If 2021 is perceived as a hallmark moment for Asian representation for film, 2022 certainly feels like a continuation, if not an augmentation of that progress. One purveyor that stands to gain from the current momentum happening in films of late is Joseph Le, six years into his craft under the Team Red Pro independent film label and having networked enough to gain traction for his own career and now sharing the revels with a lot of his own colleagues within the stunt and independent film community.
In addition to his own work, he’s also worked with creators like Leroy Nguyen, Aaron Toney and Vlad Rimburg, as well as for a short time on the late Monty Oum’s hit series RWBY, and his resumè has only grown phenomenally with at least three major films productions so far. Best of all is Le gets to share space with friends like Brian and Andy Le of Martial Club, filmmakers and pre-visual stylists like Chris Cowan and venerable stunt and screenfighting professionals like Andy Cheng, the late Brad Allan, and actress Michelle Yeoh to name a few.
His most recent shortfilm, Twisting Tiger is now online as well, adding another notch to his belt with the likes of performers Tarrell Kota Bullock, Brandon H. Lee, Smitty Chai and Brandon Soo Hoo who appear in the short. The project was only partially crowdfunded through Indiegogo but still managed to make headway enough to shoot last Spring as Covid lockdowns slowly loosened up a little bit around parts of the U.S., and the result has been one of resounding approval from its circulation at indie festivals this year, including events in the U.S., Tokyo and Toronto.
Certainly for Le, the reception continues with its online release as of earlier this month, while the burgeoning film director has already garnered some attention for his work by other journalists. It also helps having film credits like Shang-Chi and The Legend Of The Ten Rings, the Daniels’ Everything Everywhere All At Once and the upcoming Saint Seiya: Knights Of The Zodiac film next year, and so it feels good to finally be able to get on the press bandwagon a bit more with stunt performers since I’ve had to put the Hit List on a really long hiatus, and I had only really ever been able to cover Le in that column until now…
…which reminds me, and in no short order, that today marks the official launch of our newest column, The Hit Listers. I’ve had it in mind to start this interview series as a means of keeping up the same or similar energy I had with The Hit List at least until I can return to it. In the meantime, after long observing Le within independent film circles and watching him continue to earn his stripes, a back-and-forth with him on this plarform has been a long time coming.
What got you into filmmaking and stunt work?
I got into filmmaking after feeling burned out from working as a graphic designer in the DC area. Sometimes during client meetings, my mind would drift off into choreographing fight sequences that emulated Jackie Chan movies, video game cutscenes, and anime. In combination with being heartbroken several times, I realized that I was spending too much of my 20’s being codependent on others. And so I dug myself out of depression by joining Shaolin Temple USA in Herndon, Virginia and finally developed the confidence to pursue my secret childhood dream of becoming a film director.
In 2015, I started turning my evenings and weekends into my own “film school.” I PA’d for my friends at Spare Tire Productions and tried to imitate Jackie Chan style fights in my basement. My friend Alex Au was usually behind the camera and gave me tutorials everyday on filmmaking. Every week, we would connect with fellow martial artists/stunt performers in the DMV area like DC Stunt Coalition, Turtle Wave, Hwarang Martial Arts, and Rising Tiger Films. Gradually, these test fights turned into different “what-if scenarios” like combining wushu with lightsabers, or live action anime with kung fu. Every test fight had a different theme or genre which helped us grow and reach out to different experts.
Can you share a little bit about your own martial arts background, current training and film influences?
I started learning Lung Ch’uan Fa Dragonfist Kung Fu under Shifu Doug Moffett in 2004 at the same time when I discovered Bruce Lee and EMC Monkeys on YouTube. A little afterwards, I picked up b-boying again from friends at George Mason University. And then I learned Shaolin Kung Fu in 2013. At open gyms or for different short films, I would learn different types of martial arts basics from specialists. Not going to lie, I’ve been doing a lot of “maintenance” training lately. I’ve been moreso trying to level up my storytelling skill tree and have been taking courses on directing while co-writing scripts with my friend and Twisting Tiger screenwriter, Nick Hoang.
