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Scott Shaw
Samurai Ballet: The Good, The Bad, and The Super 8
This article was originally composed via an invitation from a magazine. It was also eventually used as a chapter in the book, Zen Filmmaking.

By Scott Shaw

It was a balmy day in Hong Kong, in early October 1993. The seven-day, Chop Socky, shooting schedule had drawn to a close for a feature film I was co-starring in.
 
As an actor, I feel lucky in that I get a lot of work for the International Market; both in the U.S. and elsewhere. I like to believe it is due to my thirty years of martial arts experience, but it is probably more attributed to the fact that I have long blond hair—something that International and particularly the Asian Casting Directors seem to love.
 
Anyway, the Production Team was wrapping up the set. Me, I was literally laying down on a dirty street in Kowloon in an Armani Suit that the Production Company had provided me with, licking my wounds from the final fight scene that we had just shot. Up walks this Hong Kong local film industry up-and-comer, Jin Fu Wong (Wong, Jin Fu). I had spoken with him on the set once or twice during the production and I could tell he was one of those guys ready to stab anyone in the back in order to grab the gold ring in the very competitive Hong Kong film business. He looks down at me all smiles and asked if I was feeling all right. “No Problem,” I responded. Though that wasn’t actually the truth. He then asked me if I still directed films. “Of course,” I answered. He then invited me to dinner that evening, “Let’s talk about making a film together.” Though less than enthusiastic about this proposal, I accepted the invitation and eventually got up off of the pavement.
 
The Offer
Over dinner he proposed a deal to me. I would go back to L.A. and shoot him a thirty minute piece for a March 31st slot he had booked on a Hong Kong Cable T.V. station. “No strings,” he told me, I would have C.C.C., “Complete Creative Control.” All he asked is that the film be shot in L.A., on film, and that I perform the lead in it so he could utilize my name value. He also asked that there be some martial arts and there be at least one semi-nude female. As I had a firm grasp of all the requirements he asked for, it seemed like a decent enough proposal. Then came the clincher, the budget.
 
I’m almost embarrassed to admit that I accepted such a small amount of money to make a half-hour television piece—even if it was for Hong Kong Cable. But, let’s just say, the entire proposed budget was less than you could buy a good used car for.
 
Jin Fu assured me, however, that if I could bring this piece in, for that amount of money, we would develop an audience for the characters I used in the film and the next one in the series would have a much higher budget. Like a fool, I went for it.
Samurai Ballet was set into motion.
 
Back in L.A.
Back in L.A., I was budgeting everything out and I came up with this great idea, so I thought… “Hey, if I shot this piece on Super 8, I could give Jin Fu his half hour version, while I actually make an eighty-minute version for distribution here in the States.” My first mistake...
 
There have been a few very well done Super 8 feature films. Steve Wang’s, Kung Fu Rascals, for example. Steve sold that film to York Pictures for $75,000.00 while I was under York Pictures’ roof making the films
The Roller Blade Seven and Return of The Roller Blade Seven. I thought if Steve could do a good Super 8 piece, why couldn’t I?
 
Super 8
Most filmmakers start out with Super 8. Me, it was just the opposite. I had shot films on 16mm and 35mm. I had even made a couple of feature length films on video:
Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell and Psycho Cyber Ninja in Babylon, AKA Samurai Johnny Frankenstein. I shot those on Hi-8. But, I had never worked with Super 8.
 
Everyone around me had always told me that it would take virtually the same amount of money to do a quality feature on Super 8, as it would to shoot a film on 16mm. But, when you price everything out, it seems so much less. So, I took the chance.
 
My plan was to get a good D.P., so I would not need to do a lot of extensive color correction—as that is very expensive and Super 8 doesn’t have much range.
 
It was early November 1993 and I set about bringing the production up—despite the warnings I had received...
 
I purchased a Bealieu 4008, a Sankyo XL300S, and a Bauer C1 for the cameras. And, I had my Nagra III for the sound.
 
The D.P.
Now, it came time to put the crew together. The D.P. I had hoped to work with was a guy who had shot some of the scenes on my last two films. But, he just had a new baby and tons of bills to pay. So, he couldn’t take time off from his job over at the Warner Brothers Film Vault. Time to put an ad in Dramalogue for a new D.P.
 
I got tons of responses to the ad. Most, when I spoke with them, however, felt far too superior to ever work on Super 8. Some of their responses embarrassed me more than a bit—due to the low budget-ness of this production.
 
