By Scott Tre
Unlike many of the film makers who churn out genre pictures these days, Ben Ramsey actually understands his audience. He doesn't see them as a demographic to be catered to, but a large fraternity of which he has always been a part. Ben grew up watching and loving action films of all kinds, and now he makes them. He has a fan's love for action cinema tempered by a keen understanding of how the movie business actually works. His latest project, The Micheal Jai White vehicle Blood and Bone, has been wowing martial arts fans since its release on DVD this past fall. You can check out my review here.
I recently had a chance to talk with Mr. Ramsey about his love of action movies and his experiences in "the business". His insight could prove invaluable to an industry that seems unable to truly accommodate an audience that it has always mistakenly regarded as niche. Ben Ramsey knows what the people want, and for the past few decades he has been trying to provide exactly that. With Blood and Bone, he has delivered his most satisfying work yet. After talking to him I realized the best is yet to come.
Scott Tre: How did you get started in the movie business?
Ben Ramsey: I always wanted to work in the business. I always wanted to direct. I started off in Pittsburgh, Pa. One of my homeboys, he's a writer director out here named Kantz. If you went to Pittsburgh around the early or mid eighties and asked about the Black film making community that was pretty much me and Kantz. We weren't making films because we couldn't afford film. We were shooting video before digital came en vogue. We'd go down to a public access station, check out the equipment for free, rustle up friends and then we'd shoot stuff. that's kind of how I got started. Eventually the film industry came to Pittsburgh and I started working on films. I was a production assistant on Silence of the lambs. That was a pretty unique experience. I wound up moving out to LA. After hustling for about five years I got my first work with a script I wrote called Blunt Force. It was supposed to be a vehicle for the Notorious B.I.G before he died. That was the script that kind of launched me into the Hollywood scene. Got me into the community. After that, The Big Hit got made. I've predominantly been a writer in town. Kind of like what you would call a script doctor. People would call me in to punch up the dialogue. My main thing was to make it cool. "The dialogue needs to be cooler. Punch up the characters." I've been working in town for over fifteen years now doing that. Eventually I put my own money up for a film called Love and a Bullet that I co-wrote and co-directed with my boy Kantz. That went right to video but it was profitable for me. After that, My next directorial job was Blood and Bone.
Scott Tre: So your not a New Jack to this, your a veteran.
Ben Ramsey: Yeah I been doing this for a long time. I been in this business for a minute.
Scott Tre: Were you happy with the quality of the films that were made out of your scripts? I am talking specifically about the ones you did not direct yourself.
Ben Ramsey: The most recent one, I wasn't that happy. That's kind of like what happens in this business. You write something. As soon as you give it to another director it becomes their baby. Generally you write it and they turn it into their vision. When a writer writes a script it's his vision to start with. As soon as you give it to a director it becomes their vision. So sometimes it works out for the better and sometimes it doesn't. Very rarely are you on the same page.
Ben Ramsey: Yeah, Dragonball: Evolution. That one kind of tanked. I got beat up by Dragonball fans on that man. Internet smackdown for real. I'm like "You know what? Go talk to the director about that one! That's his vision not mine" (laughs).
Scott Tre: Dragonball is not as easy to adapt as its fans would like to think. It's kind of a big undertaking.
Ben Ramsey: It's kind of unique in and of itself. In its animated form and in its Manga form it's kind of a unique animal. So when you start to bring something like that to real life, then all the stuff that's cool and works in its cartoon form could wind up looking kind of ridiculous in live action. You walk a tightrope. Whenever your doing something like that you have to capture the essence of it and then add enough of the story elements that the fans like. You have to honor what the appeal of it is. You can't do a completely faithful recreation. You wind up with something like Speed Racer, which wasn't a faithful recreation but it was them trying to make a live action cartoon and make it as cartoony as they can. There's a lot of different ways you can fail. I've always said to many people the biggest problem in film making is that often film makers are not fans of the films they make. You really gotta be a fan of the films that you make.
Scott Tre: That definitely comes through in a lot of the stuff you see nowadays. You can see it's just kind of a business deal. It's done very mechanically. There's no real passion there.
Ben Ramsey: Exactly.
Scott Tre: You seem to have an affinity for action movies or things that have action in them. What is it that attracts you to that kind of subject matter?
Ben Ramsey: I grew up an action junkie. I grew up watching action Kung-Fu movies and Blaxploitation movies in the 70's. That was the genre that attracted me to the business. I branch out. I've written some comedies and some thrillers to. I've not written a romantic comedy yet (laughs). I don't know if I'll ever get a round to doing one, but action is definitely my forte because quite often they're my favorite movies to watch. Not all action, or any action movie. Sometimes, action for the sake of action is just boring. For me it's got to have some type of story, or some type of hook that really makes it stand out.
Scott Tre: Please don't worry about the romantic comedy. Tyler Perry's got that on lock. Just stick with the action.
Ben Ramsey: (laughs) Right!
