Producer Paul Maslak
With a BS degree in Business Administration (and a black belt in Shorin-ryu karate), Paul Maslak worked for the Walt Disney Company as a project planner on EPCOT and Tokyo Disneyland while moonlighting as editor of Inside Kung-fu magazine. While casting the martial arts film No Retreat, No Surrender, he helped "discover" Jean-Claude Van Damme. Maslak briefly pursued a two-track career, one in corporate America by day and the other as a story analyst for HBO and Tri-Star Pictures by night. Soon he began managing martial arts actors. He worked his way up through the ranks of low-budget filmmaking to become a co-producer on the HBO World Premiere Movie Out for Blood. In 1993, he formed Maslak Friedenn Films with partner Neva Friedenn to produce Red Sun Rising and, in 1997, made his directorial debut with Sworn to Justice.
Friedenn is a former university English instructor, literary agent and film development executive. She founded Unifilm International Company (UIC), which imported more than 200 action and art films during the 1980s, mostly Hong Kong kung-fus.
I interviewed Producer Paul Maslak at a kosher restaurant on Pico Blvd, July 3, 2002.
Maslak stands 5'10. In his forties, he has salt and pepper hair.
Luke: "How did you connect with Neva?"
Paul: "Through Jackie Chan... In 1980, I was editor of Inside Kung-Fu magazine. When Jackie Chan came to the United States to do the Warner Brothers film, The Big Brawl, Neva called my office. She wanted to distribute Jackie's Chinese films. The prices she had been quoted were inflated. She thought that if she could get some guy who was an American-born Chinese to negotiate directly with the producers, what better way? It turned out that I'm not Chinese and I don't speak a word of Chinese. But I found out that she knew more about Jackie than did we. She'd been a stringer for Playboy magazine covering music, principally the jazz scene. I knew she had to be a good writer because that's Hugh Hefner's favorite topic.
"I said, 'Gee, you know so much about Jackie... Why don't you interview him for us?' Neva did the first English-language interview with Jackie and we ran it in six parts. I interviewed Jackie as well. And I got him to come into the magazine offices where I directed him in a series of [martial arts] technique photos. Since then, Neva and I have interviewed Jackie several times for publication.
"The producer in Hong Kong who made Jackie's first comedy hits was Ng Sze Yuen. A now-famous Hong Kong director, Yuen Kwai aka Corey Yuen, told Ng that the film The Karate Kid had ripped off Ng's Jackie Chan films Drunken Monkey In A Tiger's Eye (aka Drunken Master) and Snake In The Eagle's Shadow. Both films are about a crazy kung-fu teacher who makes his student learn things that at first seem unrelated to the martial arts. I know that Robert Mark Kamen, who wrote The Karate Kid, is an original writer, but he very well might have been inspired by these films.
"So when Corey Yuen told Ng that Hollywood had ripped off his films, Ng decided to rip them back. He decided to come to the United States and do a knockoff of the American movie using American actors in a Chinese-style film. That was No Retreat, No Surrender . Neva was hired as the production executive.
"Since I knew everybody in American martial arts circles, and because I ran the S.T.A.R. (Standardized Tournaments And Ratings) System world ratings for professional kickboxing, Neva got me hired to do the martial arts casting. We cast Jean-Claude Van Damme in his first U.S. theatrical feature film.
"Then I put Ng in contact with Linda Lee, widow of Bruce Lee, to see if her son Brandon, 17 years old at the time, would do the film. Ng had the really great idea that the ghost of Bruce Lee should teach martial arts to the real son of Bruce Lee. Linda Lee said no way. Brandon was too young. Kurt McKinney got the role. Jean-Claude played the bad guy. And that's how I got started in the movie business.
"Some time later, after Jean-Claude was a success in Bloodsport, famed B-movie king Roger Corman decided he wanted to do a Bloodsport knockoff. His people saw the name of kickboxing champ Don "The Dragon" Wilson in my world ratings. Don is one of the greatest kickboxers who ever lived. He's one of those rare champions who would go anywhere in the world, fight under any rules, any time... Even knowing that he was facing hostile judges, Don would go into a rigged competition and knock out his opponent.
"Roger Corman's people noticed Don lived in Beverly Hills. They called him up and put him in a film. Now Don's a handsome man with a great physique. He starred in Bloodfist. When it was successful, Roger signed him to a multi-picture deal. At that point, Don asked me to manage him. I was the only person he knew that understood the kickboxing business as well as something about the movie business and whom he also trusted. I managed him for a couple of years until he got a handle on Hollywood for himself. We remain good friends.
