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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. [Bruce Baron eventually died from cancer in April 2013, at the age of 63]
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!
This interview was conducted in May 2005 by 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.
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.
Bruce in "Don't Play With Fire" (1980).
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 (Ho Chung Tao) in that film. What are your memories of it?
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.
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].
In these Filipino films, we often seen the same Caucasian / American actors, such as Mike Monty, Jim Gaines or Nick Nicholson. Did you keep in touch with any of them?
Nope. Don't forget, there was only so much work. It was very much a zero sum game. We were competitors. If Mike Monty did a job for US$1000 or US$1500, it very likely meant US$2K out of my pocket. I believe he often took the work at lower pay than me, if it was offered, just to survive. Usually K.Y. rotated the lead roles irrespective of pay levels, because he couldn't have all the films with the same unknowns as leads. But more than once Mike did jobs offered first to me, just because he was cheaper, or they wouldn't have to pay his airfare. I based myself out of HK because it was a much more mature economy, where it was actually possible to earn enough to save some money, and it definitely kept me from becoming perceived as one of the local bums, or ever falling completely to the producer's mercy.
Actually, I'm surprised you never seem to mention the likes of Don Gordon Bell or Romano Kristoff, who were two other Manila actors' who seemed to do a lot of work [maybe that's just because they never attained the notoriety of getting sucked in by IFD]. They were much better friends of mine than Mike Monty, and we had made an informal pact that we wouldn't work for less than US$2K for a lead in one of K.Y.'s films. Romano especially was the real deal. He was Spanish, ex Legion Etrangere, and a serious Martial Artist. He worked very hard at having a film career, and seemed to work a lot. The fact that he was able to survive full time in Manila, without seeming to get stuck in the mire, was always a source of wonder and amazement to me
Most of the local Caucasian extras in the Philippines were just unrepentant bums. They were often alcoholics and pot heads that had gone to the Philippines to chase cheap beer, pot and pussy, and ended up marooned in Manila, too broke to scrape together enough to leave.
My Impression was that most of them weren't that serious about film at all. It was just a stop gap, a way to earn a crust without taking a real job, which they couldn't get for lack of skills and/or a work permit. Often they had got some local girl pregnant and got mired in a cycle of guilt and responsibility, and couldn't earn enough to pay their way out of it. Understand, the Philippines are truly a third world economy. If you get relegated onto that economic level it is really hard to make enough money to extricate yourself, especially if you have created moral or financial responsibilities for yourself in that environment, or overstayed.
One of the biggest problems these guys used to get into was overstaying their visas. Legally it wasn't that bad, but to get an exit visa after you had overstayed, you had to pay a fine of 100 Pesos a day [US$5] for every day of overstaying. Foreigners couldn't get any straight job without a work permit, which were only issued overseas with lots of documentation, prior to arrival. So a lot of these guys were stuck in a vicious Catch 22 cycle. They couldn't get a real job without a work permit and they couldn't earn enough to pay for their exit visa without a real job, and the fine mounted daily. The extras on those films were paid 100 pesos a day [US$5] plus room and board if on location [double occupancy in a bamboo shack without plumbing and all the fish and rice you can eat with a bottle of San Miguel]. That was the same they would pay the locals, who would be happy to take the jobs if they were fair haired enough to pass as Caucasians. Consequently there were a lot of down and out types working on these movies as extras [no work permit required] but they weren't making nearly enough to break the cycle.
I often amused myself by counting how many times I could kill the same extra in a different costume in a single film. My record was 41. His name was Mad' Mel. He was a smuggler by trade, who got thrown out of Nepal for being a homosexual paedophile. He used to bring his little boys on location with him in Manila. The last I heard of him was doing a 15 year stretch in Japan for trying to smuggle a key of hash into Fukuoka, on the ferry from Shanghai. He was pretty much typical of the types of guys who worked as extras on those films.
The guys whose names you mention were certainly better off than the extras, but often not much from what I could see. Some at least pretended to take it seriously, as if they honestly believed that this was going to lead them into stardom, somewhere along the line. I think mostly they did it out of laziness, for the fun, the pussy, and the notoriety. Even the day players with lines only made about US$20/day. It's only enough to get by if you are living the vida local, eating fish and rice and staying in a shanty deep in some third world slum. But if that is the only job you can get you're screwed, because it surely wasn't like they could find work every day. A few days a month at best.
