned the whole process so well. I had the choice of going on and doing more films with him or taking an offer I was given to Produce and Direct a film I had the concept for. So, never being one to sit back and wait, I took the offer and here I am.
Is it hard to Direct films you are acting in?
Yes, it is. I have done it both ways. It is much harder to Direct a film you’re acting in, than to just do one or the other. But, I truly believe any Director must first be an Actor, or they never really understand the process of how truly complicated it is to be allowed to give a good performance. But, back to your question; when you are acting in a film which you are also directing, you have to be so conscious of every element; not only your performance, but other actor’s performances, how the sets and the lights look. You can’t just see something as you see it; you have to see it as the camera will view it.
Have all the films you’ve Directed involved martial arts?
To date, yes. But, they’re not just martial art films, they are artistic experiences. I want each of my films to be crammed with artistic expression; from the acting, to the lighting, onto the editing and the soundtrack. I want them to cut like a Samurai Sword.
There is a lot of controversy now about the superiority of film over video. You have worked with both what do you feel is the difference?
Personally, I don’t feel that there’s any difference. It is just that distributors haven’t come to that conclusion yet. And, let’s face facts, there are a lot of video features out there that cost more to make than many of the films that have been done.
So, video is equal to film?
Sure, why not? I mean, now there’s all this ‘film look’ stuff that people use to make video look more like film. Why? Is the look of film inherently better than the look of video? For some reason there is this belief that something shot on film is superior to one shot on video. Sure it looks different. Sure every aspect of film is more expensive but if you get that artistic message out there and the production looks good, why should there be a difference? I mean look at all the sitcoms that are shot on video and in the Asian and South American markets there’s so much made on video, as well. I think, "The Film Industry,” as it has been labeled, is coming around to understand that video is just as good. As soon as Cameron or Lucas does something on video then it will all of sudden be the cool thing to do and then all the major film companies will say they knew it all along.
Now that you brought up high-level Directors, what got you into the A-film market?
Well, right after I did that first martial art film, I auditioned and was cast for a small role in The Bonfire of the Vanities; which turned out to be one of the best lessons I have ever learned in this industry.
My part ended up on the cutting room floor. It happens to the best of us.
That cutting room floor stuff hasn’t happened to you in the lower budget films you have starred in, has it?
Yes and no. Sometimes, scenes have been cut out or cut down, that I wish wouldn’t have been. And, sometimes they edit in takes that I thought were just garbage. It’s just this business; you have to live with it.
How did you get your role in The Player?
Well, that’s an interesting story. Robert Altman, its director, is apparently a big fan of action adventures and he had seen a few of the ones I had done. His office just called up my agent and that was that. You know he directed a lot of the old TV series like Combat and stuff like that so I guess that got him into it. I’ve done a few low budget films with Karen Black and he’s directed a few high budget one’s with her in it like Nashville. So...
I know the majority of the roles you have done in low budget involve the martial arts; has martial arts been your biggest asset in the A-film industry, also?
Well no, as an actor, not in the A-film and television market; because there isn’t much use for it there. Mostly, I’ve done small and supporting roles in A-films and TV that have had nothing to do with martial arts.
You’ve done films in both Asia and the U.S.; what’s the difference?
I really don’t like to make blanket statements, because every production has its good and bad points. But the stuff, especially in Hong Kong, is shot very fast. They make so many movies there, that the average one is shot in five to seven days. And, it looks like it. As far as Japan, it is much more organized but definitely not as much fun. But the executives do treat you a lot better than they do in Hong Kong. Taking care of your every need, if you know what I mean.
When did you first get involved in the martial arts?
I was six years old.
Why did you get involved so young?
I spent my early years growing up in South Central Los Angeles. And, being the only Caucasian kid in an all African-American school; well, it did have its disadvantages.
So, it was basically for self-defense?
You’ve studied martial arts in Asia also?
Yeah, I’ve spent a lot of time in Asia. I’ve studied and taught martial arts in Korea, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan.
What did you learn there, that you didn’t learn here?
That’s a hard question to answer. What I do know is each master has something different, just a slightly different personal understanding of his specific martial art. And, they each can teach you something once you break down the walls, and they realize you are a serious martial artist.
Several of the films you’ve been in seem to involve the samurai sword, why is that?
Well, there is something very poetic about the samurai sword or more properly the Katana and all of the images that it conjures up of ancient samurai warriors and stuff.
Where did you learn how to use it?
Well, first I studied it here in the states, then in Japan; which is a story in itself.
What do you mean?
I don’t think most Westerners would do what it takes to learn traditional Samurai Iaido.
Well, for instance, I spent the first six months not being allowed to touch a Katana (sword) or practice at all. All I was allowed to do was just sit there watching 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, but there still is a lot of tradition associated with martial arts in Japan. In retrospect, I think that it is great. The waiting, was time well spent; though I probably didn’t think so then.
Do you have any more projects in the works?
Sure, I have ideas non-stop. It’s just getting the money together to do them. Which I am sure most filmmakers can attest to, is not all that easy. Like, I did another film right after Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, about this crazed mechanical cyber ninja. It’s in the can but no money to edit it as of yet; so... But I’ve continued to work for other people as an actor, pretty much non-stop, so I stay busy
Have you had any bad experiences in the film industry?
Oh, sure. I mean, it is something I realized when I was a teenager in Hollywood; this is a backstabbing industry. No one cares about anybody but themselves. I’ve been cheated in terms of money, screen credit, I’ve had scripts stolen, you name it.
Why do you stay in the industry then?
For the art of it. And hey, I want to be a beacon of light in a sea of darkness.
Copyright © 1993 — All Rights Reserved.
No part of this article may be used without the expressed permission of Scott Shaw or his representatives.