Interview : Art Camacho

"Half Past Dead", the latest film from Steven Seagal, is heading down under next month. Moviehole thought it about time to catch up with the real star of these martial arts flicks, Art Camacho. He’s the guy that makes the moves, trains the leads, does the magic. Art talks to CLINT MORRIS about the film as well as his future endeavours.

Actor, Director, Producer, Writer, Choreographer all titles attached – albeit in separate instances – to the name Camacho. For his latest engagement though, Latin’s acclaimed man of many tasks won’t be stealing any of the limelight. Instead, he’s behind the scenes playing the fight choreographer of the new film “Half Past Dead”, an action piece starring Steven Seagal as an undercover cop trapped inside a newly reopened Alcatraz.

Camacho traveled to Germany where he spent 11 weeks working as the action coordinator on the film. He was able to incorporate Seagal’s impressively fluid Aikido techniques with the more colorful Chinese choreography working closely with Hong Kong’s master action choreographer Xin Xin Xiong.

“Technically I was the Action coordinator but I also worked out with and trained Ja Rule and shot some second unit as well as some of the fight action and I also had a small, featured role in the film”, explains Camacho. “That was an incredible experience because I’ve never worked on such a large-scale film and I was a little nervous going into it because every film to me is like someone training for a fight. I am so focused and I hibernate for days on end preparing myself mentally so when I get to the set it looks so easy and relaxed. This one in particular was an extreme challenge because in regards to Steven Seagal I worked more as a traffic cop because he is such a great aikidoist all I had to do was let him know in which direction I needed a technique and he would just give me a wide range of options and I’d just sit back and pick the most cinematic for the given shot. Steven Seagal has an incredible presence even if he’s just walking from point A to point B. Many of us have to work hard at it and to him it seems second nature because he is so immersed in his character.”

Camacho says Steven Seagal and Ja Rule were confident with the physically challenging aspects of the film. “Both Steven Seagal and Ja Rule were great to work with. Ja Rule is a natural. His character isn’t supposed to be this martial artist so I mainly worked with him from a street fighting point of view (which I have a little experience at ha!). I just got some focus mitts and went several rounds with him kicking, punching bobbing and weaving. He caught on so quickly and was really amped up for the fight. In fact I originally intended to use a stunt double for one of his fights in the prison but he was so good that I had him do it himself. Of course for the really hairy stunts we had a great double for him. I worked with him just like I would with any student of mine. In regards to Steven Seagal it was really cool because I am such a fan of his work and as I told you I mostly would ask him for techniques and have the luxury of just focusing on the camera work and performance.”

Camacho started out as an actor appearing in several martial arts action films. He began his training in Karate but gravitated towards Kung ku. On his way to getting his black belt under kung ku great Eric Lee, he trained in various other methods of martial arts including Kung Fu San Soo, Jeet Kune Do and he was also an amateur boxer. Interestingly enough, he choreographed most of his fight scenes for this movie – and hence his second use was found.

“My first experience with martial arts came with Japanese Karate. At the time I was overweight and so uncoordinated so I only lasted about three months. It wasn’t until I discovered Bruce Lee that I developed a passion for the martial arts. I started training in Tae Kwon do, then went on to train at the kali Academy and from there found my niche with Sifu Eric Lee who introduced me to Kung Fu. I also dabbled in amateur boxing for a while. What I do now is kind of an amalgamation of all the arts I’ve trained in. Films have been incredible because I’m always learning something different and try to blend it into what I do. All martial arts are great.”

Nowadays, Camacho spends most of his time training and prepping action stars for their big scenes. Among his star pupils – Cynthia Rothrock, Benny Urquidez, Michael Dudikoff, Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Gary Daniels.

