Eric Jacobus Talks With 411 About Short Film Blindsided, Making Movies and More
The B-Movie Interview: Eric Jacobus
Eric Jacobus is a martial artist, stuntman, actor, writer, editor, and director who has been involved in movie making since 2001 when he formed The Stunt People with friends in California. Since then, Jacobus has starred in and collaborated on various short and feature films, including the Rope-A-Dope series, Contour, Death Grip, among others. His most recent short film, Blindsided, was released to YouTube on March 1st (you can check out my review of Blindsided here). Jacobus recently took time out of his busy schedule to participate in an interview with this writer where he discusses Blindsided, the movie making process, making video games, and more.
Bryan Kristopowitz: How did you get involved with Blindsided?
Eric Jacobus: Clayton (Clayton Barber) and I wanted to depict the blind swordsman character for a long time and just needed to find the right story for it. After we formed JB Productions and created Rope-A-Dope 1 and 2 we were ready to go the extra step with casting and dialog, but we maintained the lightheartedness that made the Rope-A-Dope films work. So we channeled more of the original Zatoichi and Nick Parker characters and wrote a story around an everyday blind guy who just wants to make an apple pie.
BK: How long did it take to make Blindsided from creating the story to the actual filming of the short? And why didn’t you direct Blindsided?
EJ: We wrote multiple concepts around the idea of a blind martial arts hero going as early as 2014, but when we found the right story, a blind cook saving a friend from a mafia shakedown, the script wrote itself. We prepped the action for a couple weeks, shot the film in 5 days, spent about 6 weeks editing, and color and sound took another month after picture lock. In total it was about a 4 month process.
I had wanted to step away from directing for a while and focus on performing and designing action, and Clayton wanted to make his mark as a director. This was his film of choice. He’s a performance director and lives and breathes story, and as a veteran stuntman and action director he knows action. I think we found our true partnership with Blindsided.
BK: What was the hardest aspect of making Blindsided?
EJ: Whenever we do projects like this where money is tight, usually locations are the first thing to fall through. Our producer David No was constantly finding backup options. We didn’t even have a final fight location until only a couple days before shooting. And we got kicked out of another location!
BK: Walter, your character in Blindsided, is blind. What sort of research did you have to do to get into the mindset of a blind person? And did the fact that Walter is blind change the way you choreograph the fight scenes?
EJ: After I met and trained with a blind athlete in San Francisco, also coincidentally named Walter, I picked up the basics of navigation pretty quickly along with head movement and how to use a blind cane. This stuff was instrumental in the fight scene, since Walter doesn’t waste effort looking where he’s attacking, which is harder than it seems. We didn’t want Walter to fight like Daredevil, but he still has a small advantage over people who rely too much on sight. Since Walter’s grounded and perceptive it made less sense to make him over-the-top acrobatic. We just let that story dictate the moves.
The most revealing aspect of training with real-life Walter was how others interacted with us when we were blind. Blindness almost excludes you from any aesthetic cultural norms because sighted people can’t reciprocate visually, so a blind person can step into a situation and nobody would really know what to do with him until he acts. The ball is immediately in his court, and all he has to do is not fumble it. Being blind meant I could also have better conversations without having to process visual data. Everyone looks the same then. All you have is their vocal cues and maybe how they smell and feel, and people even change their tone for you. It just goes to show how insightful those old Zatoichi films really were. So we decided our Walter would be an outsider with his fashion and demeanor, which makes him a loner, but it’s also his greatest weapon. Walter knows exactly what kind of effect he has on sighted people around him and you could see how that would piss off someone like Nico. This kind of insight was vital when writing the script.
BK: Why is Walter so into apple pies? Are you, personally, an apple pie man?
EJ: What’s more American than apple pie? It’s an innocent love he has. You can imagine his mother cooking it for him when he’s a child. Cooking apple pie engages Walter’s other senses, stuff we take for granted. Maybe that’s his primary training method – cooking with knives. I actually made an apple pie completely blindfolded and baked it. We ate it after a training session. Nobody died.
BK: Does Blindsided take place in the same universe as your Rope-A-Dope movies, or is the newspaper referring to the “Martial Arts Mafia” a coincidence? Will Walter ever meet up with the Dope?
EJ: If Walter met The Dope it would cause some sort of time dilation that could destroy YouTube. Let’s just say the newspaper was for the fans.
BK: How did your Rope-a-Dope shorts come about? Were they always intended to be stories told through action or was that something you figured out while putting the script together? And how is writing a script that’s basically all action different from writing something with dialogue? Is it harder?
EJ: Clayton came up with the idea of combining Groundhog Day with martial arts, and the script really wrote itself once we settled on an average dope waking up to go get a hamburger but getting stopped by a gang, and repeating his day makes him a martial arts master. I wrote part 2 around the escalation of that battle until the Dope and the villain become the same person through the “repeating” process, and it becomes an endless cycle. The only solution is to stop escalating, which is the Dope’s “conversion” moment that infects the villain.
When you write stories like these, the action writes itself, and it should always be written within the confines of the story. Had we gone into Blindsided with some kind of preconceived notion of what moves we wanted to do or certain camera tricks, we wouldn’t have let the story reveal the action to us. So writing the action is just about writing the story beats. All the kicks and punches emerge later on.
BK: Do you think it’s possible to make a feature length action movie similar to the Rope-a-Dope series or is that dialogue-less, full on action motif best suited for short films?