Mike Monty worked hard at it and took it [a little too] seriously, I thought, considering how lousy the films were. I think he married a Filipina, at least partially to beat the visa problem. Jim Gaines, I think, was half Filipino, half American with dual citizenship. Nicholson, I think was in the mire. Romano Kristoff and Don Gordon, were writing scripts as well as acting, and trying to produce. Both were pretty seriously committed, not that it seems to have done either of them much good. If you take a look at their filmographies as published on the web, it seems all the work fizzled in the early 90s. Is anybody making these films anymore?
While I admit, I originally took the work in the [vain] hope that it might lead to something better [and to justify keeping the flat on Roxas Blvd.], that illusion was quickly shattered by the first Kinavesa film. It was obviously worse than the stuff I had been doing in HK. When I stopped doing film I had no reason to follow-up with those guys, who I felt were chasing a dream to their own destruction. After all, by then none of us was getting any younger or any prettier. I wouldn't mind catching up with Don or Romano, but I haven't been to Manila in 15 years. My wife doesn't like me going there, for obvious reasons, and I don't have any real excuse to go. If you have email for them Id love to have the addresses.
Nick Nicholson and Jim Gaines.
In « Fireback », you worked with one of our favourite actors, Richard Harrison, whom you may also have met on the sets of Godfrey Ho's ninja flicks. What memories do you have of him? Harrison told us that he felt manipulated by Ho and Lai and that these films which were distributed worldwide permanently damaged his career and reputation. Was it the same for you? To what extent did these movies damage your career?
As I said earlier, I met Richard Harrison under the auspices of Kinavesa, in the Philippines. I never worked with him under the auspices of Ho & Lai [I think they hired me after they fucked him over and he wouldn't work for them anymore]. It is only from your site that I learned that they [years] later cut some footage of him and some footage of me into the same film' [Flic ou Ninja]. That is yet another example of how IFD rehashed footage, and re-released it as a new' film |2 or 3 years after both of us had long refused to have anything to do with them].
Richard was easy to get along with, though of a completely different generation [quite a bit older] than I. I only did one or two films with him [only at Kinavesa] and very few scenes. I think he was the good guy and I was the bad guy in one and vice versa in another [can't remember, really]. I think it was one week's shooting where we did scenes for two films, scheduled overlapping. We only had 3 or 4 scenes together, [usually in the finale confrontations and final shoot outs]. I enjoyed hearing his stories about working in Hollywood in the old days and in Rome at Cinecitta. We didn't hang out together off the set, as I was a bachelor and he was always with his wife.
I only did one set' of films for Ho & Lai [Whore & Lie, would be more appropriate]. When I found out what was going on, I offered to take a 50% cut in pay if they would not use my real name, but they refused. While I doubt they much damaged my career' [let's face it, nobody ever saw those films] they certainly didn't help it at all, and they ripped me off, by re-releasing the films under different names and intercutting the same footage into god knows how many other titles, marketing them under our names, and without paying [any of us] a cent. This would be less annoying to me if they had paid more or made even the slightest attempt to make a decent film, or paid us again when they re-released and rehashed the footage. My only consolation is they ripped off everybody and not just me, right down to any idiot distributor who ever bought any one of their films [did anyone, ever?] and anybody who ever bought or rented a copy of one. Richard may have been worse damaged by the films than I was simply because he was much better known and had more of a reputation to protect. Also, I think they screwed him on the money [never paid him what they had contracted] and threatened to fuck him up with the HK authorities, which if he had known better, he would have called their bluff on. There is/was no ban on foreign actors or crew working without work permits temporarily in HK [in fact, there is a specific exception, to help promote HK as a location for foreign films to come and shoot], and I believe the taxes on what he actually got paid would have been fairly negligible.
I find it especially annoying that most of these Ninja Movie internet sites tend to lend Ho & Lai some kind of credibility as film makers. They were just crooks, totally unethical and unrepentant hacks. Their only contribution to film making was a demonstration of how laziness and a certain ingenuity in rehashing old footage could allow a film producer to plumb new depths of ethical bankruptcy. In the process they set a gold standard for how low an unethical producer can sink with a little stock footage and a complete lack of scruples.
We'd like to be sure that we understand perfectly the chronology of your career. Apparently, you first worked in HK (making commercials, working for Shaw Brothers and then Tsui Hark), then went to the Philippines, then came back to Hong Kong to make these awful ninja movies. Is that right?
