As you’re reading this, I’m sitting here on a quiet weekday morning in front of a space heater with all the world’s minimal indoor workplace coziness at my grasp. In wake of editing what you’re about to read, there’s an air of nostalgia going on here right now – signaling a bookmark in what has been another long-awaited opportunity since I started writing in 2007, and then stopping, and then starting again in 2013.
Looking back before eleven years ago, I called Dennis Ruel‘s cell number. I don’t even think he knew it was me who reached out (it was definitely on his MySpace or the Stunt People website – otherwise I wouldn’t have known how to reach him), and I probably should have said something. Maybe I was premature and hesitated thinking I might get another chance to do that right another time soon, though little did I know it would be at least a decade before I would have a platform to interview him on as I’ve wanted to for so many years.
As of late though, really I’ve only had a few hurdles since Dennis replied back to my questions a few weeks ago – fatigue and a recurring fever that I’m still mitigating with. It’s up-and-down at this point and I’m riding on spurts of energy to help publish this interview before long.
As such, I’m taking the time now to present this discussion weighing in on his career. Principally, my inquiry centers on his feature debut Unlucky Stars – crowdfunded, made at a snail’s pace as per usual with indie cinema and finally released in 2016 after years of waiting only to magnanimously be set free online in its full duration by the director himself. Also, we get a little into the highly-celebrated Toronto premiere of Vasan Bala’s The Man Who Feels No Pain – the latter which I’ve especially heard nothing but amazing things about and can’t wait to see for myself.
Those of you unfamiliar with the reference of the headline are totally welcome to read on as it very much pertains to part of why I continue to support and follow Dennis’ craft. This interview wasn’t very timely delivered, but it has definitely been a long time coming.
Hey Dennis, thanks for taking the time to share your story with us. How has the year been for you?
Thanks for this opportunity Lee. This year has been pretty crazy in the best way! Eric Jacobus and I started working in Mumbai, India on January 1st! Eric was action directing and I was fight coordinating for director Vasan Bala’s The Man Who Feels No Pain. It’s a Bollywood action drama that really breaks the mold of the typical Bollywood action films for about a hundred reasons; Overall, it’s something fresh from Bollywood that people should definitely take notes from in terms of story telling and heart string pulling!
It had its world premiere at Toronto International Film Festival and so Eric and I went out there to rep the film with the director, producer and two of the leads, and it won the “Midnight Madness Audience Choice Award” while we were there. Eric and I are super proud to have been involved in that film. So this year included my first trip to both Mumbai and Toronto! And in between shooting the film in Mumbai and it’s premiere, I finally got the rights back to my film, “Unlucky Stars,” and released a director’s cut and a “making of” for free on UnluckyStarsTheMovie.com.
You’ve come a long way since The Stunt People and that lovely “warehouse smell” from making Contour. Do you miss the smell? ?
That smell of herbal remedies will always bring back memories of Contour so of course!
I’m curious as to your angle on fight choreography as it’s part of your craft and we all know that Hong Kong action cinema plays a distinct influence in your passion for the art. What films help influence you in terms of fight scene creation? Are there any favorite films you can point out?
One of my favorite film fights of all time is Jackie Vs Benny in Wheels On Meals: The exchanges, the pauses, the comedy – the overall chess game that they’re playing is so awesome. I could talk about that fight for awhile but in short, I can’t get over how cool it was that Jackie seemed overwhelmed by Benny but still skilled enough to figure out how to win if he could just gather himself keep his composure – to approach it like a “training session” SO GOOD! Working that much story into a fight is tough to do and you don’t always have the time to do it or the story doesn’t want you to do it haha so that fight will always stand out to me an example of how much can go into a fight scene.
A lot of my other favorites fights usually involve a clash of styles or movements like Yuen Wah vs Biao and Sammo in Eastern Condors or Wah vs Jackie in Dragons Forever or Wah vs Anyone in every movie! Always love watching Billy Chow tear into people with his intensity and I of course have to mention Ken Lo vs Jackie in Drunken Master 2!!! Answering this question could go on for awhile!
How do you feel about the current state of independent action cinema and the performance community compared to what it was in the early two-thousandies when you guys had The Stunt People forums?
