Interview de Bruce Baron
It seems that once you started your career by appearing in commercials (as an actor or model). What was the origin of this particular aspect of your career? How did you come to envision acting as a profession?
[In answer to your first 3 questions]
I wasn't doing much of anything, and I had a Chinese girl friend who introduced me to a modelling agency in HK. I had done one or two commercials while in Hawaii, and had a few photos for a book', and I soon got work as commercial talent'. In the process of doing TV commercials, I met most if not all of the directors and camera men who were doing commercial work in HK. When one of them was hired by Tsui Hark for his Dangerous Encounters' he recommended me to Tsui Hark, as a local commercial actor who knew how to hit his marks and find the light. Tsui Hark hired me to play the lead gwei-loh bad guy. I think it was his 1st or 2nd film. He was a good guy and very bright, commercially orientated, though he spoke little English at the time. One thing led to another, and perhaps more because I could understand direction in Chinese than for any other reason, I started to get hired by Chinese directors whenever they needed a gwei-loh lead extra who could say a few lines in Cantonese [and tell the other gwei-loh extras what they needed to do] [i.e. translate]. I refused any parts that didn't at least have some lines. This kept the money to an acceptable level, and led to any number of bit roles in Chinese movies. Eventually I stopped looking for a straight job, because I was able to support myself as talent' [mostly from TV commercials and print ads which paid a lot better day rates than films]. Eventually I became too overexposed for most TV commercials in HK, and that work dried up, but that same overexposure made me more of a recognizable commodity for the local film directors, and I was getting more work from film than commercials. To some extent, I was certainly seduced by the easy money' and the lifestyle, with lots of free time, location travel, and all the easy pussy. I more or less committed myself to acting, to the extent that I promised myself to give it a shot, at least until I turned 40, with the proviso that if no-one had sent me a first class ticket to Hollywood by that time, I would quit it and get a real job [this is precisely what came to pass in 1990. No one in Hollywood ever sent me a ticket, and I turned 40 and quit, and rehabilitated myself into a real' job].
You said you worked as an extra on Shaw brothers productions. What memories do you have of these shootings?
Big back lot with lots of crappy Chinese historical sets, elaborate Chinese costumes, ancient equipment, bad lighting, bad acting, dangerous conditions, bad food, broken bones from incompetent stunt players and inadequate padding, lots of night shootings, because the lead Chinese actors were always doing 4 films at once. Long delays, no scripts, no respect and very lousy pay. I never saw a single one of the films.
What was the atmosphere like on the HK film sets in the 80's? Was it difficult for a "gweilo" (Caucasian actor) to find his place? A former gweilo actor said that in HK, a Caucasian actor is considered like a piece of furniture you must feed. Would you agree with that?
Generally speaking I agree with that comment. But I would add the word ugly' before furniture. The atmosphere in most of these productions was not very good. Everything was done as cheaply as possible, nothing was shot with sound, and generally speaking most of the crews and a lot of the Chinese actors were uneducated, rough and low class Chinese immigrants to HK that could not get better paying jobs, or were moonlighting from their regular jobs as Triad thugs. The Triads were heavily infiltrated into the HK movie industry at that time [and probably still are today]. It does not make for a very refined social milieu. I suffered less discrimination that most of the other extras because I spoke Chinese and knew what was going on. Chinese people, especially peasants, will only give you some face' [respect] if you are rich or earning a lot of money [no matter how good or bad you might be at what you are doing]. We, as gwei extras, were basically the lowest paid employees on the productions. Most of the gwei-loh actors' were backpackers, and transients, working for about USD$50/day. I got at least double that because of my translation skills, and refusal to take non-speaking parts, but I still wasn't anywhere high enough in the hierarchy to get any face'.
You reportedly produced many commercials in HK and were sometimes co-producer and assistant director. Were you ever tempted to work more in producing or directing?
I didn't produce any commercials in HK. I mainly participated in them as talent, and once or twice as AD or line producer. Behind camera work was a lot harder to come by, harder to break into, and harder to gain credibility in than acting, because you were competing against the whole Chinese work force that was available. Don't forget, as a gwei-loh actor' in Asia, you were a relatively rare commodity, because there were few Europeans who were willing or available to do those jobs. Behind the camera was another story. I still believe that the hardest job in film production is 1st time Producer [convincing people to give you money to make films is a very very hard job, indeed. You practically need to be nepotistically introduced to it, or have access to money that needs laundering to get started, and build credibility].
Long hours, low pay, bad food, sore muscles, silly costumes. Working one day on, 3/4 days off, by the time we finished principle photography [6 months] the money they paid me to do it was spent. At the time I was rather disappointed in the outcome. I was trying really hard to make something good and it came out pretty bad. Now I see the likes of Kill Bill 2' and I think that movie, of all the films I did, is way more fun and amusing to watch now than it ever was when it was new. It now demonstrates such a high level kitsch that most people find it very amusing [whereas if you try to take it seriously, as we did when we were making it, it is just plain bad]. It should probably be remastered and re-released, as Dragon Farce, a Cavalcade of Kitschy Kung-Fu Clichés.
You went on making several films in the Philippines. How did you get there and why? American actor Max Thayer, who made films with Teddy Page and Jun Gallardo (John Gale), recently granted us an interview in which he was describing these films as being made by passionate people who struggled against lack of money and unscrupulous producers. What were the atmosphere and working conditions on these movies?
During the 80s there was a fair amount of foreign films shooting on locations in the P.I. [Mostly as a result of Coppola having shot Apocalypse Now' there for 2 years and leaving a lot of equipment, sets and trained crew behind, when he left]. After Dragon Force played at the Manila Film Festival and I went there to help promote it, I got invited back to do work. The production company responsible for the films in which I participated in the P.I. [as the lead actor] were produced by a company called Kinavesa owned by K.Y. Lim [AKA Slippery Lim].
I turned down more than I did, because they seldom wanted to pay over US$1500 [and Mike Monty and some other guys you mention would work for less than I would]. The films always wrapped start to finish in under a month. There was a lot more camaraderie and spirit de corps on these films than we ever had on the HK productions. Conditions were terrible. The food was bad, the lighting was a joke, and the scripts were patently formulaic and ridiculous, but there was no bullshit and no pretence. None of us had anything better to do and it was generally a lot more fun and better atmosphere than I ever had on the HK productions, hanging out in Pagsanjan, smoking Filipino rag weed, riding around in Jeeps and trashing ass with the Filipino girls.