Michael Worth Interview, from Acapulco star into movie directors
It is always a pleasure to get in contact with actors, who I have seen in action movies when I was a kid. Today Michael Worth was kind enough to sit down with me and reflect on his long career in film industry. Born in Philadelphia on January 13, 1972, Michael directed his first film with a super 8mm camera at the age of 11. He continued making short films and experimental video projects during his youth. His first lead role came with the martial arts movie Final Impact alongside Gary Daniels and Lorenzo Lamas, from which he was labeled a promising newcomer.
Budomate: You directed your film at age 11, how did you come up with the idea, what this short was about and who was in it?
Michael Worth: As a kid, my brother and I were completely influenced by 1950s sci fi movies, Godzilla movies and Kung Fu films. Now at the time you only could see whatever popped up on TV or down at the local revival theater in Berkeley or San Francisco so filmmaking for me became a way to relive them. But I became fascinated with the idea of making films and telling stories that way. I really wanted to be an animator like Ray Harryhausen and make Sinbad and Beast From 20,000 Fathoms type of films. So, I asked my mom to drive me to a camera shop located near us in the city of Montclair and I went in and bargained with the owner who was so impressed with the determination of this little kid he sold me a discounted super 8mm camera. I wrote the script about a rocket ship on the way to mars and during flight, a tire falls out and of course hits the earth at 1000 miles an hour and just crashes into people and sends them flying. Then it rides off into the sunset. I animated the first part with cartoon cut out like images (think Monty Python) and then went up to strangers on the street and asked them if I could have them fly over the camera like they were hit by a tire. And that was how my first production went. Pretty much a one man show. I think I still do that sometimes….
From there I made dozens of short films. And not just “lets shoot the cat walking down the stairs” and call it a movie. I’d write scripts and hire actors (for free) and plan and shoot them. I had a trilogy of films I ended up making on a character called Toad, from the Shaolin temple. There was Enter the Toad, Fist of the Toad and then The Toad Warriors. We started The Good, The Bad and The Toad but never finished it….
Budomate: You lived with your dog in a truck for 6 months in LA to save money, please tell about these times, what was the dog name?
Michael Worth: I graduated high school a year early and went down to Los Angeles from Berkeley. I just knew I wanted to make films at the time. Even though my martial arts studies were a heavy part of my life, and I was really excited with the idea of doing a fight film, I wasn’t necessarily going down with the goal of being an “action guy”. As a matter of fact, I was hoping to get parts more along the lines of Die Hard or even Seven Samurai (a guy can dream, right?) The kind of projects where you have such a fine balance of story telling and action. But, I had my dog Thrasher with me in those early months and we went every where together. So, I took my pick up truck and bought a shell for it (the fiber glass cover that goes over the cab for camping) and drove down. I had my futon set up in the back, had a pager (pre cell phone days) for my phone and joined Gold’s Gym in Venice so was pretty set up as a teenage actor needed to be. But I used the time to save money without paying rent and bills. I even worked as a courier so drove my truck around during work. Was getting pretty sick of that truck.
Budomate: You started training with some interesting martial artists at that time too.
Michael Worth: That was part of my reason for going to Southern California as well. I was aware of so many great martial artists and fighters there whom I wanted to train with since I was a kid. I started my training at 9 in Aikido but after a year lost interest and then at 13, picked it up again, this time in Northern Shaolin under Y.C. Chaing. That was also the time when the hormones are kicking in for a boy and I started entering Karate tournaments and fighting. I loved the training I was getting in Northern California, but felt there was such a new depth of it in terms of ideas and systems in Southern California. I went and joined The Inosanto Academy right away once I got to LA. I had spent a few months with Hawkins Cheung studying Wing Chun but then went over to Dan’s. It was great working with Inosanto, Ted Lucay Lucay and Larry Hartsell as I had always read about them in the magazines and books and just wanted to get into some of their stuff. I loved the cross training at the time, which preceded all the MMA training craze that came later. I was interested with the wrestling and close quarters fighting they were teaching since I had been training mainly on speed and foot movement with all the tournament stuff (the idea of not “engaging” the opponent, but rather “in and out” shots) and I knew I was really needing that particular ‘range’ in my training. I met Gene Lebell not long after that and spent time with him on and off, mainly just getting beat up by him, but I take pride in that (laughs).
It was also at that time I met Jerry Poteet. I started training with Jerry at his home privately a couple times a week and became an assistant instructor under him with his JKD. Early on as a matter of fact, I worked with him and Jason Scott Lee on the fight choreography for Dragon when they re-enacted the Long Beach fight sequence. But Jerry was just such an amazing teacher and so well versed in what he was doing. He had a really deep knowledge of what he was teaching and it really opened my eyes to different areas of “sensitivity” training, and how to read an opponent not just with your eyes but with your “touch”. Having him help out with Art Camacho and I on “Street Crimes” was a great experience too. I really miss him a lot.
