Sunday, June 28, 2009

An Interview with martial artist/choreographer/writer/stand-up comedian (and more!) John Kreng - Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of the mammoth John Kreng interview. Coming up: lots of stuff that DIDN'T make it into John's enormous book, his views on what makes a good and a bad fight scene and his dream projects (which in this case will have to remain 'The Impossible Dream' unless someone perfects time travel in the next few years). Read on, True Believer!

Did you ever consider moving to Hong Kong to join the film industry there?

Yes. I am working on several projects and once they come to fruition I will let you people know about it. What I learned while writing my book is that by being Asian-American, I have been straddling both cultures all of my life. Which is why I felt uniquely qualified to write the book explaining styles of fighting in film for both Eastern and Western cultures. I hated it growing up and felt that I stood out like a leper at a fashion show because I just wanted to blend in and belong. But growing up, it has definitely paid off for me working in the film industry, because I have been able to understand both sides of the ocean when working on a film.

If a Western director wants a Hong Kong style fight, I can explain to them what each move means and the significance of why I am choreographing the fights in a certain way. I have also been able to help some Hong Kong Fight Directors who come here to work on American films, teaching them some Western pop culture history with regards to the history of the film and the actors they might be working with, so they can get a better idea of what they are doing.

At what point in your career did the idea for your book take shape? How much time did you spend writing it?

My friend Jeremy Cantor just finished writing a book on computer animation for short films, and his publisher was looking to expand into theatrical titles. We both went to the same karate school together, getting our black belts around the same time, and we also went to art school together. It was his suggestion to me and then to the publishers that I was the one to write the book.

The book took a little over 3 years to complete. It took that long because I had to define a process for creating a fight scene and determine the necessary elements that make an effective fight scene. I had to develop theories and ideas that had to work with almost every fight scene across the board. That was what took me so long. I would bounce my ideas off Jeff Imada and sometimes James Lew to see if they would hold up under their many years of experience. Some theories sank while others floated. Of course, I kept the ones that floated. They both knew me before I got into stunts and thought they were just being nice at times. But I knew I was onto something when I started talking to Vic Armstrong and Richard Norton, whom I did not know before the book, showing him part of my first chapter and they both told me that they really liked what I had written so far.

What are the biggest 'mistakes' or weaknesses that plague action and fight scenes nowadays?
Too much hand held- jittery camera work and getting it much too close so that the fight scene looks very vague. Also terrible editing of action sequences where the action does not make sense. My friends hate to see action films with me, because I usually end up complaining about the action scenes and that you could not see what was choreographed because of the shaky cam and/or epilepsy inducing editing work.

I couldn't agree with you more.

The general excuse the filmmakers use for doing this is because they want to get the audience emotionally into the fight as if they were present in the action, which is why they get in too close and create an artificial emotion with the shaky hand held shots and manic editing. They are thinking the audience will get bored with longer takes, but the choreography and acting end up suffering because of it. The problem is you do not see the cause and effect between the fighters on screen and cannot really appreciate the screen fighter’s skills. This was done in the 80’s when an actor was not very well coordinated and did not look effective on screen. But with today’s film budget and prep time, there is really no excuse for it.

A great example of what I am pointing out is in The Last Samurai, when Tom Cruise kills the multiple attackers in the streets of Japan at night with his samurai sword. The hype that came with the film was that he trained for over 6 months to prepare for the scene. But when you look at the scene, it was so heavily edited you could not tell how long he trained because you could not really see anything. The camera was too tight on Cruise, you could not see who was attacking him, while the editing was so quick and choppy, you didn’t have any visual idea what he was happening at all.

How would you like it if you were watching a basketball game where the cameraman is running up and down the court with a shaky hand held camera doing extremely tight close ups on Kobe Bryant’s or Lebron James’ shoulder or elbow as they quickly and deftly slice their way through their opponents and do an amazing slam dunk? Can you imagine seeing that for a whole game? It gets frustrating because the audience really does not see or witness the action unravelling before their eyes. But we get this all the time in Hollywood when it comes to action.

