A few weeks ago, Lou Reed, Ren Guang Yi and Stephan Berwick granted me an interview after I imposed on their dinner plans. They were heading out for a quick bite prior to the screening of their short flick, Final Weapon (2010) at the Anthology Film Archives when I interjected and introduced myself. My good friend and occasional colleague, Eric Norcross, Media Director of their New Filmmakers series, invited me.
I found Stephan, Lou and Ren inside the Anthology Theater as sound checks were being conducted and overheard them planning to grab dinner before the Final Weapon screening happening at 8:30pm. To my personal shock and disbelief, I got invited to dinner.
The 20-minute short is inspired by weapons of mass destruction. It examines the existing relationship between the users and keepers of such all-consuming power and the sacrifices involved in maintaining that relationship. This was the first film venture for both Stephan (martial artist/writer/director) and Ren, a world-renowned Taijiquan master currently teaching and residing in NYC. Lou Reed supplied all of the music and makes an appearance in the film.
**Ren had to teach a Tai Chi class before the screening and departed soon after we begun the interview. Due to restaurant noise, Master Ren’s portion of the interview is inaudible. We have not had the chance to reschedule at the time of this writing.**
Planet Ill: How did you meet Ren?
Stephan Berwick: Well, I’ve known Ren for a long time; I first met him in 1990 or early ’91. I just moved back [to the US] from Hong Kong and I heard from the Chinese martial arts circle, that I was already a big part of, that there was a Chen family-trained Taijiquan master in New York on the East Coast. So I went there to check it out with my dad. As soon as I saw him I said, “This is it!”
Planet Ill: How did you get into Taijiquan and martial arts? Where did this come from?
Stephan Berwick: Oh I’ve been doing martial arts since I was a little kid, 9-10 years old. Like I said, I just came back from Hong Kong where I was in movies for a few years, so I was already into this stuff very deeply. I was already known professionally at that time.
Lou Reed: You were the bad guy
Stephan Berwick: Well, you know, as far as the movies go yeah, but in general
Lou Reed: You were a villain.
Stephan Berwick: And so, master Ren gave me just the inspiration that I was calling for, he was calling to me for quite a while…he woke up something else inside me.
Planet Ill: How did you meet Ren? Correct me if I’m wrong but you’ve been doing Tai Chi for 30 years?
Lou Reed: Yeah, but not his. He is a physical genius, a physical genius. The way he moves his body is beyond belief. He does it just in front of you, anyone, no matter what person it is, when they see him doing it, they sign up immediately. My point of view if I can do one thousandth of that thing, the day I saw that, I said to myself, “I am in the wrong part of town and I should have been over here.” And then the word was that the class was so hard and that each step, each movement was controlled. So we just snuck in and started to get to know him and the other people there and enrolled.
Planet Ill: How long before you met Ren had you been doing the other types of Tai Chi?
Lou Reed: 20-25 years, uhh 25-27 years.
Planet Ill: When did you discover it initially and how?
Lou Reed: I wanted a form of exercise that was useful. Not just cardio, I wanted, I figured if I was going to do that, it should also be like self-defense and it should be beautiful, that led me to eagle claw, that led to Wu style but it’s nowhere near this.
*Stephan and Lou met through Ren, they were his Tai Chi students. The three are now friends and collaborators.
Planet Ill: How do you pose the question in the film, which is more important, the keepers of the weapon or the users?
Stephan Berwick: I am so happy you asked that question. I can’t even tell you because that’s kind of the intellectual basis or at least frame of the film. If we have an opportunity to develop this into a feature film it would be a lot more of an obvious story if you will. But essentially you have, if you think of people with nuclear weapons, you have people who are actually tasked with launching the nukes, we also have people who were tasked with protecting them. Who is really more important? So you have to have that balance between protectors and the holders of that devastating force.
Planet Ill: So, what I wanted to ask, the music that was selected for this film talking to Stephan now – you selected the music? I thought Lou selected the music. So what I wanted to actually ask if any of the music selected …
Lou Reed: I gave him access to certain things, and he looked at it and I said, “Yes, no, yes, no, or whatever”.
