Written by Eric Jacobus, star, writer, co-director, and editor of the Rope A Dope series.
On January 12, 2015, we released Rope A Dope 2 to the world to commemorate 14 years of The Stunt People. Be sure to check it out below. I promise you’ll enjoy it.
RAD2 comes after almost a year of development, writing, production, editing, reshoots, more editing, more reshoots, a LOT more editing, test screenings, and press blasts. 2014 was an absolutely mental year because, aside from doing Beard Off, getting married, and attending to other important matters, the year was almost solely dedicated to making this 18-minute short film. It feels like a blur and all the knocks to the head seem to have made my memory a bit fuzzy, but thanks to my patented Trusty Dusty Analog TimeKeeper System® I can dig into the ether and put together a little production diary for everyone who wants to get a behind-the-scenes view at how this action-adventure-comedy-martial arts film came together.
Eric’s patented Trusty Dusty Analog TimeKeeper System® grants us the magical ability to reverse time all the way back to prehistoric 2006!
It all started with Rope A Dope 1 (please watch it if you haven’t here, all this nonsense will be slightly less nonsensical after a solitary viewing). RAD1 was produced by veteran stuntman and Olympic Taekwondo champ Clayton Barber, whose long list of credits spans from Robin’s stuntman in Batman & Robin in the 90s to acting as stunt coordinator for You’re Next and The Guest, and recently he’s been head of action in the latest entry in the Rocky Balboa franchise Creed. It made sense for me and Clayton to create the Rope A Dope series because we’re action guys making action. That’s the philosophy I’ve always followed and I intend to take it to my grave.
Clayton had received a script that involved the Groundhog Day “guy restarts his day” concept mixed with an action film, except it was a bit muddled, so he came to me and said, “Eric, why don’t we make a Groundhog Day martial arts movie?” The concept was brilliant. I wrote a script based on “Guy gets knocked out, day starts over” in two weeks, Pete Lee co-directed it with me, and it was a hit.
Eric showing Rope A Dope 1 at Ric Meyers’ Superhero Kung Fu Extravaganza in 2013 and 2014
Since I wrote villain and long-time Stunt People collaborator Dennis Ruel waking up at the end of RAD1 having the same abilities as The Dope, a sequel was inevitable. I had it in my head how this would work, but explaining it on paper was a challenge all in itself. The script took a month or so, which Clayton, Pete Lee, and I batted back and forth. Pete said the film needed to be about more than just revenge, so he came up with the awards ceremony idea, which served as the McGuffin. I also wanted to write as many gags as possible into the end fight. Much as audiences enjoyed the finale in Rope A Dope 1, they always seemed to want to laugh during the final action set piece, but never really got the satisfaction.
Clayton and I, along with the whole stunt group, teamed up with Pete’s company We Are Scandinavia based in Emeryville and brought on several key personnel including Drew Daniels as DP. We had to film our first scene in May, which was a training scene featuring the boxing coach and his sons from RAD1. They were leaving town until August, so even though we weren’t ready to film anything else until July, we needed to get their stuff out of the way first. That created a predicament I’ll get into later.
For the next two months we prepped for a 4-day stretch where we’d bang out 95% of the rest of the film. All the props, art, casting, and locations needed to be sorted out, so we brought on local line producer Vicki De Mey to handle the nitty gritty while Clayton dealt with the business end and Pete and I prepped our shot lists.
I also took to the gym to pre-viz both the montage fight scenes and the final fight. This was a step we didn’t take in RAD1 and it cost us a lot of time. This time we also had 9 “loops” to film versus 6 in the original, so we opted to do single-take long shots for each day of fighting. We used maybe 30% of the pre-vizzed choreography, but the important stuff, like which weapons were to be used and what tone we wanted to strike, largely stayed the same. The finale pre-viz was the same.
July 10th came around and we began filming in the Victory Warehouse, the same warehouse that we used in Death Grip. Clayton Barber and Freddie Poole flew in from Texas to oversee the shoot. We had production designer Margaux Rust watch Rumble in the Bronx and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original film) to get inspiration as to how to decorate the set. We plugged in the arcade cabinets, hung some tarps, and Drew lit the hell out of the place and we had our “Bad Guys’ Lair”. The first day was dedicated solely to getting all the non-action Lair shots out of the way. This was also the only day we had Ken Quitugua, who played “Kimo” the gang leader. Margaux was also tasked with re-creating Den’s room from RAD1 in the back room of Victory. She nailed it.
Filming was complicated by the fact that so many “loops” had to be covered, and “Den”‘s loops were odd-numbered. This was all clear in my head because I had spent months developing the script, but everyone else would get lost. So I’d say “We’re on day 3” but nobody knew whether it was Den’s day 3 or Dope’s day 3 or the MOVIE’s day 3… it was a mess. So we created a chain of command – I kept the numbers straight and outlined the motivations (“Den, it’s the second loop, prep for the kick this time” or “Den, it’s the fifth loop, be cocky”). This way Drew could focus on his camerawork and Pete could focus on directing.
