David Worth is a tough, blue-collar filmmaker whose work as both a cinematographer and director has helped boost the careers of some of Hollywood’s highest-caliber badasses like Clint Eastwood, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Cynthia Rothrock. I sat him...
As mainstream cinema focuses its attention on the latest CGI accomplishments and the production of remakes, I felt it was important to remember the individuals who paved the yellow brick road. So I set out with my Polaroid camera to photograph and interview disappearing Hollywood, the version that matters most to me—the directors, actors, special-effects artists, producers, even composers who’ve had great influence but have since fallen under the radar. This is a record and a reminder of the true soul of the movies.
Cinematographer / Director
Kickboxer, Bloodsport, Lady Dragon, Bronco Billy, Any Which Way You Can
David Worth is a tough, blue-collar filmmaker whose work as both a cinematographer and director has helped boost the careers of some of Hollywood’s highest-caliber badasses like Clint Eastwood, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Cynthia Rothrock.
Influenced by the history of cinema, David stays true to the philosophies put forth by the Italian neorealists, believing films should be made by any means necessary and kept as original as possible. A major advocate for the future of independent cinema, David continues to make films and teach courses to film students around the world. In 2008 he published his first book, The Citizen Kane Crash Course in Cinematography. While most textbooks put me to sleep, this fictionalized account of how Orson Welles learned the art of cinematography over a scandalous lost weekend proved the director of Kickboxer must be a real cinema rebel.
How did seeing a broadcast of Citizen Kane inspire you to pursue a career in filmmaking?
I was home alone one afternoon in high school when Citizen Kane came on television. Despite all of the commercials and watching the film on a relatively small screen, I got it. It blew my mind. It put me on the path. After that I was looking to become a part of something that could affect people the way Citizen Kane had. If I had known how hard it was going to be—or how fucking long it was going to take—I may have been better off being a janitor.
In 1979 you directed a gritty feature called Hollywood Knight, but the film has a few different names. On VHS, it is called Hard Knocks, but I’ve also seen it called Mid-Knight Rider. What do you call it?
It was originally called Hollywood Knight. My partner in the film, Michael Christian, was the producer, writer, and star, while I was DP, director, and editor. We covered six jobs between us and made the whole film for $150,000.
I love how raw the film is. It shows a dark reality of a down and dirty Los Angeles. What was your camera setup?
I shot it on a 16mm Eclair and then we blew it up to 35mm. Unfortunately, the film didn’t go nearly as far as it should have. In 1979 there was nothing like Sundance where a little film like that could have been seen by more people. We took the film everywhere and everyone said no. The studios were only looking for big pictures with big stars. At the time there was only a small group of people making what we would now call independent movies. Jonas Mekas, John Cassavetes, and a few other people out here in Los Angeles. It was all very new and resources for screening and distributing films were limited.
By 1980 you were the director of photography on Clint Eastwood’s Bronco Billy. How did that happen?
A few years earlier I had worked on a film called Death Game with Sondra Locke and Seymour Cassel. I shot Panavision anamorphic widescreen, and Sondra thought it was the best she had ever been photographed—in my opinion her first film was masterfully shot by the great cinematographer James Wong Howe.
Now, this is how things happen in Hollywood: Sondra went from that low-budget movie to starring in The Outlaw Josey Wales where she began a 13-year relationship with Clint Eastwood. It was Sondra who brought my work to Clint’s attention. Hollywood isn’t like a law firm where you work your way up. You get breaks based on who you know and having the right film at the right time. After I sent Sondra a 35mm print of Hollywood Knight, Clint sent me the script for Bronco Billy.
What was your approach to the cinematography in Bronco Billy?
