It was back about a few months ago that Film Combat Syndicate wound up in touch with independent filmmaker and martial arts enthusiast Tony Laudati, best known for his prolific involvement in his enduring labor of love, Kung Fu Femmes. If you are new to this project right now just as I was earlier this year, a simple click to the official YouTube channel will show you up to eight years of content that illustrates just how what was once a concept lagging on paper has blossomed into a longstanding successful cult phenomenon, featuring a variety of physically gifted and talented athletic females. Point in fact, it is was so impressive that it even caught our own Scott Wiley’s attention back when he interviewed actress, stuntwoman, martial artist and Thousand Pounds Action Company member Amy Johnston, who can also be seen in a few of the webisodes now available on the YouTube channel. And it is this week that I finally get to feature his most recent interview with Laudati (next photo/center) as the series goes on a temporary hiatus.
Kung Fu Femmes is more than meets the eye – it is an idea that is being explored right now in a number of ways that also add to a lot of the work now being done by some of the stuntwomen I have featured on my site in the past, including Ms. Johnston. It’s the kind of venue that offers just the right platform for anyone who is largely fascinated and entertained by all-female action films and series projects like this, and I’ve personally advocated that we need a proper martial arts action series on television nowadays, and there are a LOT of ideas and concepts out there that are well worth the consideration if the right sets of eyes take a look. Considering that Laudati has his own ideas about it, I still hope that Kung Fu Femmes can have its day as something much more bigger in the not-too-distant future if he so chooses. The choreography and cinematography gets a little more sharper with each episode, and the collaborations here also play a significant role, which Laudati also addressed in his inteview with Wiley during their discussion.
I enjoyed previewing this interview for myself beforehand and learning of all of the names of the ladies involved in this massive project, and I am very glad to have had Wiley on board for the time I did as this is his final piece for the site before he moves on to other projects and responsibilities. And now, it is my pleasure to now share that very discussion with you, and help expand and grant the audience that Kung Fu Femmes deserves.
Scott Wiley: What was your experience prior to KFF within the film/entertainment industry? If there was none feel free to describe what you did before and how it helped (or didn’t)?
Tony Laudati: My two brothers, MICHAEL and JOSEPH LAUDATI, and I grew up in Upstate New York. We were into puppetry, monster make-up, stop-motion animation, dinosaurs, the Marx Brothers and Laurel and Hardy.The movie theaters and local TV stations in our area did not run Bruce Lee films. However, we knew of Bruce Lee from The Green Hornet TV show.
We were also ardent fans of the original Kung Fu TV show with David Carradine. We loved Clint Eastwood films, the James Bond series, and Errol Flynn. I was particularly fascinated with Diana Rigg as the super-cool British agent, Emma Peel, in The Avengers series.
After high school, my brothers and I enrolled at the State University of New York at Purchase. We majored in Film Production. Mike went on to become a very successful and respected make-up artist.
Mike worked for many years with Harrison Ford, Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro and Tom Cruise. Joe is an acclaimed sculptor. He creates model kits of fantasy film characters for private owners.
Joe also sculpts figures for Marvel and DC Comics, and other toy companies.
Shortly after graduating from Suny Purchase, my senior thesis film, a stop-motion animated short titled The White Gazelle, won a Student Academy Award. Winning the award led to my being hired at George Lucas’s special effects facility, Industrial Light & Magic, in Northern California. At ILM, I worked as a stop-motion animator and puppet-maker on movies like Cocoon, Explorers, Young Sherlock Holmes and Howard the Duck.
I later did clay animation on the revived Gumby TV show and Gumby Movie. But after six years of pushing little puppets around, I felt I’d had enough. I really wanted to write and direct my own movies. So I moved to Los Angeles and got a stable job in a hotel sales office. I spent my nights in the office pounding out scripts and faxing query letters. I wrote ten screenplays, four of them female-driven, but none of the scripts sold.
After years of rejection, I left the hotel business and got into post-production. I now make a living as an editor on reality TV shows.
SW: Where did the idea come from to set up such a unique company as Kung Fu Femmes? Was it purely your idea, did others help? etc.
TL: During my time as a struggling screenwriter, I studied Shotokan Karate. My sensei, an incredible lady named PENNY RINGWOOD, made a strong impression on me. I eventually had to give up Karate. But for my tenth screenplay, I wrote a female-driven martial arts script, Kung Fu Femmes. I was determined to direct the film myself. I spent four years trying to get financing for the movie. I sent the script to anyone who had the slightest interest.
Alas, my quest proved fruitless. This was in early 2000. Female action films had not yet come into vogue. I was criticised for not having a Steven Seagal or Jean Claude Van Damme-type role in the script. I was also told to come back when I had Angelina Jolie or Cameron Diaz.
