VOLTRON FILM SCHOOL - PART I: An Interview With Actor And Filmmaker Leroy Nguyen
It's pretty imaginable - the demanding list of items and moving parts a filmmaker has to manage and keep track of in the course of a project's evolution. I say this whilst not being a filmmaker myself, but having spoken to a good few who've worked on either one or both sides of the lens and that pretty much enlists most of the people I've written about off and on in the last eight years - less than three of which have been here on this site.
For certain, actor and filmmaker Leroy Nguyen can attest to these and much, having cut his teeth for well over a decade through his own projects, as well as shared ventures with numerous other aspiring film professionals, and with a distinct interest in action and martial arts. Joined by longtime friend and film cohort, Edmond Shum, the two have found a unique working chemistry through their craft under the banner Rising Tiger Films, with such projects as the prolific Do The Damn Thing webseries in association with Jabronie Pictures, as well as festival shortfilm favorites like Baddest, These Dog Days and The Exit Wound.
One other title that accounts here is one that now bears the brunt of hopefully landing Rising Tiger Films on the map for action cinema. Taking some of its cues from memorable gangster drama hits from yesteryear, Black Scar Blues marks a potential stepping stone for Nguyen and Shum after five long years of languishing in production limbo, and the rest brings us what now looks to be an albeit fantastic, gritty, brutal, martial arts-infused affair, made with no money and all the love in the world for film.
It's the kind of work that tests one's mettle and perseverance, and I, for one, am glad to have been as close to it as I have been. It actually wasn't until the top of 2014 that Nguyen posted some content on my Facebook fanpage, which ultimately helped me refresh my memory of who he is having briefly heard about him in passing and as hard as it is to keep track of so many creatives online. Of course, further sealing the deal was having had the humbling honor and privlege of having a last minute meet-and-greet with Nguyen and Shum late last year as they were attending the Urban Action Showcase & Expo.
Indeed, Times Square nightlife was bustling and they had their own plans before landing at my table at Applebees, and so the evening felt pretty much fortuitous and uplifting. I rarely get to meet such people in person and when I do, it's conversational magic; Not so much though, when it's through e-mail and long distance to be honest, but still as flourishing as opportune, and particularly now and in the wake of Black Scar Blues getting closer to a feature film distribution.
The first official trailer aired late last month, presenting the result of years of filmmaking endurance of the only kind. It's essentially the biproduct of a movement created by a skeleton crew, led by two people devoted to their art and the auspices therein. Thus, starting this week, Film Combat Syndicate will be host to a two-part interview with the two men behind Black Scar Blues and its often-stifled, albeit slow and steady, and storied progress.
I have had the pleasure of sharing in Nguyen's new movie through my coverage, and I have thoroughly enjoyed promoting it as much as I have to date. As such, I think readers will find Nguyen's candor here something to appreciate regarding his story which he now shares with us in this, the first of our two-part interview.
Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Leroy and thanks for sharing some time with our readership.
Leroy Nguyen: Thanks for giving me the opportunity to talk a little about the film. I never thought I'd be on the receiving end of an interview that didn't end with, "I'm sorry, but you're just not what we're looking for at this time...". This is pretty damn cool.
LN: The year has been all right so far. Trying to keep up with filming new stuff and releasing that stuff on a regular basis. The big news was with what happened to Black Scar Blues. That's been keeping me pretty busy.
LN: It was very tough, yeah. Creatively, it might've been the hardest thing we've ever done. And because we were having a tough time with the creative side, the technical stuff and the production as a whole was put on hold.
Basically, we were coming up with the story as we went along. It originally started out with an idea in 2010 that Ed had for a short film that revolved around a fight scene that had different flashbacks inter-cut with it. What we really wanted to do with that idea was highlight the action choreography style that we had developed at that time. Instead of just throwing it out there like a test fight, we wanted there to be a story behind it and give weight to our action.
