Scott Shaw Speaking with the Zen Film Master

     The Entire Three Part Interview.

By Cori Tate, M.F.A.

Scott Shaw has spent the past twenty years making some of the wildest no-budget 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 niche for himself as one of the most eccentric filmmakers in the industry.

Hailing from Hollywood, California, Shaw is much more than just an independent filmmaker. He is also a respected martial artist who has written an enormous amount of articles and books on the subject as well as being an accomplished musician and photographer.   When he is not making movies he teaches courses on filmmaking at colleges and universities.

Whereas many independent filmmakers try to climb the Hollywood ladder, Shaw has turned his back on the traditional film industry and focused his career upon his self-developed philosophy of Zen Filmmaking. What is Zen Filmmaking? I will let Scott Shaw explain that in his own words.

Cori Tate Before we begin I want to tell you that I have been a fan of your work for some time and I believe I have seen all of your films.

Scott Shaw Thank you. Which one is your favorite?

Cori Tate Undercover X.

Scott Shaw That’s one of my favorites too.

Cori Tate I also really like the editing in Killer: Dead or Alive.

Scott Shaw Yeah, that’s a fun one as well. Which of my films do you like the least?

Cori Tate I don’t want to answer that. Aren’t I the one who is supposed to be asking the questions?

Scott Shaw Sorry. Ask away.

Cori Tate I know in the past you said that while growing up you saw the downside of the film industry and that is what kept you from becoming involved in it until much later in your life. Being from an industry family myself, I too have seen that side of it. Have you been able to stay away from the turmoil?

Scott Shaw For the most part, yes. I really don’t run in those circles and I do not go around asking people for money to finance my films like a lot of indie filmmakers do. So I am able to stay pretty clear of all of the nonsense and the melodrama.

Cori Tate As a filmmaker how would you define the kind of films you make?

Scott Shaw Zen Films.

Cori Tate Yes, I know that but your films have a very unique characteristic. Can you explain that?

Scott Shaw That’s just it. They’re Zen Films. There is no definition for a Zen Film.  What they are is what they are. Each one is whole and complete onto itself. Each one is different. There is no formula. There is no dogma. There are no requirements. You just go out there and do it and that is what you do.

Cori Tate Do most people understand your Zen Filmmaking style?

Scott Shaw You know, ever since Don Jackson and I made the first Zen Film, The Roller Blade Seven, we knew that people who had an eye for the cinematically abstract and who really studied the intricacies of what we were doing would understand and like it and the people who expected to see a traditional mainstream film, would not. To answer your question it is 50/50.

Cori Tate Now that you brought up Donald G. Jackson how did you two function as a filmmaking team?

Scott Shaw As artists, Don and I had a very similar mind. He, like I, appreciated the bizarre and the abstract. As people, we had very different personalities. He was very explosive. He liked to yell and scream at people and mess with their heads. Me, I am the total opposite. I’m all about making people comfortable and making the world a more calm and peaceful place.

Cori Tate Then how did you work together?

Scott Shaw When we worked together we were of one mind. We never questioned the other’s insights. Whichever one of us had the inspiration, the other one just flowed along.

Cori Tate In the past you have stated that Donald G. Jackson used a script for all of the films he created when you were not involved in the project. Is that true? Isn’t that against the primary premise of Zen Filmmaking?

Scott Shaw Yes, for the most part that is true. But Don was a very spontaneous guy, if someone wanted to go in a different direction he never forced them to speak only the lines written in the script.

But you just expressed a really a big point that many people misunderstand.  Everybody seems to think that Zen Filmmaking is simply based on the premise of not using a script. That’s totally wrong. The use of no screenplay in the filmmaking process is simply a tool to open up the filmmaker’s mind to allow spontaneity to be the primary guiding force in a film’s creation.  By allowing artistic freedom to guide you in the filmmaking process you allow magic, and by magic I mean you allow and accept magical things to happen that you would or could never expect.

Cori Tate So far you’ve written two books on filmmaking, Zen Filmmaking and Independent Filmmaking: Secrets of the Craft. What are the differences between the two books and what information do they provide?

Scott Shaw You know, I’ve been making films for a long time now and not only have I been teaching classes and seminars on the subject for years upon years but I receive a lot of questions about filmmaking all the time. What I realized a long time ago is that everybody has the same questions and everybody, including myself, runs into the same problems. The two books spell all of the problems that I have run into and the problems that other indie filmmakers have run into and then the books provide answers and ways to avoid these problems as much as possible. The difference between the two books is that Zen Filmmaking is more of an illustration of my personal filmmaking journey in association with a lot of how-to. Independent Filmmaking is more of an overall nuts and bolts discussion and a how-to for the independent film industry.

Cori Tate Having seen most of your films I realize that you are constantly changing as a filmmaker from how you tell a story onto editing and all the various visuals. How and why has your filmmaking evolved?

Scott Shaw The main component is that technology is constantly making things easier. I couldn’t do, or maybe better put, I couldn’t afford to do a lot of things, particularly in editing, that I wanted to do in years gone past. Now it’s all on your PC. You can do pretty much anything. From the advancements in technology I have been allowed to continually expand and push the barriers within my visions for artistic filmmaking.

Cori Tate You say there are no mistakes in filmmaking. What does that mean?

Scott Shaw Most people who want to make a film have the hope and the desire that their film, made with no money, will come out looking like a hundred million dollar feature. Moreover, the people who view independent, low and no budget features expect them to look like they had a hundred million dollar budget.  That is just not the reality of making an indie film, especially when you have limited financial resources. What I mean by there are no mistakes is that you have to enter the process with the understanding that your film is going to turn out the way your film is going to turn out. That is not to say that you don’t try to make it look good. But you have to accept your limitations. And the viewers should also be of that same mindset if they are planning to watch a film of this genre. By entering the filmmaking process with this mindset, the freedom of Zen is experienced.

PART TWO: Zen Filmmaking: The Process

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.

PART THREE: Scott Shaw: The Filmmaker

As was revealed in part one and part two of this interview, Scott Shaw is a truly unique individual and revolutionary filmmaker, creating films via the style of filmmaking he created, Zen Filmmaking. Hailing from Hollywood, California, Scott Shaw has spent over twenty years making some of the most cutting-edge no-budget independent feature films, documentaries, and music videos that the world has never seen. After detailing the foundations for (and the techniques of) Zen Filmmaking in the previous two segments, in this final section we are going to peer into the mind of Scott Shaw and see just what makes this filmmaker tick.