"As Don's manager, I became better networked into the indie film community. I got to know financiers, executives, distributors, producers, directors, stars, agents, other managers, casting directors and - most especially - about deal structures. I also began taking film school courses as well as working hands-on in film production. Initially I organized Don's fight action units, working as the fight coordinator or even as a fall guy. Sometimes I directed second unit.
"Later, Neva and I developed story material for Don and other clients, and I began to associate producer. Eventually Neva and I developed with Don and coproduced with PM Entertainment the Don Wilson vehicle Out for Blood. That film earned gross revenues of about five times negative cost.
"Following that project, Neva and I had the ability to raise film financing on our own. At the same time Don wanted to take charge of his career. So Neva and I released Don and our other clients from their contracts with us, dissolved our management company, and founded our production company. Our first film, Red Sun Rising , naturally stars Don along with Terry Farrell and Michael Ironside. It became HBO's highest-rated world premiere movie for that year."
Luke: "Is there a true ethical system behind the martial arts?"
Paul: "Yes. Forged within a never-say-quit discipline, there's a philosophy of chivalry. When I produce an action sequence, whether martial arts or otherwise, I'm completely aware of the principle of reasonable restraint. You won't find a hero in one of our stories, after he's defeated the bad guy, continue to beat him -- unless there's another ethical precept at stake.
"If you're a gun fighter in the old West, say, and you badger someone who's not as good as you to draw first so you can shoot him, that's unethical. That also doesn't fit with the ethics of either a samurai or a Shaolin monk. Our action heroes would intervene in that type of situation.
"Sometimes my martial arts teachings help me with talent relations. To illustrate - no matter how realistic one of our action sequences may appear, its violence has been stylized both in the way it's shot and the way it's edited. Because of my martial arts philosophy, we will not want to provide a visual instruction manual on how 12-year-olds can hurt other 12-year-olds. We also do not want to entice some nutcase into committing a heinous act. So we are careful about what is seen and what is glamorized.
"Now one of the scenes in The Right Temptation has Rebecca DeMornay's character discovering a disfigured body. Rebecca is a strong anti-violence advocate. So she was completely reassured and comforted when she learned that the director and I had already instructed our crew not to dwell on the gore in that scene, but to keep the visuals pulled back to about a softball PG-13 rating. That became the starting point for a solid creative relationship with Ms. DeMornay.
"The martial arts ethic also guides me as an independent producer. Until now, we haven't enjoyed studio backing. And making a movie, in the best of times, is heavy lifting. Within our inner circles, we say that movies aren't made, they're forced. When you're on the firing line, making a motion picture, on any given day, the whole thing can come to a screeching halt if you're not massaging the production. So you better have a warrior mentality about confronting those obstacles.
"If you were to check my reputation in the industry, I think you'd find that with reputable people I have a very good reputation; and with unscrupulous people, if we've tangled, they've had their tail fur singed. That's my ethical martial arts mentality coming out."
Luke: "Is martial arts the dominant ethic in your life?"
Paul: "No. I am an American. The martial arts simply channel the ways I express my American values."
Luke: "What are the budgets on the films you make?"
Paul: "They've ranged from $1-5 million. But that's about to change... We're no longer trying to produce completely as independents. The market since 9/11 is just too tough. We're now in negotiation to coproduce with partners who have both a studio and a network deal."
Luke: "Are stars essential to raise money to make a film?"
Paul: "Ultimately ... yes. I've heard about economics professors who did analyses of the box office performances of films to see whether stars make a difference, and they concluded that stars make little difference. So why bother with stars? Yet a large part of getting a film distributed is getting territorial distributors interested in the film. And what interests them is the stars.
"But the process really shouldn't begin with the stars. First you have to find or develop fabulous material. Then you have to get a financier who says, if you get the right caliber of stars, they will back the project. Then you will need to get a director. Once you get a recognized director, you take him and the material and the promise of potential financing, and you try to get a star to look at it. The problem is, you have to get through the star's representatives who don't want their stars to do any of this. What the representatives want is for you to produce something written by one of their client writers, directed by a client director, and starring client stars for a major studio release. At the very least they want you to come with a checkbook or they don't want anything to do with you at all. And you had better be able to make a pay-or-play offer [whereby the star gets paid whether or not the film is made]. For the bigger stars, you also have to be able to guarantee a certain size of U.S. theatrical release."
Luke: "How do you break through that?"