More or less. The filmography I sent you is in chronological order, and complete to the best of my memory. But suffice to say I was in Asia, based mostly in HK, and flying down to the Philippines, or to locations wherever. I kept a flat in Manila, even though I was only there a few months a year, because it was a great pad and extremely cheap to live there relatively well, compared to HK. I actually did quite a few TV commercials in the Philippines, Thailand and Indonesia as well. Don't forget, excluding mainland China, S.E. Asia is a pretty small neighbourhood, and Manila is only an hour away from HK. Your original filmography, [and many others on the net] have me credited with a Japanese film of the 70s, called Seishun No Mon aka The Gate of Youth by Kiriro Urayama. For the record, I was not associated with that film, in any way [except erroneously in various internet filmographys]. I never did a movie until the 80s, and I never did a film in Japan or in Japanese, or for a Japanese production company. Please rectify that error, on your site. As to the section on IFD, I mention the titles they told me about.
You next appeared in « Atlantis interceptors », an Italian-produced film shot in the Philippines by Ruggero Deodato. How were you hired? How was the work with Deodato, who doesn't have the reputation to be a very easy person?
I was in the P.I., shooting other stuff, or just hanging out, and was sent around by my local agent for a casting call. Deodato was OK. I was a small fry in that script, just the lead Bad Guy. He had an ensemble of unknown B movie American actors who were trying to be big shots on that movie |to abuse], and he was satisfied with just making me wear that infernal plastic helmet in the Bataan sun for a week. For the record, he did not make me wear the helmet as an afterthought [after finding me a lousy actor, per your original bio]. It was always in the script, and was considered necessary because of the death sequence of the character, whose head was spectacularly exploded in the finale |shot at Cinecitta in Rome without me present]. Before shooting began, the first thing we did was make a prosthetic mold of my head, for use in the death scene, and the fake head they made from it wasn't good enough to be seen directly by the camera.
You also worked with Antonio Margheriti on « Code Name Wild Geese » (Arcobaleno Selvaggio), which has quite an impressive cast. How was it to work with such genre veterans as Antonio Margheriti / Anthony Dawson, Lee Van Cleef, Klaus Kinski, Ernest Borgnine etc.?
That film was a real pleasure. One of the few times I actually enjoyed the process. I had my collarbone broken early in the shoot, when some idiot German TV actor jumped out of a hovering helicopter [off cue] and landed on me [he was wearing a gas mask, and claimed he couldn't see me standing below him, and forgot his directions to pause in the door, while we who were in the first wave out the door took positions below]. Maybe the highpoint of my movie career was having [Oscar winner] Ernest Borgnine offer to tie my shoe laces one morning on the set, [to keep me from breaking my neck] because I couldn't manage it myself with the broken collar bone. Kinski was a great actor, and a terrific pain in the ass. He was a complete coke freak, and caused lots of primadonna type problems
you couldn't take him anywhere because he was such an ass grabber it was completely embarrassing, and fights broke out wherever he went between locals and his bodyguards. He was on course to a [real] shooting in super macho Manila. They had to hire an Italian named Mauricio to keep him coked up to his eyes, knee deep in whores, and away from the set, so he wouldn't be a problem. They only brought him to the set when absolutely necessary. Van Cleef was completely past it. He did a case of beer before lunch, and was drunk daily by noon. He had to have all his scenes scheduled before lunch or he was useless. By contrast, Borgnine was a consummate pro through and through, and a real pleasure to be around. Same for Margheriti, whom I remember very affectionately as creating a fantastic atmosphere, almost magically, just by being very calm and assured, no matter what happy horseshit was in the fan. Likewise, Lewis Collins was a pleasure to be around, both on and off the set. I learned a lot on that film, just watching those guys [and by contrast, Kinski]. We shot it on the old Apocalypse Now set at Lake Caliraya in Pagsanjan.
Klaus Kinski, Ernest Borgnine... and Bruce Baron!
Standing next to Lee Van Cleef.
You then don't appear in another movie before 1986 and the shooting of « The Legend of the Golden Pearl » a.k.a. « The Legend of Wisely », an entertaining big budget movie with an interesting role for you. Is it a film you appreciate? Do you think this kind of David Lean / Indiana Jones adventure films were more suited to your talent than the actioners you usually made?
