TO WHOM IT MAY CONCERN: An Interview With Steven Yu
You might recognize the video above if you follow independent martial arts movies. Videos like these are a culmination of years of fandom and the hard work it takes to keep that fandom alive, and there's no question that actor, martial artist and stunt fighter Steven Yu has contributed his fair share, and with any luck, still is.
As it is, Yu is one of the dozens and dozens of people I've been following in the world of online independent film since 2004 when I first started watching Bilang.com tricking videos and Zero Gravity practice fights for my own evening enjoyment. (Sometimes my Quicktime player [I owned a PC, not a Mac] would crash, whereas my Windows Media Player would save the day. Fun times).
Jump over to 2005 and short films like Stephen Reedy's award-winning kung fu ninja comedy, Undercut would propel me into the workload of the San Francisco-based stunt and martial arts film team, The Stunt People, who would then go on to win further cult acclaim with their 2006 indie feature, Eric Jacobus's Contour, and if you haven't found yourself a copy of that movie yet, REDEEM YOURSELVES and buy it here, or get it here, or even here, OR here or even buy it here.
Anyway, back on topic... Yu had a small role in the film, but still marks a notch for his own career preceding his latest comedic role in Dennis Ruel's recently-released feature-length debut, Unlucky Stars, which instantly services fans as one of the best action films to date, and has possibly one of the best cameo appearances to an independent film of this caliber, much deserved at that, and in which Yu also appears. Yu talks briefly about this, and a whole lot more in an interview that I honestly didn't see coming, and I as you're reading this, I laughed as I typed it.
It's funny. Some of these performers taper off and disappear while others manage to stick around somehow, even if they aren't fully active on set nowadays. That said, Yu's craft in art and painting are also what peaked my interest as I grew up doing pencil drawings most of my young life, and it left me curious to see if Yu's direction here would go somewhere. As it turns out, that does appear to be the goal with a crowdfunder now running for his newest sci-fi action neo-noir fantasy graphic novel, Neo Eras which presents an amazing story so far and some intriguing artwork you will be able to view in this interview.
Personally, I hope Neo Eras becomes a thing after today. Only you guys can help make it happen, and Yu deserves every bit of support he can get. I say this as a fan of martial arts movies, and as someone who knows what it is like to be an artist climbing uphill against the tumbling boulders of life.
Enjoy the interview!
Film Combat Syndicate: Greetings Steven and thanks for getting back to me! How has the year been for you so far as we approach the Fall season?
Steven Yu: The year has been pretty good. Just moved to LA from the Bay Area and trying to adjust to the heat!
FCSyndicate: I'm a winter baby so I hear you there [laughs]. You've dabbled in quite a bit in various avenues of art throughout your life, initially in film and stunts, and I would just like for you to tell us and our readership about how you became involved in that field.
SY: Film was always a first love of mine. Of course, as a kid I didn't have access to a camera so drawing took that place of a camera. Now I'm coming back to the first passion and writing a lot of a cool things and finding the time to shoot stuff.
Martial arts was another passion, although that one started late. I was actually an overweight kid growing up and got picked on a lot. I got into Kung Fu around freshman year of high school. After graduation I started to explore various styles: taekwondo, capoeira, wushu, etc. Eventually kickboxing came it's way around college and I started to really get into that. Sparring was always a favorite past time for me.
During that college era I spent some time filming some martial arts stuff. The first collab I remember was with Eric Jacobus back in 1887! [laughs] ...No, not really, but it did feel like it was that long ago. 2002, I think. It's on youtube - "Docks" is what it was called. Ugh, we were so slow in that video.
|From the set of "Ness" (2009)|
SY: Back then I met Eric through the Jackie Chan fansite, Project S. That was back in 2000, I believe. There was a clip of Eric doing some tricks, and I reached out to him via email and we geeked out back and forth about our favorite Hong Kong films. It was several months later we would meet in person and shoot "Docks".
Around that time it was when I met Ed Kahana, Vlad Rimburg, Stephen Reedy, and Andy Leung. But then I was missing in action for about a year or two (school stuff) and in '05 I reached out to Eric again. It was then the group had multiplied. There, I met Dennis Ruel, Troy and Ray Carbonel, Bridger Fox, and co. I saw SP as a team with a variety of talented folks who I just knew right off the bat were super talented. That, and the fact we were all super dorky geeky nerds who lived off of action films just helped me fit right in!