Budomate: Why you decided to become an actor at first, not director?
Michael Worth: Well, acting is, and was, always the forefront of my charge into film. When I arrived here I was open to the fact I would be lucky just to get a job so I thought to myself “if I end up a screenwriter, great. If it’s an actor, great. If it’s a director, great.’. But my interest in exploring my range as an actor was what drove me there and so that was my main focus. It still is how I make my living for the most part. I started producing and directing awhile back because I knew if I left my acting choices in the hands of others, I would be relegated to those roles. And so my moving behind the camera in many ways was part of my journey to broaden my experience as an actor. I started to relate to the directions of people like Clint Eastwood, Woody Allen, John Casavettes, Buster Keaton, Ed Burns, etc.I saw the way they needed to explore their passion and how the restriction to one artistic dynamic proved to be too confining in some cases. So, I began to move in that area rather than just living the “actor gets a call from his agent and goes to an audition” type of life. To me, I’m too antsy and too aware of the finite amount of time we have on earth to repeat that cycle over and over and rely on a phone call to get me into a job.
Budomate: Variety magazine labeled you “promising newcomer” for the role in Final Impact in 1992. Please tell more about this movie, Lorenzo Lamas and fighting choreographer Eric Lee.
Michael Worth: Yeah, that was a nice write up for that film. To have my first real experience out of the gate be that film was pretty great on a number of levels. I mean, in hindsight we see it for what it is, but for me personally it was the kind of learning curve that could not have been better for me at the time. Working with PM and the way they produced reminded me of what it must have been like (and still is) to work for Roger Corman. You see the way they produce and direct so efficiently. Merhi and Pepin already had it down pretty well. You may not always agree with their creative choices or whatever, but they built an empire on knowing how to sell their movies. With Final Impact, I got called into an audition by my manager for a movie at that time called “The Flying Dutchman” and wasn’t even aware it was a martial arts story until right before I went in. Anyway, I go into audition and there is Eric Lee and Lorenzo along with Lorenzo’s wife at the time, Kathleen Kinmont (also in the film) and Joe and the writer, Stephen Smoke. I was a bit nervous having to do it in front of all of them so fast but felt pretty comfortable since the character was so much who I was at that time: new to the whole scene, energetic and loaded with fascination. A couple days later, Eric Lee called me to ask about coming in to talk about martial arts choreography and I was like “huh? Did I get the part?” and he was like “ooops. I thought you knew”. But, I was pretty excited, needless to say.
We shot in Los Angeles a few days first. I remember my very first scene was with Kathleen and we were leaning over a balcony talking about Lorenzo and my background story, etc. I was feeling nervous but also right at home and just knew at that moment I was on the right journey. The house we filmed at was Producer/DP Rick Pepin’s place in Calabasas. It doubled for Lorenzo’s place in the film. My first fight scene was actually with Gary Daniels. We shot both of them the same day. Gary had already done a few films and was pretty familiar with the routine but I was just starting to figure it out. I think Gary at first was a little bit like “who is this kid anyway”, (laughs), but he was great to work with and I have always liked him. I bump into him every once in awhile out here. Anyway, the part about the filmmaking process that really struck me was how we drove from LA to Las Vegas in this mini production caravan and filmed scenes on the way. I rode with Lorenzo and Kathleen and just thought the idea of making a movie like this was great. In fact, we literally pulled into Vegas and drove right to a motel where we shot the scene where I step out of a motel and Lorenzo is lying on a car. We did that before we even got to our hotels and unpacked. I still keep that sort of fluidity in mind when I do these smaller productions.
There were a lot of fights in that film. I think we shot it in three weeks so you can imagine the pace. We just all practiced out in the parking lot and then went in and shot all those ring fights. I remember Art Camacho was sort of assisting Eric a bit on this but was one of his first things too. It was great to shoot at the Sands hotel a few times before they took it down. So much history there and all. Actually, the scene with Lorenzo and I sparring on the roof, we just decided to just do it. And so most of that sequence is him and I sparring each other. My mother and step father came down and I stuck my step father in as an extra when Lorenzo was fighting Jeff Langton in the Neon Graveyard. He died a number of years later so was nice to be able to have him on film in my first film like that. But it was invaluable film-school for me on that production. The best film school in the world actually. These guys had their routine down pretty well and I always draw from those experiences. Final Impact actually played in theaters and Kathleen and I went to watch it a few times together at some places in Pasadena or wherever. I think we were just getting a kick out of watching ourselves on the big screen. I know the film did really well for PM they were actually bantering around the sequel for awhile but they killed Lorenzo in it so never made it. I tried to talk them into performing some writing ledger domain into a flashback or ghost kind of approach, but they didn’t go for it (laughs).
