CHALLENGE ACCEPTED: PART THREE - An Interview With Ken Quitugua

2004 was a pretty invigorating year for me. We got our first computer and I suffered like hell everyday with dial-up until we finally acquired DSL which evidently made it much more easier for me to venture into online martial arts fandom at the time. It was new to me and quite phenomenal, and thanks in large part to one such skit was titled Battle Of The Stunt Monkies, a product of a very talented and diverse group known only as the premiere team that started it all on the cusp of the new millenium, Zero Gravity.

Incidentally, it just so happens that member Ken Quitugua was one of the first people I began noticing before getting addicted to the content Zero Gravity was putting out. This, on top of my newfound DVD craze through sites like the now defunct and, and the still-active added to my own fervor, though I personally felt that these online groups weren't getting enough attention and it was then that I tried starting a fansite of my own called "Source Of The Fist", a platform to help engage stunt performers and filmmakers within their respective teams.

It was good and lasted for about six months until my computer crashed and I eventually lost my website as it was hosted as a free trial offer until I could purchase the space. It was hard to accept I might have never gotten the opportunity to talk to some of these people like I originally wanted to, but that was long before I re-emerged with my new Facebook fan page in 2012, and needless to say, it's been well worth it.

On top of getting to know a number of people including Zero Gravity members Tony Chu, Aaron Toney and as of November, Andrew Suleiman, I had never really been in touch with Quitugua. That all changed with a few motivators in mind being the existence of my blog and that Quitugua, a 20 year purveyor of various styles of martial arts who also does graphic design as a trade, is still an active screen actor and action performer. His most recently completed performances in Eric Jacobus's Rope-A-Dope 2 and reviewing actor/director Dennis Ruel's long-awaited martial arts comedy, Unlucky Stars, would amply serve as a preamble to something I almost didn't see happening this year before director Bao Tran released their latest kung fu short film, The Challenger.

As such, and at long last, we now come to the third and final leg of the Challenge Accepted series after interviews with Tran and co-star Andy Le. This particular interview did take a while to complete between both of our busy schedules with the Holiday season looming, although I admit I found myself curious of a few more things I didn't get to ask him.

Granted, a new year is right around the corner and I look forward to more answers from here on out. For now though and as fortuitous as it is in more than ten years since watching him on obscure downloadable .MPEG kung fu videos made with love and awesomeness, I hereby present my interview with the one and only Ken Quitugua!

Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Ken! How has your year been thusfar?
Ken Quitugua: Hi Lee! 2015 has been great for me. I’ve been able to see the culmination of a few projects that were years in the making as well as launching a couple new creative endeavors. Overall, it's been a very successful year.

FCSyndicate: I bet so! Please tell us, how did you get involved in martial arts and stuntwork?
KQ: I’d have to say it circles back to my Father. Being the Bruce Lee fanatic that he was, watching martial arts films together was our way of bonding as father-and-son. It didn’t take long for my interest and enthusiasm to surpass his. Infatuated with all things martial arts, I convinced my folks to let me try some classes at the nearest Kung Fu Academy and so began my journey at the age of 11. All the while, learning, practicing, competing and eventually teaching; the inspiration to continue always came from my obsession with film. Way Of The Dragon, Wheels On Meals, Police Story, Fist Of Legend…to me, these films were like Rocky to a boxer. The valor and heroic acts would provide just enough motivation to keep training. Surrounded by like minded kung fu classmates, we kept each other honest and on track with our goals. 
Eventually, I felt the urge to be more than a spectator but didn’t know where to begin. There were no message board tutorials, youtube channels, stunt workshops, etc. We learned at best by watching Jackie’s outtakes and copying his choreography. But that didn’t matter. It felt as though we were contributing to this cherished and seemingly esoteric genre of film that belonged to us and was made for us. We were preparing to someday take the torch.
FCSyndicate: Did you have a feeling Zero Gravity was going to become such an amazing tentpole for martial arts films over time? Tell us about the early days and years.

