For almost a year, we at Kung Fu Kingdom had the privilege of being among the only people to have seen the film “Unlucky Stars”. Written and directed by Dennis Ruel and with a cast comprised of incredible stunt performers and martial artists, it’s a hilarious, action-packed homage to the Golden Age of Hong Kong action movies. With the film now officially released through Video on Demand platforms, you can finally check it out yourself, but if you need any further endorsement, just check out our official review of the film right here.
With “Unlucky Stars” now out for the whole world to see, we’ve also had the chance to speak with Dennis himself, and he offers a glimpse into his background in Hapkido, his work as a stunt man on films such as Isaac Florentine’s “Close Range” and the long, arduous journey he and many others embarked on to make “Unlucky Stars” a reality!
Hi Dennis, it’s great to connect with you and welcome to Kung Fu Kingdom! Thanks for taking some time out to share with us. Have you taken a look at our site?
You’re welcome! Well, I’ve been checking out KFK for a while now and check in from time to time to see what’s happening in Martial Arts and Film around the world. I really want to take this opportunity to give you guys an INCREDIBLE THANK YOU for writing about “Unlucky Stars” since the early stages of the production as your posts helped us to connect with our distributor, 108 Media! I really appreciate that there are sites out there like KFK that help small indie groups like ours get some exposure! SO AGAIN! HUGE THANKS!
It’s our pleasure! Now let’s kick off with some basics, like when and where were you born?
Just a few decades ago in San Francisco, CA.
What is your height and weight?
It varies depending on camera angles.
HAHA! So, how did you first get into the martial arts? How old were you?
I was captivated by Bruce Lee in “Enter The Dragon” when I was a kid and it was only a few years later that I was blown away by Jet Li as Wong Fei Hung in “Once Upon A Time In China.” Around the age of 14, I immersed myself in the films that many refer to as the Golden Era of Hong Kong Action – A ton of films from the 80’s to the early 90’s revolving around the Big 3: Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao. Those VHS TAPE RENTALS became my library and set the bar extremely high for martial arts action. My friends and I used those films as both the inspiration to make our own films and for the standard of action that we strived to achieve.
Oh yeah, so many people around did. So, what was the first main style you trained in and what different arts have you studied trained?
I started with Hapkido and have been practicing for over 20 years. I eventually became
fascinated with Brazilian Jiujitsu and have been training in BJJ on and off for several years.
Fantastic. You are the chief instructor at The Hapkido Institute. How did you first begin in teaching martial arts? What advice would you give to anyone seeking to establish as martial arts school?
Unfortunately, I was just recently forced to close my Martial Arts School due to a huge rent raise. I was there for 9 years so it was an extremely difficult chapter in my life. I feel like I could write a book for anyone wanting to start a school, but to keep it short, I would say, “Never forget that your landlord is not your friend and plan accordingly. Best case scenario: BUY the property rather than renting!” I hate to give such a negatively charged answer but I believe planning ahead and preparing for a sudden move would benefit small business owners everywhere. No one wants to be surprised with relocating a business especially when the clientele are local.
Sorry to hear that, Dennis. Moving ahead, who would you credit as having most influenced you in the martial arts and who would you consider your heroes or inspirational figures in martial arts? A top 5 perhaps?
Top 5 is hard. It started with Bruce Lee, then Jet Li, then of course THE trio: Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Yuen Biao. But the best martial arts action films include amazingly talented villains and stunt men like Billy Chow, Ken Lo, Yusuaki Kurata, Dick Wei, Yuen Wah, Hwang Jang Lee – All of whom were HUGE inspirations to me! Richard Norton, Cynthia Rothrock and Benny Urquidez were always in a top category to me too, as they were the outsiders that broke into Hong Kong action cinema and continued to be involved in the U.S. action industry as well. And I can’t forget the U.S. side – I followed Philip Rhee, Simon Rhee, Keith Cooke & James Lew through a ton of martial arts action films during the 80’s and 90’s.
Great choices! Looking now at your career, you’re also a member of The Stunt People and have appeared in several projects of theirs, such as “Contour” and the “Rope-A-Dope” short films. How did you first become a member of The Stunt People? What are some of your most memorable experiences as a Stunt People member?
In 2004, I found out that Eric Jacobus had recently moved to the Bay Area, and I reached out to him. I told him that I also made short martial arts films with a few friends and that I wanted to join in on future projects if possible. We all started training together and the rest fell into place pretty fast! It wasn’t long before we started “Contour,” and that entire production, from pre to post, was definitely my most memorable experience as a SP Member – Mostly because it was our first FEATURE LENGTH FILM put together by a group of friends who, at that time, were doing it purely for the love of it! Which is a pretty rare occurrence, especially when considering the everyday demands of life (work, school, etc).
