From The Desk of Rich Buckler: Part Eight - Martial Arts & Movies
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In the meantime, sit back and enjoy Rich Buckler's life story, exclusive to this blog.
The period between 1979-1981 would see the blossoming of several peripheral interests that were comics related. In 1979 I had reached thirty and I was single again (I would eventually move to Staten Island and remarry) and it was in the latter part of that year that I came to meet and befriend Moses Figueroa. That's when I got involved in independent film-making--and that is a story in itself.
For comics fans the events I am about to recount might seem at first to be a bizarre detour from my comics career. It wasn't, really. At the time I saw this series of ventures as something both stimulating and complimentary to all my artistic endeavours.
Those were strange times for me--all of it very surreal. I always loved movies--almost as much as comics. Film-making was something that had fascinated me since childhood. I think that even in my pre-teens in the back of my mind I was always aspiring, in some creative corner of my mind, to be a film director. Around this period in my comics career, upon approaching my early thirties, strange coincidences would happen that seemed to be omens of this.
I couldn't hear what they were saying from where I was standing as the scene played (similar to my experience I would have later while watching that scene from "Superman: The Movie"). I was unaware at the time these things happened, but both of those incidents had made a lasting impression on my subconscious. Film-making, even then, was a seductive siren beginning to call out to me.
Then there was the time I had left D.C.'s offices and happened to get on the same elevator with Robert Redford (one of my absolute favorite actors). I remember thinking "He sure is short. I remember him being a lot taller. Is that actually Robert Redford?"
Well, it was him. One of my all-time favorite movies is "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid" starring Robert Redford and Paul Newman. I saw this near-masterpiece of a movie for the first time accompanied by friends Marv Wolfman and Len Wein when it came out in 1969. Over the months that followed I started to "accidentally" spot dozens of film production trucks at various times as I walked the streets of Manhattan. A strange synchronicity was at work, it seemed.
Over the years I had seen thousands of movies and read scores of books and magazines on how movies were made. I would even go so far as to say it was (like comic books) a real passion for me. I would analyze, dissect and critique movies that I would see in the same manner I did with the comics. Always that analytical "left brain" thing going on. Now as I reflect back on this, it seems that movie-making and creating comics were for me two art forms that became intertwined.
So this part of my story begins around the time I was drawing World's Finest Comics regularly for D.C. At this juncture and through a series of circuitous and fortuitous events I wound up single again and living temporarily in the back of a comic book store near St. Mark's Place in Manhattan's East Village.
It was from these modest headquarters that I would be drawing comic books on weekdays and doing amateur movie-making on the weekends. At times it felt like I was actually living two lives at once. As events began to unfold I could have sworn at one point that work in the movies was my true calling.
Other times, I felt totally inept. It was all so new to me, and as you might or might not imagine, my first efforts as a film director were modest and uncertain (there was always that darned inevitable learning curve to deal with!).
Before meeting Moses Figueroa I had never met anyone who was an actual martial artist or an actor (aside from my young aspiring actor room-mate in my first apartment in the Bronx). Moses was both, and he was also a gifted comic book artist and writer!
We hit it off right away and became good friends, talking hours upon hours as we found lots of creative common ground--comic books, movies, Kung Fu, philosophy and comparative religion, and a lot of other more esoteric subjects. We decided to throw in together on a new creative venture.
It was the martial arts--Karate, Tai Kwon Do and Kung Fu--that was our main focus. For film-making inspiration Moses and I made dozens of excursions to nearby Chinatown where we viewed Chinese martial arts films to study and analyze the "authentic" fighting techniques. All of the movies were in Chinese, with no English sub-titles--but that was not a big drawback for us. It wasn't long before the initial interest became an obsession.
I threw everything I had into it--and I would even get involved to the extent of taking a few Kung Fu lessons myself and would also participate in many of the "sparring" sessions. I figured that if I were going to direct the actions of the artists I should definitely have some "hands on" experience with their art. Several weekends in a row we did filming at the West Side Highway and various West Village street locations.
Our first test reels (in 16 mm) would feature performances by a few young comic book artist friends who would later find their way into print in the comics and achieve their own notoriety. The most noteworthy in that first "actors repertory group" that I assembled were teenagers Mark Texiera, Denis Cowan, Malcolm Davis--and the very gifted fantasy painter Marcus Boaz!
