By Marc Savlov
SEPTEMBER 21, 1998: It was one of those golden,revelatory movie moments you stumble over maybe once every five years or so, one of those "I was there when..." kind of things. Acting on a tip from I don't know whom, I sought out Lance Mungia's feature debut, Six-String Samurai, at its premiere South by Southwest screening at the University of Texas' Union Theatre last March. Having already screened at Slamdance two months earlier, the film had a sizable buzz behind it, but the synopsis I'd been given -- "post-apocalyptic road movie" or somesuch -- didn't exactly fill me with confidence. Counting on one hand the number of P.A.R.M.s I'd seen since Mad Max was hard work without the aid of some horrible digital mutation. To be honest, it didn't sound all that promising.
As a critic, I love it when a filmmaker -- particularly a fledgling filmmaker -- utterly blows away my faltering expectations. There's nothing so viscerally exciting, so stimulating to the mind and body, as walking out of theatre with the electric surety of a nascent success story coursing through your veins. Knowing a filmmaker did the seemingly impossible and turned the ether of his imagination into functional images in front of you is heady stuff. Especially when you really, really "get it."
Let me tell you now, brothers and sisters, I got Six-String Samurai, and judging by the standing ovation Mungia and star Jeffrey Falcon received at the end of the screening, so did a lot of other people.
Set in a battered wasteland America 40 years after the Russians dropped the bomb, the film follows the Ronin-esque exploits of Falcon's samurai guitar slinger Buddy (as in Holly), who sets out to become the new king of "Lost Vegas" after the death of Elvis. Along the way he inadvertently hooks up with The Kid (Justin McGuire), a freshly orphaned ragamuffin, and together the two of them travel the hardscrabble trails to Vegas. Along the way, they run up against a veritable freak show of mutated desert goons and Russkie rock & roll thugs, while a top-hatted Death (Stephen Guager) and his eagle-eyed archers stalk them at every turn.
Mungia has stated that his intention was to make the film a surreal, child's-eye-view of Good vs. Evil, and certainly on that level the film succeeds brilliantly. It's a film fan's wet dream, filled with spectacularly saturated shots of rolling sand dunes and blindingly azure skies courtesy of cinematographer Kristian Bernier, and supported by a spare-but-witty script, and drop-dead hilarious performances from Falcon (who co-wrote and also did the production design and costumes), McGuire, and the rest.
To top it off, Mungia called in the "Siberian rockabilly band," The Red Elvises, to add some Eastern Bloc flava to the film, and rounded out the score with up-and-comer Brian Tyler. Taken together, Mungia's futuristic retro-fable works not only as a cinema fantastique series of rock & roll set-pieces, but also holds its own in the highly salable action film department (much of the latter is due to Falcon, who recently concluded 16 years in the Far East studying marital arts and Eastern philosophy under Jet Li's teacher, among others).
In the interim since SXSW '98, Mungia's film has been picked up for distribution by Chris Blackwell's new entertainment company, Palm Pictures, and is about to receive the official release it deserves. A recent junket to Miami Beach -- home base to Blackwell's IslandLife consortium -- gave me the chance to meet with Mungia and Falcon and discuss the birth (and birth pains) of their dangerously unique vision.
In the Beginning ...
Lance Mungia: The first draft that we wrote was a very, very straightforward samurai road movie, that was just an attempt to get something down. We knew we were going to go back and completely tweak it. I loved the idea of using rock& roll and using the Red Elvises' music, and I also wanted to use the idea of good versus evil. In the Fifties, you had the Russians as this pure evil, you know? You had the "American way" mentality of the Fifties and the Red Scare and rock & roll and this innocent kind of feeling in the air.
One night in L.A., Jeff and I were sitting in a Starbuck's and talking about what we wanted to do, and I mentioned how I thought it would be really cool to use rock & roll somehow, and I suddenly noticed how much he looked like Buddy Holly. Jeff was like, "No I don't," but I happened to be wearing my Buddy Holly glasses, and when I took them off and put them on him, he was like, "You're right, I do look like Buddy Holly!"
Austin Chronicle: How did the notion of using the samurai/rockabilly crossover come about? It seems so obvious in retrospect, but I probably never would have thought of it.
