This is the second part of interview with Hollywood stunt fighter, martial artist Bill Shaw. You can read the first part here.
Bill Shaw first got interested in martial arts from a very young age. Today – he’s known as a Hollywood stunt fighter, who worked on such films as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 3”, “Shootfighter” series, “Get Carter” and others.
Shaw is widely known as an expert martial artist, an instructor, and a founder of Han Foo Wa Combined Fighting Arts Federation.
In this part of the interview, Shaw recalls his work on “Shootfighter” series, and shares with BZFilm his memories of working with legendary Bolo Yeung.
What kind of steps did you take to first break into movies?
I can tell ya, it was a real task. And perhaps my biggest obstacle was self imposed. I had chosen not to live in the stress inducing congestion of Southern CA, preferring instead the wide open settings of the Mountain States and the Pacific Northwest. So movie opportunities have always been fewer to come by and much harder to land than if I had lived in L.A.
Even so, over the years, I have found myself working on a good number of movie sets around the country – including LA. From living outside of California I’ve worked on No Place To Hide, Shootfighter, Shootfighter 2, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III, X-Files, Get Carter, and Total Reality. I’ve even done a few National commercials and made over 20 advanced martial arts training videos. Now these numbers aren’t all that impressive in Hollywood terms, where one might have 10 times as many credits – but all this was while living where I wanted to. So can’t complain much about that.
Once I had the confirmation from the acting class and people’s reaction to the introduction video, I decided to get proactive. I sent out about 75 copies of the fight scene video to a very select list I had compiled over several months. With most of the tapes I sent out, I just heard nothing back. Most of the rest earned a rejection letter or came back unopened. However, I did end up getting a few doors to open – even if only ever so slightly. By “open” I mean they responded to my tape, and some actually took the time to speak with me on the phone. All tolled though, out of 75 only 2 or 3, was I eventually able to meet with face to face.
One of these was Sam Firstenberg, who had directed some of the earliest Ninja movies. What a gentleman! He even invited me to stop in and see him, at Cannon Pictures, if ever I was in LA. Okay, so guess where I was a few days later?
Hollywood, in general, functions on relationships and this was no different. After seeing my video and then meeting me, Sam gave me the direct contact info for Mike Stone (the Undefeated World Karate Champion) who wrote “Enter the Ninja” and did the fights for most of the early Ninja & American Ninja movies. He also gave me contact info for another martial arts coordinator. This other guy stood me up and never showed – typical Hollywood.
Mike Stone, on the other hand, is a class act. He met me for dinner – right on time, and we really hit it off great. In fact, his wife commented on how comfortable dinner was, compared to the usual awkwardness of most first time meetings where people are either in awe of – or intimidated by Mike. For me, I had my own confidence in myself, and sensed the honest “realness” of Mike. So it was just natural.
The only thing was, Mike was heading out of the country in the next week to do another movie. However, after seeing my fight scene & demo tape, he offered to put a word in to the producers to see if he could bring “one more” person from the states. The answer came back, “No.” Everything had already been set.
Upon Mike’s return, he informed me he was retiring from movies and moving permanently to the Philippines. So that was that…. Almost. Mike & I kept in touch, and he even invited me to the islands to spend a couple of weeks at his small resort. After I returned home, we continued to keep in touch, the old fashioned way, with the occasional snail mail.
A few years later, I was living in Spokane, WA when out of the blue, I got a call. Mike is in LA and has agreed to help a Producer friend of his, Alan Amiel, by doing the stunt coordinating for a movie eventually titled “No Place To Hide”. It starts shooting in just a few of weeks. So if I want to come to LA, Mike will get me on the set and teach me some of the ropes. He said he’d try to get me on camera, if he could, but no promises – and he can’t pay me anything. But it’s an unique opportunity and clearly one not to be passed up.
After arriving, on just the second day (well, it was actually night) I found myself, in front of the camera, playing the mysterious dark figure Killer, that turns out to be Martin Landau. So there I was, crashing though a window and chasing Drew Barrymore around the apartment with a knife! It was surreal, to say the least… I mean, really! My first time on camera, and it’s with Drew Barrymore!
Then about a year after that, Alan Amiel contacted me about a martial arts movie he was producing, and brought me in as a featured fighter. The movie was called “Shootfighter”, with the famous Pat Johnson of the “Karate Kid”, “Ninja Turtles”, and Mortal Combat movies as Fight Choreographer. Once there I also snagged a key learning spot as Production Assistant to the Stunt Department. I ended up playing the role of Ruben’s (one of the heroes) first shootfighting opponent. Then not too many months after that, Pat Johnson called me in as a stunt fighter for Teenage Mutant Turtles III. So there ya go… my “overnight” success, only took about 6 or 7 years!
