Talks & Interviews — September 3, 2013 at 11:44 pm

Hollywood stunt fighter Bill Shaw: Stunt fighting is acting – exclusive

bill-shaw-todayBill 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.

However, 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 talks to BZFilm about how he got started learning martial arts, and also expresses his thoughts on today’s martial arts movies and mixed martial arts as well.


Mr. Shaw, you’ve been doing martial arts a long time, how did you get started?

I first gained an interest in martial arts in the mid 50’s (I was about 6 years old) when I saw a ”Lassie” TV episode where a visiting Japanese boy is being picked on by a group of bullies.  After they bring out the sling shots and start hitting him with rocks, he then throws one the bullies with Tome Nage circle throw (you know, the foot in the stomach, go down to your back, and throw him over your head).

Man, did that ever get my attention!  But back then, martial arts schools just didn’t exist, especially in a small town of Southern Oregon. No Martial Arts magazines existed (other than Boxing) and hardly any books were available on the subject. I was left with the hope that by chance I might see a magazine article on Self Defense, or catch a TV episode that might contain the subject of martial arts somewhere in the story.

Eventually, I discovered the old “Mr. Moto” movies from the 30’s. They replayed during off times at the theater sometimes and once in a while on Sat afternoon TV. It didn’t take long for Mr. Moto to join Roy Rogers, Tarzan, Batman, and Superman as my favorite childhood heroes.

Later, my brother & I found some Ju-jitsu booklets through a novelty mail order company advertising on the back of comic books – so we sent away for them.  They didn’t have any pictures and very few illustrations, so we did our best to decipher the descriptions.  Remember, this is when no one really knew anything about martial arts. I’m sure my technique attempts completely sucked, but amazingly I was able to pull off a partial move here & there amongst my grade school peers, giving me an early reputation for knowing Judo.

The fact was, schoolyard fights were very common in those days and due to the influence of my aforementioned heroes, I was always sticking up for others who were being picked on – especially the weaker or younger kids.  Luckily, I always seemed to emerge victorious – even against the older kids. This combat record probably didn’t help dispel the judo rumors – but it wasn’t because of Judo.  It was because of my childlike belief that when you are on the side Truth, Right, and Justice a “hero like” power can be accessed in the time of need. Something, by the way, I still believe to this day.

Finally when I was about 18, a small Judo & Ju-Jitsu school opened up on the outskirts of my small town.  About a year later, in what usually takes 4 years, I traveled to CA, to be tested in front of a board of high ranking examiners, and was awarded my first Black Belt. Thus began a rewarding life of martial arts discovery and adventure. I continued on, studying several other systems and I eventually made a name for myself.

With Mike StoneSo how did you get involved in the movies? What made you go into that direction in the first place?

The story on how I got involved in movies, like that of so many others, could fill a book.  But I’ll limit it here. This might be a good place to mention the “Catch 22” of the Screen Actors Guild (SAG), the union governing TV & Movie performances – including stunts.  The “catch” goes something like this:

Rule 1 – You can’t be hired to perform in a Movie or TV Show if you aren’t in the Union. Rule 2 – You can’t get into the Union if you haven’t already performed in a Movie or TV Show. Now there are a few ways around this, but it’s what blocks probably 99% of otherwise qualified & talented performers.

Okay, it’s the mid 70’s, after the Kung-Fu TV show and Bruce Lee had set the bar really high, especially with “Enter the Dragon”. Martial Arts were exploding, especially in the media. This caused a rush to production, resulting in a lot of low quality Movie & TV martial arts – in terms of both choreography & performances. So much so, that it seemed to be almost more the norm than the exception. The effect of this was anything that was good, looked fantastic by comparison.

I knew that I could “perform” martial arts better than most of what I was seeing. However, the creativity of choreography seemed to interest me even more. Partly because I didn’t think the public was being presented with the diversity of martial arts tactics, realistic applications, the exciting dynamics, or ultra high skill levels.