Cori Tate In this part of the interview I want to peer into Scott Shaw the filmmaker and ask you why you do what you do.

Scott Shaw That’s scary. But let’s go.

Cori Tate One of the main things I have noticed about your films is that there is always movement. The character you play or your other actors portray are either riding on a motorcycle, driving in a car, riding on a ferry in Hong Kong, on a subway in Tokyo or on a ship in Canada. If you or your actors are not on some vessel then the characters are frequently seen walking or running. In fact, one of your recent films I saw, The Drive, revolves around a constant state of movement. Why is that?

Scott Shaw First of all, thank you for realizing this, most people don’t.

Cori Tate You’re welcome.

Scott Shaw At its root, the simple answer is, all of life is about movement. That movement may be small or it may be large but it is constant. Everything in this universe is in a continual state of flux. I want my films to represent that understanding on a subtle, subliminal level.  That is why I always have movement in my films. From a less philosophic aspect, movement adds a great level of visual stimuli for the audience. It draws them it. For example, on a subtle level the audience begins to study what is going on outside the windows of a car as the character drives it down the street. Life and the world we live in is very unique. It is a work of art. I like to bring that art into my films as much as possible.

Cori Tate I understand that you shoot your films wherever your inspiration guides you. Yet where you shoot your films and the sets you use have a very common theme, namely the old or the dilapidated. Why is that?

Scott Shaw I’m a city kid. I grew up on the wrong side of the tracks in L.A. In terms of the cityscapes I use, I have forever been drawn to the rundown parts of the city. There is simply something very artistic and beautiful about structures that are in decay and an area that is in its latter stages of existence. In terms of my internal sets, my inspiration is the same. But, they are more of a creation than where I film outside. A good example is, I was watching an old episode of the T.V. series Adam-12 the other day. Malloy and Reed were supposed to be at three different apartments in a rundown building. But all the production team did was to shift the camera to the other side of the hall. In each scene you could see the same spots on the walls and the team entering the same apartment but they were supposed to be three different apartments on three different floors. I love the cinematic ridiculousness of stuff like that. So I embrace it. I recreate it.

Cori Tate You have said that there are hidden elements in all of your films. Is that an example?

Scott Shaw Yes. But it is more than simply the sets and how they are used. Like you realized about the movement in my films, the items I place for the camera to see: the things on the walls, the floors, and in the distance are all very revealing. There are hidden objects in all of my films and abstract expressions in the dialogue. It is the viewer that must find them and decide what they mean.

Cori Tate Why do you do that?

Scott Shaw That is one of the things that makes watching a Zen Film so interesting. Once you understand this, figuring out the underlying meaning of the locations, the dialogue and the scenes become part of the whole process of watching the film.

Cori Tate In terms of your editing style you have always used exaggerated edits. Why?

Scott Shaw Some filmmakers believe that they can draw the audience into the film. They think that they can cause the audience to lose themselves in a film. That’s just not what I’m about. First of all, I don’t believe that you can do that. A movie may emotionally affect you but you never forget that you are watching a movie. It’s not real. So I don’t even try to do that. In fact, I do just the opposite. I want the audience of my films to have a unique experience. Something jarring. Something different. I want them to say, “Wow, that’s a cool edit. How’d he do that?” Or, “I didn’t expect that. That really changed the mood of everything.” This is also why I either have myself or one of my actors glance directly into the camera during each film. As I am sure you know, this is something that is forbidden in all realms of traditional filmmaking. I do this very subtly. You really need to look for it. This is just a subtle reminder to the audience that they are watching a film and the film is not real. It’s also based in the fact; we’re watching you watching us. Look out!

Cori Tate The next question is rhythm. You always have very rhythmic soundtracks. Why is that?

Scott Shaw Again, there is the deeper level and there is the more mundane answer to that question. Rhythm is so primal. It is so at the root of humanity. It touches something deeply inside of everyone. I want the audience to feel the movement in my films. So I use rhythm based soundtracks. The other side of the issue is, I like that style of music.

Cori Tate In the past people always seemed to try to draw parallels between Zen Filmmaking and other forms of nontraditional filmmaking. That seems to have stopped. Why do you think that is?

Scott Shaw I think it is due to the amount of product that has been released using this unique brand of filmmaking. New Zen Films are made all the time, not only by me but also by other filmmakers who are employing various aspects of the philosophy. From this, it has carved out its own entity.

Cori Tate When I was in film school some of the instructors discussed Zen Filmmaking. It interested a few people like myself but others said it could never work.

Scott Shaw Obviously those people were wrong. There have been a lot of Zen Films created. That’s the thing about school, I know because I have spent many years in colleges and universities, first as a student and then as an instructor. The thing is, students say a lot of things all based on the fact that they believe they are soon to be the master of the universe. They believe that all of their dreams are going to come true. They think that they know everything and whatever they believe is right. This is especially the case in a subject like filmmaking where a few people have become the king of the world. But it is rare. Most people do not become that successful. That’s one of the main reason I created Zen Filmmaking and have continued to focus on it. Not only does it remove many of the obstacles from the filmmaking process but it also allows films to be created that are perfect within their own perfection. They can be whatever they turn out to be. No judgment. That’s Zen.

Cori Tate Will you always be a Zen Filmmaker?

Scott Shaw I believe that every filmmaker must base the creation of their films upon a philosophy. Mine is obviously the philosophy of Zen Filmmaking. If you don’t have a philosophy then your film simply becomes an attempt to mimic what others have done in order to gain fame or financial success. So to answer your question, yes, I will always be a Zen Filmmaker.

Cori Tate Recently you’ve been discussing how Zen Filmmaking has evolved to the non-narrative film. What does that mean?

Scott Shaw As I said to you previously, there is no dogma within Zen Filmmaking. It is as free and as creative as the filmmaker chooses it to be. For me, I realized that it was time to move away from story structure altogether. As you know, one of the main concepts of Zen Filmmaking is that the stories have all been told. So why try to retell a story that has been told a thousand times before? Thus came the non-narrative Zen Film.

Cori Tate What does that mean and how do you create a non-narrative film?

Scott Shaw You mentioned you saw the Zen Film, The Drive. That is a non-narrative film. To create a non-narrative Zen Film the inspiration comes from everywhere, anywhere. I don’t know? Where does inspiration come from? But how you create a non-narrative Zen Film is that you capture a series of shots and then weave them together to make a cinematic collage of images that draw the viewer into the space of the abstract, into the space of Zen.