Day 2 was “the end fight.” It might sound crazy, but at first we shot the entire end fight in a single day, with a different finale between me and Dennis. Dennis couldn’t arrive until 4pm, which gave us about 8 hours to get through everything up to his fight. Shaun did his fall through the table, Eric Nguyen bounced me off the corner three times, and we went into the back room to do the pan fight.
The pan fight was the most painful part of the shoot, and you’d never know it from the final cut because all the painful stuff was cut out. There’s a scene where I hold the pan over my head and they start smashing their sticks on top of it, trying to get through. Tiger Claw lent us a bunch of weapons for this shoot, and I gave the guys various sticks and whatnot, and sometimes one would sneak through and hit my face, or my head or my knuckle. The Dope goes through a dizzy spell like in RAD1 where he hears ringing in his head and almost wakes up, but it’s an egg timer that’s ringing. I back everyone away and smash the egg timer and return back to normal. Sounds funnier than it was. You cut stuff like that.
People ask me how I still managed to flip the egg at the end of the pan fight. Call it movie magic. Pete created the bottle gag on the fly, which we wrestled with in the editing room but ultimately kept because audience responses were always so positive. Throwing the pool ball to the back of Thomas’s head required about 30 takes. During lunch, Ed Kahana and I threw together three sets of choreography for the pool cue fight, and I thought it’d be funny if chalk were still on the tip of the stick and that’s how I beat him. We tried to use real chalk but we couldn’t get it to stay on the top of the cue, so we uttered the four bad words of indie filmmaking – “Fix it in post.” Fortunately VFX artist Alan Cecil did it perfectly.
We looked at the clock and realized we only had 90 minutes to shoot this entire fight with Dennis in the boxing ring. We fell back on a pre-viz video we had shot a few weeks earlier, rushed through it, and finished before a band came in and took over the space. We walked away feeling we hadn’t accomplished what we wanted, but we had managed to shoot a 6-minute action scene in one day.
Day 3 was all of the alleyway scenes, which took place in West Oakland. Most of the day comprised of “loops” 1-5, which were more complex setups involving closeups, dolly shots, and all that. It got hot too, which is why I take off my jacket on Day 6 when I have the golf club. This was actually the time when we decided to do single takes for the fight scenes to give them a more video game-like feel. Plus it was the only way we’d finish on time. The weapons we had were real too, because as indie filmmakers we thrive on authenticity (lies – we couldn’t afford prop weapons), and it turns out that pulling hits so they looked real without clocking anyone in the face with a metal golf club or a frying pan is really hard. This was also a time when we could experiment with the weapons since we hadn’t filmed all of the montage yet, and based on which weapons we chose we could sculpt the rest of the unshot scenes around those. This became key later on.
We also shot a fight using an umbrella, which broke, so we couldn’t use all the footage. You’re not missing much though, since that choreography became the pan choreography. By then my forearm was shot and I could barely hold the pan straight, let alone pull hits. We did about 20 takes of the final bit when the pan drops on my head, which meant 20 welts on my head on top of whatever head trauma I had gotten the previous day. And the day didn’t end there – Jaunt came by with an Oculus 3D camera and filmed a short 360 degree fight scene with us as the sun set. Hopefully Oculus owners will be able to see it some day.
Day 4 was the last day of a harrowing 4-day stretch of filming, and it was the easiest. This was the day when the Dope wakes up, the Skateboarder knocks him down (played by my cousin Danny DeGregorio who we realized mid-day could skate and therefore do justice to the character, and my wife provided his helmet), and the town celebration committee, headed by the Mayor played by Boots Riley (creator of Magic Clap from RAD1), waits in anticipation for the Dope’s arrival. We shot in Boots’ house again, just like in RAD1, and filmed 8 “loops” of the Dope waking up, some of which we didn’t even use in the final cut. We did one where the newspaper hits a fake version of the Dope, which is revealed as an Escape from Alcatraz gag, the Dope beats up the newspaper and runs out half-naked again like in RAD1, but it never quite played right. So we cut that too.
We did our skateboard gag, and normally being a terrible aim I nailed Danny upside the head with the newspaper on take #2. Also in this scene, I’m wearing solid black slacks which magically become blue and black workout pants in the next scene. Movie magic! The awards ceremony was shot at the library park in Oakland. I came up with an alternate opening to the film where the Dope dreams of the awards ceremony, only to be slapped by Mayor Boots with a newspaper, waking the Dope up as he’s beaned in the head with the newspaper flying through the window. It was cute, but ultimately too confusing in the edit. Viewers didn’t know if it was real or not, which was understandable given the context of the Rope A Dope universe. Finishing up here meant most of the film was wrapped, and all we had to do was shoot the second half of the Dope’s training montage… or so we thought.
