Today I have got a wonderful opportunity to talk to Award winning action film director Art Camacho, who began his film career as an actor, appearing in various films and television programs. He made his mark as an action choreographer and worked on over 30 features including Steven Seagal’s Half Past Dead for Sony Pictures. He then went on to successfully direct feature films. L.A.’s largest Spanish Language Newspaper “La Opinion” has done several stories on Camacho and dubbed him “One of Latino Hollywood’s best action Producer/Directors.
BUDOMATE: Tell us about your martial arts background. Who was your first coach, how and when did you come to your first club?
Art Camacho: I started training in the martial arts in Japanese karate when I was 13 years old. I was fat and had very little coordination so I quit after 6 months. When I was 16 years old I got into a fight with several gang members who beat me to a pulp. I was so messed up both physically and mentally that I was afraid to leave my house for 6 weeks. Then slowly I started back. I was determined to never let that happen to me again. It was then that I rediscovered the martial arts and one martial artist in particular: Bruce lee. The only thing I wanted to do when I started learning the martial arts was to find and beat up the punks who beat me up but as I began to understand the martial arts, those feelings subsided and it became a way of life for me.
My martial arts training is very eclectic. I trained in many systems including Kali, JKD, Tae Kwon Do and then I met the man who would become my mentor: Eric Lee. Sifu Eric taught me much more than martial arts, he taught me a way of life incorporating the martial arts. I have a 4th degree black belt in Wun Hop Kuen Do, and also have trained in Boxing and Kickboxing sporadically to add to my fighting and screen fight choreography skills.
BUDOMATE: Who was your inspiration?
Art Camacho: There are so many inspiring people who have been in life through the martial arts including the Legendary Al Dacascos, Joe Lewis, Michael De Pasquale Jr., however my biggest inspiration is of course Bruce Lee and my other great inspiration is my Sifu Eric Lee and my good friend Don “The Dragon” Wilson.
BUDOMATE: Do you remember your first club mates and are you still in contact? Maybe you are still in contact with your first instructor or visited your first club recently?
Art Camacho: I remember many of my classmates and we touch bases from time to time. Si hing Julio Hernandez, is great martial artist and person, Manuel Sanchez, Tom Saras, Donald Paulino. They all have a much higher ranking than I do in Wun Hop Kuen Do than I am and are extremely talented martial artists in their own right. I began focusing much more on films and fight choreography.
BUDOMATE: What can you tell us about the era in which you started training and the era you made your mark in films?
Art Camacho: I broke into martial arts movies in the 90’s. In the 70’s you had Bruce Lee in films and Eric Lee winning in competitions around the world. Kung fu films were the craze then and it carried into the 80’s Ninja films and in the 90’s it was “kickboxing” films. This was ushered in by Jean Claude Van Damme and Frank Dux’s BLOOD SPORT. This gave birth to BLOOD FIST, which was great because you had a real kickboxing champ Don Wilson’s portraying the martial arts in films. I just happened to break into movies in 1990 co-starring in a small independent film, Chinatown Connection. I followed that up by doing other roles and fight stunts in several films prior to choreographing fight action films. I was at the right place at the right time and rode the wave of kickboxing films. Then in the mid nineties I was asked to direct films and then produce and write and the rest is history. Even though the martial arts were my passion, I approached Cinematic martial arts as a business. I am the type that will do 150% of what you ask of me. That is what distinguished me from others at that time. Sometimes fight choreographers don’t have an idea of how to film the fight action and they leave it up to Camera people or others who don’t understand action. I learned early on to Choreograph, shoot and edit the fight action so that I could have a much better result and help the producers by helping them with the end product.
Today you have many skilled fight choreographers and fight action specialists and it is more common than when I started. Anyone wishing to break into films today has a much harder time. I see very talented martial arts filmmakers create some really cool stuff but it’s more than that. You also have to understand the art of fight choreography and selling it through the lens of a camera and understand the edit process. In a screen fight, a fraction of second can make a huge difference. I would advise anyone wishing to break into films to do their homework and treat it a business because there are only a few who can break in on their skills alone the rest of us have to work at it.
I’ve been blessed to work with many great martial artists including Steven Seagal, Don Wilson, Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, Goldberg, Joe Lewis, Michael De Pasquale jr. and many, many others.
BUDOMATE: You said you started as a fight choreographer, do you remember your first steps on the sets of this movie?
Art Camacho: Yeah, it was the most stressful experience I can remember because even though I used to choreography my own stuff for fun, when someone actually is paying you to do it, it’s very, very different, because you have to deliver something that they want in a timely fashion. You have to work with Camera, crew, talent, stuntmen etc. And when I started there weren’t too many fight choreographers, the stunt coordinators would usually choreograph the fights. Thankfully, the film turned out well and the Producers were so happy with the results they hired me over and over again.
BUDOMATE: “It is not about what you can do, it’s all about who do you know (in film business)”. Is this rule worked in 90s too or it is just a principle of XXI century?
Art Camacho: This is universal. It is so prevalent in films. Even with all my experience and history of success it is difficult because I always have to keep networking and securing the next movie. To add to it, it is not only who you know but what click of people you are with because it is also a very tight nit community. Not to many are like me that have given careers and opportunities to literally hundreds of martial artists over the years. In fact many of the people I gave careers to, won’t return my calls. But that is life and a reality you have to face in the film business. It is not all bad but very, very difficult. Don Wilson and Eric Lee are the exception, because they are truly generous and help others.
BUDOMATE: As far as I know Wun Hop Kuen Do is connected to Dacascos family, it is commonly referred to as a “system without a system” what reminds me about JKD. Please tell more about your system where you became a 4th degree black belt.
