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jueves, 9 de junio de 2011

Steve Tartalia Interview by Arnaud Lanuque

2 Days ago Steve Tartalia's Birthday was celebrated, so I thought I should honor him in this humble site.

Here, you all can read ( well, re-read) this wonderful interview Arnaud Lanuque, a friend from did to Mr Tartalia in 2005. As always, I beg you to check it at his original site since my work is just like a cut & paste work a la IFD & all the credits must be received by Annaud & his magnificent work.


The period between the late 1980s and the early 1990s was euphoric for the Hongkong movie industry. Films were chain-produced and supported by an enthusiastic audience. Within this specific context,a small number of actors/stuntmen/ martial artists from the West (gweilos) tried to develop their own career and be a part of this cinematic extravaganza. Their expectations were probably too high. Victims of the mid-1990s film industry crisis and of the lack of support from the industry and the audience, most of them left HK or even the cinema field. But they left behind a bunch of movies as proof of their competence. Steve Tartalia is one of them. Fighting his way in brilliant movies such as Once Upon A Time In China or Operation Condor, he's become a respected stuntman in Hollywood.

Background and coming in HK

HKCinemagic : We have contradictory information on your background, for some you've grown up in Los Angeles and for the others you come from New York . Can you clear it up for us, as well as this information that your grand father created “the Hollywood Reporter”.

Steve Tartalia : a) I swung from a lot of tree vines in the jungle swamps of Orlando Florida as an enfant terrible with some time in the Carolinas but for the most part I grew up in L.A. Later on out of school, I moved to New York for a good number of years where I worked in the music biz in many capacities co-running the ‘Kiss army fan club' for one and studied (as a hobby) acting with the Stella Adler conservatory, and as a line chef in a ‘nouvelle California' style restaurant.

b) Billy Wilkerson was the creator of the Hollywood reporter. Thomas Seward (my grandfather) was ‘co-publisher/general manager' and as such had a part ownership in the Hollywood reporter' as well as Wilkerson's partner & manager in a few famous restaurant/club ‘hotspots' i.e.; Tracadero's, Ciro's, and ‘The Flamingo' in Vegas (before Bugsy Siegel and his mafia forced them out).

HKCinemagic : You were very fond of sports. Did you study martial arts as well in the US ? Did this sport background help you to practice your own stunts (I noticed you are less doubled than the usual westerners when coming to falls in HK movies)?

S T : Yes, Tremendously. ‘Northern Shaolin Eagle Claw' with Shum Leung in Nyc for six years intensively and Larry Tans ‘Strange Dazzling Hands' which is an obscure vagabond art from Taiwan loosely based around Fukien version of 5 animal style. Before knowing master Tan, I would spy on his rooftop training/teaching in the next high rise building over from mine, and try surreptitiously to copy his moves undetected… Of course he caught me and we became friends and eventually, his student. This was real life imitating kung fu movies. Also the key for me was a background in gymnastics and ‘high dive' as a kid growing up. Air sense, and ability to hit the ground hard over and over come from those endeavours. In Hollywood Stunt lingo, I am what is called an ‘acrobatic ground-pounder'.

HKCinemagic : What lead you to HK and how did you find yourself involved in the local film industry?

S T : After a year of modelling in France , Italy , and Spain -(1988)- I ended up doing club security in LA wondering -‘what the hell am I doing?' when I get a call from NY… ‘How would you like to star in a Kung Fu Movie?'… The next day I was on a plane to Chaing Mai Thailand, to work on a Robert Tai film, ‘Death Cage' with Robin Shou, Joe Lewis, and master Sken. Among many others was ‘Kung Fu John' (Ladalski) who after filming was completed, and months of island hopping in the south Thai seas healing a broken hand said; ‘come to Hong Kong'- you will do well!'… I did go, found John, he gave me his flat for a month, a list of companies, advices… and I worked for the next three years. Thanks again kung fu John!!!
Being a "gweilo" in hk industry

HKCinemagic : In town and in movies, you often worked with several westerners, people like Mark Houghton, Jonathan Isgar, Bruce Fontaine, … How was it between all of you? Did you feel a real solidarity or, on the contrary, everyone was trying to compete with each other?