Budomate: You was one of front-runners for the role of Robin in Batman Forever movie, but got only a cameo in fight scene. Why it did not work out for you?
Michael Worth: That was a crazy experience. Actually it was Jerry Poteet that got me in to meet with Mali Finn, the casting director. At the time they were scouring boxing gyms, etc. looking for unknowns that could actually fight as a possibility for Robin. I met with Mali and did some reading of some other script for her and she video taped me doing some martial arts stuff. I think I brought some escrima sticks with me and went through a few routines. I got a call back and met with Joel Schumacher which was pretty cool. I remember him sitting in his office, eating some yogurt. He was asking me about my film experience and I was pretty self deprecating about it. I was like “Well, I have done a bunch of B movies, really” and he just looked and smiled and said “Don’t look down on it. That’s how we learn. I’ve done a few of those myself”. Well, next thing I know I’m getting called in to screen test which was a pretty big deal as the job was down to three of us. I still have the contact they had me sign up front. In the end, they liked O’Donnel so that’s how it goes. But I know for a moment, a small moment, I was actually “Robin” because before I got the call I had lost out, Don “The Dragon” Wilson went in to meet with Mali and later called me and said “Hey man, I heard you were playing Robin”. So…. that was my brush…. so far…. with superstardom (laughs). Later I was shooting an episode of the TV series “Marker” in Hawaii and they called to see if I could play Robin’s brother in the circus scene. That was too bad on that timing as well. But a month later they were like “Well, do you want to fight Robin?”. I was like, “at this stage, I would really enjoy that”….. We spent a week on that set doing that one scene. It was fun working with Don and Ron Yuan, etc. Their craft service was better than most film’s meals!
Budomate: In 1993 you worked alongside popular martial artists such as Art Camacho, Ron Yuan, Vince Murdocco, where Art Camacho was a fighting choreographer, please tell more about your projects with PM company?
Michael Worth: Well, after I did Final Impact they brought me back in right away to do another film called Street Crimes. It was the writer of Final Impact, Steven Smoke’s, first directing job. I knew they were going to try and crank it out fast, in fact in 11 days, so they figured I’d roll with their punches pretty well. I was just excited to get to work with Dennis Farina who I thought was a pretty cool actor. Smoke told me that they weren’t going to tell Dennis they were shooting the film in 11 days because they were scared he would not do it. So they had him work for ten days and led him to think we had another few weeks of shooting after. I’ll always remember sitting with him on the set and he turns to me and goes, “you know Michael, I admire these kind of productions. This is old school. Shooting a film in less than two weeks”. I laughed to myself thinking, “He figured it out and could care less”.
Art Camacho was choreographing but was gracious enough to let me bring in Jerry and Fran Joseph to work with him. He admired Jerry a lot and I think wanted to play off ideas with him, which was cool. That was a great experience as we got to work a little of the hand trapping stuff that Bruce used to do into some of the choreography. It was rushed, obviously, so never got the chance to do it as well as we could have, but there are a couple moments that really work. My acting in it is not my favorite. I was trying to play something else than where my instincts were driving me and so later when I watched some of it, I was a little disappointed in my choices. Farina was such a pro that I think he helped me to be better than what I was going for as well. The bad guy in the film, James Morris, was a card to work with too. He and I were laughing so much. He was so intense I couldn’t help but laugh. The scene where we are facing each other in his house and he says “Dead Even”, he must have done that ten times because we kept laughing. So I can always tell looking at that scene that I am doing all I can not to laugh.
The next year Joe called me in to do To Be the Best. I remember my hair was long and he wanted me to cut it short because he was going to cut unused fight footage from Final Impact in this. At the last minute they didn’t so I remember just leaving my hair long for the shoot. That was when I first met Martin Kove too. He and I are friends now and I’ve used him in a couple projects since but playing the son of Mr. Cobra Kai was awesome! Art was really getting his game on at this point with the choreography. He had it pretty well organized with his team of guys at this point. I recall we all had half the parking lot tented off where everyone would be working on their fight scenes together. It looked like some crazy WWF thing from afar. Murdocco was great. He was the stiffler (from American Pie) of the group for sure. You always knew when that guy walked into the room. But he was also one of the friendliest guys you ever met. Ron and I were friends at this point after Street Crimes so was great working with him again. Philip Troy played my brother in that and I had a blast working with him too. He didn’t have so much of a trained fighting background at the time but he caught on quick and because he was already an athlete, it wasn’t a stretch for him…. so to speak. That movie had a little more money in it and we shot for three weeks I remember. But was my last film with PM. I haven’t seen those films in years. Maybe they’ll make it to bluray?
