*Interview* Michael Worth


Michael, thanks for your time!

My pleasure. Always good to talk to a fellow movie buff

First of all how did you get into the industry?

Well I fell in love with it as a kid. Ray Harryhausen kicked it off with the Sinbad movies.  At 10 years old I bought several 8 mm and super 8 movie cameras with my allowance and all the way through high school made scripted movies between 5 minutes and 45 minutes long constantly. Even in high school, one of my final exams I was allowed to do as a film. So I made a horror film about my Spanish teacher which she kindly participated in.

I cut my teeth on the greatness of cinema by trial and error and watching bad monster movies and exotic kung fu movies.  I started going to the movies young enough to catch the tail end of the Grindhouse days where many of these movies you would still catch in the theaters. Where I grew up in the bay area, it was places like the Lux theater in Oakland or the Market Street theater and Great Star Theater in San Francisco where I would sneak off during school or after school to catch the latest martial arts flick. Usually in a crazy double or triple feature. It was interesting back then, because if you liked a film you had to pay attention to when it would come back to the theaters and do repeat showings.  Video stores had just started popping up, and hardly anybody of middle class status or lower owned a VCR.

For instance, in junior high school, The Hot, The Cool and The Vicious by Lee Tso Nam was always the one my buddies and I would wait for to rerelease again and we’d go nuts for a week before the showing in anticipation. Now as an adult, I’ve had the chance to meet with and study with the filmmakers and the actors in the film which if I knew as a kid I’d probably felt like that was all I needed to do in life to make it a success!  But even when some of these films were not great through and through, as a filmmaker I began to learn what did and did not work by just watching countless movies and where I felt they succeeded or failed.

I came to Los Angeles right out of high school where I just had no idea what I was doing or how to even get my foot in the door. I just showed up with my dog and slept in my car for months trying to get work as an extra or a stunt man. I did get lucky as a personal talent manager kept seeing me down on Venice Beach working out on the free weights area and ended up signing me on and I stayed with him for close to 15 years. 

Your true desire seems to be behind the camera, what made you choose the acting path? 

Well, as a kid again, I actually enjoyed both. I realized there was an outlet in being an actor, where you got to vent a certain type of emotional and energetic part of your brain. That is what actually pulled me down to Los Angeles as my hopes were high of getting an opportunity to act in front of some big directors and gifted writers rather than my own badly scripted short films. And I started to have some luck with that. But it wasn’t until around 1996 when I was doing my second season of Acapulco heat and working with a director named Brianne Murphy, the first woman to ever be inducted into the Cinematographer’s union, she began to let me direct second unit and action sequences on her episodes and I began to reconnect with the desire of that ten year old, editing super 8mm on his bedroom floor and want to write and direct. 

What martial arts do you or have you studied? Do you still practice to this day? 

Very first martial art I studied was aikido. It was in third grade where I went to school in Oakland and kids being kids it wasn’t always the safest thing in the world and I used to get in fights pretty often. So I started taking martial arts but quickly realized that the practice had so many other benefits. By the time I was 13 I had been studying northern Shaolin for a number of years and without much prior competition training, entered karate tournaments.

In Berkeley, there was a school run by a man named Alex Feng, and was a martial art called Wu Chien Pai. This is where I begin to get into some serious competition as an outlet for my youthful energy needs.  Tournaments, some kickboxing and even amateur boxing matches I did between 15 to 22. 

When I came down to Los Angeles, I immediately started training Wing Chun with Hawkins Cheung and went over to the Inosanto Academy where I studied with Dan, Larry Hartsell, chai Sursute and others.  I then met Jerry Poteet who I eventually became an instructor under as well as teaching at a tang soo do school at the same time in Santa Monica. Through a stunt man on Acapulco heat, I met Gene Lebell and began to go to his house and train with him and his students for awhile as well. 

I am still very active today as it has been a part of my life since I can remember. Training is a big part of my daily routine. In fact, I’m still looking forward to some good action projects in discussion now. 

What would your average workout routine be?

