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Stuart Smith was one of the most intruiging presence in Godfrey Ho's ninja pictures. Next to nothing was known about this wildly eccentric ninja master, who appeared as totally over-the-top villains, or equally grimacing heroes in such masterpieces as Ninja: Silent Assassin, Ninja in the Killing Fields or the aptly-titled The Ultimate Ninja. Ultimate indeed: we finally managed to track down the elusive Stuart, who was kind enough to tell us everything about the making of a ninja. Our warmest thanks to Mr Stuart Onslow-Smith for his time and generosity.
Interview conducted in January 2007 by Nikita
Thank you for being kind enough to accept answering our questions. To start with, could you tell us a bit about you and your life before you went to Asia? Where and when were you born? What did you do for a living?
I was born in Winchester, England but grew up in Sydney, Australia. I was working in the Import/Export business after flunking out of law, and between jobs, when I got involved with a local community group who were setting up a small government-sponsored film/acting school. We made some surf film documentaries focusing on the young local Many surfers and I ended up doing most of the on-camera interviews. Off camera we went through a 12 month drama course, had access to all the cameras and production editing facilities we could ever want. I went out and found an agent, Shay Martin, and began working, initially as an extra on a number of ABC productions, Australian soap operas and a few feature films. My agent had a learn-as-you-go philosophy to acting and thats exactly what I did, slowly picking up small speaking roles in larger productions.
When did you move to Hong Kong, and what made you leave your homeland for Asia?
I moved to Hong Kong in March of 1986. My acting agent in Sydney also ran a travel agency and although I loved growing up in Sydney, I wanted to go and live somewhere completely different... She told me that Hong Kong producers and directors were looking for Western actors to work in Hong Kong so I sold everything I owned in Sydney and got on a plane for Hong Kong.
I went to Hong Kong only to work in films. Nothing else! I slept on a friends couch for three months until I got my first film role and things just went from there.
During the 80s, it seems there were good opportunities for Westerners to appear in movies in HK. How was it to be a gweilo performer in HK? Could you tell us about the way you were considered by Chinese crews, the money you earned, relations / acquaintances with other gweilos?
Well A Better Tomorrow had just come out, Tai Pan was currently filming and it was Renaissance-time for the film industry in Hong Kong, so it was good place to be at the right time, by chance.
I somehow ended up as the gweilo bad guy, so anytime a script called for someone with a white face to be shot, stabbed or thrown off a cliff they'd call me. Dying for a living I think they call it!
I spoke a little Cantonese so I had no problems with the film crews. I'd done a bit of boxing and Tae Kwon Do when I was at school, and was an avid surfer, so I was always happy to work with the stuntmen and fight choreographers, and I think they appreciated that.
I mean I was a young actor working in Hong Kong making kung-fu movies. It was pretty cool!
Stuart and Pedro Massobrio, while shooting Ronny Yu's Legacy of Rage (1986).
The money was always a process of negotiation but US$100/day was my standard rate. Not much money by todays standard's, but a nice living wage in Hong Kong back then.
The Western acting community was pretty tight-knit and everyone knew each other, or knew of each other. We were continually going to castings and auditions for the same roles so it was a little incestuous I guess. My partner in crime was always Louis Roth, a New York actor, and we covered each others backs a lot, such was the nature of the Hong Kong film industry at the time!
Some websites reported that you had been a stuntman. Is that correct?
As for being a stuntman, I would never claim that. I did stunt work for my characters as much as possible, and some double work for a few well-known actors, but the dangerous stunts I happily left to the experts.
You have made several films with director Godfrey Ho and producer Joseph Lai from IFD. Other Western actors such as Richard Harrison and Bruce Baron, who both did ninja films with Ho and Lai, explained to us they had been tricked. Indeed, the scenes they shot have been edited any which way with some old Asian pictures and, beyond the poor quality of the result, they eventually found themselves appearing in many more movies than expected. Was it the same for you?
Well it didn't take me too long to work out that a 10 day-2 week shoot for a film wasn't going to produce 90 minutes or so of screen time, so something wasn't quite right. I contracted for so many days on such and such a film for so much a day... They owned that footage. I have no doubt that what both Richard and Bruce say was correct. The 10 or 15 minutes of screen time shot in Hong Kong was cut into other multiple cheap Asian films, mainly from Thailand and the Philippines. I worked with both Richard and Bruce, both consummate professionals.