I can't exactly remember why that original idea never went fully realized. I remember having a lot of trouble with the first flashback scene between Ed and myself, which happened to be the main flashback that had the most story in it. Ed actually got us into this sushi restaurant in downtown Baltimore. We were so pressed to get the vibe and atmosphere going, which was essentially taken from all of the gangster movies we loved. We shot the scene there, finished it, re-watched it, didn't like, re-shot it at the same location, still didn't like it, and then just kind of let it sit until mid-2012.
It was around that time in 2012 that I started another project on my own, one that didn't pan out eventually. That's when I pitched Ed the idea of taking the footage I shot for that failed project and kind of fuse it together with what we already had for Black Scar Blues (which was called Mean Street Story at the time). I think that may have been one of, if not THE biggest problem we had. For about the next four years after that, I tried desperately to get the footage from both projects to work together. We scheduled MANY shoots that didn't pan out because the lead actress at the time (the one from my own failed project) kept flaking on us last-minute. So being the editor, I tried to Voltron this shit the best I could. Turns out that's what held us up for so long.
LN: Well, it was really just me and Ed, like how it was and continues to be (mostly) for all of our projects. This is why anyone who ever watches our stuff will mostly see me and Ed beating the shit out of each other.
But yeah, we knew from the beginning we wanted to do a story between two friends who would eventually be at odds with each other. We basically just wanted to keep doing what we were doing, but give it more significance and production value.
The roles for the supporting cast came like how the story did: we made it all up as we went along. For the role of Tracey, I just told Jen Barnard, my girlfriend at the time, that she was going to be in my movie, which she did (like a trooper). For Donald and Mahdi, who play "Old Man" Uncle Sam and Boemont, they both work at the same place that I do. I think they heard that I was into making movies and they were interested in being in one of them. Even from the beginning we knew that the story needed an elder gangster character, and it was originally supposed to be Ed's dad. I figured having these two older dudes in it would lend some credibility to the story, seeing as how everyone else in the movie still look like kids (kids who are pretending to be tough guys). Same thing goes for Daniel Sim, who played Sonny. This was the very first role I cast him in, before the Shenmue thing we did. He worked for me at the time, and I remember thinking this guy had a great look, like a tough-kid look. So I developed a role for him which eventually expanded after I saw what he could do.
All-in-all, a majority of the cast was chosen before characters were even developed for them (outside of Ed and myself). It's definitely not a method I recommend to any other filmmaker, but it worked out for us (eventually).
LN: There were concerns at the beginning, especially when Ed and I tried doing some of the bigger acting scenes. We were writing these lines that were inspired from films that we liked, and we tried to play the characters like that. I didn't work. At all. We looked stupid. We looked like kids pretending to be gangsters in a movie. It was terrible. I hate watching those cuts of those early scenes.
We've acted in all of our previous stuff, but there was a lot of pressure this time because of what we were trying to achieve. We were basically acting out of necessity, because we didn't want to take the time to find actors who could fight on screen, or train actors to do so. And since the projects we did were always the projects that we ourselves wanted to do, we could depend on each other, so the possibility of flaking out was zero. But Black Scar Blues was a real challenge for us.
I did a feature film called Silverback in 2011, after we started on Black Scar. That was the first time I really had to take on a serious lead role, one that wasn't REALLY just an alternate version of myself. I learned a lot from that. I learned the importance of naturalism and improv. Since then, those aspects became the main goals of directing other actors (or rather, friends of mine who I tell will be actors).
We had dialogue written, yeah. But that was just a guide as to what the situation was and how the characters were to react to each other. I found myself saying to the other actors, "This is the line, but how would YOU say it?" or, "This is the situation. How would YOU react?". That played a HUGE part in the directing of the performances in not only Black Scar, but everything we've done during and since then.
Ed pays a bit more attention to detail than I do when it comes to acting, especially if I'm directing. And that's really important. If I'm focused on just getting the scene done and moving on, Ed will check me and say we should try something again. And the same goes for when we're spending a little too much time on an aspect of a performance or character. We'll get it to a point where we're both happy and then we'll move on.