EJ: Making a feature film version of Rope-A-Dope would have to include dialog. I think it might be too cute otherwise, like a 90 minute music video. You just can’t hold gags like that for an entire feature film. Obviously there have been plenty of silent features, but one involving martial arts would probably need dialog during its downtime.
BK: Your feature film Death Grip has a different tone than Blindsided and the Rope-a-Dope series. Death Grip has funny moments but is very dark and kind of bleak at times. Death Grip is also incredibly violent. Blindsided and the Rope-a-Dope series are fun and, to a degree, lighthearted, even with non-stop fighting. Was that tone shift something you wanted to do because it’s more in line with your personality, or was the tone difference based solely on the material?
EJ: Everyone has to write their gut-wrenching script, and mine was Death Grip. I wrote a lot of myself into the Kenny character. He started originally as a pizza delivery boy, but everyone writes that character when they’re writing themselves! When you write yourself into a character, you give him too much power, like he exists outside of the film. Your villain and side characters always end up being more interesting. After Death Grip it was clear people wanted something more “fun” and grounded. So we wrote Rope-A-Dope and Blindsided for that broader market, and Clayton was instrumental in crafting those.
BK: The “bathroom” fight scene in Death Grip is brilliant. You could almost call it “real life slow motion.” How did you come up with the idea for that scene? Have you personally broken a toilet with an automatic flusher?
EJ: There’s so much comedy surrounding automatic toilets. The scene wrote itself and it never really changed from draft 1. Johnny and Nathan also came up with a lot of good gags on the spot, too. We could’ve spent a week shooting that scene, it was so fun.
BK: How did you get involved in making video games? Was it something that you pursued or was it something that just sort of happened?
EJ: Video game animators and directors are always looking for fresh talent to plug into their world. I was fortunate enough to be discovered on YouTube by a few game companies, because as of late 2015 I’ve been recreating fighting game characters in my garage and playing it side by side with the originals. It started as a workout, but it became a sort of demo reel. I get almost every job because someone saw me on YouTube.
BK: When you do fight choreography, how much is planned ahead of time and how often do you have to come up with something on the fly because your original idea isn’t working? What is it about fight choreography that people misunderstand/don’t get?
EJ: We used to just shoot everything on the spot. When you’ve got a small budget and a bunch of talented stunt guys who just wanna make something cool you can get away with that. The group battle in Death Grip was a 6-day shoot for that reason. By contrast we choreographed most of Rope-A-Dope in advance, and then all of Blindsided. Clayton extended that prep period to allow us to fine-tune the character. Of course a lot of it changes on the day, and because of time constraints we decided to cut down on the camera coverage, which forced us into doing a lot more one-take shots. It all evolves naturally from there if your crew knows action, and in our case every key person in front and behind the camera was a stuntman. But we still wouldn’t have been able to shoot Blindsided on a budget with a 20-person crew if we hadn’t prepped the action in advance.
BK: How has your moviemaking changed since you started, and how has the industry changed since you began? Do you find it harder to get people interested in low budget/independent action movies than when you started, both in terms of finding investors and finding an audience?
EJ: Thanks to working with Clayton I’ve focused much more on story ever since Death Grip. That’s what drives every scene in the film, especially the action. It liberates us from that terrible blank slate where you just don’t know what to do next, where nothing feels connected anymore. Letting the story dictate the action has a Pandora’s Box effect and suddenly you’re flooded with more ideas than you know what to do with.
Regarding investment, whether it’s financially or in viewership, things have only gotten easier. It’s been a long road since 2001 when we started making indie action films based on the Hong Kong film model, but we were never afraid to try things and fail, and we pieced apart what worked and honed the art, which YouTube has made even easier with its analytics. Now with 7 billion filmmakers out there we’re exposed to more ideas than ever, and we have all the classics of the world at our fingertips. We just reach out and grab them, and suddenly we have an entire legacy to be inspired by. We have to let ourselves be guided by those cinematic masters, because that’s the culture they’ve handed down to us. Once we acknowledge our participation in that culture, we can connect with our audience intimately and find real innovation.
BK: Who are your moviemaking heroes? Favorite director?
EJ: Chaplin was a masterful storyteller. So were Hal Roach, the Marx Bros., Keaton, Lloyd, WC Fields, The Three Stooges, Jerry Lewis. Those Vaudevillian comedians just knew how to deliver a story with their bodies. They act as the comedic relief, they become the oddball that we laugh at but at the same time identify with. They teach us self-deprecation, the ultimate martial arts move. Peking Opera was the same institution as Vaudeville in Hong Kong, which is why Jackie Chan used so many of the same tricks.
BK: Do you have a “dream project” that you want to make but just haven’t been able to yet?
EJ: If Law could come back from Contour and get stuck in Hong Kong or Thailand, we might have something.
BK: Outside of Blindsided, do you have any other projects in the pipeline?
EJ: Clayton and I are working on more short films for the JB Productions label as well as prepping a feature film.
BK: Will we ever see a Martial Arts Mafia movie? Does every town have a Martial Arts Mafia?
EJ: Writing a Rope-A-Dope feature film is a tricky task. I think every town does have a Martial Arts Mafia who just want to throw rocks through windows and stop people from getting hamburgers. I’d like to know who’s funding them all.
Thanks again to Eric Jacobus for participating in this interview and to david j. moore for setting it up.
Check out Eric Jacobus’ YouTube page here
(1) Image courtesy of Eric Jacobus website and tonychu.com
(2) Image courtesy of Forces of Geek.com
(3) Image courtesy of david j. moore
(4) Image courtesy of david j. moore