LM: We already had the idea of doing a sword film because we're both samurai freaks, and we thought that it would be easy to do one because you can hide stuff in the action sequences and you don't have to show very much. It's very lyrical, very poetic, and I really wanted to do something that was done like ballet, similar to the way John Woo and a lot of the other Asian filmmakers do things.
From there, we just let our imaginations run totally amok. Another conscious thing that I wanted to do was to make the film from the eyes, the POV, of a kid and really give it that sense of wonder that you have as a kid. We had this very surreal, kind of nightmare vision of a kid's alternate reality, and that allowed us the freedom to do anything we wanted: Bounty hunters became bowlers, villains became spacesuiters, spinach monsters appeared, you name it.
AC: Who came up with the title? Wasn't it originally called something like The Blade?
LM: We never really intended that to be the title of the film, we just couldn't think of a better one at the time. We started developing this film and it's just this completely whacked-out reality, and we couldn't seem to come up with a title that fit. Some of the other titles we ran through were Bloody Holly, Buddy the Butcher -- those were the joke titles, though. Atomic Highway, Lost Vegas, who knows? We had a bunch of them. Ultimately, we had a search for the title over the Hollywood Stock Exchange on the Web -- we had a nationwide search in which people could send in names, but nobody could think of a good name until finally the owner of HSX, Max Kaiser, said, "What about Six-String Samurai? It really summed up the cool, hip feeling of the film.
Jeffrey Falcon: It's a quirky film so give it a quirky name so that people know what to expect when they get inside, you know?
The Shoot, The Hype, The Hollywood Stock Exchange
LM: The shoot? It was hell. We planned on doing the whole film for $25,000 so we could say, "Hey, look what we did for no money," but it didn't work out that way. It was so naive of us to think that we could do that. We were going into Death Valley, sleeping in tents, eating hot dogs ...
JF: ... we were drunk.
LM: Yeah. We were very drunk. We were very out of it.
JF: Right after the shoot, the best comment we got was from some executive from a major studio (who shall remain nameless) who saw the film and then called our agent to say, "I just gotta call you to tell you to tell your filmmakers that I haven't had that much fun since I smoked pot in high school."
LM: Anyway, we began to run out of money after a while. I couldn't pay my rent, Jeff was sleeping on my living room floor -- and has been for about the last year and a half -- and we were just getting people together and going out to shoot on the weekends. It was actually a hell of a lot of fun, like a vacation every weekend. We'd just go out and shoot this really cool film, it was really picturesque, the lighting was great, it was really, really cool.
Then, just as we were running out of money in January, a short film I had done earlier -- "A Garden for Rio" -- went to Sundance. So a couple of days before we left for Park City, I cut a trailer for Six-String, took that to Sundance, set up a poster in a hotel room with a VCR, and started bringing anybody official-looking that I could find up to the room to see the trailer. I was hanging out in the lobby of the Yarrow Hotel, literally accosting people and dragging them up to see the trailer. A surprising number of people actually came and watched it.
AC: How did you hook up with Michael Burns and Max Kaiser's Hollywood Stock Exchange?
LM: Basically, the Sundance hyping that we did started a little bit of buzz about the film, and when we went back to L.A. we started having more and more meetings and before we knew it we'd have 30 messages on the answering machine every single day. It was surreal. It was like a dream.
After we signed with William Morris agent Cassian Elwes [which is a story in itself, but not for here], Michael Burns of HSX saw the film, said he loved it, and put $100,000 in our account the next day to start pre-production. All of a sudden we were set to shoot the very next month. We'd had positive reactions before, but nobody had ever put their money where their mouth was, you know? Both Jeff and I had been afraid we were going to spend six months in negotiations and then the kid's voice would change, he'd grow a moustache, Jeff would have grey hairs, and things would fall apart.
AC: So, essentially, HSX financed your Loyola Marymount student film thesis. Very smooth.
LM: Well, all of a sudden we had over a million dollars to play around with, and you'd think that would solve everything, but it actually -- in some ways -- was a disadvantage. Now, all of a sudden you have to pay everybody (we back-paid everyone), you're paying for all the permits, the equipment, you're totally legit, and now you're a very small independent film trying to operate legitimately but you're doing an action film that by all rights should cost at least $10,000,000.