Budomate: You have been playing Tommy during lot of episodes of Acapulco Heat tv series. Please tell some interesting story from the sets related to fights or stunts.
Michael Worth: Well, it actuality we did 48 episodes. The first season was 22 and the following season we did 26. You know there is a funny story with my getting cast on that show involving Keith Cooke and Vince Murdocco. Vinny called me up one day to help him practice for an audition he had coming up. When I got to his place, he showed me the script and it was Acapulco HEAT. He told me Keith had done the promotional video for the show and was playing this character Tommy in it, and now they were recasting everyone. So I helped him for an hour and that was about it. About a month or so later, I got called in to read for it and eventually got the job. Vinny never asked me to read with him again (laughs).
The first season of the show was a crowded affair. We had this huge cast with Catherine Oxenberg, Brendan Kelly, Fabio, Alison Armitage, Randy Vasquez, etc. There was a lot to juggle, so much of the action was pretty broad. I remember the first day I was showing up on set to do a fight with Spice Williams and another actress. I had been running through some ideas to go over with choreographers and stunt guys as I was going to set. When I got there, I looked down a hall and saw a fight scene being shot by the second unit with a guy wearing a wig like my hair and in my wardrobe. I knew I was in trouble then. So, I sat down with everyone and in my best being the respectful new actor said, “look guys, I have some experience with this fighting stuff and since I am the guy who ultimately will be responsible on screen for the way this looks, can I be involved in what we are going to do?”. They got it and were really cool. In fact, the stunt guy wearing the wig was Mario Roberts, one of Gene Lebells guys and he and I had a great time over those 6 months training and grappling with each other.
There was a fun episode we did where Clifton Collins came on and played this guy in a Karate tournament who gets kidnapped. It featured a little more of the martial arts than most and Cliffton was already studied and had some good skills. The next season things got a little better as far as the action went. The cast was whittled down to me, Alison, Lydie Denier and Christ Sauls. I missed all the other cast members but the fighting got a little more focused on. I actually started my directing career on the set since they handed over some of the 2nd unit to me occasionally. I played around with ideas and camera angles and pacing while were shooting to see what was working and what wasn’t. Also, on the first season because of censorship they were dealing with over seas, I could not kick people in the head! But by year two, it was bombs away. So, I think the fight scenes, still crude and not always filmed to the best of their ability, improved by year two in many ways. But like with PM, I tried to experiment a bit on set so I could learn from my mistakes and successes. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. But you have to try.
Budomate: In 1995 you fought a big bad guy Matthias Hues in the Fists of Iron movie, people tell he is a very nice guy in life. Do you remember him?
Michael Worth: Oh completely. The funny thing about Matthias is, they told me he was going to play the bad guy and I remember at that time having seen him in films like I come in Peace with Dolph, etc. I kept thinking that this guy was going to be one of those big ego maniacs and was like, “oh great, I got to put up with this”. Then he gets on set and was like the coolest and nicest guy around. I had a similar thing happen when I met Lance henriksen, where I thought he was going to be this intense, hard ass and he was the total opposite. But Matthias was funny as he would jump up and down like a little girl all excited when we would come up with some interesting choreography. We shot that whole fight together in one day too.
Fist of Iron was a tough decision for me as it was when I really didn’t want to do any more “guy in a ring” movies but had a few friends on it like Art and Sam Jones and I really like Richard Munchkin from PM so just sort of went for it when they offered me a nice pay day. But, I also felt it was during this film, that if I did not start doing more projects that show I’m not going to live and die on these films as a career, I was in trouble. I actually really liked the relationship between Sam and Eric Lee in that film. They had great chemistry. The whole movie was shot almost entirely in Malibu, California. We did get some pretty nice fight sequences done and felt Art and all the rest of us were a fairly well oiled machine at this stage.
We shot that film pretty fast and there were more fights in that than anything I had done prior. Plus I first met Marshal Teague on that and he became a great friend to me. What was funny about him too is that while we were shooting is when we had that big earthquake in Los Angeles. Marshall, whose condo got turned upside down, still hoped in his truck and drove to set for call time the next morning even though everything was shut down. That guy is actually the tough guy he plays in his films. He’s the real deal. But just a nicer version of them.
Budomate: In 1997 you played Drakk in Conan tv series with Ralf Moeller. On your opinion who is the best Conan – Arnold, Ralf or Jason? Which movie is your favorite?
Michael Worth: Yes, The Kellers (the producers of HEAT) asked me to come and play that part. It was fun to get back into period costume and ride some horses again so I went with it. Ralf actually only worked on that episode a couple days as he had to go somewhere so it was mostly about TJ Storm and my relationship which was fun. But who is the best…. well, it’s so hard to take it away from Arnold since I grew up on him as that character and Millius did such an awesome first movie. But I have to admit, Ralf and Jason were not bad choices for the other ones. They each added something pretty nice to the part. I actually read for the Conan role that Jason did. So, if I had of gotten it, I would say I would have been the best (laughs).