Well, obviously it is always better fun to shoot big budget with pros than small films with the likes of Ho & Lai. And anything that didn't rely on kung fu was more to my liking [I always said I wanted to play one film from start to finish in a clean tuxedo, without a fight scene, but I never got to]. We shot that film on locations around Giza & Sakkara at the Egyptian pyramids, at a huge Mosque in Cairo, in the Mustang Valley in western Nepal and in a studio in HK. But there were some major screw ups on that film too. One day in August [45C in the shade] in Sakkara, the camera assistant managed to let the [US$100K] rented Panavision camera fall off the big legs, and it landed on its cassette, which popped open and spewed exposed film all over the desert. It would have almost been funny if it hadn't been my intro scenes with close ups in the cassette, and he hadn't then dropped the heavy tripod on my foot in his mad scramble for the camera. The falling tripod's heavy metal head landed on my foot. The corner poked a hole through my shoe, and broke my foot. It continued bleeding through the hole in the top of my shoe, for the rest of the day, as we reshot the scenes in fading light with the back up Bollei, and no sound.
We apologize for insisting on the embarrassing « Godfrey Ho's ninjas » episode, but we'd like to know more about the methods of these producers. Who appeared to be the real brain behind those ninja scam operations: Godfrey Ho or Joseph Lai? Did Godfrey Ho give you any kind of script to work with? How was he on the set? When did you realize what was going on? Did Godfrey Ho give you real dialogue to work with or did you and the other actors more or less improvised on the set? Did you dub yourself for the English version?
I don't mind. Those guys deserve to be reviled and exposed for the unreconstructed hacks they were [are]. All the Whore and Lie [Ho and Lai] footage I was in was shot within a single 3 week period, on stolen locations in HK [mostly in Kowloon Park, 5 min. walking distance from their now burnt out office]. We would work out a fight choreography, put on a ninja costume and shoot it, then rotate the camera 45 degrees to change the background, change to a different colour costume and shoot the same choreography again. Then rotate the camera again 45 degrees, change costume to a 3rd colour and shoot the same choreography again. 4 times for every choreography, once at every point of the compass, in a different colour costume. I think this was the original reason for such bright colour ninja costumes, so it looked completely different when cut into different [or the same] films [and I am not sure they even bothered to cut them into different stock and old footage]. Sometimes they used the same old stock, and just gave them different titles, packaged them in different box covers and resold them as new films, year after year. Most annoying though, is they did this while maintaining the pretension that they intended to make half way decent kung fu films. I don't think there were any real brains' between the two. They surely never made any real money. They were both just small time exploitative opportunists who were not capable of [or were just too lazy to do] better. The crews were among the roughest and most dangerous I have ever had the ill fortune to work with, with a lot of low level triad thugs moonlighting as grips.
There was no script I ever saw, except for the obligatory character intro scenes, which were in broken English and delivered on the day, written in longhand on a single page. That resulted in some improvisation, because of the broken English, but they were not shooting SoF, not even a guide track, so who knows what they had the dubbing guys read into the loops [?] I was not invited to do any dubbing [which in HK is a whole other thing with set pro' crews who are paid weekly to do dubbing by the studios they work at]. I wouldn't be surprised if they used the same dialogue scenes over and over with different dubbed dialogue, so they could put it in different films.
I realized part of what was going on when they called a wrap, 3 weeks into shooting. I had expected that we would be working for at least 3 months, instead of 3 weeks, since I was contracted for 4 titles and was paid a weekly rate. When we finished so quickly, I asked how it was possible, since we had so little footage in the can. Then Ho explained his method'. It was at that point that I offered to take a 50% cut in pay if he wouldn't use my name. It wasn't until years later that I found out approximately how many titles they would release incorporating parts of the footage, again and again. It was an especially bad rip off, because I had negotiated the weekly rate cheaper than normal because I thought [and they negotiated on the basis] that I was going to get at least 12 weeks of work instead of 3. It is hard to say without buying and watching their complete library, but I think they eventually released 10 or 12 titles crediting me as the lead, using parts of that footage interspersed with stock and remnants pirated from other productions.