What memories do you keep of Bruce Baron, Pierre Tremblay, Richard Harrison, Louis Roth, Mike Abbott, Grant Temple, Alphonse Beni?
Louis Roth was a dear friend of mine and is sadly missed. I first met him on the set of one of Godfrey's early films and almost broke his nose in the first scene we filmed. He was a tough New Yorker, ex Vietnam vet and an actor's actor. We worked on many films together, including Undeclared War, and his sharp wit and dry sense of humour is still remembered by all who met him. He could be fairly abrasive if you didn't know him and I know he ruffled a few people's feathers over the years. He founded the Actor's Studio in Hong Kong and some of my best memories are of taking some classes for him when he was away on his numerous film shoots. There's nothing better than the opportunity to pass on a bit of what you have learned in the business to those just starting out or wanting to learn.
Stuart and Louis Roth.
Big Mike Abbott was a gentle giant and had a good word for almost everyone. The ever-eccentric Pierre Tremblay I knew mainly from the voice-over scene in Hong Kong. Similarly Grant Temple. Alphonse was a pretty cool dude from memory and I think was a fairly good martial artist.
We read on a website that Louis Roth was involved in scriptwriting and continuity on some of Godfrey Ho's ninja movies. Is this true?
I think that Louis was involved in rewriting alot of the "scripts" they came up with. To hold him in anyway responsible would however be an error of judgement. Everyone who appeared in their movies was involved in rewriting what they said on camera, because believe it or not, they were even worse before that! Louis did however write the first script for Undeclared War, and some of the early rewrites before they brought someone in from L.A. to do the final rewrites and bring the script together.
In several movies, your acting style could be defined as quite expressionist. Did Godfrey Ho instruct you to act this way?
Expressionist? I think you are being much too kind! It was totally over-acting any scene you were given. Much the same as very old Hollywood movies where everything is over the top. I still remember talking with Bruce during an early film shoot in Kowloon Park about why the director insisted in us over-acting. His response was something like "if you want to get paid, and employed in the future, do as requested". I think Godfrey's most used phrase was "I can't see you acting... more acting !"
Chewing the scenery.
What memories do you keep of Godfrey Ho? How was he on the set?
I always thought of Godfrey as having an excited boyish quality. He was like a kid in a candystore, playing with cameras and trying to choreograph fight scenes with youthful exuberance. As I said, he always wanted to see more acting in front of camera and being on set with him was like being in a ninja version of a spaghetti western.
Were you given any kind of script, with some real lines of dialogue to work with, or did you and the other actors more or less improvised on the set?
Scripts were pretty thin to say the least. You would normally be given a page or two of script to learn on the way to shoot, which had usually been written the night before by some English teacher passing himself of as a scriptwriter. Having said that, there was a lot of improv' as most of the dialogue didn't make much sense!
Did you dub yourself for the English version of these movies?
Godfrey asked me after I had done a couple of films for him if I would like to dub my own voice onto the film. That was really the beginning of my dubbing daze for which I have to thank him, as it led to almost a decade of freelance voice work. Spending long days and nights in darkened dubbing studios might not be everyone's idea of fun, but for a core group of voice artists it was a great way to make a living, and well paid by any ones standards. Often wed work an 8 hour dayshift and then back up for a night shift, dubbing everything from the top box office Cantonese movies, to Brazilian soap operas, TVB costume dramas, and yes, ninja movies.
That's where people like Pierre Tremblay were in his element. We were a fairly odd bunch of people, from different backgrounds. Everything was dubbed in an American or mid-Atlantic accent and we churned them out in everything from giant Golden Harvest and TVB sound studios, to hole in the wall production houses all over Hong Kong and Kowloon. It was a very tight group of people, outsiders were treated with caution and we worked and played very hard. The often-told story of one successful dubber lighting his cigarettes at the club in the Peninsula Hotel with HK$100 notes springs to mind. It was the heyday of the film industry in general in Hong Kong and life was sweet.