Budomate: In 2001 you played in Isaac Florentine movie US Seals 2. What can you say about Andy Cheng choreography and Isaac work? How did you get this role?
Michael Worth: I remember going in to read for that It was in Santa Monica and I had seen Issac’s film Savate with Olivier Grunner and Desert Kickboxer, but that was about all I knew of him. In fact when I went into the casting I told him that and he rolled his eyes and said “Please, I promise I can do better”. I thought that was kind of funny. He was in there with Andy Cheng as well. So after I read for him a couple times he wanted me to do some martial arts moves for him. My background was of course in almost everything his wasn’t, with his Shotokan, so after I did a bunch of jump spin kicks and triple roundhouses and punches, he asked me to fake my way through some Shotokan moves, which I did. As I was leaving, I remember him saying to me “watch Charles Bronson in ‘Once Upon a Time in the West, as that is how I want this character”. I thought that was a good sign, which it turned out it was as a few days later they made me the offer.
I flew out to Bulgaria the following week and actually went out on the plane with Dan Southworth but didn’t realize he was on the film until we got there. The next day we all met at the University of Sophia gymnasium and started rehearsing with Andy, Mitch, Dan, Hakim and Sophia. We trained and rehearsed several hours every day for about a week. We pretty much had most of the choreography down pat by the time we started shooting which was good as there was so much action. Karen Kim came in a few days before we started shooting the film so only got a few days to practice but if you watch her in the film, you’d never believe she had no martial arts or sword training. Both Andy and Isaac had a great working relationship on that. Interesting as I think they had fairly different fighting backgrounds stylistically. But they really had a good eye together making the fights work. The majority of the shoot, Andy was shooting fights while Isaac was shooting the 1st unit. They would sometimes overlap, like when we shot the scene where we are all surrounded in that cement factory yard. But much of the time all the actors were either on Andy’s unit or Isaac’s.
The scene where I’m fighting Hakim in the pool room and the scene where I’m in a bar talking with Damian Chapa were actually shot at the same time. One up stairs and the other down stairs. I actually would run up and down the stairs between camera set ups to do both scenes and did that jog maybe 15 times. It was my first day of shooting and I was thinking “I’m going to lose some weight on this movie”. Andy has a crazy amount of energy that I’m sure is a run off from his Jackie Chan days in Hong Kong. He was like always moving and pushing and going and going. But you can see watching it how much action there is and I think that was maybe a four week shoot. But my experience level with getting quality action scenes shot up 100 fold on that film. It set the bar high, which is good. Isaac though is another one of those guys you can’t say a bad thing about. He would sneeze on set and everyone would say ‘bless you’ and then he’d apologize for sneezing because everyone would take the time to say ‘bless you’! The screening of the film we had several months later in Hollywood. Van Damme was there and Don “the Dragon” and Art, etc. As crazy as that film is, the crowd went with it. It was great.
Budomate: How do you think why the idea with Undisputed 2 worked out and we have Boyka fans now?
Michael Worth: Michael Jai White had invited me to the screening of Undisputed 2 at Paramount. I was really impressed with it and thought it was some of Isaac’s best work as he not only captured some great action, but some really nice emotional beats as well. Kind of hard to do that in action films. I had seen Scott in the other film Isaac did after Seals with him and Marshal and didn’t even recognize him in Undisputed 2. It’s a testament to the two of them to take a “bad guy” character like that and actually turn him into the sort of hero afterwards. Scott is an amazing athlete and deserves the credit he is getting. I’ve met him a couple times and his very humble and down to earth. I’m happy for him to be working in The Expendables 2 but…. a little envious too. I mean, getting to be around all those guys that got most of us started…. that must have been crazy.
Budomate: In 2008 you directed the God’s Ears, where played a boxer suffering from autism, and won few awards. What this film means to you?
Michael Worth: In a nut shell; everything. That film essentially is the epitome of what I want to try and do in this business. Make films that matter and move people. I had spent the last year before making God’s Ears acting in a couple TV movies and ghost writing or rewriting scripts for a few sci fi films and just started feeling I was becoming a cog in the giant Hollywood wheel. Paint by the numbers. It really was starting to lose its luster for me and just be another really good paying job. I just happen to be one of those people that if I’m going to spend a good chunk of my life in something, in other words work, I want to be integrated into it and moved by it. And so I set out to make a film that mattered to me again. Something I would want to see rather than worrying about predicting what everyone else wanted to see. And luckily, from start to finish, the film became just that. Sometimes you can have a project that you have high hopes for and through any number of production reasons, it falls apart. But this one never did. I actually wasn’t even sure myself if I was going to play the lead. I actually started to doubt myself in acting in the same way I think others may have had doubted me if someone else were making this film. But I just told myself I had to dive in or regret it forever. Plus I got to play opposite Margot Farley who is one of the best actresses I have worked with.