Paul: "Through your existing relationships and strategic alliances. A lot of what goes on for us at the dealmaking stage is a matter of juggling little pieces of divergent financial elements… We can get part moneys here … and here … a tax subsidy there … and someone has an output [distribution] guarantee over there. The trick is finding ways to make the requirements for each little piece line up into a master deal."
Luke: "You've only directed one film, 1996's Sworn to Justice. Why?"
Paul: "I plan to direct again. I spent too many years mastering directing and acting theory. I was mentored about working with actors and film crews by acting coach Ivan Chubbuck and her husband director Lyndon Chubbuck.
"I've found that directing is the most physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausting thing I've ever done. I'm a preparation person. I'm most creative when I have time to think things through. Whereas I think a good director has to be creatively spontaneous. And charismatic. A good director gets people with very different ideas to cooperate. I know many directors who are better at that.
"The producer and the director have many things in common. Foremost both should have great story sense. That's why so many good producers and directors come out of the ranks of writers and film editors. Neva and I are writers first. Further, the producer and the director are the only people on the set who are completely responsible for everything. The producer has macro responsibilities for creative matters, but micro responsibilities for the finances. The director oversees the creative choices at the micro level and finances at the macro level. And therein lie their alliance and their conflict.
"Let me give you an analogy. If you're a producer, you feel like a fox being chased by the hounds because you're the one who has the final control over the purse strings, and everybody wants a piece of that purse. And everybody's scheming and cheating and thieving to get it from you. And your job is to be smart enough to make sure the money goes where it is supposed to go.
"When you're a director, you don't have time to think about that. It feels more like being one of the early Mercury astronauts, being strapped onto a rocket and blasting off into orbit. And you know that as long as you and your team have done enough advanced planning, and you run the right sequences in the right way, and you fine-tune the orbit and trajectory of your capsule, everything will work out. And if you don't do that, the whole thing could blow up and you with it.
"Then, too, directors come out of film school with some bad models. To a large extent, studios are unable to control their directors. Look who's become successful? Steven Spielberg on one of his first films, Jaws, reputedly went 100% over budget. It wasn't really his fault. He had a mechanical shark that wasn't working. And they had to do all this footage at sea. Shooting anything on water is a nightmare because within 60 seconds, the look of the water can change. Still, Jaws became a huge hit. The first film to break $100 million in domestic box office. And Spielberg became the 800-pound gorilla in town that nobody can touch.
"With Titanic, director James Cameron put the studios hugely at risk. So young directors get the wrong impression. They see the few genius filmmakers for whom it worked out, but not the legions whose careers crashed and burned. Thus directors tend to be undisciplined with finances. Same thing with movie stars who want to side with their directors.
"Neva and I operate our productions on the creative unit theory. That's an updated version of the concept the studios used prior to the auteur theory. We believe that those people with main title credits on a film are the author. All those people -- the writer, producer, director, director of photography, composer, costume designer, production designer, film editor, stars... We try to build a collegial relationship during production between all those authors.
"That means we agree to agree on key creative matters. If one person feels strongly about something, the others try to see his or her point of view.
"Then we use the King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table approach to management. If you have a major creative decision that needs to be made, you call to the Round Table all the knights whose opinions are relevant and you try to come to consensus about what is best for the project. If you can't come to a consensus, or if there isn't enough time to call a Round Table, there is always a King Arthur empowered to make a decision."
Luke: "Is martial arts a great place to meet women?"
Paul: "Not really. But I know many men are attracted to the movie business for that reason. I'm not one of them. I may be the only heterosexual guy who did not get into Hollywood to meet women. I have no interest in the casting couch."
Luke: "Much has been written about Madonna sleeping her way to the top."
Paul: "It's probably more prevalent in the music industry where perhaps that's a more viable way to advance your career. I don't think it's like that in the movie business anymore although it used to be in the old studio system days.
"Nevertheless somebody has to grease the wheel to get you paid attention to in Hollywood because there are so many people coming at decision-makers all the time. So, obviously, many actresses are comfortable using their beauty and physical charms to get noticed.
"I know of a case where an unknown supporting actress met a movie star on one film. She played up to him and then, a couple of years later, that movie star helped the actress get seen for a feature role in a Steven Spielberg movie. That's not to say she wasn't qualified. Just that she got brought to Mr. Spielberg's attention because of that liaison.