Scott Tre: One thing that I think is evident to black audiences is that we love action movies and blockbusters just as much as if not more than anyone else. It would seem to me that either Hollywood is not aware of this and should be aware of it. Why is it that we don't have more African American filmmakers behind the camera on some of these action films? Usually if they are, it's always a hood flick or a B-movie. It's never something that's geared toward a more general action crowd. Why is that?
Ben Ramsey: I've often pondered that myself. I don't know if Hollywood has a love for the Black male audience. They definitely don't have a strong understanding of the Black male audience because most of the black films that go mainstream are like you said, the Tyler Perry movies, maybe a dance movie, or the ones they do gear towards us are these "Hood" gangster movies. I haven't seen too many of those. They're really cheap direct to video movies. I have a suspicion that it might have stemmed from New Jack City. I forget when it came out, but at the time New Jack City came out it did well, but it attracted a lot of thugs who wound up showing up at the movie theaters and the cineplexes in the quote/unquote upstanding areas. It just kind of frightened them. They were shooting up Westwood. I don't know if it's so much the studios or the exhibitors. They're wary of putting movies that might attract aggressive black males into the theaters.
Scott Tre: Which is of course we know is silliness, but that's how they do business.
Ben Ramsey: Yeah.
Scott Tre: Speaking of New Jack City, it was kind of like the film that began this cycle that we're still going through now where rappers have starring roles in prominent black films. Some of the more prominent black actors have complained about rappers taking up all the roles for black actors. You worked with Treach on Love and a Bullet. What was your experience working with him? Did it prove the popular theory about rappers acting?
Ben Ramsey: Rappers like anyone else have different personalities. Now my experience with Treach was fantastic. Treach was professional. He was always on time, always professional. He put 110% of his effort into playing that role. I loved working with Treach it was a great experience. Now I've heard other experiences with other directors working with other rappers that weren't so good. I think it kind of stems from the fact that the movie industry and the music industry are kind of different. In the movie industry time is of essence. Time is money. You gotta be Johnny on the spot to work on a movie. As far as working in a recording studio, I think you can be a little more lackadaisical. I think sometimes that rappers come into the film industry with that recording industry/recording studio work ethic. "I work at my own time when I feel like it." I think the problem stems from there.
Scott Tre: Tell us a bit about Blood and Bone. How did that project come about? How did it develop?
Ben Ramsey: That was actually a few years in the making. I met Mike (Michael Jai White) some time ago. We were friends. We were always talking abut working on a project together because always had crazy love of classic martial arts movies. We'd hook up and start running lines from all these Kung-Fu movies. Mike is a funny dude man. Outside of the fact that the man has got seven black belts and mad skills he's a funny dude. We would hook up and just talk about Kung-Fu movies man and be doing Kung-Fu movie voices you know like (funny voice) "Heh, your Kung-Fu is no good!"
Scott Tre: Like the old Shaw Brothers flicks (laughs)
Ben Ramsey: Yeah (laughs). So he had this script called Blood and Bone. He let me read it and said "one of these days I want to get this made. Eventually he got to some producers: Micheal Mailer and a couple of other guys. Mike suggested me to direct. I met with them, I kind of told them my vision. They liked it. When I read it I was like this is like one of those old Clint Eastwood movies like High Plains Drifter. That was the thought that went through my mind. This is Pale Rider. The man with no name.
Scott Tre: The man of few words. He comes into town and straightens things out.
Ben Ramsey: It was kind of like a combination of that. A Clint Eastwood western and a post modern Samurai movie. That was the other thing it kind of reminded me of. Some of those old Kurosawa samurai movies. Sanjuro, Yojimbo. Films like that.
Scott Tre: Blood and Bone breathes new life into the American Martial Arts movie and it simultaneously breathes new life into the B-movie (and I use that term affectionately and respectfully). Were you guys setting out to do that, or were just trying to make something that would be fun to watch?
Ben Ramsey: We set out basically to make the type of movie that we wanted to see. I go back to the idea that the best films are made by fans of the films they make. We just set out to make the type of movie that we would want to go to the movie theaters and watch. That was the end result. Since The Matrix came out it kind of set this trend where they would take an actor, give the actor several months of martial arts training and the actor would do what I consider an adequate job of performing as a martial artist. But then you have to edit the hell out of the movie to cover up the weak spots. The thing with working with somebody like Mike and the cast of fighters we had in this movie, they were the real deal. you didn't have to cut away from them. We just said we're gonna shoot this old school. We're gonna shoot wider angles, longer takes, and just let Micheal do his thing. That was our approach. We're not gonna do slow motion, no speed ramping. None of I'm moving slow, then I'm moving fast, then I'm moving slow again. Like that 300 type of stuff. We were just gonna shoot it raw and let Mike do his thing. What's really cool about it is when you get somebody as talented as Mike with the skill level that Mike has, You don't need any special effects. He's the special effect. He's a walking special effect. You just turn the camera on and go. That was the approach to the action. We were concerned with getting a good cast that really understood the work, that understood the characters and just let them do their thing. Everybody loved working on the movie. I think that's what came through. We didn't set out to make a B-movie. We basically set out to make an action/drama or just a straight martial arts movie. Or like I said, I set out to make a post modern samurai movie or a post modern gunslinger movie where instead of slinging guns he's slinging arms and legs.