The films that influenced me the most: Rumble in the Bronx, Scott Pilgrim, Black Swan
If we were to sift through your disc collection and you could only pick three must-sees for someone getting their feet wet in Asian film fandom, what would they be?
Shaolin Soccer, Way of the Dragon, Drunken Master 2, Once Upon A Time in China 2, and S.P.L..
Between acting and directing, do you prefer one aspect over the other, or both?
Definitely directing, because of my jack-of-all-trades creative personality. As a director, I get to extract things I feel passionate about in life and present them in a way that is unexpectedly revealing to the audience.
Talk about landing a Marvel movie as your first major career flex with a film like Shang-Chi on your resumè.
It was definitely surreal. And the opportunity came to me after I was finally done directing the web series, Afro Samurai Champloo, with Team Red Pro. That project along with working a full-time job really took a toll on my mental health. I started comparing myself with other people who were working consistently in the stunt industry while I was still shooting indie fights in random forests. There was that Spiderman 2 moment when I wanted to give up and just try to live a normal life for once. But then all of the sudden, Martial Club told me that they mentioned my name to Brad Allan after Simu Liu’s private training session.
At the same time, Shang-Chi became my worst enemy for a while because I developed imposter syndrome. And I felt that my action films moving forward had to be comparable to the likes of Chris Cowan, Yung Lee, and Vi-Dan Tran’s work.
What’s your most favorite memory working on that set?
My favorite memory was when Brad Allan literally placed a clip from a test fight that I shot with Simu Liu onto the bus fight pre-vis.
There was another moment when I just turned 30 years old, and the whole stunt team surprised me with a birthday cake in one of the stages. And then later on, Brad Allan came up to me on his scooter and shook my hand. Playfully, he said “it’s all downhill from here.”
I haven’t seen EEAAO yet, but I was wondering if you have and what you think of its reception looking back on that project and working with the stunt team to bring the legend herself back to the big screen once more.
I’m so happy that such an original and weirdly maximalist film like this is getting such recognition. No other film has been able to capture the essence of the Asian American family and its struggles quite like this movie. I remember reading the script on the plane and crying in the third act.
Fortunately, I was able to work on the pre-vis with Martial Club for three days on the buttplug fight. It was literally right after my run on Shang-Chi. It was such a surreal time for me, because for once I thought that I was finally getting paid for what I love to do as a hobby. Working with Brian, Andy, and Daniel from Martial Club is always a fun time. There’s a lot of pressure to outdo ourselves, but at the same time it felt like hanging out with old friends. Andy was the creative lead, kept pushing everyone, and came up with most of the choreography. Brian’s crazy sense of humor matched perfectly with The Daniels’ pastwork. And Daniel Mah brought balance to all of the wildness and kept us centered. We were able to get 86 shots done in the first two days. The duo directors, Daniels, seemed to be very open minded and wanted the old school kung fu style from the beginning.
Your latest work has been behind a camera as the director of your new kung fu drama, Twisting Tiger. Can you tell us a bit more about the title’s meaning and origins, in your view?
Originally, Twisting Tiger was supposed to be a proof-of-concept film that would set up our idealistic version of Rush Hour 4. Nick Hoang and I planned for the story centering around Chief Inspector Lee and Detective Carter’s sons. However, it was almost New Years when we started talking deeply about our long-term goals as filmmakers, and I decided that I didn’t want to be forever associated with making fan films. Looking back, I’ve done an alright job depicting exciting action sequences and creative choreography. But there’s also a huge part of me that wants to make stories that move people and make them cry.
And so, that’s why Nick and I scrapped everything and decided to make a new kung fu drama with a flawed master character as the main character. We dug deep and decided to take inspiration from Tarell Kota Bullock’s personal life. The working title was “From Da Slums of Shaolin.” But every time I presented the project to my non-martial arts friends, they laughed. So I decided to use Twisting Tiger to pay homage to what inspired us in the first place.
Still from “Twisting Tiger”
Talk about working with Tarell Kota Bullock. Was he your first choice for the role of T? Is there a new action star on the horizon?
