Don & James Wilson are no strangers to martial arts. Both are formally trained in a variety of styles, with James himself being an instructor on Pai Lum. Their skills have been implemented into various tournaments throughout the years, as well as making the transition to the silver screen. Don, earning the nickname “The Dragon,” has carved a niche out for himself over the past few decades, starring in action classics such as Bloodfist, Black Belt, Ring of Fire, & Red Sun Rising. James, on the other hand, has broken into the business in the production area, helping produce The Martial Arts Kid & Paying Mr. McGetty.
I talked to the brothers about their training growing up, their passion for the film industry, their latest film, Paying Mr. McGetty, their aspirations to make the B-movie version of The Expendables, and much more!
Don, you’ve been allowed to show a softer and more comedic side in “The Martial Arts Kid” and “Paying Mr. McGetty.” Do you like having this opportunity?
Don: Absolutely! As all actors, in the beginning, I couldn’t figure out why actors like Clint Eastwood (the tough guy) would want to do a comedic role. He was doing that for a while, such as the films with the orangutan. I thought, “Why is that when he’s so good at action and everybody wants to see him do action?” Now I know why: when you’ve played the ex-kickboxing champion, the tough guy, the straight man, and the hero for thirty years, you like doing these offbeat roles. I’m playing the uncle [in The Martial Arts Kid] and the hitman with a conscience [in Paying Mr. McGetty]. Something different appeals to actors at a certain point and I think I’m reaching that point.
I know Michael Baumgarten said he was trying to capture the real you. And you’ve been friends with him for a long time. What’s it like working with him professionally?
Don: Oh, great! When I met him, he was on the peripherals of the business. He had done some stuff in Orlando, Florida and had said, “Boy, I’d love to donate all my time and energy to being a filmmaker!” I said, “Michael, if you ever come out to Los Angeles, I’ll give you your first job. I can’t give you your career, but I can give you a job.” He said, “Fine.” He actually got into his car and drove out to LA. His first job out here was working on one of my films, an HBO premiere called “Red Sun Rising.” From then on, he’s been on his own. That’s all I did for him. I got him a job when he came out here, but he got his own place and started making contacts. He forged his own way and became a successful independent writer/director/producer.
James, The Martial Arts Kid & Paying Mr. McGetty are the two films you’ve produced so far. Are you liking the experience?
James: I am! For one reason, both products are good, so I’m proud of them. As you can see, I had family and friends working with me. I had a lot of martial artists working with me and I’m a life-long martial artist myself. So, it was a very comfortable experience. But, I make sure everybody’s talented. I wouldn’t want anybody in a part that they’re not fit for; lesser than what we’re trying to make. I like working with good people, bottom line. I have been fortunate enough to be able to and still make a good product, which I’m really happy about!
I know The Martial Arts Kid was crowdfunded. Was that the same for Paying Mr. McGetty or was that funded differently?
James: Actually, with The Martial Arts Kid we had most of the funding in place. What we did was we had a meeting with Don & Michael [Baumgarten] and we talked about it. Michael felt strongly that, because Don & I are from Cocoa Beach, Florida and we were saying the film was going to take place outside of LA and we settled on Cocoa Beach, we should try and it film there. That left raising the money to me, so I decided on using Kickstarter which everybody was skeptical about. I felt pretty confident with Don & Cynthia [Rothrock], so I pursued the Kickstarter. That money is what enabled us to film in location in Florida. Otherwise, we would’ve filmed it here in LA. The Kickstarter money was raised just for that. I think it brought a lot more to it to shoot it on location. Cocoa Beach is very unique!
I know you two grew up in Cocoa Beach, so was that kind of nice to work from where you’re from?
James: It was fantastic! Here’s the other thing: you know that big auditorium we shot in? That’s the country club in Cocoa Beach and they gave that to us for free. The policemen were Cocoa Beach policemen that worked for free. That doesn’t happen in LA. There, you have to pay cops to block off streets and all kinds of stuff.
[Cocoa Beach] had more of a familial vibe.
James: Right! We got discounted on everything. Special treatment for everybody. The whole community really helped us out. We actually had a casting call where two-hundred some people showed up. The problem was none of them were [members of the Screen Actors Guild]; not one person. There’s no real industry people there. But, we ended up using most of them as extras and put them in that auditorium. You see people that have never taken a lesson mixed with grandmasters in that auditorium.
To go back to working with family, I know that Don was your first student in teaching Pai Lum Kung Fu. Did that shape your teaching? Was there any awkwardness there?