As for being both an actor and director of the project I'm acting in, it's just something that I think most indie-action guys are experienced in. It's mostly out of necessity. You can depend on yourself to be there and do the job well (or to the best of your ability) because it's YOUR project. I've rarely acted in anything that I haven't directed myself, but when I have, it's been both a relief and a little boring. It's kind of a thrill to have to assist in setting up the lights, camera, set, the other actors, and then jump into your own performance when the record button is hit.
LN: I wouldn't say this is the most fun I've had while making a movie. It's because of the constant starts and stops, the pressure, and confusion, I will say this is definitely the hardest movie we've done. However, now that it's finished and the steps we're taking now to actually do something with it, it may be the most exciting movie I've worked on.
As for fun moments, I think anytime that Ed and I would be rehearsing a deadly serious dialogue scene between our characters and we would gradually break out into our DeNiro and Pacino impressions fits that mold. No matter how tired we'd be or stressed out we were while working on a scene, a small Pacino/DeNiro quip would immediately lighten the mood.
There was also this time when we where shooting the finale and we were found ourselves cornered by like, four or five cops who thought we were actually fighting. They searched our bags and this one cocksucker of a cop who really couldn't have been much older than we were at the time (like, 23 or 24) was this real smarmy ass of an ass saying things like, "Did ya stop and THINK to let people know you were filming a movie out here?" and, "You put people in danger because when I got the call on my radio about a street fight, I pushed 100MPH driving down the highway to get here!". Me and Ed were thinking to ourselves, "...WE didn't call you out here..."
The fight scene at the beginning of the film was also really fun to shoot. I've always wanted to do a fight scene where Ed and I work together to fight off a few guys. We've spent so many years fighting each other on screen, it was nice to get some Kevin Nash/Scott Hall or Triple H/Shawn Michaels action going.
LN: I have little to no actual martial arts training. My dad bought me a heavy bag when I was in high school and I just kind of taught myself from there. I took a few Muay Thai and boxing classes here and there, but I don't consider myself a martial artist. I have no Goddamn discipline. But I got a mean right hook and a bad attitude when the time is right.
LN: Ed and I have worked together for so long and developed our particular style of screen-fighting, we're like Ken and Ryu from Street Fighter. I say that not in the sense that we're good fighters, but in that we're so in-tune with how each other moves that it's almost like we're fighting ourselves.
We started screen-fighting way before we started acting, but it's funny how similar the two are. Like I mentioned earlier about the importance of naturalism and improv in acting, that stems from our fight choreography and performances. There's nothing worse than watching a fight scene in a movie that looks choreographed or doesn't feel real. Don't get me wrong, the choreography should be a bit exaggerated for the screen, but the intent always, always, ALWAYS needs to be there. If there's no intention in any of the moves being thrown, then you might as well be dancing with each other.
Also, Ed and I are big, heavy guys. We don't throw 540 kicks like a lot of the other guys do simply because we can't. But because we've developed with each other for so long, our size plays a huge role in the choreography and the performance. The moves we throw are heavy, with lots of haymakers, low to mid-level kicks, and knee strikes. But the moves look like they have legit power to them because there's literally a lot of weight behind each punch and kick. We don't try to be things that we're not. And like in our acting performances, our fight choreography is a natural yet slightly exaggerated branch of who we are. We won't choreograph moves that don't feel natural to us, and we always ask ourselves what would we really do in a situation like this. Every once in a while we'll do a comedy short film, but our action is always serious. Again, if there's no aggression or intention, then just be a dancer, you pansy.
As far as pushing the envelope, there was a fight scene that I directed between Cullen Cook III and Yara Brown in a film we did called The Exit Wound. There was nothing complex about that fight, and it was Yara's first time doing a fight scene ever. I had an idea of what I wanted to do with it, but that quickly changed based on what we were actually getting, footage-wise. What ended up being was possibly the hardest, most violent fight scene I've ever directed. Strangely enough, there were no blood effects, no bone-breaks, no excessive (and honestly, retarded) use of slow-motion. It was just an emotionally hard scene between a man and a woman who was doing everything she could to defend herself. I knew there was something about this scene after I edited the first cut and felt kind of dirty watching it. The finale of The Exit Wound was also a brutal one, and we all had to push ourselves because the conditions we were shooting in were terrible, not to mention how exhausted we were.