S T : It's like how I imagine the French Foreign Legion would be… a bunch of talented mercenary soldiers with healthy egos all vying for a few ‘plum' jobs. On set we may work well together but not go out for drinks later. When ‘kungfu John' first introduced me to Bruce he was like… ‘oh merde, another gweillo here to suck up my work' but then we became fast friends. My modus operandi was… If I get in something and see another opening, then I'll hook you up best that I can. In exchange, you might do the same for me…. Some were happy to get your tips/help and never return favour. You learn who your friends are. Jonathan, John L, Bruce, Ken Goodman, Mark King, Mark Houghton…we all were to varying degrees good friends. Though to be friends with Mark Houghton' over time, one had to get into a good ‘punch up' or two over something stupid (my kung fu is better than yours, and/or girls). Later he would go out of his way to look after you for picking a fight, out of remorse. ‘heh heh heh'… crazy guy/big heart!

HKCinemagic : Was there any plan of taking more responsibility in the industry or were all of you just happy to be martial artists/actors?

S T : At the time it seemed enough to be just…'living the dream'. Also the realities at the time seemed to limit me to just that, i.e.: tourist visa status… I do regret not having paid closer attention to rigging and hk directorial technique as I had a lot to brush up on and relearn later in the usa .

HKCinemagic : Jeff Falcon said “For a Chinese producer, a westerner is a prop you must feed”. Did you feel like that too?

S T : Yes! Not always though. I'll never forget that on my first HK job as a henchman in Casino Raiders, the second assistant director shouted at me for using a tea cup from the ‘Chinese tea cup area'. She then screamed and pointed to a beat up chewed on Styrofoam cup and informed me that was for all of us ‘foreign devils' to share…

HKCinemagic : Were there differences in the way you were treated by the local stuntmen, local actors or technical crew?

S T : I found early on with Robert Tai in Thailand that to do your job well, don't waste film stock on lazy mistakes and you'll be treated well. The stuntmen would in general ignore you until you did something that earned their respect. The actors like anywhere, often think they're ‘gods gift' knowing a bit of their work and background flatters them and then they're nice. On ‘Princess Madam' Sharon Yeung Pan Pan would stop the camera rolling until she wiped the sweat away from my eyes. Maybe because I paid respects to her and a few well timed flirty compliments... Loved her.

HKCinemagic : Was it difficult to adapt to the speed of HK choreography?

S T : Thanks to kung fu training, not difficult. Eagle claw's vocabulary and rhythm in two man-training forms made me feel very familiar right away. The challenge for me was performing long takes with multiple back and forth reactions and to keep the appropriate rhythm and pace. In doing so, was the fun of it and pure Zen for me! Even though most choreographies for gweilos was not supposed to be like the ‘superior' kung of the hero, it almost always had a sort of ‘long fist' rhythm.

Middle man

HKCinemagic : You have a few fights with Cynthia Khan in this movie. Did her physical specificities (small, a woman) make those fights scenes more difficult to shoot?

S T : She had a dance background and was quick with rehearsals, brave, tough and spirited. In principal, I go easy on' hard blocking' during fights with women. It's terrible when an actress holds her arms in pain between takes. You know where you're going and when you're being blocked, so you just come in hard and fast but sort of ‘put on the brakes' when you're going in with fists or feet… trying to be soft at the power point without looking soft. Acting ya know!

Incidentally, in Middle Man, after fighting with Cynthia on a rooftop the jump from one building to the next with me, Gin Sun, and Cynthia was probably the most dangerous stunt I've ever done. 3 steps to jump 8 or 9 feet across a windy 400-feet canyon to the other side of a 40-storey building. Not to difficult but very very risky.

HKCinemagic : Did you find it frustrating to be killed just before the big final started?