Well, it certainly paid off, “Contour” is a fantastic movie! You’ve also worked on a number of Bollywood films, such as “Love Aaj Kal” and the upcoming“Sultan”. Describe the experience of making action films in Bollywood.
My quick role in “Love Aaj Kal,” a romance/drama, was more of an acting role. In one scene, I played a street punk who robs the lead, Saif Ali Khan, and while it required a few hits, it wasn’t quite a “fight scene” – But Khan definitely took some hits and did his own fall! The shoot was only a few nights for us but it was a pretty surreal atmosphere as a huge number or Khan’s fans showed up to catch a glimpse of him and cheer. It was a great honor to be a part of Khan’s film history!
For “Sultan” specifically, you appear alongside such well known names in martial arts films as Marko Zaror, Marrese Crump, Ron Smoorenburg, Brahim Achabbakhe, and fight choreographer Larnell Stovall. Describe the experience of making “Sultan” alongside them.
My experience on “Sultan” was only for one day as I worked on pre-vis with Larnell and Vlad Rimburg. Vlad is currently working on Sultan in India with all the talent you guys listed above. I’m sure he’ll be able to give more insight.
Looking ahead now, you recently did stunt work on Issac Florentine’s “Close Range”. Describe the experience of making the film with Isaac, Scott Adkins, and fight choreographer Jeremy Marinas.
I only had two quick bits on Close Range but I was grateful to be included in the one-shot opening fight as long takes are always a great team achievement – the stunt team was very proud of that shot. It was great to work alongside super talented stuntmen Eddie J Fernandez, George Crayton, Jimmy Chhui, Bryan Cartago, Mario Perez, Holland Diaz and Danny Graham. Stunt Coordinator David Wald definitely deserves action credit too as he and Marinas were closely involved with all of the action throughout the film. Adkins was a pretty cool friendly guy and I really appreciated Florentine’s graceful personality – I think his being a long time martial arts practitioner helps immensely when dealing with action and his respect for everyone was easily reciprocated.
Yes, the opening fight was really something. Moving ahead, your first role as leading man came in “Barrio Brawler” (aka “American Brawler”). Describe your experience of making the film.
Marco Alvarez was more of the leading man in Barrio. I played the other lead, the younger problem brother, and we became great friends through the process! Overall, Barrio was one of the most INSANE experiences making a film. The entire film was forced to be shot in 12 days. The first edit was due 3 weeks later. The second edit was due a week after that and the Final Cut was due a week after that! The film was shot in February and Completed by May!
Fortunately, we were able to bring in stunt/friends of mine from Unlucky Stars for the fight scenes – Having familiar faces in stressful crunch time situations really helps! And it was finished as planned so we’re really proud of the outcome given the challenging circumstances.
Awesome! Well, now let’s take a look at “Unlucky Stars”. You wrote and directed the film, and appear in the role of JoshWhitman, and the film is intended as a tribute to the Golden Age of Hong Kong martial arts films in the 1980’s. Describe the process of making the film and some of the memorable experiences of making it.
The process was extremely tough as we really had no budget to begin with and somehow we all agreed that we could make a feature film with a ton of people…in three cities… while everyone had jobs and different schedules to manage. And even though the size of the cast seemed highly ambitious, it ended being one of the easier parts of production as the Martial Arts Stunt Actors were pretty much locked since the early stages, and Giovannie Espiritu, who played Amera in the film, handled the casting of all of the non-action roles.
Everyone involved had a lot of passion for making something together as a team and I strongly feel that when you assemble a group like we had, the victory of finishing the film is so much sweeter! And the motivation to keep pushing through the low budget obstacles was always very strong!
We figured a crowd funding campaign would help fund the film and it did help a bit, but as it amounted to less than half of the projected budget, we really needed to use every indie trick in the book to finish the film.
The most memorable experiences from the film were the shoots at the abandoned church and the factory. Both shoots involved more people than every other scene in the film and we were incredibly grateful that so many people devoted themselves to those shoots both in front and behind the camera! Not to mention the luck of getting everyone’s schedules lined up!
Well, we would definitely say that all that hard work and effort at lining up people’s schedules paid off beautifully – the finished film is absolutely fantastic! “Unlucky Stars” had the privilege of being shown at the 2015 Action on Film Festival, where it was nominated for several awards. Describe the experience of having the film featured at Action on Film and the response it received there.