Cori Tate Will you ever go back to making a dialogue driven film?

Scott Shaw First of all, my films have never been dialogue driven. Yes, there is dialogue but they are driven by the essence of pure cinema, artistic cinematic images brought together to shape a collective whole. But sure, if and when the inspiration strikes, I will make another film that employes dialogue.

Cori Tate You mention Pure Cinema. Was that an inspiration to you?

Scott Shaw Think about this, Cinéma Pur (Pure Cinema) was created by filmmakers like Chomette, Léger, and Clair in the early part of the twentieth century. Filmmaking was new at that point in history and these people were already attempting to step back and make it a more pure and organic process. Those people lived in a different age than we live in. They possessed a different set of available tools and influences, yet they sought to bring filmmaking back to an artistic sourcepoint. Me too.  That’s what Zen Filmmaking is all about. Is Zen Filmmaking based on Pure Cinema? No. Am I influenced by it? No. But, I do appreciate their ideologies as I have walked a similar path of inspiration.

Cori Tate What made you become an independent filmmaker?

Scott Shaw Wow, that is a deep question and there are probably a million answers. Mostly I’ve always been an artist. Since a very young age I was also a photographer. At a certain point it just become a natural progression for me.

Cori Tate Most independent filmmakers seek out production companies to finance their films. Why haven’t you followed that path?

Scott Shaw Because I don’t want anybody controlling what I do. If somebody is paying you then they control what you create. If someone is controlling you, if someone is telling you what you must do and when you should do it, then it is no longer art. I am an artist. You may love my art, you may hate my art, but my films are made with art as their focus. If someone is financing you, they have one goal and that is to make money. To make money you have to supply a product that the masses will appreciate. You’ve seen my films; do you think the masses can appreciate them?

Cori Tate Yes, I do.

Scott Shaw Wow, that’s a first. Thanks.

With this I end the interview with Scott Shaw the Zen Filmmaker.

Scott Shaw is a truly unique believer in art and the art of filmmaking. Though his words may have a certain seriousness to them, there was never a moment that he did not possess a big smile on his face. As we parted company he said, “If you ever need any help making a film, don’t hesitate to call.” I think this is probably the biggest revealer about Scott Shaw. He is a truly helpful individual who does what he does not only to create art as he sees it but also to lend a hand to all of us who are attempting to climb the ladder in the filmmaking industry. Thank you Scott Shaw.

Everybody Talks About the Films but Nobody Studies the Films

By Scott Shaw

I forever find it curious that whenever I hear or read about what people are saying about the Zen Films of Scott Shaw they are virtually always completely wrong. Some have gone to extended lengths to describe and discuss the films I have made but they are completely missing the point. Some love them, some hate them, and, all that is fine with me — that is their opinion. But, no one ever studies the films.

From a personal perspective, I can tell you that from the time I was young I would watch films very carefully. I would notice things about them that I would later realize were completely missed by others. There are mistakes in continuity, changes in lighting between the various takes, wardrobe differences, actors looking at the camera, and the list goes on. But, I never saw those as filmmaking flaws, I simply saw them as part and parcel of the filmmaking process. By observing a film in this manner, it truly makes the watching of that movie very intriguing to me.

Again, from a personal perspective, I can categorically state that I have never attempted to make a traditional film. From my experience, a traditional film, that will play well to a traditional film going audience, costs a lot of money as you have to play to their preconceived notions about what a film is supposed to be. As I have never had a high budget in my filmmaking endeavors, I have never attempted to walk down that road — though some of the people I have worked with have attempted to guide me in a more traditional direction in my filmmaking practices. But, that is just not who I am.

All this being stated, what I can say is that within the spontaneity, freedom, and magic of Zen Filmmaking every film that I have ever created has been done so with a very clear focus of message, (based upon budgetary constrains, of course). You may love what I do. You may hate what I do. You may issue praise or cast criticism. That’s all fine with me. But, what most people never seems to do is to actually study the films I make. They never look for the subtleties. They simply look to the obvious. And, by viewing my Zen Films in this manner, they are really missing the whole point.

…I mean, come on! These are Zen Films, what do you expect to see when you sit down to watch them?

As the filmmaker, I could point to each element of what one should be looking for in each scene of my films. But, what would be the fun of that? This is Zen Filmmaking and that is all part of the process; finding the hidden meaning, revealing to yourself what is hiding beneath the surface and what it means to you. It is essential to know, however, that every scene in every one of my Zen Films has a Some Thing that is there for a reason which guides the overall vision of the film and projects an ideology to the audience whether they consciously notice it or not. This is why they are each titled a, “Zen Film.”

So, I want to call out all you, (oh so knowledgeable), film reviewers. I want to tell you, “You missed the point.” Simply by looking to the storyline, the sets, the acting, and the character development for guidance in your reviews you have completely overlooked what is actually going on.

As a Film Watcher and as a Film Maker I can say that to truly understand any film you have to look beyond the obvious. This is especially the case with Zen Films. So, the next time you want to find something to cast your judgment upon at least have the foresight to see what you are missing by studying the subtitles instead of simply sitting there with your mind already made up and casting judgment.

Copyright (C) 2016 — All Rights Reserved.

Max Hell Frog Warrior: The Facts and the Fiction

TW S & Jill Max Hell Frog Warrior: The Facts and the Fiction

By James Kim

Max Hell Frog Warrior holds a unique place in cult film history. It is both loved and hated, revered and shunned, praised and harshly criticized. There have been reviews, critiques, analysis and evaluations. It has been shown in movie theaters in Japan, the Philippines, and Malaysia, it has played at film festival in the U.S., the U.K., Russia, Ukraine, and Australia. There have been countless showings of the movie in screening rooms and at makeshift backyard and bar film events. It has been bootlegged and released via a stolen Beta Master.  It has been illegally downloaded thousands of times from offshore websites.  There have been articles written about the film. It has been referenced in numerous books and publications. It was even mentioned on the HBO television series The Newsroom. There has been gossip, misnomers and lies told about the film, the filmmakers and the filmmaking process used in the film’s creation. The one thing that no one has done in the twenty years since this film was created is to talk to the last remaining filmmaker of Max Hell Frog Warrior, Scott Shaw about what truly happened during the creation of this movie.