"However if you're a producer or a director or a studio executive, it doesn't matter how good she is in the bedroom if she can't deliver on camera… Anyone can make a bad movie by accident because enough things can go wrong that are beyond your control. But nobody makes a good movie by accident. So nobody can afford to take a chance on an actress simply for the sake of an assignation."
Luke: "Until recently, weren't all actresses regarded as hookers?"
Paul: "I suppose that was true in the 19th century until Mary Pickford and the silent movie stars came along. Then it became all actresses were hookers except Mary Pickford, because she was the first 'America's Sweetheart.' After that, acting gradually became completely respectable.
"But if you think about it, particularly today, every pretty ingenue, to get ahead, at some point is going to be pressured to take her clothes off. So in certain low brow projects, there's more reason than ever to consider them as showgirls."
Luke: "I wouldn't allow my girlfriend or wife to strip or do sex scenes in a movie."
Paul: "I've dated actresses and it has never worked out for me. So it's not an accident that my fiancee is not from the movie business. But if she were an actress and a serious artist, and her part called for it in a way that was central to the drama, like Halle Berry's role in "Monster's Ball," then I could understand it.
"I guess my real point is that you have to see the movie business as a higher calling. If you don't, you can't do it. You have to see it as the thing you give to society to entertain, to inspire, to help people get through the day, to give people pause to question, to model ways for people to deal with life crises.
"And for those who want to get into films, I would warn them that the whole business seems to operate on a hurry-up-and-wait rhythm... You have to work furiously to make deadlines, then wait while busy decision-makers review what you did. Similarly, except for a fortunate few, your whole career will go through periods when you're too busy to breathe, followed by periods when nothing's happening.
"So the film business may be your 'A' business, but you better have a 'B' business. Many producers come from the ranks of attorneys, studio executives, managers, agents, distributors and writers. They have that to fall back on. Directors might moonlight as commercials or music video directors. Unknown actors typically work as waiters. Harrison Ford was a carpenter. A 'B' business I would not recommend is being a call girl. I have heard of actresses who do that. That is not smart. If you start climbing up the Hollywood ladder, you are going to run across some clients. And when they see you, that's the end of your career.
"Think about it -- If you were a studio executive, would you want the call girl you slept with to be the star of your next movie? And when the movie comes out, and the media starts investigating this new star, and they discover she was a call girl, do you want to be the producer of that movie?
"The first thing I tell people who want to go into the movie business is that if there is anything else you can do, do that, because this is the toughest business there is. And the industry is designed to keep people out."
Luke: "In what ways?"
Paul: "Let's take the screenplay... When you open yourself up to unsolicited submissions, you get in such a pile of crap... And suppose you have a film in the can, and an outsider submits a script with a similar story element. You might find yourself in an absolutely frivolous lawsuit for having allegedly ripped them off.
"Or a project could have been shopped around town, and a synopsis of it is on everybody's computer. If you then greenlight the project and announce it in the trades, someone else might take that synopsis and do a knockoff script.
"When that type of thing happens to you a couple of times, your natural reaction is that you don't want to look at anything unsolicited unless it comes through an agent or an attorney. Or you make the person sign a release saying anything they give us, they give at their own risk.
"I already told you that producers are foxes chased by hounds. People calling you up cold on the telephone are just one more hound. So there's a natural leeriness. Every producer has ways of getting around that. Most of it is -- don't answer phone calls yourself. Have an assistant return phone calls. Have a network of people to get through before you... When I'm in production, I'm much harder to reach.
"Agents are a whole network of nonsense in themselves. You can call them up with money and if they don't know you, they don't want to talk to you. They don't believe you have money. They don't believe you're serious because you haven't come to them as someone they know. They won't allow their stars to look at your script unless you make a pay-or-play offer. And then they will use your offer to leverage up a preferred producer's offer. Everything is designed to keep you out.
"So unless you're lucky enough to find an entry-level job at a studio or agency at a young age, and work your way up through the ranks, then you will have to find your way into the business through the back door, the side door, a broken window, or through any other unconventional fluke manner … such as we have done.
"But I'm just giving you the obvious barriers. The subtle barriers go deep. There's an enormous caste system of snobbery in Hollywood. "Neva and I started out doing martial arts films. It took us awhile to climb out of that niche. Today we'd still be willing to do a martial arts film with say Jackie Chan, but we wouldn't be interested in doing low budget martial arts anymore.
"When I finally become a full-grown producer, what I really want to do are historical dramas. I haven't done one yet. And I'm keenly admiring of Spielberg for doing Saving Private Ryan. That's my kind of project."