Since I’m not competing anymore, my sparring has been limited to probably once a week. I get together with fighters I train with and to do stand up fighting, bag work, drills and occasionally freeform grappling exchanges. 
But 5 to 6 days a week I am training on weights, kettle bells and cardio usually running or bicycling.  John Saxon got me on the kettle bells. In fact, much of his training was based on the old strongmen from the 20s and 30s and some of their routines. I’ve been including more of that into my routines to keep my muscles and joints powerful, even using the Indian Club training (look it up).   
Especially focusing on keeping my flexibility and strength up these days. Every decade or so obviously your body changes and for me it’s just learning to always adapt to what those needs are. It’s amazing if you live a healthy life though, how it all just becomes  second nature. 

I first recall seeing you kickass alongside Lorenzo Lamas in Final Impact, what was it like working with Lorenzo and Gary Daniels? 

Final impact was my first experience in a leading role. I remember it very well. I think at first they wanted Don Wilson to play the part but decided to go with somebody a little younger or maybe Don was doing something else I don’t know, but I came in to audition at the time when the movie was called the Flying Dutchman. It was a technique they wanted to have Lorenzo‘s character do that I ended up using at the end of the movie. He sort of adjusted it in the final story but elements are still there.

Anyway, I remember being extremely excited when I got the call that I booked the movie. It was a eye-opening experience as P.M. Entertainment was such an independent company particularly at that time. For instance, when we shot in Las Vegas we all caravanned together from Los Angeles and filmed parts of the movie along the way in the desert. I was driving with Lorenzo and his wife Kathleen and thinking to myself, I didn’t think this is how Paramount Studios did it.
But I can tell you, my own strategies as a filmmaker were inspired by watching Joseph Merhi and Rick Pepin work at that time.

 I think the second day of shooting was when I worked with Gary. We were filming in some old bar in Los Angeles and that was only the second fight scene I had done in the movie. I was still pretty green with doing it, where Gary had already done a few leading roles in the Philippines. We shot both of those fight scenes by lunch if I remember right. 
Lorenzo has been an old friend of mine now for years and was such a perfect person to spend that time with on my first real film. I remember when we arrived in Las Vegas, we basically parked our cars and then drove to a motel where we shoot the scene where he comes out of the hotel and confronts me in the parking lot. It was like there was no stopping that production. I think we did the whole thing in 12 days.   

Following that you starred in To Be The Best, which has quite a cult following. I hear a sequel is in the works. Can you give an update on that?

Well actually the next film I did was Street Crimes, but we did follow up that with To Be The Best.  It was back to Vegas for that one, and I remember they wanted to get in to the Sands Hotel and shoot it before they blew it up.  Working with Alex Cord was a blast as was it with Marty who I have used on a few other things since. It was such a crazy scene as all these martial artists were staying in the hotel and fighting each other in the parking lot every morning for rehearsals. 
 In regards to the sequel, we did start the process of that in fact I even began to write the script but as these things go sometimes, Money comes and goes and slows down the progress. But, we did get so far as to having myself and Sasha Mitchell sign on to it and it had a fairly interesting storyline bringing back some of the old characters into a more modern age of fighting. Hopefully the producers get bugged enough to pick it back up as I actually think the story could be a lot of fun

You worked with Dennis Farina in Street Crimes, what was he like?

Loved Dennis so much. What a special man. I remember when they were bringing him out to do the movie they kept telling me,“ don’t tell him we’re shooting this whole movie in 10 days”. They wanted him to think that we had another 10 days of shooting after he left but the reality was, we only had half a day after he left. But towards the end of the shoot I always remember him sitting with me and leaning back and saying,” it’s amazing how they shoot these movies in 10 days”. So he was on to it.

At the time I think they were paying him the most I’ve ever paid an actor, like $100,000. But he certainly elevated the production. It was such a wild shoot through the streets of Los Angeles and of course the movie has plenty of faults, but it does have its following. The last time I saw Dennis he was on the tonight show and I happened to be working on something at NBC studios so I went and found his dressing room and knocked on the door as if we needed him to hurry up and get up on the stage and then I opened the door up to see him frantically trying to get ready, finally laughing when he realized it was me. It was a nice way to be able to say goodbye to him. What a talented actor. 