SY: The Agent! [laughs] That was funny when I saw that one. It's Eric's head pasted on someone else's body!!
I had just started to come back into martial arts and creative stuff in 2005 with Eric and co. Contour was about to wrap up, but Eric was nice enough to get me into the mix!
SY: That was a fun one. Dennis asked me to work on it and play the loose cannon, Stan. He told me the guy was just out of his mind and was always unpredictable. You never knew when he was going to have a meltdown. I said, "Okay, let me do some acting research. I'll channel my inner Nic Cage". But Dennis said, (haha) "Nah, just...be yourself." [laughs]
Overall, it was fun. It was a crazy experience shooting the church scene. The other guys had the crazier schedule, but I remember being on set for 2 consecutive days and it was like... sleep at 3AM and then wake up at 5AM to get back into shooting mode. It was a passion project, but it also gave me some insight into how Dennis worked. The dude is really talented and his work ethic is amazing. It's actually because of watching him work it inspired me to start taking my own projects and go full speed into them. I think a lot of times we think films just appear, but when it's an indie production, we forget that a director really has to find the willpower to just go right into the work even when days are completely rough.
I don't think I'll ever do that again! But you learn. Evern film is a learning experience.
SY: We're all pursuing our own individual projects, but occasionally stay in touch with each other. I hang out with Dennis usually pretty frequently. Before I left the Bay Area I hung out with Bridger, Ed Kahana, Troy and Ray Carbonel on a couple of occasions. But everyone's busy, you know? We're all growns ups now :(
SY: I do a lot of storyboards and concept art. Mostly for film.
I think the thing that inspires me is knowing being creative allows me the opportunity to create my own productions. Especially now since the methods of distribution are changing, it really makes self-motivated artist want to get their stuff out there. 10-20 years ago we couldn't do that. We were waiting for the gate keepers to open the door, but now we don't have to. It's great. Does it have it's challenges? Yes. But when you get to do your own stuff that's when it's the most rewarding. You get to be accountable for your own projects.
SY: Sure thing! The story is about a 13 year-old orphan named Sam who lives in the the slums of a violent futuristic society. When her mother is brutally murdered the law turns a blind eye to her plea for help. Determine to seek justice, Sam finds a mysterious assassin named Simon, who will teach to become a lethal executioner and to exact revenge on her mother's killers.
The project is an original cyberpunk action graphic novel heavily inspired by the sci-fi I grew up watching (Blade Runner, Terminator 2, Aliens, Robocop, etc). It was a passion project of mine since I was 14. Back then I only had writings of the worldbuilding concepts, but as time went the story was developed and born was this tale of injustice and the need for self-determination in a cynical and harsh futuristic world. Much of it was influenced by a lot of the frustrations me and my friends of this generation had to go through: the ever-stressful nature of our economic system, the unfairness of the justice system, and the daily struggle of just trying to live in a world where you're constantly told where you should be, instead of helping you get to where you want to be.
And despite the heavy subject matter, it's got a good dose of humor and entertainment. I call it the "popcorn factor" - the stuff 80's/90's action movies had. Yes, they all had some deep meditation of human existence, but they also didn't forget to kick some ass in the meantime. Yes, "Neo Eras" has one-liners and comedic relief from time-to-time. It's totally 80's movie inspired :)
But trying to get this done has just been such a struggle. Time and resources are often at odds with the Artist. Life and work commitments also add to it. Every artists' dilemma is that juggle between what you love doing and making this month's rent, ya know? In fact, I left my cushy day job of 7 years to pursue this. Yes, it's insanity, but it's my baby. I want to watch it grow. There's a script and visuals for it, but now it's a matter of finding resources to put it together, which is one of the reasons why I created a patreon page for it to find patrons to help support it (patreon.com/neoeras). And I figure those who donate to it also get something cool in return: art, Q&A on art tips, the industry of illustration, marketing tips, commissions, etc. I've asked people to help share, like, or contribute to it if they want. No pressures. Just support and an awareness for what i'm trying to do is all I asked for.
SY: Sure. I mean, the graphic novel is heavily influenced by action cinema of the 80's/90's so I definitely see the direct transition to film and/or TV.