TL: Kung Fu Femmes is set in the near future. Las Vegas has gone bankrupt. The hotels and casinos are bought out and run by an Asian triad. A new attraction in the casinos are the Kung Fu Femmes fight shows.
The shows feature young women in risque costumes and/or body make-up. They stage mock battles to the death before an enthralled casino audience. The KFF performers are all delinquent girls from broken homes. They are trained and rehearsed in an underground Kung Fu troupe maintained by the mob.
Ostensibly, the fight shows are choreographed and supposedly safe. But some of the girls, due to their traumatic childhoods, are emotionally unstable. Therefore, the fight shows can get out of control, with tragic consequences.
As the onstage brutality increases, so do the popularity of the shows. Girls with animosities are purposely paired up to fight. Bets are placed. The girls have no families, so if one of them dies, no inquiries are made. The pay off is huge for the girls who survive the shows. They can start fresh with the cash they earn, if they can live out their three-year indenture to the mob. But few of them do.
TYLER (Michelle Tomlinson – pictured above) is the lead heroine of the script. A tough young woman, Tyler is street savvy, with a long rap sheet. At the age of nine, Tyler is separated from her alcoholic mother. She bounces around a series of foster homes, street gangs and becomes a small time thief, completely out for herself.
Tyler is caught and arrested. Awaiting trial, she is propositioned by a lawyer with the mob to become a Kung Fu Femme, in exchange for a speedy acquittal.
Tyler agrees. She trains and performs in the racy fight shows with the other girls, under the stern tutelage of SIFU KIRA, a steely woman with a tragic past. Tyler uses the money she earns from the fight shows to hire a detective to search for her mom, without success.
Tragedy ensues when, in a fit of rage, Tyler accidentally kills another girl in a show. This plunges Tyler into a pit of despair and self-condemnation. With the support of Sifu Kira, Tyler overcomes her anguish and becomes Kira’s assistant. She makes the welfare of the other girls her sole aim, her “penance”.
The story takes a shocking turn when Sifu Kira is murdered by another one of her students, the stunning but psychotic MORGAN. It then falls on Tyler to fight Morgan for control of the girls, the “good” mother versus the “bad” mother. Kung Fu Femmes is essentially a story about a young woman searching for a mother figure. In the end, she finds that mother in herself.
TL: While trying to get financing for Kung Fu Femmes (the movie), I thought I could attract interest in the project by producing some female Kung Fu shorts, which I posted to the web.
A pair of stage producers in Las Vegas saw my shorts and contacted me..The producers asked me to create a live KFF presentation for an event at the MGM Grand. I agreed and began my search for a fight choreographer. It was then that I partnered up with KFF’s martial arts director, TERRY TANEIE (pictured above/left).
Terry is an extraordinary martial arts trainer, choreographer, performer, stunt man and filmmaker. We enjoy an exciting and productive collaboration that is going on ten years now. In Los Angeles, Terry and I found four stunning female martial artists to perform at the MGM Grand.
I created the concept and blocking for the show, which Terry embellished with his exquisite choreography. We flew out to Vegas and did the show, which was a big hit. But the show was a one-time engagement. Early the next morning, we were all on a plane back to LAX.
Upon our return, I felt that we should continue the KFF performances, that we could become “the Pussycat Dolls of Martial Arts”. I also thought that the attention attracted by the live shows might be a way to get the movie financed.
Thankfully, Terry agreed. We continued to audition and rehearse new girls for live shows in Los Angeles. Over the next couple of years, our KFF troupe staged numerous performances at nightclubs, conventions, universities and corporate events in Southern California.
The movie was put on a back burner.
TL: The four members of our original Las Vegas cast were LAUREN MARY KIM, ELIZABETH AMMAN, MICHELANGELA FRUET and LOREN KINSELLA. You can see bits of their performance in KFF Webisode #1.
I would say about 80% of every female martial artist and/or stunt woman presently working in Hollywood was involved in KFF at one time or another.
Among our most accomplished KFFemmes are ELLE BEYER, AMY JOHNSTON, CARLY SUNAE, GABY ALCAZAR, ERIKA CORTES, ANNA RANOSO, ALEXANDRA SANTIAGO, APRIL LITTLEJOHN, CRYSTAL WILLIS, VICTORIA VIVES, NATASHA CORDOVA, ANNA YOSIN, TIERRA ABBOTT, NATALIE NASTULCZYKOVA, YUMI CHO, YONNA KARI, DRINIE AGUILAR, JENNIFER PRESNO, MICHELLE CHARLENE LEE, ROBIN OLIVE, LESLIE AUGUSTINE, KARA GOSSEN, SARAH MOSER, DOVE CERISSA, NICOLE LEINER, CAMILA IVERA, SACHIKO ISHIDA, LIEN CHAU ZHANG, DALE SHIEH, KATHLEEN GREGORY, ANGIE GEGA, BETH CARPENTER, ANASTASIA KISLING, MARISOL ROSE, HIMERRIA WORTHAM, and STARKESHA BROWN.