With Simon Yam while shooting Bloodfight (1989).
Some of Godfrey Ho's movies were apparently shot on the same locations, several scenes being shot on the same days for several different movies. All of the ninja films action scenes seem to have used the same 4 or 5 locations. Could you elaborate on that? How long did it take Godfrey Ho to make one movie? Some special effects were, to say the least, quite crude. Was it due to economic restraints or do we simply have to blame Godfrey Ho's ineptitude?
The joys of location shooting in Hong Kong! Initially most of the IFD/Filmark shoots seemed to be done in Kowloon Park, which was just down the road from their offices. I died regularly in that park for many years! I think that when the crowds watching the filming became too intrusive, plus the lack of any filming permits and the odd inquisitive policemen that patrolled the Park became too much, we moved on. Normally to some old World War II gun emplacements on one of the many peaks surrounding the harbour or out in the New Territories. Occasionally we would shoot in the production offices or a Saikung hotel. We all got into a van around 8AM outside the office and ended up only they knew where! Shoots were generally 10 days to two weeks, maximum. As for the special effects I think it was whatever the budget allowed, which wasn't much I would imagine.
Some very expensive prop, no doubt.
Ho asserted in one interview that he had never edited footages together in his movies, even though it is blindingly obvious that he plundered footage from Taiwanese, Filipino, Thai etc. movies so he could edit the footage of one film into three or four. He also stated that he was not involved in the editing but evidence suggests the contrary. Do you have any memories, information or anecdotes about Ho's dubious working methods?
It is my understanding that Godfrey was involved from start to finish. Nothing went on without his knowledge when it came to his productions. I mean if you place this in the context where it seemed that almost everything in the world seemed to be Made in Hong Kong and the entrepreneurial spirit was thriving in the city. When I first arrived there I met many local people who had like 2 or 3 jobs and they worked 18 hours a day. If you had a white face in an Asian movie then it was simply more marketable. So why not buy the rights to some long forgotten Asian action movie, shoot some new scenes with Western actors, try and concoct some storyline and resell it as something new.
It didn't take too long to work this out as I mentioned earlier, however I always believed that the distribution rights to the Asian films that were intercut with the new footage were bought and paid for. Only Godfrey really knows the answer to that!
The soundtracks of Ho's ninja movies also borrow heavily (and probably illegally) from Pink Floyd, Tangerine Dream, Joy Division, etc.
It is nice to hear that at least they put some good music on the soundtrack, though as you suggest the legality of this is somewhat in question. In these days of illegal internet downloading however, this does seem rather tame.
Did you see the films at the time, or were they distributed strictly outside HK? What is your opinion about the finished products? Did you feel while making them that you were making bad movies?
I have never seen an entire film I have to admit. The films where I dubbed my own voice, obviously I saw the part I had filmed, but no more. But if the laughing of the other dubbers present was anything to go by, Marty Scorsese had nothing to fear! I have had friends report they have seen them on late night New York TV and on inter-island ferries in Indonesia, and no doubt everywhere in between! They were never released in Hong Kong to my knowledge.
While making the movies it was first and foremost a job that enabled me to live very comfortably in Hong Kong. I also got a lot of press over the years so it gave me some notoriety in the public arena. It felt very much like overacted kung fu kitsch, which I guess it has become. Were the movies bad? Of course they were! IFD/Filmark arent exactly at the top of the film world food chain.
However just to be able to work doing something you got a rush from was payment in itself. If nothing else, it was a lesson in how not to act or make movies, and even from the worst on set experiences there was something to be learned.
What is the exact meaning of the final scene from Ninja in the Killing Fields, where you end up running after magic frogs? How did they come up with such jarring ideas?
Drugs probably! No, Im just kidding. I have no idea how Godfrey came up with what he did.
Richard Harrison and Bruce Baron told us that they had been quite badly tricked by Ho and Lai, as you could read in their interviews. Did you ever have any such problems?
In all my years of working with Godfrey I never had a problem with him. He was easy going, friendly and affable. He never reneged on payments and salaries and it was always a good laugh being on set with him. He also gave me my first job in Hong Kong, so for that alone I owe him my thanks.