SY: I think the main difference lies in the message which is all about self-determination in the face of adversity. I think it's predecessors meditated perfectly on existential issues as related to technology and science. But Neo Eras isn't an existential meditation. The protagonists know exactly who they are and where they stand, but trying to navigate through a world that's just this overly-bureaucratic nightmare is insane!
I'm talking about ambition. Some people fall by the wayside because things "got tough". Most people fold under pressure. I've seen a lot of artists, directors, writers, and actors give up. It is tough, that I can totally agree with. Some came into the industry with an ambitious desires, but the weight of it all is just too much. But Neo Eras is all about moving forward. The main character, the 13 year-old orphan Sam, is the embodiment of determination and will. She's out for justice, yes, but the methods of making things right in a world filled with corruption and violence isn't at all different from our world, where artists are constantly trying to make despite the odds they face. I'm ultimately saying, "look, life IS tough. There's no doubt about that, but you end up being crushed by it if you don't stand up and fight for your dreams and what is right." That's a powerful thing, I believe.
There's a lot that goes into writing this story. I've kind of have to juggle being an artist, storyteller, actor (making the character's expression perfect), being the director, and eventually, funding it myself (producer). So it's kind of a headache, but I'm masochistic because I love this thing so much! [laughs].
I started a Patreon page for it, but I recently learned there are some negative connotations to it. And boy, was that a learning lesson! I won't go into it in details of my trials and tribulation of trying to get my project known to the public, but I think a lot of people consider it “crowdfunding” in that it's “take your money and run”. I saw Patreon as a pitch platform so that I could get the time and resources to put the project together. Me taking money and running would be ridiculous, considering I've been working on this project for since I was 14. Not to mention people have bought prints of concept art from my story at conventions and at exhibits, so there's a bit of a reputation there for me to consider.
Also, I have things on Patreon that rewards ongoing contributions to the project (art tips, open requests for commissions, illustration advice, prints, and when finished, THE GRAPHIC NOVEL). If it's anything I've learned over the years of producing projects, it's that value in is value out. It's taking and giving. Vice versa.
So mainly the difference between something like “Kickstarter” and Patreon, from my opinion, is that kickstarter is a one-time contribution to a product, while Patreon is a continual contribution to the on-going process of creating a project. I picked Patreon because it would help me to find that consistent time to work on it so that I can give people the project I've wanted to give them.
But, I can understand people having a negative reaction to hearing “Patreon” because they think automatically, “Give me money!” So lately I've just been plugging my Neo Eras portfolio site at Cargo Collective. There is a synopsis and visuals for folks to look at.
The Patreon is on there as an option for those who do want to contribute. No pressure, of course. I just want folks to know what it is that I'm doing and help me grow it!
SY: I think I was exposed to some crazy stuff at an early age. I moved from Taiwan to the U.S. when I was 6 and I remember being jetlagged. It was past midnight and so my dad put on Transformers: The Movie. Tame, yes, compare to a rated R movie, but for a 6 year-old, holy shit, it's violent! Most of the good guys are wiped out! Optimus dies!!!!
I think from there I wanted to watch other stuff like it. It just escalated, [laughs]. Robocop, T2, B-movie action flicks - the works. Never a shortage of blood and mayhem. I really couldn't get into the stuff other kids like. No, I still haven't seen Goonies. (Hall of shame!)
But as I got older I started to appreciate action films a different way. It wasn't just for the cathartic violence. The ones I watched all had a story and some themes that needed to be expressed by the Directors. Robocop was about man and machine vs the coporation, T2 was a warning to humans about their destructive nature, and Aliens was about mankind's hubris.
Now, I've mentioned alot of films that influenced my art, but I think it was mostly anything cyberpunk and action-oriented. Yoshitaka Amano's artwork, though fantasy-driven, had some techy stuff in there that I really loved. Yoji Shinkawa of the Metal Gear Solid stuff was always a favorite. Though not at first, but little did I realized eventually he would be a great influence.
Then somewhere in college I tried going for the more polished look. I think my art suffered because I was trying to be what I thought I could be. I was trying to emulate my heroes. Somewhere after college, I started to look up painters from other genres and that's when I realized that in order to be original I needed to do my research and figure out what to use and what to reject as it applied to me.
It's that Bruce Lee quote:
》"Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add specifically what is your own."
