The title has two meanings – Shaolin monk and American Shaolin, especially the latter due to an English language film that was produced by a Hong Kong film company named Seasonal. Besides the obvious bald jokes, an egg can mean someone who has a Caucasian exterior and an Asian interior. As for forester, Shaolin is the name of a specific forest in China. As such, one could say that the Shaolin temple harvests many eggs. It’s weird to think that the guy who wrote and produced this movie considered casting John Cusack and Corey Haim as the titular character. Unfortunately, they were demanding too much money.
Jason Bateman (who would later star in Horrible Bosses) was also considered for the lead role in American Shaolin. Unfortunately, he didn’t want to shave his head despite the fact that Seasonal were offering a lot of money. There was also the issue of him not having enough experience as a martial artist, although Trent Bushey (the villain) also needed to be trained. Before Cusack, Loren Avedon was initially going to be the star of American Shaolin. He turned it down because not only did he officially complete his contract with Seasonal but they weren’t willing to pay the fee that he was asking. Then again, Keith Strandberg (the writer of Seasonal’s American movies) was having second thoughts on hiring Avedon anyway. He goes on to say:
“Loren means well, and he is a very good actor and a great on-screen fighter. When I worked with him, I think he thought that he should have been further along in his career, so there was a kind of chip on his shoulder and a bitterness or resentment there. After The King of the Kickboxers, we decided not to work with him again.”
As an aside, I should point out that Harold Diamond, Sly Stallone’s Kali stick combatant in Rambo III, was the original villain in Jean-Claude Van Damme’s Kickboxer before he argued with the star and the director. The replacement, Michel Qissi, claimed this in the first issue of Hong Kong Superstars (circa 1997). He was already working on the film and told JCVD that he should play the villain because they couldn’t afford to waste time. Elsewhere, I’ve read that Harold was too quick and outperformed JCVD.
Keith was able to draw on his own experiences in Mainland China and other countries in Asia while writing the script. He didn’t actually base the character of Drew Carson on any single person, but his character at the beginning was an amalgam of all the Americans which Keith had into on his experience as a tour guide in China. However, one of the lines used was a lift from a story that another Keith told him. As a competitor, Mr. Vitali would routinely carry along two uniforms – one for the eliminations and one for the finals. The meaning was that he was so sure about getting into the finals that he prepared a separate uniform for it.
Mr. Strandberg then realized how perfect that it would be for audiences to be misled into thinking that they were watching a tournament movie. So instead of making a movie about a bored young man who wanted to train like a Shaolin monk, he decided to throw in a plot twist that is as much of a 180 degree twist as travelling all the way to China would be. The narrative structure gets to a point that people think that they are watching a unique take on the coming-of-age formula before being surprised by the fact that the movie ends with a finale that takes place in a tournament.
Orchestrating the fight scenes in American Shaolin proved to be something of an immense struggle for Yuen Kwai (a.k.a. Corey) and Yuen Tak (a.k.a. Richard Hung). The tournament finale took 9 days to film. Even though each day was a 16 hour shoot, they could have done with having more days. The entire shoot was 86 days. In Hong Kong, a martial arts movie usually takes 2 months to film. According to a defunct page on Keith Strandberg’s website, Corey was quoted as saying:
“An American picture is much different from Hong Kong pictures. In American Shaolin, the action had to match the plot and the characters, whereas in H.K. – you can just have a fight scene. I had to keep conferring with Keith to make sure what we had planned would fit in with the storyline and the character development. It was definitely more of a challenge designing the fight scenes for American Shaolin than anything else I’ve done.”
H.K. cinema fans may note that some of the music heard in American Shaolin can be heard in Tai Chi 2 (originally titled as The Tai-Chi Master or Tai Chi Boxer as the title it was released under in the U.K.) which, of course, was directed by Yuen Woo-Ping. The composer for both films was Richard Yuen Cheuk-Fan, who also composed scores for such classics like High Risk, Iron Monkey, License to Steal and Wicked City (Tsui Hark’s adaptation of the popular Japanimation). He even worked on the soundtrack for Brandon Lee’s Legacy of Rage. Music was also taken from the infamous Island of Fire.