A wonderful accident happened when I was editing Death Game. Before nonlinear editing, we edited on the Moviola, and before going to a final mix you had to separate the actors’ dialogues. Between each track, the editor would put a strip of fill leader, which was just recycled 35mm prints. I was running low and called the lab to ask for some more. They sent me a box of used film, but I soon discovered they had sent me a print of Clockwork Orange with French subtitles. I was such a fan of Mr. Kubrick, and now I had a print that I could study! This was before VHS and DVD, so you can imagine how lucky I was to be able to run the film forward and backward and study every cut and every choice made by the cinematographer, John Alcott. Through owning that print, I discovered something that changed my life. You know the scene where Alex kills the woman with a giant phallus? Well, the camera spins and chases her around with an 18mm lens and you can’t see one movie light in the whole scene. I just couldn’t quite figure it out, until one day I realized the lights were built into the set. I immediately adapted that technique to the way I worked as a cinematographer.
I brought a lot of those techniques to the way I shot Bronco Billy. We built a huge circus tent, and put in practical theatrical lights like the kind you would see at any carnival or road show. Then we used follow spots to get the action. While shooting I would wake up, flip a switch to turn on the lights, and just start calling out the f-stops. It was a very fast way to work, and we came in under time and under budget. I did the same thing on Bloodsport.
How did you come to direct Kickboxer?
As the director of photography on Bloodsport, I averaged 70 setups a day with 35mm Panavision cameras. The producers noticed how well I worked with the crew, and I kept nudging them to let me direct the next one. When we were preparing to make Kickboxer I worked on storyboards and casting for six months with no money before they officially hired me as director. We shot Kickboxer in Hong Kong and Bangkok in just 36 days and on only 150,000 feet of film.
Bloodsport and Kickboxer made Jean-Claude Van Damme a huge star. How did they boost your career?
My phone still didn’t ring. I think people passed it off as just a martial arts film. That’s how it is sometimes.
Even though martial arts films usually don’t get nominated for Academy Awards, I don’t think they are in a lesser genre. They have a loyal fan base and impact viewers directly. Every time I leave a martial arts movie everyone is walking out punching and kicking.
The cult following is huge, but it’s outside of Hollywood, and they usually aren’t even made in America. Martial arts films are not part of the system.
You continued making martial-arts movies after Kickboxer, directing Lady Dragon starring Cynthia Rothrock in 1992 and Lady Dragon 2, as well as American Tigers.
We shot Lady Dragon in Indonesia and it almost killed me, but like Nietzsche said "what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger." Cynthia Rothrock did that movie with no craft service. Talk about badass! I love martial arts films the way I love any film that comes across my desk.
What made you a warrior for independent films?
Independent filmmaking actually began with the Italian neorealists after World War II. They didn’t get together like Dogma 95 and say “these are the ten rules.” They were all big directors in Italy—Roberto Rossellini, Luchino Visconti, Vittorio De Sica—who wanted to do nothing more than make films. Their country was in ruins. The studios were bombed into oblivion, there was 25 percent unemployment, and they had to use old dupe negative, short ends, and things like that to put their films together. They got out into the street and started making movies with the things they had. They used available light, natural locations, first time or nonactors, inexpensive equipment, and organic episodic scripts—not the normal boy-meets-girl, boy-loses-girl formula that’s in your typical movie. These films astounded the world because they were thinking outside the box and they were real.
Same goes for French new wave—they were proud to warp the influence from mainstream Hollywood pictures.
They were going out with lightweight handheld cameras filled with Ilford short rolls, making films in the streets and shrugging off the big Hollywood productions. Talk about breaking the rules. Jean Luc Godard drove a stolen truck over all the rules of filmmaking—just put it in reverse and backed up over them again.
Why do you think it’s important for people today to make films outside of the Hollywood system?
Who wants to work with a committee of people who have just come out of law school or people who want to piss in a jar because they think it will make it better? I’ve worked with some really big names in Hollywood, but right now I’m more interested in seeing what people are doing with their DSLRs. I’m tired of these million-dollar CGI films. If I never see another superhero CGI fucking movie in my life it will be too soon. What a bunch of beautifully produced horseshit! Green Lantern, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, are you fucking kidding me? How devoid can film get? The expansion of independent film may be the only opportunity people get to see something that has a pair of balls.
Previously - Denise Crosby