That’s the problem with working with people you don’t know—everybody in Hollywood expects to be an industry mogul overnight without taking any steps to get there. Few of them ever make it, however, especially if they have an attitude. “But, fuck ‘em,” I thought...
 
Finally, I got talking to a guy, Todd James Waldorf, who had just graduated from U.S.C. film school and was looking to add to his D.P. reel. Sounded like a good prospect to me. I hired him over the phone.
 
Pre-Production
As this production obviously had no money for office rental, the casting session was to take place in only one day at the apartment of a friend who would help to produce this film, Douglas Jackson.
 
Doug and I had meet when we were both cast as actors in an Industrial for MCA Records, opposite Actor, Musician, and Comedian Martin Mull. For our roles, Doug was a businessman, and I was this spaced out heavy metal savant named, “Fly.”
 
Doug is a balding, mid-forties guy. The first time I met him, on the set, he walked up to me, just prior to shooting, and asked me how I liked the new Ozzy album. Personally, I haven’t liked Ozzy since he split with Black Sabbath, but, none-the-less, it was a strange question coming from this seemingly very conservative looking guy. Doug, I later found out, is a very talented and predictable actor—something you really need on an indie film. So, I’ve plugged him into a few of my recent projects.
 
Doug wanted to get into production. This was his chance. I brought him on as Co-Producer. Another friend, Kristine Willey, who’s actually a full-time Blues guitar player, climbed on board as the Casting Director.
 
Casting
L.A. is full of actors and actresses willing to do just about anything to get an acting gig. The casting notice I placed in Dramalogue received over a thousand responses.
 
My biggest casting concern was casting competent martial artists. Though there are millions of highly trained martial artists who want to be actors. Unfortunately, they all seem to have this Bruce Lee complex. Meaning, they have really bad attitudes, and they want to be the whole show. But, even Bruce Lee had to climb the ladder. The other side of the coin is, there are all these people who claim to be Black Belts on their resume but when you get them on the set, all of a sudden, their story is, they haven’t worked out in five years and they can’t do anything. I’ve encountered both of these situations, and they all add up to making a production look bad. So, this time my martial artist casting was very precise. We weeded out the attitude problems and ended up with a few highly competent guys.
 
As for the actual non-martial art actors, casting went amazingly well. This one actor, Mark McKeel, just blew all of our socks off the moment he read for the part of Warlord. I had designed the part to be very intense and without a word of coaching, he hit it straight-on. He was cool, didn’t care about the budget, and was willing to act for free. He was in!
 
We also fished through tons of girls who looked super-hot on their headshots but were not “All that” when they showed up in persons. But, we got what we believed to be a couple of very talented girls.
 
The film was cast. We were ready to go up.
 
The Look of the Film
My initial concept for this film, which I titled Samurai Ballet, was to get the look of the Black and White, Film Noir, films of the Forty’s—as I have long appreciated the works of Orson Wells, Robert Mitchum, and Anthony Quinn. This combined with the fact that I had just recently rewatched Road Warrior, after having not seen it for a number of years. In rewatching it I realized there was very little dialogue in the film. And, this lack of dialogue really worked! Of course, there was a lot of foley, but I knew I could get around that with music.
 
As syncing dialogue to film is very costly, I knew the less dialogue the better. At least with the budget of this film.
 
My filming plan was to combine exterior Black and White with interior Color. I decided the film had to be a Post-Nuclear piece as there was no way I was going to spend any money on filming permits. And, I hoped to shoot a 1-to-1 ratio.
 
That was my plan. The best laid plans of mice and men...
 
Shooting Commences
We brought the film up on the following Saturday morning at my friend, Joel Ciniero’s photography studio in Venice, California. The first slap in the face was this fat, aging, white make-up chick, (I don’t even remember her name), which Doug had scheduled as our Make-up Artist. She showed up and, with a very bad attitude, said, “Oh, are you guys shooting today? I didn’t know that. I didn’t bring any make-up.” She continued, “Are you the Director? You look more like a Grip.” Then she came at me with the kicker, “Here, sign this contract that says I will be the Make-up Artist for the whole production and pay me my daily $50.00 kit fee and maybe I have some make-up in my car.”
 