The story had been floating around in Keith’s head for some time (for 7 years), and when Seasonal was discussing the follow up movie to The King of the Kickboxers, the idea of doing a movie about a young American who goes to the Shaolin Temple was brought up. From their perspective, it fit perfectly with the goal of making a movie that would appeal to a large audience, and the decision was made to start on the script. Strandberg, who is actually a black belt martial artist and a scholar on Chinese history and contemporary culture, was particularly suited for the writing of the American Shaolin script. As a result of his martial arts background, he already knew a great deal about the Shaolin Temple, and his familiarity with China, along with his fluency in written and spoken Mandarin, would come in handy while writing the script, and later when producing the movie.
Keith and Ng See-Yuen (Seasonal’s studio head) spent many hours in Los Angeles going over the idea, mapping out the plot line, adding and discarding scenes to make the picture the best it could be. When the outline for the picture was done, Strandberg returned to Amish Country, PA to write the screenplay. Keith admits:
“I love living in Lancaster County, because it’s so quiet and removed from anything else, I can really concentrate. It was a little weird to be working on a movie based in China while watching Amish buggies go by on the road. I’ve been to China so many times that I knew the tone and atmosphere I was looking for.”
American Shaolin meant a lot to Strandberg because of his M.A. background and the debt he feels he owed to the arts.
“I was able to work through a lot of tough situations because of the martial arts. American Shaolin is one way of showing my gratitude by writing and producing a movie that shows the positive aspects of the martial arts. Too many movies nowadays are just one fight scene after another, and they give the arts a bad name. American Shaolin offers a very positive message to all ages about discipline and taking responsibility for one’s own life. Drew Carson, the lead character, is a mixed up kid, who needs the discipline and challenges built into the martial arts. He finds all he needs at the Shaolin Temple and with the training, and he succeeds. He becomes a complete person, someone in charge of his life, and the lessons he learns along the way will have meaning for the audience.”
Strandberg is proud of his past movies but feels that American Shaolin was definitely in the right direction for Seasonal, as well as for martial arts movies in particular.
“The audience for American Shaolin is very broad. I think anyone from age 4 to age 80 will be able to get something out of this movie. The positive message will get out much more effectively in a movie like this than in a picture that is rated R, and just shows violence and action.”
Location scouting in New Jersey:
“I was to meet our production manager, R.D. Strickland, and several other crew members in Asbury Park one morning, and I drove there from my home in Pennsylvania. I arrived a little early, and parked close to the convention center to read a newspaper and drink my hot chocolate as it was a cold morning. As the mist from the ocean cleared, I realized that I was parked about 20 yards from a crime scene. Stretching out around the boardwalk area was the yellow police tape, and leather jacketed police officers were standing all around! I got out of my car and walked over to them and asked them what was going on. They said to me, “Can’t you see?” I looked around but didn’t see anything out of the ordinary, until the officer pointed under the steps to the boardwalk.”
Things get eerier regarding Asbury Park:
There, lying on the ground with her skirt up over her head, was the victim of a rape/murder – an old bag lady! It seems she had been killed during the night, and the police had just recently discovered her. And, on top of that, she was lying under the steps that I was supposed to take to get into the building where our meeting was scheduled to take place! Needless to say, we found another place to have our meeting. By the time the rest of the people I was to meet arrived, the woman had been put into a body bag and carted off. It left a sick feeling in my stomach for the rest of the day. Many former tourist hotels had been turned into halfway houses for mental patients, so it’s kind of like “zombie town” in some ways, because you get a lot of people just walking the streets mumbling to themselves, without anywhere to go.”
