Interview: Eric Jacobus (Blindsided, Death Grip)

In Interviews, Movies by Corey1 Comment

Eric Jacobus is one of the hardest working men in the business of action. He’s taken the classic Hong Kong style of fight films and has adapted it for American audiences. If you’re a martial arts fan, then you will know Jacobus. If not, then you need to get on YouTube now and check out his ultra-stylistic shorts with comedic flair or his ultra low budget features that explode with bone crushing action. With his latest short BLINDSIDED releasing today, I spoke with Eric at length about the film as well as reminisced about the golden age of Hong Kong action.

Corey Danna: I went back and re-watched all of your shorts on YouTube and it’s no secret you’re a huge Jackie Chan fan. I still remember clear as day the very first time I discovered him and his films. Do you still remember when you were first exposed to his work?

Eric Jacobus: I actually have a great, sad story in a way. I had seen a couple of the Jackie Chan movies that came out in theaters here. I was from a small town in Southern California so I didn’t get to see much in the way of Hong Kong films when I was a kid. Jackie Chan was the first one I discovered out of those films. After seeing RUMBLE IN THE BRONX, I wanted to check out other films this guy has done. I looked up the best one I could find which was apparently DRUNKEN MASTER II. I looked it up to order the VHS from Tai Seng Entertainment and it was like $35. Import tapes were so expensive to buy back then. When I sat down to watch it, I had a feeling that this was as good as it was going to get. At that time I hadn’t seen much so I went from the gentle play of RUMBLE IN THE BRONX to the crash of DRUNKEN MASTER II right out of the gate. I completely overdosed on it and searched for everything else he did but DRUNKEN MASTER II is still probably the best one.

CD: I think you’re right.

EJ: After watching so many of these things you start to realize how great of a filmmaker he is too, the way he frames the fights, and how the comedy isn’t forced and just sort of naturally rises out of the situation.

CD: I remember flipping through the channels late one night and I came across this show on The Discovery Channel called THE INCREDIBLY STRANGE FILM SHOW. It was the early 90’s and they were showing a preview for the following week and that episode was dedicated to Jackie Chan. The clips they were showing were from stuff like POLICE STORY and DRAGON’S FOREVER.

EJ: Oh wow, it must have been great seeing that stuff back then.

CD: I was just blown away! It wasn’t as easy finding stuff back then. I live in a small town in Michigan and the internet was nothing like it is now. I bought stuff through Tai Seng but was also part of this underground tape trading community. It was the only way to find stuff like that unless you lived in a big city.

EJ: In the late 90’s, on my website, I started out reviewing movies. I would just review the action, I didn’t care about the story. I was just mostly reviewing Hong Kong martial arts films and this was the 90’s people over here were just discovering them. If you didn’t live in San Francisco, L.A., or London, you didn’t see these movies. Yeah, we had the B action films, we had Van Damme, the BEST OF THE BEST films, but it was the same as the stuff from Hong Kong. I discovered there was a whole world of these things and I started to find VCD’s. Do you remember those?

CD: Of course, I still have ARMOUR OF GOD II on VCD, a few more too I think.

EJ: I was making weekly trips to the San Francisco Chinatown, go to these ma and pa stores. They just wanted to get rid of them, they thought they were garbage. They were selling them three for $10, they didn’t even want the stuff.

CD: Those were the good ole days. Living where I do, there was nothing here. It was this great time of discovery, scouring every nook and cranny I could find on the internet bulletin boards.

EJ: Those copies could be such crap, they’d be third or fourth generation copies off a laserdisc master. At the time though, we had to settle for that.

CD: It wasn’t ideal but it was worth every penny I put into it.

EJ: Oh yeah, absolutely! You just mentioned it was this fun and fascinating time of discovery but I feel like those times might be gone.

CD: Sadly, but you’re right.

EJ: There’s nothing really left to find.

CD: When did you meet Clayton Barber and decide to for JB Productions?

EJ: We originally met almost ten years ago and I had just met with J.J Perry, he’s been a fight coordinator on a ton of films. I had sent J.J. a DVD of my first film CONTOURS (aka THE AGENT) and I think he had recommended it to Clayton. Since 2001, I had been making these short action films in the Hong Kong style and bringing them to the internet and I think with Clayton being a producer and a great storyteller, he became a perfect match. When we finally met up, he gave me tips on storytelling, and eventually after I did DEATH GRIP a few years later, we teamed up and did the ROPE A DOPE films. That was the start of our partnership and JB Productions.