When filming fight scenes in movies do you help choreograph them?

Yes absolutely. Even in the beginning on final impact and street crimes I would get involved just so I could showcase what it might be that I did best at that time. But as I begin to learn about how things sold on camera and how for myself I felt they were effective or not effective, I became more involved. At some point you are the one on screen in the fight scene and good or bad, you’re usually going to get the responsibility. So, I would rather make sure I am as involved with it as Much as  possible working with whoever the choreographer is.  Besides, I love the creativity and art form of making effective fight scenes. They can be parts of the story and how you use the camera and the actors and the environment and the movement is so intriguing to me. It’s always evolving and I love being able to find what the next angle is. 

You starred in Acapulco Heat in 1993 then returned in 1998, what made you want to return?

Well, part of the appeal is that they had changed the dynamic of the show. The first season as you know was a gigantic cast and I spent most of the time in Mexico sitting on the beach doing push-ups and I additionally saying a line and throwing a punch. Not that I’m going to complain I’m getting paid to work on the TV series in a beautiful country, but come the second season they had allowed the character of Tommy, who was pretty much just a walking fortune cookie in the first one, to be more Worn down and insecure by season 2.  I was working with Ivanna Chubbuck, a highly regarded acting coach in Los Angeles, and people like Charlize Theron at the time in class so as an actor was really trying to broaden myself. By season two, I was taking all kinds of risks as an actor to learn. Ivanna had said to just go out there and take the risks on a show like that because you don’t always get that opportunity. Even if it doesn’t work at least you’re not failing on the set of an Oscar nominated movie. so I looked at season two as a way to practice while getting a tan. But in all seriousness, I also happen to meet Brianne on that season where I begin to really cut my teeth on cinematography and directing. 

Fists Of Iron was a great movie, were you worried about being typecast in the ‘Ring Fighter’ genre?

Yes, absolutely. I did that movie after I’d come back from season one of Acapulco heat. Richard Munchkin, the director, had approached me and really wanted me to play this part. Though at the time I didn’t want to go back in and repeat all the ring fights but I was so happy with the character of Dale as a vulnerable father that I took it. Plus, getting to work with Sam Jones and Marshal Teague was a must.   I did swear after that movie I would never do another one again at least until I was about 60. But I have some great memories on the film and again, there are some people that really seem to get a kick out of it so to speak so, guess it wasn’t the worst choice.  We shot that during the Northridge California earthquake and I remember at the time the only person to show up on set to actually film the next day was Marshal Teague . That guy is a true workhorse!  They really put some effort into making some big fights in that movie and even though the style has changed in terms of rhythm and camera work since, there were certainly some good moments in there. And Matthias is one of the coolest guys you could ever work with

You starred in US SEALS 2, directed by Isaac Florentine! It was packed with great fight scenes, tell me about the shoot! Jackie Chan’s fight co-ordinator! I am sure you sustained some injuries!?

What a great shoot that was. It was another learning curve in my career for sure. I remember auditioning for it in Santa Monica and meeting Isaac for the first time. I had known about him for one of his first movies he had shot call desert kickboxer. He found it pretty funny that I had even seen that movie telling me, I’ve made better movies since. I knew the meeting had gone well and Happily got the role.

It was a big leap from doing the P.M. movies. First the time frame was greatly expanded. Nu Image was putting a fair amount of money into this comparatively to what I had worked on at the time and we were out there for almost a month. The great part was the first 7 to 10 days was just rehearsing at the University. Andy and of course Mitch and Dan Southworth were incorporating much more of the Hong Kong style of fighting that up to that point hadn’t been used much except may be in Mark’s  film, Drive. For me it was a quick study in the rhythm of those fight scenes. Those elements I was familiar with from watching Kung fu films religiously (was a big fan and study of Hong Kong martial arts films already) it would be the first time I was incorporating them into the actual action scenes and definitely took me a few days to catch up.  It was a great lesson at the time in learning and noting the different styles of the American “one two three – punch” rhythm of the American fights and the more broken rhythm and staccato movement of the Hong Kong style at the time. Plus we had a bunch of wire work to do.