The sad thing I see is, I am beginning to see this trend happen in some films from Hong Kong and China copying this “so called style” of camera work and editing to capture action. Producers and filmmakers will always come up with the “catch all” answer by saying “Well, it made ‘X millions of dollars’ in the box office!” I feel they fail to realize you cannot substitute aesthetics for box office receipts. Film critics complain about this all the time in their reviews. But this all falls onto deaf ears.

It’s pretty frustrating because action films are my favorite genre. I always have high hopes for a big blockbuster action film coming out of Hollywood, that it will have well choreographed, shot, and edited action sequences. About 9 times out of 10 I walk out of the theater disappointed with how an action scene was finally presented. What makes it EVEN MORE frustrating is when I see an action film where the story and acting are incredible... completely drawing me in… but then the action sequences totally suck because of the reasons I just mentioned earlier! It’s like they don’t care about and treat the action like it’s an afterthought. It can be a curse or a blessing. A curse because I know all the stupid camera and editing tricks they keep doing repeatedly. But a blessing when you finally see a great fight scene put together. But that’s getting more and more rare these days.

I also feel part of the problem is they do not teach students how to shoot action scenes in film school. They are only taught how to shoot dialogue with other non-action scenes. Then the students try to shoot their action scene as if it was a dialogue sequence – camera left- camera right- and a master, thinking it will come out right in editing. This might happen only if it is a simple brawl. Unfortunately, it is usually not that simple and when they get out in the real world to shoot their own films, they are screwed and are left to their own devices to figure it out for themselves. I can only hope colleges that have film studies departments can use books like mine in their curriculum to help them out and give them some type of insight as to what is involved when shooting action.

What does your perfect fight scene look like, and why?

A perfect fight scene should advance the story and impact all the characters involved including peripheral ones who were not directly involved in the fight.
A great fight scene is also an integral part of the story and not included as a gratuitous scene.
Visually it should tell a non-verbal story where the techniques and style of the fight meshes with the story and the characters and you are able to appreciate the fight because you get to see it unravel right before your eyes with great camera angles and slick editing you don’t even notice. Also no shaky hand held cameras and choppy editing that can possibly take away from the emotional impact of the fight scenes. Can you tell this is a thorn on my side with me?

How hard is it for a fight choreographer or a stunt coordinator to protect their vision of the action scene? And can anything be done about it?

It depends on the fight choreographer’s relationship with the director, producer, director of photography, and editor. In the West, there is nothing that can be done about it because it is a directors and producers medium. Unless you have a good relationship with the Producer, Director and especially the Editor, you might get a chance to go in there and make suggestions as to how to put the fight scene together. If not, they can do whatever they want to it without having to refer to you.

In Hong Kong, the Fight Director has total control over what and how they shoot the action. Fans over there are well educated enough to will go to see a movie just because of the fight director. A lot has to change in the pecking order for a Fight Choreographer to have that type of autonomy here in Hollywood.

The book covers a lot of ground - but is there anything that got cut before publication?

The book only covers about 1/3 of what I really wanted to discuss with fight choreography for film and TV. I was going to go into more detail about how a technique and style can help tell a story. The history section was going to go more in depth about Women in action, the influence of Japanese films on fight choreography, and the history and use of CGI in a fight scene.

I am hoping that the book does well so it can merit an update of the book. But the book now has to do well in order to justify a 2nd edition. So PLEASE go out and buy a copy so I can write a 2nd edition!

You heard the man, folks!! Could you specify the cultural difference in appreciating fight scenes in movies in the West and in Asia?

Well, first off the martial arts are an integral part of Asian history. Whereas in the West the martial arts is more generally treated like something one does for leisure or a hobby. Firearms are illegal in almost all Asian countries, so unarmed self-defense is more important and emphasized , whereas we have the right to bear arms in the U.S.- so the concept of self-defense is much different.

