Working with actor and filmmaker Bryan Larkin to promote his latest shortfilm sequel, Dead End 2: A Justified Kill, I’ve finally managed to get some dialogue going with actor Julian Gaertner, the second half of Larkin’s explosive hitman shortfilm saga now currently running in festivals.
I can only imagine what would entail if he and I could sit face-to-face given the man speaks several languages, and I know quite a few folks who would be enamored by this as well. That, and speaking about Hong Kong, working with Larkin, the process of independent filmmaking and the enrichening factors of art and culture and how they coalesce – that Gaetner is a biproduct of that sort of cultivation is something I find very intriguing, and I reckon as much you won’t find that everywhere.
He’s got part three coming very soon with Ross Boyask behind the lens, as well as other projects, and it feels great to welcome him on this platform with Dead End looking to make a killing on the big screen this month at the Urban Action Showcase and Expo, and other events going forward.
Thank you for partaking in this particular Q&A of ours Julian! I hope your year has gone all well and good thusfar.
Yes very quickly!
I’m a few years in with Bryan’s in-progess Dead End shortfilm trilogy and I’ve really enjoyed what he and the rest of you guys have delivered. Did you see it getting such good reception from early on when you guys began shooting it?
All there was is hope and good intentions to make a good movie! On a shoestring, and an extra portion of passion. I did not imagine it would turn out this well and the mount learned in the process! Bryan and myself have a bit of a different view on artistic vision which actually helps the process too.
I am very optimistic and see divergent things, I like the artistic ambiguity you would find in a Wong Kar Wai movie. This can be distracting or confusing for the audience sometimes. For me film is an opportunity to get an emotional response relevant to what people (myself) deal with and a lot of time that is very complex. I like to display a situation with its indefinite possibilities of what happens next. A version of reality which I like to play and question about.
Bryan is very clear about what he wants, even with a thousand moving parts. I have learned to appreciate his ideas and contribute to give a fuller picture. This got to a very fun and successful form of collaboration. I am very thankful for this exchange.
I want to get into your career and how you got into acting as a profession. Care to share a bit?
I got to stage in school theatre and kept doing that. As protagonist of a very successful show in Shanghai for 6 months made me stay in China. Is it recognition? Or the joy I get from interacting with people on a bigger scale? I think art and good education are the way forward. Especially looking into what’s going on here in Hong Kong.
I learned on stage that all we do has an impact on people. It can be funny, strange, inspirational or simply allow people to dream for a moment. Reinventing myself in a new role or new identity is an important theme for me.
You speak four friggin’ languages! That’s amazing. My own mother tried to tutor me a little in German when I was a youngin and I sadly regret not having the acumen for it, so I only speak boring old English! Was it a voluntary thing growing up? Or did you learn as it was essential to your career?
For me to do what I do here requires living a language. How else can you be that person that I am acting. A lot of my roles are in Cantonese or Mandarin. Luckily I had a very diverse upbringing where I could explore myself in different dimensions. For a long time in school I was just observing people until one day I just switched. Same with language. I am not good at learning, but I am good at listening and imitating and only when I got a chance to go to another place I realized that this is my way of acquiring a language.
Speaking the language and living it, are definitely important for me to get into a culture fully, with all there is to learn the language. You have to very much adapt and reinvent yourself, merging your identity with what you know to what you observe. Acting is the same. I believe there are ways in good education and visual art that can bridge cultures and people from very different backgrounds, to feel the same for a moment and to feel for each other. Art forges culture. It’s important for us all to better understand each other. I believe we all will be engaging with China more in some form or the other.
I can only say that learning Chinese characters, the combination of images or concepts in order to make another concept is really interesting. In other words, the process of learning Chinese shows a path to the same conclusions but using a very different system. I love to involve myself in any initiative that would support such a cause.
For example I support a free social app project for language exchange partners. This technology brings the right people together and facilitates the learning conversation between real people so they can pick up words faster. You can check out find your language partner app at www.fylp.com. That’s how I learned. And of course loads of Chinese TV Scripts. “SHOOTING TOMOLLOW!”