Instead we were getting watered down, ill performed, rehashing of what everyone had already seen many times before.  In many cases non-martial artist stunt coordinators were having to just “wing it” – and most times it showed. I felt the public, as well as the martial arts community, deserved better.

Basically, I just felt I couldn’t do any worse than what I was continuously seeing.  So I began choreographing fights (in my head) to see if I could make them more realistically exciting, and do a better job progressing the character development and enhancing the story with supporting action.

The experience of this exercise naturally carried over into the Demo Shows our school did from time to time. After turning them from an old & boring “demonstration”, into more of a fresh and exciting “Show” it quickly became a crowd pleasing favorite performance at various local venues.  Perfecting the demo show gave me a good first hand sense of what the public could easily grasp and follow (as far as techniques) – and, what tended to not register or confuse them.  I also discovered the kind of “unusual” & “unexpected” maneuvers that they really enjoyed most.

So I started researching Hollywood and the Production business. I wrote some letters and made a few phone calls.  But, BAM!  The door came slamming shut in my face with the “SAG Catch 22”. But for me, the interest had already taken root, so this simply became a new challenge.  Little did I know at the time just how big of a challenge it was to become.

shaw vs zabkaWhat kind of preparation work, if any, did you do to be ready to work in films?

Actually, in retrospect, I did a lot of preparation work well before I ever tried to seek any working opportunity.  There was a lot that I didn’t know, so I decided to learn everything I could first to give me the best chance of success. Then, after all that learning, came the rejection.

Okay, by the mid 80’s, vast improvements in entertainment Martial Arts had come about, through the efforts of people such as Chuck Norris, Pat Johnson, Mike Stone, and Jackie Chan – to name just a few. Interestingly though, this didn’t diminish my interest. Now, I simply wanted to “join” in – on whatever level I could.

So, I decided to test myself to see if I really knew what I thought I had figured out, and more importantly, could I actually do it? I decided the best test would be to produce my own “fight scene” video. So I choreographed a few fights and worked on perfecting the stunt fighting skills of my Demo Team guys.  I hired a videographer (from the local  TV station) to shoot the video and (since it was before desktop editing) to operate the editing machines.  For a location, we used a friend’s clothing store and it’s back alley for the sets.

After editing, it turned out so good that we decided to use it as the opening segment of our introduction & Information video that we showed to prospective students before they joined.

One thing that I realized was missing, something I had never done, was acting – none at all.   I thought, “What if I get a stunt fighting job (I didn’t figure to go straight to choreography) and what if I’m on the set, ready for my first fight scene and someone comes up to me and says, “Okay, you’re going to enter the room and walk over to the guy you’re fighting, but before the fight, you say these lines….

YIKES!  Lines?  What if they expect me to deliver lines, I’ll blow my big break.  So off to an acting class I go.  Luckily, I found a good one at the local college there in Casper, Wyoming.  I had met with the head of the theater department and explained what I was doing. He was very encouraging and happened to be teaching the 101 class himself that term.

So I got a copy of the text to read ahead of time. It was Uta Hagan’s, Respect for Acting and as it turned out, the contents of that book, provided a real edge for me.  Although it wasn’t spelled out in so many words, this is where I first realized that stunt fighting IS Acting. Later it became clear that most stunt fighters don’t act – at least not much.  But those that have learned the subtlety of acting the fight out, create a much more believable illusion with their performance.

At this point I was in my early 30’s, so a few weeks later, at the first class, I already felt really out of place in a room full of college kids. Then it got worse, a lot worse.  After his short class description, the Instructor had everyone give a short bio of their past acting experience.  Well, I sat there and heard all about everyone’s Junior High and High School acting classes and plays.  I think everyone there had already been in at least one play – and some had already done community theater. Then there was me. The “old guy” with no acting experience at all.

After this introduction process was finished, the teacher announced the first assignment for the next class was to deliver an Audition piece to the class. He preferred a monolog, but it could be a song, a dance, or a comedy routine.