Max Hell Frog Warrior was initially released in its original edit form as Toad Warrior. It was later reedited, retitled and rereleased. The focus of this interview will be to hopefully remove some of the speculation and misconceptions about this film and get to the bottom of what actually took place throughout the entire creation of this movie.  I hope to present the truth and remove the fiction from the facts about Max Hell Frog Warrior.

Nice to meet you Dr. Shaw.

Great to meet you and please call me Scott. I’m not a formal sort of guy.

Okay Scott. You know why I’m here. I want to talk to you about Max Hell Frog Warrior.

Finally.

That’s what I think too. Why has nobody ever interviewed you about this film?

Truthfully I don’t know. Everybody asks me about The Roller Blade Seven, Guns of El Chupacabra, Undercover X, Vampire Blvd., Killer Dead or Alive, Vampire Noir, the Rock n’ Roll Cops and movies like that. I know people talk about this movie a lot but no one ever asks me anything.

I have seen a lot of things written about Max Hell Frog Warrior on the web. Have you seen any of that?

Yeah, I’ve seen some. I’m really not one of those people who wastes my time on the internet seeking out that kind of stuff. I’m really too busy. I’m all about creating new things, not about reading what someone thinks about stuff I’ve created in the past. But some of the stuff has been brought to my attention.

Is it correct?

Mostly what I’ve seen out there are a lot of people’s opinions. As they are people’s opinions, I guess from that point of view they are true. But nobody has asked me. Nobody asked Don. All people do is see the movie, think they know what’s going on and talk about it. From that point of view nobody understands anything about what really took place in the creation of this film and this has been going on for a very long time. I mean we finished Toad Warrior in 1996. That’s twenty years ago. Before it was ever released I sent a screening copy of it to a friend of mine who ran a magazine and he gave it to one of his reviewers. The guy wrote a review and tore the movie apart saying that we were trying to make a copy of Hell Comes to Frogtown. The guy was so stupid that he said we were using cheap imitation Frogtown masks. But those were the same masks actually used in Hell Comes to Frogtown! He tore up the directing making a bunch of insulting comments. The guy didn’t even know that Maximo T. Bird was Donald G. Jackson, the creator of Hell Comes to Frogtown. How stupid is that?

Did that review bother you?

No. It made me laugh. It really pissed Don off though. I mean the guy did compare me to a low budget Kurt Russell. So that made me smile. The thing is I don’t really care about reviews. Love it, hate it, that’s your choice. The thing I don’t like is when someone presents their opinion as fact when their fact is wrong.

Has that happened a lot with this film?

Oh yeah. On the internet people can say anything they want. True or false they don’t even care. The sad thing is people have come to believe that people’s opinions are the truth and just because somebody is saying something it must be true. I think that’s really sad. Before you believe anything, find out the facts.

Yes, I agree with you. Do you think bad reviews have hurt Max Hell Frog Warrior?

I don’t know about that. In some cases, I think people watch a film like Max Hell Frog Warrior because of the bad reviews.

Why do you think some reviewers attack a film like Max Hell Frog Warrior?

Who knows? People do what they do for any number of personal reasons. What I do think is that before anybody becomes a film reviewer they should get out there and actually create their own film, which takes a lot of time and energy. Then they should go through the process to find distribution for it and see how they feel when people tear it apart. Talking about a film is easy, creating one is very hard. If someone has never actually made a movie they have no idea about what is involved so they shouldn’t be saying anything unless they have walked down that road. Moreover, I believe that you have to look at a person’s motivation for reviewing anything at all. You have to ask why are they doing it? In the case of reviewing films on the internet it is usually that they are trying to make a name for themselves without actually doing anything. My opinion is everybody has an opinion but your opinion only matters if it adds to the greater good. Telling people your opinion means nothing unless it makes everything better. Negativity only equals negativity, just as positivity only equals positivity.

That’s deep.

Not really.  It’s just common sense.

Let’s get to the inception of the movie.

Let’s go.

Why did you decide to make this movie?

That was actually kind of a long process.  I hadn’t seen Don for a few years after we finished Roller Blade Seven. I got pretty screwed over during the making of that film.  In fact, the very first thing Don said to me when he got into my car when I drove him to the hospitable shortly before he died was, I’m really sorry about what happened to you with Roller Blade Seven.

If I can interrupt. What happened?

It was basically a financial thing. Don got paid a lot. I got paid zero for all of my time and involvement with that film and in many ways I did way more than Don.

If I can interrupt again?

Sure. This is your show.

I understand your books gave words to the dialogue and you did the acting, editing and the music.

Yes. All that and a lot more.

What actually happened?

Well, the executive producer totally cheated me, broke our contracts, reedited the film for U.S. release, pulled my screen credits, and the list goes on. But Don continued to work with her and get financed by her after we finished Roller Blade Seven. So it was basically a backstabbing sort of thing. I walked away from that film beyond broke after not getting paid of months. Someday I’m going to write a book about the Roller Blade Seven and I’ll tell the whole story as so many things took place during the filming of that movie both good and bad.

That’s nice he apologized. It must have been on his mind for all those years.

Yeah, I guess. But by then I was so over it. Had he apologized ten years earlier it probably would have mattered more to me but by that point it didn’t really mean anything anymore.

So what brought you two back together?

Don called me out of nowhere. He had continued to make films. I had continued to make films. The thing was I had pretty much given up on acting and I didn’t want to do it anymore. My plan was to get fat and just produce and direct movies.

Get fat. That’s a strange desire.

Yeah, I guess it is. For me it was just a way to put out to the world the new and different space I was living in. I wanted to be seen differently.

What happened when Don called you?

We set up a meet and he immediately threw out to me that he wanted to make another film with me as the star. I gave in.

Why do you think Don called you out of the blue? 

I don’t realize it then but I think what it was is that he found out he only had a few more years to live as he was dying from leukemia. He remembered how well we worked together and that I was one of those people who gets things done. I think he wanted to leave a legacy and without someone like me that wasn’t going to happen.

Why?

Don was one of those guys who had a million great ideas but he couldn’t get things done. He would start something and never finish it. He had to pay a lot of people big money or all his projects would just fall away. The fact is, that’s why so many more of his films were released after he died than while he was alive. When he was on his death bed he finally gave me all of the footage and I completed the films for him. The truth be told without me all of Don’s films and his legacy would have been lost.

How did you two come up with Max Hell Frog Warrior?