And I'm still trying to learn new things every day. I never want to be in one category. It's this battle between art and commerce. On one hand you want your clients to know who you are, but on the other, you want the artistic freedom. The eternal struggle!
|Steven Yu as "Stan" in UNLUCKY STARS|
SY: I think Hollywood needs to find a way to return to that era of R-rated blockbusters. But it'll require something, like a Deadpool, to convince studios to pump out more of these films.
What's weird is that R films use to be around so frequently. I wonder what happened? The funny thing is those films were actually weighted heavily with some deep messages. Who knew a story about a policeman resurrected from the dead and resurrected as a revenge-seeking cyborg would be a social critique on American media culture and corporatism? Ghost in the Shell even was toned down in the latest cinematic incarnation. The first film that came out had violence and bloodshed in it, but that wasn't the point - it was a meditation on technology replacing religion.
When I hear people saying R-rated films are just to entice people, I say, "well, yeah", they're chock-full insane action, violence, blood, and gore, but they also have some deep character developments, stories with a message, and complex narrative arcs.
SY: I think there's room for the nostalgia factor. Look at Stranger Things and you'll see the appeal of bring the 80's and 90's back.
But take a look at films such as Ex-Machina and District 9. Both films were highly original and were thought provoking. Yes, D9 definitely had more weapons and explosions, but there were messages of xenophobia and racism. Yet at the same time, they resemble the films of the yesteryear as they definitely both had the popcorn factor but knew how to weave in a good story.
And by that, I think that's what the 80's and 90's represented. It wasn't necessarily the one liners and explosions, because that happens in every era. What defined them was they were bold enough to go into some new territories, but they also knew how to entertain!!!
SY: I know a lot of people complain about fight scenes in Hollywood films and because the track record isn't quite all there.
Maybe, the rational behind that has a lot to do with the fact that the US didn't have martial arts as a cultural staple. In Korea TKD is PE. Muay Thai in Thailand is a sport! Yet, for some reason, we still see it as mainly a "kick ass" thing. Boxing is a martial art, but if you add in kicks and stuff, the US views it as something exotic. But it's all a sport.
So until martial arts really becomes embedded in our culture, I think Hollywood's still going to look at fight scenes as just a secondary thing.
But as for ACTION - Hollywood's done a pretty great job. I was a big fan of the Bruckheimer/Simpson era films, most notably The Rock. I consider that to be the last true action film coming out of Hollywood. Everything else so far has been eaten up by the superhero franchise. That Bruckheimer/Simpson era of filmmaking and storytelling will return! I know it!
SY: I've always seen Neo Eras as a stylistic casserole of action. The fight scenes are rugged Korean and the rhythm Hong Kong. Action-wise, there's a lot of influences from the Bruckheimer/Simpson era films. There are car chases and gunfights that are unique, but yet harken back to the style of those kinds of 80's/90's films.
I know people complain about being original, but I've never been afraid to wear my influences on my sleeve and pay proper homage. This is why Unlucky Stars was awesome, not because I was in it, but it was comfort food for my nostalgia-action cravings!
SY: Oh god, where do I begin? First off, everything by Jung Doo-hong has always been my favorite. Love how he makes TKD look so gritty onscreen.
I love Ryoo Seung-Wan too. I love how he's able to mix storytelling with comic book/pop-culture visuals.
Lee Jeung-Beom has become a director for me to watch out for. I really loved his two films, Man from Nowhere and No Tears for the Dead. Films that are reminiscent of that old 70's Hollywood crime thrillers.
SY: In no particular order:
●Jackie Chan's Police Story finale
●Jet vs Billy Chow in Fist of Legend.
●The Final Master finale.
●The Man From Nowhere finale.
●Bond vs knife-welding henchman in Quantum of Solace.
●Jong and Ryoo's finale fight in City of Violence.
●Choi Bae-dal's return to dojo fight in Fighter in the Wind.
●Jet vs Vincent Zhao in Fong Sai Yuk.
●007 vs 006 silo fight in Goldeneye.
There's more, but jesus, it'll be a loooong list.
If you're a creative person keep kicking ass and making stuff! Being a professional creative person is challenging, but inertia sucks!
If you're a patron of arts and film, keep supporting your favorite artists by sharing, liking, and or contributing to their works!
Thanks! And thank you, Lee!