The first “Shootfighter” was shot in North Hollywood, CA, and was one of Bolo’s first “good guy” roles. I didn’t have any fights with Bolo so my contact with him was mostly in my role of Stunt Dept. Production Assistant. However, since I was also working as the stunt department assistant for Pat Johnson I was always there with Pat when he was choreographing Bolo’s fights. Since I already knew Bolo’s fights, I filled in a few times for his opponent (who wasn’t there) so Bolo could learn and practice his fight scene.
Like I said, I didn’t really get to know Bolo much on the first movie, just that he was always very polite, quiet and reserved. Actually, he really didn’t interact much with anyone other than his assistant & interpreter. Just every now & then, he’d give a pleasant nod or a pat on the shoulder as he walked by.
We shot “Shootfighter 2” in Miami Beach. This time, I was brought in as both a fight choreographer, and as an actor with a small supporting role. In addition, I had the honorable distinction of being the only one, other than the lead actors and the producer, that had also worked on the original “Shootfighter”.
I remember at one of the first production meetings, I walked into Alan’s office and there was Bolo – who had just arrived. He was sitting on a couch, with his interpreter, just looking down kind of bored. As Alan greeted me, Bolo looked up and nodded. Then, he did like a double take, and began to smile. He got up and walked over to me, put his arm on my shoulder as he looked at Alan and the others in the office. He then pointed at me with his other hand, and smiled, as he said (in his famous broken-English accent), “Good man. Good man.” What a pleasant surprise, Bolo remembered me.
Due to the large number of fight scenes, there were actually 3 of us doing the fight choreography. Alan Amiel (the producer) gave final approval to the scenes and also choreographed some of the fights himself. However, John Salvitti and myself did the bulk of it together.
John & I really hit it off well and had a naturally similar vision. It seemed we always liked each other’s ideas and if one of us had to finish the other’s fight, there was never a continuity problem. The challenge was getting the filming time, or money to do some of the things we wanted to do, or to get the scene shot the way it should be. Consequently, there are a few moments we weren’t that satisfied with.
Most prominently, I’m thinking of the melee scene toward the end of the movie where Rubin (William Zebra) saves Shingo (Bolo) from being shot. He disarms Malo (Mark Macaulay) and smashes his head repeatedly with the edge of the gate to the fight cage. The gate’s edge (or frame the wire is attached to), as you can unfortunately see in the movie, is rather flimsy at best. So much so, that the repeated smashing just doesn’t look right.
However, the (flimsy) gate was already established in earlier scenes. So what I had planned was to have Malo slip inside the cage to escape Rubins beating, and hold the gate closed by a small horizontal reinforcing bar (same as the gate edges) at the middle of the gate. Rubin was to kick the weak weld at the end of this bar, breaking that end loose, and then jerk the gate open as Malo tries to keep it shut by holding tight to the horizontal bar. The effect of this on the bar before it is pulled free from Malo’s grasp was that it bent about 90 degrees, so it stuck straight out from the gate. When Malo sees the gate is wide open and Rubin is vulnerable to attack, Malo pulls a knife and rushes Rubin to stab him. Suddenly though, Rubin slams the gate shut – impaling the lunging Malo, all the way through, with the protruding bar.
However, it was almost the last day of shooting and production was playing catch up. So I was overruled, and the flimsy gate slamming to the head was chosen. Gotta say though, both guys (actors) really “sold” the action as best as was possible and with a heavier gate frame it would have looked great. Still though, I like my bent bar impaling solution better.
I assume you mean his actual real fighting skill, which aren’t something you can necessarily evaluate on a movie set. I didn’t see him spar, workout on a bag, or such as that. So I have no knowledge about his natural, reactions, timing, distance, footwork, deceptions, power structures, or in-heat-of-battle technique selection. However, I can tell you that in choreographing his fights, I don’t recall him having any trouble with any of the moves we gave him to do.
Not only that, he had plenty of ideas himself for moves he preferred – which we usually used. Clearly, he has had training, and even though the movies have a way of making someone look like a better fighter than they might really be, I wouldn’t imagine Bolo to have much trouble in a scuffle. I mean, have you seen the size of his chest and arms? And let me tell ya, the dude is solid!
Which of the Shootfighter films did you personally like working on the most?