All the dynamics of making the film had changed overnight. All of a sudden you have a bond company involved and if you don't make your date they want to know why, and I had never dealt with any of that. I was like a babe in the woods.
AC: How did you get through that? Did HSX help out with advisers or anything, or did they just let you run wild and pray you didn't fuck up too badly?
LM: The philosophy we had initially -- of thinking on our feet and making things happen no matter what -- was what carried us through all the way. Everyone involved in the production basically didn't know what they were doing and wouldn't have attempted what we were doing if they had known. As far as HSX, it was their second film, and they'd never done a big action film before. If we'd really thought about it, it would have been impossible, but because we didn't think about it we could do it. Somehow.
JF: We made the worst possible mistakes that independent filmmakers can make working with the budget that we worked with: a film that has desert locations, tons of costumes, a kid as leading actor, and an action film to top it off.
LM: If we'd really thought about it we would have made a sweater movie.
The Hong Kong Connection
One of the most unique things in the world of the Six-String Samurai is the samurai himself, Jeffrey Falcon. Part Buddy Holly, part Mad Max, and part nanny, Falcon takes a broadly drawn character with a Schwarzeneggerian minimum of dialogue and makes it come alive. As Falcon plays him, Buddy is the mythical hero/redeemer of yore, a lone wolf of epic proportions who just happens to get all the best lines, laughs, and lonely, cheerleading wild women, all while wielding a mean '57 hollow-body six-string and a battered samurai warblade --
AC: Let's talk about Jeff's acting and martial arts for a moment. How did you get into acting in the first place?
JF: My acting is sheerly born from being thrown into the fire while directors point a camera at me and say, "Go for it." I never studied any acting at all, although I think that I'm a natural actor in the sense that everyone acts in life, that's how we communicate, that's how we try to make ourselves likable to others.
LM: One of the things I always tell Jeff is to "give me more Jeff," because I think the best actors retain a part of themselves. Jeff has a quality that certain actors have where, on set, you may think to yourself that he's not really doing very much, but when you actually see the film then you find all these little nuances. You look through the lens and you can see the emotion and the charisma he's got. And I'm not saying that because he pays me, either.
JF: I think that's natural because I've seen actors in Hong Kong, say Jackie Chan, and I would think he didn't look that good, he didn't look very charismatic, but then when you see him onscreen, the camera really loves him and he communicates really well with the camera. So I think it's something that somebody can't give you and hopefully I have some of that.
LM: Yeah, I totally agree. David Mamet wrote a book called Heresy and Common Sense for the Working Actor in which he basically said that everything has been overdone and you can take all the acting classes in the world, but if you're not using that part of yourself then you're never going to be a good actor. The best actors are using themselves instead of creating all these false things and being deep, and, you know, I agree with that. Ultimately, your best tool is yourself.
AC: Right. So how did you hook up with the HK films, Jeff? You've worked with Jackie Chan, right?
JF: I got into Hong Kong films by way of a total fluke. I was introduced to Edward Tong -- Jackie Chan's writing and producing partner at Golden Way Films -- and he took some photos of me, but nothing really happened until after I had gone back to Taiwan where I was teaching English and martial arts for a living. When I got back, I did a performance on Taiwan Television, and right after that, one of Jackie's people called me and asked if I'd like to come over and do this film. I said sure, went to Hong Kong and shot the film, and then when it came out it went to number one all over Asia and suddenly I was getting all these phone calls calling me back to Hong Kong to make films.
It was a good way to make money, you know? I could still stay in the Far East and study martial arts, Buddhism, and Chinese language, and this was something I really wanted to do. I never thought I was going to be some big star, but I got a few bad-guy roles and so on. In my opinion, Six-String is really the first example of me as an "actor."
AC: One of the most difficult things for directors to do -- they say -- is working with child actors. Since this was your first feature, how was it working with Justin McGuire, who at seven years old carries the picture right alongside Jeff? Did you have to smack him around any?
LM: Ah, he was a little jerk. Ah, I mean he was great! No, really, Justin was amazing. I cast about a dozen kids before Justin and I was panicky because I couldn't find anyone who could pull it off and be able to do it on an independent level and get it in just a few takes. Justin came in, gave a cool audition, didn't have any attitude, was very cool, and so we cast him thinking that the shoot was only going to last a month or two, weekends only. Well, it ended up dragging out for months and months and still he could nail things on the first or second take.