When my first choice of an actor fell through to play the part of the trainer, I went to John Saxon three days before we shot it and he called me back that night and said he’d do it. I knew at that point I was also in some ways completing what felt like the “full circle” of my childhood motivation. Watching films like Enter the Dragon and wanting to make good films was coming together on a clear platform in front of me . It suddenly seemed on a deeper level that I was actually seeing all of that through. In fact, the character was named “Lee” that John played. After I started touring it around at film festivals and having people literally with tears in their eyes telling me how important the film was to them because of someone with autism in their life, I knew that I wanted to continue striving in this business. Even if not every film “touched” someone or had a subject of great weight like autism, I knew I wanted to use the medium to continue to express and explore all the things in my life. Even if it was in the wrappings of an action film. I mean, it was Enter the Dragon that helped kick me in the butt to do this in the first place, you know? Without Enter the Dragon there would have been no God’s Ears.
Budomate: Now you are working on the Bring Me the Head of Lance Henriksen movie with old-school actors such as Tim Thomerson, John Saxon, Martin Kove and Lance himself. What is this movie about and when we will see it?
Michael Worth: Well, staying with the same theory of challenging myself I had come up with this idea to shoot a film that fell somewhere between fact and fiction. And what I mean by that is, creating a format, a narrative, that will somehow contain real moments throughout the project of the performers but still holding a story together. And since I have had some experience here in the movie making capital of the world and meeting some of the people that have lived through much more than I have, I knew I had my project. So I took Tim Thomerson aside one day and said “look, I want to do something where we play off of this idea of how yours and Lance’s Henriksen’s careers have gone off in different directions since Near Dark and it’s your quest to understand why. But I don’t want to tell anyone exactly what we are shooting through the entire process so all the interaction everyone has is real and organic”.
He looked at me a minute, nodded his head and said “whatever. I don’t care anymore”. And I was like “That’s it! That’s the Tim I want to show!”. So we have this great episodic representation of Tim as he seeks out Lance Henriksen for answers and I kept the two of them away from each other until they basically actually meet on camera It’s not a documentary but not a scripted film either. But it is loaded with a lot of real entertaining moments of one man evolving in the world of film making. I got a lot of great people I know to come participate in it including Marty Kove, Adrienne Barbeau, Cerina Vincent, John Witherspoon, John Saxon and a few other surprise faces. I always remember Adrienne looking at me as I was telling her I didn’t want her to know what she was about to do in the scene and she sighs and said “Only for you Michael”. All of these people are so talented in their fields and I loved watching what came to life with everyone during the making of this. I’m wrapping up the editing on it now and I hope to have the film out later in the summer of 2012.
Budomate: Please tell more about your martial arts experience, when did you start, what style is your favorite, where do you train and how hard, do you have any Titles?
Michael Worth: Well, as I mentioned I actually started in Aikido at a really young age but it wasn’t until I started getting into my teens and discovering Bruce Lee and Shaw Brothers films that I decided I wanted to dive deeper into it. My first official training was under Y.C. Chaing in Albany, California. It was a very traditionally taught Northern Shaolin system that followed the same teaching style that master Chaing was run through when he was a kid. Very slow and precise. We would all attend lectures the first Sunday of every month that covered acupuncture or Chinese philosophy, etc. But at that age I wanted some more “Bruce Lee against Han’s men” kind of action so my best friend, who was also a talented martial artist from some other Karate system, and I would go up into the Berkeley hills with boxing gloves and we’d just pound each other into the ground. I’d come back with NIKE tattooed on my chest since we’d wear shoes during all this. We would go to school yards where they would have the monkey bars and all that and kick the posts or do the exercises on the rings we’d see in films like Seven Commandments of Kung Fu, etc. We were just living out what we learned in the Kung Fu films we’d see.
Finally we took our guerilla sparring to another martial arts school that competed in local Karate tournaments and began to get a bit more civilized with our sparring and training. There were a couple guys there named Ronnie Wright and Tony Daniels. They were really great fighters and I learned a lot training with those two. Some early mentors for me. We would all caravan to the Karate tournaments and fight all over California. We drove down to compete in the Long Beach Internationals a few times. It was a great way for me to forge my way into everything. I actually just went through my garage and finally tossed away a bunch of the trophies I had won over the years. Kept a couple though, for ol’ times sake.