CD: BLINDSIDED is a bit different from some of the previous shorts you’ve done. You also stepped away from the director’s chair and Clayton took your place for the first time. How did that help you performance wise and how do you think he did as a first time director?

EJ: Initially, that was the purpose so I could focus on my performance and creating the action. I had full faith in Clayton as a director because he’s such a great storyteller. He’s had so much experience working with directors, huge directors like Steven Spielberg, and he’s developed his own skills over the years. He really wanted to put it to the test and he wanted to direct a film with dialogue. When we crafted BLINDSIDED, we wanted to move beyond the music video mentality of our previous shorts. They were very successful in their own right but we wanted to do something a bit more mainstream and that’s where BLINDSIDED came from as well as solidifying our partnership.

CD: You get to see a bit of it during the end credits but you really took the preparation for the role seriously. Can you talk a bit about that?

EJ: We started writing the script from a place of ignorance I would say. We thought we knew how the world would work from a blind person’s perspective because we had seen ZATOICHI and BLIND FURY. We originally had Walter walking into all these situations where people were mean to him because he was blind. Then when we met Walter, the blind man who was our blind consultant was coincidentally named Walter, just like the character we had already written. We really didn’t understand anything until I spent the day with him as a blind man and walked around San Francisco with him. I felt like I understood the story more. When you interact with people when you’re blind, you start playing by a different set of rules. You’re not able to reciprocate the same way a sighted person does. You reciprocate based on what they’re saying and you’re responding based on your other senses like touch, smell, and that drastically altered the script. The mafia guys at the store have no idea how to interact with Walter and that’s why they step out of the way and wait for him to go away. The character is a smart guy and uses it all to his advantage. We were able to make a much deeper and funnier character in a sense. So working with our consultant Walter altered everything we were doing for the better and it was one of the best experiences of my life.

CD: Can you tell me a bit about how you designed the action for BLINDSIDED?

EJ: In the ROPE A DOPE series, we started to take the action a little bit more seriously with regards to prep. On CONTOUR, we spent like ten days on the fight scenes and like four hours a day to come up with everything on the spot. When you actually have a budget and only like four or five days to finish everything, you really need to evaluate everything. We started getting into pre-editing and mapped out all the action before the shoot. With BLINDSIDED, we really nailed the story of the fight scene in the gym and as far as my creative input it was a very organic process and Roger Yuen lent his talents to the fight scene as well. He always has so much to add and he’s a master in his own right. I think the main difference with BLINDSIDED was that we allowed the story to dictate the action. Right off the bat we asked ourselves who Walter was and what he would carry with him. He’s blind so we gave him a cane and maybe inside the handle there’s a little knife. We had to decide if we were going to have him jumping around like DAREDEVIL but that really wasn’t the character we were going after. He’s more grounded because he’s a blind man who still makes mistakes like drinking spoiled milk. He’s not a perfect guy and he’s not a superhero. It was never about doing this type of kick or flip, it was always about telling the best story we possibly could. The fight feels a little bit different than our previous efforts and more like a legitimate fight scene that tells a story as you watch it.

CD: One thing I really appreciated about the fight was all the little details and how you would show Walter’s other senses coming into play. You had the moment with the guy lifting his arm and Walter getting a whiff of his body odor. It was nice to see all this attention paid to little things like that.

EJ: There’s a certain amount of believability and we had to be careful with it. We didn’t want him to be super sensory or anything like that, otherwise we would just fall into that superhero trap. We just wanted to give him a little bit more than a regular sighted person. With the smelly armpit, it opens up a humorous aspect without being a super powered, and not something most people would think of.

CD: With this particular short, what sort of production schedule do you have to work with?

EJ: We shot the film in four days with a small pick-up day on the fifth. The first day we shot was in the liquor store, days two and three were the fight scene, those days ended up really tight. It wasn’t scheduled to be but we were unexpectedly limited by our location. Day four was at the house and actually there were a few scenes we cut out because it would have lengthened the shoot. The fifth day was short, we just had to take care of some pick-ups. So you can see that the fight scene was the bulk of the shoot. The day we shot the fight, we did the dialogue that appears before and after it on those days as well.

CD: Aside from the feature films you’ve done, YouTube has been your primary source for distributing you shorts, what are the advantages and disadvantages of doing it that way?

