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Along with our interviews with Bill Mills and Jimmy Williams, this interview is one of the three we made to learn more about the making of Shadow of the Dragon. In addition to working as the fight coordinator and second unit director on this crazy movie, Tommy Bull also played Thorne, the bad guy's right-hand man. The son of a boxer, he practiced the noble art himself and studied the martial arts from an early age, excelling in the Thai style of Wa-Lu, winning bouts in several World championships in kickboxing, before he retired from competition in 1994. He also worked as a bounty hunter, participating in the popular show America's Most Wanted. As an actor and/or second unit director, he notably worked with Robert Clouse (Force Five), on two Italian films shot in Florida (Fabrizio De Angelis' Karate Warrior 2 and Umberto Lenzi's Cop Target), and crossed the path of many actors we appreciate on Nanarland (Richard Norton, Benny Urquidez, Gerald Okamura, Ted Prior, Robert Ginty, Charles Napier, Don "the Dragon" Wilson, Eric Lee, Gary Daniels, Malcom McDowell, Robert Z'Dar, Joe Estevez or David Carradine). He keeps very bad memories of his working in Shadow of the Dragon, and his testimony cast a rather sharp light on the shooting conditions.
Interview conducted on February the 4th of 2014 by John Nada.
How did you get to work on Shadow of the Dragon?
Well, it was in the 80's and at that time I was in Florida, working on the Miami Vice TV series. At some point I had a short break, and flew to California to make an interview for an action movie produced by Concorde Pictures [Nanarland: owned by Roger Corman]. While I was there, I met Jimmy Williams. Jimmy told me about a movie he was going to make, and he offered me a first billed and co-starring role, and to direct second unit. I didn't know anything about the project, and didn't know it was gonna be so bad either, but I decided I would do it. Some time later, I flew again from Florida to California, no script in my hands, I get to the airport and there's this old guy – Sandy Palm, who's also in the movie – picking me up in an old beat-up car that was smoking up a storm, with the exhaust fumes flying around it. He told me we were going to the studio, right on location, and he handed me the screenplay to read when I couldn't see through the fumes. And here I am, trying to comprehend what was in the screenplay so I had something prepared to get on the set, and I could barely breath, much less see what I was trying to read. And I remember asking Sandy "Ok, what do we do when we get there, what's the first thing to start with, what's the set ups, where are we going with this?" "Oh I don't know, you'll have to figure it out once we get there." It was so wild, I had never seen anything like it. That's when I realized it was gonna be a challenge.
How did the shooting go?
It was tough, we had no money to work with, very low production value. The shooting was so primitive, I had to do set ups for about 65 scenes with only one old camera which was at least 50 years old, and maneuver it without all the fancy things to get this movie done. And then Jimmy Williams, the director, went sick. His health wasn't very good at all. He went to the hospital for a couple of weeks, had all kinds of issues, and was down for quite a while, so I had to take over directing as well, in the next of everything, while I was still working on something else in Florida, and so I had to come back and forth to do this movie. It was quite destructive, very hard to pull this off to say the least. I had the script, the studio and the cast, I just tried to report through what I could, not having much to work with, and the budget was almost nothing, I mean… it was like shooting a home video. He had his wife cook for us on the set, and the woman couldn't cook to save her life, it was terrible. To be honest, I really wanted to just get out of doing that. Once I got there and saw how everything was going on, I didn't want to do it but I had said I would, and I'm a man of my word, so I did it. The making of this movie went on and off for months, and me I was going back and forth from California to Florida, doing other things that were worthwhile. Jimmy had guaranteed me 35 000 $ on the back, but I never got that, and because I ended up paying for my flights expenses, in fact I even shot this movie of my own pocket. I did so much on this film to try to make it happen, simply because I had my name in it. I worked literally 20 hours a day on the set to try do get this movie done for Jimmy, trying to make something good out of something that was so terrible. This shooting was one of the worst things I had seen in my entire life, really.
You were also credited as Fight Coordinator. There were several thugs and henchmen in the film. Some seemed to know a bit about martial arts, but other… well, not so much!
For the big fight scene in the finale, initially I had to put 60 fighters fighting together in one shoot. As the 2nd Unit Director I tried my best to get as many of them in, but there was nothing much I could do, having to work with only one camera that was older than my father, and all night to do the set ups and put the fights together and everything. To get all the fighters for this scene, we did an interview, and about 200 people showed off at the studio. A lot of them lied that they knew some martial arts, and it quickly appeared they didn't know anything. So I tried to focus on the 4 or 5 guys who actually seemed to have some background in martial arts, and that helped me out quite a bit because with them it was easier to direct the fights scenes, and I could do some play-fighting choreography. There was this Asian martial artist with whom I fight to the death in the film, Gerald Okamura, I think he was a master in a kung-fu system. A really nice guy, but not an actor at all, his acting was bad!
