In this episode of ‘BMBR Interviews’, we welcome writer Meagan Glaser to a discussion of her role in creating the outstanding ‘Ninja The Mission Force’. We shall also discuss the pioneering ninja-lunatic Godfrey Ho, and ninjas in general.
Meagan Glaser works as an writer, production designer, and actress having worked on numerous productions including the awesome video-game based satire ‘Press Start Adventures’, as well as many other works including the upcoming comedy ‘Jesus Bro’.
But today, we’re all about the Ninja, as Meagan is the genius writer behind the utterly hilarious Ninja The Mission Force.
‘Ninja The Mission Force’ is a web-series comedy that satirises the mighty Godfrey Ho ninja movies of the 1980’s. For those of you who are not aware of the work of Godfrey Ho (shame on you), he has been described as the Ed Wood of Hong Kong, whose film-making techniques included splicing often several movies into one incoherent mess, usually including his own bizarrely put together action sequences of brightly coloured, westernised ninjas with names like Gordon, Rodney, Bruce, and Alan. Ho’s movies are a wonder to behold, in only that way a poorly dubbed, nonsensical ninja movie could be.
Godfrey Ho, and his production company IFD Films spent the best part of two decades churning out well over 100 movies that became a unique and insane catalogue of chop-shop nonsense unmatched in even the frantic world of Hong Kong martial arts cinema.
For more on this bizarre and legendary film-makers history, I advise reading Den of Geeks excellent article on the man behind the myth.
But first, let’s consult the brain that gave us the mighty ‘Ninja The Mission Force’, and see what ninja secrets we can uncover!
Greetings Meagan. Welcome to BMBR!
Please explain for us all what the hell is this all about?
I don’t know. What’s a ninja? Just a fairytale…
I’ve heard they are exciting! But why so Ninja? Are you hiding something?
I think a better question is why is everything else NOT so Ninja?
Probably not enough multicoloured table cloths, but I see your point. However, my sources tell me you disguise your true ninja identity. Tell us a little bit about your background as a writer.
Well this is embarrassing…I don’t have one, really. I’m like tons of other folks, yearning to feel like we can use the term “writer” without feeling like frauds.
But I’ve always wanted to write. Got a minor in it in college, play with it in my spare time, but mostly any writing I did pre-NTMF was writing copy for marketing departments I worked for.
You seem to have done a lot of work with someone called ‘Ed Glaser’. Did you find it weird that you both shared a love of all things Ninja, and the same name, or are you related or something?
You found out my secret! Curses!
The short version is, I wouldn’t have ended up stealing his last name all ninja-like if we didn’t share a very, very similar sense of humor/type of madness. Consider this: we met because I dropped in unexpectedly on a mutual friend who had invited Ed over to show him the unreleased Roger Corman ‘Fantastic Four’ movie.
Good Christ that movie is terrible. Yup, he’s a keeper.
“You got these sort of mystical, but not fairytale mystical, super elite warriors that nobody knew much about…so writers felt free to make up all kinds of “exotic” crap knowing nobody would call them out on it.“
So…Ninja movies. It’s pretty specific. Where did this whole film genre come from?
It really all started with Cannon films and ‘Enter the Ninja’. Which prompted IFD to create ‘Ninja Thunderbolt’. You got these sort of mystical, but not fairytale mystical, super elite warriors that nobody knew much about. And I think that in the 80’s most people knew as much about Japanese culture as about…Mars…so writers felt free to make up all kinds of “exotic” crap knowing nobody would call them out on it. Ninjas became these incredible characters, mythical superheros and supervillains. And since they usually were disguised it was easy to get one person to play the fighting ninja and another to play their out-of-costume equivalent if you wanted. It had all the fun of a genre fantasy picture without almost ANY of the budget problems of genre pictures like that.
So what were your goals when creating NTMF?
My goal was to make people laugh more than they expected, and to create something that GH fans would really appreciate. The whole series is basically one giant nerdy in-joke. I haven’t gotten a ton of feedback on it, but the people who have seen it and reached out really seem to enjoy it. So that makes me happy. It would break my heart if GH fans hated it or worse, resented it.
Not a chance.
The NTMF series is an incredibly well produced work, which could not have been a small task. Tell us a bit about the production?
So, we started with some research into public domain movies that might make good B-plots. I needed to have some options to make things work. Ed got final say- he wanted a good mix. Then I’d write up a series treatment, which was just a paragraph summary of what the episode would be about, what the B movie would be, what the B plot would be etc. Depending on what ideas he had for locations, actors, and the plot arc, Ed would re-arrange episodes or ask for a swap of the B plot. This was our chance to roughly plan how things would go, and to agree on the feel of the series as a whole. Although I had started out with a good idea of what Ed wanted, and quite a few notes we had made, a lot of the more bizarre elements were a surprise waiting for him in the series treatment. Gordon’s wife being a series of VHS tapes is a good example of that.
Once Ed approved the treatment, I started working on scripts. I would take the chosen B movie and do a bit of a rough edit of the footage to make sure I knew how it would be spliced into the episode. The top priority was the “links” between our characters and the B plot characters. If we couldn’t come up with a way to make that work, the episode was dead. So I had to have a proposed idea of how to pull that off for Ed to start working on location possibilities.
