|by Matt Mulcahey
Joey O’ Bryan is one lucky bastard.
He’s also a compelling success story for film critics and film lovers who dream of someday making their own movies.
Born in Cleveland, Mississippi, raised in Dallas, TX and weaned on Blackbelt Saturday kung-fu theatre and Hammer Horror, O’Bryan is proof that all you need is talent, a love of movies and a little bit of luck.
O’Bryan’s first dance with serendipity came in 1996 when, after a stretch of writing film criticism for the Austin Chronicle, he decided it was time to change his path.
“My whole life all I ever wanted to do was make movies,” O’Bryan said. “I just got involved in trying to spread the word about the films I love and a couple of years later I remembered the goal was to make movies, not write about them.”
With no scripts or useful industry experience, O’Bryan decided to head to Los Angeles.
Fate stepped in when O’Bryan, a week before he was set to move, discovered that Once Upon a Time in China VI (which involved three of his filmmaking heroes in director Sammo Hung, writer/producer Hark Tsui and actor Jet Li) was shooting in Bracketville, TX.
“I just kind of went down there and begged for a job. I had an edge because I knew all of these guys’ movies, but I basically told them I would do anything so they put me on as an office peon and then I kind of graduated to set peon,” O’Bryan said.
“I was getting a real education about how a set actually runs. The physical reality of making movies is pretty eye opening. It helped a lot more when I got to LA and started working on other people’s sets because after you’ve survived a Hong Kong set in Texas you’re not going to have a problem anywhere else.”
With a production credit now adorning his resume, O’Bryan went back to his original L.A. agenda and headed to B-movie producer Roger Corman’s office.
“I knew that Roger Corman was a legendary place to give nobody’s a chance, so my plan was basically to walk into his office and beg for a job,” O’Bryan said. “It’s a great place because you can get a lot of experience very, very quickly because they are making movies in 10 days. Now whether or not they are worth a shit is open to debate, but they are made to play on Showtime or Cinemax at 3 or 4 in the morning and really aren’t intended for great scrutiny.”
O’Bryan’s first LA job was as a production assistant on Club Vampire, a Z-grade schlock fest starring Deer Hunter actor John Savage.
“It was my first LA movie, and I thought 'Here’s John Savage and he’s having a good time, this is great.' It’s so surreal, it’s like 5 in the morning and I’m cleaning up fake blood off a strip club floor and I think 'What happened the dream, man?' But it was fun.”
Following up with more Corman-produced cheapies like Alien Avengers II, O’Bryan was saved from the world of soft-core T&A by another fortuitous break.
“Sammo Hung whisked me away from all of that. I was literally walking out of a movie, the New Line Cinema re-release of Mr. Nice Guy that Sammo had directed, and as I walked out of the movie Sammo Hung walked in. He saw me and recognized me. I was amazed that he had remembered me from the Texas shoot and we starting talking and exchanged phone numbers and he asked me to be his assistant on Martial Law," O'Bryan said.
The show was a success in its first season, but after an overhaul of cast and approach Martial Law was cancelled after just two years.
“Throughout all of this I got caught up in learning about the set but what I wasn’t doing was writing,” O’Bryan said. “When Martial Law got cancelled I sat down and wrote my first script. I figured this is it, I have no excuses, I have no job and I came here to make movies. So I just decided to totally go for it and just start writing. The first script I wrote was kind of a quirky urban thriller called Means to An End, and that’s how I got representation.”
While O’Bryan was happy to finally finish a script, he had some rude awakenings in store about how films get made.
“At first it’s very exciting, you finish your first script and it’s a big deal. It’s like the first time you get a review published, you’re like 'I can do this, people will read this.' So I felt very lucky, like I was doing very well,” O’Bryan said. “Then you go into these meetings and if your dream is to make genre movies, and make the kind of off the wall, distinctive genre movies I wanted to make, it’s very difficult. They’d say 'We think your script is really well written, but it’s a little unconventional. Can we do this, can we do that, can we change it this way?”
