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Cry “Action!” and let slip the Dogs of Chinatown

by Mark Burger

The dogs of Chinatown have been barking… and shooting… and fighting. And when the dust and debris settle, Chinatown will be in ruins.

The bloodier and more spectacular, the better.

At least that’s the aim of Micah Moore and Blake Faucette, respectively the writer/director and line producer/assistant director of Dogs of Chinatown, a low-budget independent movie that marks their feature-filmmaking debut.

Inspired by the Asian action genre, which has already seeped into the American filmmaking consciousness, Moore and Faucette have teamed up with the Stunt People, a martial-arts and stuntwork consortium from the San Francisco Bay Area, to make Dogs of Chinatown.

“This is the East Coast/West Coast connection, baby,” Moore says.

The hero of the story – a man of mystery, unquestionably – is Jack (Eric Jacobus), a disillusioned and suicidal loner who rescues the mistress (Huyen Thi) of a Chinese Triad boss from an assault by members of the Italian mafia.

Out of gratitude, Jack is inducted into the Triad and groomed to be its top assassin. Despite his Western heritage, he becomes a member of “the family.”

Unfortunately, he also makes the mistake of falling in love with the mistress, thereby hastening and escalating the violent gang war between the two syndicates – and putting both himself and his lover in the crosshairs.

Incidentally, Jack happens to be a lethal martial artist who is quite capable of defending himself against any number of opponents, a skill he is called upon to demonstrate countless times during the film.

“He’s a manic-depressive with a violent side,” observes Jacobus. “And when he gets violent, he finds it difficult to turn it off.”

Jack is “definitely a hero,” he adds. “But in order to be a hero, he has to make himself become worse than any of the villains.”

And when he does, all bets are off.

The film also stars Patrick Keenan, Rudy Chu, Brian Lee, Matthew Sumner, Ray Wood, Minh Vu, Randall Kim and Kathryn Kim. Not household names, perhaps, but a talented and energetic cast, according to the filmmakers.

Faucette and Moore make no bones about Dogs of Chinatown: It’s a B movie, designed as an action showcase. The story “is basically Romeo and Juliet,” notes Faucette. “But it’s timeless.”

That said, however, most big-budget Hollywood movies also tend to have B-movie concepts… and a lot of them suck.

“This will not suck,” Moore boasts, laughing. “That’s our main priority, of course ­- not to suck.”

You’ve got to applaud such lofty artistic ambitions.

Moore originally conceived Dogs of Chinatown as a noir-ish period piece set during the Roaring Twenties. But realizing that the budget would fall somewhere south of $1 million, making period detail too expensive, Moore simply updated the story to the current day and modernized the dialogue. The film noir sensibilities, however, remain.

The setting, of course, is Chinatown in Any City, USA, although the film was shot in various locations throughout Greensboro, Winston-Salem, High Point and Raleigh. It’s as far as the Stunt People have ever traveled to work on a project, and they’ve enjoyed the experience. It’s not unrealistic to say that, without the internet, Dogs of Chinatown might never have come into being.

The Stunt People had been promoting their endeavors on the internet, and recently completed their own feature film, Contour, which they’ve been distributing via their website. Contour found enthusiastic fans in Moore and Faucette.

As they began corresponding with Jacobus, they discovered they shared a lot of the same cinematic sensibilities and decided – without ever having met in person – to collaborate on the film.

In addition to staging the fight sequences, members of the Stunt People are also playing significant roles in the film. An on-line casting call earlier this year attracted the remainder of the players.

Among them was Bill Oberst Jr., who plays Vittorio, one of the top men in the Italian mafia in the film. Although Obserst’s hair is lighter, his piercing eyes and chiseled face remind one of Harvey Keitel.

“With a face like this, I always play bad guys,” he laughs.

Oberst, a South Carolina native with extensive theater experience, recently played Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in Rick King’s History Channel documentary feature Sherman’s March. Encouraged to develop his own character in Dogs of Chinatown, Oberst took it to heart.

“His father was trapped in this circle of violence,” Oberst says of Vittorio, “and he is, too. It’s his lot in life. He doesn’t know any other life.”

On the other hand, “he’s very good at what he does – which is being bad.”

Bouncing between New York, Los Angeles and Wilmington – the very definition of a jobbing actor – Oberst says that working on the film has been a pleasure.

“Micah and Blake are very inventive and very collaborative,” Oberst says, “and those are the kinds of people that you want to work with. I fully expect to see Micah and Blake in the big-time very soon. It’s true guerilla filmmaking, and there’s an energy to that.”

Sometimes, Faucette admits, that energy flags. “It felt like it a few times, but we get the job done.”

Ray Carbonel, also one of the founders of the Stunt People, co-stars in the film as the General, a high-ranking member of the Asian syndicate.

“With a name like that, he’s a bad guy, of course,” Carbonel says, “and it’s fun to play those kinds of characters.”

Carbonel wouldn’t mind playing the hero once in a while but, he reasons, “the bad guys tend to be the coolest. They don’t have to say anything. They just have to look cool.”

Ultimately the General and Jack square off in a fight to the death.

“If I were playing a good guy, I might have a better chance [of winning],” Carbonel says with a laugh, but he does promise that the sequence delivers the goods. “My character definitely goes down fighting.”

So, it sounds, do most of the others.

Dogs of Chinatown was filmed on high-definition video, which is less expensive than film and easier to shoot. If a scene goes badly, it can simply be erased and re-recorded in a matter of seconds.