We did dozens of "rehearsals" where we would improvise action sequences and dramatic scenes--some of these were filmed, some were not. It was Moses' talented choreography that prevented actual punches and kicks from connecting.
Amazing, actually, that there were so few accidents, now that I think about it. The only accident I recall from this time was when Mark Texiera ran into me at a full on run and nearly broke my nose--but this was in a train station. That was after one of our rehearsals.
Moses, the presiding stunt coordinator and senior martial artist, also doubled as Assistant Director. He was always my "back up", and we made an effective team. It was all sweaty and physical--even poetic at times--very visceral and testosterone-driven and it was always thoroughly exhilarating.
It was all great fun. I had dabbled a bit in photography but I had absolutely no experience in film-making prior to this, and regretfully none of what we worked on resulted in the way of a finished product.
I continued to illustrate comics and do film-making on the side even though the movie-making efforts proved to be frustrating and required a lot of tremendously hard work. It was all so amazingly complicated, but I loved it. Unfortunately my first efforts with Moses had overwhelmed me. What went wrong?
Clearly movie-making was not quite what I thought it was. I just wanted to create drama in images that moved a "live action" version of what I did in comics form, if you will. That I was confident I could do.
But to do this kind of "visual alchemy" you had to work with real people--not two-dimensional "actors" on paper. And lots of things could and would go wrong! As the film director I had to take charge and think on my feet at a feverish pace. This was all something very new for me. I found it very demanding and I was not used to being anybody's boss.
Another frustrating thing was that actors would show up late or not at all (a common occurrence with all amateur film efforts). I had to be patient and instructive, and at least appear to others to have the wisdom of a sage. That meant acting like a director always in charge--even when I didn't feel like it. Actors were not puppets. Verbal skills on the part of the director were an absolute must. Confidence and decisiveness were essential.
I was also shouldering a lot of responsibility. If there were mistakes, people could get hurt. It wasn't like comic books where you got just what you wanted almost instantly (well, as fast as you could draw, anyway). Things were always much more technical and complicated than I thought they would be.
Another thing--the movie camera was a confounding technology that I had yet to master. Finding a competent camera operator was always problematic. We were usually working with borrowed equipment.
The less than perfect solution was to locate a guy who owned a camera and then make him the cameraman--with, always, mixed and sometimes unusable results when the film was developed. Often, out of frustration, I would operate the camera, but that proved to be bit of an aesthetic compromise too. Good Film Directors work with good cinematographers. Great Directors work with great ones. For me, it was catch as catch can.
I was getting quite good at it and really fast. I could conceptualise and frame shots and invent situations and stage movements, but I was used to manipulating images that didn't move. So, the results often were less than brilliant. It was an advantage being a fast learner. All of those difficulties notwithstanding, I became resolved to take things further.
I took an apartment in Staten Island and, barely settled in I decided that it was time to enrol in some film courses and get a better idea of how it was actually done.
I signed up for an intensive two-week seminar on independent film-making that was being offered at the time by Chester Fox. Chester had been one of the producers on an independent feature from a few years prior to that entitled "Short Eyes" (a modest film directed by Robert Downey Sr. that had a limited run and enjoyed some critical success).
Weird coincidence or synchronistic aside here: That same director, who is Robert Downey (Iron Man) Jr.'s father, happens to now live in the same apartment building as I do (but I haven't met him yet). Another neighbor in my building complex is a slightly short doppelganger of Stan Lee!
A nearby street level store-front in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island became available (right around the corner from my apartment on Victory Blvd.) and I leased the entire first floor to start a comic book retail store which I christened “Galactic Media." This is something I always wanted to do--own my own comics shop. A few months later, when I remarried, I leased the apartment above the store.
This business sideline was my introduction to that aspect of the comic book business wherein I learned the nuts and bolts of the comics direct market from a retailer's perspective. That knowledge would come in handy when I was hired by the publishers of Archie Comics as Managing Editor to revive their Red Circle line of comics--more on that later.
We even had video arcade games (you know, the "analogue" precursor to today's digital computer games, in those big clunky wooden kiosks?). The store was always bustling with customers. On weekdays and Saturdays the store became a place of wonderment and a cool place to hang out for the young people in the neighborhood.
