Zen Filmmaking and the Cinematic Arts
When did you first come to Japan? What was the longest time you spent in the country?
The first time I went to Japan was in 1979. I was returning from a long stay in India and I had always been drawn to the culture and the beauty of Japan. I arrived and was just blown-away. I never wanted to leave.
Since then, I continually return to Japan. I go every time I get the chance. I have traveled to Japan so many times that I do not even know the number of trips I have made. But, it is a lot. I am always much happier in Japan.
Probably the longest I stayed there, without leaving, was close to a year when I was living in Tokyo in 1983 and 1984.
You've acted in several major Hong Kong productions with superstars such as Stephen Chow, Sammo Hung and Maggie Cheung. What are some of your favorite films from this time?
Working in Hong Kong, particularly being a Caucasian, is not an easy situation. This is especially the case for the style of Hong Kong productions that I worked on. I was hired basically due to my martial art background.
The choreography and the filming of these projects are very intense and you do get hurt. In fact, I believe many of the local players go out of their way to hurt those who are working on the films from different countries. So, they were definitely an experience but I don't have very fond memories of them.
That being said, I have directed a couple of projects in Hong Kong and they were great, we had a lot of fun. And, I would be happy to work on a Hong Kong production again, just not one that has anything to do with the martial arts.
One of the funny things about my involvement in Hong Kong film productions is that they never used my real name. For example, if I saw the film, the name they would use in the credits for me would be John Smith or something like that. And, this happened to other westerners I know who have worked in Hong Kong, as well. So, I laughingly realized that working there did very little for the growth of my career.
You appeared in a Japanese film called Poppugurupu Koroshiya (Pop Beat Killers) directed by Hiroyuki Nakano with Japanese superstar Nanako Matsushima (The Ring) Can you tell me a little about this film, your role and how you got cast? It seems like the DVD has never been released in Japan. Is it available elsewhere?
I am very surprised anyone even knows about that film. But, to answer your question, I am not one hundred percent sure how or why I got cast for that film. One day my agent called me up and told me that a production company, based in Tokyo, had offered me a role in the film. She asked, "Did I want to go?" "Of course!" I didn't even ask what the film was about.
My role was as an American who was living in Tokyo and got pulled into a mess between the lead female and her ex-lover who walked on the wrong side of the law.
I do not know what ever happened to that film. I have never seen a completed version of it or heard anything about it. So, your guess is as good as mine.
I have actually had this experience, of a film falling between the cracks, with a few films -- especially in the early part of my career. Most people outside of the industry may not realize it, but this is a very common occurrence. This is one of the main reasons that caused me to begin producing my own films. Because with my films, I know what happens to them.
Have you done any other fillm/tv work in Japan?
Yes, I have worked on a few Japanese projects. I did a couple of Japanese commercials and I have acted in small roles in a few television productions.
One thing to mention is that I really enjoy the style of these productions, as they are filmed in much the same manner as I create my films. For example, they use small crews in actual locations, (restaurants, bars, hotels, office building, whatever), and just go out there and get the filming done.
You directed a film called Liquid Tokyo in Japan? Was this a short film or music video? How did you come to direct it and where can we find it?
That started out as a film and someday I will probably finish it. Some of the footage I shot for the film actually ended up in a music video for my song of the same name, which is on the CD, "Just Zen." And, some of the other footage ended up in my film, Undercover X.
We shot it in Shinjuku, Harajuku park, Shimbashi, and a couple other locations around Tokyo. The video plays on a few music video channels here in the States and elsewhere. But, now that you reminded me of it, I will put a copy of it up on my website.
You have been writing about Zen Filmmaking for close to 20 years. Recently Zen Filmmaking has been discovered by major Hollywood directors. I just read an interview with David Lynch about Inland Empire that is very similar to how you made many of your films:
In an interview with Joe Huang at the AFI Dallas Film Festival, David Lynch stated that, "Inland Empire," wasn't originally intended to be a feature film. He would simply come up with an idea and --utilizing the versatility and ease of using DV cameras -- would film it, creating a series of seemingly unrelated scenes; the first scene filmed was Laura Dern's monologue to the silent psychiatrist. As time progressed, he began to see how the stories were connected, and continued filming scenes for it until he had what we see now.
Do you think that the mainstream Hollywood press has chosen to ignore your role as the innovator of Zen Filmmaking?
First of all, I am not seeking any notoriety for developing Zen Filmmaking. Zen Filmmaking was designed to embrace the essence of Zen, (at least my interpretation of it), and bring the elemental simplicity of Zen and its naturalness to the filmmaking process.
Have other filmmakers drawn from the process that I defined? Yes, I believe they have. Some have even told me that they have done so.
To me, the biggest compliment is that other people are out there doing it. Whether they give me credit for it or not is unimportant. If they can take my ideas, put their own spin on it, go out there and create a film -- that's great!
You have to understand, Hollywood is about two things: money and ego. "Hollywood," meaning the large studios, the major players, and the Hollywood press don't give credit to anybody, unless it will equal money or notoriety for themselves. That is the very sad reality about Hollywood. But, that is the reality.
Are you familiar with the Dogme 95 style of filmmaking created by Danish director Lars Von Tier? Have you seen any Dogme films? It seems that one of the major differences between Zen and Dogme is that Dogme has specific rules (no guns, must be blown up to 16mm etc) and Zen does not. Do you think that one of the reasons that Dogme has gotten so much attention is that people like to follow a set of specific rules rather than to be given total freedom?
