Zen Filmmaking
Understanding the Cinematic Art

By Scott Shaw

I think it is almost essential that I write a few words about Zen Filmmaking
(R), its origin, and just what is or is not a Zen Film. This is due to the fact that over the past few years I have been deluged with questions about the essence and the truth of Zen Filmmaking.

Mostly, these few words are for those of you who have heard about Zen Filmmaking somewhere on the internet, or from a friend, and have not read my book on the subject,
Zen Filmmaking, which pretty much spells it all out from A to Z.

History
The birth of Zen Filmmaking came about when Donald G. Jackson and I were making the film
The Roller Blade Seven in 1991. The Roller Blade Seven began in much the same way as most films. Don had obtained financing for a film and he wanted to continue the concept he had developed in his film Roller Blade and its sequel Roller Blade Warriors. He wanted to take the concept to the next level and create a martial art driven epic film. He asked me to come on board, co-produce, co-write, choreograph the martial arts, and star in the film. Upon our entering into pre-production, our Executive Producer wanted to see what we planned to film. So, Don asked me to write a screenplay — which I did. If you would like to read this screenplay you can pick up my book, The Screenplays.

The impetus for the birth of Zen Filmmaking occurred after the first weekend of production on The Roller Blade Seven. Don and I were very disappointed with the performances of the massive cast we had hired to take part in the film. We looked at each other and realized that the majority of them did not have the talent to truly pull-off the roll of the character they had been assigned. With this, we came to a realization to just go out and film the movie, not expect anything from our cast and crew, and make up the story as we went along. After a few days of this style of production, I had a realization, based in my lifelong involvement with eastern mysticism. I looked at Don and said, "This is Zen. This is Zen Filmmaking." And, that was it. That was the creation of the term, the title, and the style. Zen Filmmaking was born. And, from that moment forward, I began to define and refine Zen Filmmaking — making it both an art form and a science. From that point onward I have moved forward and continued to refine the process of Zen Filmmaking.

After we completed The Roller Blade Seven and its sequel Return of the Roller Blade Seven, Don and I went our separate ways for several years. I immediately went into production on the Zen Film,
Samurai Vampire Bikers From Hell. Don returned to predominantly screenplay-based productions. In 1996 we reconnected and again set on the path of Zen Filmmaking, as a team. From this, we created a number of Zen Films together.

Just What is a Zen Film?
Many people believe that Zen Filmmaking is simply based upon the fact that no screenplay is used in the creation of a Zen Film. Though this is the basis for Zen Filmmaking, in reality it is much more than this.

Many people ask, "Why no script?" Well, there are a few reasons for this. First of all, and perhaps most importantly, from a philosophic perspective, screenplays keep you locked into a stagnate mindset. If your film is created around a screenplay, then your cast and crew are very reluctant to allow things to change. But, if you go into a project with simply an overview of a story idea, then your project becomes free and new inspiration is allowed to occur at any moment. And, believe me, from someone who has made a lot of films, you never know what new inspiration will strike or what GREAT unexpected situation will present itself when you get to your location, have your cast in place, and are open minded about what you will actually film.

The other reason to not use a screenplay is based upon the fact that in your mind's eye you can write a great story, have it set in elaborate locations, and acted out by great actors. For anyone who has ever been on a low-budget movie set, you quickly see that this is not the case. So, what occurs by writing an elaborate screenplay is that you are only setting yourself up for disappointment. But, with no screenplay, you are free. Any production is allowed to happen as it happens and become what it becomes.

The Six Tenets of Zen Filmmaking
Though Zen Filmmaking is based upon the concepts of creative freedom and cinematic spontaneity, this does not mean that Zen Filmmaking has no foundational elements. To help define Zen Filmmaking, I designed, The Six Tenets of Zen Filmmaking. They are:

1. Make all unpredicted situations work to your advantage.

2. Don't waste time, money, and energy attempting to create your sets when you don't have to. Instead, travel to them and allow their natural aesthetics to become a part of your film.

3. Just do it! Ninety-nine percent of the time you can get away with it.

4. Never let your storyline dominate your artistic vision. Too many would be filmmakers attempt to write what they believe is a, "Good Script," and then try to film it. Without an unlimited budget it is virtually impossible to get what is on the page on the stage.