That’s a complicated and long story. It really took us quite a while. Once we decided to work together again we toyed with several ideas. The main focus was we hoped to rekindle what we had achieved with Roller Blade Seven because by that point in time that film was already a big cult hit in Europe. We were getting fan letters and later emails all the time. There were several ideas we played around with but we finally decided upon a film called Hell Comes to Hog Town.

What was the story?

Basically I was going to ride in on my Harley with an electric guitar over my shoulder and do battle with the bad guy who was referred to as The Hog. There was going to be a lot of music, me playing guitar, fighting, etc.

Why did you change your minds?

We realized that it was just going to be too hard to do. Too Big.  We wanted motorcycle gangs, bands to be playing in an old western town and stuff like that. All that would cost a lot of money.  A lot of money we didn’t have.

It was budget that had you make a smaller film?

Yeah, I guess you can say that.

So what caused you to focus on Frogtown?

Don never liked the previous two Frogtown films he made. His creative control had been taken away from him on both of them. One day it was like an epiphany we just decided to make Frogtown the way we made Roller Blade Seven, no script, just go out and do what we do. Keep the whole process really simply and really pure.

Once you decided on the film you were going to make how did you cast it?

We had our offices in North Hollywood. We put out casting notices and did all that traditional nonsense.  We found a few good people. We also knew we wanted to work with Joe Estevez and Jill Kelly. Don brought in a couple of girls he had worked with previously and I brought in Roger Ellis who had been in Roller Blade Seven but I had used him in much bigger roles in Samurai Vampire Bikers from Hell and Samurai Johnny Frankenstein. I wanted my friend Ken Kim to be in the film as well. He was also in RB7 and we had made a couple of films together since then but he came in one day right before we started shooting and remembered how much he hated Don and walked out.

Why did he hate Don?

Don rubbed a lot of people the wrong way. He really messed with people. He made a lot of enemies. Basically he was a complete asshole unless he liked you, feared you or wanted something from you. A total power tripper.

Which one of those were you?

I guess a little of all three.

It sounds like you two had a crazy relationship.

To put it mildly.

Did you pay your actors?

Oh sure.  Joe and Jill were professionals so they had their established day rates. The rest of the cast varied but the average was about $100.00 per day plus food and gas and that kind of stuff.

Did you get paid this time?

Oh yeah. I had learned by lesson.

When you started filming did you have a script?

Nope.

Did you have any idea what you were going to do when you started shooting?

Not really. We just knew that we were going to start the shoot and lay the foundations for the film at our offices. We had the whole second floor of a building so we put together some makeshift sets.

How do you work? I have read a lot about Zen Filmmaking but can you tell me about the process?

The main thing to know is to never hold yourself to a preconceived notion. Just let it flow. If you have an idea, great. If you have no idea, great. Just do it. Get it done. Start out, get the cast doing what they are doing and let whatever happens be captured on film.

That is really mindboggling. How you make movies with no idea about what you are going to do?

Is it mindboggling? Think about this, how many bad movies have you seen? I’m not just talking low budget, I’m talking high budget as well.  Everyone of those movies had an idea. The filmmakers knew what they wanted, had a script and tried to get what they had in their mind on film. Maybe they tried and tried again.  You hear stories of people shooting thousands of feet of footage just to get one scene the way they want it. I remember Dennis Hopper talking about working with Francis Ford Coppola on Apocalypse Now. He said Coppola shot as much footage trying to get the first scene with Hopper as Hopper had used in making the entire film Easy Rider. Apocalypse Now is a great film but do you need to go to that extreme? I don’t think so. Yes, you can make each scene as good as you can make it. But it is only going to be as good as it is going to be. Free yourself and art takes hold and the magic takes over.

What do you mean by magic?

For example, in the opening scene of Max Hell where my character flies in on an ultralight, we had no idea we were going to do that. We just drove out to the El Mirage Dry Lake Bed with our cast and crew planning to film. When we got there we saw this couple with their ultralights and we asked them if we could use them. They said yes and the rest is history. That ultralight scene really added a big beginning to the film and we had no idea that we were going to do that.

That is magic.

Yes it is. That’s Zen Filmmaking.

What was your crew like?

There was Don and me. He shot most of the film, I shot some of it and we had another great cameraman Jonathan Quade. We had a few production assistants and that was pretty much it.

What kind of equipment did you use?

We started out filming with a Canon L1. That’s a Hi8 camera. The DV revolution hit right about the time we were making the movie so we bought a Sony VX1000. Our mic was a Sennheiser ME66. In terms of lighting that’s kind of an interesting story. On the first day of the shoot I went to my storage unit to pick up my lights. When I got there I found that someone had cut a hole through the wall of the storage unit next to mine and had stolen all of my lights, my c-stands, my extension cords and a bunch of my amps and guitar equipment. So we ended up shooting most of the movie with available light. We did have two very low end Smith Victor photofloods that Don owned and a couple of his minicool lights for the outdoor night shots.

That was it?

That was it.

That’s impressive what you captured with that limited amount of equipment.

You gotta know what you’re doing, then the doing is easy.

In terms of actors, with no script how did you do the character development for the movie?

It’s really very simply, we let people be who they are.  If they have an idea for a character that will play into the film, we use it. Most newbie actors need more guidance so we give it to them. We had a bunch of wardrobe so if someone needed something, we suited them up.

Was there a reason that you didn’t have the people who played the frogs fully covered in frog costumes?  You can see their hands in some of the scenes.

That’s funny you say that. Fred Olin Ray said the exact same thing when he saw the film. It was just one of those things, we did what we did. Suspension of belief that’s what going to the movies is all about, isn’t it? Let the audience slip into the realms of the abstract. In a movie like Max Hell Frog Warrior why do the frogs need to be completely frogged out anyway?

I know everybody asks you this but when you have no script how do your actors know what to say?

As the years have gone on I now only work with people who are great at improv. but back then if someone didn’t know what to say Don or I would feed them their lines. They would say it and we would shoot it a few times until they got it right and we felt the camera captured the scene correctly and that was that.

Did you tell Joe Estevez what to say?

Not really. Joe’s a great talker. He’s a great improvisational actor. You just give him a little direction and he runs with it. Same with Roger Ellis. Another great talker.

With no script did you know where you were going to shoot?

Yeah, of course. We wanted to reference some of the locations we used in Roller Blade Seven plus add a lot of new locations we had discovered. When we were planning to shoot exteriors we always had a destination in mine but sometimes we would find new places en route.