Scott Tre: I'd say you accomplished that with flying colors.
Ben Ramsey: Thank-you. I'm disappointed that it didn't go theatrical. That was the plan. We were hoping it would go theatrical. At the same time the fan response has been overwhelming. It really feels good too, especially after coming off of Dragonball. I'm getting dragged through the mud for Dragonball.
Scott Tre: During the closing credits of Blood and Bone we see a certain character get his just desserts. Did you try and show the worst possible fate for that character, or were you just having fun with the audience?
Ben Ramsey: The way it got re-edited into the film-- it goes down in the closing credits. In the earlier cut of it we have it coming right after Bone (Micheal Jai White) says goodbye to Pinball and he walks down the street then we cut to James getting his just desserts, then we cut right back to Bone walking away in the background. For the final cut we decided to put it in the closing credits. The idea was that the guy (James) was such a bastard through the movie...usually a cat like that dies at the end of a movie. In essence we wanted to give him a fate worse than death. We kind of leave it open. It wasn't really what people think is going on.
Scott Tre: Oh really?
Ben Ramsey: It's kind of left open. It kind of turned into that, so we just left it be. He got his just desserts, but the thing is that he might live. Like, survive. In a sequel, with a claw hand like Han from Enter The Dragon.
Scott Tre: Michael Jai White has been around for years. Considering his physical prowess and his screen presence, why is it that Hollywood doesn't utilize him more? It seems to me he should be getting more roles.
Ben Ramsey: I often ask that question myself and we've often talked about it. The problem with Hollywood is that they quite often don't know what to do with a guy like that. I think he's intimidating to a certain segment of Hollywood. Realistically, take a movie like The Expendables. You put Micheal Jai White in The Expendables, he blows everybody on the screen away. Sylvester Stallone's gonna kick Mikes ass? Jet Li's got skills but Jet Li is up to Mike's waste line, ya know? I think that could be one of the problems. The other thing is that there's a reluctance in Hollywood to be the first one to take someone from what they would call the B-movie genre and give them a leading role. Mike has been in A-movies like Spawn, but outside of playing Spawn he's always part of an ensemble. Their always scared to put somebody to open an "A" movie. It comes back to that old notion of not being fans of the genre, not understanding the genre. In essence they're kind of speculating. If they were fans and they understood then they would say there's no way that you can fail putting this guy in an A-list movie. Having him head up an "A" list movie because Mike is an action fans wet dream. The dude can do it all. He can act, he's got skills, he's got charisma. He's like Wesley Snipes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Bruce Lee all rolled into one package. What more do you want? Hollywood is funny like that. It's a strange town. If you remember, Hollywood slept on Bruce Lee, it wasn't until he went to China and made movies there where got to do his thing that Hollywood eventually came back "Oh wow!" Somebody else did the heavy lifting. Now they get to come in and reap the rewards. I think that's the main thing. There's other really talented cats that got slept on; Jim Kelly, Taimak. After The Last Dragon why wouldn't you? You got a good looking dude. Martial arts skills, acting ability. Why wasn't that guy making a bunch of movies?
Scott Tre: The Internet Movie database has you listed as one of the writers of the upcoming Luke Cage movie. Can you tell us a bit about that, or is that still under wraps at this point?
Ben Ramsey: I can't tell you much about it, because I don't know anything about it (laughs). I wrote that thing over six years ago. It heated up for a minute. John Singleton was always attached to it. I came in and did a draft. Everybody liked it. Marvel liked it. Columbia pictures liked it. John liked it. So me and John worked on it for a while and got another draft going. Then all of a sudden it just went into development hell. So where it stands now I have no idea. I haven't been involved with the project. Nobody's called me on it. I hear it's back with Marvel now. They have all the rights.
Scott Tre: Marvel needs to get you and Micheal to head that up. Micheal was born for roles like that.
Ben Ramsey: Yeah. Luke Cage and Micheal Jai White. How much sense does that make? Not to put anything against Tyrese. Tyrese is a great actor too. Mike already looks like a superhero.
Scott Tre: In closing, what future projects do you have coming up? What should we look out for from you?
Ben Ramsey: I got a couple of projects cooking up right now. They're in the early stages so they're too early for me to mention right now. I don't like to talk about projects until we're ready to kick them off. I have several pretty interesting projects in the hopper, one of them being an action/horror film which is a genre that I'm a big fan of. All I can say is stay tuned and we'll see what happens.
*Special Thanks to my friend John Cooley for doing a great editing job!