You were the second unit director on The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers: What did that job entail?
I was responsible for the action scenes of the helmeted Rangers and the actors, and shooting the exterior acting scenes leading up to, and after, the action.
Fans often think everything was shot in Japan, but instead, I had to choreograph our scenes around some Japanese footage. Usually, it was only a few seconds long, and I’d put together action scenes around it. After the middle of season one, we had no more Japanese action footage to use (except for the giant Zord battles – which were always Japanese). I was shooting so much action that the editors told me our little action unit was filming nearly 60-70% of the entire show. Our action unit only consisted of a single 16mm camera, and we’d do 70-100 set-ups a day, five days a week. It was a lot of work, but it was fun. Mostly, I’d show up and simply imagine what I thought would be exciting for kids, and then make that happen. I was making up the show daily off the top of my head.
When my photography director and I stood outside Bronson Caves in Hollywood (where the ’66 Batmobile was show-driving out of the Batcave), I told him I wanted Power Rangers to be for the kids of the ’90s, what Batman was to me in the ’60s. At the time he just laughed and said, “This show won’t last a single season.” Ha! Boy was he wrong on that one!
When you did the stunts for the show, did that include fight choreography?
Yes; I’d look over the Japanese footage and the script to see what I had to work with, and then I’d make little stick-figure storyboards of what I wanted to make each day. I had to follow certain rules though; for example, the kicks to the face were not real; it was always a miss or to the chest. I’d get notes each week from Fox saying that they didn’t want the actors to appear to be angry or too violent, so it needed some fun about it. We’d try to make each other laugh by letting each member of the stunt team add a fight-combo to the choreography. This was the only show that I’ve ever let someone participate in the choreography!
Each night, I would drive to the editors to put the show together. I mixed Japanese ’70s style (like the original show) with Hong Kong and American style. I used all sorts of frame rates, things in reverse, and inserts, that would make no sense if it was to be edited without my input. We shot two episodes a week.
When the Power Rangers are in costume, is it true that they are actually stunt actors?
Yes. In fact, Sophia Crawford (my wife, who also stunt-doubled Buffy, the Vampire Slayer) was the stunt-double for the Pink Ranger in season two, and the first movie.
Originally, there were six American stunt people as the “Putty” villains, who fought the lead actors. Zyu Ranger only had limited fight action and fans requested more; this is where fans got the idea that all of the action scenes were special “Zyu 2” scenes shot in Japan. That’s not true though; Japan only shot some added monster footage and then sent the suits to us. That was “Zyu 2”, but it wasn’t the fight scenes. The big fight scenes were done by myself and the stunt team.
I was already working with Japanese stunt people when I joined the show and had a team of guys, so I brought six Japanese to the show to add to the six regular Americans. This twelve-person team became the Power Rangers. They are listed in the credits as “Putty Patrollers”, but in fact, they played all of the parts – all of the monsters, heroes, and villains. Since there was never a Lord Zedd or Putty’s with a “Z” on their chests in Japan, it’s pretty easy to see that those are the scenes we shot in Hollywood.
While working on Power Rangers, did you have a hand in the famous Red vs. Green Ranger fight?
I did so many fights between all of the characters – even Tommy vs. Tommy in street clothes. It’s hard to recall them all. I do recall, that while in Australia for the movie, I shot two episodes of the series and had Green fighting White Ranger. I just made so many fights on a daily basis.
Sometimes, I’ll see a video clip and suddenly remember that day as if it were yesterday – even though I’d forgotten about it. Other times, fans will ask me specific questions, using terms from the show that I’ve never heard, and I won’t know what they are talking about.
The writers made up names for monsters, but on the action unit we made up our own names (they were not names fit for children to hear either!). Even today, I’ll see a photo of a particular monster and think, “Oh. Penis-head dude”… That was the suit that guys fought not to be wearing; by the time it arrived from Japan, it smelled like a sewer! Those are my memories.
I noticed on some episodes, Isaac Florentine had a part: did you guys piece together any fights?
Actually no; Issac worked on the first episodes, using only Japanese footage for the helmeted fights. Issac did the “civilian” fights, with actors and stunt putties. When he began directing movies, he turned it over to me. His name remained, but he wasn’t there; I didn’t directly work with him. He advised me, though, how to maintain the ’70s snap-zoom style, and he shared anecdotes about working with young stunt teams and actors; some of it was pretty funny. I can still hear his Israeli-accented voice telling me, “Don’t let them distract you with their antics! You must shoot! Jeff – always, you must shoot! There is no time!”
Was it harder to film the fight scenes with the new suits, for the Power Rangers movie?
God, yes! They were so stiff; the white ranger suit must have weighed forty pounds! Prior to production, I asked them to put stretchy gussets in the crotch and armpit areas though. Also, I redesigned the baddies’ suits in the Ooze fight, because the stuntmen couldn’t see or move in them; they were totally blind. I designed suits with built-in back pads, elbow and knee pads as well as long Rasta-style hair that would fly around as they snapped their heads. We had a contest between creature fx houses to see who could create the best.
What was your most challenging experience during the Power Ranger years?
The Power Ranger Movie was lots of fun (and it was where I began dating my wife), but it was also a giant headache. There were certain things I would surely handle differently today, but I was experiencing these things for the first time. To get the stunt team into Australia, I had to list them as actors, as they didn’t allow a large American team to come over to perform stunts. This made things difficult and I had to go through other people just to get things done.
What made you step away from the Power Rangers franchise?
Until Power Rangers, I was making SAG films that were non-DGA. It was common to have union actors and non-union crew members in lower budgeted films, so I would hire union stuntmen and direct non-union crews. I was gaining tons of directing experience this way; I shot five days a week on Power Rangers doing fights and acting scenes. When I got to the movie, I had to join the DGA. That was my goal anyway.
The studio messed up my credit for the MMPR Movie and the DGA came to my defense about it. The studio paid me an additional $50,000 and paid for my DGA membership. After that, I couldn’t go back to the non-DGA Power Rangers T.V. show.
I was asked to go with the Power Ranger stunt team to shoot another show, WMAC MASTERS, but I had to say no because I’d already joined the director’s guild by then; I had to promise not to go to WMAC or MMPR.
Besides Austin and Jason Frank, did the other guys know martial arts?
Austin came from a hard-style karate background. He was roommates with Walter and the stuntman, who eventually became one of the Black Ranger performers (as well as playing Goldar). Austin taught them a little, and since they came from a dance and gymnastics background, they helped Austin too.
Jason Frank was, as you can see, a great martial artist, but the others were gymnasts only. Amy Jo and David were awesome gymnasts. Thuy really wasn’t a martial artist or gymnast, but she had learned a little.
Later, when some of the originals left, we had Steve and Johnny (who were both from a martial arts background), and Karen who, like Thuy before her, had no martial arts or gymnastics background.
I choreographed things that suited each of their abilities. However, Thuy injured her knee while offset at an event, so a lot of her fights were done by a stunt double. I used Thuy mostly in close-ups, standing still. This is the same approach that I later used with Sarah Michelle Gellar in Buffy, The Vampire Slayer.