THE FIGHTING JOURNEYMAN: An Interview With Eric Nguyen

This week I'm actually running several interviews and a few are taking time to develop. In the meantime, it's been over three years since I started Film Combat Syndicate and having incidentally crossed paths with independent filmmaker, Eric Nguyen, by way of his YouTube channel, Lunar Stunts, I couldn't think of a better time to spend my time sharing a one-on-one interview.

That said, being the fan of the martial arts genre that I am and having grown largely dependant on online content as a means of entertainment and observing where we genuinely stand on the evolution of the genre, I have to say that Nguyen is far from being the exception. There are literally dozens upon dozens of talented stunt performers and filmmakers who work on an independent level with the advantage that sites like YouTube have given them, and Nguyen is one of them, showcasing to the world exactly what he's good at, and then some.

He acts and occasionally performs stunts, but he especially exercises his strengths behind the camera as well with his brother, Irvin, and fellow Lunar principle, Mikey Arce, among the team getting down and dirty to help manifest Eric's vision. It's an honor to see people like him doing what he does and a true gift to the genre as it adds to the potential quality it often starves within the mainstream, and you needn't look further than the content on his channel with projects like Eat.Pray.Ninja. and the Pandora's Box trilogy, and several of his collaborations with other filmmakers which are also online.

Hell, even his Lunar Stunts reel for 2015 is exemplary in that regard, and it goes to show just how driven he is - also humble, passionate and professional. But more importantly, he's got the best attiude and an infectious aura of happiness that comes with the bliss of doing what he loves, and it's what made interviewing him as worthwhile as it was.

Alas, I invite you all to share in that same glee, and enjoy my latest Q&A with the one and only Eric Nguyen.

Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Eric, and thank you for taking the time to share your story with us. How has the year been for you so far?
Eric Nguyen: Hello Lee! Year's been great, keeping busy. I thought 2014 was crazy, this whole year would definitely have to beat that. Extra projects, collaborations with different stunt groups and production teams... Yeah, keeping ourselves really busy.
FCSyndicate: Indeed and I love every minute of it. Tell us about yourself and how you got into making films.
EN: Of course! I am a stunt coordinator, martial artist, and a filmmaker. I got into films I would say...when I was eight years old. Back in Washington state, I was a martial artist alongside my little brother Irvin studying Hapkido and watching action films really caught my fascination to filmmaking. From there, Irvin and I would just talk about random concepts and ideas although we never owned a video camera. Eventually, I thought it was a dying passion, until my father purchased one for himself. One day while my parents were at work, Irvin and I were home and we took his video camera and made ourselves a little "action movie" called "Fighter For All" [laughs], and to this day I still have it. When I was about thirteen, my oldest brother told me to get an internship at a local television station. That really set off my film career, and would have to thank him for that. I grew more in love with it everyday because I get to share my work with other people. Then I was exposed to YouTube and started posting videos there, and to this day I still am.
FCSyndicate: What are some of your favorite titles?
EN: Oh man that's always a hard question to answer [laughs]. I love martial art films - Rumble in the Bronx would have to be one of my favorites. As much as I love Jackie Chan films, the major inspiration for me and Lunar Stunts would have to be Jet Li films since we do a lot of action design as well, and not just fight choreography. Some of films Jet Li starred in (i.e. Meltdown a.k.a. High Risk), had some of the craziest action designs I ever seen. All these older martial arts films, led me to my other favorite pieces like Rambo, Casino Royale and the Bourne Trilogy. I enjoy action cinema so much man, and it's crazy how much it elevated throughout the years. 
Oldboy, I remembered, got me serious in the cinematic game. I remember thinking "...Man, the action was good, but that camera work though...". It got me to analyze beyond the action and the overall beauty of it - How it was framed, the sense of the direction, the color grading, the story, etc.  I knew from there I had to step up my filmmaking game. 
From L to R: Neil Aguilera, Irvin Nguyen, Fernando Jay Huerto and Eric Nguyen on the set of Battle Hero Absolute - Jabronie Pictures (2014)
I remember Fernando Jay Huerto of Jabronie Pictures telling me WAY back when I was sixteen: "You got the physical skills and fighting down. You just got to step up your technical skills." and he was right! So instead of just posting fight scenes, I started to trying to make short films. I wanted to tell stories now, even if it's the crappiest story ever I had to try. I was clearly in unfamiliar  territory and that's when knowing people like Jeffrey Griffith, Eric Jacobus and many more really helped me. 
FCSyndicate: Is that how you formed Lunar Stunts?
EN: Yes, I wanted Lunar Stunts to be more than just a group of fighters who can do fight scenes. I wanted us to be a group of individuals who are not only screen-fighters, but a group of individuals who love producing short films. That's why we call ourselves Lunar Stunts Action Cinema; When we made that change, we stuck with a direction and mission to try and show visual stories while making them look as pretty as we can with whatever we have.
FCSyndicate: Well you're doing quite nicely so far and alongside your brother in front of the camera at that. What's it like working with Irvin on your projects?
EN: Thanks man, I appreciate it.  If you noticed, I used to be in front of the camera a lot [laughs]. When we started to trying to step up our filmmaking game, I decided to step out and learn more about being behind the lens. It's great to work with Irvin on my projects, I mean...I share this company with him as much as I can. The guy is a beast, extremely athletic! I need to find a way to utilize all of his skills because I've been with him my entire life, and yet I'm learning new things about his skills. It doesn't make sense to me AT ALL! [haha] I was coordinating with Irvin recently with a studio company in Orange County, and the guy can be hyper sometimes on set. He would just throw random moves I've never seen before and I'd be like "Wait...WHAT?". He's an extremely well-rounded athlete and martial artist. He devotes his life to martial arts. You should see his schedule: He's doing Muay Thai in the morning at Kings MMA, he works out between AND teaches Tae Kwon Do full-time, AND then he works out more, AND sometimes we hit the gymnastics gym together... 
...AND on top of that, on varying days we do our Lunar Stunts training with the team. Irvin's a beast. That's like me with filmmaking [laughs]. It's great though, because we always have fun when we shoot. It's not as stressful, although it can be sometimes [laughs]. Like I said, he always throwing new moves and I feel like I'm totally under-using the guy. I need to find a way to bring his full potential out.
FCSyndicate: I actually did find it fascinating that you were working more behind the lens than in front, though you still do make a few appearances in certain projects. One of the biggest collaborations I've seen so far with you involved was Eric Jacobus's hit shortfilm, Rope-A-Dope sequel this year. Tell us about working on that project. What memories can you share with us?
The cast of Rope-A-Dope 2: Return Of The Martial Arts Mafia - The Stunt People (2015)
EN: [laughs] Yes you're right I do make appearances every now and then. I helped Eric Jacobus before on his feature film "Death Grip". Such an honor. The guy's super nice too! I remember training with him - I had just turned eighteen, and it was one of my first stunt gigs not as a minor. I was honored when he invited me to help him out with Rope-A-Dope as you mentioned. He invited me and I drove there from Southern California where I live now, and I actually didn't expect to see so many stunt people there. I had the privilege to chat with probably every one of them at some point like Dennis Ruel, Edward Kahana, Clayton Barber, and so many more. I was surprised that most of them have seen my stuff! [laughs]. They gave me their words of wisdom and they all had amazing stories to tell me and I was probably analyzing all of them like a book on set studying their work ethic.
A lot of stunt guys I worked with before were there too. I talked to Eric a little that time, though not as much as I did on Death Grip, because he was always needed rightfully so since he's the star. That guy can multi-task though, I have to credit him on that. It was a fun set. I get to toss Eric onto a pole, have him throw a garbage lid at me, drop kick him, and knock me out of commission with a pool stick [laughs]. He never met Irvin yet (dude, imagine that combination! [laughs]). 
Doing all these collaborations is definitely one of the best way to learn this kind of stuff. My recent big collaboration would have to be with Jabronie Pictures, Eclipse Stunts, and Rising Tiger on an all out brawl. That should be coming out soon, so look out for that! :-D
FCSyndicate: I absolutely look forward to that project! And I'm also fascinated by something you've dubbed as The Fighting Journey. What motivated this particular series for you?
EN: The Fighting Journey kind of resembles our journey to play with choreography. It's either testing ourselves to see how far we've come, or trying completely new things. It started out that way too, if you remember from the first episode. 
Before then I was having a streak of short films and sketches. Irvin and I wanted to test ourselves then and as I was editing it, I was telling Irvin and Mikey, "Should this be like a little mini series, of fights?". So that's how it kind of got started and gradually it became something so I'm happy with how it's turning out. It's like a story, a thematic journey or quest, and you're watching our progress.
Still from The Fighting Journey VIII: Uncharted - Lunar Stunts (2015)
FCSyndicate: I think it works nicely as a Lunar "series" of sorts, almost like a diary in a way.
EN: [laughs] Thank you. Yeah it's absolutely crazy, because I remember talking to one of my producer friends Gregory Dengler, and he told me that I have to try and go all out if I can. How can I step up? I had to try to amp up my action design skills, and that's when I shot the car stunt on Fair Game about three years ago. It was one of the hardest things to shoot because I was out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, I lost a chunk of that footage too; there was supposed to be a part where Jeffrey was sliding on the ground hanging on to the car so the whole scene was cut a little short. So I took everything I learned from that and applied it to Pandora's Box 3, where the car chase was bigger. I actually went through stunt driving training to learn more about the maneuvers. You don't even know Lee, I have so much in store in terms of car stunts [laughs]. I have to elevate it every time. Similar to fight scenes - My approach when I go about the choreography, is speed. That's why like I said: Jet Li is one of our common inspirations. The guy is fast, and CLEAN. I love intense fight choreography and if you ask any of the indie directors I've worked with, they would say the two most common words I always used in my vernacular were "speed" and "intensity". 
Of course it depends on the type of films I'm working on, but I always embrace intensity. Selling the moves like your character MEANS it. We go through the entire choreography in chunks. I have a limit on how much we choreograph, because stunt guys can pop ideas like that, and if we just keep going we'll never get anything done, I call it "dreaming" [laughs], when we linger too long with the choreography. Sometimes Irvin, Mikey and I would choreograph something during a conceptual pre-viz, and we linger so much that I would stop and ask "Are we dreaming? We're going too far huh, okay, let's just rehearse that first bit." [laughs]. Especially when working with Jeffrey Griffith, the guy never runs out of fuel, we dream a lot before we shoot  [laughs]. So yeah, I plan on doing bigger stuff to see if I can reach another milestone in the indie circuit maybe.
FCSyndicate: I think it's okay to dream - Confession: Sometimes I day dream and choreograph fights in my head... Just sometimes, but then I settle back into reality before I break the furniture again or hurt my foot on something.
EN: [laughs]
FCSyndicate: What are some pet peeves or criticisms you have when it comes to action sequences and fights? I ask because can tell you that as an example, even films like The Raid have its share of critics. It's funny but it's also very, VERY interesting to learn and see how other stunt coordinators critique and point out how fights should be done, and it's such an important conversation to have, in my opinion.
EN: I agree with you. It can be very interesting because they all seem to have different sorts of input on everything. Honestly, it's hard for me to critique anything because I respect all forms of action and there are so many that I still need to learn and get better at. I feel like I'm better at critiquing people who are simply starting out action choreography, because the mistakes are obvious. It's one of those things where there is no right or wrong way of doing things. 
Some would say Tony Jaa's fight choreography style is flawed because it's too slow, but I think it's unique and it brought something new or something we haven't seen too much of. There are always reasons on both ends of the spectrum for anything so it's hard for someone like myself who's open to doing all forms of action to have some kind of opinion on anything. Really, when I try to critique someone's action work, I would say what I want "more of" or "less of", but as an audience member/viewer. My natural reaction. But it's hard for me to say, "you should've added two more punches there" or "I don't understand why they're doing that" because the common response would be their defense on why they did it, and most of the time it's a valid response. That or I'm just too nice [laughs]. 
I really don't know. Wait until I'm around 50 years old, then I can answer that question easier  [laughs].
FCSyndicate: Fifty is the standard [laughs], understood! I'm curious about what your position is regarding the martial arts genre in today's marketplace. I've been blogging for a few years and I've come across several projects that have come and gone, and at least one director I spoke to who was supposed to start filming this year prior to its cancellation was (and I'm paraphrasing in sum) that martial arts films weren't in demand. What's your response to that sort of thing? Personally it gets me in a twist!
EN: I think there should be more martial arts films in America! Martial arts is becoming a much more prominent tool now in Hollywood, a reference more or less for films like John Wick. If anything, television is dominating the martial arts genre - just look at Arrow or Into The Badlands, man! I feel at least as an audience, that there are high demands for the martial arts genre. 
I can see why it gets you in a twist. [laughs]
FCSyndicate: You're absolutely correct. Moreover I think in certain instances there are other factors that complicate it but there has been a high demand in martial arts entertainment, and especially in television.