As an aside: I have my own theory about one of the reasons why the continuity in these [and even the Kinavesa films] was consistently so bad, which you may find amusing. None of these Chinese producers ever spoke any but the most rudimentary English. When they went to see real Hollywood action adventure films, I think they never really understood the plot twists because they couldn't understand the dialogue. So they ascribed their own lack of understanding of the plot twists to [what they felt must be] continuity problems in the Hollywood flick's plot or script, and they perceived it as some kind of artistic style or licence being exercised by the Hollywood film makers [thus they thought it was actually stylish and artistic to have continuity and script inconsistency problems in their films] I believe this because I tried many times to have them shoot a little scene of a telephone conversation to some OS character, that would explain some glaring script inconsistency, and was always told no, we don't need it, it would hurt the pacing.
The producers of these films were often anonymous, or hiding behind pseudonyms. The burning of the Filmark / IFD studios and the mysterious death of the person known as Tomas Tang (apparently, that name was used by several people, including Ho himself...) seem to indicate that Ho's business had a more sinister side than we guessed. Did you have any suspicion about this, and do you know anything about the Tomas Tang case?
The Filmark / IFD studios' was a dirty little office with cubicles and a cutting room on the 7th floor of a cheap old high rise on Nathan road in Kowloon. It was less than 500 sq. feet total space. We shot the plot intro' scenes in it. I know about the fire in that building, because I was in HK when it happened. It was a really bad fire. Many people died. The fire started in the bottom of an elevator shaft where there were workmen doing repairs. It spread quickly up the shaft, often skipping floors, because they had wedged the doors open on different floors, for ventilation.
Most of the deaths were on the 2nd , 3rd and top 4 floors of the building. I do not know if anyone was listed as dead on their floor. However, I would not be surprised at all if Ho or Lai tried to profit through some sort of fraudulent insurance claim using the fire as a pretext. I find it infinitely more likely they might try to claim one of their own aliases as a dead employee, to make a fraudulent insurance or compensation claim, than that they had anything directly to do with the starting of the fire, which was extensively investigated by the authorities, and reported on in depth in local papers and TV.
Could you briefly elaborate about the other Caucasian actors you worked with in HK: Stuart Smith, Pierre Tremblay, etc? Were they professional actors? Were they aware of what was going on and did they take their acting jobs seriously? Have you kept in touch with any of them? We heard that Pierre Tremblay was from Québec and became a music producer there, do you know if that is true? We also heard Stuart Smith came from Australia, is that correct?
Don't know them, really [not that I remember, anyway]. I got the impression they were just passing through HK. I think I met Stuart Smith once, and probably Tremblay, when I killed them both three or four times in one day [I think they played parts in one of the fight scenes during my IFD experience]. I'm pretty sure they weren't professional actors, though they may have been serious about martial arts [unlike me]. Not that it means much, but I never saw them on any other productions and I'm pretty sure they were earning less than US$50/day as IFD extras [and, if IFD was the only producer they ever worked for, how could they possibly take it seriously without being completely self delusional?]. They may have become lionized, or made famous, more by [yours and] these completely silly Ninja / Kung Fu movie websites, rather than by anything else, much in the same way I appear to have been [I really was quite flabbergasted to discover last year (on the internet) that anyone knew (or cared a damn) about my silly film career', even as a joke].
How were you hired for « Overdose »? What are your memories of that film, of director Jean-Marie Pallardy and of your co-stars Gordon Mitchell and Laura Albert? You apparently speak French to some degree, and your character speaks in the French version with a heavy accent, did you dub yourself?
I was in Brussels winter 88-89, supposedly to do inserts, pick-ups and re-shoots for my last film, Cruel Horizon [produced and directed by Guy Lee Thys, who is one of the very few personalities from my film career with whom I am still in regular contact]. We were continuously having problems with the financing of the film, and I ended up having to spend the whole winter in Belgium. Guy got me the job with Pallardy to help convince me to stay in all winter for just room and board, but without pay, and to get us all sent off to the Costa del Sol in January [where it snowed for the first time in 15 years]. I remember Gordon Mitchell as a fading icon with an enormous head, and a striking profile, playing the godfather' role. Laura Albert I assume was the American girl who played the female lead [?] She was a young bimbo L.A. who thought she had hit the big time. She didn't talk to lowly bit players such as me. I don't think she even knew I spoke English. Otherwise it was a pretty typical crew. A gang of alcoholic Spanish electros and grips [drinking Armagnac at 5a.m.], a gang of star struck French stagieres, working for nothing, and a few old pros [the 1st AD, the sound guy, and the set dresser, and parts of the cast]. I didn't realize Pallardy had such a rep until I read your review of him. He seemed OK to me. The script was obviously exploitative crap, but at least there was one, and a copy in English too! I didn't care. It was a decent hotel, good Spanish food, great sherry, and cheap hash from Algeceiras [a paid vacation in the south of Spain]. I think I shot my part SoF in French [can't really remember]. I didn't dub it. I often speak French with an exaggerated American accent, just to annoy French men, and because French girls seem to like it [the same way American girls like to hear Frenchmen speak English with a strong French accent]. I know Pallardy was amused by my French, so he might have had someone dub it that way on purpose. He at least has a sense of humour and didn't take himself too seriously, as I remember.