KQ: I had no idea. When I moved to San Francisco back in 2001, one of the first things I looked for was a group to learn and train with. I knew there were some great Kung Fu, Kickboxing and Capoeira schools in the area but couldn’t afford to enroll at the time. After some online research and digging around, I stumbled across Title Pending by ZeroGravity. I was amazed. And it wasn’t just because of the raw skills, creative choreography, or the gnarly stunts. More so that there was a group of guys just on the other side of the Bay Bridge that were making martial arts films! I thought me and my buddies back home were the only ones doing this. I had to meet them. 
At the time ZeroGravity was holding “open auditions” to help grow their team. Eager to see what they were all about, I reached out to Tony Chu and he invited me down to try-out for a spot on the team. Leading up to our first meeting I felt very nervous. I researched Tony and Larry Leong (also know as Chimp Capoeira) and felt their skills were way out of my league…but I thought, what the hell, why not? Hopefully I’ll pick up a thing or two and share it with my crew back home. 
After showing up consistently to their open practices, I eventually became a member. I don’t how it happened or if there was ever a “welcome to the team” announcement. I guess it was when we started prepping for Title Pending 2? Official or not I was just so grateful to be working along side them. I met so many amazing people during our formative years as a stunt team — Tony, Larry, Kerry, Sam, Tiff, Roy, Adam, Lateef, Aaron and many others. To this day, I still credit them for helping me hone my style of action-acting and directing. I’ll always be proud to be part of that early movement. A lot of good times.
FCSyndicate: I remember Title Pending 2 and Damn 3 and those are actually my favorites! With Title Pending 2, I guess we can call that your premiere short with ZG, and those fights were long but tons of fun to watch! How long did it take to put those scenes together? How rough was that experience for you and the crew?
KQ: We shot most if not all the big fights over several weekends. Like most indie short films, the actual filming and doing wasn’t as difficult as coordinating everyone’s schedule but this was more of a stress for Tony as he was leading the project. For me, it was more like play. I really enjoyed the creative and collaborative process — If you watch the outtakes, its clear we all had fun.
FCSyndicate: I've actually never seen the outtakes and I hope I come across them or someone sends them to me! [laughs] So you're working and training with ZG and you eventually cross paths with Bao Tran prior to doing Bookie together - I *JUST* saw Bookie a few months ago by the way and I loved it. What was it like for you meeting Bao before then and working together that first time out?

From the set of "The Challenger" (2015)
KQ: From the get-go, I sensed that Bao saw things differently. He had a deeper understanding of martial arts films than most, it was almost intimidating. At the time, I thought I had it all figured out but Bao really challenged me to look at things with a broader perspective. Our early discussions about “kung fu movies” inspired me to step up my game — to study more film, to train more, to put more thought into my work. I was intrigued by his outlook and knew that I had to keep him close. We were able to establish a really solid rapport after collaborating on some smaller projects. As soon as he approached me with Bookie, I was all in. No hesitation.
FCSyndicate: One thing I noticed about Bookie in relation to a lot of other projects by stunt groups is the inclusion of knowing how to act, and I've shared a dialogue or two with stunt performers on either side of the fence who feel that acting and performing action and stunts are not one and the same as opposed to others who feel very much the opposite of that. What would your response to that conversation be? In other words, how prudent has it been for you in your own craft with Bookie and your recent performance in Unlucky Stars, etc.? How would you measure its relevance to a stunt person?
KQ: I can only speak from a screen fighting point of view — but solid acting is the foundation of any successful fight scene and is crucial to being a solid action performer. Whether you’re taking a simple punch in the face or starring as the hero, the ability to express your intent and emotion during an action scene (to me) weighs just as much as the choreographed movements. I stress in my performances; facial expressions, body language, the unspoken conversation. While I may not have the most spectacular movements, I try my best to make up for it with the energy that I bring to a fight. A lot of screen fighters do this naturally (maybe its their fighting spirit) but it really stands out if and when they’re conscious of it.
FCSyndicate: Would you say the same of your co-star from The Challenger, Andy Le? Tell us what it was like working primarily with him for the first time after Unlucky Stars. He really looks up to you!