Do you predict a move to TV as well? Where do you see yourself seugeing in the next of any number of years?
EN: Yeah, television is stepping up. Maybe someday it will dominate the film industry... we'll never know until that day comes, and I wouldn't mind transitioning into television. There's definitely a common relationship with television and YouTube. 
In the next years or so I'm hoping to thrive in the industry in the camera department as well as the action department. I used to do a lot of stunt jobs and lately I've been shifting myself in the realm of stunt coordination. And man, it's a whole different ball park, though it seems fitting for me, since I'm so used to being behind the lens and all, so I'm hoping to do that and STILL produce my own short films on the side. I will always produce short films on the side.
FCSyndicate: I have no arguement there! [laughs] Is there anyone in particular you would absolutely love to shoot with between now and next year? Any short term plans between now and then?
EN: I've been wanting to work with a lot many talents I want to utilize on these episodes. I would definitely love to watch Vlad Rimburg's and Emmanuel Manzanares's work ethic man [laughs]. Maybe I'll get something going, you never know! However in the meantime, I've been working with this company, Studio A138, on their Ultra-Sabers concept, and I will say on one of The Fighting Journey episodes there will be a Street Fighter/Tekken style fight, like literally with 2D Camera moves following two guys with dynamic 2D effects on connected moves. I'm also planning a "Go-Pro Short", utilizing Irvin's action and parkour skills. Mikey Arce and I are also conceptualizing our next short film, "Celsius", in which principal photography will take place late November.
FCSyndicate: I think a collab with you, Emmanuel and Vlad would be incredible. Just wanna put that out there.