I can appreciate both Richard and Bruce's comments and conclusions. I would imagine that they were both sold down the proverbial river. My situation however was entirely different, being at the beginning of what I thought at the time would be a long career in film, and just to be a working overacting actor was fortunate.
We learned that Godfrey Ho now teaches filmmaking in some private institutes. Any comments about that? Did you ever feel that he could qualify as a teacher?
Well if he is teaching about the importance of enthusiasm on set, then I would say he's qualified to do that. He probably knows a thing or two about making low-budget movies and marketing on a shoestring!
How were producers Tomas Tang, Joseph Lai and his sister Betty Chan, if you ever met them?
Yes, I met all the above people that you mention. More money people than creative types. Never had a problem with any of them, thankfully!
Mike Abbott told us that at that time, the policy was "if you work for IFD, don't work for Filmark" and "if you work with Filmark, you don't work with IFD". You did movies for both companies though, as did others.
Yes, Mike is correct, there was an unwritten rule in the business that if you worked for one Company then you couldn't work for the other. I'm not really sure how I managed to move between the two. My theory at the time was that if you were prepared to pay my salary then I would work. Simple as that. They both wanted me, and so I ended up working for both. There was no exclusivity as far as I was concerned.
Was Godfrey Ho directing for both companies, IFD and Filmark?
I can't remember Godfrey ever directing Filmark movies to be honest with you. Tomas Tang was normally on the set, but with someone else directing from memory. Unsure who this exactly was.
At some point, we believed those two companies were actually just one and pretending to be rivals. Could it be that IFD and Filmark were one but split after some grudge? We know they had their offices in the same building. Did you hear about the 1996 Garley Building fire in which Tomas Tang is said to have died? Do you know if Filmark "stole" that brilliant filmmaking technique from IFD?
They were certainly two separate Companies and I think that your supposition that they may have been one company, at one time, may be correct. People were always falling out in the Hong Kong film business and going off to start their own production houses.
There was a lot of copying going on in the Hong Kong film industry in general and I would guess that this is what happened with the "technique" from IFD. At the end of the day it was a way of making money rather than creating anything authentic or creative.
I did hear about the fire, after the fact, but have no knowledge as to what actually went on.
Nothing would surprise me however!
Bruce Baron told us the Triads were heavily infiltrated into the HK movie industry and that on IFD films, the crews were "among the roughest and most dangerous [he has] ever had the ill fortune to work with, with a lot of low level triad thugs moonlighting as grips". Would you have any comment about the possible links between IFD / Filmark companies and Hong Kong syndicates?
Triad members have always proliferated in the Hong Kong film industry to my knowledge.
IFD was, I guess, no different. I had met a lot of these people both inside and outside the film industry and had always got along with them. I have a healthy respect for organised crime figures, be it in Asia or the West. There's a certain camaraderie amongst them, and once you knew the rules and the position of people you were dealing with, then everything was fairly straight forward.
Having said that, I was in a very scary confrontation with some low level members when I first arrived in Hong Kong, so I learnt pretty quickly!
You appeared as an extra or did have bit parts in movies like Ronny Yu's Legacy of Rage (1986), with Brandon Lee, Michael Wong and Bolo Yeung, Bloodfight (1989) with Simon Yam and Bolo Yeung again, or Ringo Lam's Undeclared War (1990), with Danny Lee. That is to say directors and actors incarnating the golden era of the HK film industry. The shooting conditions and the working methods - not to say the level of the fight choreographies, stunts, acting and directing - must have been quite different from what you have experienced with Godfrey Ho. Could you elaborate?
Well its true to say that working on bigger budget movies meant a better quality of movie, but still far short of what I had been doing back in Australia. It was a pleasure to work and hang out with Brandon Lee and his friends from L.A. on the set of Legacy of Rage. He was struggling with the expectations of him, as his father's son. I mean who could compete with Bruce Lee!
Brandon was a fine young actor with a lot of martial arts experience, but could never be, and never wanted to be, his father. That was my impression of him anyway. The tragedy of his death on set just reinforced that for me, and like the deaths of many fine young actors before him, it's a case of what he might have become that lingers.
The role in Bloodfight I picked up by chance, and filming all over Hong Kong with some well-recognised stars was pretty cool.
