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Kung Fu Movie Guide

‘‘ Being from a small town in the UK, Kung fu films represented something far more exotic and culturally intriguing than anything else I had seen before. ’’

By Ben JohnsonNovember 1, 2017

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Hi Ben, can you briefly describe your podcast to new viewers?

Kung Fu Movie Guide Podcast is an off-shoot of the Kung Fu Movie Guide website and features in-depth interviews with people involved in martial arts movies – including actors, directors, stunt performers, fight choreographers, plus film writers, historians and bloggers.

What is your professional background and why did you start a podcast?

Ben Johnson with Zara Phythian

I trained as a journalist and I have always written about film. I also have experience working in radio and I love podcasting. Starting my own martial arts movie podcast seemed like a logical step.

What sparked your interest in Kung Fu cinema? What was it about Kung Fu that drew you in and made you so passionate about the genre?

I remember seeing Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story (see clip above) on VHS when I was around 10 or 11 and that sparked an interest in Bruce Lee’s life, his approach to martial arts and martial arts movies in general. I started training in kung fu and began to appreciate the films on a slightly different level. This was also during the 1990s when kung fu films were quite easy to access on VHS and later DVD. I would hunt down rare, slightly offbeat titles which seemed to make collecting the films even more exciting. As much as kung fu films might seem exploitative and low on budget and plot (and some of them definitely are!), I believe the genre is generally treated unfairly in film circles and dismissed as ‘low art’, despite containing some of the most complicated and exciting displays of physical movement, creativity, filmmaking talent and athleticism.

Being from a small town in the UK, Kung fu films represented something far more exotic and culturally intriguing than anything else I had seen before.

You book interviews with actors, directors, writers. How did you get these famous guests onto your new show? How have you managed to book new guests?

Kungfumovieguide.com was launched in 2012 as a place for me to put a bulk of kung fu movie reviews I had amassed over the years, and the blog grew into a website which branched out to encompass more detailed profiles and interviews.

The podcast launched in 2016. I need to thank the first group of people who agreed to be recorded for the podcast when it didn’t actually exist at that stage! Once the format had been created, it was easier to point people in the direction of previous episodes and set up further interviews (if they liked the show, that is!).

As for booking guests, I now think of the show in terms of seasons, and I have a vague plan in mind before every season to make sure it features as diverse a list of guests as possible. Sometimes, of course, that doesn’t always go according to plan! Some guests take time to pin down, others contact me directly wanting to be on the show. Sometimes I might be approached by PR companies offering interview time. In each case, I’m conscious about not compromising the format of the show, which is designed to be a long-form interview, and I try to insist that I spend at least an hour talking to each guest when possible.

What do you think about when you are crafting questions for a guest (other than simply, ‘what do I want to know’)? Are there particular questions you almost always ask, and ones you try to avoid?

So I don’t know if this comes across on the show (or even whether it’s good advice or not!), but I tend to not write down any questions.

Instead, I have a rough list of subjects I might want to talk about.

Or at least try and steer a conversation into those topics, but I never write down a formal list of questions. That can sometimes create quite a static conversation.

Luckily, the fact that I normally have about an hour (if not longer) with the guests mean that they are (hopefully) more likely to open up about a subject. Sometimes this can lead into interesting territory which might have been missed otherwise. Also, I’m usually a big fan of the person’s work before I’ve spoken to them, which can be a good thing, but it can also a bad thing, because you have to keep the inner fan-boy in check! (Although, again, I’m pretty sure I am guilty of this too!).

Getting good quality audio is tricky when interviewing people online. What is your gear setup for online guests? How have you improved sound quality?

Yes it definitely can be tricky. I don’t operate from a professional studio set-up so everything you hear over the internet is recorded across two separate microphones – one to collect the audio from the laptop (either over Skype or Hangouts, whichever the guest prefers), and I use a room mic to pick up my voice.

This involves plenty of testing beforehand to check levels, and obviously a much larger post-production process to align the two audio tracks and eradicate any dips in quality. I also have to request that the guest use headphones when talking to me to stop my voice from rebounding back from their laptop speakers.

Despite all of these precautions, there is still no absolute guarantee that the audio quality will be good, and I can point to a few examples where the audio has come across better than others. This is why I always try to meet the person face-to-face when I can. The conversation is more free-flowing that way, and obviously the post-production process isn’t quite as involved.

Out of these initial interviews, what stories or tad-bits have you learned about Kung Fu cinema that you didn’t know before?

I particularly enjoyed talking to Bruce Lee historian Steve Kerridge, and spending the day hanging out with him in his home office. I thought I was quite knowledgeable about Bruce Lee but he told me things I had no idea about, and after the interview he even played me some rare audio of Bruce talking which I never knew existed! That day was a real treat. (Episode below – interview starts at 10:51)

I also love hearing about those little incidental stories about big name stars; like when Van Damme helped Zara Phythian to jump start her car, or when JuJu Chan sang karaoke with Michelle Yeoh. And everyone who has ever worked with Jackie Chan always talk about how meticulous he is on film sets, always sweeping the floors and tidying up. I love these little human touches.

What are some key lessons that you have learned about interviewing guests? What #pro-tips would you give to new podcasters?

I think the key thing is to just give it a go! I’ve learnt a lot along the way, and you definitely have to be prepared to put the hours in. It can be time consuming when it’s just a one-man operation, but the positive feedback I have been getting from listeners around the world has been awesome, and make it all worthwhile.

If you could interview anybody for the show (dead or alive), who would it be and what three questions would you ask?

I probably should say Bruce Lee, but I think also Sammo Hung would be high on the list. Not only has he worked with everybody in a career spanning six decades, but he is still making compelling fight films and getting better as an actor, as seen in The Bodyguard. He is so revered in the industry, but he has also made some dubious film choices over the years, and some of the themes of his movies are certainly problematic. I’d love to ask him how he feels about some of those decisions now.

Top-3 Kung Fu films that you have re-watched the most

These are probably obvious choices, but in truth, the ones I have probably watched the most are…

Enter the Dragon (1973)

The Prodigal Son (1982)

and Drunken Master (1978)

Which podcast episode would you recommend for new listeners to start with?

Kung Fu Movie Guides - Ben

The Scott Adkins episode (which is linked to in the first question) is a good start – not only was he very open and charming, but he also clearly wanted to get a lot off his chest (particularly about people illegally downloading his films), which makes it a lively and engaging chat. Also his insights into making action films on a low budget and in a short space of time should resonate with all lovers of film, even if you’re not fully aware of Adkins’ output. (Skip to 12:00 for the actual interview).

Finally, what’s next for you (and for Kung Fu Movie Guide)?

I’m currently planning the third season of the podcast, but I’m not rushing into anything just yet, as I’m now putting the infrastructure in place for companies to be able to advertise on the show and the website. As the following increases, the next step for KFMG is to monetize in a way which doesn’t compromise the show too much. I think this will help to take the show and the site onto the next level, and hopefully attract some even bigger names!

You can find my episodes on iTunes or SoundCloud.

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