Spiritually there is a huge difference between East and West and it shows in the training where in the East you “look within” for the answers like you see in many kung fu movies. That concept is absent in western martial arts films in the West because of the dominant Christian influence. In the West, using martial arts in a film is often seen as an exotic way for a character to beat someone up; whereas in Asia, a martial arts style is stylized to each character to show their intent and distinct personalities.

In Asia (especially with the kung fu movie archetype), the hero grows and matures because of the training. In the West, it is more of an issue of retribution, where the hero usually does not change that much from the beginning to the end except gives the villain their comeuppance from the hero. And because of these differences we see the differences in how the martial arts is portrayed in film on both sides of the ocean.

When it comes to execution of the action… In Hong Kong they are performing the actual stunt while filming it. But in the West, we are creating the illusion of doing the actual stunt or fight. The Hong Kong stuntmen are more like daredevils than stuntmen in their mentality. Because of safety regulations in the US, we cannot do what they are doing. This is very apparent when you watch a lot of Hong Kong action films in the 80’s to the mid 90’s. Since their films are usually lower in budget (compared to Hollywood), they have learned to be economical but more effective with their time and how they shoot action.

Oftentimes they edit the action in camera. That means they shoot only what they know they need for their action scenes. They are not afraid to “cross the line” especially when the room or environment is already established in the shot. In the West, we tend to overshoot the action from different angles and let the editor piece together the action. The problem with this is you don’t always get the right angles that you will need to get the fight to look right.

What I learned while writing my book was that the more successful action films are a representation of the times while being the collective hopes and dreams of the people of that country. It is sometimes also how a country wants them to be perceived in an almost mythical way.

It's often said (for instance by French film director and Hong Kong cinema fanatic Christophe Gans) that in Western films, the story stops when a fight scene occurs, while in Chinese film the fight scene actually develops the story. Do you agree with this statement in principle? If not, why not?

I cannot say I completely agree with that but I do agree with it when it comes to todays big budget studio action films. It has definitely been a trend for at least the last 15 years and I feel it is rapidly getting worse because Hollywood became more technology co-dependent on CGI, shaky camera moves, and rapid fire editing to enthrall an audience. The studios have turned action films into this senseless rollercoaster ride when after you leave the theater you really don’t know what you saw let alone know what the film was about. Nothing sticks to you emotionally because most of them are void of it.

This is why I like and appreciate lot of older films that have action or fight scenes in Spartacus, Emperor of the North, The 9th Configuration, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Blackboard Jungle, From Russia With Love, and Goldfinger. These films have some of the best fight and action scenes that still hold their own to this day. All of the action scenes were well integrated into the story and did not stop the story but actually advanced it.

Can you give an example of a gratuitous fight scene which you still enjoy because of the spectacle, skill of the performers or creativity involved in the choreography?

The striptease fight scene in Firecracker with Jillian Kessner in the factory was pretty gratuitous. Unfortunately I did not like it for the choreography but thought the ingenuity as to how she lost her clothes throughout the fight as pretty funny, gratuitous, and a spectacle…it also helped that she was pretty hot! You don’t know how many times I’ve had her image painted on the back of my eye lids when I was growing up! (Laughs)

For me anything that is gratuitous takes me out of the film. The final fight scene in Equilibrium where they combined gun fighting with Wing Chun style hand trapping was very clever and unique and also fit into the universe that was created with the story like the gun kata, etc. Really cool stuff! My friend Jeff Imada told me he choreographed those moves in pre-production but could not stay on as the Stunt Coordinator once production started.

However the director’s follow-up Ultraviolet really disappointed me because I thought, here was a director who” got it” and understood how fight choreography could be unique, different, and add to the mythos of the film. But Ultraviolet showed how Hong Kong-style fights do not work all the time. They were just boring and didn’t really have a real purpose for being so long. There was no authentic emotional conflict going on during the action sequences and it was too much about the cool wu-shu moves that had no emotions behind them. It was senseless and had no individual spirit to it as Equilibrium did.