Over time things started to connect up in a series of wondrous circumstances I can only describe as coming about by a curiously Jungian synchronicity. Earnings from the store would provide some modest start-up funds for continuing my pursuit of what I had begun to hope would develop into a second career as a film director.
I found that the hardest part of getting started up again on Staten Island was finding people who were qualified and would work for free or no money up front. Some of the actors from my first effort had stayed with me. Others would follow through word of mouth or by answering ads I had put in the trade papers. Interviews took place over a period of weeks at my store. That was very tedious and time-consuming.
After a few months I had started to get a semblance of order, a rough plan of operation and enough new talent to form my new group. I was satisfied that things were finally proceeding on a more or less professional level.
One of the most promising of the actors/martial artists that I had the pleasure to work with was a self-taught youth named Richard Reeves.
Rick (who had also been in my first group with Moses) was only eighteen (but looked like he was in his mid-twenties). He was in top physical condition, and boy could he move! He was self-taught for the most part and was both a student and a teacher--and he knew just about every style and technique I had ever seen! He would combine the styles of Bruce Lee with the antics of Jackie Chan and add many innovations of his own. Not only that--the guy actually had real acting talent!
It was all rough and tumble and took lots of sweat and hard work. My wife Angelica participated and underwent some martial arts training from a young Karate instructor named Steve Villalobos. Now, Angelica was a petite lady from Lima, Peru, who stood less than five feet tall and weighed about as much as a stack of comic books (okay, exaggeration, but you get the idea). At one point she was actually breaking boards with her bare hands and tossing around guys who were twice his size! I could hardly believe it!
I jokingly referred to the financial side of things as my "threadbare shoestring budget." All I could afford was film stock and an occasional camera rental (and not from Haddad's). All other necessities (equipment loans, locations and technical crew) that I acquired along the way were mostly due to serendipity (begging, borrowing and bartering).
At the same time the Galactic Media comic book store was operated by my second wife and her mother, and it ran efficiently and profitably--thanks to the ladies, that is. Being an artist, I had very modest business skills and really no time at all to devote to running things.
This space would be filled up over a period of six months with enough borrowed lighting and production equipment to start a small movie studio. We even had the professional equipment to do tracking shots like the "big boys" (no crane, though--not enough space to store one if we did). It was amazing what could be accomplished by a small group of creative people who shared the vision of one Staten Island-based comic book artist aspiring to be a movie producer/director.
I would summarise my movie-making efforts as a valuable creative experience that was probably doomed financially from the start. Not to sound cynical but we were just sadly wanting in the really basic essentials--not enough "juice" (connections) and not enough "scratch" (financing).
You know those stories that you hear all the time about this or that independent film director who "came out of nowhere" and became a "self-made success" and moved on to even bigger Hollywood success? Well, take it from me, they were just that--stories.
The part they would always leave out is that you needed high-powered people, important connections, and money--lots of money!--behind you before you could even show what you can do.
What it amounted to was me obsessing and pursuing yet another dream, one that I was not prepared for. And the world I was about to enter into, much to my dismay, did not welcome me with open arms and an open checkbook.
It was not exactly "the big time, that's for sure, but I found that otherwise the independent film-making world really was just like Hollywood--and this had been emphasized in Chester Fox's tutoring. In his classes he had been very clear on this point, that everything centered on "the deal."
That turned out to be pretty naive on my part. I see that now. Brains and talent and a firm resolve are not always enough. Not in the real world. I learned that you could be brilliant and possess loads of talent and expertise--you could be a genius even (which maybe I was--and maybe I wasn't). But that would still not be enough.
When all was said and done I had spent all of my spare time for a total of about two and a half years chasing opportunities and leads that never developed into anything. But hey, I had certainly given it my best.
My friend Monroe Arnold summed up my situation one day when he told me: "Rich, if anyone deserved to make it in movies, based on how badly they wanted it, it would be you. Unfortunately, that's not how things really work." Good advice and I really should have listened to him.
But instead, I stubbornly continued. No risk, no reward, right? I was bound and determined to prove my actor/producer friend wrong (yeah, right!).
Never one to let anything go to waste, on weekdays I also utilized some of that vacant space in the back of my store to run a part-time Karate school (mostly for young students)--it was actually amazing how industrious I could be!--and I hired a Karate black belt (one of my actors) to teach. A few times when he failed to show up, though this was rare, I filled in for him as "instructor."
