Going into this article, I found myself at an advantage to finally be able to talk to quite a few people whose work I’ve admired over the years. Bao Tran (who I initially knew as Tran Quoc Bao) came under my radar many years ago around the same time as I came across actor and martial artist, Ken Quitugua when he was appearing in content put out during his time as a key member of the martial arts stunt team that started it all for the online kung fu cinema niche, Zero Gravity.
Bao Tran: Of course, you broke the news of our premiere! Well I try to stay busy or at least look like it. I just got word that a film I recently edited in Vietnam was officially submitted to the Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film, so that’s pretty exciting. It’s a comedy directed by and starring Dustin Nguyen and we are really proud of it. Other than that was trying to get The Challenger out and now we’re making moves to get the feature made.
FCSyndicate: That’s awesome, and congratulations to you on your submission as well! Let’s talk for a bit about who you are. Tell us about yourself and how you got into film.
BT: I grew up loving Bruce Lee movies, but it wasn’t until I could see Jackie Chan that I wanted to actually make them. There was just something about his craft of filmmaking that changed me from being a fan into actually wanting to try it on for myself. Then I wanted to see who Jackie was inspired by like Buster Keaton and Gene Kelly. That got me into silent comedies and musicals, and I fell in love with the entire history of movies as a visual medium.
FCSyndicate: What specific titles can you name for us that perfectly outline your growth as a filmmaker? What are your favorites?
BT: Terminator 2 was a huge movie-going moment for me, the sheer spectacle and scope of it all. And going to the downtown theater to catch Hard Boiled as part of a Hong Kong movie double-bill was a great time. It’s moments like those that really cemented the way I think. People can blog or tweet whatever they want after a show, but you can’t fake the excitement or boredom when you’re right there live in the room. When the crowd laughs or cries or screams or swears, that’s as real as it gets. I gauge a lot of my decisions on that, whether something will play or not. To be honest premiering The Challenger online is a little weird for me. Not bad, just weird. I feel like I’m missing out on being able to watch it with the crowd and see people’s reactions to all the moments.
FCSyndicate: I understand the feeling completely. I was actually excited after watching it because I was in the moment and that’s who I am I guess! [laughs] Tell us about working with Ken Quitugua because it was only recently I got to view your other multi-award winning shortfilm, Bookie.
BT: Ken is the truth! Smoldering screen presence and a fantastic mover, I think he should be getting offered lead roles a lot, lot more. On top of that, he has such a thoughtful approach to action choreography that sets him apart. He thinks deep about story and how to get the most out of a moment rather than whipping up a bunch of moves or angles that look cool but don’t make a lot of sense. We work fast together, only because we’ve done it enough times and we have such a similar thought process that we can pick up on what needs to be fixed. A lot of times I just give him a look and he’ll make the adjustment without a word. He’s the total package.
BT: Well we’re both the same age and we were both making homegrown movies back when we were in high school, just in different cities in Washington State. A mutual friend tried to get us to meet for the longest time, but it never came together. Maybe I was blowing him off. I think it was when Ken was in the Bay area and started working with ZeroGravity Stunts that I thought, hey maybe there’s something to this guy!
FCSyndicate: Well I’m happy you two crossed paths! What year was this? And at what point were you in your own career growth?
BT: Early 2000s, back when ZG was starting to crank out all those great indies. I was doing shorts and Ken was doing his with his team, we’d help each other out and just kept at it. Our scale and ambition got bigger to a point where I wrote Bookie with him in mind.
FCSyndicate: I think I caught a few of those shorts [laughs]. It’s been so long. Tell us about the fallout from Bookie; I understand it won quite a number of awards for you.
BT: It’s been good to us. Bookie was a film made with a lot of heart and care, our whole team was and still is family. And just being able to travel to film festivals and see all the audiences respond to it was really special. I was also able to connect with a lot of other Vietnamese-American filmmakers who were starting to go to Vietnam to make films at the time, and that’s how I ended up editing a few films there as well.
FCSyndicate: Yes! I remember reading you also served as editor for the Charlie Nguyen’s unreleased movie, Bui Doi Cho Lon. I haven’t seen the film, not even in the current state it’s in since it was leaked last year. What thoughts or feelings do you carry with you from working on that one, whether good or bad? Any lessons you’ve taken away from it?
BT: Well, the version that was leaked was actually the third round of edits to the Censorship Board, so it’s a good 20 minutes shorter than Charlie’s director’s cut. Not the best representation by any means, as well as it being a work print with unfinished sound and color. The whole ordeal was a big kick in the teeth, I think Charlie and Johnny did some amazing work and it was going to be next-level filmmaking. But watching Charlie and Johnny dust themselves off and get back to the next thing was inspiring for me. Sometimes things don’t go your way and you just have to get back in there.
FCSyndicate: That’s understandable. I regret that one never got its just dues and I’m thankful you’ve been inspired to keep it going with The Challenger and adding Andy Le in the mix. How did you two meet?
BT: I had seen his Martial Club YouTube channel and was impressed by his affection for old school kung fu. Andy’s enthusiasm and love of it all really comes across in their films. We were trying to find someone who could go deeper with the kind of choreography Ken was whipping up, a flavor we were calling “Shaw Brothers in a street fight”. Andy has the acrobatic wushu performance skill but also the more fundamental kung fu movement. Ken had worked with Andy before on Unlucky Stars so we reached out to convince him to play our lead.