In addition, we had the good fortune of having gifted male performers in KFF as well. KEI KOSUGI, CHAD “BIDDY” BATES and MANNY VAZQUEZ are highly-skilled martial artists, choreographers, dancers and performers, all students of Terry’s. LON BEYER, another superb Kung Fu performer and husband of Elle Beyer, was also a blessing to our company. Assisting Terry, these wonderful gentlemen all took part in training our girls, creating choreography, performing and getting their butts kicked onstage.
TL: It was always a challenge finding suitable venues for our KFF shows. As KFF’s producer-director, safety was my primary concern.
Whenever possible, I would tape rubber mating onto the stage floor. We avoided cement or stone surfaces unless we could properly pad them. We never used real weapons in our shows. Harnessing my skills as a puppet maker, I developed techniques to build rubber swords, staffs, sticks and nunchukas.
I turned down offers that I felt would subject our ladies to any of kind of disrespect, that would compromise our safety or shortchange our performance.
TL: After a few years of performing, KFF was very much in the martial arts spectrum. However, we needed to educate the general public. We were far different than a martial arts demonstration, men in white ghi’s breaking boards.
KFF shows are a blend of amazing martial arts, dazzling costumes, sword play, acrobatics, music, comedy, drama and of course, gorgeous girls. Over time, we received offers to perform at screenings, fundraisers and fashion shows.
KFF was profiled in several lifestyle TV shows. Ultimately, we were hired to perform at corporate events in India.
TL: Our live show audience is predominantly men in their late teens to early thirties. Our YouTube videos tend to attract more mature male viewers .
As it became obvious that KFF is all about women empowerment, our female fan base grew.
TL: Even now, there is nothing like Kung Fu Femmes anywhere onstage, the web or TV. However, the stage troupe Sideswipe, run by MATT MULLINS, is most impressive. Their shows feature precision katas executed by a mostly male cast.
On the web, the videos of Thousand Pounds, directed by CHRIS COWAN, are breath-taking. I am eagerly awaiting Cowan’s first webisode, Clandestine. It’s stars KFF alumni AMY JOHNSTON, of whom I am very proud.
MICAH BROCK and his Slug Street Scrappers webisodes are lots of fun. SHAUN CHARNEY and VLAD RIMBURG continue to produce incredible fight videos. But TERRY TANEIE, and his own company, Studio Shiners, are the people you really want to watch. Nobody, but nobody orchestrates fight scenes as beautifully as TERRY TANEIE.
Terry is the fastest, most gifted choreographer I know. He is also an extremely proficient cameraman and editor, an expert filmmaker. Terry is also the best fight director I know of working with women.
TL: After several years of running a live show troupe, I was anxious to get back to my filmmaking roots. So I began producing videos for the web that would showcase the talents of our ladies, along with Terry and his men.
As our popularity grew on YouTube, I saw an opportunity to revisit the original KFF screenplay with Tyler, her Kung Fu Femmes, and the Chinese mob in Las Vegas. The KFF web series picks up with the screenplay leaves off. We watch Tyler struggle with her new responsibilities as a sifu, mother-figure and leader.
Tyler is totally devoted to the well-being of her girls, seeing them safely through their indenture. But Tyler must also answer to the Chinese triad. Tirelessly, she manages both loads.
In KFF Webisode #8, Tyler finally joins forces with the FBI to bring down the mob. For the role of Tyler, I was very fortunate to cast MICHELLE TOMLINSON, a sensational actress and acclaimed horror movie star. Always prepared, professional and a joy to work with, Michelle has been with us now for over five years.
Also appearing in the series are SERENA LORIEN, TOY LEI, PHOENIX WONG, and a host of other first-rate players.
TL: It was challenging for Terry, the troupe and I to produce videos while also appearing live onstage. We did this for a number of years. We trained and rehearsed on Saturdays, developing new routines for shows and videos.
At the rehearsals, I always on hand a big cooler of bottled water and juice, granola bars, dried fruit, first aid kit, kicking pads, mats, rubber weapons, etc. I shopped regularly in LA’s Chinatown and Garment District for mini-dresses, shorts, tank tops, etc., that could be tailored for costumes. I even learned to use a sewing machine!
While it was exhausting and often frustrating, I loved this period. KFF was extremely productive. I enjoyed the cameraderie of working with a troupe. To my delight, our KFF videos on YouTube racked up millions of viewings. We continued to get offers to perform at new venues.
We amassed thousands of friends on Myspace, and later, Facebook and Twitter. With our ever-expanding fan base, it was imperative to keep doing shows, videos and photo shoots to maintain the fervor.