The first step to realizing the American Shaolin dream was the casting of the lead character, Drew Carson. The character is not an easy one, because he has to go from confident youngster to a humiliated loser to a fish out of water to a struggling fighting monk-in-training to a successful Shaolin monk. It would require a combination that is increasingly hard to find: a martial artist who is also an accomplished actor, or an accomplished actor who is also a martial artist. The kind of action Seasonal is known for is quite difficult to perform, so Drew had to be at least a black belt expert in the martial arts. Casting sessions on both coasts came and went, and although the people at Seasonal found many fine martial artists and many exceptional actors, the combination they were looking for eluded them. They considered using actors without any martial arts experience but quickly discarded this idea.
Finally, Drew Carson walked through the door in the form of Reese Madigan (who was solely a comprehensively trained professional actor). Reese was just coming off a successful New York theater run in Henry IV, and was available for the role of Drew Carson. It didn’t hurt that Reese himself is a black belt in Shotokan Karate. It also helped that Reese is fascinated by the Shaolin Temple, and he jumped at the chance to play the title character.
Aside from Reese as the lead, the other chief roles were for fellow disciples or for the masters in the temple. A unique mixture of mainland Chinese actors and Asian Americans were chosen for these roles. Billy Chang plays the role of Drew’s best friend, Li, while Daniel Dae Kim is Gao, Drew’s initial rival, who later becomes his good friend. Cliff Lenderman (a Seattle, WA native known as ‘Jeet Kune Do’s Strongman’) plays the demanding role of the Drill Sergeant. All of the monks were also very accomplished martial artists, making the job of the stunt and fight choreographers that much easier.
Never cast a stage actor as the lead in a movie
“I remember the first couple of weeks working with Reese. He had never even appeared on film before. Because he had no idea of the medium, he was operating in the dark. He didn’t know how the movements he was doing would look on screen, and the biggest problems we had with him were with blocking and a sense of the camera. For example, he might be doing a fall, and he would do a great fall, and it would look very realistic, but he’d fall with his face AWAY from the camera, and we’d cut. “What?!?” he’d wonder, until we told him that it was a great fall, but you have to make sure the camera sees your face.”
“I liked the character because he was a good role model for kids. Even though he was a real tough guy, he was very involved, and deep inside he really cared about the disciples. American Shaolin has something very positive to say to kids. Kids think of the martial arts as only fighting, but Drew learns that there is so much more to the martial arts. When kids see that, they will know there’s more to it than just kicking and punching. As soon as we got to a major town in China, I insisted on buying a set of weights. I carted those weights from town to town, and it was a real pain because we mostly traveled in buses and vans.”
Once all the casting was done, principal photography began on 6th April 1991 in Asbury Park and Seaside Heights, New Jersey. The decision to film in these rather run down New Jersey shore towns was an attempt to create an atmosphere of desperation from which Drew would want to escape. Drew’s home was actually filmed inside a crumbling seaside amusement park, adding a feeling of time running out for Drew if he doesn’t do something different. It was a great location for the film, and Director “Lucas Lowe” took advantage of the American images in New Jersey.
“It was very important to establish early on that Drew lived in America, and he wasn’t happy. The deserted amusement park, complete with empty boardwalks and misty beaches, proved to be the perfect backdrop for the American side of the story.”
Hackensack, New Jersey was the venue for the tournament scene where Drew gets humiliated. Playing Drew’s rival – Trevor Gottitall the Third, Trent Bushey (a soap opera star) fit the part like a glove. Strandberg speaks of the casting sessions:
“As soon as I saw him, I knew he was Trevor.”
After the Jersey shooting was wrapped, the filming in mainland China began on 18th May, 1991. Once arriving in China, the scenes where Drew arrives, looks for the temple, asks for admission and so on had to be shot in sequence because Shaolin monks shave their heads, that’s why, and until Drew and the other disciples in the Temple’s last training class are officially admitted into the temple, they all have hair. Seasonal insisted that all the actors with parts as monks shave their heads. However, they did cheat a couple of scenes. The actual Shaolin Temple was the last location on the schedule because it was so far out of the way. Most of the filming took place in a 20 hour driving radius around Shanghai, while the Shaolin Temple required an overnight train trip, and a plane flight. So, they put a wig on Reese for those two short scenes.