Needless to say, I went through the roof, not only at the bullshit bad attitude of the make-up chick but also at Doug for letting this happen—as this production had no budget for paying a Make-up Artist and I had specifically asked him to get us someone who simply wanted to work for screen credit, not money.
 
This is only noteworthy because I never go through the roof during my productions. I am normally very levelheaded, even when disasters strike. I guess it was due to many factors, not the least of which is that I had been out the night before with this sweet, beautiful Hmong lady and I didn’t get home until like three of four in the morning. But, with no choice, I signed a fake signature and paid her the $50.00 kit fee. In exchange, she did a horrible job on make-up. She did things like make-up the girls with completely unmatchable glitter face paint.
 
Todd, the D.P., couldn’t show up until 2:00 PM or so. This, even though we were set to go up 8:00 AM. But, that didn’t worry me as Joel was a professional photographer and had Co-D.P.ed my last feature. He was talented, so we were up and shooting.
 
The First Scene
The first scene was with this girl we had cast as the female lead, a former Playboy Centerfold. She walked up to do her scene, and completely unlike her audition, she spoke with this major Valley Girl accent. Kristine, Doug, and I stared at one another in complete disbelief. She did her scene. I excused her, and never called her back. The scene never made it into the Final Cut.
 
The saving grace of the day, and perhaps the entire film, was Thipaporn Chandradibya, a beautiful actress from Thailand—who now became the female lead.
 
In Thailand, Thipaporn was a well-known actress and journalist. As it turns out, she had actually interviewed me, over the telephone, when I was a D.J. in Bangkok in 1985. Though we didn’t discover that fact until deep into the production.
 
I was surprised to find out that Thipaporn had actually taken the bus all the way from Pasadena to Venice that morning, after working until late in the night at one of those sleazy Thai bars near downtown L.A., where the women have to sit with disgusting old men and get them to buy expensive drinks as the men rub their legs under the table and the girls provide them with the promise of forever love. In Thailand she had been a star, but here that was sadly not the case.
 
Aside from the bad attitude make-up chick and shooting about a 3-to-1 ratio, the rest of the day went okay. Todd, the new D.P., finally showed up. Mark the Warlord was right on. Thipaporn was great and willing to get naked, though she worried about her, very minor, stretch marks due to the recent birth of her first child.
 
Cantonese
Overall, production went very well with this film. We shot at a lot of very cool outdoor locations that really gave the film a unique look. The only major problem I ran into was with this one girl. I won’t say her name because I don’t want to sound like I’m bagging anybody. But, she was like the second female lead. We cast her because she said she could speak Cantonese. So she said…
 
I believed that combining English with Cantonese, in this film, would be a great hook for the Hong Kong audience.
 
Now, I speak some Mandarin and Shanghai-wa, as I lived in Shanghai for quite a while, but Cantonese is a distinctly different dialect. I understand Cantonese, but I speak very little. The funny thing was, every time I would ask her to translate something and say it in Cantonese, she said she couldn’t. So, there went that idea… Like I aways question, (and answer), “What is the number one rule of filmmaking?” “Everybody lies.”
 
The crowning moment of her involvement in the production came when she said she couldn’t act in the film anymore because she had developed feelings for me. This was all due to the fact that I made this joking comment to her during one of our scene, where we kiss. I said, “This is why I do films like this, to kiss beautiful girls like you.” She later called me and told me, “If I wanted her back on the film, I would have to leave my girlfriend.” All I could do was laugh. She was a cute girl and all, and maybe under different circumstance something could have jumped off. But...
 
The fact of the matter was, however, by this point we had filmed a lot of her part for the beginning of the film and some of it for the end, but no transition in the middle. But, that is the great thing about Zen Filmmaking, with no script there is always a way to fix everything. I wished her well… We moved forward and completed production.
 
Post Production
It came time to develop the film. By this point I was over budget by about $600.00. Luckily, I had just received a credit limit increase on one of my credit cards. I took this as a sign of good fortune and took the film to Yale Laboratories, in Hollywood, where it was developed.
 
By being over budget, however, I had no money left to have the film transferred to tape to do an off-line assembly edit. So, I did what you should never do—I sat down, and while listening to CDs from Dinosaur Jr., The Heart Throbs, The Hoodoo Gurus, Dramarama, The Lucy Show, and The Sisters of Mercy, I set about to do a rough-cut edit on the film—using the actual original and only footage. I, of course, was very careful not to scratch the negative.
 
