Interview with John Kreng – Stunt Coordinator & Author of Fight Choreography – the Art of Non Verbal Dialogue.
By Greg Reifsteck
I was living in Los Angeles working as a professional stand up comedian, performing regularly at The Comedy Store in Hollywood. Before that I was a martial artist competing regularly on the open tournament circuit, but had to quit because of a severely torn groin muscle. I was practicing since I was 12 and I needed to do something creative to express myself, so I found comedy. I was very fortunate to have met a chiropractor who repaired my leg without surgery, and was in physical therapy for about a year. Once I was okay to train, it was about 2-3 months later I got my first gig fighting Jet Li in a Hong Kong movie, “The Master.” It was in the mid to late 80’s where you actually took the hit – it was kinda like full contact one-step sparring. There was no stunt school at the time, so that was my initiation into the stunt world. Pretty much a trail by fire. I feel I was pretty lucky. Later that year I worked on “Hook.” There was a drastic difference in working in a Hong Kong film and then a big Hollywood film.
What are the differences between a U.S. Stunt Coordinator and Hong Kong/China Fight Director?
There are many differences. The main difference is in the hierarchy and creative control. In Hong Kong/China, the Fight Director has as much power (or at times more) than the director. The Fight Director is in total control of the action sequences from how the action scenes will look and it’s shot to how it is finally edited. An Asian audience will go see a movie with less than popular actors and/or an unknown director if the fight director has a good reputation. In the West (depending on your relationship with the editor, director, and director of photography), it’s often just the opposite and you do not have any control over how it’s shot or edited. Stunts and the people involved do not get as much attention because it’s more producer, director, and actor driven. By that I mean that’s what sells the picture.
Can that be frustrating?
Yes, it can be, especially when the camera is placed in the wrong position and then edited in a way where the fight loses the mood, rhythm, and tempo from how you originally put it together. I’ve had friends who choreographed fight scenes that were edited backwards and lost the emotional feel to it. This happens more often than you think.
Is that why Hong Kong Fight Directors have developed a greater reputation all over the world and in the consciousness of fight film fans?
Yes. But you have to realize fight choreography is something that is much more revered and respected throughout the centuries in Asia, even before the introduction of film. The martial arts has a long history that is an integral part of Asian history and is expressed creatively for entertainment purposes with the Chinese opera over the centuries where they would depict historical and mythical stories that often include fight scenes. In the West, fight choreography is not as highly respected at all. It’s rough, lacks a strategy, has no finesse, and nowhere close the being “real” (as a lot of people would like to want to think) because it is based on the principles of the brawl from the silent Westerns 100 years ago. This limits the fight choreographer. The only form of fight choreography in entertainment that is completely accepted is Professional Wrestling. There is a very good reason why it is on television and cable almost every night.
What was the process like for putting together this book? It really is a one-of-a-kind primer.
It took me about 3 years to write. The most difficult thing I had to do with it was figure out a universal approach that encompassed everything (well almost) a fight choreographer might encounter while working on a film set. It’s a film theory book that deals with the fight choreography aspect of filmmaking and how it is integrated with the other aspects of movie making. There is also a section on the history of fight choreography in film.
Who did you write this book for?
I wrote it for film students, entertainment professionals, and anyone wanting to be more educated about how they see fights. I wrote it so that we can all be on the same page as far as what we see in a fight scene and how to make it happen. I have already seen the books effect on things already because some film critics have been using the principles in the book in how they see a fight scene and are able to critique the scene more effectively and clearly.
What discoveries did you personally make while writing the book?
The biggest realization was the differences between East and West in how they see and interpret action and violence for entertainment purposes. How we see and interpret action and violence is an individual experience as well as an overall cultural issue of the experiences we have collectively gone through. The difference between East and West stems from cultural differences as well as how we see violence and physical conflict from their overall group consciousness as a nation. China has a long history of that as well as other Asian countries firsthand. But in the US, most of the wars fought were not on their soil, so their view of violence is much different along with the freedom to bear arms (which changes the justification of a fight). That is the general consciousness part. The individual part, the X factor all depends on what your experience firsthand growing up. That is the X factor that makes us all individual and different in our interpretation of this. It’s an interesting mix on how you perceive, interpret, and accept violence and action in your life whether it is real or for entertainment.
There was a chapter that was devoted to Pro Wrestling. Why did you do that?
Well, if you really think about it… pro wrestling is the most accepted form of fight choreography in the West. There is a reason it is on almost every night on different TV channels in North America.
What are your general thoughts on Pro Wrestling?
I love it. I think it is a lot of fun to go to watch it live. If you have not seen it live and only seen it on TV, then you are missing on a completely different experience. The wrestlers go out there to connect with the live audience, much like a stand up comedian does to plug in with their audience, but done mainly through their matches and mic skills to express their character.
You worked with Ultimo Dragon as the fight choreographer and stunt coordinator on a recent short film. Can you tell us what that experience was like?