During the filming, they had some equipment problems, where the film somehow got damaged (either because of a faulty camera or because the lab that developed the film had a problem), so several very important portions of scenes were unusable! They had to go back and re-shoot these scenes, at an incredible cost of time and energy, not to mention having to redo something that was already perfect except for a technical glitch.
“One of my favorite scenes is the football scene outside the temple. Drew teaches the other disciples at the Shaolin Temple how to play football. It’s a great scene, but during the filming the American actors were continually complaining that the movements they were being asked to do were unnatural and would look stupid. What these guys didn’t realize that no matter how well they threw the ball, or how expert they looked while playing football, if the movements were done off screen, the audience couldn’t see them.”
Strandberg talks about an accident involving two inexperienced martial artists:
“While filming the fight scene where Trent’s character faces off against Gao, we were laying out the movements for Trent. During the rehearsal, Trent blocked a kick thrown by Daniel with his open hand, and started screaming. The kick had bent back Trent’s fingers, and the index finger was standing straight up from his hand, so it looked as if it could have been broken. I took him to the hospital immediately, which was an adventure in and of itself, because we were in Shanghai and it was difficult to travel through the congested streets at any speed. We finally got the hospital and I took him into the emergency room.”
“We got some X-rays taken, and it was determined that it was only a dislocation, and the doctor put it back in, and bandaged him up. Trent was able to continue shooting, albeit with a large bandage on his hand (which we covered with skin-colored make up). It isn’t really noticeable, except in one shot. If you look carefully, you can see the bandage. Because Trent was not a martial artist, he didn’t know that you have to block with a closed hand, and his inexperience could have cost a great deal of money, if his finger had been broken and he had been unable to continue. As it was, we got lucky and were able to finish the final scene as scheduled.”
Because of the action and the amount of time each of these monks spend on screen, a skull cap would never have worked. This was a point of contention with some of the actors initially approached for roles, but Seasonal remained adamant. Either shave or we’ll find someone else, they said, and eventually all the actors agreed to shave their heads. Reese says:
“I was looking forward to shaving my head. It really helped me get into the character of Drew Carson.”
Everywhere the cast and crew went in China, it was easy to spot the “American Shaolin people” as they were the only ones with hundreds of bald guys traveling together. For one scene alone, over 400 actors had to have their heads shaved! Cliff remembers:
“We had to get shaved every single morning. With a straight razor! It hurt, but I enjoyed being without hair. I felt more powerful and definitely more intimidating. I felt like a Shaolin master.”
Strandberg (who used to direct tours for groups of 30 or more Americans throughout China) notes:
“Americans cause enough of a stir in China. Bald American monks, towering over the Chinese people, almost caused riots. We were continually surrounded wherever we went, and people would call out ‘Meiguo Shaolin’, which means American Shaolin. No matter where we were, in the streets of Shanghai or in the wilds of China, people knew immediately who we were. It was impossible for us to go incognito in China.”
The filming took place primarily in temples scattered throughout China. Although some filming was done at the actual Shaolin Temple in Henan Province, it is fairly small and relatively unimpressive. So, three other temples were used as doubles for the Shaolin Temple. The Tian Tung in Zhe Zhiang Province is the largest and oldest Buddhist temple in China, and it was an incredible location. Staggered up a mountainside, Tian Tung Temple at one time housed 5,000 monks! It was very interesting to have the real monks at the various temples watching the “Shaolin monks” make the movie. They were invariably excited to see the movie shot, and bent over backwards to make the experience a good one for everyone concerned.
“At Tian Tung Temple, one monk in particular was especially nice to us. He would advise on the correct way to strike the gongs or the huge drum used to call the other monks. He also made a great vegetarian noodle dish that he would invite me to eat about once a week.”
