Scott Shaw: The High Priest of Zen Filmmaking

By Kelty O’Bannon

This is an interview with Scott Shaw conduced in 2006 and originally published in a European film magazine. It can also be found in Scott Shaw’s book, Zen Filmmaking.

Scott Shaw, the creator of Zen Filmmaking, has continued to change the way filmmakers view their process of creation. He has been writing about this style of filmmaking for the better part of twenty years and has taken-in many converts to his realms of understanding.

Shaw is much more than a filmmaker with a unique set of ideals about filmmaking, however. In fact, he came to the art form of filmmaking rather late in life — at the age of thirty-two. Prior to his emersion into the craft, he was a well-known martial artist and a well-published author on the subject of eastern religion. Each of these factors helped Shaw to create a unique and new understanding of the art and craft of filmmaking.

Though Scott Shaw was not the first film director to employ improvisational acting as a tool in the creation of a film, he was the first to formalize a method where each filmmaker can embrace the most natural elements of improv and Zen Buddhism and then integrate them into a method where they can utilize these foundational assets and create a truly unique piece of filmmaking. He has created this new style of filmmaking with such precision that many noted filmmakers have borrowed from his ideology and integrated this method into their own.

For this article, I speak to Scott Shaw in a restaurant in Beverly Hills, California. Beverly Hills is a city that flanks Hollywood. We sit at a table surrounded by many of the Hollywood A-list players, who are having lunch. Due to our surrounding, I cannot help but be motivated to ask Scott Shaw my first question.

What do you think of Hollywood?
I think it’s all bullshit.

What do you mean?
If your are referring to the generic term, “Hollywood,” where all the films are made and all the people get famous, and everyone thinks this is the place to be, then it’s all bullshit. Most people who come here to be famous leave very disappointed. Hollywood has nothing to do with art. And, fame has nothing to do with talent.

What does it have to do with?
Luck and who you know.

Why then did you get involved in the filmmaking profession?
Like I always say, I hope to be a beacon of light in a sea of darkness.

What do you mean by that?
Well, first of all, I didn’t come from a family based in the Hollywood industry. I didn’t grow up rich. And, I didn’t have friends who could walk me though the door and get me inside the industry. So, I had no easy way in. Plus, I wasn’t a pretty girl or a man willing to fulfill the desire of other men to get whatever I wanted. And, believe me, that is the ticket that many successful actors, actresses, and filmmakers have used to become successful in the industry.

So, what did you do?
I simply embraced my art.

What do you mean?
When I first stated out, I had the same aspirations as most of the people who come to Hollywood to get into the industry. The only difference with me was, I was born here. Just like everybody, I hoped to be a star overnight. Which caused me to turn down a lot of roles that probably could have actually helped my career. But, I was also lucky. I got my SAG card really quickly. Actually, I was cast for a role in a union film on like my second audition and I began to move my way through the industry.

What happened next?
I quickly saw that most of the industry, particularly the independent sector of the industry, where new actors get their feet wet, was full of a lot of wanta-bes who waste everybody’s time making promises about films they will never complete.

What happened to you next?
Well, I met Donald G. Jackson and I created Zen Filmmaking.

Wow, what a jump.
Yeah, I guess it was. But, you have to understand, all of life, not just being in the film industry, is based upon foundations. By the time I met Don, I had been a serious photographer for almost twenty years. I had been very involved in eastern mysticism virtually my whole life, and martial arts since I was six years old. I had my photographs shown in galleries around the world and used in tons of publications. In addition, I had made several documentaries in Asia. So, when Don and I started working together, I was ready.

I have to ask you because I have seen it written in several places. Is it true that you were a monk?
Yes, it is. I was first a Bramacharaya and then a Sanyass (a Swami) for several years.

How did that affect your life?
It is pretty simple and straightforward — though I no longer wear the orange robes, the essence of who that person was has never left me. I simply am more interactive with modern society.

Your early filmmaking is closely linked to Donald G. Jackson. How did you two work together? Was it a democracy?
No. A democracy indicates that there are two or more points of view. This was not the case with the films Don and I created. We worked together as a single-minded team. Sometimes he would have the idea. Sometimes I would have it. But, we never doubted each other’s end results.

Some people refer to Donald G. Jackson as your mentor. Is this true?
Creatively, we were an equal team. But, when I first met Don, he certainly had much more experience in the independent film industry than I did. So, in that regard, yes, it is true. In fact, when he was living the last few months of his life in the hospital, before he died, he would introduce me to all of his doctors and nurses as his son. So, I guess he viewed me as a son. But, in reality, I was the computer guy. So, when the digital age hit, it was me who was guiding the ship. But also, if you look at my life prior to meeting Don, what I had accomplished stands clearly on its own merits. Plus, the minute Don and I finished the first two films we made together: The Roller Blade Seven and Return of the Roller Blade Seven, I immediately went off to make my own films. So, I see the early time of our collaboration as Don was the technical end and I was the creative and spiritual side — as he always would turn to me for spiritual advice. Later in his life he would always say about me, “The student has become the master.” So, make of that what you will.