There was another Asian guy, some skinny little dude whose name I forgot [Nanarland: Daniel Kong]. In the movie, his character was supposed to be a skilled fighter, but in real life he had no idea of what martial arts was about, and he was so bad. At some point during the shooting, I had to take a pair of jeans, put it on my arm, with a sneaker on my hand, to make it look like he was doing the kicks in the film. He was that bad! Of course I only had a little bit of time to get this done, and in the end the result looked quite pitiful. And Jimmy Williams wasn't even there, it was his movie and he wasn't around! And when he was, he had beer in his hand.
Tommy Bull coaching Daniel Kong how to put his arms in a realistic position (snapshot taken from a Making Of video).
The scene, as it is in the movie.
What are your memories of actors like William Smith and Robert Z'Dar?
I did another movie with Robert Z'Dar later in New Orleans, it was called Fatal Pursuit – another bad movie – and in that one Robert was on picture with me. It wasn't the case in Shadow of the Dragon, I didn't work with him on the picture. He just had a few office scenes, I think I ran into him maybe one time for one scene that I was to direct, and that was it. The scenes that he did, it wasn't anything revolving around action so to speak, so I didn't have Robert around me very much.
On the opposite, William Smith was in the film with me most of the time, working with me pretty much everyday. I had never met William prior to that, but he's an actor who had been around for a very long time. At some point I had an issue with him, and had to put him in his place. The thing is he was drinking much off the set. One day I was pulling up a fight with him together with the little Asian guy, the one I'd been telling you had no idea about martial arts. He couldn't spell it, much less do it! It was the last scene of the movie, they were supposed to fight next to this big old Buddha statue, and the little Asian guy was supposed to kill William Smith. And that's when I considered using my arms instead of his legs: I put my arms in a pair of jeans, and a sneaker on my hand to make it think it kicked to William's chest. Eventually, I figured I'd better have the big Buddha statue fall down on top of William and crush him, because realistically there was no way this little 70-pounds guy that didn't know anything about fighting was gonna beat up this big William Smith, who's a perennial tough guy character actor.
Anyway, while I was trying to put this scene together, William Smith was drinking vodka in his trailer, an old motorhome he had, and by the time he came on the set, he was drunk. I was working with the cameraman, trying to figure how to frame this out, and Smith was blocking the shot and looked angry. I told him "Look, I'm trying to set this scene up" and he said "You're saying something about me?" and he started to get really nasty and used pretty bad words with me. So I stopped everything and I said "Get your ass outside right now." Outside I told him "If you ever talk to me like that again, I'll knock the living shit out of you." He bowed down to me, shook my hands, and he went back in, and I said "Get your ass in here and do your friggin' job." And he did. After that I got along good with William.
What could you tell us about Jimmy Williams? The funny thing is his name is credited for pretty much everything in the film: directing, producing, acting as the lead, writing, editing, cinematography, art direction…. My feeling is that Shadow of the Dragon was nothing but a big showcase for him and his pal Sandy, who was co-producing...
You hit the nail on the head when you're saying that! Jimmy Williams did exactly what he wanted to do: make himself a star. Of course, when he offered me to work with him I had no idea that was gonna be the case. Jimmy Williams and Sandy Palm used this doctor, and they got money upfront. I know that initially they got 75 000 $ to get their film going – what they got after that I have no idea, they never discussed it with me.
Jimmy Williams wanted to make a breakthrough in the film industry, not knowing his ass from his elbow how to make a movie, nor have talent for that matter. He didn't know how to act, neither of them could act, neither of them knew anything about action films. They were completely clueless in what they were doing. The only thing they knew, I'm sure, was that the doctor they took money from was never gonna get his investment back. But Jimmy didn't care, he just found somebody he could use to get the money, telling him he was a movie maker. He wanted to be an actor, wanted to make a name for himself and he had the ego to go with it. And none of this was gonna happen, except for ripping off the doctor, because I'm sure he never got his money back.
This is the kind of thing that I can't stand in Hollywood, there are too many people who try to be movie makers, they take people's money and then they just don't care. I learnt a hard lesson about that on Shadow of the Dragon, and from then on I had this thing in my career: any investor that I work with, somebody who's investing money through me, my job is to protect that money and work to my best ability to make sure that they make money from it. And if I feel I can't do that, well I just won't take the job. I'm dedicated to that, my whole thing is honor and I don't compromise on it.
Tommy Bull and Bill Mills working on the shots that will be used in the opening sequence of the film.
The opening sequence, featuring Tommy Bull performing katas "shadow show style", while the credits appear on screen.