Planet Ill: Are any of these selections from Metal Machine Music?
Lou Reed: No
Stephan Berwick: No
Planet Ill: OK. The world tour for NYC man, is this when you first realized that Ren could be a movie star? When he performed Tai Chi to your performances?
Lou Reed: I always thought Master Ren was so exotic looking and so photogenic and because he’s got such total control over his body, he could mimic and do practically anything, that he was made for movies.
Planet Ill: My question is why did you decide to use vintage music of Lou’s instead of having him write something new?
Lou Reed: First of all, I don’t think of it as vintage.
Planet Ill: That was the way it was described.
Stephan Berwick: Yeah, yeah
Lou Reed: I told you, I told you, I told you,
Stephan Berwick: I took down a lot of stuff, she must have
Lou Reed: I’m just saying, you see what I mean?
Lou Reed: I think of it as timeless, it’s an unfortunate choice of words by some people. With 700 songs we could certainly find something that is responding to that kind of power because my music is about power.
Stephan Berwick: Yes
Lou Reed: So it was like a marriage made. All we had to do was find the ones that really did that.
Planet Ill: So, the reason I ask is because I know that you have written music for some of Ren’s instructional videos, right?
Lou Reed: Yeah
Planet Ill: So I was just kind of wondering why you chose not to do that for this film?
Lou Reed: Because the other stuff does not have a drum, and a whole band in the back of it.
Planet Ill: I see.
Lou Reed: You know, and this is analogue into digital and really has a real air and real drums,
Stephan Berwick: Something I really wanted.
Lou Reed: And I wanted that power, I wanted that thing, when he brought it in to kick like Ren could kick, except musically.
Planet Ill: What is the most personal aspect of having this film made for you, is it just sharing your love of Tai Chi, is it about sharing its beauty?
Lou Reed: It is a passion being presented to other people trying to show them the beauty and the aesthetic value of all of this in 20 minutes and trying to use sound and picture to communicate this incredible aesthetic.
Stephan Berwick: This is a refined art and discipline, this represents deep culture and how do you express it in a way that is still relevant today you know? For me, it is music of course that fuels all of that…Ren is the perfect muse for it…
Planet Ill: So what was the best experience for you out of this project? You seemed to have hit the jackpot in terms of what it was you actually wanted to do.
Stephan Berwick: Pretty much, the best part of the experience was being able to meld the high art of Lou with what I believe is the high art of martial art. Ok, that does not answer your question fully but for me, that’s what stays with me. The actual experience, the best part was doing the musical direction.
Planet Ill: Why?
Stephan Berwick: Cause I am a closet music producer guy. Closet- meaning I just love it, I wish I did that, I just love it,..I put my heart and soul personally choreographing the music to the scenes, so when you see the film you will understand just what I mean especially in one particular and pivotal scene, and for people who know Lou’s music, they frankly were shocked and blown away because one of his most famous songs “Street Hassle” I used three stanzas. From the last part of the song, middle, and the first part, to open segue and close a certain fight scene in the film and folks were like, “how, who?” and Lou himself was floored by it, and when Lou saw that, he was like “alright, let’s do that.”
Planet Ill: How did you get that idea? It just came to you?
Stephan Berwick: It just came to me.
Planet Ill: That’s a really good idea.
Stephan Berwick: I can’t even explain it… that’s why I said have this musical thing inside me but I never had an opportunity to fully exploit it and this gave me the opportunity and that’s why it was the best part for me.
Planet Ill: Now that you worked with Lou, who do you want to work with next musically?
Stephan Berwick: Oh, Jeez, wow! I would like to just keep working with Lou because he’s the inspiration for so much of everything I love in music.
Planet Ill: Are you guys best friends?
Stephan Berwick: I would say we are becoming really good friends. There is a lot of trust and comfort there between u; he’s very happy about this film, he’s very happy that his music for the first time is used to portray something that he loves, this whole Tai Chi martial arts stuff, there is a connection there between both of us that started with Ren but there is something else there it’s hard for me to explain.
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