Don “The Dragon” Wilson is one of the few remaining legends of the video era. He’s starred in more than thirty films and helped to keep Roger Corman’s New Concorde company running strong during that time period. Many of his contemporaries are long gone but he’s still doing what he does best. We can’t forget his career as a professional kickboxer, an 11 time world champion with forty seven knockouts. In recent years, Don has teamed up with his brother James Wilson to form Traditionz Entertainment. Along with director Michael Baumgarten, they released their first film under the banner in 2015, THE MARTIAL ARTS KID. Being sure not to interrupt their winning streak, the second production, PAYING MR. MCGETTY is gearing up for a festival run. Don and James are extremely excited about their latest endeavors and I recently caught up with the duo to find out more about what they have in store for their fans.
Corey Danna: After you did THE LAST SENTINEL, there was a large gap in between films. Was there a particular reason for this?
Don Wilson: Actors only do what they’re offered. I like THE LAST SENTINEL, it was very successful, possibly one of my most successful films, financially I mean. They’ve all made profits but this film in particular earned its money back really fast. I can’t take all the credit though. Katee Sackhoff was really hot at the time because of BATTLESTAR GALACTICA and we made a huge sale to the SyFy Channel. It was a really good movie and I liked it. I didn’t want to go backwards, I was being offered things that were ultra-low budget with no other stars and I didn’t like the scripts. So basically, I just wasn’t interested in going backwards, I wanted to keep moving forwards. I’ve tried to do this all throughout my career, doing projects that are completely different from each other, something bigger and better than the previous one. Then I did start doing some films as an ‘actor for hire’. Michael Madsen (RESERVOIR DOGS) is one of the guys who advised me to do this. If you look back at my career, if I wasn’t the star, I just wasn’t in the movie. So now, I’ve started to do the ‘actor for hire’ thing. My agent at the time didn’t want me to do it for a number of years but it’s turned out to be a lot of fun. I went in and did the opening for THE SCORPION KING 4, I did WHITE TIGER, which was sort of a buddy picture and I was in that one quite a bit, I did a comedy called ENTER THE FIST. My scene was actually with Taimak (THE LAST DRAGON) and Ernie Reyes Jr. (SURF NINJAS). If I don’t star in four or five films a year, my fans think I’ve retired (laughs). I came along in the 80’s and there was a phenomenon called the Video Store. I was never a movie or television star, I was a video star. Even though people watched my product on television, it was never a series or had anything to do with television, it was a VHS. Eventually the market went away, the video stores were gone, so the ride was basically over. To give you an idea what it was like, I had on my desk, fifteen scripts from fifteen different producers with offers to be in their films. I can’t sit here and tell you that I had read all of the scripts. I didn’t want to turn down a project that might end up being really good. I didn’t want to have to kick myself in the rear end for turning down a great project because you didn’t want to waste time reading the script. I did skim through them but I also can’t say that all fifteen scripts were GONE WITH THE WIND either. The budgets were pretty low and the studios weren’t Warner Brothers or Paramount, they were independent films. I tried to pick the best scripts and work on them myself as a co-producer which I’ve been doing ever since my third film. I wanted to make sure the quality of them was as good as possible on the budgets we’ve had. I think I’ve done that and I’ve starred in thirty films. I’m the only kickboxer, there were a lot of them in the 80’s, but I’m the only one who is still making films. There was this kickboxer turn actor phenomenon that went on right after BLOODSPORT and there were dozens of guys trying to transition into acting and I was one of them at that time. Now, I’m the only one left. I have learned this, sometimes you think you’re taking a move up when the budget is bigger but that’s not always true. There’s the movie DALLAS BUYERS CLUB, it was a low budget, independent film and both actors won the Academy Award. It was shot in like twenty eight days and they had to light scenes using candles and stuff. I read about the making of the film. I really do believe that it’s not all about the money, stunts, or explosions. The script is important, the director is important, and the production company you’re working. The quality of their previous products is key and those are the things I look for. So it took me that long to find projects that were really good. Now Corey, back to you!
CD: James, this next question is for you. You just recently entered the producing game. With a career as long as Don has had, why did you decide to start now?
