Scott Shaw Speaking with the Zen Film Master Part Two

Scott Shaw

Zen Filmmaking: The Process

By Cori Tate, M.F.A.

            As detailed in part one of this article, Scott Shaw has spent the past twenty years making some of the wildest independent films that the world has never seen. With titles such as Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell, Max Hell Frog Warrior, Super Hero Central, Vampire Blvd., and Count Vlogula, to name just a few, Scott Shaw has etched a name for himself as one of the most eccentric filmmakers in the industry. He has created these films while employing a method of filmmaking that he calls Zen Filmmaking. In this segment of the article we will delve into the actual process of Zen Filmmaking and allow Scott Shaw to explain how to make a Zen Film.

Cori Tate For this part of the interview I would like to speak to you about some of the practical aspects of Zen Filmmaking and how you make your Zen Films.

Scott Shaw Let’s do it.

Cori Tate Why no script?

Scott Shaw Like I have discussed for many years, when someone writes a screenplay they believe they have a great idea. And, maybe they do. When they move forward to creating their film they believe it will be filmed with precise camera techniques, in perfect locations, with excellent actors portraying the characters.  The fact of the matter is, unless you have a lot of money, which most new filmmakers do not possess, that is just not going to happen. Things are not going to turn out perfectly. This is one of the main reasons that many new filmmakers throw in towel and do not complete their films — because they cannot equal what’s in their mind’s eyes. But, if you take away the obstacle of a script and remove what is suppose to happen, you become free, you are not forcing yourself to equal what you have conceived in your mind. If a filmmaker operates at this level there is a much greater chance that the film will be completed.

Cori Tate Without a script, how do you get your stories told?

Scott Shaw For each person it is a little different. What I do is to start out with a story idea. Then I get my cast together and have a few places in mind that I plan to shoot. For each day I construct a shot list that will explain the characters and the story, and then I go out there and do it.

Cori Tate So you guide your actors on the set?

Scott Shaw Exactly. But they are not gong out there blind. Before we ever begin to film I discus each character with each actor so they know what they are going to portray and how they are going to achieve that portrayal. If we have the time I allow actors to meet the other actors in the film. Then when we get on the set, I tell them the basics of the information that they need to discuss for a particular scene, and I let them have at it. This keeps the performances very natural.

Cori Tate You generally work with unknown actors. Why is that?

Scott Shaw Hollywood is an impossible game to win. Yet tons of people come here all the time hoping to be stars. The reason I invite new people to be in my films is I want to offer them the opportunity to actually get in front of the camera and get their feet wet. What I am providing them with is a stepping-stone. They are going to be in a film that will be completed. If they never do anything else in the film industry at least they can say I was in that film. But some of them have actually gone on to become very successful actors and actresses.

Cori Tate What is the average budget for your films?

Scott Shaw I try to stay right around $300.00.

Cori Tate $300.00! I have seen your films. You mean to tell me films like Hitman City and Vampire Noir only cost $300.00 to make?

Scott Shaw Yup.

Cori Tate How do you do that?

Scott Shaw Well, first of all you have to know what you’re doing. Then you have to have the right equipment and know how to use it. Like I tell my students, if you can’t make a movie using only natural light then you have no business being in the film industry.

Cori Tate How does someone learn how to use equipment and make quality films like you have with such a low amount of money?

Scott Shaw It is all about practice and getting out there and doing it.

Cori Tate So you suggest people practice making films?

Scott Shaw Absolutely. You don’t have to go out there and make a feature film your first time out like I did. Just get out there with a camera everyday and make film shorts or just practice with it seeing how it captures images and how it reacts to light. From this, when you actually get ready to make a film you will have the techniques in place to do it right.

Cori Tate What kind of equipment do you use?

Scott Shaw That really depends on what I’m doing. Over the years I have used pretty much every camera and every format ever created. I own a lot of equipment. Which is one of the ways I can keep my production costs down. But I always like to tell people; you can even shoot movies with your phone. I mean phones shoot 1080 HD, which has a much better image quality than Super 8 and even some 16mm cameras. If the phones had a mic input, because they have pretty lousy audio, you could shoot a whole movie on your phone. I imagine someday some phone company will add a mic jack and then there will never be a need for full-on cameras anymore.

Cori Tate Have you ever used your phone to shoot a scene that made it into one of your films?

Scott Shaw Of course. Like most people I always have my phone with me and I have used it several times to capture footage. But personally what I do is I always carry a small Nikon or Canon with me. Then not only can I take a photograph if I see something but I can also shoot high quality footage for my films if an interesting situation presents itself.

Cori Tate You are against getting film permits. Is that true?

Scott Shaw It’s not that I am against film permits. It is simply that most indie film people do not have the money to rent a location and pay for film permits. The other problem is, once you lock into a single location then your options are severely limited. You have to stay there and that really holds back spontaneous creativity.

