We interviewed James Cotton, the brains behind Tiger Claw. Tiger Claw won Audience Choice at Fighting Spirit Film Festival 2019, so we got to know James and how he created Tiger Claw.
How did you get into filmmaking?
Hard to pinpoint exactly when, but I did media in college and made a terrible action movie opening for one module. Prior to that, I'd sat in front of the TV for years watching old movies with my mum - does that count? And after that terrible action movie nobody will ever see, I did Film and Literature at uni, so I guess the answer to the question is somewhere within the timeframe above.
How would you describe your writing style?
Not very professional, ha! Despite people telling me not to, I include YouTube links to music, because communicating the tone with a bit of music is really important to me. Then, apparently I can change tenses at will? I don't know, maybe everything else reads as really professional, but not these bits! Oh, and "staccato". I like to keep things snappy.
What are your favourite stories to write?
I don't really have a favourite genre, but tend to stay within genre, if you know what I mean?; noir, heist, action. I always like to keep the dialogue as minimal as possible too, so yeah, genre with minimal dialogue.
What advice can you give to aspiring writers?
I don't think I'm the best person to give advice, but I always think that getting into a scene as late as possible, and out of it as fast as possible is a good thing to keep in mind - keeps the pace up and avoids anything being boring (hopefully).
What was your process for writing Tiger Claw?
I had been to a film festival, and was disappointed by a set of shorts (dull dramas set on council estates, really). So I thought, what's the most un-UK, most fun thing I could make to try and mix it up at festivals?... kung fu, action comedy of course. That was the main inspiration, and then from there, it was a process of deciding that homage would be the way to go, and then compiling favourite moments from various films and linking them to form a narrative.
What were your influences for Tiger Claw?
This question is a fun one... so many influences. Some really obvious ones; 8 Diagram Pole Fighter, Clan of the White Lotus and Dragons Forever (Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest in general) and then tonally for the abundance of comedy, more specifically films like The Magnificent Butcher. Then, there are a load of less obvious influences that were always present when writing; Master of the Flying Guillotine (the Kraftwerk-esque music when the final two face off), Full Contact (the camera following the keyboard like the bullets through the nightclub), Dirty Ho (music over a diamond heist in homage to a film about a jewellery thief), Scooby Doo, The Wizard of Oz, Enter the Dragon. Even the credit sequence at the end isn't original, and is heavily influenced by the title sequences in The Savage Five and A Fistful of Dollars.
Was this your first time directing a film and, if so how was the experience?
It was, and it was a lot of fun. Very challenging, but fun.
I noticed a lot of vivid colours such as oranges and reds in the film, what made you choose to have a colourful palette for the film?
Thanks for noticing - it was very important for me to make something with a bit of light and aesthetic charm to it, and I thought some splashes of particular colours would help with that. Obviously, the orange van, but then all the "heroes" have either orange or red in their outfits. Though there are stock elements / settings such as the old, dark warehouse, I'm glad that the intention to insert splashes of bold colour comes across, and hopefully it facilitates the light-hearted tone of the film.
How did you do the casting for Tiger Claw?
I watched a lot of YouTube videos, and firstly found Karanja Yorke on YouTube, and after meeting him, I knew I'd found "Eugene". Soon after, a friend of mine, who is also an extra in the final scene, put me in touch with Sam Mak who became "Xuan", and the third person onboard was Leon Sua. Funny story about Leon... we actually met in 2008 during the filming of a kung fu film in Preston, and we were chatting about who the top 3 MCs in the Wu were. We hadn't spoken since, and so after I rang him out of the blue and he was up for playing "Kuan-Lin", he turns up in a Wu-Tang hat.
Then, the guy I got the orange van from told me he had a mate who knows kung fu, and that turned out to be the wonderful Leslie Kunz who plays "La Toya", whilst Karanja recommeded Eddie Lee. "Is he really good?", I asked. "He's my brother, trust my recommendation", Karanja said. Glad I did.