Working with Tarell has been the gift that keeps on giving. He’s such a generous guy and makes sure that I don’t get “used” by other people in the industry. Most of our best choreography has been sparked by him freestyling movement in between takes. He was the first and only choice for the role of T. There’s nobody else in the world who is like him or can do what he can do. And I thought that casting him alone and learning about his past upbringing automatically made the film authentic. He’s definitely ready to be considered to be one of the next generation action stars.
Were there any particular concerns about filming this project given the pandemic continues to be such a factor in our daily routines?
Yes, I had a lot of concerns with filming this project during the pandemic. Especially since we didn’t have a vaccine back then. Everyone was getting tested but we still had the possibility in our minds that if one person got covid, then we would have to sadly cancel a shoot that involved months of prep. BUT, at the same time we had a strong desire to create this film because of Black Lives Matter and the Stop Asian Hate movements. Everyday, we felt like we had a sense of responsibility to get this message about unity out there while paying homage to the films that heavily influenced us.
Talk about some things you’ve noticed in your profession, which in part revolves around action design and stunt pre-viz, and some of the trends you see in terms of its improvement over the years, or quite possibly, what needs improving.
I still consider myself very new to the scene, so my opinion should be taken with a molecule of salt. But in my opinion, storytelling and synergy are the most important factors to having great action. You can make the dopest pre-viz, but if it doesn’t elevate the story or reveal more about the characters, then it’s just a mindless spectacle. The audience is used to consuming the cream of the crop action, and they know what real fighting looks like because of MMA. Any type of choreography or stunt can no longer carry a whole fight scene.
In the past I’ve been guilty of cheating the action with dynamic camera angles, VFX, acrobatics, and so on. But the more I’m doing action design and talking with other directors, the more I’m learning about restraint and story structure. Every fight sequence should have a character arc as mentioned in John Kreng’s book, Fight Choreography (2008).
Another aspect I want to highlight is ‘synergy’. I’ve seen scenarios when nobody was on the same page for a pre-viz. Stunt teams would be given vague details about the story and a ridiculous deadline. Which leads them into making a pre-viz filled with a lot of “ego shots” that showcase awesome performances without context. And then the camera department would shoot the action their own way with little communication with stunts.
Luckily, we were able to avoid this situation in Shang-Chi when DP Bill Pope and director Destin Cretton sat in every weekly meeting with the stunt team to discuss the pre-viz edits. We were all working in tandem and nobody was claiming complete ownership of ideas. Every department from wardrobe to VFX understood the stunt team’s mission and helped facilitate Brad Allan’s vision. It was a very fluid process versus the traditional Hollywood hierarchical way of doing things.
To date, what has been the biggest challenge for you in your career thus far?
My biggest challenge in my career thus far is finding my voice again and making something independent after working on a movie. I always have to ask myself, “do I still have it?” Subconsciously, I’m comparing my small independent project to my recent experience on a legit set with well known actors. So it’s a constant battle with imposter syndrome and the only way to get through it is going back to the basics (writing, taking classes, shooting test fights, etc).
What’s the most important lesson you’ve taken with you to this day?
One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to create a story that only you can tell. I learned this from my graphic design teacher, Don Starr in college. And I’ve carried that lesson onto some of my favorite creative projects including Twisting Tiger.
Are there any plans for a feature treatment of this concept or another?
Yes! There are plans for a feature film treatment of this concept. While making the short film, Nick and I made extended biographies of each of the characters which have a lot of prequel/sequel possibilities. But before tackling such a task, I feel like I need to get better at directing and leadership. I’m changing hats at the moment and focusing solely on directing drama so that I can give Twisting Tiger 2 the proper nourishment that it needs.
Up next for Team Red Pro, is an adrenalized relationship drama and horror film. I’m very stoked about both of these projects. They are all based on real personal experiences, but are also going to be a breath of fresh air.
Thanks so much for sharing a piece of your story with us. On that note, is there anything you’d like to tell straight to our readers as we make our exit?
Thank YOU for taking the time to read this article! I’m still such a noob in the action industry, and just very fortunate to have this opportunity to share my perspective. You can follow me on Instagram and check out my creative portfolio, and don’t forget, you can watch Twisting Tiger on the Team Red Pro YouTube channel here:
Lead photo: Jen Eun
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.