Talk about working with Donnie Yen on the set of Chasing The Dragon.
Working on Chasing the Dragon was a great Hong Kong Project and a great privilege to be part of. I played Inspector Geoff. A bad guy in the Colonial Hong Kong Royal Police Force. Like a partner and Translator for Bryan Larkin who was playing legendary Ernest Hunter. Of course from the view as an actor there is a lot to say about HK Cinema. The differences and opportunities I see where it can go. There is a lot of stuff made up on the spot and you basically have to be ready any time while hanging around for quite a bit of the time. So to make characters full rounded Bryan and myself would think of all kind dialogue the guys would be having.
Byran was a real buddy here on film. He is very generous about sharing his experience and we had a great time talking and hanging out with anyone. There is like a million stories that happened between those six months of shooting and beyond.
Tell us about meeting Bryan for the first time on that set.
He was putting on his socks. We were shooting at an old Colonial Building on a mountain in Hong Kong. Bunch of Gwai Lo’s you will know from your shooting time in Hong Kong. I only knew that they wanted a “Big UK Star” to be on the movie so I was looking to meet that guy! Since we were supposed to be partners in the film hanging out was easier and I could tell Bryan a lot about Chinese culture and film making here.
In the last year I had the chance to go to the UK for work a couple of times. For me going back to the UK is always an excitement. People are so dedicated to creating their part of the art piece. The context is very professional which gives everyone with high ambitions in the field a very good vibe. I hope I can be there more often and held creating bounds between the UK, China, Hong Kong and other creative producers in Europe.
Your role in the Dead End shortfilm series is that of the Contractor’s “Young Gun” counterpart. What sorts of steps did you take to prepare your character?
To prepare for the film, it was important for me to invent this character in a way believable for
myself and to this time. Young Gun is a version of myself as a contract killer working with the Hong Kong local handler. As a foreigner he has certain privileges and shortcomings. To overcome them he had to deeply ingrained into the culture.
In the first episode of Dead End, Young Gun secretly hopes for a chance to create a new future with the only person he cares about, the young girl Angel. He might have never been capable of building that dream, but it influences his decision making – seeing that dream lost in the Bryan’s character the Older Gun.
The hitman characters in Dead End go much deeper as the way we see them as tough guys. Their question of an identity that we all seem to have is never granted to them. They have to stay in hiding and wear masks, rejecting a part of themselves that looks for a connection and love. An actor’s life is a life of changing people, from job from job, “thing to thing”. A new leap of faith every time. This and the conversations with Bryan about who they are made those characters become alive.
What are some of your own favorite films?
I like strange films that reflect on a very dynamic sense of reality. Samples of that for me are Wong Kar Wais, 2046, The Fountain, Inception, Fight Club or Tree of Life. I am also very keen to produce more cross cultural films like the masterpiece Seven Years in Tibet. I think here I can contribute most as Actor or Producer in the future.
Talk about shooting guerilla style in Hong Kong and your own experience throughout production.
There is no way you can get close to building a set of a Hong Kong “life stock food market”. You can spend millions of dollars and still not get the same rawness or pureness of the things and people there. OR you can be a baller and find a way guerilla shooting and spend a fraction of that. I am luckily good with looking for an opportunity to get the participants in a scene natural and congruent with us shooting there. You would have to witness that yourself.
But shooting guerilla has a lot of concerns that can be nightmare coz so unpredictable. And you have to be very smart about safety concerns and getting people to agree to be on the movie while they are getting back to just do what they normally do. Let’s call it charm for luck?
Oh and yes, we did get kicked out out of a restaurant in the final moments of fimishing scene ‘coz the owner changed her mind. But then we found a better spot.
I also read you have a martial arts background. Tell us about your training and your current regimen.
For me martial art is about inner peace and physique. I competed Professionally Muay Thai in South China cites. Nowadays, I mostly train Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, weights and tricks. I dont think I can get the same level of concentration as in a show fight. I mean we are so overstimulated anyways! It’s like meditation and then I go out there and be so much more chill despite any bad situation.
Was your training at all intergral in terms of input in the choreography any?
