CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: PART THREE – An Interview With Ken Quitugua
2004 was a pretty invigorating year for me. We got our first computer and I suffered like hell everyday with dial-up until we finally acquired DSL which evidently made it much more easier for me to venture into online martial arts fandom at the time. It was new to me and quite phenomenal, and thanks in large part to one such skit was titled Battle Of The Stunt Monkies, a product of a very talented and diverse group known only as the premiere team that started it all on the cusp of the new millenium, Zero Gravity.
Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Ken! How has your year been thusfar?
Ken Quitugua: Hi Lee! 2015 has been great for me. I’ve been able to see the culmination of a few projects that were years in the making as well as launching a couple new creative endeavors. Overall, it’s been a very successful year.
KQ: I’d have to say it circles back to my Father. Being the Bruce Lee fanatic that he was, watching martial arts films together was our way of bonding as father-and-son. It didn’t take long for my interest and enthusiasm to surpass his. Infatuated with all things martial arts, I convinced my folks to let me try some classes at the nearest Kung Fu Academy and so began my journey at the age of 11. All the while, learning, practicing, competing and eventually teaching; the inspiration to continue always came from my obsession with film. Way Of The Dragon, Wheels On Meals, Police Story, Fist Of Legend…to me, these films were like Rocky to a boxer. The valor and heroic acts would provide just enough motivation to keep training. Surrounded by like minded kung fu classmates, we kept each other honest and on track with our goals.
Eventually, I felt the urge to be more than a spectator but didn’t know where to begin. There were no message board tutorials, youtube channels, stunt workshops, etc. We learned at best by watching Jackie’s outtakes and copying his choreography. But that didn’t matter. It felt as though we were contributing to this cherished and seemingly esoteric genre of film that belonged to us and was made for us. We were preparing to someday take the torch.
KQ: I had no idea. When I moved to San Francisco back in 2001, one of the first things I looked for was a group to learn and train with. I knew there were some great Kung Fu, Kickboxing and Capoeira schools in the area but couldn’t afford to enroll at the time. After some online research and digging around, I stumbled across Title Pending by ZeroGravity. I was amazed. And it wasn’t just because of the raw skills, creative choreography, or the gnarly stunts. More so that there was a group of guys just on the other side of the Bay Bridge that were making martial arts films! I thought me and my buddies back home were the only ones doing this. I had to meet them.
At the time ZeroGravity was holding “open auditions” to help grow their team. Eager to see what they were all about, I reached out to Tony Chu and he invited me down to try-out for a spot on the team. Leading up to our first meeting I felt very nervous. I researched Tony and Larry Leong (also know as Chimp Capoeira) and felt their skills were way out of my league…but I thought, what the hell, why not? Hopefully I’ll pick up a thing or two and share it with my crew back home.
After showing up consistently to their open practices, I eventually became a member. I don’t how it happened or if there was ever a “welcome to the team” announcement. I guess it was when we started prepping for Title Pending 2? Official or not I was just so grateful to be working along side them. I met so many amazing people during our formative years as a stunt team — Tony, Larry, Kerry, Sam, Tiff, Roy, Adam, Lateef, Aaron and many others. To this day, I still credit them for helping me hone my style of action-acting and directing. I’ll always be proud to be part of that early movement. A lot of good times.
KQ: We shot most if not all the big fights over several weekends. Like most indie short films, the actual filming and doing wasn’t as difficult as coordinating everyone’s schedule but this was more of a stress for Tony as he was leading the project. For me, it was more like play. I really enjoyed the creative and collaborative process — If you watch the outtakes, its clear we all had fun.
|From the set of “The Challenger” (2015)|
KQ: From the get-go, I sensed that Bao saw things differently. He had a deeper understanding of martial arts films than most, it was almost intimidating. At the time, I thought I had it all figured out but Bao really challenged me to look at things with a broader perspective. Our early discussions about “kung fu movies” inspired me to step up my game — to study more film, to train more, to put more thought into my work. I was intrigued by his outlook and knew that I had to keep him close. We were able to establish a really solid rapport after collaborating on some smaller projects. As soon as he approached me with Bookie, I was all in. No hesitation.
