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Veteran Filmmaker William Lee Talks about His Obscure Analog Era Martial Arts Flick TREASURE OF THE NINJA and Gets A Kick out of the Massacre Video Limited Edition VHS Re-Issue!

While recently running one of my routine groovy stuff scans on the world weird web, a post from fellow Tapehead and indie filmmaker Matty Calhoun nearly yanked my eyes right outta my gourd. The images he unleashed featured one of the most analog alluring hand drawn video covers I'd ever seen. It emitted a visual essence that screamed next-level obscurity and utter low-budget excellence. I had to find out what Treasure of the Ninja was all about. After a quick chat with Matty, turns out he was in touch with the maker of this slab of martial arts magnetic magic (and there were only about 25 copies kickin' around to boot!), so my curiosity was quenched when Matty was kind enough to connect me and conduct this here interview with filmmaker William Lee. Additionally, it turns out I wasn't the only one who was bewitched by this amazing analog era rarity: owner and operator of Massacre Video Louis Justin has cooked up a limited edition re-animation of Lee's low-budget ass-kicker exclusively available at this weekend's Tape Eaters VHS convention in Ann Arbor Michigan. Read on, my fellow Videovores, and don’t forget to grip up your nunchucks…


William Lee himself havin' some fun behind the camera. DIG IT.

Can you tell us a little bit about your film making background? How did you come to create Treasure of the Ninja? I was born in New York. My father was a World War 2 veteran and aircraft engineer and moved the family westward when I was 6 years old, but not way out west, as in La La land , but Ohio to be exact. After seeing Kung Fu film legend Bruce Lee on screen for the first time in 1974, I asked my father to purchase a movie camera so that I could replicate the famous martial artists' exploits--albeit on a smaller scale. Within a year of picking up a movie camera, I received my first film award at the Eye Music Festival of San Francisco. Since then, I have produced films for more than 40 years. Treasure Of the Ninja was spawned from a film called Treasure of Bruce Lee, which featured a Bruce Lee look alike named Bruce Le (Yes, one E). The script was a collaboration between me and the film's co star Constance Lester. I, like most other action film fans, was very intrigued by Raiders of The Lost Ark. I thought it might be cool to do a martial arts version.


Lee with a watchful eye in TREASURE OF THE NINJA. Bad-ass, indeed.

Can you tell us a little bit about the production? Was this shot-on-video? Another format? Since most of us have never seen it, what’s the film all about? This was shot on film, because in 1987 video was very, very bad in terms of quality. I had grown up as a traditional celluloid filmmaker, and to me it was blasphemy to shoot on anything other than film. However, reality intrudes, and the cost of editing film was way out of the question, since editing the original stock would have destroyed the quality permanently. So we transferred the film to video, and edited on 3/4” Master edit decks. Something very unique for that era. The story is basically that: A low-budget Raiders of the Lost Ark with Ninjas.


Lee killin' it and nunchuckin' up a storm in TREASURE OF THE NINJA. Peep an awesome clip RIGHT HURR.

What about the fight scenes? Did you choreograph it all? Were these trained martial arts folks, or…? Can you tell us a little bit about filming it all? I choreograph all of my fight scenes, but in this film, had help from my friends Darren Dean (Lead Ninja), and Darin Waugh (Tribal Fighter). Many of the people in the film were from a local Jeet Kune Do school. Others were folks we just recruited and trained on the spot. I choreographed each scene, the day of filming, and shot it as we planned it out. I have never had any funding or support for my film making, so coming up with ideas on the fly was a necessity. We also used REAL weapons in these scenes, so everything you see is pretty dangerous!


William executes a most excellent Death Stomp Trifecta in this scene. Three stomps. YER OUT.