It was very HK influenced right?

Very. Andy’s work with Jackie of course became his work ethic and can tell you the pace and energy throughout the production was very frantic and frenetic but productive.  Shooting those fight scenes in the hot cement factory was brutal. And I can tell you the sequence towards the end where Damien and I are fighting in the shower, just having your feet in a couple of inches of water makes it 10 times more difficult to move.
Plus it is where I met Karen Kim, who became one of my closest and dearest friends. She passed away a number of years ago but left an incredible mark in my life and memory.  And Marshall and I got to actually play friends this time. 

You wrote, directed and starred in God’s Ears in 2008, was this a passion project?

Absolutely. It’s what I had wanted to do for years. I had worked on a script about a boxer with autism that actually was pretty big. A producer from Acapulco he came along and I pitch the idea to him and he said, if you make it for $100,000 I’ll pay for it. So I took about two weeks to rewrite the script and sure enough we went out and shot the whole movie for $100,000. It is one of the things I’m most proud of even though it was exhausting to direct and star in a film with that kind of pressure on you as an actor. But luckily it has touched so many people who have been affected by autism.  it Has to be one of the things I’m most proud of to this day in my career.

also love shooting in the bay area where I grew up and that was the first time I had an opportunity to do that so it’s very special going home to shoot that movie. 
Originally I had written the part of the trainer for Lance Henriksen who three days before shooting had to bail out for another commitment. So I went to John Saxon only a few days before he was supposed to appear on set and he luckily agreed after reading the script. Since making that movie, John has told me it is one of three movies he’s most proud of making in his whole career. That doesn’t get much better for somebody like me knowing how much work he has done.

My Cinematographer Niel Lisk, who has since passed away, was such a great collaborator as I continued to hone my own craft as a director. Our approach to filming this which I learned on final impact, was keeping the crew down to just a handful of people. I continue to follow that ethic in my career ever since. I’ve been on productions where they try to load me up with a dozen people in the camera department and I’m probably one of the few directors that tells them to cut it in half or even into a third.   Yes, making that film was a very special experience. Even down to it being the first movie my grandmother ever acted in.

You have worked with John Saxon a couple of times, how did you guys meet? 

I had met John once before which was why I could approach him for gods ears. Though I had no idea he would be willing to do it, I am grateful he did as our relationship has flourished ever since. I’ve used him in several projects since then and became one of my dearest and closest friends. Being a fan of enter the Dragon and unforgiven and Joe Kidd, I never grow tired of talking to him about stories on the set. Plus as noted earlier, he’s taught me a lot about strength training from the old guys!  I could write a book on him at this point. So interesting a life. 

Has he told you any cool Bruce Lee stories you can share? 

Sure. We’ve talked a lot about him. I do remember one where he spoke of going to Bruce’s house when he first got to Hong Kong for the movie. And Bruce took him into the living room and gave him some water before asking him to stand at a specific spot in the room. He handed John a pad and told him to hold it on his chest and then Bruce kicked him sending him over a chair that was behind him. John said he does this to everybody because the chair was so soft to land on. A lot of people Don’t even know that John met Bruce years before at a karate demonstration that was done in Los Angeles sometime in the late 60s  

You shot a movie called Devil Dogs in 2017, what attracted you to the action short? 

That was a very poignant project. I had just done a short film called our father with Michael Gross and Linda Palmer the director who then recommended me for Devil dogs. I loved The role of the journalist set in the war and that perspective through the camera and somewhat outside of you confronted with all of these Hardened Marines. It’s still a tough one for me to watch as during the production my brother passed away and there was a scene at the end where I am supposed to be pouring water over the bloody helmets of some soldiers and I just broke down during the sequence instinctively and there was nothing unreal about any of it  

Another movie titled ‘The Butterfly Guard’ is due for release, can you tell me about it?