KQ: I can only speak from a screen fighting point of view — but solid acting is the foundation of any successful fight scene and is crucial to being a solid action performer. Whether you’re taking a simple punch in the face or starring as the hero, the ability to express your intent and emotion during an action scene (to me) weighs just as much as the choreographed movements. I stress in my performances; facial expressions, body language, the unspoken conversation. While I may not have the most spectacular movements, I try my best to make up for it with the energy that I bring to a fight. A lot of screen fighters do this naturally (maybe its their fighting spirit) but it really stands out if and when they’re conscious of it.
|From the set of “The Challenger” (2015)|
KQ: Andy is the best! I had a lot of fun training with and getting to know him. He’s incredibly humble, hungry and his dedication to training is on another level. I’m really looking forward to seeing him develop into an even better performer but more so as a martial artist. I’m so happy he agreed to do this project…can’t wait to work with him again!
KQ: It was really important for us to be as authentic as possible. Bao and I agreed that the look and feel of this fight be more of an actual street fight — he even coined the phrase “Shaw Brothers in a street fight”. Having a background in White Crane, it was an easy decision for my part. There wasn’t enough time to consider learning and cramming a new style. When it came to Andy, we were fortunate that he had been studying up on Hung Ga. It was a perfect match up…TIGER VS CRANE! From that point on it was a lot of experimenting and studying of the forms and shapes. We even did some light sparring to explore each others movements, flow, and reactions. The rehearsals felt like we were at a Kung Fu summer camp…sharing techniques etc. It was a lot of fun!
KQ: Hmm, maybe not so much MMA but a bit of boxing with the evading and faints. We really tried to stay true to our respected styles.
|From the set of “Title Pending 2” (2002)|
KQ: 100%. ZeroGravity is a really special group. Sometimes I wish we stuck together a little longer…maybe made a few more short films before branching off to more professional work. But all in all, I’m very happy for everyone’s individual successes in the industry. Proud to call them my friends. Perhaps something will bring us back together in the near future…I wouldn’t hesitate to work with the gang again.
KQ: Definitely! I’m always keeping busy. We’ve picked up some momentum this year with quite a few projects on the horizon for 2016–17. Its just gonna keep getting bigger and better!
FCSyndicate: And I understand your starring feature role with actor and director Dennis Ruel in Unlucky Stars has distribution now. Can you tell us more about it?
KQ: Most recently, Dennis has been talking with our distributor, working out releases, regions, terms, etc. Not sure where it all stands at the moment but we’ll be sure to let you know when thats all settled. I’m so happy for it to get out there…hopefully leading to bigger opportunities for the team.
FCSyndicate: Did you get to screen the film yet? And what was the general reaction to it in the room along with your own?
|From L to R: Bryan Cartago, Shaun Charney, Sam Hargrave, Vlad Rimburg, Dennis Ruel, Ken Quitugua, Sari Sabella, Gui DaSilva, Emmanuel Manzanares, George Crayton, Jimmy Chhiu, Brian Le and Andy Le at the Los Angeles screening of “Unlucky Stars” (2016)|
KQ: Yes! I was present at the SF and LA premiers earlier this year, both of which had great energy from the audience. It’s always a beautiful thing when you’re able to share the work of something as meaningful as Unlucky Stars…so many people worked on it, gave their talents and time, and to finally have such a positive response! It definitely serves as motivation to get back out there and create more!
KQ: I’ll never stop dreaming of working with a Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung or even Richard Norton! In fact, any of the greats from that 80s and 90s era would be a dream come true. Otherwise, I’m always gung-ho to work with my current team(s). I feel a strong connection with them so I look forward to our continued collaboration. But there are a ton of new and younger talent coming up these days — its hard to keep track of them all. If it wasn’t for your HIT LISTS, I’d be completely out of the loop. LBP, EMC, The Young Masters, Thousand Pounds, Martial Club…everyone is putting out so much good stuff…I’d be fortunate to work with any of them.
KQ: I’d like to thank anyone and everyone who has ever sat down and watched one of our films. We really do make these films, not only to satisfy our creative expressions but to inspire people to get out there and make something of their own — the same way Jackie and Bruce have inspired me. Maybe its not in the form of a kung fu film or indie action short…but whatever it is that you do to connect with other people.
And thank you, Lee for the continued support for our work. We appreciate what you’re doing for all of us!
|Photo by Tony Chu from the set of “Unlucky Stars” (2016)|
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.
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