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.

Prior to all that first-world pain and suffering, it was several years earlier in 2004 that we first got our computer and sometime thereafter, I stumbled upon an amazing fight clip featuring Jacobus and actor Sean Eichenberg from an earlier indie pic called Bound By Blood, and it was the first time I learned who Jacobus was, eventually taking me to the website of his team, The Stunt People. Shorts like Undercut and Paid-Off were all the rave for me at the time, but it was my enjoyment of their 2006 martial arts action comedy, Contour (newly titled now as The Agent), that solidified me as a fan, especially after watching so many Hong Kong flicks and immersing myself through retail niche sites like in its heyday, and the like.

Moving ahead to 2015, and though his team has evolved and fluctuated over the years, The Stunt People brand continues its relevance to this day with Jacobus as the primary face and voice of the team whilst gaining his own recognition as a standout actor and all-around filmmaker. Aside from his few, more mainstream successes, his craft remains in tact through the online fanbase he's built for well over a decade while making a sure batch of some of the best martial arts action movies never shown in mainstream movie theaters. Rest assured, it's made him a star in his own right, as he's been the subject of countless interviews with popular media sites. His work has been acknowledged by a vast number of film professionals, including martial arts action star Scott Adkins, and even more particularly, filmmaker Gareth Huw Evans (yes, THAT Gareth Huw Evans) in the wake of the latest release of his newest explosive online action comedy romp, Rope-A-Dope 2: Return Of The Martial Arts Mafia with producer and industry stuntman Clayton Barber.

Granted, it's not all downhill just yet, as Jacobus continues doing his best to stand out and help apply his vision to the genre more prominently, and hopefully that day isn't too far off from now, because for all he's done up to now, he deserves it. Not only would it put him on a higher plateau in life, but it might even help him transcend his influence from the internet and independent scene to the mainstream. Yeah sure, it's a longshot, but rest assured, I am proudly not alone in that perception and I certainly believe it is one that Jacobus humbly notices and observes in his day-to-day routine as someone continuously working his way up. For the record however, you don't have to take my word for it; I sent Jacobus some questions via email last week, and so here he is to speak for himself.

Without further ado, do enjoy!

Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Eric and thanks for taking the time to e-mail chat with me this week. This is probably a bit early to ask, but otherwise, how is your new year going so far?
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...
FCSyndicate: For those who are just getting to know who Eric Jacobus is, tell us about yourself?
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.
FCSyndicate: What sort of formula comes to mind when you start writing? I ask this mainly because I'm fascinated by your storytelling approach on projects Rope-A-Dope which you and Clayton worked on, as well as a few scenes in your last feature film, Death Grip, and your Beard-Off short last year where you sort of jump back-and-forth between scenes and it's fun to watch!
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.
FCSyndicate: How did you and Clayton Barber two meet prior to filming Rope-A-Dope? Tell us about him.
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.
FCSyndicate: How has this experience been for you and Clayton both while collaborating on this particular endeavor in the last few years?
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.
FCSyndicate: You now have your sequel, Rope-A-Dope 2, out this week and it's clear that the odds are not in the Dope's favor [laughs]. You guys have a lot more people, a lot more stunt power on hand this time around than before. What were some of the challenges you faced in developing the character and story this far, in addition to evolving the choreography? Were there some things you saw/didn't see coming?
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.
FCSyndicate: Rope-A-Dope 2 also marks your latest return to the screen with Stunt People member Dennis Ruel since Ruel's earlier short, Fievel Throws Down, and your blistering fight finale in Contour (a.k.a. The Agent). What is it you love most about working with Ruel?
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.
FCSyndicate: Your crew also suffered a setback during production. Tell us about it, and how did you guys recover?
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.
FCSyndicate: You've had some pretty big successes in recent years, namely with your starring role in Mortal Kombat Legacy and your recent appearance in ABC's Of Death 2 to name a few. What do you think of the progress you've made in helping create such a growing online fanbase through the SP forum and among other filmmakers and stuntmen like yourself?
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.
FCSyndicate: What are some fond memories you can share? Are there any things or people you miss? I'm a bit nostalgic when thinking about it myself, lol.
EJ: When Dennis was swinging my cane over his head with his bamboo stick in the finale, it kept flying off in every direction. Pete got protective of the camera and said, "Okay guys, I'm gonna stand here at the ropes so you don't break the camera." Then the cane flew and torpedoed straight into Pete's nuts like a battering ram. That was hilarious.

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.
FCSyndicate: If there was one particular character from an old SP short or feature you could reprise in a potential sequel or a feature film beyond The Dope which would it be and why? And what would you change to befit the contemporary setting?
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.
FCSyndicate: At least one thing we can take with us going into 2015 is that it has been difficult to get some films up and running, especially independent ones. What are some of the hurdles that folks like you and Clayton have faced and/or continue to now in filmmaking or engaging in other aspects of the craft, via stunts or other? Are there more than before, or less?
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.
FCSyndicate: What are some of the most important lessons you have learned in your career that up-and-comers in your field should take to heart these days? And moreover, since the internet often tends to fall into entropy, what are some facts that movie fans should understand when it comes to why certain projects fail to flourish in time?
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!
FCSyndicate: You also have one other shortfilm coming out later this year with Jose Montesinos now making the rounds titled Sensitive 70's Turtleneck Tough Guys, and one other feature film you announced a while back formerly titled Marine Core, now known as Make Peace Or Die. What's the status of those two?
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.
FCSyndicate: What other projects do you guys have in the works with respect to your careers?
EJ: We're planning our next feature film and exploring our options with that.
FCSyndicate: Are plans for Rope-A-Dope 3 or a longer feature film in the works?
EJ: I'll just say there are definitely plans for The Dope's return.
FCSyndicate: What are some of the current hopes you both have for the film industry at this juncture? What things would you like to see take shape?
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.
FCSyndicate: From the beginning up to now, considering all you and yours have accomplished at the Stunt People, where do you see yourself five years from now?
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.
FCSyndicate: We're on deck for another pretty big year of action films. What are some titles you and Clayton are anticipating in your forecast?
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.
FCSyndicate: Any last words to help ring in the new year?
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.
Jacobus recently published an amazing extensive article journaling the entire production of Rope-A-Dope 2: Return Of The Martial Arts Mafia with some excellent behind-the-scenes set pictures you'll only find there, so feel free to click here and check it all out for yourself. Other than that, I really have to give it to him and his team. Independent filmmaking is never easy and assuredly, Jacobus has seen his fair share of challenges and gladly enough, the robbery didn't turn into anything worse.

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!

Lead Photo: © 2014


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