This is another one of the films that was done in the independent division of Grizzly Peak Films. We have done a number of very experimental and ultra low budget films to see what can be accomplished with less money and more creativity. Many people don’t realize that the reason these films take years to sometimes find their way to distribution is because of the finances. You have to beg and borrow and plot and plan to sometimes get them done and completed.

I knew the idea of the butterfly guard, The journey of two men in very different worlds prior to their fighting each other on a given night, but by the time our tiny, and I mean Tiny crew, flew out to Thailand to begin shooting I didn’t even have a script. I just had some notes and was developing ideas on the plane ride over. It sounds crazy but I knew I wanted the film to have a certain sense of fragmented loss and even confusion as it deals with one character who has fallen out of grace with civilization and family and  just disappears in Thailand. I knew if I approached it as a filmmaker somewhat lost and off the cuff, it would hopefully translate the same.

All of the locations we shot at were generally found the Day we started shooting.  It was a beautiful way to approach a movie. Totally crazy and with not a lot of money on the line, but the liveliness of it was just non replica-table.  It has taken me years to edit the movie, and in some ways you find yourself finding the “shape” of a film later rather than through an already blueprint of a script. But, it is unique and certainly filled with a tone that is not a typical Martial arts movie.

The rest of the movie was filmed in Los Angeles with Scottie Epstein, Ivan Sergei and Justin Mccully. The contrast between Thailand and Los Angeles helps accentuate the contrast of the two characters. One being worn out and haven’t given up and the other super ambitious and full of potentially unrealistic dreams. The film is a drama set in the martial arts world rather than a martial arts movie. But I think anybody that trains to fight will connect with elements and pains and fears that come along with that movie. It was produced with CNC movie factory and Jennifer Kamstock. 

Also a movie titled Bring Me The head Of Lance Henriksen, please tell me more? You haven’t put a Bounty out on Lance have you (Laughs) 

I call this the “boyhood” of comedy. The movie was shot over the course of almost 5 years and has been in the edit room and post production phase nearly as long. But, that being said what is coming out of it is something I’m very proud of. Another wild and crazy spontaneous approach to filmmaking. I wouldn’t tell the actors at all when I wanted them to do and would manipulate storylines and motivations for the actors so all of it would play out live on screen. It’s pretty wild. Like curb your enthusiasm but with no script. 
Getting these amazing actors like Lance, Tim Thomerson, Adrienne Barbeau, Martin Kove, Tim Witherspoon, John Saxon, Robert Patrick and others to come on board and just make fun of the crazy life that is movie making and acting has just been one of my greatest joys in this business. I am very excited to finally get this out as I need to share it with the world at this point.

I have also seen your a fan of Bruceploitation movies, please tell me all about this? 

Well as a kid these were the films I grew up on. Back then of course it wasn’t called that, you just called them Bruce lee rip off movies. And I would go to these movies as a little kid thinking he was in them or at the very least one of the students or costars were. That’s what was so intriguing to me about it. Some human being is that appealing to his audience that you go to watch a film just to get a sense of him. Of course many of them were just terribly made but there are many that were also incredible examples of ingenuity and plain in your face crazy action.

I have a book that I’ve been working on for many years dealing with how I even learned to understand filmmaking from watching these movies. Over the last number of years I’ve traveled to the east to meet many of these actors and fighters and filmmakers who I grew up on so it has been absolutely full circle a dream come true. Plus I i’m in a position now of being able to restore and save to some degree many of these films before they are lost in time. In this new digital age, these old film prints of these films are becoming more and more obscure and even nonexistent as no one is taking care of them. So, I’ve been working hard to find surviving film elements so we can bring them to the rest of the world and keep them intact.  I started a company called Pearl River which is a distribution company, following the business model of boutique labels like criterion and arrow, to only focus on this hard to find Asian action cinema
I am involved in producing a documentary coming out on the subject later this year as well as a massive library of many of these films we have been discovering and restoring for a brand new audience. In a way, it’s my small contribution to film history by using my resources and connections to the best of my ability to uncover some of these soon to be lost kung fu films I grew up loving as a kid.