Struggling to come to terms with the Hollywood machine, another chance encounter saved O’Bryan’s creative soul.
“There’s always these parties going on in LA and I can never work up the energy to go to them. Maybe it’s just my Texas upbringing, I don’t know, but networking is just sort of an ugly word to me somehow,” O’Bryan said. “So this one time I get this call from my buddy like 'Hey, man if you’re ever going to come to a party this is the one because (Hong Kong director) Johnnie To is here.' I’ve been a fan of Johnny’s for a long time, one of my first reviews published was for a Johnnie To movie, and I really didn’t go with an ulterior agenda, I just went out there to meet him and we sat down and talked and found that we liked a lot of the same movies and had some of the same thoughts about what we didn’t like about the genre movies coming out today.”
Impressed by O’Bryan’s Means to an End script, To hired him to do a re-write with only a two-week window.
“I cranked that son of a bitch out in four days,” O’Bryan said with a laugh. “I wanted to prove to these guys that not only would I work for cheap but I would get it done quickly.”
Though the film never got made, O’Bryan’s diligence was rewarded with another assignment: A script called Fulltime Killer (based on a novel by Edmund Pang) that To and directing partner Wai Ka- Fai had been struggling with for years.
Wanting a fresh approach, the pair requested that he not read the novel, which entails a battle between old and young assassin for supremacy.
“The basic storyline is as old as B-series westerns and you start getting worried because as a writer you want to be as original as possible. Wai Ka-Fai had the idea of using the conventions and using the clichés. Yeah, this is a story you’ve seen before, in fact these are characters you’ve seen before. This is a movie about action movies. In a way it’s a perfect movie for an ex-film critic to write because all the film references are not only fun for film buffs in the audience but are a way to comment on certain cinematic conventions,” O’Bryan said.
“The movie is very much open to audience interpretation. What an audience takes out of Fulltime Killer is going to depend on what they bring to it. If they just want to see a kick ass shoot em’ up with some humor, then they’ll get that. That is there. But you hope that, beneath that, perhaps people will recognize the more satirical and ironic subtext of the movie.”
Released in Hong Kong in 2001, Fulltime Killer ended the year as one of the top five grossing movies, in addition to serving as Hong Kong’s submission to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film.
“They’re (To and Ka-Fai) a very low-bullshit, high talent outfit and they’re willing to take risks. They shot Fulltime Killer at the same time they shot another movie called Love on a Diet. That made it much more financially feasible and it takes a lot of skill to do that. Everyone would love to have the eight months of Hard Boiled but that doesn’t really exist in Hong Kong cinema anymore,” O’Bryan said.
Opening in New York and Los Angeles on March 21 (with Lion’s Gate committed to a DVD release), Fulltime Killer has finally made its way to the states, including a midnight screening at the 2003 South By Southwest Film Festival.
The SXSW screening brought O’Bryan back to Austin for the first time in five years, but disaster struck halfway through the film’s first showing when a problem with the print caused an hour-long delay.
Despite the fact that it was past 2 a.m. before the film resumed, less than a handful of the packed Alamo Draft House failed to wait.
“I don’t now if anybody could really understand what it meant to me to be a Hong Kong film fan and to get to come back to Austin to watch a Hong Kong movie I helped make. It’s just incredible to get to live out my dream on some small level,” O’Bryan said.
With a hard-core horror script already optioned by one of the producers of Daredevil and his Mean’s to an End script finally optioned in December, O’Bryan is now working on “a Breakdown/Straw Dogs thing, a pretty nasty, brutal thriller” and hopes of someday directing his own films.
“I don’t know if there’s any writer out there that doesn’t want to make their own films,” O’Bryan said. “I will direct a movie one day, even if I have to finance it out of my own pocket. But because I’ve at least climbed a couple lower rungs of the ladder I’m going to stick to writing for a while and hopefully try to someday make a real movie with a real budget.”
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originally posted: 03/29/03 14:43:54
last updated: 12/30/03 15:59:24