Likewise, can you give an example of a fight scene which you used to like but now, with all your experience as a stunt performer, choreographer and storyteller, no longer hold in such high esteem?

Many of the Western made martial arts films in the 70’s to the mid 90’s. It was a time when producers would just hire martial artists who they saw at a tournament or a school they knew near them. But they had no real theatrical combat experience, nor did they know how to tell a non-verbal story with their choreography. It really shows when you look at those films today, especially when you compare them to the Hong Kong fight choreographers during that time period.

Even though they might have varied the techniques from fight to fight, the real problem was that it was very one-step sparring like. They looked very rehearsed and did not have any real kinetic energy and emotion to them, because the cadence and timing of all the fights were the same, all using full beats in their timing. Subtlety was not a part of the vocabulary back then. Fakes and blocks are non-existent too. It’s like listening to a lecture given by someone who talks at a same monotone level without any change in tone, emotion, and direction. Eventually you will lose attention and nod off! That’s not good!

The other problem with martial arts fights in the west is that they also abide by the rule of the brawl, where every technique either makes contact or is thrown to knock the opponent out with one strike. In addition, the fighters hardly block anything and just stand there and get hit as if it was a sadistic macho contest to see who can absorb the most amounts of hits. It’s pretty ridiculous when you really look at it.

I used to like the fight scene in The Warriors between the Baseball Furies and The Warriors before I professionally got into fight choreography. But after seeing it again, I realized they used the same technique (swinging the bat in a downward fashion at the opponent’s head only to be blocked) from different angles to make it look like a continuous fight. The lead up to the fight was great much like a samurai film, but the actual fight and pay-off left me high and dry.

Aesthetically the fight was monotonous and made no real strategic or practical sense as to why they made those choices. When you think about it, this tells the audience the fighters have no practical experience or common sense in a fight. However I feel the fight in the subway station restroom was much better in comparison because it had a lot of variety, was very clever, and did not repeat themselves with the same techniques.

In many ways the screenwriter and the fight choreographer find themselves in a similar situation in Western film- and TV-making: they can only hope that their original vision is translated (and occasionally improved, though far more often the opposite happens) acurately and respectfully on the screen. Do you think there is a way for writers to help fight choreographers with their work?

It’s not really a screenwriter’s job to choreograph a fight scene describing technique for technique, but it would help if they described the different emotions and any character traits (physical and emotional) that they feel might be exposed during the fight. If they described the fight blow for blow it would take up valuable space on the page where they could use it for something else. If the screenwriter can tell us the reason of the fight and the emotional intent behind it that would make a huge difference in how we put together a fight scene.

Can you tell us a little more about how Enter The Grill Master came about?

Grillmaster was one of the earlier films I worked on where I was a stunt coordinator/fight choreographer. We hired some great screen fighters for this short film. 2 of them were graduates of Yusaki Kurata‘s Action Club in Japan and were incredible to work with and made my job very easy. Another is a good friend, Jo Eric Mercado, a Tae Kwon Do black belt who had some incredible kicking skills. We had a lot of fun on that set. I learned a lot about how to work with actors who are not martial artists on that film. You have to teach them with a shorthand approach where you only teach them what they need to know. We shot it at an incredibly unusually hot time of the year (over 100 degrees) in the San Fernando Valley in the course of 2 or 3 weekends with another 3 weekends of rehearsal.

The main problem was getting the lead actor ready for the part because he only trained with me twice for about an hour each time and had no idea as to what would lay ahead. But to be honest, I feel it all worked out for the better because he did not look like a martial arts master which made it more comical.

This job immediately led to me working as a stunt coordinator/fight choreographer on 3 films for Roger Corman’s studio- Hard As Nails, Shakedown, and The Haunting of Slaughter Studios. I feel it is there was where I began to come into my own as a fight choreographer and stunt coordinator.

