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A Hollywood Director/Martial Artist Tells All!

by Don Warrener, Combat, vol.25 n°6, June 1999

What martial arts movies and TV shows have done the most for the martial arts?
The answer is quite simple, number 1 is of course Enter The Dragon and right behind this comes the Karate Kid Series and then there was the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The only problem is that these were all produced in the 7O's and 80's and this is the 9O's.
So what has there been lately to boost the martial arts interests? There has really been only Walker Texas Ranger and of course 'The Power Rangers' and the WMAC Masters series. Who was behind those last two?
The man was Isaac Florentine an Israeli filmmaker who studied classical Shito Ryu karate in his home country and in Sweden. Then at the urging of his parents who wanted him to become a C.P.A went to University to attain a degree in Fine Arts (Film and Television) at the University of Tel Aviv.
We caught up with Isaac at The Dragonfest here in Hollywood California. Dragonfest which is organised by Gerald Okamura is held here every year to promote the martial arts in the film industry. This year the show was packed to standing room only for over four ours.
We cornered Isaac and got him committed to sit down with us and do this interview.
Isaac is well known in the film industry here in Los Angeles as a budoka who has turned director. Isaac has just finished a movie called 'Cold Harvest' starring Tae Kwon Do and Muay Thai practitioner Gary Daniels and Barbara Crampton. This futuristic is western is jammed pack full of martial arts Isaac says and he loves putting martial arts into his films especially, when he can add his signature type of directing which is influenced by Hong Kong Cinema and the old spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. For those of us who don't quite understand the Hollywood lingo this means the martial arts moves that are impossible to do, but with the aid of camera angles, and wires illusions are created to make the viewer believe the impossible actually does happen. When you see Isaac's latest feature 'Bridges Of The Dragon' starring Dolph Lundgren and Carry Tagawa which he is just finishing off you will understand instantly when you see Dolph kick a table and it goes about two stories high. Isaac said you would never know that was done with a wire?
I asked Isaac how if it did has his martial arts background helped him in his second love directing films. He said if it wasn't for karate and his Sensei Tamas Weber of Stockholm, Sweden he would have nothing as it was he that developed his Budo spirit, passion for life and the film industry. "It was he that taught me anything is possible if you are determined to work hard for it" said Florentine. I met my Sensei in 1975 and his zeal for the martial arts motivated me to become the best I can be in everything I do.
Although Tamas Weber was a Swedish citizen when they met he was born in Hungary and grew up in France where he joined the French Foreign Legion. He fought in the Algerian War and was wounded and earned several medals for his bravery. The karate he taught us was very close to Classical Shito Ryu Karate. It was very efficient especially for close in fighting. It is my opinion that it is very close to the karate developed in Okinawa.
Isaac, no slouch as a martial artist did his share of competing in Israel ! during the late 1970's when he Won several tournaments in both Kata and Kumite, and although he is very humble about this aspect of his martial arts he is very proud of the top quality students he helped to develop in the 12 dojo's he was chief instructor of. Although Isaac did not want to talk much about his own martial arts background I finally got out of him how his karate has helped him in Hollywood.
"Don, you know when you practice Budo you develop sensitivity and you also develop the ability to visualise and think in patterns, well So is directing a film, a good director must pull the best performance out of the actors/actresses just as a good Sensei must pull these qualities out of his students when he is teaching" .Further more when I am directing a film it reminds me of being a Sensei once again as I am in charge and I must make the film come in on time and on budget as well I must make sure that the crew and actors/actresses are all working together as one similar again to Kata training. We all must work together to create the best possible film we can if we want to be proud of our work. There is also the aspect of functioning under pressure that is similar to Kumite: to be able to quickly assess the situation and use the right solution to the problem.
I also think that my Budo training has helped me greatly in my courage
I to attack the unknown like when I sold my schools in Israel and moved to Hollywood with my wife Who at the time was pregnant (now we have four 'I lovely children), and no job when I landed. Sometimes I think I was very brave or very crazy. But I have done it I and I have done well.