It’s always an honor to have a film festival select your film. The team and I were very grateful as festivals give you a chance to screen your film for FREE. That helped us a lot being that our first two screenings cost more to rent the theater than we made from the ticket sales. As for the response, I was told people enjoyed it… During the show, I was super stressed out, and nervously watching from the hallway as there were several issues with playback that had me running upstairs to ask for assistance – first the volume was too low, then the screen went black but the audio continued DURING the first major fight scene and then the screen went black a second time during a dialogue scene. I could barely watch the film while I was worrying about another screen black out during the finale – Luckily that didn’t happen.
The HUGE HONOR that evening was that Richard Norton was in attendance! RICHARD NORTON! We have a nod to a fight between Norton and Sammo from “Twinkle, Twinkle Lucky Stars” so his being there was incredibly surreal, now we just need Sammo to see it!
Awesome that Richard was present there! Looking ahead, what other projects do you have coming up after “Unlucky Stars” is released to the general public?
I already have Unlucky Stars 2 written but it would need a budget substantially higher than part 1 to be properly made but it’s definitely coming! And Richard Norton is enthusiastic about joining us this time! I’m hoping that someone will see Unlucky Stars and absolutely INSIST on helping us financially but in the meantime, director Stephen Reedy and I have a new feature film in preproduction. The film would require less of a budget than Unlucky Stars 2, so we’re trying to take that next step forward as soon as possible! Eric Jacobus and producer Clayton Barber are also planning to add a third part to the “Rope-A-Dope” series so I’m definitely looking forward to that as well!
That’s amazing that Richard’s keen to join “Unlucky Stars 2”. We certainly can’t wait to see it! On that note, who would be some actors, filmmakers, and martial artists you like to work with going forward?
Martial Arts Actors: Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Jet Li, Billy Chow, Ken Lo, Yusuaki Kurata, Dick Wei, Yuen Wah, Hwang Jang Lee, Richard Norton, Cynthia Rothrock, Benny Urquidez, Simon Rhee, Philip Rhee, Keith Cooke, Chuck Jeffreys, James Lew, Mark Dacascos.
As for non-action actors I’ve always looked up to and closely followed Leonardo DiCaprio, Denzel Washington, Tom Cruise, Ethan Hawke, Jeremy Renner, Sam Rockwell, Ryan Renolds, Ed Harris, Harrison Ford, Nicolas Cage & Christopher Walken! It would be awesome to work with any of those guys!
Outside of actors and performers, I’ve been following the work of several directors in all genres that I would be incredibly honored to work with: Jon Favreau, Louis C.K., Robert Zemeckis, Guillermo Del Toro, John Carpenter, Quentin Tarantino, Guy Ritchie, Seung-wan Ryoo, Stephen Chow, Stanely Tong and of course Sammo Hung!
A huge amount of talent there! So, who do you most admire in the martial arts movies? Give us your brief views on:
One of the most charismatic martial arts actors/performers in history.
Amazing ability to both choreograph and perform fight scenes with comedy, acrobatics and creativity.
Donnie is definitely one of the more Flashy Action Heroes nowadays. I often queue up that SPL alley fight with Wu Jing for motivation. Also Yen and John Salvitti have definitely helped blend MMA into the HK screen fighting style. Interested to see how that evolves!
DRIVE!!! One of my favorite U.S. indie martial arts films! Dacascos and Alpha Stunts really blew me away with that one and I still throw it on sometimes! Super talented martial artist and acrobat. Big Fan!
A real life super hero! Seeing that guy in person really made his ability more impressive. That guy is too big to be that acrobatic.
I also met him in person at one of his demonstrations and the fact that’s he’s the opposite from Adkins in size ALSO makes him all the more impressive in person. His acrobatic ability is insane!
Biao will always be one of my all time favorite screen fighters! He always looked like he was putting 1000% into everything! AND WHAT WAS THAT AERIAL OFF OF A TWO STORY BUILDING IN SHANGHAI EXPRESS! I know there was a mat in the sand BUT C’MON!!!!
If it weren’t for Sammo there would be no UNLUCKY STARS and REALLY Sammo Hung’s films make up about A THIRD of my Martial Arts inspiration in both training and film making! A guy with his size doing what he can do and creating the catalogue of films that he has amassed is just mind blowing.
You hear that Sammo? Haha! So, what are your top 10 kung-fu movies?
In no particular order:
“Drunken Master 2”, “Millionaires Express”, the “My Lucky Stars” series “Wheels On Meals”, the “Police Story” series, “Fist of Legend”, “Once Upon A Time In China 2”, “Dragons Forever”, “Way of the Dragon”, “Five Elements Ninjas” (Super Ninjas!) A few of those were 2 or 3 movies…
Awesome choices there! Moving now on to training, what’s a typical workout for you? Is it mostly martial arts and flexibility training, do you combine weights with that too?