I was told that there are only about 25 copies of TOTN floating around out there. Did you have trouble finding distro for it? I self distributed the film in 1987. I simply got phone books from major metro areas like New York, St. Louis and Chicago, and sent out flyers with the basic info and poster for the film. When orders came in, I shipped them out. Again, back in 1987 distributors weren't going to just distribute your film, and in those days there was no internet. You basically had to approach major studios like Warner and Paramount, and that resulted in lots of rejection letters. Furthermore, black heroes in films were not exactly a big draw, considering Hollywood had gotten out of the Blaxploitation film genre in the late 70's.


One more totally bad-ass shot of William Lee ready to law down the hurt on any Ninja that gets in his way. If you haven't yet, WATCH THE CLIP.

The cover art is awesome, man. Who did it, and how did you know them? Darren Dean, the head Ninja was also a great artist. He did the basic layout. We then bought some parchment copy paper and simple made color copies onto the parchment paper. We cut it to fit a VHS clam shell and shipped them. Very bare bones.


The totally killer full cover artwork for TREASURE OF THE NINJA courtesy of Matty. This is straight up ass-kickin' analog awesome.

What do you think of the resurgence in appreciation and celebration for VHS? What do you think of the VHS format? Do you still have some, or is that totally looney tunes to you? I'm sure it probably has some appeal, but the bulkiness and visual quality simply do not appeal to me. I replaced all of my VHS with DVD and now Blu-Rays. Except for my collection of rare Kung Fu Films from Hong Kong, most of which are not in circulation anymore. I also have tons of old movie film from my early projects, and boxes of VHS with some of the projects I did for some TV stations in the 1980's.


An original copy of TREASURE OF THE NINJA courtest of Matty Calhoun! Dang, this RULES!

You’ll be putting Treasure of the Ninja back out with Massacre Video for a Tape Eaters 2014 exclusive VHS release. How did you get hooked up with Louis from Massacre, and what was your reaction when he asked you? I am still totally stunned anyone wants to see this stuff. It was fun for me, and a great deal of hard work and I was always proud of it. However, when DVD and HD came around, I figured people would be too jaded to spend any time or money on this stuff. I have also released a few gems on Youtube, which could not be sold on VHS because I used some copyrighted music. They include 7 Bold Dragons, one of my best old-school martial arts films.


The re-animated analog edition about to be unleashed by Massacre Video at this year's Tape Eaters! YUSSSSS.

What are you up to now? We have had half a dozen films since 2001 released worldwide, many of them available at major retailers. We just finished Architect of Chaos, in which I go back to my martial arts roots. just finished a found footage film called AC1, and in the fall, we start on Combustion Chamber. Sorry, none of these will be on VHS. I have also released Treasure of The Ninja on a special edition restored DVD at Anything else you’d like to say to all the VHS-lovin’ Videovores out there? Thanks so much for making me feel like my work during the 70's and 80's gave someone some pleasure. It would have been a shame for all of those films to never be seen by the larger public. I spent many years of my life with VHS, everything from buying feature films on video tapes, to transferring my own work, to recording music videos for my break dance routines. Although I don't see it as viable for future film making, it did have its place of importance in all of our lives and will continue to do so.

I heard that, William! I can’t wait to snag my copy of Treasure of the Ninja at Tape Eaters this weekend and finally get a full look at Lee’s low-budget martial arts masterpiece. Big analog ups to L. J. and Massacre Video for making the magnetic magic re-animation happen, and much respect to William for fighting the good cinematic fight throughout the years. We VHSalute you, William! Don’t forget to groove on over to Lee’s official movie site RIGHT HURR so you can dig on all his history and future film projects. Maybe if we coax him enough, he’ll put some more of his movies back out on tape! Hey, it could happen,man! I also want to thank the too groovy Matty Calhoun for the radical connection to William, and urge you to peep the trailer for his upcoming collection of films soon to be committed to video glory by Psycho Video. Stay tuned to this slab o’ analog-obsessed internet, ‘cause you know we’ll be tape talkin’ about it once it’s ready to roll into your VCR! YES!

Groove and Groove and ROUNDHOUSE KICK TO THE FACE.

Josh Schafer

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