Yes, I know about Dogme 95, Lars Von Tier, and I have seen several Dogme 95 films. As you mention, I think that the basic difference between Dogme 95 and Zen Filmmaking is that Dogme 95 has tons of rules for what you can and cannot do. Zen Filmmaking has no rules. Zen Filmmaking is all about just getting out there and doing it!
I don't really know why Dogme 95 has received so much attention; maybe it is rules. But, I don't know why people would choose formalized structure over freedom. It is the same question, "Why do some films become so successful?" Mostly, I find, from an insider's perspective, that it has to do with the amount of money that is poured into the publicity machine.
Like I always explain to my students when I teach classes on filmmaking, "The number one rule of filming is that everybody lies." So, even if someone does spend millions of dollars on publicity, they will never admit to that being the reason for their success. They will simply claim that it was just a natural occurrence due to the quality of the project.
You started Zen Filmmaking before YouTube existed. How would you feel if people started calling some of their sloppy creations Zen Films?
Just because I created Zen Filmmaking does not mean that I am the only person who can make Zen Films or that I am the only person who can define what a Zen Film is or is not. Just as different people, throughout the ages, have reinterpreted Zen, Zen Filmmaking is about individual interpretations.
You mentioned Dogme 95, they have all their rules and regulations about what is or is not a Dogme 95 film. And, you have to get a certificate to prove that your film is Dogme 95. Zen Filmmaking is not like that. Zen Filmmaking is about freedom -- particularly freedom of expression.
In regard to the filmmakers, I never criticize anybody or what they do. Because what they do is what they do. And, to them, that is art. If they want to call what they do, "A Zen Film," that's fine with me.
One of the things I like about your website is that it almost like an alternate Hollywood that ignores mainstream Hollywood. For example, you don't accept the conventional wisdom of Hollywood in seeing movies as either as a success or failures or view actors in terms of "A-List" or "B-List" or"has-beens"-- terms that the industry and media created to define films and actors. Did growing up in Hollywood make you immune to that type of double-speak?
I believe so. Throughout my youth I saw people waking down the street that were considered very famous. I would go out to restaurants with my parents and there would be movie, television, or music stars sitting next to us. When I was very young my father owned a restaurant and famous people, I would see on T.V., would come in all the time. I would see them sitting at the bar talking to my father. So, I realized they were just people.
I started to understand the reality of Hollywood much more clearly when I was in Hollywood High School. Some of my friends were children of famous actors and filmmakers. I would go to their houses, and some would be living on top of the world, while other were living in small dingy apartments or in hotel rooms, and their famous parent would be getting high and screaming that all of their money was gone and why can't their agent get them another big role. Sometimes they did get that next big role and sometimes you never heard from them again.
You have to understand, the Hollywood system is ruthless, which is why I see it for what it is and never chase after it. My life is about spirituality and art. And, the Hollywood system has very little room for either of those things.
In regard to success or failure, I don't believe in those definitions. Success to me is getting out there and creating art. Whether anybody sees it or not, is unimportant. Art is all about the process of creation.
Film critics are often more receptive to experimental films from Asia and Europe. It seems like the further away from Hollywood the better. Do you find that being based in Hollywood is somewhat of a disadvantage in making experimental films because people tend to compare them to other Hollywood films?
Yes and no. For better or for worse, Hollywood is the heart of the film industry. There are things that happen here that occur nowhere else in the world. To create films, you do not have to be here. But, to truly understand the film industry, you do.
I think that one of the biggest problems in filmmaking, particularly here in Hollywood, is that people always compare low budget or experimental films to the big budget blockbuster films. The people who do that just don't get the point. These two levels of filmmaking are completely different and they should never be compared. Experimental films should just be viewed for what they are; art.
Personally, the critics have no effect on me. I don't seek their approval. I believe that criticism, at any level, is about as far away from Zen as you can get. I believe that everything simply is what it is. I do what I do. I create visual art as I see it. If someone likes it, that's great. If someone actually "Gets" what I'm doing, even better. But, if they don't like what I do, that's fine with me, as well. Anyone's opinion of me or my films is not going to change what I do.
What are the major differences between Guns of Chubacabra and the sequel? Is the sequel the original version shot on film without the extra footage? Who designed the costumes? Where in the world did that Dog Boy mask come from?
Don Jackson and I felt that we created two masterpieces as a filmmaking team. The first was The Roller Blade Seven and the second was Guns of El Chupacabra. So, Guns of El Chupacabra is a very elaborate film, bringing in all of the bizarre aspects of his and my collaborations.
Guns of El Chupacabra II: The Unseen was created due to the fact that we had been filming the original version for over a year by the time it was completed and we had tons of footage. So, we used that additional footage to create a second film. It is a much more straight-ahead film than Guns of El Chupacabra. The foundation for the film is made up of completely unique footage, but we did use some footage from the original feature to tie the two stories together.
Guns of El Chupacabra was shot on 16mm and 35mm film, with the occasional use of digital video to document the fact of news crew footage, etc. Guns of El Chupacabra II: The Unseen is predominately made up of footage shot on digital video.
The Dog Boy mask, we simply found in a store. The Chupacabra costume was designed by a very high-end professional costume designer, I forget his name. But, it did cost a lot of money to create. The various other costumes were simply created by Don and myself.
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