James Wilson: There’s multiple reasons, some personal, but basically it was never really my intention to produce until I was at a party once and I was introduced to a producer who was talking with Cynthia Rothrock. I thought I was doing a favor to my brother by mentioning that he should get Don and Cynthia, a couple of young people, and put them in a movie together as co-leads. The guy laughed at me and said it would never work and mentioned that Don and Cynthia were too old. That didn’t make any sense to me so I approached my brother about an idea I had for THE MARTIAL ARTS KID and he said he was in. I talked to Cynthia and she was in. I talked to Michael Baumgarten and he said he would write it and that’s how it started. The experience was so good with all these people pitching in to help from the martial arts community that it’s led to PAYING MR. MCGETTY and we’re looking at THE MARTIAL ARTS KID 2 and another one called BLOOD RAIN. It was never my intention to do it but I let an insult push me a little bit. That’s how it all started and I’m glad I did.
CD: The films you have done with Baumgarten are different from what’s expected of Don’s films. They still deliver the action and excitement the audiences want to see but they’re more family friendly.
DW: You’re right, most of my films are ‘R’ rated so the main difference is that you can watch these films with your family.
JW: Don and Cynthia really liked the idea of Uncle Glenn and Aunt Cindy so they essentially created those characters themselves with Baumgarten and they were able to play characters who were more like themselves. Cynthia had mentioned she had never played a mother with a husband before and Don mentioned that all his wives had been killed right away in his movies.
DW: They were all killed by drunk drivers in my films (laughs).
JW: They were able to play characters they could relate to and they really wanted to. A lot o f times they play the same types of characters over and over again. We knew they both could act and I knew Don could change up his character quite easily, I had seen glimpses of it in films like RED SUN RISING and he was perfect in it. We wanted to make a movie with a message as well and we wanted to show some things we felt were lacking in THE KARATE KID which all martial artists love, including myself. The very image of a Miyagi who was a hermit and a hard drinker, no parent would ever let their child take lessons from someone like that. The sensei you look up to and respect just wasn’t realistic. Since we were real martial artists from the martial arts community, we knew the teacher should be a respect member of that community and he has his own family 90% of the time. He wasn’t some mystical guy from Asia, he’s a real guy, a normal human being. In the movie, the teacher needs the student more than the student needs the teacher and we didn’t feel it was the proper way to portray it. We certainly didn’t want a guy who was going to grab flies out of the air with chopsticks. We wanted our techniques to look real and to be real. When you see the lessons in the dojo, those are the things that Don would really teach.
CD: That’s what I really enjoyed about the film. I watched it with my nine year old daughter and she was getting and understanding all these positive messages. You don’t see enough of stuff like that in modern cinema.
DW: When you watch THE MARTIAL ARTS KID, the lessons they learn in the film are actually the lessons we teach for real. When you watch ROCKY and he’s getting ready to fight Apollo Creed, he’s chasing chickens for his foot work. You can chase all the chickens you want but you’re never going to be able to box, or kick box, that’s for the movies. We showed the real way with the training, the stretching, hitting the bags so I don’t see why you have to do this fake movie type training. We made a joke about the “wax on, wax off”, if that really taught you how to fight and all the people working at the car wash would be boxing champions, right?
JW: You really understood the message we were trying to get across by slipping it in with all the entertainment aspects of the film. Honor, respect, the responsibility, the not becoming a bully, and to protect others is what we want people to take away from it. We also really wanted to show just how important family is and being able to count on them.
DW: The film has a lot more realism in it than the Jackie Chan version or the original. It was made by martial artists and I’m glad that people like you get the message.
CD: It was really refreshing to me to see that. It was also great to see someone like T. J. Storm have a prominent role in the film. He’s someone who is criminally under-used.
JW: T.J. was great and we hope to have him back for the sequel.
DW: His character had no moral code. He’s training all these people with no moral code so he’s basically just training them to beat up other people. That’s a dangerous thing. In reality, as a martial artist, once you become a black belt, you’ve learned honor, discipline, and respect. So his character has some more learning to do.
CD: Your new film is called PAYING MR. MCGETTY. Can you tell me a bit about how this project originated?