From the set of "The Challenger" (2015)
KQ: Andy is the best! I had a lot of fun training with and getting to know him. He’s incredibly humble, hungry and his dedication to training is on another level. I’m really looking forward to seeing him develop into an even better performer but more so as a martial artist. I’m so happy he agreed to do this project…can’t wait to work with him again!
FCSyndicate: How did you go about the choreography in terms of kung fu styles and what techniques to implement?
KQ: It was really important for us to be as authentic as possible. Bao and I agreed that the look and feel of this fight be more of an actual street fight — he even coined the phrase “Shaw Brothers in a street fight". Having a background in White Crane, it was an easy decision for my part. There wasn’t enough time to consider learning and cramming a new style. When it came to Andy, we were fortunate that he had been studying up on Hung Ga. It was a perfect match up…TIGER VS CRANE! From that point on it was a lot of experimenting and studying of the forms and shapes. We even did some light sparring to explore each others movements, flow, and reactions. The rehearsals felt like we were at a Kung Fu summer camp…sharing techniques etc. It was a lot of fun!
FCSyndicate: Interesting! Did MMA techniques ever come to the table while pooling ideas together?
KQ: Hmm, maybe not so much MMA but a bit of boxing with the evading and faints. We really tried to stay true to our respected styles.
FCSyndicate: Fair enough. Well it works! I was very happy to see you on board with this project after so many years of following Zero Gravity, and it's actually been a long time since the group's existence with everyone doing their own thing and branching out. Do you miss it?
From the set of "Title Pending 2" (2002)
KQ: 100%. ZeroGravity is a really special group. Sometimes I wish we stuck together a little longer…maybe made a few more short films before branching off to more professional work. But all in all, I’m very happy for everyone’s individual successes in the industry. Proud to call them my friends. Perhaps something will bring us back together in the near future…I wouldn’t hesitate to work with the gang again.
FCSyndicate: Same here, Ken. On top that, I hope to see more of you beyond this point in other projects apart from The Challenger. Is there more in store from Ken Quitugua?
KQ: Definitely! I’m always keeping busy. We’ve picked up some momentum this year with quite a few projects on the horizon for 2016–17. Its just gonna keep getting bigger and better!
FCSyndicate: And I understand your starring feature role with actor and director Dennis Ruel in Unlucky Stars has distribution now. Can you tell us more about it?
KQ: Most recently, Dennis has been talking with our distributor, working out releases, regions, terms, etc. Not sure where it all stands at the moment but we’ll be sure to let you know when thats all settled. I’m so happy for it to get out there…hopefully leading to bigger opportunities for the team.
FCSyndicate: Did you get to screen the film yet? And what was the general reaction to it in the room along with your own?

From L to R: Bryan Cartago, Shaun Charney, Sam Hargrave, Vlad Rimburg, Dennis Ruel, Ken Quitugua, Sari Sabella, Gui DaSilva, Emmanuel Manzanares, George Crayton, Jimmy Chhiu, Brian Le and Andy Le at the Los Angeles screening of "Unlucky Stars" (2016)
KQ: Yes! I was present at the SF and LA premiers earlier this year, both of which had great energy from the audience. It's always a beautiful thing when you're able to share the work of something as meaningful as Unlucky many people worked on it, gave their talents and time, and to finally have such a positive response! It definitely serves as motivation to get back out there and create more!
FCSyndicate: Is there anyone you specifically hope to work with after this?
KQ: I’ll never stop dreaming of working with a Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung or even Richard Norton! In fact, any of the greats from that 80s and 90s era would be a dream come true. Otherwise, I’m always gung-ho to work with my current team(s). I feel a strong connection with them so I look forward to our continued collaboration. But there are a ton of new and younger talent coming up these days — its hard to keep track of them all. If it wasn’t for your HIT LISTS, I’d be completely out of the loop. LBP, EMC, The Young Masters, Thousand Pounds, Martial Club…everyone is putting out so much good stuff…I’d be fortunate to work with any of them.
FCSyndicate: And we'll all be even more fortunate to see it. I have to say, coming from an artist's background and just understanding the physical toll it takes to pull off these amazing feats, it's one of the main things that have motivated me to try and give you guys something in return. I appreciate greatly as I feel all of us do, and we can't thank you enough.

Do you have any final thoughts to share for our readers?
KQ: I’d like to thank anyone and everyone who has ever sat down and watched one of our films. We really do make these films, not only to satisfy our creative expressions but to inspire people to get out there and make something of their own — the same way Jackie and Bruce have inspired me. Maybe its not in the form of a kung fu film or indie action short...but whatever it is that you do to connect with other people. 
And thank you, Lee for the continued support for our work. We appreciate what you’re doing for all of us!
I have to say, Quitugua's Hit List mention drew a pretty poignant moment for me that required putting my phone down. It was really great to see my work complemented by someone I've been following for so long, thus not only signifying as one of the most important interviews I've worked on, but further validates me in what I do for this blog. Sure, I do it for fans like myself, but coming from a penniless artist's background, I do it for these folks as well, and I'm very happy that many of the people I have engaged with Film Combat Syndicate have shown their support when they did.

Speaking of Hit Lists, a glance at this entry back in November will bring you to a recently-released teaser for Larnell Stovall's upcoming independent shortilm sequel, Steel 2, which also involves Quitugua and a number of stellar action stars like Marko Zaror and the late Darren Shahlavi. This one is expected to arrive in 2016 and it definitely coincides with how bigger and better he suggests things will be. I look forward to it myself and I'm sure I'm not alone in that position.

Photo by Tony Chu from the set of "Unlucky Stars" (2016)
Click HERE and HERE for more on The Challenger, and feel free to visit the official website for direct contacts and info on how to support their newest effort toward a kung fu feature!


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