As things stand, what are some of the most important lessons on filmmaking you take with you between now and next year? Essentially, what advice can you offer to other aspiring creators like yourself?
EN: One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to never stop learning. There's a limit to how much you can be satisfied with your project; If you're too satisfied and too heartfelt towards it, you end up what I call "marrying" your project, which results to one getting excessively defensive, and they grasp nothing. There's a time to put your pride aside, accept the feedback, and move on. However, never be discouraged though. That's what I meant when I say there's a limit to satisfaction. 
Be proud that you accomplished something. Be proud that you worked so hard and that the process was profound itself. Then move on whilst seeing that you CAN do better. There's always room for improvement.
FCSyndicate: I wholly agree! What movies are you looking forward to from here through 2016? Any one or few specific titles you'll be first at the theater for?
EN: Spectre all the way man! There are few more titles I'm looking forward to The Hateful Eight, and especially The Revenant looks really well shot. Getting into Deadpool also...Man... so many awesome movies coming out!

FCSyndicate: I think you just about upset all people waiting to see The Force Awakens there. :-P *shakes fist* How could you, Eric!?
EN: [laughs] I did that on purpose, it's amazing you noticed. I've been doing that to people whenever they raise that same question. Of course I'm going to see it, I'm a huge fan of J.J. Abrams. I love the way he produced the Star Trek films, I'm sure this one will turn out so well.
FCSyndicate: Me too. I actually had dinner a few moments prior to the question so I'm pretty proud of myself. I feel smarter for it. ^o^/
Any last words?
EN: Hmm, to the indie action community, stay strong!
FCSyndicate: Excellent. You stay strong as well. Good luck Eric, and we'll definitely be in touch!
EN: Thank you Lee! I always appreciate your kind words!


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