Friday, August 8, 2008

Filmmaker Interview: Michael Shu

Michael Shu is a filmmaker and editor born and raised in Cupertino, California. I originally met Michael as an actor in one of my own USC student films. Since then, Michael has returned to writing and directing with his short film
War of the Wolves: Reunion, a samurai melodrama set in the violent last days of feudal era Japan.

"I was born in Silicon Valley, the San Jose area. Born and raised there. My parents are both from Taiwan, but I consider myself All-American. While I was growing up, I was always into movies. And, actually for a while I thought they were all real, because the good ones really pull you into them. So, when I started to learn about the filmmaking process, I was like “Oh wow, they're able to do that kind of stuff? I would really like to do that. Be able to make a movie where you felt like you were in it.”

The samurai genre was an easy choice for Michael's first film in several years. Over the past years, Japanese swordsmanship has become a passion for Michael large enough to rival his love of cinema.

"When I was a [college] sophomore, I started the Japanese sword art of shinkendo. It's a relatively new sword art that is distilled from a lot of traditional Japanese swordsmanship schools. Under my sensei, Obata Toshishiro, I learned a great deal about the samurai culture. That's what I have been doing for, I think its the sixth year now. Throughout college I was really dedicated to it. I did a lot of demonstrations, a lot of seminars, and stuff like that. I became advanced really quickly because I spent so much time doing it. And now I'm an instructor at USC for the Japanese swordsmanship class."

"That's why I decided to create War of the Wolves, because it was something I was very close to- the samurai period. What influenced me to make it on this particular time period, around the 1860's, was because that was kind of when there was a real revolution going on in Japan of going from the samurai to a modernized government. There was a lot of bloodshed, a lot of conflict. The samurai weren't going to go down without a fight..."

"I was influenced a lot by samurai movies and anime. Those were the two main things. In a lot of these samurai movies -and in anime- there is always an underlying story of a great struggle of one person trying to overcome all odds. Usually it is really dramatic in anime, but then a little more subdued in these old time samurai movies. I kind of wanted to find the stylistic balance between those. I wanted to make this film as something I created of my own based upon these two genres, the anime samurai films and the live action samurai films of old and of modern."

"The story of War of the Wolves, a very vague way of saying it, you know sometimes people like to have very vague descriptions of their films, it is about loyalty. Three different kinds of loyalty that our main character is torn between. Loyalty to the people he serves as a samurai, loyalty to his family, and finally, loyalty to himself and his own morals and wanting to do what he feels is right. So, War of the Wolves is pretty much the story of a man who must throughout the film choose between the three. He is always torn between them as the events unfold. Violent events."

"The short film is really just a small snippet of that story. From budget constraints I couldn't really bring the full action and wartime feel to it, so I had to restrict myself to a conversation between the main character and his brother and a person he chose to save the life of against the wishes of the people he served...I originally developed this short to kind of promote the production of the full feature. That was my original intent, but that has changed a little but over time. I now believe that this is a little more of a stand alone showcase of all the talents involved... Originally, I just wanted to quickly shoot it, just one day or something like that at a Japanese garden, but then it just grew with Obata Sensei joining the crew, and me wanting to upgrade to HD. And with [cinematographer] John Matysiak, I was able to achieve the visual style, the very cinematic look, the film has right now. We just used an HVX200 with 35mm lenses in order to lend it that look. So I would say that this is a pretty good example of what you could achieve with just digital filmmaking."

"I hope that the digital revolution could be brought further. I'm a real proponent of digital filmmaking. I want to make all my future movies using the same format. I grew up on digital filmmaking, so I'm one of the “new young people.”

To make this film authentic to its source, Michael chose to shoot the dialog in Japanese. Only, there was one problem.

Michael was fortunate enough to have his sensei and shinkendo founder Obata Toshishiro, (Obata Sensei), join the crew as fight choreographer. His addition added a great amount of experience and authenticity to the production.

"Obata Sensei actually was an instructor-choreographer for the Wakakoma group in Japan. They were pretty much the original martial arts choreography group in Japan before others started to pop up. What they did was use real martial arts and adapt it for the screen. Nowadays in Japan you will see some real cheesy kung-fu-ish kind of swordsmanship, but Wakakoma took real sword techniques and adapted them for film. That's what happened with this film, War of the Wolves. That was what I was trying to go for. I am a practitioner of Japanese swordsmanship, so I did not want to have really cheesy stuff. This was supposed to be a realistic film."

But to much of the younger generation of filmlovers, he is also a minor celebrity.

(laughs) "Yes, Obata Tosishiro Sensei was “Master Tatsu” in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 1 & 2. He was also in Showdown in Little Tokyo, playing opposite Branden Lee. I think Dolph Lundgren killed him or something in that. He got killed a few times if you watch some of his movies. He was in Black Rain with Michael Douglas... That's what he did in his first few years in America until he gain enough money I guess to start a dojo.

I actually didn't know that he was Master Tatsu until a month into my training with him because, you know, he's aged somewhat. When I saw a picture of him it all clicked, and I was like “Oh my God, you're like one of my childhood memories.” Getting to know him as a person though, he's just my sensei now. He's not like a star or anything, he's a guy I really respect for how much knowledge and skill he has. So, I really appreciate him lending all his knowledge and experience to my film."

Most of this film was shot in the Earl Burns Miller Japanese garden at Cal State Long Beach. But for the battle sequences, the crew decided on a more dramatic location- which proved to be problematic.

"We had these flashbacks of war scenes and John Matysiak, the cinematographer, recommended that we go to Mount Baldy, which was snowing at the time, to have a real high production value-ish kind of look to it during the battle scenes.

"It was really cold there, but there was a little bit of snow melting and refreezing, so the ground was very slippery. So, all the fancy choreography my sensei helped me create was a little bit impossible to do because even for the simple movements a lot of people were slipping and falling down on their faces. That was a bit of a compromise we had to make. It was like, how many botched takes are we going to do before we move on? So we weren't able to do a whole lot there. You can see in some of the behind the scenes choreography that there was some really cool stuff there, but we were kind of left with just simple stuff. It was like “SWING”, and that's the end of the choreography.

"Another thing that bummed us out was that we got a permit for this huge snow field, and a bunch of kids were there sliding down the slopes. Even though it was a Monday, we had no idea that on Lincoln's birthday there was going to be such an amount of people having the day off. Parents and kids all making a bunch of noise and sliding down, and almost hitting out equipment with their sleds and stuff like that. It was all pretty horrible. We were limited to a 90 degree field of view to shoot in when we paid for this huge area."

Besides such setbacks, Michael avoids becoming cynical. He realizes that filmmaking is a long road of sacrifices, and if you want to succeed as a filmmaker, you have to be in it for the long haul.

"I like to look at success torture stories like Ang Lee. Seven years of trying to get into the film world. And his wife stayed with him! And he didn't die of starvation or something like that. So, I hope that if I stay persistent, failure after failure, I could get there. And I'm ready to face that. All I really want to do right now is make good films. And not make a crappy film. People say that you have three crappy films that you have to make before you make a good one. I want to get them out of the way as soon as possible!"

War of the Wolves: Reunion has recently screened at the 2008 Cinegear Expo and last July's Dances With Films Film Festival. For information on future screenings visit the film's official website at

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