5. Zen Filmmaking is a spontaneous process. Just as the Zen understanding of enlightenment teaches that though you may meditate for years, it is not until the moment when you step beyond your thinking mind and realize that you are already enlightened that you achieve Satori. Thus, if you acutely plan your productions, with screenplays, storyboards, and locations, there is no room for the instantaneousness of Cinematic Enlightenment to occur and you will always be lost between the way your mind desired a scene to be and the way it actually turns out.

6. Ultimately, in Zen Filmmaking nothing is desired and, thus, all outcomes are perfect.

Make it Your Own!
I am continually asked, "What do I think about other people making films and calling them Zen Films?" Or, "What do I think about people using my concept of Zen Filmmaking." To answer, I think it's great! The entire reason I have continued to focus on Zen Filmmaking, for so many years, is to make the process of filmmaking easier, more joyous, and provide all filmmakers, (not only myself), with a means of creating a film while encountering the minimal amount of disappointments with the finished product.

So, if you want to call your film a Zen Film, do it! That's fine with me.

Moreover, make Zen Filmmaking your own. There are no hard and fast rules in Zen Filmmaking. I frequently receive questions asking if it is okay to change the process a little bit. As I always answer, "Of course, do what works for you. Make Zen Filmmaking your own! Take my philosophies and alter them to work for you, your film, and your filmmaking situation."

Donald G. Jackson and Me
I often receive e-mails from people assuming that all of the films Donald G. Jackson were Zen Films. This is not the case. Though my meeting and filmmaking collaborations with Donald G. Jackson set the course of Zen Filmmaking into motion, he was not the creator of Zen Filmmaking. That was me. In fact, virtually all of the films he created, that I was not directly associated with, were screenplay-based productions. And, this is in direct contrast to the primary premise of Zen Filmmaking — that no screenplay should be used in the creation of a film. So, all of you people out there who are discussing the fact that films like Hell Comes to Frogtown, Return to Frogtown, Roller Blade, Roller Blade Warriors, and even such obscure Donald G. Jackson films such as Rollergator and Big Sister 2000 are Zen Films, you are incorrect. These films were all script-based films that were written by one of Donald G. Jackson's friends, most notably Randy Frakes or Mark Williams.

Critique
From the questions I receive about Zen Filmmaking, I have come to realize that there is a big misconception about the reasoning behind Zen Filmmaking and the actual method used in this style of cinematic creation. Mostly I have come to understand that many people just don't get it. Most people assume that simply because the process of Zen Filmmaking is a script-less form of cinematic creation, that means that a Zen Film is simply a mishmash of image and scenes strung together. And, people have used this misunderstanding as a means for criticizing Zen Films. They are really missing the point. Though there are no scripts used in a Zen Film, the process of creating a Zen Film is a very conscious process — a process that very few filmmakers could, in fact, ever employ due to the fact that it is a very refined method of filmmaking that is complicated in its simplicity. That is a very Zen statement, I know. But, the abstract nature of Zen is at the heart of Zen Filmmaking. Most people need structure and guidelines but structure and guidelines are never relied upon in Zen Filmmaking.

Imagine, having the mental focus, as a filmmaker, to create a film that tells a story and do so without any written dialogue or scene descriptions. Just like Zazen, (Zen meditation), the focus it takes to create a Zen Film is a refined/developed ability that few people have the mental wherewithal to achieve.

Though the essence of Zen Filmmaking is based upon the understanding of never relaying upon the formalized structure of using a script, or any other limiting method of story dissemination to create a film for that matter, there is much more to Zen Filmmaking than simply that. At the heart of Zen Filmmaking is the spiritual essence of Zen — understanding that all life is a pathway to Nirvana. And, that we ALL are already enlightened — we simply need to realize it. Therefore, in truth, Zen Filmmaking is not simply a process of filmmaking. It is, in fact, a formalized practice of meditation leading to cinematic enlightenment. How do you achieve this? Let go and you will know.

This being stated, if you want to read a more nuts-and-bolts on-line article about Zen Filmmaking, you can click over to an article I wrote, Just do it! The Art of Zen Filmmaking or view a discussion that is up on YouTube where Don and I detail the basics about Zen Filmmaking during an interview. Also, here is a link to a fun little improv piece Don did on Zen Filmmaking. I discovered this piece about a year after his passing. Finally, here is Donald G. Jackson embracing his feelings about his filmmaking in the purest sense.

I trust these words will more precisely explain the essence of Zen Filmmaking for those of you have wondered. For everyone else, either read the book or keep the questions coming. I will try to answer them as best as I can…

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No part of this may be used without the expressed permission of Scott Shaw or his representatives.