How did you come up with your character Max Hell?

Don and I had talked about it and we really wanted to bring back some of the essence from Roller Blade Seven. I still had the rollerblade elbow and knee pads from RB7. I had a black suit and a sword. My character was born.

If you wanted to reference Roller Blade Seven, why wasn’t Donald G. Jackson in the film?

He didn’t want to be.

How many days did it take you to film the whole movie?

It actually went on for a few months.  We would meet at our offices everyday around 11:00 AM and do what needed to be done. We continued to do casting sessions, we had lunch, drank beers with our friends, went to other people’s sets, hung out with other filmmakers, scouted locations, and went out to music clubs at night. We filmed when we felt like filming.

So you were not like a formal movie production team?

Yes and no. The number one rule of Zen Filmmaking is that fun is what it’s all about. So our main focus was fun while make a movie in the process. The thing to understand is the minute Don and I started working together again it wasn’t just about Max Hell Frog Warrior. Though that was the first movie on the schedule we immediately began to make several more films as well. Hand in hand with Max Hell we laid the foundations for and began filming Shotgun Blvd., which later became Armageddon Blvd., Ghost Taxi and several others.

Let’s go scene by scene and talk about the film.

Let’s go.

In the opening scene Jill Kelly is running from the frogs. How did that scene come about?

It was just a thought we came up with in the moment. We got out to El Mirage very early in the morning. We did the ultralight scene and then we needed to introduce Jill’s character. There has to be tension in every film so it was an obvious choice that Jill had to be chased by the frogs. We needed to set the storyline in motion so we had them take something from her, the frog serum.

During that scene is where you first introduce martial arts into the movie. Did you chorography that?

No, not really. That was just a spur of the moment thing. That was the thing with Don as the cinematographer, he would become so obsessed with filming certain scenes over and over again. I document his cinematographic OCD in the Zen Documentary Cinematografia Obsesion. For scenes like fight scenes he just didn’t care. So there was only like two quick takes of each kick.  As an editor that kind of stuff really drove me nuts. One of things that did happen when I was kicking a frog with a jumping side kick is that Jill was standing right there to be in the shot and due to the lack of any forethought my sword smacked her right in the teeth. She had just gotten her teeth caped so she was obviously a bit worried but luckily no damage was done. She was way nicer about that than she should have been.

After the frogs gets away you and Jill Kelly get into a truck and ride off. What was the inspiration for that scene?

No real inspiration. Just Zen Filmmaking. One of our people on the set had the truck. It just happened. The guy wasn’t a professional actor, he just had a good look and a cool old truck.  I had to feed him every line over and over again. He was so nervous he couldn’t remember anything. I sat in the bed of his truck with the rear window open and told him what to say one sentence at at time. Jill was fine. She’s a pro.

You had a fight scene in the back of that truck. Was that frog a stunt man?

No. He was actually a production assistant. Nice guy.  All he cared about was getting paid his $100.00 cash at the end of every day and he would happily do anything. He actually was a frog in several scenes throughout the film.

After those introductory scenes you started to introduce other characters into the film. Tell me about the early Joe Estevez scenes.

We actually shot the stuff with Joe and Humphrey Bullfrog on the first day of production. Joe’s a great actor. We pared him with a girl named Sandra Purpuro who played the character Cricket. Her and her boyfriend had just moved to L.A. from New York and were looking for some roles. We had cast them through Dramalogue. I think we cast them that same day. They were both very talented actors. Sandra went on to have a great career.

How did you set up the scenes on that fist day of shooting?

Totally off the cuff. We started with the Bullfrog character and then built on the storyline with Joe.

How did you come up with the name Mickey O’Malley for Joe’s character?

That was totally Joe. Don actually hated that name but he didn’t want to offend Joe so he just let it ride.

I too thought that was a strange name for the character. Who is the crazy guy in those scenes with Joe Estevez speaking Japanese?

He’s a great guy from Japan named Tom Tom Typhoon. Whatever happened to him I have no idea. Don had met him at a casting sessions a little bit before we had started working together again and he pulled him onto the film.

Did you tell him to be that dynamic?

Oh yeah. You know he spoke some English but he didn’t speak it very well so his character speaking in Japanese was the obvious choice. I communicated with him in Japanese. But he was just one of those great guy who could really take that style of insane character to the limit and really sell it. I kept telling him bigger, bigger. He went bigger.

In the progression of the film, after those initial scenes you start to introduce other characters into the movie. One of the first things I notice is that in Toad Warrior there is a scene in a laboratory with a woman talking about the fog concoction. In Max Hell Frog Warrior that scene is all but gone. Why is that?

To tell you that story I’m going to have to take you away from your scene by scene analysis a little bit. I never edited Toad Warrior. I had gone to Thailand to prepare for a documentary I was going to shoot in Cambodia.  The film needed to be done so Don gave the editing to his friend named Chris Roth. Chris is a great guy and a professional editor. The thing is, both Don and I never really like the final cut of the film. It was a little too normal for our tastes. In fact, one of the documentaries I did about Don shortly before he died shows Chris in Don’s office and they are talking about the editing process for the film. Don was saying that I should probably reedit the movie. Chris said if I did that it probably wouldn’t make much sense. Don said that’s probably better. That’s the mindset Don and I came from. Though Chris did a great job of making sense out of the footage when there was no script and he also did a good job of trying to reference some of the editing elements of Roller Blade Seven in the movie but he just approached the editing from a different state of mind than Don and me. He came at it from a mindset of formula and normality. Don and I liked the abstract. To answer your question, I didn’t like that scene so it was gone.

But you did edit Max Hell Frog Warrior?

Yes and no. What I did was to go back into movie take out some scenes, add a few more, and shorten or elongate others. I never actually started from scratch for the edit that became Max Hell Frog Warrior

I have read that you plan to reedit the entire movie at some point.

Yes. That’s true. The fact is over the past ten or fifteen years I have started to do that three or four times. I get maybe thirty minutes into the film and stop. Then I eventually dump it.

Why?

I don’t really have an answer. There is so much great footage that wasn’t used in the original edit that really should be.  I need to do it but for some reason something has stopped me. Hopefully someday I’ll do it.

Where did you film that laboratory scene?

That was at the home of one of our actresses. The blonde girl Elizabeth Mayer. Her character’s name was Dr. Trixi T. She’s a great actress and a really nice person. She also a great musician.

Though this is jumping forward a little bit there was a great scene with her and Joe Estevez where they break into a dance and do the hooky pokey.