Keith was looking at his diary and started to accumulate what was going to happen next in Seasonal’s U.S. film career. He couldn’t bear the thought of working with “Lucas” again, so the artist formerly known as Lo Yuen-Ming never worked again for Seasonal or even in Hong Kong. Lucas Lowe was an Americanized pseudonym. Keith basically described Lo as insensitive, selfish and egocentric. What made Keith and “Lucas” part ways was the following example of Lucas not knowing how to handle people. This anecdote is a controversy that explains why Corey Yuen never worked with Ng See-Yuen again (which is saying something since American Shaolin was their 15th collaboration).
In one scene outside the Tian Ti temple, he would badmouth the cast if they wanted to take shelter to escape from the heat. His remarks were vulgarities. The extras didn’t come back to work, so they were forced to finish a crowd scene without a crowd. It wasn’t much fun, but it had to get done. Everyone on the set balked at the way that Lucas handled the situation, so Keith try to make amends for him, but it didn’t do any good. They did come back. That night, and they came back for Lucas. They went out to dinner that night, because the food was so abysmal at the hotel. They went into town to a restaurant (all these terms are in quotes because they are very loose uses of the terms).
On the way back from the restaurant, as they were driving up the small, dirt and gravel road to the temple, the bus stopped. Suddenly, the bus was surrounded by an angry, Chinese mob. It was the extras from earlier in the day, demanding satisfaction. These extras weren’t just ordinary Chinese. They were martial arts experts who came all the way from Hangzhou to film. They were out for blood. They tried to board the bus, but the crew stood between Lucas and the angry mob. Cliff, Reese, Daniel, Billy and Keith stood them off, wondering the entire time why we were bothering. In the midst of the excitement, Keith looked back at Lucas, who was doing his best to remain cool. He had put his sunglasses on, and his arm around his Chinese girlfriend, and he was trying to ignore the enraged frenzy.
Cliff was ready to fight. Keith kept telling him not to fight. In the middle of the melee, Reese looked at Keith and said “What are we doing?” None of them really wanted to protect Lucas, but they were all part of the same team, so they did it. After about 15 very tense minutes, where the bus was rocked, they cleared the bus and drove to the hotel. The extras were angry, but all they were really demanding was an apology. An admittance by Lucas that he had been wrong in yelling at them. He refused. When the crew got back to the hotel, they knew it was only a matter of time before the angry mob came to the hotel, so the crew went looking for Lucas to get him to apologize. But, he wasn’t to be found. He was hiding.
Things got worse for Keith:
“The martial arts experts from Hangzhou showed up, demanding to see Lucas, demanding an apology. After about 20 minutes, I found Lucas hiding in another room, his girlfriend on his arm, and I told him to go in and apologize. At first he refused, but after some “persuasion” (where someone mentioned that the mob would somehow find out where he was), he agreed. He went into the room and said to the group – “If you misunderstood my remarks and took them the wrong way, I am sorry.” It wasn’t an apology, it was a cop out. Lucas had used obscenities which I’d never even heard before, and others I would be ashamed to print, so there was no way anyone could misunderstand or take the wrong way. Lucas was still not admitting any wrong, and still not apologizing.”
Things got better:
“They accepted it, after a while, and left quietly. Still, we knew that there could be trouble the next day, when we had to film another scene. We decided that Lucas should leave for Shanghai a day early, and the stunt coordinator and I would finish out the shoot at the Tian Tai location. He did as he was told, and did not feel any remorse for his actions. It’s my opinion, and this is shared by many members of the cast and crew, that if we hadn’t defended Lucas that night, and kept the mob away from him, that Lucas could easily have died that night.”
Lucas and Reese never got along as told by Keith:
“Actors are notorious for their egos, and directors are right up there as well. In Lucas Lowe, we had a director that had an ego to match the size of the Great Wall of China. So, when Reese and Lucas started working together, sparks were bound to fly. Reese arrived with a chip on his shoulder, having been told by his agent that he was the second coming of Tom Cruise. When you’re told great things, you start believing your own press. Reese had never done a movie before being awarded the lead role in this one. We sort of expected a genial young man who was willing to learn all he could about the process of making a movie – what we got instead was a cocky kid who tried to pretend that he knew everything there was to know.”