In addition to its cost effectiveness, “it’s a great luxury,” says Faucette. “We can shoot a scene four or five times and let the actors ad-lib, and we don’t have to worry about it costing too much money or taking too much time.”

Moore agrees. Although he’s the credited screenwriter, he has no problem if the actors want to be spontaneous.

“As long as the meaning is there, and as long as it doesn’t interfere with the direction that the story needs to take, I’m not one of those writers or directors who insist that the actors have to follow every word,” he says.

Moore continues: “At the end of the day, as the director it’s my responsibility to get it done. It’s my name up there, but we’re all bustin’ our asses to make this something special. A lot of people have brought a lot to this film.”

Dogs of Chinatown is being filmed in black and white, but with vivid splashes of color (usually red) throughout. Again, hi-def video technology makes this easier and less expensive than would shooting on film.

Even on a tight schedule, Moore welcomes input and suggestions from his cast and crew – and particularly from Jacobus, who has considerable experience both as a martial artist and as an independent filmmaker.

The mood on the set is joking and relaxed, but turns more serious during the action scenes. It’s during these that Moore most frequently defers to Jacobus.

“Everything he shot is so much better than what I’d originally envisioned,” Moore says. “I suppose I’m one of the best ‘no-budget action guys’ in the area, but I have learned a ton about shooting and editing the fight scenes. They’re bigger and better than we’d hoped – beyond our wildest dreams. The footage really looks great.”

Initially a gymnast before embarking on martial-arts training, Jacobus said that it was a natural progression to move into stunt work and then filmmaking.

“I love being in front of the camera and I love producing and directing,” he says. “There are very few aspects that I don’t like.”

Faucette and Moore’s All Aces Media (formerly College Hill Video) is acting as the film’s production headquarters, and is located a stone’s throw from the UNCG campus. Moore is a graduate of the university’s broadcasting and cinema program. Sort of.

“Yes and no,” he says with a laugh. “You might want to ask some of my professors about that….” (Officially, he did graduate. To what level of distinction is unclear.)

For years, College Hill Video was a repository for the obscure, the offbeat and the cult-friendly. Although Western audiences are by now familiar with the names of John Woo or Jackie Chan, they might not be quite as familiar with the likes of Tsui Hark, Ringo Lam, Takashi Miike, the Pang brothers or Sonny Chiba.

Suffice it to say that Faucette and Moore are very familiar with those names and their work, and in many ways Dogs of Chinatown is an affectionate – and appropriately bloody – homage to those films and filmmakers which inspired them.

“We love these films so much we decided to make one,” Faucette says. “And, having seen a lot of them done badly, we thought we could make one right.”

Having already made a number of music videos and short films – “some of which I don’t really talk about,” Moore jokes – the decision was then made to take the next logical step into feature filmmaking.

Encouraged by the abundance of films being made in the region, especially independent ones, the filmmakers see this is a great opportunity to showcase their abilities on a shoestring budget. If a movie looks good and plays well, how much it costs to make has little relevance. (John Carpenter’s original Halloween, for example, cost a grand total of $300,000 to make in 1978 – and who doesn’t know that movie?)

And where better to shoot an action-packed martial-arts crime drama than on the mean streets of Greensboro?

Local residents and businesses have been remarkably receptive in allowing the filmmakers to shoot on their property – and don’t think they don’t appreciate it. Some of the familiar locations include Solaris restaurant, the Greene Street club and the metal scrapyards on Spring Garden Street.

“We can’t emphasize enough how great everyone has been,” Faucette says. “It sounds hokey to say ‘We couldn’t have done it without them,’ but it’s pretty true in this case.”

It’s not uncommon to see Moore and Faucette, director and producer of the film, toiling alongside the crew at the end of a shooting day, helping to tidy up. It’s a safe bet that Steven Spielberg doesn’t do that.

Despite the many safety precautions taken by the filmmakers, there have been a handful of mishaps, all of them minor.

“I accidentally set a fire alarm on fire,” Moore confesses with a sheepish laugh. “I know that sounds impossible, but I did it.”

Nevertheless, he adds, “it still works!”

Jacobus and Carbonel admit to a couple of bumps and bruises, but that’s hardly uncommon when making a martial-arts movie. A couple of punches meant to miss by inches instead connected with full force.

“If it looks good on-camera, go with it,” Carbonel laughs.

Pain is only temporary, after all. Film lasts forever.

Moore says he expects to include the fight mishaps as outtakes during the end credits of the film, which Jackie Chan frequently does in his movies.

“Do not try these stunts at home,” Moore says. “They have been carefully choreographed. Leave it to the experts.”

“Do you mean us?” Carbonel jokes in response. “Uh-oh!”

With principal photography now completed, Moore hopes to have the film edited and ready for release in less than a year’s time.

In the meantime, however, he and Faucette have been posting some footage on YouTube in an effort to generate a little pre-release online buzz about the film.

Hey, it worked for The Blair Witch Project – and there wasn’t even any kung fu in that film!

One thing is for certain: Dogs of Chinatown is not a kids’ movie. It won’t be getting a PG or even a PG-13 rating.

“Hell, no,” laughs Moore. “We blew that out of the water the first week… maybe the first day!”

“We blew the PG rating on the first shot,” Faucette corrects.

“If it gets rated PG, it’ll be for ‘pretty graphic,'” jokes production assistant Andy Coon.

For more information about Dogs of Chinatown, see myspace.com/dogsofchinatown or allacesmedia.com/dogsofchinatown.

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