Art Camacho: Wun Hop kuen do, is a very fluid system with many influences and thus it is very reminiscent of JKD. It is always growing and evolving and you can see the evolution of it in the likes of Sifu Eric Lee, Mark Dacascos, Malia Dacascos, of course Al Dacascos and many, many more. I am so influences by these greats and inadvertently incorporate many of the things I learned from Wun Hop Kuen Do into the fight action I choreograph. My approach is to not make a fight look choreographed but spontaneous and alive. Sifu Al Dacascos and Sifu Bruce Lee were very much alike in temperament and their approach to combat. they both believed that any art that limits itself in content is not totally effective and that is why you’ll see a Wun hop kuen do be both strong, explosive and fluid.
BUDOMATE:. You are one of the close students, but never worked with Mark Dacascos, how it is happened?
Art Camacho: Mark worked primarily with his parents and I started training many years later under Sifu Eric Lee in Hollywood California.
BUDOMATE: Between more than 50 movies you made is there any one which is close to your heart?
Art Camacho: My favorite film is my first: The Power Within. To this day I think I infused a lot of my personal philosophy and approach to martial arts in it. In fact even though it was not a martial arts film per se, I wanted to tell a story in each fight. I also was able to have so much fun directing the actors. In films, you usually have a Director and a second unit Director to direct the fights and action; in most of my movie I do both. It is a challenge but one I enjoy immensely. The Power Within still resonates with me because of the simplicity, characters and fun and of course some cool fights for their time. This was in 1994. Now I would do the action similar but more impactful because of my experience.
BUDOMATE: I like Bill Goldberg, he is one of great people with charisma, but unfortunately who did not break into the film industry so good as Steve Austin did. You worked with him on the Half Past Dead 2, could you remember some interesting situation on the sets?
Art Camacho: Bill is a great person and I had the best time working with him. We know he had a strong fan base so we used his patented spear technique in the movie. He’s also a very strong actor and just so humble. I had a lot of fun working with him. He gave it his all. In fact we did a fight together on screen and beat the crap out of each other!! It was a blast! In this industry you really don’t know what makes someone have the careers they have. For instance, Steve Austin started out doing bigger studio pictures then did some DVD releases then Stallone gave him the opportunity to do Expendables. You never know. Chuck Norris for instance was doing theatrical films and he made the transition to TV and became much more successful that he would’ve had he continued making movies. It’s really a lot of luck and how well your product performs and of course: who you know. Shi Lebouf, is a prime example. He is very talented and I love his work but had it not been for Steven Spielberg supporting and mentoring him he might not have been as successful as he’s been.
BUDOMATE: Talking about Don Wilson, the greatest kickboxer of all times, where did you meet him and why he retired from films as many other martial artists?
Art Camacho: Don and I met on the set of Blood fist but I did not work with him until he did a film called Ring of Fire, my Sifu Eric Lee was working with him and asked me to come down and get beat up for about 50 dollars and I said YEAH!!!! I did a small part and then started working in other films with both Eric and Don and then eventually became his fight choreographer. He’s a great person and extremely humble and talented. He hasn’t really retired from films, but the industry has changed and now you really have to pick and choose your projects better because the market place is not the same. He is working on development of a few projects which he will start in and co-produce.
BUDOMATE: Jackie Chan broke mostly every bone in his body, what can you tell about your experience in action films and stunts?
Art Camacho: I have been very, very fortunate to not have had many injuries to myself or anyone on a set. But I also so not do the crazy and over the top stuff Jackie does. He’s an incredible daredevil. But generally speaking, I’ve someone break a nose, some cuts, plenty of bruises. And on one car stunt, the driver got a concussion. He was chasing a motorcycle in his car and he then we had him hit a ramp to go flying in the air and he did everything perfect, hitting the ramp at about 55 miles per hour and then as the car landed one of the camera’s inside the car came loose and smashed his head. He had some stitches and a concussion but thankfully nothing else.
BUDOMATE: I have heard that you want to produce some martial arts movie in Africa, tell us more about it please.
Art Camacho: I think South Africa offers so much for a filmmaker, The people, the locations. I made a friend in Aurelien Henry Obama, who is a great martial artist an actor and great resource over there.
BUDOMATE: Sure you watched Stallone’s Expendables, did you want to make such a movie but with martial artists?
Art Camacho: I was so jealous and excited to see what Stallone did. I really admire him in every way. He is a great Director, actor, writer and has so much passion. I loved expendables and the way he directed it. Years ago I tried to get funding for something similar but he did first and best. God Bless him.
BUDOMATE: Which 3 martial arts movie made in US/Europe you can call a classic?
Art Camacho: Honestly, to me there are two classic martial arts films and those are: Enter the Dragon and Five fingers of death. I say this because there are several great films but as far as classics go these really impacted the world. Even though in some areas they are dated, overall they stand the test of time. Nothing more can be said of Bruce Lee that hasn’t been said and of course five fingers of death ushered in the 70’s era kung fu films.
BUDOMATE: What direction is your career taking you now?
Art Camacho: I have been working on developing my own projects to do. I really got burned out just doing other’s peoples films and decided to develop films that I really want to do, from a Director’s stand point. I am also involved more in producing independent television programs and am prepping the material for a book on fight choreography. I want to show people how to actually choreograph fights for film. Everything from staging, storytelling, martial arts techniques, Camera angles, lens, lighting. Many of the things I’ve learned along this incredible journey the Lord put me on.
Art Camacho: Thanks so much and God Bless you.
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