It only took me about three days to finish a rough-cut edit. I have always been known to be a very fast editor. I did the edit, one snip of the negative, then a glue, then a tape, at a time.
 
When it was finished, I watched it on my high-end, electrically powered, Super 8 editor. For a rough-cut, it looked AOK.
 
By this point, however, the problem was, I was broke again. But, like magic from the great abyss, I received payment for three martial art articles I had written. So, I took the film to Super 8 Sound in Burbank to have it Telecined onto tape. The Telecine went fine, but Super 8 Sound charged me almost double what they had quoted me. So, I was screwed. I had to hustle money together again.
 
Now, I was up against the wall of time. Delivery was rapidly approaching and I did not have the Beta Master ready to fly to Hong Kong. In the mail, however, I received a new credit card. Again, I felt that it was a sign from above. So, I booked a couple of sessions at EZTV, in West Hollywood, and set about doing the final cut, sync the sound, lay in the foley, add the soundtrack, and transfer it to Beta. Two days later I was done.
 
Critique
I watched the film several times and showed it to a few friends. Everybody liked it. I realized that I had pretty much achieved what I had set out to accomplish, Samurai Ballet was a fast-paced film with minimal dialogue and a real Rock n’ Roll feel.
 
Due to the budgetary constraints, I never put together the 80-minute version of the film that I had hoped for. But, I think the version that was completed represents all that should be presented in this film.
 
Three days later I was on the plane to Hong Kong.
 
Hong Kong
I arrived in Hong Kong in the P.M. I was awake most of the night, due to a combination of Jet Lag and getting my drink on at one of my favorite Hong Kong hangouts. The next morning, I went over to Jin Fu’s office. He was anxiously waiting my arrival, as there were only a couple of days left until the film was scheduled to screen. He had a Beta Deck in his office and immediately went about popping in the tape.
 
Samurai Ballet begins to roll. Jin Fu blurts out, “It Black and White! Why you make it Black and White?” “Just wait, it’s not all Black and White,” I answer.
 
The film rolled on for a few more minutes. “Why it so grainy?” “You said you wanted in on film,” I explained. “Good film not this grainy!” “Good film cost good money,” I exclaimed.
 
In any case, Jin Fu was not happy. He had expected a high-budget film produced for no money. But, like I told him, “You just can’t do it…”
 
I hung around Hong Kong for a few more days and watched Samurai Ballet on Hong Kong Cable. I thought that it looked great!

Post Note:
I gave Jin Fu the only Telecined Beta Master of the film. I was left with the 3/4 inch Master, which was far less Hi-Res than the Beta Master. I still own the original Super 8 Cut of the film, so, yes, I could go back and redo the Telecine. But, who does Super 8 Telecine in this day and age? So, when I released the film, first on VHS and later on DVD, I used that 3/4 Master as the source. Though it is much more grainy, I like it. I believe that grain adds to the overall look of the film.

The Lessons
There are a few lessons I learned from this production that I can pass on to other filmmakers.
 
1. It is true; on the books Super 8 may look cheaper to use than 16mm. But, at the end of the day, the financial difference is so little that it is far better to shoot 16mm. By shooting 16mm you have a film with not only much higher quality but also more range to telecine. And, it is far less grainy.
 
2. As mentioned, there are a few people who have made really high quality Super 8 films. But, they all took more than a year in their creation. They used highly developed cinematography techniques and extensive lighting. So yes, it can be done. But, it takes a lot of time and it is very expensive. If you are on a tight schedule and a tight budget, I do not advise shooting Super 8. And, be aware, most distributors will not touch it.
 
3. All film productions are going to cost more money than you expect. If you are making a film for a production company or investor, calculate this fact into your budget. Never plan to come in under budget. If you do, that’s great. But, never count on it because it is probably not going to happen.
 
4. Investors always expect high budget results for bargain basement prices. This is why they are not filmmakers. What they want to do is to pay as little as possible for a film and receive a finished product that they can make a lot of money on, from its marketing. For this reason, if your film is going to be financed by an investor, it is essential to get any expected results spelled out in a contact before you ever begin. It is also essential that you provide the investor with the required product. If that costs you money out of your own pocket to complete it, then so be it. If the investor does not like the creative result, that is not your fault. As long as you have adhered to the required elements of the contact, you have fulfilled your obligation. Ultimately, you’ve got to be honest or it will come back to haunt you.


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