Yeah, that’s a scene I really don’t like. It’s just humor for humor sake. I hate that kind of stuff.

If you don’t like it how did a scene like that come about?

That’s the problem when you let actors step away and develop their own story ideas.  I don’t really let that happen on my sets anymore. I maintain story control. Back then it was different and it was Joe Estevez. We always gave him the benefit of the doubt. Who knew Elizabeth and Joe would come up with that? He was Joe so we let the cameras run and that’s what we came away with.

I think I need to explain something here and this is all part and parcel with the evolution of Zen Filmmaking. Back then we did that. We needed filmed footage as our movies had to be a minimum of 82 minutes to get international distribution. Now I don’t care. I own my own distribution company and I make film art the way I see film art. A full length feature or a short film, it just is what it is. I let it become what it becomes. I just let it be perfect onto itself. Yes, my films are based on improv. But it is guided improv. As long as I like what’s going on I let the actors run with it. If I don’t like it then I stop the scene and readjust the flow and the direction.

Trixie T. also has a fight with another actress over your character when they are in a jail cell.

Yes. That was a scene she did with Camille Solari. Another great actress. See there’s an example of how the two girls went off and created what they created all on their own and it worked great. No direction needed. So as you see, when that style of unguided improv. takes place it can go either direction. It can work or maybe it doesn’t.

One of the other main charters in the film is Overload War Toad.

Yeah, that was Roger Ellis.

That is really a strange name. How did you come up with that character?

It was combination of letting an actor be who they are and then giving them just a bit of direction. We choose the name and Roger ran with it. Roger was a West Point grad who rose to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, retired, got into the Native American movement, grew his hair long, and came to Hollywood to be an actor.

That’s crazy.

Yeah it is. But that’s the story I was told.

Did you give him his dialogue?

Some. But like I said before he was one of those guys who was just a great talker.

Speaking of talking. He has a female sidekick in the film who keeps trying to talk but he continues to tell her to be silent. What is that about?

That was just a little inside joke. In acting everybody wants to talk. They think that’s what acting is all about. But real acting is far more than that. This was Don and my way of telling the actors to just shut up and be. I think those scenes play really well.

On the set you called the Bridge of Broken Dreams your character also keeps a girl from talking.

Yeah, same deal. That’s the thing when you make a Zen Film. You can get the scene while having fun and adding a little philosophic commentary to it.

You did have a lot of interesting exterior locations in the movie. How did you find them and did you have to pay to shoot at them?

We would find them just by looking. Pretty much anywhere you live there are interesting locations if you keep your eyes open and seek them out. In terms of payment, no we never paid to shoot at any of them. We just showed up and shot the scenes. It’s not really in the rules of Zen Filmmaking but it probably should be, no filming permits, no location rentals.

Let’s talk about a couple of the recurring scenes throughout the film.

Okay.

In three different screens you have the same interaction with three different girls where they kiss you and say they’ve been hurt. How did that come about?

Just Zen.  We actually did the interior shot of that scene first and I really didn’t like it. I thought we wouldn’t use it. So we did it again later, outdoors with Camille. A bit later in the filming we needed a scene to do with an actress Robin Kimberly and I was really tired. I had been up partying all night the night before and it was getting late in the day. I just grabbed at something to do. So we shot it again. At the time I figured when we put the movie together we would choose between one of the three. It was actually Chris when he was editing Toad Warrior that he put all three of the scenes in the film. I thought that was genius.

There are also several times in the movie where you face off with an opponent and you charge at each other with swords on top of a hilltop at sunset. Why was that scene used multiple times?

First of all, check it out, that is not always the same scene used over and over again. There were several takes of that scene. That’s the thing about Zen Filmmaking there is always tons of subtle elements that you really need to look for if you hope to truly understand the movie. In terms of why we filmed that scene it was a combination of a tribute to Kurosawa and a throwback to Roller Blade Seven where we have that great scene where my character charges towards the ninja and once I cut him he spurts all that blood high into the air. The reason why the scene is used multiple times is that it was a great transitional element between other scenes.

There is the scene where Sergeant Shiva interrogates a frog and then two of your female costars. Where was that scene filmed and what made it come about?

The cameraman I mentioned Jonathan Quade had a studio set up in his garage. That’s where the scenes were filmed. Sergeant Shiva was an actor named Kent Dalian. He was the boyfriend of Sandra Purpuro that I mentions earlier. In terms of dialogue we just gave him a bit of direction and let him run with it. He was another great actor.

Where did the comments about your mother come from when he asks Agent Banner about where she got the information?

When I grew up it was one of those ongoing jokes to insult a person’s mother. It just came out of nowhere. They were just looking for an exchange of dialogue and I gave that to them and they ran with it. That’s a great and very amusing exchange I think.

I notice that the three primary female leads in the film are named Agent Star, Agent Spangle and Agent Banner. How did that come about?

The star spangled banner. That’s pretty obvious.

Does that have a meaning?

The star spangled banner, man. Don’t you love America?

When your character breaks the girls out of their captivity you get into a car. I think it was a Porsche. How does that tie into the storyline? Isn’t this movie set after the apocalypse?

Yeah. That’s my baby, a 1964 Porsche 356 SC. To your question, why do things have to make sense? This is Zen Filmmaking. Things don’t have make sense. A scene just has to be whole and complete onto itself. People really need to stop thinking so hard when they see a Zen Film. Just let it happen. Just let it be what it is.

I have one more question about your scenes. It’s about the spanking scene. In Toad Warrior it’s just a quick flash. In Max Hell Frog Warrior, it’s much longer. Why is that?

That’s a fun scene don’t you think? Robin Kimberly was a great sport, really fun to work with. Great girl. When Chris edited the film I think he wanted to tone down on that kind of stuff. Make it more of a kid’s films. Me, I love presenting something that you don’t see in films everyday. That’s why when I went for the reedit I added most of the footage that we shot for that scene. It’s just for fun.

I would like to talk to you a little about what happened to this film after it was finished.

Sure.

How was it originally released?