You know, making movies is just like any other art form. It's just a way to express yourself and what you're feeling. I have a bit of an anger issue, but I can't always express it the way I want to because I'd probably go to jail. I think that's why we've kind of stepped away from the whole "Kung Fu Comedy" gimmick that we started with way back in the day. You want on-screen violence? We'll give you just that. You want a couple of guys prancing around over a box of cookies and calling that a "fight"? Go take a fucking walk.
LN: It really just started out as a hobby. Like all the other guys in this thing, I grew up with HK action films. As soon as I got a camera in high school, me and my cousins were trying to do choreography from Police Story. It just kept going from there.
It wasn't until much later that I decided to try to do this for real. To be really real with you, what we're doing with Black Scar is the biggest move towards that direction. I don't have the balls to quit my job and move to LA to pursue something I'm most likely not going to achieve, especially considering how minorities in Hollywood stand.
But, as far as being a director goes, I guess that started the moment I picked up a camera, made a video, and put my name on it. Everything else from there is just a matter of whether or not I get paid to do it.
LN: Well, there's no film community in Leesburg where I was raised, nor is there one in Charles Town, West Virginia where I actually live now. I try to stay away from either place as much as possible. The only involvement either one of these places has in film is with historical documentaries and shit. I don't belong here, and I don't see any sort of film future here either. Otherwise, they're not bad towns.
LN: Yeah, I would like to move elsewhere. The only problem is that I have no idea where. Sticking with the 9-to-5 is something I don't want to do by any means, but if it allows me to continue to make movies while these movies don't make any money for me, then I have no choice. I don't really know what'll happen.
LN: When I finally worked my way up to getting the final cut together, no joke, I felt like crying.
I got home, watched the render all the way through, and it left me with this feeling that I never got from watching the previous versions I did. I went out to my garage, lit up a cigarette, and just stood there. The feeling was a mix of relief and shock. It was almost overwhelming.
I was nervous when contacting Circus Road Films. We've been talking here and there for almost a year. I was surprised to hear they were still interested in seeing what we had. To note, Circus Road isn't a distributor, really, but rather a producer rep. They assist filmmakers and represent their films in order to secure distribution. But this is a HUGE step. It's still hard to believe we're at this point.
LN: During the ENTIRE process, the biggest factor was ensuring that the film made sense. That was always my biggest concern. All of the technical aspects like the cinematography, sound, and even the performances, those eventually took a backseat to the story and editing. Even the action scenes, which are usually the hardest and most time-consuming part of an action film, were finished way before the rest of the editing was.
I had most of the parts there, but there were two different stories being told. Getting them to work together and become one was extremely difficult, and solving that became a matter of both technical and creative skill. One scene shot in 2012 had to work with another shot in 2015, etc. You could say this entire production was a mess. But I think this is how I learned my possibly greatest skill as a filmmaker, which is basically getting shit to work that otherwise wouldn't. Voltroning, we call it.
What ultimately lead to the final cut working was dropping the lead actress from the film all together. Once we decided to get rid of her, all those parts that I tried so hard to make work just came together on their own. It was fucking crazy. It was the easiest editing run I've done in the six years we've been working on the film.
Aaron Emmanuel, who pulls double-duty as the character Chauncey in the film, asked me if I was interested in having him do the musical score. We first met way back when this project was first started in 2010. Ed introduced me to him and we were hoping he'd score the film (what we had of it) for us at the time. Flash-forward to now and he entire score was done by him. And it's fucking fantastic. The orignal score I had was great, but I knew I couldn't use it for commercial purposes. I had always used licensed pop music for our movies. I was never interested in getting original stuff done. The more recent cuts had royalty-free tracks on them that worked, and honestly would still be part of the film had Aaron not offered his services. And I'm so glad I took him up on that offer, because the soundtrack he did really solidifies the film. It's amazing.
LN: Compared to the rest of the film, and even to some of the other action scenes we've done on other projects, the finale for Black Scar came together surprisingly easily.