Have you met many of the Bruceploitation actors? 

Yes, I’ve met a number anyway. I’ve spent some time in Hong Kong and Taiwan and Korea both for training and just research.  I made sure to try and meet many of my favorite actors and fighters while there which was not an easy feat as many of them are scattered everywhere and some now living lives of almost obscurity.   Bruce Li, Lee Tso Nam, Don Wang Tao and Tan Tao Liang I spent time with in Taiwan and Los Angeles. Bruce, also going by James, continues to train students in a small park several hours outside of Taipei. Meeting and training with him out there has been one of my highlights in life. Tan Tao Liang as well. Though not known for Bruceploitation per se, Tan has been one of my top Kung Fu film stars since I became enamored with the genre. The Hot The Cool and The Vicious as well as The Leg Fighters (which I released through Pearl River) are two of the greats. 

In Korea I spent time with both Dragon Lee and Casanova Wong. Both super great individuals. Dragon I fell in love with after seeing the wildly entertaining Last Fist of Fury (The Real Bruce Lee) as a kid and is one of the highlights of Bruceploitation for sure. He invited me to come stay and train with him but have yet gone back to take him up on the offer. 
Godfrey Ho, Mars, Philip Ko – who I met just several months before his passing- I have also met with and all are in the documentary. Roy Horqn and Bruce Liang as well. 

Out of all the movies you have directed what is your personal fave, the one you would recommend for people to go see?

I would give you two titles. Gods Ears and the upcoming Apple Seed. In some ways, they are sort of cinematic siblings. Both I wrote, directed and acted in. And though I have done that a few times between, these films were surrounded by special circumstances I’d say. Both low budget independent films where I was allowed freedom and creativity to, under less than ideal situations, create and express some unique story ideas that had evolved out of my life rather than by brain. Moments where a script was born more emotionally than theoretically.  

With Gods Ears I filmed much in the town of Berkeley where I grew up and in Apple Seed, I wrote the lead role for Ron and Clint Howard’s father Rance, a gifted actor I saw spend an entire career never having the lead in a film and wanted him to have that chance.  It took me ten years to get it made and He passed away a couple months after we wrapped the film.  But it will be out on a big cable network around September. 

Would you return for a martial arts movie? Maybe have you and Adkins team up, with Isaac at the helm!? 

Love those two guys. I actually first met Scott right after finishing US seals 2 with Isaac. I think they were getting ready to do Special Forces at the time.  Isaac is one of the nicest and giving directors I’ve ever worked with and guys like Scott and Michael Jai White are people I’ve known for many years and have yet to be able to do something with. Michael came to the premiere of Fist of Iron, that’s how long I’ve known him. Though I do have a script for a limited series that I’m hoping might change that one day. Interestingly enough, I did go in and read for Jesse Johnson on the Debt Collector which ultimately went to Louis Mandylor. Who did an awesome job in it, by the way?

Can you tell me about any future projects we can keep any eye out for?

I have several films coming out over the next 6 to 8 months including as we mentioned Apple seed, The Sugar Moon Tribe and the butterfly guard.  I have an action thriller in the tone of the hyper violent The Night Comes For Us but with believe it or not Clint Howard as the violent anti hero. It has had a few false starts so far but I’m hoping before the end of the year we will be in production. I won’t be in front of the camera on this one but promise some good bloody action in it for sure. 

I do have another action film that I’ll be acting in, a sort of on the run revenge thing that is a small film but such a great written idea I’m excited to get into something with more testosterone again. I have had a few roles offered to me that were action films over the last three or four years but I felt like I had seen the movies over and over again before and just not interested in doing it for the money only. 

Before I let you go, what would be your top 5 movies?

Though these can rotate, pretty consistently they are: The Seven Samurai, The Great Escape, The Thin Red Line, Jaws and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. 

Thank you so much for your time Michael! A true honour!

The Honor is all mine. Always enjoy talking film and martial arts. 


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