FCSyndicate: Have you had a chance to screen Unlucky Stars? I understand it’s in festivals as we speak.
BT: I haven’t, it looks fantastic. With a line-up like that it’s bound to be!
FCSyndicate: Tell me about The Challenger. How did you come up with the idea in lieu of the bigger project you hope it will sprout into?
BT: Well I’ve already written the screenplay and was trying to find a way to direct. Raising money is hard enough as it is, but since I’d be considered a first-time director there’s a lot more roadblocks to secure financing. A bit of advice that was given to us was to shoot a sizzle or proof-of-concept to be a companion piece to the script, to show what you are capable of and demonstrate execution. So we imagined The Challenger as a prequel to our main story, where our hero is much younger and just about to make a name for himself as a great Kung Fu fighter. The stuff you see in the short like the underground world of challenge matches and the slow-motion vision, it’ll all play a major part in the feature.
FCSyndicate: Can you clue us in a bit about the main plot of your current screenplay? What kind of film can moviegoers expect? What tones and narratives are you aiming for?
|Ken Quitugua and Andy Le in THE CHALLENGER – Persistence Of Vision Films (2015)|
BT: It follows our hero Danny and his kung fu brothers, but when they’re much older and over-the-hill. I tried to put a lot of heart and humor in it, things you don’t usually see in a typical action movie, so I think there’s something for everyone.
FCSyndicate: In your experience, inclusive with filming The Challenger, what makes or breaks a fight scene? What are some pet peeves that stick out the most to you when watching other fights while creating your own sequence for a film?
BT: You could have great fighters pulling off astounding physical moves in one long take, but if there’s no real story or nothing about the characters in the scene it takes me out. I wouldn’t call this a pet peeve because it’s not like I get mad, I just stop caring about what’s onscreen. It never hurts when filmmakers think about the story, the who’s and why’s of what’s happening. It’ll only make it better. Drunken Master II has legendary stunts and fighting, but I think that moment in the end fight when Jackie stops and saves a henchman on fire by pouring sand on him is just as memorable. Plus he’s getting whacked by the other attackers in the process! So we get to see what a real hero does and we root for him.
FCSyndicate: I agree. To add, I think Chan always emits certain characterstics in protagonists that he sees in himself or otherwise formulates as a foundation for goodness which makes him such a family friendly entertainer in and out. What would you make of that analysis? Would you say the characters you film are partly a reflection of you?
BT: Jackie has built up a character type over a whole career, like the Tramp. It works really well for him. As for me and my films, I don’t really know, the audience can decide on what I’m doing.
BT: I dabble here and there. I’m not a master by any stretch. I listen to Ken and what he thinks is best.
FCSyndicate: A lot of feature-length martial arts films are hard to come by these days, and in many cases through lack of funding. And there are some who share the opinion that these kinds of films just aren’t popular anymore which may be true to some length in my opinion. What can you tell us from your experience on the challenges martial arts films face these days. Do you forsee better prospects?
BT: Indies are hard to finance in general, but at least action is considered to be a more commercial genre. That also means that the bar gets lowered because it’s an easier sell. For us, we want to have a film that can deliver on all levels with story, drama, acting, and action. We want to execute it all. So we have to stick to our guns more and insist that these are important to a quality film, instead of taking just any deal or casting choice that comes along. I don’t mean we have to make something super-artsy and inaccessible. Pixar’s been making movies consistently at a high level that are also box office successes. You can have creative integrity, entertain people, and be lucrative at it.
FCSyndicate: Exactly what role does YouTube play in getting a film like this going with The Challenger going viral? Is there a specific number you’re trying to reach in views? How does it work?
BT: I wish we knew the secret to going viral! For example, KUNG FURY did gangbusters and definitely deserves its success, but I don’t think any of the creators knew it would blow up they way it did. You just have to give it up to the movie gods at some point. For us, we just wanted to do good work, so now any view, positive comment, and share is a win for us. It means we got another person in our corner when the feature comes out. If we can garner enough audience interest and good press, it’s definitely something you can bring to a private investor or film financier and show that we can pull off the feature successfully.
FCSyndicate: I see, and you’ve gotten to a good start with several reviews already. I hope it continues to pick up! Aside from Le and Quitugua, who else is under your radar in who you would like to work with in the near future, be it this feature film or another?
BT: We’ve got some ideas for casting our ensemble the feature, just have to sort out the right balance and mix. I don’t think too far ahead for future projects, but the radar’s always on. It’s exciting to look out for an actor who has talent and potential but hasn’t been able to shine yet. I love the underdogs. Hype and things that go viral don’t always spotlight the best talent out there.
BT: I like to have plenty of projects in the fire, there’s a sci-fi piece and a bigger-budgeted supernatural fantasy. Hopefully I can get them off the ground eventually, but the feature for The Challenger is the most realistic to take on as a first feature because of the scope and budget. It’s definitely the priority for me right now.
FCSyndicate: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned so far as a filmmaker that you feel other aspiring filmmakers should benefit from?
BT: I always loved what Conan O’Brien said, and I’m paraphrasing here: Nothing in life is given to you so it’s pointless to be cynical, but if you’re kind and work hard amazing things will happen.
FCSyndicate: Do you have any last words for our readers?
BT: First, thanks to you Lee and Film Combat Syndicate for being such an early supporter. If you all dig The Challenger and want to see the feature we’re trying to do, please spread the word about us and share the short film with anyone you think who might be into it too. Thanks and be excellent to each other.