S T : On the first day of that fight where they all came in for the final I was double booked for work I started much earlier, and had to make a painful choice; my end battle with Cynthia Khan on ‘The Middle Man', or day one of the finale of ‘Outlaw bros'. I told Frankie Chan my problem and went with my 1 st and earliest commitment. When I came back to Frankie's ‘Outlaw Brothers' he made like ‘No problem/it's cool/never mind and then…they put me out in front of the warehouse in a scene where I'm on lookout. When I get mugged from behind while putting my gun away, I accidentally shoot and kill myself. I remember at the screening all my friends laughed so hard. That's what happens if you inconvenience the boss in hk… revenge kill on film!

HKCinemagic : Frankie Chan was criticized by John Ladalski who said he hit the stuntmen for real in order to look better on screen. What is your own opinion of him?

S T : I always liked him. I believe he liked me too. I never complained. But then again, he never hit me. Outlaw Bros. was harsh on some of the players, and a few Chinese stunt players went to the hospital. But anyone who signs up for work on one of these thinking it'll be like a Disney production with a little kung fu dancing, is deluded. Once in the office Frankie showed me dailies of a nasty car slide/hits man/man goes flying. He says ‘no-one will do this, will you?'

I go ‘whats wrong with this, it looks great?'…‘Oh he's in the hospital and I'd like it done a bit differently'. I said ‘I wondered how I could do it as well without going to the hospital afterwards… He looked at me funny and laughed, I didn't. It never happened…

Crazy Yes! Stupid No… is my Motto.

HKCinemagic : Do you remember how the action scenes were designed between the several action directors of the movie?

S T : All I remember was a car team and a different fight team. A funny thing happened at the docks when Frankie stole Dragon Lady ‘Mitsuko's' Porsche and the gweilo gang gives chase. I was standing around talking to a kid watching US films who had a nice little Suzuki rsv250. He insisted I give it a ride. So I take off and come back at a good speed (top of 3 rd gear) and hit an unseen nasty little dark marble wall ‘ head on' at 60mph. Well me and that kids bike both took off and flew a good 12 meters. I know I did a double flip and managed to tuck and roll out… unharmed! The bike of course was completely wrecked. Now, imagine, every single person on the set including the action director saw this happen. 3 days later during the chase where Frankie throws the briefcase of money out of his car to slow his pursuers. A moto-cop hits the back of a stopped car sending him flying over it? … I KNOW my misfortune inspired that stunt. But that player did go to the hospital unconscious after Frankie ran in with the camera for a close up of him knocked out at front of the car. Nice guy in person but anything goes while filming.

Angel terminators

HKCinemagic : You do a very dangerous stunt here, jumping on a public light from a parking, a stunt Conan Lee failed before. Was it a big pressure for you? What are your memories of that stunt?

S T : Honestly, it was a little creepy. I think Conan was still in the hospital too. I said yes but wasn't exited to rehearse…Then I saw Pan Pan go off after one stunt guy for rehearsal. WELL of course if she's doing it, I'll do it all day. When an actress is more brave than a hard-ass stunt guy well… Sheesh! On film it doesn't look like a big deal because of the coverage. But, I had to run and jump up to a car hood, railing, and ‘jump' with pam pam very close up my ass … No safety below, just some Armco railing at the curb 10 meters down. But the way they edited doesn't look scary to me… I'm all for an ‘all in one' dangerous shot, but show it that way don't cut it up please? Later on at the gravel pit fight with some good ‘TVB' fighter (forgot his name) I was on break when I witnessed Pam Pam's fight on the catwalks. The stunt guys fall over the rail, - head/shoulder into a crane platform then onto the top (not slope) of the gravel pit is to this day one of the best stunt/wrecks I ever witnessed! I was very surprised that he was ok. I must add that fighting Sharon Yeung Pan Pan was a high for me...What Power! Speed! ... Love that woman.

Operation condor

HKCinemagic : How did you find yourself hired for this movie?