Then it was down in L.A. where I worked with Inosanto a bit and Hartsell and Chia Sirisute. I went and trained in Tang Soo Do for a number of years and even started training people to make money when the acting was slow. I actually spent some time with George Lazenby helping him get in fighting shape for some film he was doing at the time. But I spent a great deal with Jerry of course and trained a bit with some of Bruce Lee’s other students like Ted Wong and Bob Bremmer. I have ever since I was thirteen stuck to a religious schedule of 6 days a week training, averaging about two hours a day. It’s as much conditioning as skill and technique training. It really is part of my life and makes me feel better and focused and I believe keeps my work in an even keel as well.
Budomate: Do you plan to come back to martial arts movies or maybe direct one by yourself, maybe in MMA style?
Michael Worth: Well, at the moment there are three action, or martial arts oriented, projects on the table. I’ve been working for the last few years on a script with Dolph Lundgren that he plans on directing and starring in. It’s a really interesting piece for him as it really shows his maturity level as a performer, much the way Eastwood grew into his roles. It still gives everyone that battle honed Dolph, but adds new layers to him. I also have this indie planned shoot about MMA as it is today but focusing on the things that don’t really get the focus in most films about MMA. Of course, I mean MMA as it exists today in a sport since mixing martial arts has been around for a long time. In fact the term is a bit redundant as martial arts means ALL martial arts anyway. But, it is a fairly character driven story and pretty personal.
Lastly, as we speak here, I am negotiating a contract for a film that should it all come together be a really great martial arts style project to jump into. It is about the archetypes and sensibilities of the 1960s samurai films and the 1970s Shaw brothers productions but wrapped up in a very different way. In other words, no assassins, no ex-military guys coming together for one last mission and no tournaments. It’s a risky and off-beat approach but I think it can work and will hopefully have more info later as it progresses. But, I will also be in the film as well as some other familiar faces that I hope to show breaking some new ground as well as treading on the old one. I’m wrapping up “Bring Me the Head…” now and just starting to edit a drama I shot in January called “Seeking Dolly Parton” but if all goes good, I’ll be working on the script in April.
Budomate: In 90s was popular to use Taekwondo, Karate, Kung Fu in movies, what style is popular now on your opinion, which one looks good?
Michael Worth: That’s what I love about making films. It is in discovering ways to find the beauty or energy or dynamism of fighting. A few years back I saw the film Throwdown that took Judo and made it cinematic. Of course Tony Jaa did the same thing with Muay Thai. And we had all seen Muay Thai before in films like Kickboxer, etc., but here, through the performers, the camera, the choreography, etc., were making that art look fresh and new. Remember when Segal dropped his Aikido bomb on us, with Above the Law? I would love to see people getting back into the arts they love and finding new ways of expressing them on camera.
Now we are seeing a lot of the Parkour mixed in with Muay Thai or a lot more wrestling moves combined with and arm bar or rear naked choke because the filmmakers assume the audience will see it and go “hey, I know that stuff. It’s real martial arts”. So, the fusion of MMA with our performers is pretty big at the moment. But like the Ninjas or Kung Fu styles of the past it will evolve into new areas, which may just be old areas presented in new ways. But in the end, its always coming back to the story. Almost anyone today with our current technology can shoot a fight scene and make it look impressive.
Go on Youtube. It’s everywhere. But there are only so many ways to shoot a fight, so in themselves they will become redundant. You may say “hey great shot scene, but seen it before… and before… and before”. If you don’t package those action scenes in something interesting for the audience it may be impressive technically, but will feel stale unless the audience is pulled in by your story and actors. Of course, we action junkies will still enjoy watching people put on impressive displays of ability, so that can get you somewhere. But for me, the real trick is making people care. And that is not always easy to do.
Michael Worth: Hey, if Tony Jaa is willing to come back out of the mountains and do another movie, I’d be happy to take a shot from him (laughs). And Donnie Yen has just really been impressing me with his work lately in Ip Man, etc. This guy is doing his best work at 50. Ip Man is actually a great example of story and action combined well. The first film was just really striking. You felt for every punch and kick that was thrown. It was so well done.
At this point I am eagerly awaiting The Grandmasters from Wong Kar Wai. His In the Mood For Love is one of the most visually arresting films I have ever seen. He and cinematographer Christopher Doyle told a story with their camera and art design in such a unique way. And to know he is doing a martial arts film now, just makes me happy to be a movie fan.
Budomate: What do you think about The Raid movie with Iko Uwais?
Michael Worth: Actually The Raid just got released here this weekend and since everyone is screaming and yelling about it online, I’m going to see it this week. But I look forward to it. The idea of the set up seems interesting and the action is getting rave reviews so I’m excited.
Budomate: What is your dream project?