I could answer this for awhile too, but I’ll try my best to keep this short. If I were to compare some of the newer creators putting out awesome content like Bryan Sloyer and Martial Club to the creators that started in the early 2000’s like Stunt People, VJVlad, Zero Gravity, LBP & EMC Monkeys, I’d say the BIGGEST difference is that the new school creators started with much better exposure as Youtube and IG are nowadays very normal, fast, and convenient ways of watching pretty much everything.
Back in the early 2000’s, there was a handful of teams putting out content pre-youtube and pre-facebook! So there was FAR LESS exposure and we had to DOWNLOAD other groups’ short films (likely .mpeg and .wmv files) from directories on sites that weren’t even owned by the creators! Thanks to chat forums and sites like Bilang and Martial Arts Trickz, there was somewhat of a community for martial artists and creators to at least connect and share clips that took some time to download with our “BLAZING” 56k dial up internet.
Also, back then, since there was much less indie content, the indie action groups out there would have to draw inspiration from Hong Kong Action films – most of which were obscure or hard to find! But we found’em and studied them as much as we could!!! But gradually, a bunch of the above named groups made their way to Los Angeles, so creators and performers are more likely to meet up nowadays and everyone draws inspiration from each other as well as the big budget action films around the world. Again everything is so accessible now, so that’s definitely a positive charge for the future of indie action.
You managed to snag two awesome cameos in your directorial debut with Simon Rhee and J.J. Perry – both A-list stunt coordinators at the top of their game. How in celluloid hell did this awesome string of luck happen for you?
I have to thank Vlad for both cameos! We started the film without knowing who we would eventually cast for those two roles, so after shooting a decent amount of the film, Vlad reached out to Master Rhee and showed him part of the Finale, so that grabbed his interest and eventually the same thing happened with J.J. Perry.
We were extremely lucky to have shot the finale before approaching them as it gave us something visual to show them what we wanted them to be a part of so that obviously worked out for the best! Having shot a scene with Simon Rhee is still sort of surreal to me as I will always remember being mesmerized and copying both sides of the final fight between him and his brother Phillip Rhee in Best Of The Best, and pretty much everything they did in Best Of The Best 2 as well! And like Master Rhee, J.J. Perry had done so much in his career in A-List Hollywood films that his agreeing to help us was extraordinarily humbling and I know I can speak for Vlad and Ken too, we were super grateful for their involvement and incredibly lucky to be able to catch them between their never ending work all over the world!
Not all filmmakers who’ve been ensnared by shady distribution companies have taken the route that you have in terms of releasing your film online. I want to ask you – having unfortunately dealt with one, how prevalent is this issue beyond what you went through?
I don’t know the answer to that question unfortunately. I hope it’s not happening to other people but I’ve heard that the distribution world can be rough. I don’t personally know many filmmakers and the few that I do know have not had deals go the way mine did. I did reach out to one filmmaker who had a deal with my distributor and was apparently unhappy with their arrangement but I did not receive a response so I’m not sure what happened to his film or his agreement.
What do you think can be done about this type of thing? I ask this because you come from a crop of creatives and you’ve all done shortfilms, shared and went viral doing all these stunts and action scenes because you genuinely enjoy doing them. And, not for lack of trying, but to ultimately choose to buy back your own movie to release on the internet to share with the world when a seemingly-lucrative deal completely faceplants, it can’t possibly be an easy choice for you to make. Can it?
It was definitely a hard choice to make and it involved several factors. Mainly, the stress of what to do combined with the ridiculous back and forth with the distributor was wearing me out for too long. I was mentally exhausted and I wanted to move on to another project as it had been almost a year since the release. I was of course worried about finding another distributor who may do the same thing and I couldn’t sign with someone else until I received documentation that my agreement was terminated.
It took another YEAR of emails to terminate the agreement and finally receive the documents I needed to reclaim the film. By that time, since it had been out there for two years, I really wanted to make sure that it was easily accessible to those who hadn’t seen it, and the best way to do that was to make it free. It didn’t feel right to relaunch a promotion plan to make someone else money on an older film that most of our target audience saw years back. So far, the re-release has attracted some new viewers and I know there will be plenty of people who will watch it now because it’s free [laughs] – that’s a whole other conversation.