In addition to the “official” KFF web series, we produced a number of stand-alone videos. Again, the videos were a way to showcase the diverse talents of our KFFemmes. Probably our most ambitious video to date is Angering the Gods, starring AMY JOHNSTON.
Probably the hardest aspect of shooting a video in Los Angeles is finding a unique location that doesn’t cost thousands of dollars in permits, insurance, etc. Everyone’s shooting fight scenes in the park. There is a musical, Sunday in the Park with George. I’ve joked that someone should do Fight Scene in the Park with George.
TL: With the exception of Michelle Tomlinson, who plays Tyler in the web series, and a few other ladies, our KFFemmes performed effortlessly in both the shows and the videos.
As Terry and I rehearsed the girls on weekly basis, we perceived what they excelled in and developed routines best suited for them. The choreography we created for the stage could later be tweaked for videos, and vice versa.
TL: At heart, I’ll always be a filmmaker.
On a film shoot, you have so much more control. Normally, you’re dealing with fewer people. There are lots of things you can fix and enhance in post. But live shows have their rewards as well. There is nothing like being backstage with your performers minutes before showtime. The excitement is unparalleled.
You can watch the highlights of a number of our shows on the Kung Fu Femmes YouTube Channel.
|Sachiko Ishida and J.J. Harridan square off in ‘From China With Love’ on Kung Fu Femmes|
SW: Your short ‘From China With Love’ won Best Action Short at the 2012 Action on Film Festival, congrats on that. What was that experience like and did you plan to make a contender for the title when you were filming it or did the idea to enter it come later?
TL: Winning the award for Best Action Short of the Year at the 2013 Action on Film Festival was a fantastic experience. I was enormously proud of everyone involved. We had been submitting KFF shorts to AOFF for the past fews, and received various nominations, which was gratifying.
But it was fabulous to win for From China with Love, which stars JENNIFER PRESNO, SACHIKO ISHIDA, and LIEN CHAU ZHANG. From China with Love was inspired by the James Bond flick, From Russia with Love.
For this year’s AOF Festival, we’ll be submitting Dr. Nguyen, starring CARLY SUNAE, LIEN CHAU ZHANG, AND NATALIE NASTULCZYKOVA. Dr. Nguyen was inspired by Dr. No and Goldfinger.
The goal of Kung Fu Femmes is to expand the martial arts genre. We reach out to people who have never been to a dojo. Hopefully, they’ll be inclined to visit one. If not, they can appreciate martial arts as an art form as well as a sport. We labor to do things you’ve never seen before in film, TV or video games. We also want to introduce female characters you care about.
Above all, we strive to exemplify female empowerment.
TL: In KFF, I would say my greatest satisfaction is having worked with gifted artists like Terry Taneie, and the many girls and guys who have come through our company. I am immensely proud of the stage shows we’ve done.
Right now, we’re taking a break from live performance. I want to do more shows, but with better resources and financing. We’re looking for a seasoned stage producer, one with connections in Las Vegas.
I take joy in what we accomplish with our videos. We’ve moved on from just doing fight scenes. Our shorts are little stories with a beginning, middle and end. They have drama, humor, pathos, and unique characters in addition to outstanding fight choreography.
Our fan base on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter gets bigger and bigger.
TL: KFF will continue to explore new territories. Our future productions may not always involve martial arts, but they will surely feature strong, confident, assertive women.
We are now embarking on a new web series titled, The Goddaughter. It’s based on The Godfather.
In The Goddaughter, we learn that the late MICHAEL CORLEONE fathered another daughter before he passed away in Sicily. Her name is MICHAELA. Raised in Sicily by the Tommasino family, her true identity is kept secret. But Michaela knows who she is, and who her father was.
Michaela is trained as a soldier in the Sicilian Mafia. Now nineteen, she is well-versed in martial arts, firearms and other weapons, an agile fighter. Michaela has all of her father’s cunning, but also the warmth and caring of her esteemed grandfather, the late Vito Corleone. Michaela comes to America to restore power to the Corleone name. She will claim her place in her family’s legacy.
For the role of Michaela, I have cast an exceptionally talented and versatile young actress, ELISABETH LARENA.
In regards to the present Kung Fu Femmes web series, KFF Webisode #8 was recently completed. We have just two more to do, which will wrap up Tyler’s story. Then I’d like to sell the KFF concept as a cable TV series.
I would also love to finally produce and direct the original Kung Fu Femmes script.
As for me personally, I’m thankful to KFF for making it possible for me to see my visions realized. I know so many filmmakers with nothing to show for their careers but development meetings. I have over eighty KFF videos that I can look back on.
Kung Fu Femmes makes it possible for me to be a writer-producer-director. For that, I am eternally grateful.