Well, I’ve seen his matches and I really liked what I saw and was really interested in working with him. So when his manager and director, Gary Lee Jackson, called to ask me if I was interested in working with him, I could not wait for it to happen. Ultimo is a real martial artist and legend in his sport. He was incredibly professional to work with and a very hard on himself in trying to get some of the moves down, because the emphasis on executing the techniques for film is much different than in the wrestling ring.
I see fight choreography as a visual and non-verbal problem solving that unrolls in a dramatic narrative. I hired stuntmen/martial artists Van Ayasit, Jo Eric Mercado, and David Chan Cordeiro to fight Ultimo, because they all brought in different aspects to film fighting that would provide interesting and creative obstacles for him to resolve with the fight choreography. I felt they complimented him pretty well.
So we focused more on stylized techniques for the camera while toning down the techniques and reactions since there was not a live audience to appease. He understood the emphasis and the style of fighting we planned for him almost immediately. He had a lot of great ideas with what to do with the fights. It was much more of collaboration because we did not have that much time to work together and my job was to make his moves more cinematically visual and effective.
What were some of your experiences from the shoot?
The hours shooting were very long but we had some great moments during the down time waiting for camera set ups, etc. Ultimo would crack us up with his impersonation of Hulk Hogan and a few other wrestlers. He is actually a really funny down to earth person who lives this myth as a mask character and takes his style of wrestling very seriously. He really has that “it” factor and I look forward to working with him again. He turned me onto some Japanese wrestlers that that influenced him, like the original Tiger Mask (Satoru Sayama). The guy was way ahead of his time.
What did you learn about working with pro wrestlers from that experience?
I’ve only worked with Ultimo, so all I can talk about is the experience I had with him. The most important thing I realized about working with a pro wrestler is that they know how to “milk a dramatic moment” and understand the non-verbal dialogue of a fight. Whereas, a real fight is really quick and over with in a matter of seconds and nothing really dramatic or entertaining about it. There is only one take in pro wrestling and if you screw up everyone in the arena will let you know it. I think he really enjoyed the process of doing multiple takes and having the opportunity to get it right.
Do you feel a certain kinship with a Pro Wrestler as a Stuntman?
Oh sure. There are lots of things that are similar yet a lot that are different. We both sacrifice our bodies and lives for the sake of entertainment of others. It takes a special breed of person to do something like that on a daily basis. There are also a lot of pro wrestlers who got into movie stunts and vice versa.
Since you are a martial artist and a fight choreographer, what do you appreciate in a Pro Wrestling match?
What I look for and enjoy seeing is the creativity and ingenuity in the matches as well as the high degree of athleticism and reckless abandon in some of the wrestlers. It amazes me how resourceful and inventive the fights can be every night. I also like a good technical match too. A great example is a match I saw between Eddie Guerrero and Dean Malenko in the old ECW days (when Paul Heyman ran it). There are phases when the story lines fall off the rails and do not connect with me, but for the most part I find them amusing and very entertaining. I am not too much into the extreme matches with the barbed wire, tacks, or fire… I am not really into sado mashochism (although I still will watch the Hell In the Cell steel cage match with the Undertaker Vs. Mankind in complete awe), but on the other hand love to see a great TLC match. I really like high flying matches, like the matches between Jushin Liger and Ultimo Dragon were classics.
What I like about going to see a pro wrestling match live is that you are pretty much guaranteed a great show. You can’t ever make that type of a promise when you go to a combative sports event because sometimes some of the best match ups end up pretty boring.
What bothers you about fight choreography in the West?
Well, it’s become more and more of a bad habit for the fight scenes to be shot extremely tight, while the editing of the action makes no real sense, when it comes to continuity. The Stunt Coordinator and/or Fight Director has no real control of where to place the cameras or how the fight is eventually cut. The editor is usually never on the set, so how are they able to know how to piece together the fight because a fight scene is usually shot out of sequence. I know so many fights that are edited out of order and ended up not being anywhere close to what was choreographed by the fight director.
I see the same problems when you see a theatrical movie with where a pro wrestler stars in. It’s kind of ironic when you step back and take a look at it. Because, here these wrestlers bust their asses for years and years to develop a following. You see them wrestle every week on TV…for free. They spend all this time developing their persona and signature moves that the audience anxiously look forward to seeing. Then when they make the jump into feature films (essentially as an extension of their persona in the ring), the wrestling organization promotes the film every week on TV, creating a buzz, where the audience anxiously waits to rush to the theaters to see their hero on the big screen, but you can’t see a damn thing! Of all the people to do this to, they should not do it to a Pro Wrestler, who can easily handle themselves in front of a camera. I was so disappointed when I saw this in films like “The Condemned,” “Walking Tall,” “The Marine,” and practically every film starring a pro wrestler lately. It does not make sense…. especially with a Pro Wrestler! Because you can see what they are doing in their matches on TV but can’t see anything when they are fighting in their movies. It is really anti climactic when you look at the big picture of it all.