James: I’m going to tell you the real story. I was already a teacher and had my own school, and Don was in the Coast Guard Academy. Don was a super athlete. He was the guy that, if we needed a wrestler, he’d step in and, without any experience, become a top-lister. He was a star football and basketball player at the Academy. He came home once and made a comment to me. Don’s repeated this story many times in interviews, but I haven’t told it in any interviews. He’s done so many times, so I will. I made a comment to Don, who was 205-215 and was all muscle back then and I was like 145, and he saw me in my gi (which is like a gee) and said, “That badass stuff doesn’t mean nothing!” I said, “Why don’t you put on some boxing gloves and we’ll go in the backyard?” So we did and I beat his butt! Don is super competitive, so when he got back [from Academy] he went and joined a karate class. He wanted to try me again and, of course, he lost again; he was a green belt at the time, I believe. He joined my class not too long after that. We were fighting all the time because we’re brothers. He’s my student, I’m his instructor; that’s all I seen. The last time I sparred Don, he broke two ribs. He’s so competitive that he kept pushing himself and pushing himself. The day he beat me, I was never able to beat him again. That’s what you want, though.
Don, you went to the Coast Guard Academy to major in engineering. What made you change your mind to go into acting?
Don: When I went to the Coast Guard Academy, it was during the Vietnam War. It was actually a means of not getting drafted. Everyone was going to Vietnam but I wasn’t because I didn’t believe we needed to be over there, so I chose the Coast Guard Academy. After a year, we got out of Vietnam (which was 1973) and I got out of the Academy and went to a junior college and graduated in electrical engineering. During that time, I did study the martial arts with my brother. It was 1974 that he asked me to fight in a kickboxing match. I said, “Absolutely!” So that was my first fight. I went on to fight until 2002. It wasn’t a conscious decision to be an actor until way into my career when I was already a champion and I met Chuck Norris. He was coming to my fights just as a fan. Sometimes he would announce the fights for TV. We became first friends and he was the first one to suggest from the industry that I might have a chance at having a film career. So, when I retired for the first time (I retired three times, by the way), I moved out to LA in 1985. By September of 1988, I auditioned for a film called Bloodfist by Roger Corman and I got the lead role. From then on, I’ve been starring in films. Basically, Roger Corman discovered me, as they’d say. I ended up doing twelve movies for him.
What was it like working with [Roger Corman]? I assume good if you did that many films with him!
Don: He was a great guy! You couldn’t get a better mentor in the business! If you look him up at all, he’s known to be the most prolific independent producers in the entire industry. He’s produced over a thousand films. He started the careers of Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Jonathan Demme, James Cameron was head of production for him. He is known to have a good eye for talented people. He gives them opportunities to start their careers. These guys, of course, go on to surpass their Corman beginnings. It was a very great experience! It’s one of the many lucky things that happened in my life…meeting him.
You got to work with R. Marcos Taylor, who’s an up-and-coming actor. How was it working with him and do you get that vibe from him; that he’s this big thing that can be discovered?
Don: Absolutely! Marcos has talent and you can’t teach it. If you don’t have what he’s got, a certain kind of charisma and persona as soon as the camera’s on him…I don’t know if people can just learn it. You get some people that are just stiff and say, “Watch Marcos and act like him on film.” He is just a natural. He’s got a real good shot of becoming an A-list actor. One of his first big breaks was portraying Suge Knight in “Straight Outta Compton.” That role was a coveted role by every A-lister in Hollywood. But, they were looking for somebody new and Marcos was just great! Variety, which is our industry publication out here (kind of like the Bible for the film industry), said he was the breakout star of the film.
I’d agree with that. He was great!
Don: It’s not just me. If the Dragon says you have a career if you want it in show business…not just me, but Variety wrote that about Marcos.
You two are now down with Paying Mr. McGetty. What’s next for the two of you?
James: We’re looking to do The Martial Arts Kid 2 in 2017. Already I’m getting a lot of pressure about Paying Mr. McGetty 2. I’m developing some ideas on that. We have another movie called Blood Raid that we’re planning on putting together. It’s more of an action movie.
Don: That’s the movie that’s going to be my homage to Sylvester Stallone. He created The Expendables and put all of the action stars in it. A-list guys such as Harrison Ford, Mel Gibson, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, and so on. For Blood Rain, my idea is to use all of the B-movie guys from the eighties and nineties: Michael Dudikoff, Billy Blanks, me, Cynthia Rothrock, Richard Norton, and so son. That’s my dream, anyway. I’ve talked to them all about it and verbally they’re all on board. They said when I get the signing in place and get a schedule, give me a call; if I’m free, I’m in. It’s going to be the B-movie version of The Expendables.