Michael Worth: You know, that is a great question. As soon as I think I have one answer for you I start to come up with another. I think that is because for me, the dream project feels like if you get it, then you did it. The best is done. I’m so into this idea of always trying to find the other ways of performing or communicating that I may shy away from that answer. But I certainly would love to be involved in some epic, ensemble, seven samurai like production.
I remember as a kid, I started to write this story that was like that, it about a group of characters that should have never been together in any other circumstance but all came together for the cause of saving a heard of elephants from Ivory poachers in the early 20th century. I remember a samurai was even in it. I actually in some regards transmuted aspects of that adolescent story into the script I wrote for the sequel to Ghost Rock, my first film as a writer in 2003. It really had that sweeping feel and combined various warriors of different cultures teaming for a cause. Who knows, maybe I’ll make it one of these days. Be fun to do that.
But I also find I think a lot about the people I would want to work with like Spielberg and Soderburgh. These guys really impressive me with their ability and knowledge and any of their projects would be dream projects to be in. And of course I would not mind getting to work with Charlize Theron either. I did a scene with her back in our acting classes days and have been trying to work with again ever since (laughs).
Budomate: Please give your pro advice to people who want to become film directors.
Michael Worth: Well, in my limited ability to share, I’d say first and foremost to go and learn. Go on sets. Watch what a director does. And I don’t just mean those things you read in a book or hear in film school, things like working with your actors or collaborating with your DP. I’m talking about the role a director has to the entire moral and pace of an entire production. Trust me, you don’t just sit there and do your creative thing. You have to be a leader and a tent pole of inspiration. Those stereo types of the director that sit in their chair and bark orders and act like ego maniacs are not the way to steer towards becoming.
You start acting like a butt head and your crew will not be far behind. But go out and shoot a short. See where you are strong and where you might not be. And do that for the rest of your career, no matter how big you get. There are a lot of “yes people” in this business but the audience and your own instincts will be your best evaluation of yourself. Find directors you like. Read about them. Watch their films. And above all be tenacious. That will always be the most important criteria of every director, writer, actor, cinematographer, art designer, etc. Stay fast to what you want. There will always be talented people that don’t work because they give up and less talented individuals making a living at this because they stick with it and don’t give up.
One of my good friends director Steven R. Monroe (I Spit on Your Grave) is an ultra talented director who has yet to do the projects he is really wanting to do in his work, but he rides this business like the best rodeo rider you ever saw and stays focused on what he wants. That is admirable to me. So just be real and never, ever stop learning.
Budomate: Please name 3 martial arts movies (US/Europe) which became classic on your opinion?
Michael Worth: Three is going to be hard, but my all time favorite film period is The Seven Samurai. I don’t think any other film drama, comedy, action, etc., matches the peerless artistry of that film. It is a unique, epic production that I find more and more within it every time I see it. I think the powerful use of cinema in that film is just amazing and motivating.
Enter the Dragon would be next for me. Partially the nostalgia I would say as I grew up loving that movie. Its plot line is crude and there are some elements you can almost laugh at today, but the energy and life Bruce Lee breathed into that film is incredible. On some levels, I like the raw craziness of Fist of Fury just as much since his unrestrained character tearing up the Japanese villains is hard to match, but something about Enter always makes it my “Go to” Lee film. His battle in the basement I emulated in one of my childhood films, Enter the Toad. I used my own basement and even bought the replica black one-piece tracksuit from a magazine. My brother played about 8 of the guards but then, look how many times Jackie Chan kept popping up and fighting Bruce in that film…
Lastly, and though I know the film may not be a classic for everyone but for me was the film that most inspired me the most outside of Bruce Lee’s work, was The Hot, The Cool and the Vicious with Tan Tao Liang. I saw this film in the theaters as a kid and was just blown away by Tan’s kicking ability I went back three more times. The Leg Fighters is a damn close second for me but HCV is the best. Tommy Lee’s character is just nuts and the two on one fight at the end was great. I have the original Hong Kong poster and entire lobby card set. Plus I play the song “Kill em all” that was used in the opening credits for my workouts sometime…
I met Master Tan a couple times here in Los Angeles area and video taped an interview with him as well as got him to sign some of my posters. I was the total Kung Fu nerd around him. In fact, I tried to get him to star with me in Ghost Rock but he was stuck in Hong Kong on business while we were shooting.
But two honorable mention: for sheer greatness and cajones…. is Thundering Mantis. I mean, that ending is probably bar none one of the more original endings to a Kung Fu film ever. And lastly is Unbeatable Dragon or Invincible Shaolin. The Venoms and those awesome training sequences got me building the weirdest devices in my garage as a kid to train on. And so to Lo Meng and the others… I thank you!
Budomate: Thanks a lot for your time and answers, Michael. Hope to see you in Australia someday.
Michael Worth: Thank you, it was fun to do. Always wanted to go to be honest.
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