Readers can check out the great Fu and goofy comedy of Enter The Grill Master right here.

And here's the music video full of behind-the-scenes material:

But back to you, John. What are the main challenges for a fight choreographer?

Here is a list of the main challenges that confront a fight choreographer in no real order of importance…

TIME- Often times a fight choreographer is given little time to put together a fight scene. Sure Yuen Woo Ping is given 6 months to train the lead actors for The Matrix, but that is much more the exception than the rule. If fight choreographers were given more time to choreograph AND shoot a fight scene, we would probably get better looking fights. This rule also includes working on an action film, because they feel the dialogue is more important. You are lucky if you are able to get all the necessary angles to edit the fight scene effectively. Time is always one of the things you will not have on your side as a fight choreographer because there’s always something that eats into your schedule, making you lose essential time.

AVAILIBILITY OF LOCATION- often times you won’t be able to see the place you will be doing the fight scene when you are first choreographing it. So this also cuts into the time you are given to put your fights together.

COVERING ANGLES- in the West we can only suggest to the DP the angles to shoot. We can only hope the DP knows the right angles that makes the action look effective. Great angles makes the techniques pop and you have to have a good eye and know what angles work and what angles make your fights look flat.

MULTIPLE TAKES- If you have a DP that is not experienced at shooting fight scenes then chances are he will have to shoot a fight several times in order to get in sync with the stuntmen. The problem is that the more takes he has to shoot for each scene, the more tired the stuntmen will get. After several takes of the same fight, they will start to look sloppy and inconsistent.

It would save time and energy help if the DP would start to watch the end of rehearsals once they have the fight scene down so they can begin to get in synch with the fighters and start to block where they think they will place the camera and what angles they want to use.

I was working on a shoot once where the DP said he had shot a lot of action. We were shooting the fight scene and he was not in sync with the fighters. We consistently had to have several takes from each angle before he was able to finally get it right. Then after he got it right, he wanted to have several re-shoots for safety. This was pissing off the stuntmen when they all knew they were all hitting their marks, and wanted to move on because they were getting tired and it was getting late. This was not good and you don’t want a set full of pissed off stuntmen mad at you.

I later found out later the DP’s only experience with shooting action was with cars for commercials and where he shot lots of footage so the editor could edit what they felt was right. That was his approach with the fight scene and he did not seem to care that he was burning out the stuntmen and was wondering why they could not do the same fight after the 7th or 8th take going at it full speed! The lesson here is just because you shoot one type of action does not mean you can shoot all types of action.

You also work (or have worked?) in the video game industry. What games have you worked on? Did you manage to put your ideas on fight choreography to use in the game development, or conversely did the game development lead to new insights with regards to your choreography work?

I was the stunt coordinator for Full Spectrum Warrior and was associate producer as well as mo cap performer for several characters on Art of Fighting. Choreographing fight scenes for video games is much more hard work than for films. Simply because of all the variables involved with the characters and you need to film (or capture) all of them with motion capture. So you are essentially doing 3-10 times the work you would on a film, depending on the characters and the possibilities of each character involved.

Finally - if money and cast were no object, do you have a dream movie project?

OK you asked for it. This one is really going out on a limb. I am taking 'if the cast were no object…'. Turn back time and get Bruce Lee back to have him to finish Game of Death with all the actors and athletes he wanted in the film. I would also like to see how he would have done The Silent Flute. I thought Circle of Iron was pretty lame as far as the fights were concerned and really want to see what Bruce would have done with it. The other projects I have are just that…a secret… for now!

Thanks a million, John, for taking all this time out to answer my questions in such depth - and good luck with your secret projects!!
And for anyone who's interested in finding out more about John's approach to the art of film choreography, here's the link once again where you can get it:

1 comment:

Evan said...

Keep the Both Thumbs Up!
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