Don't get me wrong -- three weeks into the "real" production, when it became an everyday kind of "job," then he started to get the idea that we couldn't do it without him. He'd be like, "I have a headache, I need to go rest in the trailer."
The first couple of times, everyone on the crew was like, "Get Justin a blanket! Do this, do that!" and so on because he was getting so much attention he became a little bit spoiled. And so I told everybody to treat Justin like he's a member of the crew and not like he's this prima donna or this little kid because little kids, really, just want to be treated like adults. And it always had to be fun for him. Whenever it became not fun, then it was a bother and he didn't want to be there. As long as we could keep it somewhat cool, then he was okay.
The cool thing was that Justin actually believed that Jeff was a superhero, which added this hero-worship chemistry to the mix, which was great.
JF: I was the only one who could get Justin to do what he needed to do when he really didn't want to. He would get into these really bummer moods because he'd be really tired or really cold and he just wouldn't want to do anything. So I'd go up to him and say, "You know what, Justin? If you really want to be a master of the martial arts you have to learn how to master your mind first. The mind is the most powerful weapon you have. If there are a hundred people in front of you and they're charging at you, the only way to defeat them is with your mind. You have to convince yourself that you can knock every one of those guys down."
And then I said, "Are you afraid of the cold weather?"
And he says, "Nooooo, but I'm cold!"
So I told him, "Don't let the cold defeat you, you defeat the cold." I'd do this to him all the time because I knew the kid really looked up to me and thought I was a superhero. And it worked.
LM: His father told me that he asked, "Is Jeff really a superhero? I heard he saved Hong Kong!"
Going PublicAC: Now that the film is about to come out, how did those test screenings go? Is everybody getting it, or is it just the film geeks?
JF: Our test screenings were SXSW, Slamdance, and one in L.A.
LM: Well, we screened the film for a generic audience of regular townspeople in Bozeman, Montana. It was a packed house of 300 people -- not even college kids, but middle-aged people, etcetera -- and the reaction was amazing. People stood up and cheered.
I think the best point was the first time we showed it at Slamdance, although Austin came up a close second. I've got to tell you, man, Austin rocks. Let me just say that right now. Some people think it's the hub of the known universe and, although I tried to deny it, I'm starting to think that's true.
JF: Oh man, it was unbelievable. We arrived early to see the [SXSW screening at the Texas Union] and there was nobody there, and we thought, you know, "Shit! There's nobody here!" So we left and came back 15 minutes into the film, and the place is packed, it's standing room only, people are yelling and screaming so much that I was shaking. The adrenaline was pumping so hard I was literally shaking. I couldn't believe it. It was like going to watch Enter the Dragon in a black neighborhood.
LM: I just hope to get some more screenings like that one. You guys in Austin are just whack. Totally friggin' whack. But that's Austin for you.
AC: Does it concern you that with all the hype the film has been getting -- from advance screenings, Variety, Harry Knowles' Ain't It Cool News Web site and so on -- that people might go in expecting too much?
LM: Yes. I'm afraid that this film will be hyped up to the point where people think that it's something that it isn't. Because in reality it's a very simple film. It's not the second coming of Christ or something, it's not this thing to be put on a pedestal, it's just this fine, cool movie. If you go into it without all these oversized expectations, you're probably going to like it. Or maybe you won't. I'd rather have 50% of the people love the film and 50% hate it than have everyone in the middle about it, you know?
I'm really, really excited that we're about to release this film. This has been a total dream come true. What every filmmaker wants to do for their first film is to make a film that they would want to make. And this is the film that I wanted to make. Do I think it's the greatest film ever made? Do I think it's the best film I can make? No way. I can do a lot of other stuff, but I'm so proud of this film, and no one can ever take away what we did on this film and how we did it. We went out in the desert, we slept in tents, everything we went through with Jeff and Kristian and Justin ... it's such a positive thing.
JF: Somebody said to me, "If you could do this whole thing over with tons of money, and trailers, and somebody doing the costumes, and professionals all the way along, would you do it?"
And I said, "No way. I wouldn't trade this for all the money in the world."
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