Written by David Carradine, August 2007
Okay, I’m back. I’ve been missing in action for a month. I had to take a breather. There’s a lot happening for me right now, and by association, with the martial arts world. Kill Bill, Volume 2 is finally about to be released (will have been by the time this is printed). Timed to coincide with that are the DVD releases of the first season of the original Kung Fu series, and three of my instructional videos. I’m up to my ears with interviews and photo shoots.
These videos have been around for years, and many thousands of copies have been sold, but the DVD release will give them a whole new life. When David Nakahara came to me back in the mid-eighties with the idea of making a kung fu instructional video, I figured it wouldn’t amount to much. For one thing, David and his partners, though they were all serious martial artists, didn’t know much of anything about making film. I said “yes” to the project anyway because I figured I owed so much to The Arts. One of the convincers was the presence of Kent Wakeford as the cinematographer. I’d first met him when he was the cameraman for Marty Scorsese’s Mean Streets. I was sure Kent knew what he was doing.
The project, two 55 minute videos, one about kung fu and one on Tai Chi, was well-funded, actually over-budgeted. David had built some colorful sets on a soundstage, designed special costumes, and brought together a half-dozen beautiful young people to act as kung fu students. It was at least going to be pretty. That was for sure. When my own master, Kam Yuen, joined us, that gave it some extra credibility for me. I got together with Kam for a few weeks to tone up my moves. It was starting to look good. We shot for six days, me not taking it all very seriously.
Then I went off to San Francisco to make a TV movie for NBC about an attempted escape from Alcatraz, Six Against The Rock. David sent over a rough-cut to the set, and when I found time to finally get around to looking at it, I was bored silly. The lessons were there, all right, but it was badly cut, slow and repetitive and there weren’t enough different angles to make it interesting. I couldn’t imagine anyone bothering to watch it. I realized, though, that it could actually be a pretty good piece if we did some more work on it.
I thought of the I Ching hexagram, Ku: “Work On What Has Been Spoiled”, which it is said ‘brings supreme success’. I put up some of my own money for three more days of shooting, and brought in the editor of my personal films, David Kern. We did a lot of work on the sound track, narration and music of course, but also, sound effects, stuff like the sound of the silk gee I was wearing snapping, and breathing, lots of breathing. The idea that was percolating in my mind was to make it like a show: interesting enough so that people would get a kick out of just sitting and watching it. Then, if they were moved to get up and dance along with it, that would be great, too.
Well, it all worked. The videos got good reviews and sold well. Then, when the franchise ran out, we sold it again to another company and it did well again. We kept doing that every couple of years or so. Each time a new distributor took it on, they promoted it like a new product and it took off all over again. The tapes became known in the trade as ‘the tapes that wouldn’t die’.
Now, almost twenty years later, it’s starting all over again. a whole new bunch of seekers will discover it as a DVD. The old series will find a new audience as well right along beside it. Both of these efforts were huge the first time around, and today, with superior technology and some added bits, interviews, lost footage, etc., even people who already know the stuff backwards and forwards will find something to interest them. This kung fu stuff just won’t die.
I’m continually amazed that from the small beginning, a humble TV series at ABC, way back in the 1970′s, this idea has grown so large. Even this magazine is a result of that show. But, then, all this is a fulfillment of something that was started centuries ago, when that Shaolin monk took it upon himself to try to spread the knowledge to the world. And that wandering monk passed the teachings down through generation after generation until it finally got to me, through Sifu Kam Yuen, who can trace his lineage back to that very Shaolin monk.
No one was more surprised than I when I took up the mantle. After all, I was just an actor who stumbled on a great part for me to play. When I walked away from the series, I assumed that was it for me and martial arts.
I guess the point I’m trying to make is that some things just have to happen. Some ideas seem to have their own life. They prevail. And it took television to make this idea a reality. Strange, isn’t it? I guess we have Thomas Edison to thank, too. Couldn’t have done it without his light bulb.