S T : Big casting call went out. Competition was fierce. Many European travellers stuck in town teaching English or something showed up. I remember seeing many guys lined up and given little punch/block/take a hit/fall down tests. I was happy to see Ah Gee & Ah Gunn doing the eliminations, as they were the core stunt team under Chris Lee of ‘The Middle Man' shortly before. Having gotten down and dirty with them on that, of course, they waived me off to a video screen test with dialogue. I found out I was in one month later while working in Malaysia on ‘Dadah Connection'. (Dir. Toby Russell and Alexander Lo Rei) - After calling back to HK to check my status, I found out some unnamed stuntman who wanted my job told Golden Harvest that I was in a all broken up in a deep coma in the USA. I informed them otherwise of my health, and flew back to start work. (Jan. 1990)

HKCinemagic : It was a very big production by HK standard; did it affect your working conditions compared to the other productions you had worked for? And did you feel a big difference in Jackie Chan's way of working?

S T : a) Judging by the food? Well... we all still had to fight for a good rice box lunch/dinner. You see, at mealtime a minivan opens up a back door revealing a big pyramid of takeaway food marked in Chinese. Small or big productions are the same in this. I got stuck many times on Operation Condorat the end of a food line were only chicken claws over rice were left. But in Morocco , the catered food was fine but working conditions in the Sahara dessert were pretty harsh, even for Jackie. I remember being on standby/hold near the desserts edge with no shade to hide from the sun (125degrees f) and the stunt-team would all be under the camera truck or curled up under some baby palm tree leaves. Quite funny. Then back to the hotel for swimming pool volleyball after 1 pm , - to hot to film beyond then as film stock melts at 125f.

b) It's peculiar when a director can show you how to do something better than any stuntman can. In the dessert, Jackie was directing an American stuntman to fall to his back from getting shot who was falling too ‘comfortably'. Jackie stepped in and jumped 5 feet up, legs above head and landed on his back without using his hands to break-fall!. He had a way of making it seem that ‘If I can do it, so can you'! Everyone's game would go up.

Also memorable to me was the fight on a water tower in the underground military base. I'm on the ground after falling off an air duct and Ken & Bruce were fighting Jackie right on the very edge 30 feet up. Jackie, Ah gunn, and Ah Gee worked up a 30-move sequence in 10 minutes or so at a medium to quick pace!... 1...1,2...123...123456.... and so on up to 30. Mad Genius! I thought I guess you could say the difference is feeling humbled yet inspired even more than ever before! I have never seen anyone then or now work so fast and expertly as I did then.

Once upon a time in china

HKCinemagic : It's certainly your most known work in HK. How did you get the part of Tiger? Were there any instructions from Tsui Hark on how you were supposed to play the character?

S T : Lau Kar Wing, was the original action director. He auditioned me for an hour on the grass in front of ‘Film Workshop' – combinations and reactions, a little acro…that kind of thing. I remember thinking, I better look familiar with southern style as he and his family are famous for their ‘Hung Gar' so I ‘Tigerized' an Eagle set at the beginning of my audition, I guess he got me in. Tsui Hark never really directed me in person so much. He seemed very occupied with ‘the big picture' I wish he had.

HKCinemagic : Was there any attempt from the action directors (the Yuen Clan) to design the action according to your character, and thus using more English boxing rather than kickboxing?

S T : I knew going into the first fight in the French restaurant that I was to throw out the kung fu and prepare for ‘Old English style'. Although I'm not versed in queen's English boxing by any means I felt ok that I would give it a good go. But I tried all week before filming to try on and fit the boots and clothes, and rehearse a bit in advance, but to no avail. When I got to work on the day, I was gutted to find that the boots I had to wear were way to small at size 7 (American) to my size 10 inches... I was told that ‘no matter what' I'm wearing them. When I got in them finally, I could barely walk let alone fight and was in a very bad mood. When It came time for my work with Jet Li, They danced it out, then I rehearsed maybe twice quickly with (I think) DeeDee and Hung Yan Yan and then we shot it twice and they moved on to the rest of the whole day restaurant fight. I wasn't happy at all. Later when I saw it for the first time, I was mortified! I believe if the Yuens were on this from the beginning they would have spent a little time on lesser characters …like mine.