From that point, roughly eight months more had passed (that's a lot of weekends!) and I finally had something to show. I was surely poised for success--or so I thought. But then came my "wake-up call".
It occurred in the form of a meeting in Manhattan with Lloyd Kaufman at the offices of Troma Films. Yep, you heard right--Troma, the renowned producers of "Toxic Avenger", numerous "splatter films" and other low-budget cinematic wonders.
I submitted a product reel to him along with a professionally prepared budget and proposal for a $200,000 film (this one was a "supernatural thriller" I wrote and would direct--a horror film actually, which was Troma's meat). That really was low-budget--even by 1980's standards. Today's low-budget movies start out at a production budget of four million dollars (talk about runaway inflation!).
Anyway, I was lucky really because even getting an appointment with these guys at Troma was a feat in itself.
My other project, which I had put on the back-burner, was a martial arts action film that was a very loose (and very surreal!) adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet. Lloyd had passed on that one very quickly. Could be that it was too cerebral (hah!) or it was simply outside the purview of a "standard Troma product" (whatever that might be).
By this time my name had gotten around a bit and I was already working with a few of Lloyd's production people (make-up and special effects, camera and gaffer/electrician). Chester Fox had lent his name to the film as Producer.
I even had Sam Raimi's and Rob Tapert's film editor on board (they were working on "Evil Dead" at the time). So I had credibility. Lloyd said he liked everything I presented.
What I needed was, of course, "the deal." This is the part that is the proverbial roll of the dice. Would it happen for me? Was there a chance that I would get the financing that I was seeking for both production and distribution? Without that I was just a "wanna be" film director with a million dollar dream.
I had done my homework before the meeting. I knew Troma was always looking for new (and cheaply produced) product. I was fully prepared but I was not, however, dealing from strength--and I knew it--but I had to make my play anyway.
The actual meeting lasted all of fifteen minutes. I had crapped out. Here was the offer: Troma would distribute and Lloyd would consider doing "line producing" (in film parlance, that's the "heavy lifting" aspect of production that included location scouting and provision of the technical crew)--and he would provide financing for the rest, if and when I could come up with the first $100,000.
It was becoming abundantly obvious that becoming an actual film director in the real world was not in the cards for me. Not now, and probably not ever. A hard pill to swallow. But all was not lost. I was a fast learner and a good study, very versatile and enterprising--and I was never one to give up easily. So...I would just do it another way. There had to be other "windows of opportunity," right? I had brains, talent, and by now a decent amount of savvy, so there was still a remote chance that I could connect with something worthwhile!
I continued on for a few years afterward scouting out and meeting in Manhattan with various fringe Hollywood types. Most of them were lowlifes, con men, drug addicts and reprobates--or second-rate or third-rate actors that were always hustling somebody. Some of them were mobbed up, some were (I suspect) drug dealers, pornographers and crooked lawyers, or worse.
Some were just bored very wealthy degenerates. What was I getting into? I just wanted to make movies. It seemed that everybody I met who could possibly help me make that happen just wanted to make money, get high or have lots of illicit sex (or all of the above). I was just about ready to hang it up.
Then one day I met one actor who seemed straight. He was sincere and not tarnished by any of the usual Hollywood nonsense that I was constantly encountering. He was probably, like me, more than a little naive and prone to chasing dreams.
So I took a chance and I wrote a screenplay for Freddy James for no money upfront but with the promise of a gig as Film Director if the movie ever got financed. I assembled cast and crew to make a "product reel."
Under my film direction we shot about fifteen minutes of a Mafia movie called "Last Hour Of Honor" in New Jersey. This was the closest that I ever got to the "real thing." It starred Freddy James (who had played a minor role in "Prizzi's Honor"), with Freddy also co-producing and providing the start-up financing.
We did a one-day shoot and I thought we had some promising footage. The project was edited and Freddy shopped it around a product reel for a couple of years afterward but it just languished after that and nothing further came of it.
Then came another opportunity. I got a shot at Assistant Director to Monroe Arnold on one of his independent film ventures. Monroe had written a screenplay entitled "Diary Of A Terrorist", which he was to direct.
Assistant Directors rarely, if ever, moved up to actually becoming directors--and I knew this, but I considered it worth it because it was still an entry level position into professional movie making and might lead to better things.