I then asked him what was it that made the Power Rangers a success? He said that in the beginning no one believed that The Power Rangers would last so we did all kinds of crazy impossible things and above all we tried to be creative. I remember one time we were filming in a park in Los Angeles and the next thing I knew there were all kinds of little kids gathered around and they were cheering at 1 what we were doing. It was then that I realised we were on to something good. We had stretched ourselves to try new 1 and different things and this is what made the Power Rangers a success.
I could not help myself but to ask if these stars in the film industry who project that they are martial artists in I their films if they really are. Well in my opinion many of them are not real 1 budoka but rather they are actors who have learnt a few karate moves and have implemented them into the parts in films. However there are many who are, especially the fight coordinators. People like Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Mark Dacascos , Gary Daniels, and Dolph Lundgren are for real and in fact many people do not know that Dolph is a Sandan in Kyokushinkai karate in fact Brian Fitkin, a top Kyokushin Kai instructor and good friend of Dolph's had a small role in my latest film 'A Bridge Of Dragons'.
But to be very honest with you there is no connection between what you do in the dojo and what you do on film. On film we do what is called 'Hollywood Kung Fu' and it has to be entertaining and it has nothing to do with reality but it is fun, if it is done properly. Some of the best fight scenes that I have done were done with actors who have very little martial arts background. For example, I did a bar fight scene in 'High Voltage' with Antonio Sabato Jr. and Shannon Lee (Bruce Lee's daughter). It was the cinematic elements that made it work, what I mean by that is, it was the rhythm, the editing, camera lenses, angles and speeds combined with a great stunt team with their top acrobatic skills that were enhanced with wires, mini tramps that really made the fight look cool and bigger than life.
On the other hand I have met budoka and I am really talking about good martial artists who are recognisable names that are also actors or stunt / fight scene coordinators, who were trying to make there fight scenes look realistic and unfortunately they ended up with fight scenes that at best looked like bad demonstrations of tournament fighting. These people have no understanding that first they are doing a movie and as I said before realism has nothing to do with action films.
When I direct a dramatic scene I believe that less is more, but when I direct an action scene, I will go over the top. This is what I think is the reason why my films have been so successful. Couple these facts with the fact that the people I have worked with are true professionals and great people as well to get along with I am truly very fortunate.
What about the stunt people you use in your films who are they?
Well I like to use 'The Alpha Stunt Team' and their coordinators Koichi Sakamoto, Yuji Noguichi, and Tatsuro Koike. They are the only stunt team here in Hollywood that I know that can do the 'Hong Kong' style stunts and being very honest with you they always make me look great.
I then asked Isaac who are the directors in Hollywood with a martial arts background. Well you have Aaron Norris who is very successful as well as Art Comacho, Koici Sakamoto, Philip Tan, Jeff Pruit, and the legendary Pat Johnson who was responsible for The Karate Kid, Ninja and Mortal Kombat.
Let us change the subject a little Don, one of the next projects that I contemplating involvement in is a project that is very dear to my heart. The project is very challenging as it is a documentary which will tell the complete history of Karate right from its roots in Greece right up to today. I am firstly a budoka and I love the arts more than anything. I do as it is my job but my heart is in Karate which I still practice. This project if we do it will once and for all tell the true story of karate and where it came from and how Okinawa. I has almost been left out of the equation and we hope to put the record straight with this documentary. Who is involved with the project, well many famous American Karateka like Chuck Merriman, Emil Farkas and George Alexander are at present working on 1 the logistics of the film.
This sounds outstanding Isaac I for lone can not wait to see this.
In summary Isaac Florentine is really a wolf in a sheep's clothing or Karateka in a movie man's clothes. He 1 really is one of us and he like you and I, loves to just punch and kick for the 'I shear pleasure and pride of being able to do an art the best you can.
Isaac Florentine or Don Warrener can be contacted at:
Masters Martial Arts Supply"
11734 Wilshire Blvd., C-409,
Los Angeles Ca.,
90025 U.S.A.
Phone 1-310-477-7604,
E-mail at