HKCinemagic : You were supposed to fight Jet Li at the end. How were you told about the final change (fighting shortly Yuen Biao) and how did you feel about it?

S T : Philosophical. I was cooked with immigration at that moment as the authorities knew I was working illegally in films and Film Workshop didn't see fit to sponsor me… Time to get well hung and die! I left Hong Kong very shortly afterwards.

HKCinemagic : What are your own memories of the shooting of the film and what do you think of the final result?

S T : Best of times: Watching in awe as Jet threw a 720 revolution butterfly spin during rehearsal (see picture) for waterfront opera fight. Many moments like that throughout my time on set.

Worst of times: Great moments of working on a big epic punctuated by long stretches of not working (nor being allowed to work elsewhere by contract). A sense in the air of impending doom with the upcoming China takeover, film companies shutting down all around. No more work for gweilos.

Honestly, I had no idea at the time that O.U.T.I.C. would be the Classic that it instantly became upon release and will be for all time along with most of the series. It was a big gamble by Tsui to go against the entire modern gangster/hate/revenge/comedy genre's and take a fresh approach to a ‘republic period' hero story. Yen Shi Kwan reluctant relationship to Yuen Biao's character was very emotional. Many subtly nuanced relationships, fast and hard Kung fu with some nice floaty wirework made it a great film. Love it. Wish my work in it were better though…

Move to the US and nowadays career

HKCinemagic : What motivated you to leave HK and go back to the USA ?

S T : My funds were running low and an escort to the airport by HK immigration sort of sped up my departure...Hah!... it was time to leave anyways as there was no more film work period.

HKCinemagic : Did you find what you learned in HK useful for your career of stuntman and action director there?

S T : Yes. After coming back and taking a break for awhile I hooked up with a film grip/rigger/kungfu guy named Roberto Lopez and we formed our own group working many cool small projects in New York City fighting, flying and yanking people around - including ourselves. This led to a NYC shot film with Godfrey Ho (Manhattan Chase) then another with Robert Tai in Vietnam called ‘Trinity Goes East' (based on the old Terrence hill & Bud Spenser Trinity Series) Then a trip to LA had me bumping into an old colleague/friend from HK -Sophia Crawford on the set of ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer' that led to a 5-year run on that series and ‘Angel' as Spikes stunt double, Michael Vartan's action double on ‘Alias' roles/stunts in many features and TV shows. From 1999 to now I've been working my ass off in Hollywood .

As a result, I am a regular visitor to my local Chiropractor.

HKCinemagic : What do you think of the trend of incorporating HK action style in recent US blockbusters or TV series?

S T : I love it in the Matrix series, Transporter 1&2 etc... But hate it in Scoobee-Doo or Charlie's Angels. If the story doesn't motivate it and the actors can't sell it believably without being doubled to hell, then I won't like it. If well choreographed and action isn't shot right, it looks like shit, (or almost as bad)...nothing special. On Buffy, We would work up very cool stuff but run out of time to shoot it well and have to cut the cool stuff out and simplify so the actors could do it while talking their scene. I believe though that we did some cool work as loyal as re-runs can attest. As much as this genre has done for me, sometimes I just like some good raw Macbeth/Rashoman Style... No Wires and Acrobatics. But, everything has its place. If Hollywood employs HK inspired action without the emotional content and all the attendant elements a good Chinese director will employ, it'll be off. No matter HK style meshed with Hollywood traditions to become nearly inseparable at this point. I heard that many influential HK directors in the sixties were watching ‘ Hawaii Five-O' and being influenced by their 20-22 frame per second fight and action scenes. What Goes around Comes around...right back at you! Right?

So long and thanks for all your hard work on this great site! ... Salute!

Steve Tartalia
HKCinemagic : Thank you .

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