After class, I politely reminded the instructor that I didn’t have acting experience or even any lessons.  I wasn’t like all these “kids”, and that’s why I was taking the class. “After all” I said with a chuckle, “this is acting “101” isn’t it?”  He smiled, acknowledging my concerns, and asked if I had “Anything” I could perform?  “Well,” I told him, “I guess I could do a fight scene, but I’d have to bring in one of my guys.”  He said that would be fine. Still, the pressure was on.

So that night, at my martial arts school, I put together a short martial arts fight scene with Wes (one of my top black belts) who had also worked on the video.  The scene started with a shove, then gets really intense really fast, as we exchange a flurry of dynamic martial arts moves that most people had never seen. Then, as Wes rushes me, I gain a quick advantage with a powerful kick to his gut which doubles him over.

In the climax move, I step to Wes’s right side (of his hunched over body) and grab his hair in my left hand.  I pull his head back, arching him over backward into a position resembling a novice limbo dancer.  With his chest and throat now at my waist level, facing the ceiling, the finishing blow was a simulated chop to the throat – which ends the fight.

One of the things we had developed for our demo shows was to get the distance that a stunt kick or punch misses it’s target by, down to an inch or less – with the technique displaying the speed and body dynamics (the appearance of power) of a real strike. We had gotten so good at controlling these strikes that we would often even “touch” each other – yet with no impact past the surface of the skin. Since the stunt fighting norm was to miss by 4 to 8 inches, our strikes instantly had a much more realistic look.

The next night, during an open workout time, we rehearsed the scene enough times to get our timing and tolerances perfected.  Several times, I noticed other students looking over at us sometimes thinking one of us actually got hit.   This reaction gave me a couple of ideas. One, which really enhanced the illusion, was to add sound effects by one of us hitting our own body with a hidden hand and timed to match the kick or punch’s appearance of landing.

The next morning at the acting class, I noticed that the classroom was a large, circular, stepped “pit” layout.  This meant that our fight would be seen from every angle.  So we were going to have to really keep it tight and “sell” the hits, to keep it looking real.

We were the first to perform, and right away I could tell it was going really well.  I was hearing gasps and other cringing vocalizations in response to our action.  Then came the moment of truth, it was time for the finishing blow.  Wes & I had worked out an extra effect.  On the last move, the chop to Wes’s throat, made solid contact just below his throat, at the collar bones.  This made a deep “thump” sound, loud enough for everyone to hear.  Which I immediately followed with a blood curdling Kiai (karate yell) as Wes dropped limp and motionless to the floor.  All seemed to go just as we had rehearsed.

As soon as I stood up out of my stance, and smiled, the room erupted in applause.  I glanced over at the instructor and he had a big smile on his face, as he gave me an approving nod.  Before the applause began to diminish, I looked down at Wes and said his name to let him know it was time to get up. I guessed he couldn’t hear me over the applause so I nudged him with my foot, and then again another nudge, as I said  “Okay, Wes.”  But, still nothing.

The applause quickly ended as I knelt down, wide eyed, looking at Wes neck. My whole demeanor now changed, as my body & voice began to display fear for my friend.  In the deathly silence everyone can hear as I fearfully utter, with notable trembling in my voice, “Oh God… Wes?  WES!”

I look up for a moment and over to the instructor, with an I-don’t-know-what-to-do look on my face.  I’m visibly shaking now and trying to say his name, but my voice cracks, “Wes?  Wes.”  I hear some one dash out the door and a few of the girls are tearing up, as I am about to. You could feel the overwhelming shock and horrid anxiety flood the room.  It was a heavy, thick, and frightening feel.

Glancing up, I see the Instructor is starting to make his way down to us, so suddenly, I stand up fully with a big smile, and say, “Okay, that’s good, Wes!”  To which he hops up with a smile as well. Almost as if in a trance, everyone in the room is just staring at us in stunned disbelief.   After a moment of “pin-drop” silence” the class again erupts in applause, even louder than before.