I tried lifting weights a long time ago but I was worried about an injury that I likely incurred from poor technique. The best exercises for me are any movements that use my own body weight. Push Ups, Pull Ups, Squats, etc.
What’s your favourite exercise and what specific or special training techniques do you like that really brings out the best in you?
Kicking and BJJ/ground sparring! I always try to train kicks with various speeds in the air as well as a heavy bag and a focus pad drills. BJJ sparring always feels like the best workout for me, especially when you roll until you have no energy left.
Oh yeah, it’ll wipe you out really fast! So, what’s the most daring stunt you’ve ever done?
Deciding to make Unlucky Stars!
Ha ha! What was your most serious injury, how did you work around it?
Worst injury during a shoot was a hamstring tear on Rope-A-Dope 2. Working around it was extremely difficult and painful. I had no choice but to will through it.
Yes, Eric mentioned that when we interviewed him. Glad to hear you were able to pull through and finish that amazing end fight in “Rope-A-Dope 2”! One that note, what do you like to do to recover from a particularly strenuous period of physical activity? What do you recommend for those leading an especially physical and demanding lifestyle?
Massage and rest seem to be the best way for me to recover. I think stretching and staying active on a regular basis are the best things I can do to keep the injuries away.
What are a couple of your favourite pieces of gym/exercise or training equipment that you absolutely love using and would recommend to others?
Only kick pads really. Getting creative with the use of pad helps me a lot. Practicing different speeds and power – Pulling or “freezing” kicks really helps with me with screen fighting.
What kind of diet do you follow?
I try to stay away from bread, cheese and soda. Super hard for me so I slip from time to time. Other than that, I try my best to eat healthy food.
Which foods do you find work for you to remain at your most energetic, are the best fuel for your workouts?
Oatmeal and bananas!
Do you take supplements, what do you recommend?
Haven’t gotten into supplements yet but I can see the benefits as they are used by some people
What’s one geeky thing that people don’t really know about you?
I find a lot of opportunities to quote lines from Ghostbusters, Bloodsport, The Rock and Enter The Dragon and I don’t care if people have no idea what I’m talking about.
Ha ha! So,if you could be a superhero, who would you be and what superpower would you most like to possess?
Wolverine! Adamantium bones, a healing factor and slow aging!
Excellent choices! What are some of your hobbies?
Snowboarding and FPS Video Games
I’m a 90’s hiphop super fan. Bone Thugs~N~Harmony, Hieroglyphics, Blackalicious, Latryx, Zion I, ATCQ, Pharoahe Monche, Blackstar, Aesop Rock, De La Soul to name a few dozen!
Favourite movies? (non martial arts)
Die Hard, Chef, Mad Max Fury Road, Seven Psychopaths, Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, Snatch, Back To The Future Trilogy, Grosse Pointe Blank, Burn After Reading, Indiana Jones TRILOGY, Do The Right Thing, White Men Can’t Jump, Naked Gun Films, Oceans Eleven (2001), Training Day, Hell Boy Films, Tremors, Terminator 2, True Lies, Independence Day, and of course Big Trouble In Little China (not quite a MA movie right?).
Awesome! Looking ahead now, what in life do you really:
- a) like?
Watching the Final Cut of a project you worked on!
- b) dislike?
Egotistical/Disrespectful/Negative Energy Martial Artists – They shouldn’t exist but they do.
Sad but true. So, what would you say is your proudest accomplishment so far?
Finishing Unlucky Stars! The journey and everything that happened during my life from inception to completion makes the completed film mean so much.
Well, it definitely turned out magnificently! So, what are you really keen to accomplish in the next 5 years?
5 new films to be a part of and/or make with my friends. Or more!
What advice would you give to martial artists who aspire to use their skills on film and television?
Get a STRONG WILLED and HONEST group together that truly supports one another and is actually excited to make each project better then the last!
Great advice! So, which warrior-wisdom quotes have shaped you up to this point, have molded you into who you are today?
“Be like water!” and “I can do it!” even though I’m not a Tanaka…
Great choices! Well, as we prepare to sign off here, what special message would you like to share with Kung-fu Kingdom readers and your fans around the world?
Strong groups and team efforts make you and your project INVINCIBLE!
If people would like to find out more about you where’s the best place to go?
Facebook (DennisRuel) or Instagram (Hapkiden)
Awesome! Thank you so much for the pleasure of this interview, Dennis. We wish you all the best in your upcoming endeavors and we can’t wait to see “Unlucky Stars 2” and the other projects you have coming up!
Thank you guys VERY MUCH for this opportunity!