You played a part in « Dallas ». How did you find yourself hired on that shoot? That series allowed you to join the Screen Actor Guild. Did you work so little in your country of origin because of a deliberate choice, or for lack of opportunity?
I got hired for that shoot because I was basically the house stunt actor at Salon Films in HK during that period. Salon was the Panavision agent in HK / P.I / Thailand, so they did all the HK shoots that used Panavision. They did a lot of commercial work and I got hired whenever they needed somebody to do a stunt or wear a funky costume in a commercial, and I did a ton of work with them [my face was by then too over exposed to do most straight commercial work for HK TV, but I was friends with the House directors and crew]. They called me to the casting, and I could fake a Texas accent, and it was a union shoot, and I had got enough lines to qualify to join SAG [to join you need to have performed a minimum number of lines of spoken dialogue in a single Union shoot, and in most cases they will not hire a non member for those roles unless forced by circumstance].
SAG Union shoots are very rare in HK [or anywhere else except USA]. That one just happened to be, so it allowed me to qualify to join SAG. It was the only opportunity I ever had in Asia. I never got an opportunity to shoot a single day of work under Union rules, and never actually joined.
The shooting of « Cruel horizon » was apparently a troubled one and you had to direct part of it. Could you tell us a bit more about this cursed film?
The film was eventually sponsored by the Belgian Ministry of Culture. I met the producer / director, Guy Lee Thys, at a reception in the Belgian Embassy in Manila in 84, when I was dragged along there by a Filipino chick I was going out with, who was paid to appear as a model at a fashion show that they had at the reception. Guy was in Manila, scouting locations for the film and trying to get laid. We hit it off and I started hanging out with him, introducing him to the local glitterati and generally misbehaving Manila style, pre- AIDS. About a year later ['85] he got enough sponsorship to shoot a few scenes, mostly from Stella Artois®, which he intended to string together as a trailer' to use as a promo to get full sponsorship. He cast me in the lead and cast the other major roles with Filipino locals, including one chick named Jesse Elmido, [a newcomer] as female lead, who happened to be the best looking chick that he managed to screw during his previous sojourn [he eventually married her and lived to regret it, but that is another story]. Anyway we shot for about 10 days, using my famous Roxas Blvd. pad as the production office and interiors set.
Then he disappeared back to Europe to find the money, and didn't turn up again until fall of 1988, when we shot 45 days of principal photography, mostly along the Batangas coast. By this time he was living with Jesse and devastatingly drunk most of the time. She actually encouraged his drinking because it made him easier for her to manage' him. More than once he had to go sleep it off in the middle of the day, and that meant somebody had to take over, or we lost the day. One love scene he didn't want to direct because Jesse was nude in bed with me and the script called for me to play with her tits. He got jealous and drunk and passed out. It was in the studio and we were set up and we had to do it, so I just called sound and action and we did it. That was how it started, I think. The precious little Belgian A.D. was too wrapped up in his own little job and unwilling to accept responsibility, so I did. Surely the film suffered for it in a few scenes, because I had no direction, and was not up to the task of acting and directing at the same time. It only happened a few times.
It wasn't a simple film. It was a documentary / drama set in Thailand about Vietnamese refugees being forced into white slavery in Thailand, loosely based on news clippings and other reports of horror stories from Thailand, shot SoF and 35mm, with a full imported Belgian crew. Eventually, we wrapped and he took it off to Belgium for post. Turned out we needed a few more scenes, which we didn't get to shoot until the winter of '89 in Belgium. When released, it had a few days of theatrical release in Belgium and went straight to video. Thus ended my illustrious film career.
In two different productions, you seem to have used your knowledge of the French language: you played a French ambassador (imagine how excited we were to learn that!) in « Lord of East China Sea » and co-produced at least one episode of « Joy in love », a serie made fot TV with porn actress Zara Whites. Could you tell us more about these productions? Did you also play a part in « Joy »?