James: As independents, we’re going to be a little more creative than that.
Don: It’s a cross genre film. It’s a martial arts action/horror film. The Expendables doesn’t have that element of horror or supernatural element to it. The Expendables is just a straight action film. In that regard itself, it’s not a rip-off of The Expendables; just Expendable-ish in that it incorporates all of the action stars of the eighties and nineties.
I know there’s a lot of people that would love to see that, myself included! I like the idea that you’re doing your own thing. I’m really looking forward to it!
Do you two have any advice for aspiring filmmakers and martial artists?
James: I say get in with good people and do your homework. As a producer, my advice is particularly do your homework on the people you work with. Make sure you’re dealing with good people. In Hollywood, there’s a lot of BS. There’s also a lot of people who are affected by their egos more than anything else. And a lot of people who are looking to make a dollar now, not really caring about the end product. They just leave the project behind when they need to get to the next one. They don’t really take care of their movies, which is their babies. That’s one of the models that we’re trying to break. When we make a film like The Martial Arts Kid, we keep working on it. We try to get more publicity for it, more exposure; we don’t leave it alone. I can tell you that, for most production companies, they will not take that much time and attention because they have to go out and make the next movie. We’re going to try and break that mold. We’ve got a lot of different things, such as the Kickstarter and Tugg (www.tugg.com), which got us into the best theaters in the country. The Kickstarter was also something that’s been done, but not commonly. We’re looking for new ways to do things. One of our ways is we’re going to stick with the movie forever. We’re going to help that movie and everybody involved as much as we can; all we can, all the time.
Don: I’ve been in the business now for over thirty years and usually people, distributors, producers, and even actors…unless you’re contractually bound in some way, they’re onto the next money gig. This idea of my brother’s, regardless of monetary reason or not, we’re going to support the movie in every territory, even if he sells the rights. I remember him asking me if I’d go to India if the film plays in their theaters and I said, “Absolutely!” That’s not the norm. Normally, you go onto other projects unless somebody puts you on contract. If not, you don’t support the film. We will continue to support the film as long as there are people distributing it and audiences watching it. I think that’s going to separate my brother’s company, Traditionz, from every other company in Hollywood.
As far as myself, what I can tell aspiring actors…I don’t really know the director route and the editing route or production, but I know the acting portion pretty well. I know this: had I known how tough it was and how the odds were against me…that a guy from Cocoa Beach could get in a car and drive to LA and be starring in movies and I knew how tough it was, I probably wouldn’t have done it. Even though I normally think very positively, I might’ve thought, “I think I’ll just invest my money in my own martial arts school and retire from kickboxing and run a successful school in my home town.” They say ignorance is bliss. Because I didn’t know what the odds were against me, I came out to Hollywood and, in a couple of years, I was on HBO, starring in films. That, of course, is not the norm. But, I did know this: we’re always looking for new people. Hollywood needs new people and are always on the lookout. More and more opportunities for actors are opening up because there’s more venues for product. You’ve got services like Netflix now and cable stations popping up. There used to be only three networks, if you can remember that far back. If you weren’t on one of those, you didn’t work TV. Now, there’s all kinds of stations and even the internet. That’s going to become a bigger content provider for entertainment. Movies and television series will be offered on the internet, more and more. There’s a lot of opportunities and I think actors should just think positively. You don’t have to be as naïve as me, but that didn’t hurt me, it turned out. I somehow managed to be successful because I didn’t know how tough the business was. *laughs*
Any final comments?
James: With [Paying Mr. McGetty], we tried to do something very different. We wanted to make something that had a little element of this and a little element of that; something unusual. We thought it would be risky, but we wanted to take the chance. We wanted to put people in roles they’re not normally in. Marcos Taylor as the nice guy Tyrrell after playing Suge Knight because he’s always playing the heavy. Of course, Don played against type as well. Anita Clay usually plays a mobster’s girlfriend, so we did something different with her. Alissa Schneider usually plays the Homecoming Queen type of girl, but plays the mobster’s girlfriend here. We wanted to get people doing things they normally wouldn’t do, as well as trying to make a quirky little film. I’m really proud of it and I think we succeeded in doing that!
You guys definitely did and I always love to see people taking chances instead of simply doing the norm!
Paying Mr. McGetty will be released in 2017. Keep your eyes peeled for it!