Zen Filmmaking: The Interview
This is the interview that lead to the chapter, Shaw for Sore Eyes, in the book, Showgirls, Teen Wolves, and Astro Zombies: A Film Critic's Year-Long Quest to Find the Worst Movie Ever Made.
How should one approach watching a Zen movie?
That’s a good question. Let me try to give you a good answer. I think that you need to go into a Zen Film as if you’re going into an art museum. You have to see it for what it is. Like I always say, “You may hate the art of Picasso but you can’t say it isn’t art.” You need to go into a Zen Film with that state of mind — that it’s art and you may love it or you may hate it, but it’s made purely from the sense of art.
I have watched I think about seven Zen Films now. I said to my partner, ‘I don’t know what these things are, but I’m pretty sure you can project them on the wall and you can walk in and out of them like an installation.’ Is that how you feel about them?
Yes, that’s basically what it’s all about. It’s like when some filmmakers have millions-and-millions of dollars but they still make a bad movie… You know what I mean? So, it’s not based upon the amount of money that was spent to make a movie, it’s based upon the amount of art that is created within it. That’s my entire focus. Making a film that is filled with art. You can start or leave it at any point. Wherever you find yourself within it, that is where you are.
How many people see your movies, as they are not widely available?
In certain geographical locations they’ve done fairly well. For example, the movie I made with Don, Guns of El Chupacabra, did fairly well in Mexico, Central, and South America. A film like Samurai Vampire Biker’s from Hell, (one of my early films), did fairly well in Asia. I think that each film is kind of different. I mean, some have gotten out there more than others. The fact is, if one person sees them that’s great and if a million people see them that’s also great. I don’t think that the size of the audience defines what they are.
How do you fund your films? I mean, I know they don’t cost you a lot, but they must take a little bit of money and a little bit of time?
The ideology of Zen Filmmaking came out of a kind of group thought between Don Jackson and myself. But, Don was a very different person than me. He would go out and find financiers. He would go out and find funding for the movies we made. From this, in some cases, we had a lot of money to work with. But me, all I saw from that was just the pure nightmare when people would give you money and then they’d expected a sizeable return — which is very seldom the case. Plus, they all wanted to put in their two cents about the cast and/or the story. You mentioned in your email that you had seen Roller Blade Seven and Return of the Roller Blade Seven. I mean those two films were funded by a person, not a company, and it just became very nightmarish regarding the stipulations that they put on us. So, the films I did with Don are very different than the films I’ve done by myself. My films; I completely fund myself, out of my own pocket, because I don’t want to have anybody’s input. And yeah, I’ve put a lot of my own money into my movies. But, that’s okay. I’m not doing it to make money. I’m doing it for the art of cinema. If they make money; that’s great. If not, that okay too.
How do you finance your films?
Basically, as you know, I’m an author and that’s probably where the majority of my film budgets comes from. Like yourself, I’m also a journalist, and that’s also how I make money. And, I do make money from the sales of my movies. I’m also hired to direct music videos quite frequently; especially for the Japan market. Plus, I make some money as an actor and stuff like that. From all of those sources, that’s how I finance my films and my life and lifestyle.
How much money does it cost to make your movies? For example, how much money did Vampire Boulevard cost?
Vampire Boulevard that was pretty low key. I think that was around $300.00 US; maybe just a little bit less. Movies like Undercover X and Hitman City, which I filmed both here in the States and in Asia — those cost a little bit more money due to travel expenses. Undercover X was shot in Seoul and Tokyo. Hitman City was filmed in Hong Kong and Macau. I mean, the travel expenses alone cost money so it is hard to calculate the film’s actual budget when you take those factors into consideration. Plus, as I only fly First-Class and I only stay in 5-Star hotels, it can get kinda pricey. (Laughter).
Do you have that wide of a following of martial artists? I mean, I see that some of your films, particularly the ones you made with Donald G. Jackson, cost a lot of money to make; upwards of a million dollars. That’s a lot of money to spend on a movie where you won’t necessarily make that all back.
