Scott Shaw’s latest book on Zen Filmmaking, Zen Filmmaking 2: Further Writings on the Cinematic Arts has just been published.
Scott Shaw’s latest book on Zen Filmmaking, Zen Filmmaking 2: Further Writings on the Cinematic Arts has just been published.
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.
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!
Copyright © 2007—All Rights Reserved.
The latest Scott Shaw Zen Documentary has just been released, Roller Blade 3: The Movie That Never Was.
For you fans of Roller Blade Seven this movies allows you to take a look at the first filmmaking collaboration between Scott Shaw and Donald G. Jackson before they created Roller Blade Seven and Zen Filmmaking a year later.
Here is the translation for the 2015 interview with Scott Shaw for the Romanian magazine, Crystal Spirit.
What are you currently working on?
Scott Shaw: Everything.
I know you are involved in a lot of things can you give me any specifics?
SS: For the last couple of years I’ve been focusing a lot of my time on creating music and capturing photographic images.
What kind of music and what kind of photographs?
SS: In terms of music I have been doing a lot of very ethereal guitar based stuff and working with vintage synthesizers. As far as photography, I’ve continued on my path of capturing, what I consider, interesting and abstract urban images.
Can we expect a new album in the near future?
What type of guitar equipment are you using to create music?
SS: Well, I have a lot of guitars so I work with several of them but recently I am predominately recording with a Fender Stratocaster with a scalloped fingerboard and using tons of pedals to create the textural sound I’m looking for.
SS: Wow, there’s a lot. Off the top of my head I’ve been using The Electro-Harmonix Ring Thing, Holy Grail, Electric Mistress, and Ravish Sitar, Digitech The Weapon, The Whammy, and The Hardwire DL8, Behringer Ultra Shifter/Harmonist, The Boss DD20, CE20, and The Boss Fender 68 Deluxe Reverb Amp Pedal, a Morley Classic Wah, a Fender Blender, The DanElectro Dan Echo and Fab Tone, a vintage Echoplex, a vintage Roland Space Echo, and a bunch boutique pedals I’m sure no one has ever heard of.
SS: Mostly, with today’s technology, I record direct into the system but for recording live sound in the studio I use a Mesa Boogie and some of the newer modeling amps like the Line 6. I also have an early Behringer modeling amp that really produces a great live sound and, of course, I use my ’57 Fender Deluxe when I want to record that gritty old school sound.
In terms of photography what type of equipment do you use?
SS: Everything from my iPhone to a small Nikon I carry around with me all the time onto my high-end Nikon DSLRs.
Do you have a preference?
SS: They all do what they do with the advantages and disadvantages they each individually possess. So, they each serve their purpose.
What about painting?
SS: Yeah, I’m still doing that.
SS: Of Course.
How about Zen Filmmaking. What have you been up to lately?
SS: I capture moving images all the time. Whenever I see something interesting I film it. When I get enough footage, I put it together.
What type of equipment are you using?
SS: Well, just like with still photography I use everything from my iPhone, my small carry-around Nikon, onto my Nikon DSLRs. In terms of actual video cameras I am currently using the new Sony HDR CX900. It’s portable, full broadcast quality, and really captures a great image.
Are you working on any specific films we can look forward to?
SS: Like I said, I’m always filming but I have really moved away from making, for lack of a better term, traditional story-driven films.
SS: I just have not felt like dealing with the desires, expectations, and egos of the actors and the crew and being the only one who is putting the whole production together and dealing with the all and the everything.
What does that mean for your filmmaking style?
SS: Like I’ve talked about for a few years now, I’ve been focused on making non-narrative Zen Films. Meaning, I just get an inspiration and tie a bunch of relevant moving images together, forming them into a piece of cohesive cinema.
It that a cinematic revolution?
SS: Revolution is a big word. I’m just doing what I do.
For 2015 what do you have in mind?
SS: Live and create.
There is a new one minute Scott Shaw Zen Filmmaking Trailer up at YouTube. Click on the link to check it out.
There 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.
Here is the review written by Jim Vorel about The Roller Blade Seven in his, “The 100 Best “B Movies” of All Time,” published by Paste Magazine. Click on the title for the full list
27. The Roller Blade Seven
Director: Donald G. Jackson
Remember when I called Hell Comes to Frogtown one of the more coherent films by Donald G. Jackson? This is why. When Jackson met martial artist/producer Scott Shaw, they elevated their work to Henry Darger-tier outsider art. Employing a style coined as “Zen Filmmaking,” they set out to make a post-apocalyptic, rollerblade-centric action movie with absolutely no script involved. As Shaw says, Zen Filmmaking “allows for a spiritually pure source of immediate inspiration to be the only guide in the filmmaking process.” Here, it guided them to a movie about a nomadic warrior who teams up with a kabuki mime and a banjo player to defeat Joe Estevez and Frank Stallone in a Road Warrior-like wasteland. The Roller Blade Seven pretty easily manages to be the most psychedelic, mind-bending film on this entire list—my attempts to describe here only hint at its profound weirdness. It’s a movie that is indescribable until you experience it.