The film would star a Hollywood actor friend of Monroe's; Zack Norman (who had played one of the bad guys brothers, opposite Danny DiVito, in "Romancing The Stone"--Remember Ira? "Will you look at those snappers!").
I did pre-production, budgeting, and again I assembled the film crew (which is really the production manager's job, usually) and my people provided most of the equipment and we shot on location at a wealthy estate in upstate New York. It was a one-day shoot, the logistics were a nightmare, and (unbelievably!) we started out at 5:30 in the morning. We wrapped at about 9:30 in the evening with everybody thoroughly exhausted.
All had gone well and we had about ten minutes worth of a "demo" in the can--and somehow the entire crew got paid, but I didn't--but then Monroe suffered a heart attack the day after the shoot. The project was put on hold after that and it never did get finished.
Not everything was a disaster though! Along the way on my ill-fated cinematic foray--and I would always seem to get "almost" into the race, but never make it past the "starting gate"--there were a few aspects of my film-making efforts that did get put before the public.
All of those martial arts rehearsals I had coordinated at the comic book store coalesced eventually into a one and a half hour dramatic stage presentation of the martial arts entitled "The Spirit Of Kung Fu" (which was the same title I used for the now abandoned film version).
The show, written and directed by me, had its debut in 1981 at the Statler Hilton Hotel under the auspices of none other than Phil Seuling.
This kind of show at a comic book convention had never been tried before--or since! You might wonder why. Well, here are some really good reasons. Very important paperwork, permits and insurance considerations had all been somehow circumvented. Nowadays, this kind of entertainment would cost thousands and thousands of dollars to produce (and just the cost of insurance alone would make things unfeasible).
Honestly I don't know how Phil did it. My guess is that this was at a time when things were done a lot more loosely and my stage show was considered "an event within an event" so it escaped the scrutiny of the hotel management and got treated as just another item on the convention program. In other words, it "slipped through the cracks" of the establishment and bypassed all the usual red tape.
Surprisingly, hundreds of enthusiastic comics fans showed up--and we were even provided with a real stage--and it was a raging success! So much so that fans swarmed the actors after the show for autographs.
Our "Spirit Of Kung Fu Repertory Group" would do an encore months later in the Tompkinsville section of Staten Island (near the Ferry Terminal) where I lived at the time. Part of a community-sponsored event, it was an outdoor affair this time, again on stage (and, amazingly, no insurance required), and it met with popular approval once again.
After those star-crossed adventures (or misadventures really) I reluctantly left film-making and the martial arts behind me. The comics retail store continued to operate for another year or so. But from then on it was back to what I did best which was creating comics full time. I became resolved that all of my "movie-making" efforts would of necessity be on paper from then on.
The itch to create something new in comics was still there. So I sort of came full circle when I returned briefly to self-publishing. As I mentioned earlier, I started out as an amateur publisher before I broke into the professional comics ranks.
Throughout my ill-fated film-making interlude I had been contacted by a number of artists who wanted to break into comics. Three of them, Willie Blyberg, Jackson Guice and Sam DeLaRosa would break into the professional ranks of comicdom with the publication of my one and only issue of the black and white "Galaxia Magazine" (which came out in 1981).
I learned a lot, through self-publishing and owning/operating a retail comic shop, about how the burgeoning comics direct market worked. I brought back my character Demon Hunter in yet another incarnation--Bloodwing. This self-published comic also featured the very first professional art of Mark Texiera (who penciled one feature over my layouts) and Jackson Guice. I did all the editing and shared the publishing chores with Thom Sciacca.
The first issue--with a cover penciled by me and rendered in ink by Dick Giordano!-- did well. Almost 10,000 copies! It all looked very promising at that point and there was a planned second issue which unfortunately never did see print.
I was financially tapped out and could not afford to reinvest. Thom opted out too, explaining that he was not in a position to continue as a financial partner and he moved on to other things.
So there you have it. Hard to imagine, really, how I accomplished what I did and still kept up with my comic book career in mainstream comics! And kept my sanity!
Check back sooner than you expect for Part IX, when Rich moves further into his life and the '80s!
Rich Buckler's web-site can be found here. Rich is available for commissions and recreations, and, as you're clearly reading, has a long history in the field of comic book art, spanning over 40 years. Visit his site, check out his art and treat yourself!