By this point, we had a good cluster of really talented people, and then Jude Poyer recommended people for the last couple of roles. And wow... Marie Marolle ("Patricia") and Lockhart Ogilvie ("Carl") were amazing. What a coup to get all these guys in a matter of weeks. And then the final role in the last scene went to Waj Ali, who is a really great actor.
So yeah, no Nina Gold helping us out or anything...
Did you have a martial arts background before you started working on the film?
I don't think a green belt in karate when I was 14 counts (and I would never pretend it does, ha). Other martial arts background includes me almost being a black belt in sitting on the sofa or in the cinema watching movies, though.
Can you talk about your process of collaborating with stunt coordinators Jude Poyer and Chris G.R. Webb in creating the martial arts sequences?
Without these two, the film would not be the film it is. Yes, there were some very specific moves and moments and emotions that were down on the page in the script, and a sizzle reel I created had identified a couple of the money shots, but the connective tissue and the professionalism in taking an intention and making it work on screen was down to these guys, with Jude the main man. And to confirm, I worked closely with Jude in his capacity as action director, as well as him leading the stunts.
I had met Chris via an app called 'Shapr'... so random! It's basically Tinder but for making new professional relationships, and I'd gone on it to try and find people who work in Canary Wharf with spare cash to help fund the short. Then Chris pops up as a suggestion, ha! He tells me about his mate who he used to share a flat with who had every kung fu movie on VHS, and then introduces me to Jude.
Then, from there, it's a case of communicating and sharing ideas with Jude in a very condensed prep... "have you seen this moment in this film?" and "how about this action for this section?" - it was a fast turnaround from prep to being on set, and then once on set, Jude is so experienced that he can make magic happen. What I had in my head was appearing on the monitor, and then when there was a problem (mainly a time issue), Jude and Chris had suggestions of how to get out of tight spots. Admittedly, I'd over-written the action in parts, and so without these guys, the action elements would most likely have been incomplete and probably sh*t. That's why you collaborate with people better than you!
What are some of the things you learned while working on Tiger Claw?
You can do 53 slates a day.
You will have to be flexible in shoot and post to get 90% of what you had in your head, but it'll never be 100%.
Never try and license Hip Hop that features other rappers and produced by another bloke, because you'll waste 6 months trying to clear 20 seconds of music with 4 different publishers who won't all agree to the same terms. Alas, Jeru the Damaja's 3rd verse on Physical Stamina is not in Tiger Claw, even though his front cover to Wrath of the Math was the influence for Karanja's costume;
How has your experience been with Fighting Spirit Film Festival?
I'm absolutely gutted that I was working abroad when the festival was on, but luckily Leslie sent me a huge message passing on the feedback and response from the screening. Before and since, everyone at the festival has been really supportive and communicative, so big up yo'selves!
How did it feel to have your film to be well received by audiences?
Brilliant news! Audience choices are the best awards in my opinion, because the intention of the film was to make something fun and charming, and appeal to a wide variety of people, whether they get all the references or not. Thanks to Fighting Spirit for getting the film in front of its core audience!
Do you have any upcoming projects that we should keep a lookout for?
I've written a heist movie (with a bit of action) and a Japanese noir (lots of action), but don't have any money to make them yet. Any philanthropists who loved Tiger Claw out there who wanna help finance the next one?
Speed Round. Pick one film for each category.
What is the first film you ever saw?
I genuinely don't remember, but I have a very early memory of seeing Tiger Bay starring Hayley Mills on the TV. Come to think of it, quite a weird connection to have the first film you ever see and the first film you ever direct to have 'Tiger' in the title.
What is the film that made you want to become a filmmaker?
I would have to say The Killer or Reservoir Dogs.
What is your favourite film by your favourite filmmaker?
Le Doulos by Jean-Pierre Melville.
What is an underrated film that you think deserves more attention?
The Vanishing - the original Dutch one from 1988. It's genuinely terrifying and has such a good structure.
What is your current favourite film?
I've just been working in a desert and haven't been to the cinema for two months, so I'll have to pick something I recently saw on DVD... In Darkness starring Natalie Dormer. Had a De Palma feel to it, and though not a perfect film in any respect, had enough to it to tick the boxes for a low budget British movie.