Last month I ran an interview that david j. moore, author of the upcoming book World Gone Wild: A Survivor’s Guide To Post-Apocalyptic Movies, did with Jesse V. Johnson. Now he sent me an interview with Ben Ramsey, who has been an important figure in my appreciation of DTV because his first movie LOVE AND A BULLET I described as “SURPRISINGLY UN-BAD” in 2002, and for a while considered one of the more impressive DTVs (I’ll have to revisit that some day). In 2009 he earned his place in the hall of fame by directing an all-time DTV/martial arts classic, BLOOD AND BONE. In this interview he talks about making BLOOD AND BONE, why Hollywood is afraid of the DTV stars we love, and how one of my other favorite under-the-radar martial arts stars was supposed to be in BLOOD AND BONE.
Interview with Ben Ramsey by david j. moore
When Blood and Bone premiered on DVD in 2009, it received little push or promotion from its distributor, Sony Pictures. Starring Michael Jai White (Undisputed II, Universal Soldier: The Return) in an amazingly physical performance that showcases his extraordinary martial arts prowess, and featuring cameos by Matt Mullins (Bloodfist 2050, Kamen Rider: Dragon Knight) and Gina Carano (Haywire, Furious 6), Blood and Bone has garnered an impressive reputation as a real-deal martial arts film which continues to amass a body of fans hungering for a sequel. The film’s co-writer and director, Ben Ramsey, has spent years working as a freelance script doctor and screenwriter for such films as The Big Hit and Dragonball, and his first film as a director, Love and a Bullet, set him on the path that would eventually lead him to helming Blood and Bone.
As far as I’m concerned, Blood and Bone is a near-perfect movie. I don’t know what could have made it better.
More money, more time.
I think if you’d shot it on film, it might have looked a little better, but other than that, it’s great. What has been the reaction of this movie over time from the martial arts community and from the world of film and direct-to-video movies?
It’s been a very positive reaction. Out of everything I’ve put out as a writer, Blood and Bone has been my biggest hit. Financially, my biggest hit was The Big Hit. Blood and Bone is hands-down the one I get noticed for. In social settings on Facebook, not a day goes by – almost every single day – somebody from somewhere has something to say about it. “When is Blood and Bone 2 coming out?” They are demanding Blood and Bone 2, and I’m like, “Hey, don’t tell me – go tell Sony Pictures.” Flood them with emails. You want Blood and Bone 2, tell Sony pictures. I have an old script that I tried to get Michael Jai White attached to a long time ago that would be perfect and tailor-made for Blood and Bone 2. If they want to go that route, we’ve already got a script ready. It’s been a fantastic response, and just listening to what you’ve said … some people have put it in their top ten martial arts films of all time.
I look at this movie like Michael Jai White’s character. It came out of nowhere. When I first saw it years ago, I was blown away by how inauspicious it seemed to be. Where did this movie come from? Who is Ben Ramsey and why hadn’t I heard of you before? I want to know who you are and how you were able to make such an incredible movie. You’re the secret ingredient of this movie.
Well, it was a combination of everybody. No feature film is a one-man show. It’s always a collaborative effort. This movie came to be with me and Mike. I’ve been friends with Mike for a long time. We always talked about doing something together. He had this script called Blood and Bone written by Michael Andrews. Somehow or another, we got somebody that wanted to put the money up. The idea was that we wanted to do a martial arts movie for Mike that was old school, a throwback to what we liked in martial arts movies. No fast cutting. Something that really displayed the talents of the characters. I wanted to do a showpiece for Mike’s skills. Until that point, people knew Mike more as an actor than a martial artist. They didn’t really know how deep his martial arts background is. How good he is.
It’s rare when a director captures the talents and abilities of their action stars in the perfect way. You were able to do that with Michael Jai White in this film.
I’d known Mike for a long time. I knew his sensibilities, and he knew mine. In creating this character, I wanted to do something that played to his sensibilities. From that point on, everything else and every aspect of the film fell into place and formed. We also made the conscious decision – and it was a controversial decision – to say, “You know what? Bone is just going to kick everybody’s ass!” We’re going to go back to Bruce Lee’s style. Maybe somebody might be able to get a lick or a punch in, but Bruce Lee would always kick everybody’s ass. From start to finish.
But Michael Jai White made me believe that he could do that. Everything about him suggested that he was untouchable.