Bryan, Carter and myself did rehearsals and set up of the fight scenes. In Hong Kong I am often called for action fighting roles. I work here with the local action people and of course there is a lot to be picked up. With my Management here at Shaw Brothers as part of TVB Network, I get to do a tonne of different roles. A lot of time preparation is minimum and all I can say to that is I do my best, thanks for the learning opportunity and on to the next one.
For Dead End I wished could have gotten even more gritty on ground fights but its obvously a concern working in rat infested back alleys.
You and Bryan recently wrapped part three. What can you tell us about where your character has gone this time around? The events in the sequel get pretty damn brutal for you before the third act.
Young Gun does not know what exactly happened. Just that they are still being chased and all it seems is that “its never over…”
What would you say was the biggest challenge you and Bryan ever faced on filming these action thrillers on such robust terms? I know independent projects can be pretty painstaking and teething at times, and even Bryan had his run in with a bunch or feral monkeys at one point.
It takes time to find reliable supporters who see our talent as part of a relentless effort to be better and that we are not giving up until its done. I believe public support should be more active in making themselves known to young filmmakers and getting in there earlier, even if that means that they would have a higher “rate of failure” as part of their plans.
I believe a lot of time people or projects getting subsidized that no longer need that. Hong Kong is a very good example where I would hope that there are more l grassroots support initiatives than the appraisal of already successful methods and people. I think that would go a long way in helping with defining Hong Kong identity in movie making further in the future.
On a personal level I would like to keep pushing my daily productivity. Hong Kong is one place where opportunity knocks every minute, but there is always soo soo much to do. You have to be an expert of give up other things in order to have the attention to do one thing after another very well. But if you want to get a concrete example, getting kicked out of the restaurant because we did
not buy enough food was pretty painful.
What do you love most about Hong Kong? Never been there myself, sadly.
For me, Hong Kong gives great insights about the future. And it’s in difficult times right now. However, I believe we can find a way. There are tonnes of great things, like the hundreds of islands that belong to the City, the neon lights and the unique Chinese identity of Hong Kong People. Hong Kong is a window between China and the World. It’s meant to be the birthplace for many more creative ideas.
I can only hope that we find more ways to let us all feel that we are part of the same. That cultural differences and abilities are a great opportunity to work together and solving problems. I think Hong Kong can be that place again where people of any nationality or background can come together and create value. And of course I love, Cha Siu Bao!
What are some thoughts and hopes about the feature film Bryan is pondering for the future of Dead End?
I think it’s all about putting together missing pieces. Buying a big enough refrigerator for us to think without overheating and then going on the streets again to bring in what’s missing. I think that’s what we are doing and really looking forward to it. What happened that night when Young Gun and the Contractor had to completely start over new? What happened to the girl Angel? Who are the handlers? Oh I can’t wait.
Are there any plans to attend festivals where Dead End 2 will be premiering? I know it’s heading here in New York City this month.
We will also have a screeing here on December in Hong Kong. Bryan will be here. I will keep you updated.
Is there anything you can divulge for us on upcoming projects?
I am working on a project co-production between China and Africa. There is also a German chinese co-production looking into the MMA Prize Fighting world, and currently I’m working on Line Walker 3.
What are some of the most important lessons you’ve taken with you during your life journey and career progression?
Daniel Wu, said to me once when I asked him; “Just stay cool” Now deal with that!
I think acting is again feeling the moment, congruent with what you want to project into this world. So its a constant struggle about perfection in that. Ruco Chan 陳展鵬, a local star here told me in deep thoughts over a scene we were doing foran upcoming TV show called “Bangkok China Town”, “…that the path to perfection is a blackhole”. This actually helps me a bit if I think I could have done something better.
I also think its important to take the position you are given but when you choose to step up you have to be ready to fill that void responsibly and fearless to show yourself. Bryan is a master of decisiveness and being open to reflection I can learn a lot from him on that.
I want to thank you for sharing your story with us, Julian! Are there any thoughts you wish to share or people you’d like to address as we exit this interview?
I think I have mentioned all and it gets me back to my family and friends out there. Thanks so much!
*Special thanks to Bryan Larkin for shepherding this interview