Another thing that bothers me about fights in the West is we are way too trendy. If someone else does something and is successful, they have to do it themselves. For example, look at all the movies that followed “The Matrix”. Everyone had to use wires and have a Hong Kong inspired fight (even though it was not necessary), like “The Musketeer”. It’s kinda like a popularity contest and it’s rare to find someone who can do something because it is an essential part of the film. Then in “Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story”, the filmmakers used Jackie Chan’s fighting style at the time and that was completely and utterly wrong!
What do you mean?
I listened to the audio commentary of the DVD and the director specifically said he chose Jackie Chan’s style of film fighting because it was the hot trend at the time and thought what Bruce did was outdated and somewhat boring for audiences at that time. But what he did not know and realize was that Jackie created his style which is a complete antithesis of what Bruce Lee did in his films because it was the trend at the time, so he went the opposite way by playing the coward, the underdog, the unsuspecting innocent, and the wise ass that gets himself in trouble. This was not what Bruce’s persona and his fighting was about. Jackie avoided conflicts whereas Bruce would meet you head on. Two completely different approaches to a fight. The other thing that bothers me (in the West) is that the camera is much too tight on the action you can’t clearly see what is going on and witness it.
Why do you think they do it?
It used to be done when an actor was not able to do the stunt or perform the action convincingly. You see this often in the 70’s with the late David Carradine on the TV series “Kung Fu”. But you would see this also applied in films where capable martial artists on film were able to take care of themselves cinematically, like Chuck Norris in “Good Guys Wear Black”. They even did it to Bruce Lee in “Enter the Dragon”, when he fought Oharra (Bob Wall) and when John Saxon was fighting at Han’s tournament. There were certain scenes where the camera would focus on the pivot foot while Bruce was throwing a series of kicks, when they should’ve been more concerned with the getting the actual impact of the hit. It really took me out of the fight. How irritated would you be if you were to watch a basketball game and just have the camera get close and tight on their head or the dribbling arm of Kobe Bryant or LeBron James as they are doing a spectacular move? Wouldn’t you get pissed and frustrated because you are not seeing the other players involved and where they are on the court?
You do get to see the different angles and up close shots when they show the replay.
Exactly. That’s what the quick inserts are for in movies, to get the audience emotionally involved in the fight. We don’t get the chance to show the same action scene twice (unless it’s someone spectacular like Jackie Chan or Tony Jaa) And how does the audience feel? I’ve seen it where the emotion of the theater simply flat-lines because they cannot understand what is going on.
The other reason they do it is because they want the audience to be as close to the action as possible. I don’t mind that concept at all as long as the audience can still witness what is going on and not have to figure out in their minds what just happened. It’s been done all the way back in 1947 (and possibly before that) when D.P. James Wong Howe put on roller skates and got into the boxing ring and skated backwards with a camera over his shoulder as John Garfield chased after him pretending the camera his opponent in “Body & Soul.” What does bother me is when the camera moves way too much along with rapid fire editing that you really do not know what all the actors are doing, taking away from what was choreographed. It ends up looking like an abbreviated highlight reel that has no peaks and valleys and you do not appreciate the actor’s performance. I feel this is a poor excuse for a Director of Photography to hide the fact that they do not really know how to shoot action. You can’t shoot fight scenes the same way you shoot dialogue (master-shot, camera left & right). If you did, you would not get the proper coverage to make your action look effective. Unfortunately, shooting and working with action scenes is something that is not taught in film school and it really should be. You don’t see any of that crap done when you watch Pro Wrestling on TV and you can see exactly what the wrestlers are doing.
Can you give us an example of a good action film in the West, where they have good effective camera movement and editing?
Sure. The first film that always comes to mind is, “Die Hard”. John McTiernan, was the director, who understands action as a visual lyrical form. Jan DeBont, was the D.P., who had fluid hand held camera movement that helped tell the story, without calling any unnecessary attention to himself and what he was doing. Then you had Frank Urioste, the editor, who has a degree in music before he became an editor and cuts film like he is a visual music conductor. Other great examples that come to mind are “Predator” and “Robocop”.
Are you saying action and fights are more like music and dancing?
Yes. With those examples I just mentioned along with Bruce Lee being the Cha Cha champion of Hong Kong as a teenager, Jackie Chan gets inspiration for his action scenes by watching Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire films, John Woo watches musicals before he plans an action scene. Rhythm is very important in a fight scene, no matter how difficult or complex the fight may be. If a choreographer, cameraman, and editor is not aware of the rhythm of the fight (which should vary and change throughout a fight and not similar than the others in the film) and it’s the same constant rhythm you can easily lull the audience to sleep or they simply don’t care. I’ve seen it happen many times in many U.S. films.
Why is that?
They are inexperienced and are simply not aware of what the other elements are involved in a fight scene, creatively and (more often) technically. I feel one of the reasons is fight scenes and action in general is not taught in film school. Fight choreography is an unappreciated art that everyone thinks they can do, until they try to do it themselves and they realize how hard it really is to make it look good and effective.
Greg Reifsteck is a former Special Reports Editor, for Variety and writes for Fangoria, American Cinematographer and Moving Pictures Magazine.