Exactly. We wanted to portray that character in that way. I know some people said, “Well, it’s boring if the guy just beats everybody up.” Sometimes it is, but if you think back to when you were a kid, a child watching your heroes on screen and reading comic books, and you think about what a young boy’s fantasy is. A young boy’s fantasy is about being strong and about being invincible. No kid thinks about being vulnerable. A young boy wants to grow up and be invincible. There’s something about an invincible character that I think touches that inner Hulk.
I’d seen Jai White in Spawn and Universal Soldier: The Return, but I hadn’t really been paying attention to him until Blood and Bone. I often wonder why some guys become superstars and why others don’t. Why isn’t Michael Jai White a huge star?
I don’t know. I’ve worked on A-list movies like Dragonball, and for most of my time I’ve been a writer – I’ve been working professionally since 1996. Most of that time I’ve been a script doctor. You can go to every studio in town and find a few of my scripts collecting dust that will never see the light of day. When you get into an A-list meeting, they’re not looking at direct-to-video stars – what you would call a “B” star. It doesn’t matter if you put him in front of them and say, “Look at this guy! You mean to tell me that people wouldn’t want to go to a movie theater and see this guy wuppin’ ass?” They have a formula. They have an actor’s name, and they have dollars and figures. They have lists in every category, they have foreign numbers. They have a DTV category. It’s hard to get a DTV star into the feature world. It’s all very systematic.
I remember when Blood and Bone was released to video, Jai White had a notable theatrical release with Black Dynamite.
Mike was prepping Black Dynamite while we were shooting Blood and Bone. As soon as we wrapped, he went right on to the next one.
Why didn’t Blood and Bone get a theatrical release?
Somebody down at Sony said the same thing to me. He was like, “We messed up. We should have released Blood and Bone theatrically.” That was the plan. Somewhere along the line with their formulaic way of thinking, someone said, “This is one of those types of movies in this category.” I just said, “Just take the movie out and test it! Test it!” They didn’t want to spend the money. Both Mike and I were like, “Take this thing up to the Magic Johnson theater and have a screening; it will bring the house down!” We felt real confident when we were making the movie because we put in all the elements that we knew we liked, and I think that’s what makes a movie successful – when a director makes the kind of movie that they like. If a director unfamiliar with romantic comedies says, “I think I’ll give that a try!” That’s what I call creative speculation. When you’re making a movie that you like and you know that everybody you know will like, because basically I’m a fanboy and I want to make movies that I want to see … if I like what I’m seeing on screen, then I know a bunch of other people are going to like it too. The same with Mike. We know what the audience is going to like. If we’d had a screening, there would have been people jumping out of their seats, whooping and hollering.
It’s interesting that you mentioned directors who make movies outside of their comfort zones. I’m thinking of Steven Soderbergh and his action movie Haywire with Gina Carano. Gina had a nice little part in Blood and Bone. What was it like working with her?
She was great. I gave her her first film job. She’s such a sweetheart. She’s such a girly girl. She’s really shy.
How did you pitch it to her?
I didn’t meet her until the day we shot. We just basically said, let’s try to get as many cameos as we can. Mike knows all of them. He trains with all the fighters. There was a scene for female fighters. We said, “Let’s get Gina,” because at the time she was just starting to blow up. They approached her, and they were like, “Hey, we got her!” I had more lines for her, but she was like “No, no, no!”
What movies inspired you while you were making this movie?
The 70’s era of martial arts movies. As much as I love Jackie Chan, it was the badasses I liked. Bruce and Sonny Chiba. Enter the Dragon. The blacksploitation movies.
Do you consider Blood and Bone to be a blacksploitation movie?
Yeah, I consider it a neo-blacksploitation movie. In the sense where Black Dynamite was a parody of blacksploitation movies, Blood and Bone is a neo-blacksploitation movie. Although it’s not about black culture. It has a black male lead in it. There is that one scene in it where Eamonn Walker and Julian Sands talk about race. That, to me, was there because there was a lull between fights, and I thought we should have a verbal sparring match.
Has Michael approached you to work with him again?
Yeah, there are a couple of scripts we’re talking about. There’s this one called Rider, which could possibly be another Blood and Bone 2 or it could be a dual lead thing with him and Wesley Snipes.