Is there any reason why Undeclared War is the only movie for which you are credited under your full name?
At the time I filmed Undeclared War I thought of it as my first decent Asian film so I used my full name on the credits. Unfortunately it didn't live up to expectations.
Did you or the credits shorten your name for anonymity's sake of for another reason? In some films you are credited as "Stuart Steen" or even "Stuart Smita". Is there a reason for that?
Well my arrangement with both Godfrey and Tomas was that my full name was never to be used on any credits in any film, and I thank them both for that!
According to the IMDB, the last movie you appeared in was Ringo Lam's Undeclared War (1990). Did you actually put an end to your brief career in HK film industry, and if yes, was it a choice of yours, or because of a lack of opportunities? Do you still work, in a way or another, in the film industry, and if no, would you work again as an extra if you were granted that opportunity?
I kept working in the voiceover and dubbing industries in Hong Kong until the mid 90s. I continued to be offered roles after Undeclared War but in all honesty there was nothing that really interested me, or the contracts weren't suitable. There were quite a few Hollywood movies that came through Asia at that time but didn't pick anything up, mainly due to a lack of a solid American accent.
It just felt to me that things had run their natural course and it was either go back to Australia and work in films, or stay in Asia and do something else. I chose the latter.
There have been a few roles on offer over the past few years, but again, if the role doesn't really interest me then there is really no reason to do it. I don't need the money that's for sure!
I am involved in a number of creative personal projects, but not in the public arena as yet.
The world will have to wait a little longer for that!
With Japanese actor Kurata Yasuaki in Bloodfight (1989).
The IMDB credits you as appearing in some TV series, including Chicago Hope and The Practice. However, we suspect that the Stuart Smith in those series is actually a namesake. Is that correct?
Yes, that is correct. I guess that there would be a few Stuart Smiths working in the film industry.
At the present time, it seems you work in Thailand as a financial advisor. In a few words - and if that is not too private - could you tell us about what you did between your last film and the present time? Was this your first job to start with, or did you chose this career after quitting the film business?
I'd always played the stock market in Hong Kong since I arrived in 86, so it seemed like a natural progression in many ways. The film industry felt like it was in decline from a Westerners point of view by the mid-90s, dubbing work was diminishing. My good friend Louis Roth was terminally ill, and there just seemed fewer and fewer reasons to persevere
My move from Hong Kong to Thailand was due to a personal situation, however I am back in Hong Kong every month or two in my current business. I always had a love/hate relationship with the City. It could be the best place in the world in the morning, and the worst place in the world by the afternoon. However, it is a bit like a drug and hard to get out of your system. I still consider it one of my many homes.
With the hindsight, what look do you take at your career in cinema? Did you ever have a keen interest in it, or was it just one more job among many others? Has life changed for Westerners living in HK and Asia like you, from what it was in the 80s?
I always enjoyed the film business despite spending much of my time working in less than mediocre productions. It is a privilege that very few people end up experiencing in life. I am a firm believer in the concept of living many lives in one, and while I am Buddhist, and acknowledge the existence of past lives and reincarnation, as a Buddhist or a non-Buddhist, we will only live this life once. That's guaranteed. So my film life was a fun 10 years or so and while in Asia met or worked with most of the big Hong Kong stars. The only bad memories of the business that I have is of not working.
After a very painful 8 or 9 years since 1997 and the handover, Hong Kong is back to it's heyday once again. It has definitely taken on a more mainland China flavour and there are few of the Westerners still around from the 80s, but as you would expect, a whole new population of westerners and expats have taken their place. It still has a vibrancy and energy that exists only in that city, in my opinion.
Would you happen to have photos taken from the sets? We are very much in demand of any document about the films of that time.
I have included a few pictures taken on various sets over the years for you. These are for your website's use only and I would appreciate if it was confined to there.
Have you kept a full record of your film appearences?
No I haven't. I think there's a copy of Undeclared War somewhere in my DVD library.
Thank you very much for your time on behalf of the whole team.
No problems. It's been a fun walk down memory lane.
And despite what anyone, including myself has to say about what went on in the 80s in HK, there are always 3 sides to any story... there's my side, their side, and the truth!