Learning to Fight in the Movies By Antonio Graceffo

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Learning to Fight in the Movies
By Antonio Graceffo

When Keanu Reeves was on the Jay Leno show a few years back, Jay asked him what he had been up to lately. Keanu's reply was that he had spent the last several months learning movie Kung Fu. Jay asked him, "Do you feel you could defend yourself now." Without hesitation, Keanu answered, "No."
"But, I mean if it were life or death?" Insisted Leno.
"No!" Shouted Keanu, a little more emphatic this time.
Keanu, to his credit, went on to explain that the kung fu he was learning for the movies had no relation to real fighting.

The argument of; could an action movie star win a real fight? has been raging for decades. In the eighties people would have paid big money to see Sylvester Stallone take on a professional heavyweight contender, or to watch Governor Schwarzenegger battle an actual space alien in a NHB competition. I personally would pay money for the opportunity to watch Renzo Gracie fight the ponytail Aikido man, just because his bad acting offends me.

But having just done my first kung fu film; the opposite question comes to mind: can real fighters learn to be Kung Fu actors?

The earliest fight movies to include a real fighter were probably Heavy Weight Champion Jack Dempsey's various attempts to grace the silver screen. Although he was one of the greatest fighters of his day, Dempsey found it very difficult to follow choreography. When the stunt men attacked him, he reacted instinctively, throwing world class punches. Accounts say that he knocked out a number of his costars, as well as a New York city policeman, doing security duty on the set. At that time, silent movies were shot based on techniques used in live theater, where classically trained actors and actresses were expected to be able to sing and dance, as well as act. Fight scenes were filmed with over-dramatic, almost balletic movements which the young champion hated. He couldn't accepting the word of a dance choreographer, turned fight choreographer, who told HIM, Jack Dempsey, that he was punching wrong.

Another action hero, who had difficulty adjusting to Hollywood was escape artist and magician, Harry Houdini. Although he wasn't a fighter, he was a professional action hero, in real life, achieving such hair-raising stunts as being chained up, locked in a trunk, and dropped in the East River in winter. Harry escaped, and swam to safety, and immortality, a legend for all time. In his early movies, the directors put him in impossible situations, which he escaped from, using his real-life magic skills. But it didn't take long for competitors to realize that they could achieve the same or better action, by combining stars with no skill, with a clever special effects team. Although Matrix technology is fairly new, it was the same principle, making "anyone" into an action hero, which drove Harry Houdini from Hollywood.

In reading biographies of the man who started it all, Bruce Lee, I discovered that he had experienced all kinds of difficulty converting from real kung fu to movie kung fu. His first film clips were terrible, because his blinding leg and hand speed was so fast that they were just a blurry flash on film. Bruce Lee was the one who came up with the idea of speeding up the camera, during filming. This meant shooting more frames per second. So, a kick which would have appeared in only one frame at normal speed, would appear in several. When the finished film was played, at normal speed, the kicks and punches looked beautiful.

Another issue he faced was that his personal Kung Fu style, which he eventually called JKD, was very minimalist. His philosophy was to cut away everything that was ineffective or inefficient. His kicks were low and straight. His punches were close and fast. His signature move was the one inch punch. After only a few takes, it was clear that the audience wasn't going to pay money to watch a one-inch punch. The result was that Bruce Lee developed his own movie-style of kung fu, which differed greatly from his actual kung fu style. His movie kung fu, full of high, spinning kicks, long dramatic hand techniques, and animal cries became the standard for movies.

The movie I just finished was a Khmer kung fu film, called Krabei Liak Goan (Buffalo Protecting Child), where I played the bad guy, as westerners generally do in Asia. The hero was world Khmer Boxing champion Eh Phou Thoung. Seila Yuthkun, the film's director and fight choreographer, explained how hard it was to convert the heavyweight kick boxer, a veteran fighter with 151 wins to his credit, into a kung fu film star. "For the movies he had to learn all new kicks." Said Seila, whose martial arts background includes winning a number of national titles in Wu Su. "In the ring he only throws the round house and push kick. But the people have seen that already." In Cambodia, Kickboxing is on TV every friday, saturday, and sunday. "The round house is boring. When people come to the movies, they want to see some style."

My kung fu background is more in the direction of San Da (Chinese kickboxing) and western boxing. My normal fighting style uses very low kicks, mostly with the instep of my foot, aimed at an opponent's shins. I use kicks only as a distraction to be able to move in and punch. I use my upper body strength to push opponents, crowd them and get the on the ropes. But there were no ropes in the film.

All of the fighters in the film, apart from Eh Phou Thoung and myself, were experienced Wu Su players. They could leap and fly through the air with grace and speed. Their kicks were high, spinning, turning, fluid, and perfect. With Eh Phou Thoung weighing 78 kg and me weighing 85 kg, we looked like uncoordinated spastics in comparison, to the lithe Kung Fu fighters, who weighed an average of 55 kg, and had no body fat at all.

Seila had ordered Eh and myself to attend kung fu classes every day, to learn new kicks. Movie kung fu calls for spinning back kick, heel kick, jump kicks, flying kicks, a lot of the training looked like an Olympic figure skating competition. Every time I wanted to quit I asked my self, "What would Brian Boitano do?"