Sorry, while I did play the French Ambassador in Lord of East China Sea, I spoke Chinese SoF. As for Joy in Love I was a line producer and second unit director [they let me direct the fight scenes]. Mostly I was just translating French/Chinese/French for crew and cast. It was a largely French TV crew shooting soft porn in Macau. The principal cast was imported. I did not play a part in front of the camera. [Nanarland: since this interview, we could check that Mr. Baron does instead appear, in a brief cameo as a fashion photographer, and chews the scenery like there is no tomorrow. He does, however, keep his clothes on]
Bruce taking photos of Zara Whites in "Joy in Hong Kong" (1992), one of his very last appearances on screen.
In the biographical notice you wrote for the IMDB, you end with those ironic words: Retired [unsuccessfully] from the cinema at the tender age of 40 [before it was too late], got a real job and made some money. Where do you live nowadays and what are your professional activities? Did you stay in Asia or go back to America?
I am running a small Asia wide business I got into in HK in the early 90s and living mostly on the Big Island of Hawaii. I have kept a small flat in HK and return there 3-4 times a year for my business, which has nothing to do with the film industry.
Many ridiculous legends were spread about you on the internet, including the report of your death in Sweden in 1986 because of an overdose of diet products! How do you explain this and where did it origin?
I have no idea how that story got started. Perhaps it was started by Godfrey Ho in an attempt to boost his sales [?]. I speculate that the Ninja internet site personality known a Garaijan' may be responsible, and I further suspect that Garaijan may be yet another pseudonym for Godfrey Ho [Garaijan roughly translates phonetically from some Chinese dialects as Fake person']. When I first noticed these reports I thought it was somewhat amusing [and after all, I did get to use the famous Mark Twain riposte Rumours of my death are exaggerated and premature] but alas, as it was picked up on more of those ridiculous Ninja sites it became a little annoying, not the least because it had me dead of an overdose of drugs
and diuretics of all things. The fact is I never formally studied Martial Arts and never took part in any martial arts tournament of any kind. Although I have been to Sweden, I can assure you I did not die there, nor did I compete in any MA Tournament there. I was of course reasonably fit, and had some weeks of Martial tutelage in prep for Dragon Force, and occasionally during later films, but mostly it was film choreography, to me.
Looking back, what are your best memories of your film career and the achievement you are the most proud of? What kind of movies do you like? Did you have any actors who were role models for you when you started your career?
I'm afraid I can't say I'm truly proud of any of the films I participated in, although some are definitely less embarrassing than others, and most I have never seen. I suppose the only thing I can be proud of is that I survived that period of my life pretty much intact, and managed to come out of it, without any serious injuries, mentally or physically. I also lived through it all without any lapses into serious self delusion. I knew I was being lazy, and probably chasing an unrealizable dream, and I never lost sight of that fact, but just went along for the ride [hey, I figured that as long as people were foolish enough to keep calling me up and asking me to do leads, and paying me the going rate for doing it, I was willing to go along with it, just for the ride; but I never, after Dragon Force, ever really thought I had much chance of it really going anywhere. It was just the path of least resistance].
In retrospect, I [now] like Dragon Force for its pure silly Kitsch. Kill Bill 2 helped me to see that, and get over my initial disappointment with it. I actually find it fun and funny to watch nowadays, although at the time it came out I was very disappointed in it. Probably the most fun to make were those silly films for Kinavesa, because of the camaraderie on set [we were all getting fucked over, and couldn't do much about it except grin and bear it and see who could fuck the most the actresses', and drink the most beer and still get up in the morning]. Even though at the time it was frustrating to be doing such crap, knowing it was crap, and not being able to do anything about it.
I like lots of different kinds of films. My favourite directors are probably Tarantino and Kurazawa. My favourite films, if I had to choose, are probably Pulp Fiction' and Darzu Alzala'.
The first time I worked with any actors who were actually role models was probably on Wild Geese. [Borgnine vs. Kinski], and that was already midway through my career'.
Pretty sad, isn't it? Definitely a cautionary tale. So, for any star struck young kid here is my advice: [if you must,] start seriously in your teens, go to a good acting school, graduate from University, and if you aren't making a good living by the time you are 30, FIND SOMETHING ELSE TO DO.