JW: The way it came about originally was when we were filming THE MARTIAL ARTS KID. Marcos Taylor is in it and his acting is so good and he was so funny. He also worked really well with Don so I talked to him about doing something with us later. So I developed an idea Baumgarten and we discussed it with Don. We originally planned to have Marcos being chased the whole time by Don. Marcos is really athletic guy and even at his size, this guy can do back flips, jump off of walls, and does all kinds of amazing kicks. Our idea is that he would be like a Jackie Chan type of character and Don would be the hitman trying to hunt him down. Now this is how fast we had to change gears, the very first day of shooting, Marcos injured his knee and all that was out. We met up, changed things as fast as we could, and that’s how it came about. Marcos really believes the film got better after all the changes. It wasn’t our original intent but the acting became more important, the story became more important, and we were able to throw in some strange and unique moments into the film.
CD: It’s interesting because it’s really tough to classify the film.
JW: (laughs) Yeah, we do know that and we felt it was pretty risky too.
CD: It worked amazingly well!
JW: Thank you! We’ve showed it to three big audiences now and the stress was off after that. They really let us know they liked it and laughed at all the right moments.
DW: Did you ever see the movie AFTER HOURS?
CD: Martin Scorsese! It’s been years though since I’ve seen it.
DW: Yes! It takes place in a single day and a bunch of strange things happen to the guy and it’s a dark comedy. All these strange coincidences happen to this poor guy. I think our film has a very similar format. Of course that’s the only similarity but it does have that same format.
JW: It was never meant to be that way. The movie you guys are talking about, I’ve never seen.
DW: It’s a genre that’s not over saturated and Martin Scorsese thought it was an interesting genre to work in as well and I don’t think I’ve seen a film like it since then.
JW: We know it’s very quirky and we intended it to be. After we decided to head in that direction, we just really went for it.
DW: The teacher that Marcos sees in his dream state shows up in several scenes with me. If you noticed, he appears out of nowhere during a few of my scenes. It makes it tough to figure out if he’s a real character or a figment of Marcos’ imagination. Even I don’t know the answer to that one.
JW: We knew it would be risky but we were happy with how it turned out.
CD: Don, how would you describe your character Shota Kabu?
DW: I think he’s a cross between Leon from THE PROFESSIONAL and the hitman from NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. He has a bad haircut, wears an old sweatshirt, and I really played down the whole wardrobe thing. Normally for a film when I’m the lead I always make sure I have a nice haircut but this time I didn’t want to look good. In my opinion, he’s sort of a redeemable hitman and he does have some scruples. He doesn’t want to take things out on someone who doesn’t deserve it. In the opening scene he kills someone but we make it obvious it’s someone who deserves it and does what he’s paid to do. If I faced any challenge at all with this character was to make him deadly but not evil.
JW: A lot of people were really surprised that Don looked so scary in that opening scene.
CD: I really admire how Don’s acting has matured over the years. With a film like this, you’re given the opportunity to show off your range. Some of your previous roles didn’t really give you that opportunity.
DW: Oh wow, thank you! Even “The Dragon” can do a little acting after thirty years! (laughs) I guess if you do anything for thirty years you should get better at it. This goes for any actor. If you look good or bad in a movie, the director makes the movie. An actor is only as good as his director. As an actor, you’re at the mercy of the producers and the director. Working with Michael Baumgarten and my brother has given me the freedom to do things I’ve wanted to as an actor and they edited out the things they didn’t feel worked. This is a team effort, a movie like this isn’t a ‘one man show’. The movie isn’t just me and I have to give credit to everyone involved.
CD: What are your plans for the release?
JW: We’re going to play a few more festivals and then release it. Luckily for us, one of the things helping to create interest in the film is the uniqueness of it. We don’t have the problem where someone can go out and find something similar to us, we stand on our own.
CD: Aside from PAYING MR. MCGETTY, is there anything else you guys have lined up?
JW: In 2017, we’re going to be doing THE MARTIAL ARTS KID 2 and we’ll be doing a movie called BLOOD RAID.
CD: Thanks again for taking the time to talk with me. It was great meeting you at the book signing in Burbank last year.
DW: Right on, Corey! It was great meeting you too.
JW: Thank you, Corey! Take care.