The fact is some people believe that it is illegal to shoot a movie without a permit. That is not true. If it is a public place you have just as much right to be there, doing whatever you want to do, as anyone else. You can’t go in there with a Panavision camera, 10-K’s and a big crew, but if you stay low key you are usually fine.

Cori Tate Have you ever been asked to leave a location you were filming at?

Scott Shaw A couple of times, but it’s rare.

Cori Tate What do you do then?

Scott Shaw Just go and shoot somewhere else.

Cori Tate In you films you’ve shot in places like Tokyo, Taipei and Hong Kong. Why do you film there?

Scott Shaw Interesting locations are one of the number one things you need to add to your film if you want to make it look big and give it depth. Whether you film in your community or whatever, the more interesting your locations the better your film with look.

As I spend a lot of time in Asia, I add those locations into my films whenever I can. Tokyo is great. It is a very visually spectacular place and nobody cares if you film there. You can film anywhere and nobody even takes notice. Everybody from the Beasty Boys to Katy Perry have filmed in Tokyo just by showing up and doing it.

Cori Tate How do you respond to film critics? Which is something that each filmmaker must be prepared for.

Scott Shaw I don’t. I don’t care what any negative person thinks. First, let them make a movie and then we’ll talk about it.

The fact is, the minute you get into any of the arts you are going to have your critics. That’s just the way it is. The sad thing is, their voices always seem to be the loudest. It would be great if the people who had positive things to say would be more vocal but it doesn’t seem like that is going to happen. Positive people always seem to be the quiet ones.

Cori Tate Why do you think some people are so critical?

Scott Shaw I don’t know. There’s a lot of reasons, I guess. Some people want to make a name for themselves and critiquing and criticizing the work of someone else is an easy way to do it. Some people may not like a person or what they stand for and that is their reason. The one thing I do know is that negativity only equals negativity and that is never a good thing.

Cori Tate Do you ever think you will return to acting on the A level or directing a big film?

Scott Shaw Well Cameron, Spielberg, Tarantino or Rodriguez aren’t knocking down my door. And Weinstein or Lion’s Gate isn’t ringing the phone of my agent off the hook. So I don’t know? But that is really not important to me. I think I have made a niche for myself in the film industry, doing what I do. I make films for the love of the craft. And the reason I teach filmmaking and talk to people like you is that I want to help other filmmakers get out there and live their dreams of making a film. That’s the whole basis of Zen Filmmaking and that’s why I have continued to keep my focus on it. In simple terms, Zen Filmmaking removes a lot of the obstacles from the filmmaking process so that films will get completed and filmmakers will get their films made.

Remember the main mantra of Zen Filmmaking, Fun is what it’s all about.

Click Here to read Part Three of this article.

Max Hell Frog Warrior: The Evolution

Scott Shaw Max Hell Frog Warrior

The film, Max Hell Frog Warrior has an interesting set of circumstance that set its creations into motion.  Certainly, its evolution goes back to the cult film classic, Hell Come to Frogtown.

In brief, Frogtown is a geographic region of Los Angeles, California that skirts the Los Angeles River. It first gained this name when it was overrun with frogs in the 1930s. A friend of Donald G. Jackson’s, Sam Mann, lived in this area. As the story goes, one day the two men were driving around discussing movie ideas and Mann came up with the title, Hell Comes to Frogtown. As he had already starred in Jackson’s films, Roller Blade and Roller Blade Warriors, he was the obvious choice to perform the roll of Sam Hell, the lead character of the film.

Jackson initially planned to finance the movie with his credit cards as he had done with his film, Roller Blade. In the interim, however, he had become involved with New World Pictures. They liked the concept and they offered to finance it for him. The only problem was, he had to add a completely different cast than was his intention. His actor/friends were to be replaced by, “Name Actors.” Sam Mann, the actual inspiration for Sam Hell, was to be replaced by the then very famous wrestler, Rowdy Roddy Piper. Don asked Sam for his approval, which he gave.

Until his dying day, Donald G. Jackson regretted this decision. He was not only sorry that Mann had been replaced but the movie was eventually taken away from his creative control and it lost much of the visual landscaped he had hoped to create with it.

Approximately five years after Hell Comes to Frogtown was released; Don had formed a filmmaking alliance with Tanya York. She had a financier in place that was wiling to bankroll her first feature films as an executive producer. As she had a longstanding relationship with Don, the two moved forward and created Frogtown II. For Jackson, the only problem was, again, much of the creative control was taken away from him. Ultimately, he again, was left with a film that he did not like.

During this same period, just after the completion of Frogtown II, York wanted to finance another Jackson film. He offered up his Roller Blade series. The 1991/1992 outcome was the first and second Zen Films, The Roller Blade Seven and Return of the Roller Blade Seven, created by Donald G. Jackson and Scott Shaw.

After the completion of those two films, Shaw took the foundations for the Zen Filmmaking concept he had originated and went off on his own and immediately created, Samurai Vampire Bikers From Hell and several other films.  Jackson also moved forward to create several script based feature films.