There have been many critics of Donald G. Jackson. Was there a downside to working with him?
Yeah, there were many. To put it kindly, Don was a complicated guy. But, he always treated me with the utmost respect. And, we made some great films together. So, even though there was always a price to pay, that was attached to working with him, what we created would not have been created had we not teamed up.

Where did he get inspiration for films?
In regards to filmmaking, he had an interesting characteristic. Some may call it undesirable. In that he was a lot like Quentin Tarantino. He could view previously created projects — whether they be comic books, movies, or whatever, and then reinterpret them to suit his own ends. Don was notorious for confiscation, or at least attempting to confiscate, other people’s ideas. He tried to do that with me a few times.

What happened?
No comment.

How do the films you made with Donald G. Jackson differ from the films you have made without him?
Don was a comic book orientated guy. Much of his inspiration came from that genre. Me, I am an urban kid. I was born and raised in some of the worst parts of L.A. So, that’s my inspiration. I love the abstract beauty of the inner city and the stories the city has to tell.

What is the symbolism of the Happy Face emblem that is seen in the films you made with Donald G. Jackson?
That was basically Don’s creation. You have to look back to the 1970s to see the inception of this. In the 1970s the Happy Face was everywhere. So, Don took this and made it a commentary on society and a signature in his films. It was one of those things that each of us, as we get older, hold on to in order to remember a specific era that meant something to us. And, that was Don’s.

In virtually all of your films, there is at least one image of the Buddha. How does that tie into your overall filmmaking message?
Don had the Happy Face, mine is the Buddha. It is just my way of subtly suggesting that the audience stay conscious and embrace the mystical.

You have filmed several of your movies in Asia and virtually all of your films, at least partially, in Hollywood. What can you tell us about that?
That is my yin and yang. I was born in Hollywood and grew up in South-central L.A. and Hollywood. Hollywood is the center of the universe for filmmaking. But, Asia is where my heart is. Asia’s abstract mystical nature, its beauty – that is who I am. So, I film there whenever I have the chance and then come back to Hollywood to add the structure to the story. The other side of it is, I am from Hollywood, and so I know it inside and out. But, the rest of the world does not. They see Hollywood as this grand illusion — the place to be. In my films I try to show the more gritty side of Hollywood, to illustrate the true nature of this city.

There are certain people, other than Donald G. Jackson, that have worked in a production capacity with you on several of your films, most noticeably Hae Won Shin, Kenneth H. Kim and Kevin Thompson. What can you tell us about that?
Well, Hae Won has worked with me since I first got into the industry. She has helped me in many ways — in virtually every capacity. She has a degree in photography, so she has been my cinematographer; she has helped me in production and has been an actress in my films when I need to fill in the storylines. Ken, I met early in my emersion into the industry. In fact, I met him when we were actors on one of the first films I was cast in. After that, he helped me put some of my early projects together and we did another film together a couple of years ago. I was introduced to Kevin when I was about to begin production on Undercover X. We needed one final lead-actor and Richard Magram, who was producing the L.A. portion of the film with me, suggested Kevin. And, he was perfect. Kevin is one of those people who just, “Gets it.” He completely understands my style of filmmaking. I call him up and tell him I am putting a new project together. He doesn’t even ask what his character will be. He just asks, “When and where.” He is a great guy and a great actor to work with.

Do you think it is important to work with people like that?
Absolutely. I think every filmmaker; whether they are in the low or the high budget side of the industry finds cast and crewmembers that they work with over-and-over again. By working with someone you know, you understand what to expect and this just makes every project easier and better.

It seems that your early films were martial art orientated. That has seemed to change. Can you tell the readers about that?
You have to understand, I have been a martial artist since I was six years old and watching people beat each other up on film has just gotten boring. But, more than that, most martial artists who are actors have really bad attitudes. I just don’t want to deal with them anymore.

Another thing I have noticed about the evolution of your films is that you have begun to use much smaller casts.
Yes, that’s true.

Can you tell us about that?
Again, it has just been an evolution for me. I used to like to add a lot of character-driven texture to my films. That meant there were a lot of people in my films. Some had large parts and some roles were much smaller. Now, I see my films much more as intense character studies. So, I keep the number of cast members way down.

What is next on the horizon for Zen Filmmaking?
Zen Filmmaking will forever evolve. It is not a static entity that cannot move forward or be reinterpreted. Each filmmaker who uses Zen Filmmaking, as a basis for their filmmaking, will find and evolve their own method of using it as a foundational factor for a freer style of filmmaking.

What advice do you have for filmmakers?
Drink a bottle of Italian red wine every night. Go out and a have a latte or cappuccino at least once a day at a coffee house. Workout in a gym several times a week. And. Live. Because this is where all the inspiration for filmmaking comes from — living!

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