Well… I don’t know if it is the people that know me as a martial artist who are actually the ones seeing my films. That being said, all of my books are published through major publishing companies and I’ve been involved in the martial arts since I was six years old. And, I started writing on the subject maybe 20 years ago or so. Plus, I write a lot for the martial art journals. From this, my name and face are out there a lot and my books on the martial arts sell pretty well. And, as you probably know, I’ve also written a lot of books about Zen, Zen Buddhism, Yoga, and things along those lines. Those books actually sell even better than my martial art books. So, people do get to know me through those venues. But, to answer your question, yes, I do have a certain following. But, the fact of the matter is, money has never been my focus; art is. Whatever it costs to make the art is whatever it costs to make the art. High budget or low budget, I never think in those terms. Getting a big return on the money that I’ve spent to make a film never enters my mind.
How seriously should people take your movies?
I mean, that’s a hard question… As you mentioned, The Roller Blade Seven has been called the worst movie ever made, but to me, that’s a compliment because we did not set out to make Gone with the Wind. What we set out to do was to make a Zen Film. It was a very conscious movie to make, just as was Return of the Roller Blade Seven. What we did in those two films was very conscious and I think that’s what most people misunderstand. What we’re doing is what we’re doing. It’s, for a lack of a better term, “In your face cinematic art.” You may love it or you may hate it. Either way is fine. If you call it the worst movie in the world, “Thank you,” it’s a compliment because at least you’re taking the time to watch it and see it because it’s not intended to be good or to be bad. It’s intended to be art.
I’m still trying to decide Scott… I have to say last night my girlfriend asked me how’s it going. I said, this guy is warping my brain. (Laughter). I watched five of your movies in a row. I literally watched 400 bad movies this year. I watched all of them: Andy Miller, Larry Buchanan, Al Addison, and I think you might have broken me (laughter).
Thank you. That’s a compliment. I’m glad. I take that as a compliment!
Tell me about some of the motifs that runs through all of the films of yours, Donald’s, and your and Donald’s together. The smiley faces, what are they about?
Don, god rest his soul… You know, he died a few years ago. He was a little bit older than me and he came out of that whole late 1960s —1970s era where, at least here in America, those smiley faces were everywhere. As a teenager I used to see them and I really hated them. I thought, “Oh, my God, these smiley faces are everywhere!” But, to him, being a bit older, he saw them in a different light. It was kind of like some sort of statement on society. And so, when we would make a movie and he wanted to put one in, I began to embrace them, as well. I mean, they are so ridiculous! Now, to me, they’re just kind of like a statement on culture and society where smiley faces are in your face for no reason.
What about the blade? The skates and the blade?
That’s kind of both a long and a short story. To explain, Don came to me before we made Roller Blade Seven as we had tried to make a Roller Blade movie before that but the funding got pulled. So, I went off and did some other stuff and he went off and did another film. But, to answer, the ideology of the skates came out of the whole 1970s era. For example, when he made his first Roller Blade movie, that was actually before the inline skates or the term, “Roller Blade,” were even invented. Just like the smiley faces, the skates were Don’s homage to the Roller Boogie Era and everything that was going on in the 1970s. Now, when we started to make The Roller Blade Seven, he initially came to me and said he really wanted to take filmmaking to the next level. He asked, what did I think we should do? And I said, “Well, first of all let’s reference the whole samurai thing,” because Don and I were both really influenced by the Japanese samurai movies, Kurosawa, Sergio Leoni, and people like that. I said, “Why don’t we take this to the next level and let’s make the Magnificent Seven. Let’s make the Seven Samurai. Let’s take your Roller Blade idea and make, The Roller Blade Seven.” So, that’s when I actually came up with the concept. Now, you’ve seen the movie and there isn’t really a crew of seven people in the film. There’s not just seven people, there’s a lot of people in the movie. But, what there isn’t is The Magnificent Seven, there isn’t The Seven Samurai. What happened is, when we actually started out filming the movie, there was. But, we just had so many problems on that movie between our executive producer and what was going on with the original cast and the crew that we actually eliminated most of the people that were going to be central characters in the movie because they were either just too hard to deal with or they couldn’t pull off their role. So then, we questioned how are we going to justify the title, The Roller Blade Seven? As you just watched Return of the Roller Blade Seven, you know how we solved that issue. In that movie, Don’s character says, “The Roller Blade Seven is the highest level of consciousness.” So that’s how we justified it. So, the fact is, the film started out totally differently then it ended up. And that’s the great thing about Zen Filmmaking, a film can start off as one thing and end up as another.