We had been working on and developing our style of screen-fighting for so long, that this scene between him and I seems to be the epitome of all of that. We wanted less HK-style choreography, but we wanted that rhythm. We wanted the rough-and-tumble physically emotive action of Korean cinema, but the camerawork needed to be a tad bit more steady and coherent.
A majority of it was started and finished in 2010, and for a long time the footage we got was set to be the finale. But as soon as the project itself started getting bigger, I knew the finale had to also. So we went back to add more to it in 2013 for one shoot, and then almost exactly a year later in 2014 for one more shoot. But really, given all the time and the span of like, four years to complete this fight scene, it really wasn't all that difficult. Had we not been doing things that lead up to the style of action in this scene, then yeah, it would've been a lot more hard.
LN: Black Scar Blues is a very personal project for me. I think we all definitely learned a lot from it, and for me, having finally completed it is almost like the end of a phase in my life.
I don't expect a lot of people to enjoy it. But it is definitely the kind of film that I would watch, and what I set out to do was to make the kind of film that I would ultimately want to see myself. It's dark. It's gritty and violent, but there's also a heart to it. If the movie-going audience is tired of seeing cardboard cut-out characters going through the motions in by-the-numbers action scenes, then I'd like for them to give Black Scar Blues a shot. I won't guarantee that you'll like it, but I'm hoping there will be some part of the movie that speaks to you.
LN: I'm really not sure. We've got a few things lined up. But I'm really looking forward to seeing what the guys at Circus Road Films can do with Black Scar Blues. In all honesty, if the DVD makes it into the $5 bin at Walmart, I'll be taking selfies there left and right.
One thing is for certain though: filmmaking is our calling, and regardless if we end up making money through this or not, we'll keep on doing the damn thing. Because it's all we got.
LN: My advice to indie, indie-action filmmakers, and artists in general would be to just go out there and do it.
This world is made for those who are willing to abide by its rules and bend over and take it regardless of how well you do what you're told. Fuck that. Seriously. You have one life to live. Life is more than recycling money and procreation and all that nonsense. I don't know how many people I know who have given up on their dreams in order to have a lucrative job doing shit they really could care less about. And what do they do with that money? They buy things, get drunk on the weekends, and cheat in their relationships. They think they're happy, and according to this society's rules, that's happiness. It's so fucking sad.
I've been working at a bullshit customer service job for 10 years now. Yeah, I don't have the balls to leave it just yet, because you know, money is a necessity, as unfortunate as it is. But I'm not looking to die at this job. I'm looking at it as a means to an end. Fuck retiring when you're 67 years old. What the FUCK are you gonna do when you're fucking 67?! And as desperate as I am now, I'm not stupid enough to do anything illegal to make my way. So play the game, but don't ever lose sight of what it is you really want to do.
Nobody gives it to you. You gotta take it. For artists, that's a statement you have to live and die by. And believe me, everyone in your life will tell you to stick with that bullshit 9-to-5, get married, have kids, pay bills, and then die. That's because they don't want you to risk anything to achieve anything greater. Fuck them. Those sterile people live their sterile lives with a sterile sense of "happiness". My narration right at the beginning is all from me. That's not just the character of Roy talking. That's me. Many people, when they die they don't deserve to be remembered because they've done nothing. They've done everything that everyone else has done. That's why art is so powerful and so threatening to the majority who aren't looking to be different.
I'm sorry. I'm ranting. But filmmaking to me means SO MUCH MORE than just making movies. Doing it and being successful, that's my great big FUCK YOU to everyone who was afraid to try and break away from the crowd.
LN: Lee, you're my man. You've been instrumental in getting our name out there. The trailers fro Black Scar got put up on the FilmIsNow YouTube channel, and I'm fucking positive that's because you've been spreading the word about us. I'm forever in your debt, and that special thanks credit I gave to you in the film is the VERY least I could do. Thank you for everything you've done my man. And we're definitely set to head to the UAS this year, and I've already spoken to Demitrius [Angelo] about screening Black Scar Blues there. We'll see you in November, brother.