This “Sting” was the second of the two ideas I had during our rehearsal the night before. It was a real risk to take as a non-actor. What if my acting wasn’t believable enough to make it work?  What if it hadn’t come off right?   But fortunately, we had convinced everyone in the room. All of the feedback we got was about how real it all was and how they all thought Wes was really hurt.  In fact, I learned that the young man who had run out was rushing to call an ambulance, but as soon as Wes & I stood up, his friend ran out to stop him.

Then came the instructor’s critique, it was short & to the point.  He said that in all his years, that was the most technically precise as well as the most realistic looking fight scene he’d ever seen.  Then he concluded with, “If acting is suspending reality while being completely believable, then clearly – you can act!”  Which got another round of applause.  But that’s not all, after class, he came up to Wes & I and said that the college was building a new theater wing for next year, and wondered if I would be interested in teaching a stage fighting class.

3 Bill Shaw & Martin LandauThe 90’s “kickboxing movies” have stepped down, allowing “the MMA movies” to take the spotlight. What is your personal opinion on this kind of change? How long do you think MMA will hold on?

Well I think MMA is here to stay.  It’s much more popular than kickboxing ever was, and has been encroaching on both the Boxing & Wrestling worlds. This means there is far too much money in it for it to just go away or even die out.

These kinds of general popularity changes, between the arts have always been part of American Martial Arts culture.  For example, in wide general terms, when I was a kid in the 50’s, the public referred to their idea of a martial arts move with the generic term, “Judo Chop” and to a lesser degree a Judo FLIP”.

During the 60’s it became a, “Karate Chop.”  In the 70’s it changed to a “Kung-Fu Kick”, and in the 80’s it became a “Ninja Move” since they weren’t always sure what they were seeing. The 90’s was, of course, “Kick Boxing”, the 2000s ushered in “Jiu-Jitsu Choke Hold”.  Now with MMA being so prominent, a ”Choke Hold” has been joined by an “Armlock”, and “Ground & Pound”.  I guess that’s what enough media coverage will do.

In your opinion as a martial artist – whom of today’s action stars does martial arts you like the most?

Today there are so may action actors that it would be just too hard to pick favorites, not to mention maybe inappropriate – given my position.  Some are primarily actors doing martial arts extremely well, while others are primarily martial artists and handling acting really well.  Then of course there are some in both fields, that are just doing so-so.

However, I recently had a couple of nice surprises that I really enjoyed.  The first was a two-fer, in “Here Bomes the Boom”. Not only was Kevin James a very pleasant surprise in his action performances, but Bas Rutten did one of the best natural acting jobs I’ve seen a martial artist do.  Sure the part was written specifically FOR him… but still!

Another surprise was a bit of guilty a pleasure in “Kick Ass”.  Hit Girl’s fighting (I think done by Greg Townley) just made me smile. Excellent job.

10SF 2 Shaw & BodieYou’ve been on sort of a hiatus from movie work lately. Can you tell us if we will be seeing you or your work on the screen again soon?

You are right. Over a decade ago, my film career got cut short. I had to take over my elderly Mother’s business affairs to cover her rising health costs and increasing care needs. This, on top of the needs of my own young family, just left no time at all to be away for filming.  So I had to pass on some very appealing offers.

However, it’s been almost 2 years now since Mom passed away. She had always loved that I sometimes did movie work (you know, my biggest fan). So now, I guess it’s time to see if I can pick up not too far from where I left off.

Actually, I had just started to get the word out that I’m available again, when you requested this interview. So the timing is very interesting. However, after such a long time away, I don’t know how many of my past contacts are still in the biz – or how many will even remember me.  Therefore, it is unclear what the opportunities will be. I do hope I can revive things though, because I really enjoyed the creative expression and process that movie work can so uniquely provide.

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