The B movie sections of the script were usually written first, and it always started with editing the movie itself. Once I knew how the B movie would pan out, I’d write the A plot. Then the script would go to Ed for notes, back to me for a re-write…we usually only did a few passes on a script, although we kept fine tuning all the way through. One of the benefits of having your writer also do a lot of prop and costume work is that they stick around for the whole process and can do/approve rewrites on the fly.
Once scripts were pretty solid, we had to really work out locations, actors, props, costumes…all the annoyingly tangible problems of movie making. Locations and actors would dictate the actual shooting schedule, which was tight. About a week to shoot the whole thing. Ed was very involved in the props and costumes, so that was a very back and forth process as well. There was always a struggle to try to pull of ridiculous things, convincingly, with no money. And I am a huge lover of visual gags, so whenever I could I would inject more jokes into the scenes. Oversized coffee mugs, painting a ninja headband on a mona lisa poster, etc.
You clearly put an exceptional amount of effort into NTMF. Considering the complexity of it all, how long would each episode actually take to complete?
Because of all the pieces involved it’s really hard to say. We filmed all of our ninja fights back to back, and the office type scenes were all filmed together as well. So the whole series was filmed in a week…well, a week for non-action and a week for action, so 2 weeks. B plots took a while in editing, sound design, dubbing etc, But those were also done in batches. I’d say if we broke it down, each individual episode took a couple days to really produce, but it’s almost impossible to say. From starting to write the series treatment to final editing, the whole process for a season took a few months, maybe.
“Fatigue was a big factor on set. Because of schedules, we had to film all the ninja fights together. And our choreographer was only in town for the filming week…so all the layout of the fight, rehearsing it, and filming it had to be done on the day, on the set.“
What were the most difficult challenges when filming?
The hardest thing was having the director/producer playing the main character in season 1! Hence Cheetah Lee is season 2. Ed was taking on way too much and it caused him a lot of stress and anxiety. Other than that, fatigue was a big factor on set. Because of schedules, we had to film all the ninja fights together. And our choreographer was only in town for the filming week…so all the layout of the fight, rehearsing it, and filming it had to be done on the day, on the set. We’d get to location 1 for the day, crew would set up while talent would work with the choreographer, we’d rehearse the scene and films it until it was right…then break everything down and go to the next location. For sometimes up to four fights a day. Keep in mind, we were limited by daylight and weather since we were mostly filming fights outside! I spent a lot of nervous time watching my watch and the weather report. I wasn’t even fighting and I was exhausted after those days.
What about filming on location? I would imagine location spotting and getting the proper permissions etc would be tricky. Or was it a turn up and film on the day kind of thing?
Kinda both. We know this town pretty well, so if we didn’t have an idea for a location scripts didn’t get much past the series treatment phase. Some of them we had to get permission for, but Ed’s done that dance before. This is a university town, and getting permits for filming on their rather extensive property is a slow but straightforward process. I’ll give them credit- they require the scripts to approve filming and they still did it!
Other locations were more…um…free range sets. There’s always a bit of nervousness about dressing people up in ninja garb and having them pretend to fight each other in public.
But things went ok. Oddly enough the only time police showed up was during one of our authorized shoots in a parking garage. Cops just happened to be around and stopped by to check what was going on. I couldn’t blame them. We had a guy in a yellow ninja suit and a cheese-head hat on the ground and silly string was everywhere. The police took our contact info to verify our permission to be there, asked us to clean up before we left, and that was it. I mean, they had other questions but they were just curiosity. I’d like to think we enlivened their day.
NTMF contains footage from many other B-Movie film works. Is the genre of Bad Movies/B-Movies a passion of yours outside of Ho’s work?
You betcha. My tender youth was forged by MST3K, the solace of my adulthood has been Rifftrax. Add to that Ed’s fascination with “remakesploitation” or foreign remakes of American movies and I have a decent B-movie education. Quite a few of the films we used in NTMF were already quite familiar to me, although they were chosen for their public-domain status not their quality. Which is why you get Orson Welles, Charles Bronson and Night of the Living Dead sliced up in there.
The best thing in the world to me stumbling across some hidden, awesome gem and following its trail. Case in point: putting in Ninja Death from one of those cheap “100 Martial Arts Movies” megapacks. Have you watched NInja Death I, II, and III? They are genuinely amazing. It’s the Star Wars saga of ninjas.
That is so much more fun than watching a lot of A’-list movies. Although I watch plenty of those too. I’m really just a sucker for interesting stories. If you’ve got a hook, I’m hooked.
Over-dubbing the films featured in NTMF was where a lot of the comedy of NTMF shone through the most. How did you develop this idea? Do you feel like you learned more about Godfrey Ho’s methods exploring this technique?
That was part of the plan for NTMF from the very beginning. It was mostly a way to make the series more like Godfrey Ho’s work. The small, small group of people he could get to dub for him is a pretty distinctive feature and adds a comedy all of it’s own. At this point Ed can sometimes figure out which actor was doing what voices in a GH movie even if he’s never seen it before. I don’t know if anybody found it as funny in NTMF, but it was a funny concept. Plus it saved on having to recruit people to do voices! The two people who are never hard to schedule are me and Ed, so we did all the voices.