“Whenever someone tried to tell him something, he didn’t want to listen. Factor in Lucas and his grating personality into this equation, and you have a prescription for disaster instead of a recipe for success. I was always caught in the middle. I knew that both were being childish, but for the good of the picture, I couldn’t let the relationship deteriorate into open antagonism. It was tough, but we struggled through.”
“The most grueling part of movie making is the production process. It is a nightmare of logistics, long days and nights, bad location food, and interrupted exercise schedules. It can cause incredible bodily changes, and the stars have to pay particular attention to how the schedule is changing the way they look. Over the course of the 4 months, the strange food and heavy filming schedule really took a toll on everyone, including the actors. I went to China weighing 180 pounds, and after 3 months in the boonies of China, I arrived in Shanghai weighing 163 pounds. Reese, Billy and Daniel were all in great shape when they arrived in China, but by the end of the shoot, they had all lost weight and an incredible amount of muscle tone. Cliff was one of the only ones who really stayed on top of his physique. Despite his best efforts, Cliff still lost a good deal of weight, but he was still able to maintain his muscle tone.”
It turned out to be the most difficult of all Seasonal Film productions. One of the biggest problems was working within the communist system. The crew was made up of Chinese nationals, Hong Kong citizens and Americans, and that made for enough confusion without factoring in the communist work ethic – or lack thereof. Pile on top of that language problems (Strandberg was the only American who spoke Chinese, and very few of the Chinese or Hong Kong crew members spoke any English, problems with the food. There was no Western food as Cliff remembers:
“Peanut butter was considered a major find!”
Things got so bad that the people from Seasonal in Hong Kong sent in care packages about every week (e.g. M&M’s). The intense heat and less than first class accommodations in the wilds of China, and you’ve got yourself a tough shoot. Daniel Dae Kim (who became popular because of Lost and Hawaii Five-0) recalls:
“The experience making American Shaolin was real rough, being in China and all. The product will make it all worth it. We made a good film.”
For all its intent, it doesn’t take itself too seriously as, like with a few other of Seasonal’s English language outings, there are some references to their own films. For instance, during the final tournament as the camera pans past the judges, we can see that the UK judge’s name is Stillwell Wylde; a name made up of the surnames of the two main characters in the first two No Retreat, No Surrender movies (also the role is played Keith Strandberg). The appearance of Michael DePasquale Jr. as an announcer for the opening tournament sequence is kind of a play on his role in The King of the Kickboxers since he was the one who was doing the ring fighting in that film. The real American Shaolin, Matthew Polly, noted that the monks had worked with Reese to teach him what they could for the movie. Matthew says the movie didn’t do much for him but maintains that it was an interesting effort.
The final confrontation between Drew and Trevor bears striking similarities to the end fight of Stephen Chow’s Fist of Fury 1991, of which Kwai worked on. Those who’ve seen both films have suspected that Yuen worked on both films at the same time or around the same time as most of the techniques look similar, with Chow’s being more “exaggerated” as it was an Mo Lei Tau action comedy. The theatrical run in Hong Kong for Ste’s movie from March the 23rd – April the 17th. Towards the end of Lucas Lowe’s production, Kwai began to work on Andy Lau’s Lee Rock (which went into distribution on the 19th of September). It’s probably because of this that Kwai could not afford to contribute much in the way of originality, hence him regurgitating his ideas.
On a final note, this screenplay indicates that the movie (or the budget) was cut. Keith went on to say that there were scenes which were filmed and then deleted. Here is one example. Apparently, the rough cut of the film consisted of 20 reels. This would be over 200 minutes! Keith’s summation:
“It was the worst and most worthwhile production. We had people trying to kill the director, and actors holding out for more money at the last minute. We had an actor that wanted to go home as soon as he got to China, and a director who was having so much fun that he didn’t want to finish the picture. We even had communist cadres who were questioning the content of the film, and monks who wouldn’t stop chanting while we filmed dialogue scenes. The most painful thing for a writer is cutting whole SCENES, not just shots.”
You would think that the chanting actually would have added atmosphere.