We took a much-needed break from the intense 4-day shoot. I did a rough assembly of the film, and everything was good except for two things – the end fight in the ring wasn’t good enough, and the training montage we had shot with Jacob, Josh, and Sergio 2 months earlier had a major continuity error – my hair. Look at it, it’s like HALF the length it was in the other scenes! I looked nothing like the Dope I played through the rest of the movie, so that needed to be re-shot. This seemed like a blessing in disguise, since the training footage just wasn’t as good as we wanted and didn’t really relate to the action we had already shot anyway.
We regrouped on August 21st for Day 5 of shooting, which would prove to be something of a fateful day in Stunt People history. The plan was to spent the first half of the day in front of Boots’ house in Oakland, the same exterior as in RAD1, shooting the training montage with the weapons master, a bag lady played by veteran Chinese Wushu teacher Xena Xu, and then head to Treasure Island to reshoot the training scene with the Munoz family. The shoot was going swimmingly, with 12 of us taking up the street in front of Boots’ place. All of a sudden, two 20-somethings wearing hoodies and blue jeans walked straight through our shoot, obviously up to no good. We tried to placate them with some free food from our craft services, and they accepted it, but they kept coming back to ask what we were filming. I tried to coax them away from our shoot, and it worked for a little while. Then about 3 hours into the shoot, I heard one of them say, “Don’t move.” I turned around and he was aiming a pistol at me. I did what any good martial artist would do – I did nothing. The other guy ran in, grabbed the $60,000 Red camera and tripod, and they ran off down the street. The whole ordeal was over in 5 seconds, maybe even less. The police took our statements but there was no way we were getting that camera back. The day was a wash, we all felt like crap. There was nothing we could do. Everyone on Facebook was very supportive, which is what we needed.
We didn’t let a little thing like that stop us, though. On September 16th, Day 6, we picked up shooting again on Treasure Island, CA, this time with Christopher Villa, a professional weapons choreographer out of Santa Cruz, as our training master. We brought Stunt People member Jamerson Johnson for security, which we ended up really needing. Just like Oakland, there were people driving around Treasure Island casing the place for equipment they could steal. Turns out this is a pretty popular thing for thugs to do. A car pulled up and watched us while we filmed, and JJ stood guard while we hurried through the scene. We ended up utilizing a lot of the gags from the end fight that we had already shot, like the “samurai” pan hit on Jason’s face and the “cloud sweep” with the broom that I do in the alley. That’s how good montages are made anyway – film your end fight first with plenty of gags that seem to come out of nowhere, and then shoot your montage so the gags pay off. We left the waterfront and filmed some training footage with the Munoz family for 90 minutes before it got too dark, and called it a day.
With all the training footage shot, we assembled an edit and, following Clayton’s demands to bump up the pace of the action, decided to re-shoot the finale in the boxing ring with Dennis. He and I got together with Pete Lee for two nights at our gym and rehearsed our fight scene, prepped Victory Warehouse, and we were ready to shoot this bad boy.
We filmed the final fight scene on October 13, Day 7. Clayton and Freddie flew in again to supervise the action. As Drew and Margaux were prepping Victory Warehouse, returning it to its previous state, Dennis and I warmed up in the back, when Dennis felt something pull in his leg. When we did a nod to No Retreat No Surrender by having him do the splits on the ropes, he felt it pull even more, and when he started kicking and it was giving him a lot of pain, we knew it was bad, but Dennis toughed it out and you’d never know how bad it was by looking at the performance he pulled off. We spent about 10 hours in the ring re-shooting the entire end fight, and the final product speaks for itself.
Editing Rope A Dope 2 was a major effort. We went through about 20 drafts of the thing, starting from a 25 minute cut with an extra “loop” and extended gags to the trimmed down 16 minutes + credits version that we eventually released. Pete and I screened the film to multiple audiences and took notes on which jokes worked and which didn’t. Clayton passed it off to multiple established comedians, writers, producers and stuntmen for feedback. We took every note to heart.
We made some painful decisions, one of them being cutting the Munoz family from the edit, and a lot of gags were discarded as I listed earlier. Coloring, sound, and visual effects (mostly removing dirt and fibers from the footage from Treasure Island) took up the majority of December’s post production timeline. We sent Rope A Dope 1 to multiple festivals before posting it on YouTube, but we decided that you, the audience, should see Rope A Dope 2 first.
Thanks for all the support. I’m so stoked for what’s going to come from this. More updates as I get them. Until then…