The champion only showed up for training twice. "I can kick harder than them." He said. It was true. He could kick harder, and he could probably dismantle our teacher. But power was the one skill a movie didn't require.

When it came time for our big fight scene, neither Eh nor myself knew what we were expected to do. If someone had put gloves on us and set us loose on one another, we would both have known what to do. I would have been killed, but I would have known what to do. But in a movie fight, it's not about winning. It's about following directions, and doing exactly what the director wants. This is so much harder. Bruce Lee once said that fighting was the truest expression of self. And I believe this. But movie fighting is all about rigid obedience, and expressing someone else's view of the world.

Seila showed us the series of movies we would need for the scene. Since Eh hadn't been training, and I am untrainable, the moves were kept very simple. I was to throw a left knee, then a right knee at Eh which he would block. He would swing at my head, and I would duck. Then I would kick at his head, and he would duck. The scene went on from there. Just that much took us several hours to film, and by the end, I had thrown the head kick nearly one hundred times. Sometimes we had to redo the scene because I forgot the sequence, left knee, right knee, kick to the head, duck. But I went left knee, kick, or left knee, right knee, side kick, forget to duck, and catch a shot in the face. Eh was supposed to punch. A couple of times he kicked, just out of sheer reaction. Other times, he missed the block. More than once he didn't duck fast enough from the head kick. The more times we re-shot, the harder it was to get my leg that high. I hit him in the shoulder more than once.

Another special problem of fighting in an Asian film was the language. Eh spoke no English, so we communicated in Thai. Seila spoke no Thai, so he would speak to me in English and to Eh in Khmer. There were times he made changes to the sequence, told one of us, but forgot to translate for the other. Those lapses always resulted in us hitting each other. I usually got the worst of these exchanges.

Another problem was that being American, I thought we would go on "THREE." It was like the Lethal Weapon movie, where Mel Gibson says "Go on three." And Danny Glubber says. "Do you mean go on three, or one, two , three then go?" There really is a difference between the two. In Cambodia, you go on Pram. At the beginning I just assumed that Pram was three. So when I heard them count three Khmer numbers, I hit Eh with my knee. The blow landed solidly on his abdomen.

"Pram is five." Explained Seila.
"Go on five?" I asked, not believing.
"Yes, go on five."

The second half of the scene should have been called Eh's revenge. After I hit him in the head with a flying elbow, he gets up and beats the tar out of me. If you're planning to come over to Asia to make movies, you should be prepared for a few things. First, you will be the bad guy. Second, you will get beat up. Third, there are no stunt doubles. If they tell you that your character is going to jump off the roof, that means you are going to jump off the roof. And lastly, you are definitely going to take some bruises or worse. In Jackie Chan's biography he has a whole chapter dedicated to his injuries. It's no wonder, with bed mattresses for high falls, and real bullets instead of blanks.

Budgets are a lot lower in Asian films. So be prepared to rough it.
"Is there a soloflex and some Evian in my trailer?" I asked Seila.
"Trailer! you change in the bushes like everyone else."
"Where is my costume?"
"Didn't you bring one?"

We were a long way from Hollywood.

The good thing about the Asian films is that everyone in the film really can do kung fu. The special effects are simple, if silly. But the fighting is real. Baby powder is put on the shoes of the combatants, so it gives off an exciting puff of smoke, when the kick connects. And yes, all of the kicks and punches do connect, no tricky camera angles here.

The coup de gras of my fight scene with Eh was that he jumps twenty feet in the air, crashes down on my head with an elbow, and then while I am staggering around drunk, he rams me in the stomach with his head. And, of course, in Asia, when you get rammed in the stomach you have to vomit. So, I was running around the set, doing a fight scene, with a huge mouth full of black tea, that I couldn't wait to spit out, when I got hit.

The film was a lot of fun, and I have other film contracts. Now, I am in a training program, learning movie kung fu, several hours per day. And, like Eh, I had to swallow my pride, and admit that years and years of fighting experience is useless to me in the movies. I had to start all over again, from the beginning.

Making films is hard. In real fighting I have a feeling of obedience in the gym, doing what my trainer tells me, but complete freedom in the ring, on fight day. Once you step in the ring, you know exactly what to do. And you only did it wrong if you lost. But in a movie, you constantly feel like an animal on a leash, never relaxing, always wondering, am I doing this right. And, in making movies with another real fighter there is always the danger that he will get angry and kill you, or accidentally kill you because he missed a cue.

The movies are their own special world. It is hard for real fighters to become movie fighters. At the same time, it is impossible for movie fighters to become real fighters. My sister could mop up he floor with Jean Claude VanDam. Granted, my sister is a tough new York City business woman, but you get the point. For fans, I would suggest, watch the movies and enjoy them for what they are. But remember it is all an illusion, a fake art created for the silver screen. Learn your kung fu from your teacher. And if you are a fighter remember that film fights have as much to do with real fighting as do dance films.

This article is a reprint from Kung Fu Magazine.
Antonio Graceffo is an adventure and martial arts author living in Asia. He is a professional fighter and the author of four books available on amazon.com Contact him Antonio@speakingadventure.com see his website www.speakingadventure.com

Checkout Antonios website http://speakingadventure.com/

Get Antonios books at amazon.com
The Monk from Brooklyn
Bikes, Boats, and Boxing Gloves
The Desert of Death on Three Wheels
Adventures in Formosa

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