Aside from all else, what other things do you take away from your time with Unlucky Stars and having gotten together such an amalgam of stunt and action talent?
Even though Unlucky Stars did not go as far as it potentially could have gone in terms of financial recuperation, the ultimate goal was definitely achieved! Vlad, Ken and I set out to make a feature film that we would be proud of and a film that would serve as a “business card” or a rough idea of what we would be capable of creating while forcing the question “how much more could these guys do if they were given a decent budget?” – So many bonds were made and strengthened through out the production. Vlad’s connection to the stunt world expanded the list of stunt performers that we now consider friends and co-producer Giovannie Espiritu’s connection to the acting world brought in another group of talent that I’m looking forward to working with again on future projects! Overall, we were super fortunate that the pool of friendly reliable talent grew so much with Unlucky Stars, so I can take away much more than I expected!
Your current posterity also resides with Jacobus on a recent raft of shortfilms, namely including the Rope-A-Dope films and the enthralling work you two continually bring to the table. The most any of us can surmise is that there will be a third and I seriously can’t wait for it. Can you discuss at all, if any, about what your hopes and expectations may be for the Dope and his battle across time with the martial arts mafia?
Eric and I have talked about Rope A Dope 3 since we finished Part 2. The ending of 2 definitely opens a new door and a few ideas have been discussed so it’ll really depend on timing and the involvement of a few people in front and behind the camera to make it happen. But I’m absolutely DOWN!!!!…
You also (sort of) teased that you’re developing another project after Unlucky Stars, stating you were going to be ready for “the next one”. Would you like to officially announce or maybe tease anything? Pretty please? With Uruvian cheese on top?
Since a Uruvian Cheese offer can’t be denied, I can say that the sequel to Unlucky Stars will be a “spiritual sequel” in that it will not continue the story of the first film. It will stand very much on its own and carry much of the same energy so it should feel similar in a lot of ways but it will introduce new characters… who may or may not be in the same world as the characters of Unlucky Stars. I also have two completely different scripts (one completed and one in the works) that will hopefully follow soon – It’ll all depend on the budgets, but I plan to be in production next year! And I plan to get a few action veterans to be more than just cameos this time!!!
Do you miss playing Ticker? What were some fun moments you can recall about being on set playing that character?
I would love to play Ticker again. Now that I’m older, with a slightly better understanding of acting [laughs], I think I could settle in to that character a lot more and really have fun with a new story. My favorite moment will always be the “suitcase” scene. It was really tough to keep from laughing at Eric’s “it’s a check” response. Also, not really a fun moment but definitely a memorable one – I came to set feeling woozy one day, thinking I could fight with what turned out to be a 100 degree fever! I moved just a little to “warm up” and I was immediately dizzy and had to call the day off – it was a fun crazy time.
If Ticker or the martial arts mafioso you play in Rope-A-Dope got into an all-out, knockdown, drag-out fight scene, who would win? And why?
Gotta go with the now-outcast Martial Arts Mafioso – His super power to reset time would too much for anyone except the Dope himself. He’d eventually figure out Ticker just like Law did!
What are some of the most important lessons you take with you going forward in your field after Unlucky Stars?
I could answer this for days! At the top of the 100-lesson list would be to invest more time and fine-tuning of the script. I don’t want to take forever and have 50 drafts before shooting begins but I believe I learned how NOT to write myself into a corner (I hope!). Things happened during Unlucky Stars that ended up causing ripple effects that editing could barely save and I need to keep a lot in mind for the next one to save myself a lot of grief in post production. Also, and most importantly to me, is to be ok with asking for help when things get crazy. Having a group to support you through filming is super important, and I feel that assembling the right crew should always be a top priority. There’s no way I would have finished the film without the production team and cast being so supportive!
In parting, are there any closing thoughts you would like to share with our readers and longtime fans and followers of The Stunt People? Or maybe even the folks just now discovering you for themselves?
I really appreciate you and all the longtime fans that have followed us since 2005 and I hope everyone understands that we’re doing our best to figure out how to bring our indie spirit into an industry controlled by money and prestige – I refuse to believe that we won’t be able to figure it out and I absolutely will not forget how far we’ve come and that we started with one chip mini-dv cameras, water and power bars on “set”…and editing with whatever software came before Adobe Premiere and Final Cut!