Don had a company that sold films that he created and that he purchased. It was called called Donald G. Jackson and Company. I always thought that was a little bit vain. Anyway, back then the internet was not the primary source for independent film distribution as it is today. You had to go to formal functions like the American Film Market. Back then it was a major event held once a year. People came from all over the world. If you made independent films you’d paid a lot of money to rent a room at the hotel on the beach in Santa Monica where it was held. The buyers would come, see what you had and maybe buy the rights to one of your movies for distribution in their country. As I told you Don and I never really liked the final edit for Toad Warrior so it was for sale but we weren’t really pushing it. We got a lot of offers but we only took the ones for theatrically only release in Japan, Malaysia, and the Philippines. The market came and went. Don took all of the money we made from Toad Warrior and our other films and spent it on himself almost immediately. Again, he screwed me over financially and that was that.

He sounds like a real jerk.

Yeah, he could be.

Then what happened?

We buried the movie and went off and did other things.  A few years passed, Don got sicker and sicker. I had reedited the film down to a Zen Speed Flick called Max Hell Comes to Frogtown.

What’s a Zen Speed Flick?

Basically taking a movie down to its most essential elements. Don loved it. He wanted me to get back into the footage and redo the whole film but it never happened before he died. As we talked about it still hasn’t happened. Though I did do the reedit of Toad Warrior into Max Hell Frog Warrior and that was the one I wanted released.

When was Max Hell Frog Warrior released?

In the late 1990s. It first came out on video tape. Remember those? Then the DVD revolution hit and it was released on DVD and later via download.

You never planned to release Toad Warrior?

No. But then somebody somehow got a hold of a Beta Master and released it on a compilation DVD.

Did you have to sue that company?

No. They were very cool about it. After I contacted them and they found out that I had the copyright and that I owned all the rights, title and interest to the film they took it off the market. But the damage had been done. It was out there.

You released Toad Warrior as well?

What else could I do? I don’t like the cut. Don didn’t like the cut. But to kept that unauthorized version from being the only version of Toad Warrior out there I had to release the authorized version.

I know there has been a lot of websites offering Max Hell Frog Warrior for free download? They are not authorized to do so, are they?

Nope. That’s the nature of the world everybody wants to make money off of the creations of other people. Personally, I think it’s really sad. I mean I certainly realize that everybody wants everything for free these days and they make all kinds of excuses and justifications to themselves for why they should get it. But the fact is the big studio make major dollars off of their films, independent filmmakers like myself do not. When people download movies off of these free sites they really are hurting the independent film creators. I know nobody cares but that is the fact.

Can’t you do anything about those companies?

Here’s the thing, I have always been an outspoken advocate about stopping copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. Some people don’t like my opinion but I believe if you are the actual creator of something, that you really care about, then you do understand. You care about your creation. If you are just somebody out there who doesn’t give a shit about other people or what happens to them as long as you get what you want for free then you obviously don’t care. Here’s the fact, if a person makes one cent off of using anything you created then they are in volition of international copyright laws. You can sue them and you will win.  But these companies are all offshore. If they were in the U.S. you could go after them but how can you even find them? If they were in the U.S. the FBI would shut them down. The main thing for everybody to remember is that these supposedly free download companies are making money. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be doing what they’re doing. They are just doing it by stealing the creations of others. So what are you going to do? You just have to believe in people and hope that they will make the right choices.

Max Hell Frog Warrior has remained one of the most talked about cult films. Did Max Hell Frog Warrior become all you hoped it would become?

That’s a hard question and you may not like the answer.  Did we create what we hoped to create when we set out to make the movie. Yes, kind of. Did it become the movie I hoped it would become when we first began production? No. Do I like the movie? No, not really.

Oh my god that’s scary.

You asked. I answered.

In closing can you tell me any funny stories that occurred during the filming of Max Hell Frog Warrior?

Don and I generally had a lot of fun when we worked together. Could he be a self-centered jerk? As we talked about, yes he could. As I say there was always a price to pay in association with anything Don. But mostly we had a lot of fun. Overall the making of Max Hell was a fun process. I guess one story that comes to mind is that he used to love to set call times really early so we could catch the golden hour light when the sun came up in the morning. On one of those shoot days we met at the office at like 4:00 AM. We went to Camille Solari’s house to pick her up. It was cold and the heater in my Porsche didn’t work, plus it is a really small car. Don’s car wasn’t running well so we decided to take Camille’s car. It was really early, she hadn’t gotten much sleep, and she asked if Don would drive so she could sleep in the backseat. We took off to pick up Jill at her house in Simi Valley. We’re driving along on this windy road and Don falls asleep at the wheel and almost trashes the car. Camille obviously freaked out. Me, I’ve been so close to death so many times I thought it was funny as nothing actually happened. But Camille begged that I drive. Don didn’t want to let go of the wheel but he finally turned over the keys to me. We got to Jill’s house. Don nicely paid Camille her $100.00 and told her to go home and get some sleep. We got into Jill’s car and went out to the desert to film. I’ve never seen Camille again.

I don’t know if that was the kind of funny story I had hoped for but this has been a great interview.

No problem.

Let me ask you one more question.

Sure.

I have heard that you are going to film another Max Hell Frog Warrior movie. Is that true?

Yeah. I actually filmed most of it a couple of years ago. Some weird things started to happen in association with Max Hell Frog Warrior and I begin to question if I wanted to do another one as I had really begun to shift my focus to creating non-narrative Zen Films.  So it’s basically there. It would just take a couple of more shots to finish it up. If I get the right inspiration I will probably finish it someday.  If not, it can just be one of the mystical Zen Film lost in never never land that no one will ever see like Lingerie Kickboxer.

Thanks so much for this interview Scott.

Thanks for doing it. You wanted to know the truth about what took place and the kind of things that took place, I think you actually got it.

Yes, I did. Thank you.

Copyright © 2016 — All Rights Reserved

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!

Mais Vampiros No Cinema

Mais Vampiros 3There is a great three volume book collection, presented in Portuguese, that has been released titled, Mais Vampiros No Cinema. This series discusses Vampire Cinema. In Volume Two, covering the years 1980 to 1990 and Volume Three covering the years 2000 to 2010 the author, Ricardo Massato Miura, details the Vampire Based Zen Films created by Scott Shaw along with a lot of other great films. The Book Series is available via eBooks on Google Play or in bound editions from the publisher in Brazil.

Mais Vampiros No Cinema Volume 2 – Décadas de 1980 – 1990 eBook
Mais Vampiros No Cinema Volume 2 – Décadas de 1980 – 1990 Print

Mais Vampiros No Cinema: Volume 3 – Décadas de 2000 – 2010 eBook
Mais Vampiros No Cinema: Volume 3 – Décadas de 2000 – 2010 Print