In 1995, Shaw was in Thailand. Jackson contacted him to reconnect and make another feature film. When Shaw returned, the two set about creating the next Jackson/Shaw Zen Film.

Initially, the team toyed with the idea of creating a humorous filmed based on Jackson and Mann’s, Hell Comes to Frogtown theme, titled, Road Toad. This film was to star Scott Shaw and co-star Julie Strain.  The team eventually discarded this concept and then set about on the idea of, Hell Comes to Hog Town. This film was to be based on the intent of the film, Zachariah, the First Electric Western, which starred a young Don Johnson. This film would have Shaw ridding in, (with an electric guitar strapped over his shoulder), on his 1966, bright yellow, Harley Davidson, Electra-Glide. He would then battle the forces of evil that were controlled by an evil warlord known as, The Hog. Eventually, this storyline was also put to rest.

What emerged from this period of creative interaction was Jackson’s desire to do the story he had hoped to present with the original, Hell Comes to Frogtown — the story of a frog plague unleashed on the earth by an evil overseer who would eventually be destroyed by the antihero. Enter, Toad Warrior.

Toad Warrior went up in the winter of 1996. In association with Jackson as the Producer/Director, Shaw was to perform the lead role as well as Co-Produce and Co-Direct the film. The team of Jackson and Shaw brought on their friend and frequent collaborator, Joe Estevez, to play the bad guy. They also brought on Jill Kelly, who had initially appeared in the Roller Blade Seven and had since gone on to become a major force in the adult film industry. In addition, the team brought into the production: Selina Jayne and Roger Ellis — both of whom had appeared in the Roller Blade Seven and had gone on to star in Shaw’s, Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell and Samurai Johnny Frankenstein.

Jackson and Shaw filmed, Toad Warrior in the high desert of California and various other locations throughout Hollywood, Los Angeles, and at their production offices in North Hollywood. Quickly, the production began to express and represent all the aspects of the bizarre Zen Filmmaking minds of the Jackson/Shaw team.

When production was complete on Toad Warrior, the team quickly moved forward onto other filmmaking projects. The next on the production schedule was Shotgun Blvd., AKA, Armageddon Blvd., immediately followed by Ghost Taxi, AKA, Ride with Devil.

As the 1997 American Film Market was quickly approaching, the production team of Jackson/Shaw knew that they had to compete several projects. Shaw took on the role of editor for Armageddon Blvd. and Ride with the Devil, while they turned Toad Warrior over to a long time friend of Jackson — the editor of a number of his films, Christopher Blade.

The 1997 American Film Market premiered several Jackson/Shaw films. They included the one’s named above and a thirty minute, long-form trailer, of a film they had not yet completed, Guns of El Chupacabra.

Though the Jackson/Shaw team was happy to have Toad Warrior edited and available, it was never the film that they had hoped to make. Though the needed footage and scenes were all there, they were not constructed in a manner the filmmakers had hoped.

At the 1997 American Film Market buyers from Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines purchased the rights to release Toad Warrior theatrically and show it in movie theaters. Shaw attended the Tokyo premiere of the film. Jackson and Shaw held back on U.S. sales, however, as they wanted to reedit the movie.

The following few years proved to be a very busy time for the filmmaking team of Jackson/Shaw. Though they had hoped to get back to the film Toad Warrior and re-edited it, this never came to pass. Shaw did, however, condense the originally edited footage of the film into what the team called, a Zen Speed Film, and released it with the title, Max Hell in Frogtown.

By the early part of the twenty-first century, Jackson had become very ill from his battle with leukemia. He passed away in 2003.  Soon after this, a distribution company somehow came upon a beta master of the film, Toad Warrior, and released it in a compilation DVD. Let alone the fact that Jackson/Shaw never wanted this version of the film released in the West, many of the titles and screen credits of this version were incorrect.

Due to copyright infringements, this DVD was eventually removed from the market. By this point in time, Shaw had already revamped the film and had released it as, Max Hell Frog Warrior.

As the unauthorized bootlegged version of the film had already been released, Shaw decided it was best to release an authorized version of Toad Warrior in order to help in countermanding any further unlawful distribution of the film’s unauthorized version. He did this in 2007.

As he and Jackson had long planned, Shaw still intends to go back into the original footage of the film, reedit it, and create the film that Jackson and he had initially hoped for.

In recent years, there has been an ongoing interest in the film. Similar to the Jackson/Shaw creation of, the Roller Blade Seven, Max Hell Frog Warrior has continued to draw interest from critics and cult movie aficionados. So much so, that the writers of the HBO television series, Newsroom, mentioned Max Hell in an episode of their show broadcast in August of 2012.

Growing from the minds of Sam Mann, Donald G. Jackson, and Scott Shaw, the Frogtown series shows no signs of being forgotten in the near future.

For further information about this film visit the Max Hell Frog Warrior page at Scott Shaw.com or read the interview article Max Hell Frog Warrior: The Fact and the Fiction.

Max Hell Frog Warrior
Max Hell Frog Warrior (Photo credit: Wikipedia)