EJ: If you’re just using YouTube as a distribution platform, it’s really difficult to get eyes on your work, mainly because there is just so much out there. It’s a good problem to have though, I prefer to have too much content as opposed to none. It also forces people to be disciplined about how they consume media. Overall it’s been the way people have seen all of our products. Making films this way in the 90’s would be unimaginable. I know people did it but short films were really only shown at festivals and maybe a few VHS tapes floating around. Not much in the way of short films really made it out there. I think MTV’S LIQUID TELEVISION was really one of the only things out there getting short films to a mainstream audience. A lot of projects got their start there like BEAVIS AND BUTTHEAD and AEON FLUX. Now, it’s really not just YouTube anymore, there’s other social media. As long as you know how to market your content and as long as you’re creating a straight forward message without diverging too much you can be very successful. You have to be very disciplined about what kind of content you’re creating. We do action shorts on our YouTube channel and I’ve been very cautious as to what kinds of videos I put on there, especially if it doesn’t somehow discuss action. It’s called a channel for a reason because you want to create a theme for your content. Just stay focused on your vision, improve upon it, and listen to all the comments, I strongly advise that.

CD: BLINDSIDED is just long enough to get audiences into the story but it also opens up a whole new world where they are also going to want to see more. Is there any chance you may continue this story in a short format or possibly a feature?

EJ: We would like to do at least another short and experiment with a different kind of action. We really only scratched the surface of what Walter is capable of. We want to see what will happen when we put a longer blade in his hand and he might have a few tricks up his sleeve. As far as long form, we’re working on something right now to really give Walter a world to live in and really be able to tell our story. We’ll be giving updates on that stuff some point in the future.

CD: With this film, it really feels like it’s about to take you to the next level. Part of that reason was because Clayton was so confident behind the camera. I couldn’t help but get the feeling that you have found your Stanley Tong. I don’t think any other director knew how to handle Jackie aside from Jackie Chan himself.

EJ: That’s cool! The other thing Clayton has is the ability to bring a team together and he’s very careful with who he brings on. As a partnership, I have some say in that as well but I generally defer to Clayton when it comes to bringing people on board. For example, he brought on Nick Verdi, who played the main villain in the film but he was also our director of photography. Our producer, David No, he was also one of our camera operators, and he actually worked with Jackie Chan before. Tim Connolly, he’s a stuntman, and he ran B camera. These guys all know their stuff and they’re action people. Even the sound guy was a stuntman, so these guys all live and breathe the stuff.

CD: There’s really not too many people doing what you guys do anymore. These types of action films have all but disappeared. With the success of JOHN WICK, hopefully we will see them begin to rise again.

EJ: For sure, I think JOHN WICK will be an uptick in bringing them back. The key to the Hong Kong film style is that every link to the chain of command should all know action. If at some point you hire someone who conflicts with the action vision, that’s when things begin to get messed up. You still have the B action movies. These movies generate revenue, have a name star, but in terms of action, the JOHN WICK films show the audience the action perspective and they all know action. Another thing, with MMA being so popular, martial arts is coming into the mainstream and that’s another positive. The trends are looking good, it’s only a matter of time. Hopefully more people start doing this, more competition for us, and everyone will strive to do better. Hong Kong had it right for a long time but it somehow was derailed in the late 90’s and you can speculate all you want as to why that happened. It almost seemed like they were trying to adopt the Hollywood style while Hollywood was trying to adopt the Hong Kong film style, just look at JOHN WICK.

CD: That’s a bizarre turnaround.

EJ: Then you have Indonesian cinema with films like THE RAID. I hope the Indonesian market isn’t a flash in the pan the way Tony Jaa was for Thai cinema.

CD: It really seems to me like Jaa is finally back on the right track.

EJ: There was no Thailand market before Tony Jaa then suddenly it’s this huge, multimillion dollar industry and it was resting on his shoulders. That’s a lot of pressure for one guy and it’s understandable that he cracked a bit. He looks really good, he was the best part of SPL 2.

CD: He just looked like he was having a blast in XXX: THE RETURN OF XANDER CAGE.

EJ: I haven’t seen it yet but I’m looking forward to it.

CD: He steps a bit out of his comfort zone as far as acting goes and he’s really fun to watch.

EJ: Great!

CD: Do you have anything else in the works you would like to talk about?

EJ: We’re gonna continue to do some short films. We have something we are going to be working on in the months but I’m not sure it’s something I can talk about yet. We’re just going to keep on pushing shorts with a strong story and really try to combine it with the indie spirit of action.

CD: Thanks, Eric! It was really great talking to you and best of luck!

EJ: Anytime, man!

The wait is finally over!! You can check out BLINDSIDED below and see for yourself why Eric Jacobus is a true action hero!