As for my work experience preference between the two Shootfighter films, it’s really hard to say. My position and function between the two were so different. They each gave me different opportunities to express different talents. In the first “Shootfighter”, I had a good fight scene and made a good friend with my fight partner, the Star, Billy (William) Zabka. In Shootfighter 2, I didn’t get to fight, but I had the opportunity to Choreograph – a lot! I even had an acting part, as Sgt. Grey, Lt. Jamison’s (Paul Bodie) assistant.
Originally the script called for Lt. Jamison and Sgt. Grey (my character) to have a much bigger involvement, supporting the Hero’s efforts to break up the shootfighting ring. But time & money constraints required cutting the script back, so most of it never even got filmed. Then some that did, ended up being cut in order to keep the continuity of the adjusted script. But such is Hollywood, and similar to a million other stories. That’s just the way it is sometimes.
One I remember was at the Hotel where all of the out of town cast & crew were staying. I think it was a Sunday, a rare day off. I was coming down to the lobby in the elevator and when the doors opened there was Bolo, by himself and without his interpreter, starting to be surrounded by fans.
I could tell he was uncomfortable, so I walked over toward him and as he spotted me, he kind of gave me a wide eyed, “help” look. So I walked right up to him and said, “Are you ready? We’re gonna be late!” I then ushered him across the lobby to the security door into the parking garage.
From there we took the elevators up to his floor. I could tell he was relieved, and thankful, maybe even a bit embarrassed. But like I say he was very reserved, so as he got off he just said, “thank you!”
Another time I remember was on the set, in the lunch room, well after lunch. The room was empty except for John Salvitti (the other choreographer) & I, and some of the stunt fighters were at another table. Bolo and his interpreter came in and sat at the other end of our table. Then as the stunt guys were filtering out, the interpreter got up to run a quick errand. Bolo picked up a Chinese newspaper to read, when a couple of the local stunt fighters we had recruited, walked up to the table and tried to talk to Bolo. As usual, he quickly got confused and didn’t understand, so they politely smiled, nodded and left.
The room was completely empty now except for us and Bolo. After just a moment, he put down his paper leaned over toward us and asked, in the best English I had ever heard him speak, “So, where do you guys go after this?” Our jaws dropped as he just smiled and we had a nice little conversation. The rest of the shoot, however, Bolo continued to speak in his broken English. That is, whenever he spoke – which was rare. I always took that moment in the lunchroom as an honor – as Bolo’s approval and his gesture of trust in us.
This last Bolo Story happened when I was late for the wrap party. Actually, I had already given my farewells and wasn’t going too attend because I had a 4:00 AM flight home in the morning. I had just finished packing when my cell phone rang and John Salvitti is telling me how everyone is asking about me. So I figure I can survive on 3 to 4 hrs sleep and off I go.
When I walked into the restaurant’s banquet room, everyone was crowded around a large long table and most were just finishing the Asian feast. I was greeted with the typical Hollywood teasing, you know, “Oh, poor sleepy boy needs his beauty rest?”
Thankfully, this was short lived, as they tried to make room for me at the table & fit in another chair. Then Bolo’s assistant got up as Bolo motioned me over, so I could sit next to him. Once I was seated, everyone assured me that there was plenty left to eat, so dig in. However, I’d already eaten so I only took a few appetizers.
Then after a moment, Bolo gestured for a serving plate to be handed to him. He put some food on his plate and then put some on my plate. I guess this gave him an idea, because he started getting different foods handed to him, but he wasn’t taking any. Instead, he was filling up my plate. I really wasn’t that hungry, but I know that feeding friends is a very strong tradition in many cultures. My plate was really getting full. So finally I turned to Bolo, and with a big smile, I puffed up my chest and said, “What? I’m not BIG enough for you?”
That really cracked him up and he burst out laughing (along with everyone else) as he put his arm around me in a gesture of friendship. That is not only my last memory of Bolo, but it’s also my fondest.
Martin Kove, who played the leading villain in the first Shootfighter, did not have a martial arts background…how difficult was it for him to act (fight) with Yeung?
Ahhh, Martin Kove… Okay here’s a little behind the scenes. After we wrapped the “original” filming on the first Shootfighter, I returned to Spokane, Wa, and everyone else moved on to their next project. Then, the studio that funded the movie liked the fights so much that they invested more money into it, to build more expensive sets and do some new fight scenes. This is when all of the blood & gore came in. It was during this additional shooting when Martin Kove and some others came on board for another week or so of shooting – so I wasn’t there when he was.
It actually ended up a bit of a different movie than was originally shot. I guess the gore really sells well in the foreign markets and the story changes made a better set up for the sequel.
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