The Filmmaking of Scott Shaw
This interview was for the magazine Backyard Cinema.
Here is Scott Shaw and Kenneth H. Kim on the cover of an earlier issue of Backyard Cinema in association with the film, Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell.
What do you do for a living?
I'm an author, filmmaker, and educator. As an author, I write articles for predominately Martial Art Magazines and I have a number of books-in-print on the Martial Arts and Zen Buddhism. I am also an active filmmaker. In addition, I teach classes on the various aspects of filmmaking at colleges and universities.
Have any of your movies made any money?
Yes. All of my films have made money to varying degrees. That is not to say they have all made a lot of money. But, they have all equaled something. Most of them have received international distribution. And, virtually all of them are still available for sale — if not here in the U.S. then in some other country.
Do you pay your actors or crew?
The pros I pay. The novice actors I generally do not pay. That is to say I do not pay them in cash. As I am sure you understand, it costs a lot of money to make a film. I believe that by providing an actor with the opportunity to hone their craft and to be a part of something that is REAL — something that they can put on their resume and demo reel, is payment enough. When I first started out in the industry I also worked for free on several projects. That is just the way the industry is.
The crew is about half and half. The pros, I pay. The other people, it is the same as the new actor. I feel I am offering them an opportunity to be a part of something that will be completed. As I am sure you know, a lot of indie films go up but only a small portion of them are ever completed. I refuse to let that happen with any of my films. What I start, I finish.
What movies inspire you as a filmmaker?
That is a really hard question, because there are so many. Maybe I will only like one moment or one scene in a particular film. But, that one scene will cause me to have a million new ideas. I love the Film Noir of the 1940s and the 1960s and 1970s Crime Dramas that were influenced by them. An interesting fact, that many people find curious, is that I don't like modern Cult Films or B-movies at all. I virtually never watch them.
What format do you shoot and edit on?
I shoot in all formats, depending how much money is in the bank. But, I really enjoy the simplicity of shooting on video, particularly DV. With Video you get see what you shot right away and that saves a lot of headaches.
I am told I was one of the first people to have shot a film on Hi-8 which received international distribution. So, in my small way, I hope I have helped to usher in this new era of the digital video revolution in filmmaking.
At one time or another, I have used virtually every system for editing. Now, I edit predominately on my MAC.
How long have you been making movies?
About twenty years.
What is the most frustrating thing about making movies?
I do not think that there is anything frustrating about filmmaking. I always like to say, "Fun is what it is all about." Certainly, with every project, there is different obstacles you have to overcome. But, I try to see them all as a means to learn and experience new things. I find most problems that occur on the set are from incompetent crew members. The sad thing is, at the low/no budget level you sometimes have to work with crew people who just are not very good — even though the may think that they are. At the end of the day, however, it is me, the filmmaker, who has to pick up the pieces of their mistakes. Not them. But, I also try to make their mistakes a learning experience.
What is the most rewarding thing about making movies?
The end product. To say that you have envisioned an idea, made it happen, and then brought it to completion. That is vastly rewarding.
What does your family think of your movies?
They pretend to like them.
Of the films that you have made, what is your favorite and why?
There are a few that I really like. Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, (which was on the cover of your first magazine and I thank you), is one of my favorites. It is the first feature that I shot on video, (before that I worked solely on film), and it was just a lot of fun to make. As the computer editing age came upon us, I got to re-cut it for a fraction of the price of the original edit and I feel it became more of the film I had actually envisioned.
A couple of films I made with Donald G. Jackson, (RIP), The Roller Blade Seven and Guns of El Chupacabra, are both really important works, at least for us. For both of these films we had some money, we shot them on 16 mm, and did just about anything that we wanted to do -- making them as artistically weird as possible. The scope on both of them is very large and I think they both push the envelope of artistic filmmaking. More recently, a film I made called, Undercover X, is up there in my mind. It was shot on DV both here in L.A. and in Japan and Korea. Though not perfect, as no film ever is, it somehow captured exactly what I had envisioned. And, as a filmmaker, that is not always easy.
Of the films that you have made, what is your least favorite and why?
Donald G. Jackson and I did a film called, Ride with the Devil. We began shooting it as, Ghost Taxi, but a few other projects came up so we put it on the shelf. Then, a distributor came up to us at the 1997 American Film Market. He knew we had made a few films with Julie Strain and asked if we had any titles available with her naked and me doing some martial arts. We lied and said we did, because we needed the money. We went through the films we had shot and came up with Ghost Taxi. We shot a few more days of footage with Julie and her husband, Kevin Eastman, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. With the new footage the film took on a very dark quality, however. It really lost all of the joking fun intended for the original version. So, of my films, that is the only one I wish could have gone another way.
How much does it cost you to make one of your movies and where does the money come from?
First of all, I never take money from anybody to make a film -- because then everything gets weird. I have known so many people that have taken money from someone to make a movie. Then, the investor doesn't like the finished product or the finished product doesn't make any money and the filmmaker's life is turned into lawsuit hell. So, I finance all of my own films.
Mostly, I film my movies for no money. At least no money in comparison to the world of the average filmmaking. I shoot without permits. And, as mentioned, pay very few people. So, my only expense is my rudimentary expenses.
When I have made films with Donald G. Jackson, he was one of those guys who used to love to romance people and get money from them. In those cases, sometimes our budgets were very high.
If you had a two million dollar budget, what kind of movie would you make?
I would do just what I do -- get an idea and go out and make a Zen Film. Meaning I never use a script. I allow the spontaneous creativity of the moment to be my only guide.
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