IN PRODUCTION: My Interview With Eric Jacobus
Not many of you, or perhaps generally none of you know this about me - it was around 2007 or 2008 that I started a blog not too different from this one, with the goal of getting in touch with the online action film community. It lasted in the course of a six month trial period at a site called Freehostia, initially with the intent of purchasing extra space for more articles and such, and it was during that time period when I had already gotten in touch with a few people through MySpace (yes, it was THAT long ago). Unfortunately, for lack of a better working computer that wouldn't crash and burn out, I never really got to add actor and stuntman Eric Jacobus to my list of contacts before then, and my free trial eventually expired. Essentially, it wasn't a good year and to simply say that the struggle got real would be an understatement.
Eric Jacobus: Couldn't be better. 2015 looks like it might be a payoff for all the hard work I put in for 2014, which was my first year as a full-time stuntman. I think I actually made so little money in 2014 that I won't have to pay taxes! I guess being poor is isn't all that bad...
EJ: I'm a stuntman and filmmaker based in California. I formed a stunt team with fellow martial artists and gymnasts called The Stunt People back in 2001. I directed and produced a feature film called Contour back in 2005, which was chock full of action and took us something like 120 days to finish. It was sort of like our version of The Raid only done for five thousand bucks - a bunch of stunt guys nab some free locations, get together and wreck every day for a full year. That film put us on the map. After that I did a higher budget feature called Death Grip in 2011 with Johnny Yong Bosch in an attempt to go more mainstream. It was less comedic, but we stepped up our production skills. Since then I choreographed a fight for A Good Day to Die Hard, acted as Stryker in the second season of Mortal Kombat Legacy, and starred in the first segment of ABCs of Death 2, along with, of course, doing Rope A Dope 1 and 2 with my producer Clayton Barber.
EJ: For scripting storylines I use the formula that works, with a very structured beginning, middle, and end. Formula is underrated. It's one of those things we like to criticize, but when it works we sit there thinking, "Hey, why didn't I think of that?" It requires mastery to write a simple, formulaic genre script. As for writing comedy, I get that question a lot, and I still don't know how one writes comedy. Maybe I can come up with a better answer later. I think ultimately filmmakers pick a genre based on their personalities, and action-comedy is where I excel.
EJ: Clayton Barber is a well-known stuntman and stunt coordinator who's had a long career in American action cinema. He's fought Sammo Hung and he coordinated The Guest and You're Next, so he knows his action. After Death Grip and the ensuing roller coaster of hitting up film markets and conventions, I developed my own philosophy about martial arts action entertainment, from my views on comedy to the American sentiment that I bring all the way to how the action is performed, shot, and edited. Turns out Clayton had been developing the same philosophy for years, and we meshed right away. We talked on the phone every night for two years before he brought me the concept for Rope A Dope and said, "Go write it!" I wrote it in a week and it hit all the notes we wanted to hit.
EJ: One thing I like about Clayton is he pushes me. I told him when we first started, "I'm a work horse, Clayton. I don't know what my limits are. So put as much pressure on me as I can take!" He brought on Freddie Poole, another accomplished stuntman out of Texas, and the two of them put me to task. He's a great coach and business partner.
EJ: We ended the first Rope-A-Dope with the villain waking up and restarting his day just like the Dope, and every time the audience saw it they went nuts. We wanted to deliver on that in Rope A Dope 2. On paper it was pretty complicated already. Our crew even had a hard time figuring out what was going on. When we filmed we would write the scene and shot on the slate along with which "day" we were on. In the editing room it was even crazier because we wanted to make the film comprehensible to people who hadn't seen Rope A Dope 1. After tons of edits and re-edits, we got it there.
The fights this time around had the benefit of being contained within a world - the lair of the Martial Arts Mafia. In the first Rope-A-Dope, that fight in the alley was a challenge because there just wasn't much to play off. You see us use almost every prop we could find, so this time we created the Lair and put every prop in there we could imagine, and the gears spun faster than ever. We pre-vizzed a lengthy fight in our gym just to get some combinations together, but once we got to shooting, we threw most of it out the window. Making sense of the space created the glue the choreography needed, but the gags needed to be fresh. For example, I knew that for a pan fight scene to really work, you needed the egg in there. A lot of stuff was improvised, like the bottle gags which Pete came up with, and Ed and I created the pool cue fight during lunch break. There were ideas flying every which way, and I just had to reach my hand out and grab one. The challenge was deciding which ones to keep.
EJ: I like Dennis because he's got a special way of holding himself. I feel like I'm fighting someone who wants to fight, not pose. He holds sparring sessions at his school The Hapkido Institute, so his default stance is strong, like he wants to kick your ass. Since he's got acting chops, the stuff between the moves is solid. Standing there in the middle of a fight and not looking awkward is one of the hardest things for a stuntman and he nails it every time.