The topless girls? Are they primarily in there because they look good?
Yeah, don’t you love beautiful women? Don’t we all? That’s basically what we were doing. I think it was Roger Corman who said, “Nudity is the cheapest special effect.” We borrowed from that and put a little bit of nudity into the film.
Do you think everybody is now going to grab a camera and start shooting and calling it Zen Filmmaking?
Well, I don’t know about that? But, it’s fine with me if they do. My personal belief is that most indie filmmakers take themselves way too seriously. You know, it’s like most indie people, if you criticize their movie… If they put it on YouTube and somebody criticizes it, or if it’s out there and if somebody’s writing about it on imdb.com, they get so insulted. I think they just take their projects just way too seriously. A low budget or no budget movie cannot compete with a high budget film. And, that’s one of the things I say about Hollywood, “Everybody is so quick to criticize.” It’s really easy to criticize even the greatest movies ever made. You can find flaws in those films if you’re looking. I actually don’t believe that most people could be Zen Filmmakers because most of them take their project, and their whole concept of filmmaking very-very seriously and they work out everything out from A to Z. Whereas in Zen Filmmaking it just kind of happens. You just let it happen.
And how do you rate yourself as an actor?
You know, I’ve never trained as an actor. I don’t rate myself as an actor at all. Why am I in all of my movies? (Well, not in all of them, but most of them)? Because, I know I’m going to show up. (Laughter). No seriously. I don’t rate myself as an actor at all. What I do know is that I’m going to be on the set at the time the movie’s supposed to be shot, which is something you can’t rely upon with newbie actor, highly trained, or very famous actors. A lot of times they have their problems or head-trips and don’t show up. Me, I’ll be there!
What does your family think about your movies?
I don’t know if they’ll even watch them. I don’t know… When my wife watches one she goes, “Oh God, you’re kissing another girl?” Or something like that. (Laughter). But, you know, it’s one of those things, I don’t force my movies on anybody. If someone wants to sit around and watch them, god bless them. If not, that’s cool too.
Has your wife been in any of them?
Yeah, my wife has actually helped me with a lot of them over the years. I don’t know which of my movies you’ve seen but in recent years there’s an Asian girl who kind of reappears, Hae Won Shin. What she’s great for is once I get done filming a movie, whenever the story doesn’t make any sense, what I do is bring her in and kind of plug her into the movie to give the story justification for people who want things like that; a story. But she hates it.
Thanks for this, but before you go, I’m going to try and get through another one: Ying Yang Insane, Killer Dead or Alive, and Witch’s Brew; which is the best and which is the worst of those?
Well, Ying Yang Insane was a movie that Don and I did with Robert Z’Dar. You know, the big jawed guy. He is the only person in the entire movie. It’s really interesting. So, that’s an interesting piece of Zen. Killer Dead or Alive, is actually a very interesting movie. And what was the other one you said?
Witch’s Brew. That’s actually a really interesting movie. Don and I started doing that just before he died. He passed away and then I came in and finished it. But, flip a coin. If you want the most interesting storyline, Killer Dead or Alive is pretty interesting.
You sound like a pretty happy dude.
Oh yeah, life is interesting.
Good luck, Scott. Thank you very much for taking the time to talk to me.
Okay, it’s no problem at all.
Copyright © 2009—All Rights Reserved