Camacho says training in the martial arts has lead to a varied career. “I am currently a film director/Producer. However I came to be known all around as a fight/action choreographer. I began working in films in the late 80′s. First off as an actor and being a martial artist I gravitated towards action films and then found myself being asked to choreograph screen fights. It came kind of easy because I was a big fan of the genre and I had an eye for the dramatic. I studied Bruce Lee films and almost anything that came out of Hong Kong and kind of evolved into my own style. I was really fascinated at what Bruce Lee did in his films because if you look at them, they are so simple yet so dynamic. That’s what really helped me immensely because he wasn’t really fighting on screen, but dancing to music. That to me is the key to great fight choreography. You have to have rhythm and then break it up. It has to ebb and flow and then at the final moment it must climax and then have a brief anticlimax so the viewer can be "in" the moment along with the star. On top of that I always had an extreme work ethic. I hate wasting time and thanks to that I became very fast at putting together and shooting fight action. I mean if you look at most films in a cinema, they take about two weeks to rehearse and plan and shoot the fight action, whereas I rarely had that luxury. Most times I’d be given only an hour or two to choreograph, rehearse, train the actor and shoot the action!!! So I had to be not only good at my craft but also fast.”

Camacho is good friends with both Don “The Dragon” Wilson and Gary Daniels, and has not only taught them but also directed them in pictures. “. He (Don) and I not only became good friends but we have the same ideas regarding fight action and I was able to help him go to a different level in regards to his on screen fight persona. Being always influenced by Bruce Lee I always strive to reach that level of realism and excitement. I also worked on many of the Blood fist films.”, explains Camacho. Daniels is also a treasured co-worker. “There’s one word to describe him and that’s "Incredible". Gary is a very gifted martial artist who’s always exploring his own potential. Working with him was also like being a traffic cop because as a martial arts action star, he has a really strong sense of what he wants to project and I more or less sit back and pick and choose. He’s also a very humble person. I worked with him a couple of times and it was great.”

Camacho says directing Daniels and others in films has been an awe-inspiring experience. “I got to tell you Clint, there’s nothing like it. It is a hard grueling job and very stressful, especially when you do it on a small budget. You have to be very prepared because you don’t have the luxury of time. You have to be real good at it and go in with a specific plan and vision. On the other hand I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world. It is like having a dream and being able to bring it to life on film. As a film director you are basically a Painter with a bare canvass before you and instead of hues and colors you create with actors and cameras and every stroke is painted with the call of "Action". I hope this doesn’t sound to cheesy but that’s the way I feel. I just feel so blessed to able to combine my passion for martial arts and cinema and make a living at it. The Lord has been very good to me.”

With such a demanding job, you’d think Camacho would have a few injuries stories – not so it seems. “With the exception of a hamstring pull, never. I always put safety above all else. The first thing and the last thing I call out is "Safety first". I am very hands on and while the camera is rolling I am talking to my fighters and actors, coaching them as the camera is rolling and if I don’t like what I see or things look a little hairy I cut the action or I have them do it over and over again until they get it right. We can do this because of the magic of editing. The most challenging thing is when I’m both acting/Fighting on camera and directing the action. I have to be so focused and keep my sense of character in check with my sense of cinematic direction.”

Camacho says he’s looking forward to seeing how “Half Past Dead” performs at the Aussie box office – but also concentrating on future projects. “I am currently in development of a few film projects from the inception. One of which will be shot in Las Vegas. It’s based on a story I wrote called "Deuces Wild". It is cross between Ocean’s 11, Fight club and El Mariachi. I think it’ll be a fun and exciting film. I am also breaking new ground by promoting my first Martial arts tournament and expo in Vegas the weekend of July 25, 2003. It is going to be one of the largest tournaments in the West coast. It is a combination tournament, martial arts seminars, banquet and martial arts star search. To my knowledge no other action film director has promoted a martial arts expo. I’m calling on a lot of the friends I’ve made over the years to attend including Don Wilson. We are going to have a special competition to pick out a new action star. Action stars, casting directors and Hollywood agents, will judge this division. Anyone wishing further information can email me at: Starbash@att.net”.

Finally, Camacho says he’d like to do some work on an Australian production. “I’d love to if there was ever an opportunity. I’ve worked in Germany and India and Mexico and the main thing I walked away with was a true feeling of camaraderie. The people of these countries welcomed me with open arms and it was so gratifying.”

HALF PAST DEAD Commences Feb 20th Across Australia.