EJ: We were shooting the Dope's house exterior in West Oakland, the same exterior as in Rope A Dope 1, and we were about 3 hours into shooting when a couple shifty characters walked right through the shoot. We tried to be cool with them and they walked away, but then one crept up and said "Don't move". He had a handgun pointed at me, and the other one ran in and nabbed the camera. I did what any good martial artist would do - nothing. The camera's long gone, and fortunately it was insured and nobody was hurt, but it shook us all up.
EJ: I love my fans and their praises, but the best feeling is when someone tells me I inspire them to make their own action movies. Martial artists and stuntmen and women are picking up their cameras now and putting their skills to the test in the marketplace. It creates competition, which I like. As a community we need to keep delivering good content because it breeds innovation and creativity. It's really draining when there's a shortage of good martial arts action out there, because now I gotta go back to the well of Hong Kong cinema for inspiration. There's always something there to find, but new talent is what really gets my blood going. Whenever I can facilitate that, I'm happy.
Also, I always love filming at the Victory Warehouse. We rented that place for Death Grip and spent a lot of long nights there. The place has an energy you can't get from a studio set and the people who live there are always cool. Just a bunch of wrestlers who would invite us to smoke and play video games after shooting. Too cool.
EJ: Law from Contour would be my first pick. I invented that guy and could tell you his whole life story on the fly. That was a natural character for me. Maybe we'll find a way to bring him back.
EJ: The main hurdle for us is getting good ideas down on paper. Clayton and I are committed to doing the best martial arts comedies money can buy, and we share the same philosophy surrounding the genre. So it's just a matter of time before we make our next mark. The hard work is really just beginning.
EJ: I always tell people - you gotta keep moving forward. There are going to be countless times when you arrange a stunt training session with twenty other stunt performers, but you might be the only one there. You'll film multiple shorts or features with a variety of people, and once the shoot wraps you won't hear from half of them ever again. It can be a lonely road. How you come out of the dips is what defines you.
I also learned to grow some thick skin. Since day one people were trying to knock us down. Hate mail, angry comments, you name it. But that's part of the game. I spent my life savings making Death Grip, and not only did I NOT make that money back, but the film wasn't received nearly as well as I hoped. This wasn't anyone's fault but my own. Own your projects and jump into the market head-first, read the signals, and keep paving your way. When something sticks, don't rest on your laurels. Keep going!
EJ: Jose's film is done but doing the festival circuit. It gets an amazing response whenever it shows. It'll be on our channel within the next couple months. Make Peace or Die is a finished script, but it's not the right time to make that film.
EJ: We're planning our next feature film and exploring our options with that.
EJ: I'll just say there are definitely plans for The Dope's return.
EJ: I'd like to see the indie action community really step up its game with their concepts. If they let their personalities come out in their fights, there could be a pretty wild variety of action films out there.
EJ: Clayton and I want to make a great American martial arts comedy, whatever it is. Our five year plan started off strong with Rope A Dope 2. The next step is to launch a successful action comedy feature film, and go from there. In five years, we'd like to have a few of those under our belts. If I can keep making people laugh and looking forward to the next Barber/Jacobus production, I'll be satisfied.
EJ: I always want to see whatever Jackie Chan is doing next. Chinese Zodiac had a great end fight, so he's still got the goods. Also The Guest was probably my favorite film from 2014. Adam Wingard and Simon Barrett are a killer team who have a brilliant production model, something Clayton and I are studying very closely. They're going to tackle I Saw The Devil. I can't wait to see what they do with it.
EJ: I couldn't do this without my parents Robert and Lynda Jacobus and my wonderful wife Chiara. Without their love and support I'd couldn't chase my dreams.
This is part of why people like Jacobus need our validity and our support. These are real people with real goals and dreams they are working toward, and he's made some amazing progress in the great company of real friends in helping achieve that over the years, and we all know that REAL friends are hard as fuck to come by. I guess that's also part of why I support independent action so much... my appreciation for it was never really shared among my peers several years ago, and it evidently became part of why I did way with a lot of those so-called friends I reacquainted with in social media when I got my first smart phone.
Besides, Jacobus is someone I've wanted to acquaint myself with for a long time, among everyone else whose work I've been enjoying for years now. I love these guys, and though there isn't much I can do for them except flex what muscle I have on this site, I certainly hope it leaves an impact, or even somewhat a legacy among other sites that do what I do in some capacity or another.
More importantly, I also hope that this won't be the last time I get to interview Jacobus in his evolution as a filmmaker. I originally wanted to do an email back-and-forth, but like all of the people I follow, Jacobus is a busy person, and for all intents and purposes, that's a good thing.
I humbly thank Eric for taking the time to share his story with me, and I highly recommend following his blog AND his channel, and stay tuned for even more exciting news on his exploits!
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