I like that Michael started directing his own movies like Never Back Down 2. He’ll go do a Tyler Perry movie or The Dark Knight, and then he’ll go out to shoot Favela with Ernie Barbarash. I really like that he’ll do one for the prestige and he’ll do one because that’s the sort of movie he really wants to be doing.
The people who watch Tyler Perry movies don’t realize that Mike started out as a martial artist and a bodyguard and a fighter. He started his life out as a badass. When he got into acting, he kind of put that aside and people only saw him as an actor until they saw him in Tyson and saw that he handled himself really well in that. They didn’t realize that he was a highly trained martial artist. He’s been very smart in how he’s handled his career. His love of acting and martial arts is equal, but I think deep down, he really loves martial arts.
There was a time not that long ago when Jeff Speakman and Steven Seagal were making movies that actually were released in theaters. Guys like Dolph Lundgren and Van Damme were huge. That era has passed, and the direct-to-video market has sort of swallowed those guys up. Do you think the era of the action star has passed? Is Blood and Bone a last gasp of a dying era?
No, I don’t think so. I think it’s just in a lull, or about to transition into something else. Right now we’re in the special effects stage. Big movies are all about special effects and gimmicks. It’s going to get old. I can play my videogames on my big T.V. and get the exact same experience. Big, digital things going on. Somewhere along the line, people are going to want to connect with something on screen in a more realistic and visceral way. I haven’t seen Fast and Furious 6 yet, but I’ve been hearing about the fights scenes between Gina Carano and Michelle Rodriguez. I know they’ve got multimillion dollar stunts and car crashes and all that, but I keep hearing about the ultimate catfight between two badass chicks, which tells me that people want to see something more real and closer to home. You can blow the hell out of things and have space battles, but at the end of the day, at the end of a great big action movie, it all comes down to a man-to-man fight between the good guy and the bad guy. That’s about as personal as you can get. Eventually, it’ll make its way back. I talk all the time with my stunt friends and stunt coordinators about the fight scenes in big budget movies and how they suck to high hell. They’re lame. The shaky cam thing. They’re using actors, and you can’t do long takes because the cracks in their skill or form show. In the DTV world, you’ve got Scott Adkins and Mike, and Gary Daniels. And Matt Mullins.
Yeah, talk a little bit about Matt. He’s one of the few action guys I’m really paying attention to these days.
The thing about Matt on Blood and Bone is that he came in to just work with Mike. We were originally going to go with Marko Zaror, the Latin Dragon, but he was doing something else. Matt was just training with Mike, and so we were like, “So, who are we going to get for [the character] Price? Well, let’s use Matt!” On the page, Price is a vicious beast of a man. Matt is kinda good looking, so I did a quick rewrite and we called him Pretty Boy Price. We changed that, and we changed his style. I said, “You’re arrogant, you’re flamboyant.” I told him to watch Prince Naseem, to get that going. It worked out fantastic. He was a better choice than Zaror. It was a blessing in disguise. He was right in front of us. Just think if you could put all these guys in a big budget 200 million dollar action movie. Aw, man!
Well, what do you think about The Expendables movies?
I like The Expendables. They should put Mike in one, but I think they’re scared to put him in it. He’d blow everybody away. They’d have to water him down a bit. They had Scott Adkins in one, but he played second fiddle to Van Damme – who did a great job! I loved Van Damme in that. He’s mellowing with age. He’s aging like a fine wine.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a project with Rick Yune.
Oh, really? I liked his movie The Fifth Commandment.
That was a project I had originally written.
(Laughing.) Yeah, there were creative difficulties. I let them have it and do what they wanted with it. I was supposed to direct that. That was when I met Rick. I also have two independent projects that I’m trying to get going on my own. Like I did with Love and Bullet, which was written, produced, and directed by me. I funded that out of my own pocket. I’m looking to do the same thing with a project called Night Angel. I just shot a teaser trailer and we’re going to put it up on Kickstarter. It’s a black/Latina version of The Crow. My other pet project, which I’ve been working on for a long time, is called The Ministry. It’s hard to describe. I can’t give it a couple sentence logline.
Is there anything else you’d like to say about Blood and Bone?
Just that I’m really blown away by the fan response to the movie. I always equate filmmaking with being a chef. You pour your heart into cooking something up that you think is delicious. Mm, this is good. You put it out there and serve it up to the people, and it’s like getting constant compliments to the chef. It’s a good feeling. I like that people are enjoying it.