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Interview de Bruce Baron

Si nous aimons rire d'un certain cinéma déviant, nous sommes très loin de mépriser les hommes et les femmes qui s'y sont impliqués ou compromis. Il nous a ainsi paru enrichissant de faire raconter le nanar et son univers par les gens qui l'ont vécu de l'intérieur. La diversité des intervenants et de leurs réponses nous a rendu encore plus proches du cinéma que nous aimons : vous découvrirez, au fil des entretiens que ces différentes vedettes ont bien voulu nous accorder, des informations précieuses pour le cinéphile et le cinéphage, des anecdotes cocasses et, en esquisse, le portrait attachant de personnages souvent hauts en couleur.
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Bruce Baron

Bruce Baron was a riddle for us during a long time : this Caucasian actor appeared during the eighties in a great number of Asian B-movies, managing to act in some of the most utterly insane flicks ever. Lead actor of Philippines-made Ramboid actioners, mustachioed ninja in Godfrey Ho's bottom-of-the-barrel films, barbarian from beyond in Ruggero Deodato's "Atlantis interceptors", slimy drug smuggler in "Overdose" made by French schlockmeister Jean-Marie Pallardy, Bruce had the most bizarre career before disappearing from the screens in 1989. The most contradictory legends ran amok on the internet : one site described him as a British-born martial artist, another mentioned his death in Sweden from an overdose of diet products... We knew nothing about him, except that he was still alive, judging from the angry e-mails he sent to websites relaying the legend of his death.

We were of course flabbergasted and overjoyed when a French-speaking Bruce Porter Baron wrote us to fill the gaps the bio we had written about him! With biting humour, Bruce gave us some truly fascinating and unheard-of infos about his career as a Caucasian actor in Asia and the world of Oriental B-movies. And there it is, ladies and gentlemen, the ultimate Bruce Baron interview, exclusive full and uncut!

Interview menée par Team Nanarland

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?

You seem particularly affectionate to Asia (some reports state that you studied martial arts there and have a black belt in karate : is that true?). Most of your acting career took place on that continent. What brought you there? Was acting / modeling your only professional activity or did you have another one in Asia?

How did you meet Tsui Hark, with whom you made two films, including your first, « Dangerous encounters (of the ?) first kind » a.k.a. « Don't play with fire » in 1981. How was the work with this reportedly very energetic director?

[In answer to your first 3 questions]
I first went to the Orient as a child, in 1960, aged 10, with my family, when my father moved to HK to work. I went to a Chinese school there, and learned to speak Cantonese. I was sent to boarding school in the States for my last 2 years of high school and for my University education, returning to HK during summer vacations from 65-71. So basically, apart from boarding school and College I grew up in HK.

On December 31st 1972, when I was 22, my father was murdered in his office in HK. No one has ever found out by whom or why. I was a suspect and HK was a small town in those days, so I left as soon as I was cleared, and started travelling. My travels took me to Hawaii, Tahiti and the west coast of the USA, where I held various non professional jobs. I returned to HK often during the rest of the 70's and eventually moved back there in Jan. 1980, at the age of 30.

Tsui Hark

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].

« Dragon Force » is your first ‘lead character' role. You acted with Bruce Li in that film. What are your memories of it?

Bruce Li

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”.

Ho Jung To [Bruce Li] was a good guy and tried to mentor me. Michael Mak, the director, was a bit of a spoiled brat. He was the younger brother of the executive producer. Terrence, the line producer has gone on to make lots of big time Hollywood films with the likes of John Wu, Jet Li and Jacky Chan. I think it was his first feature.

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 wouldn't call K.Y. unscrupulous. He was just very parsimonious, and an unsympathetic, hard nosed Chinese businessman. He was in it strictly for the money. He didn't lie, or blow smoke up your ass about making you a star, and he had no pretensions about what he was doing, or even trying to make serious films. He offered you a job, settled on a fee, and he made the film when he said he would. He paid you the money he said he would, when he said he would, without trying to fuck you, [literally, there are an awful lot of queer Filipino producers], or fuck you around. Compared to most other Filipino producers that made him a true prince among men.

His films were consistently made for well under US$50K [all in], shot in less than 28 days, and marketed as “Cannon fodder”. K.Y. would take them to Cannes or Milan and sell them to Golan & Globus at Cannon who would package them as freebies together with their Rambo or other big films as a marketing ploy [when distributors complained that they were charging too much for territorial sales of their big action films, Cannon would throw in 2 or 3 of these little Kinavesa cuties for free, as if to make their other big films seem a better deal].

At that time most of the Kinavesa quickies were directed by Teddy Page [whose real name was Teddy Chiu, a Philippine Chinese kid in his early 20's at the time] and Jun Gallardo, a local cameraman / director in his forties. I remember both of them being good guys, just trying to make a living to support their families in a very third world environment. Most of the actors you mention, along with me, formed part of a loose sort of ‘troupe' that they would draw on to make the films. I made 4 of them and would have done more, because I had rented a choice pad on Roxas Blvd. [overlooking Manila Bay and the Playboy club pool deck] for US$100/month, and was always looking for an excuse to use it. I probably would have done more of them, but for the fact that every time Richard [Harrison] appeared in one he ate up 50% of the whole budget, and they wouldn't have enough left over to pay me a “decent” wage. K.Y. and Teddy would approach one or all of us to do certain parts in the films, [in my case they would call me in HK, and send a ticket if I said yes]. If I was available in terms of scheduling, and they would pay enough money, I would do it. My going rate for Kinavesa was US$2000 a film and a round trip airfare from HK.

Richard Harrison

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.

The Filipino crews were way more sympathetic than the Chinese, and of course spoke English as well. It was on one of these productions that I first met Richard Harrison, but I only did one or two films with him because he used to get paid a lot more than any of the rest of ‘the troupe'. He would eat up so much of the budget that K.Y. could seldom afford both me and him in the same film. He was flown out from Italy, mostly with his wife, paid better and put up in a decent hotel because he had more name recognition with Golan/Globus than any of the others of us. My impression is that all of us except Richard were pretty much living hand to mouth and did the films to survive and for fun, rather than for any great love of the art of film making. Lets face it, there wasn't much art involved beyond staying sane, and sober enough not to get hurt in a fight scene, or by the pyrotechnics, and chase scenes in beat up old cars that couldn't pass a road inspection, even in the Philippines [bald tires make more dramatic skids].

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