Despite the many “experts” at the writer’s disposal, finding good information about martial arts can be tricky. Sure, you can pop into your local dojo, but you never know what you’ll be getting. “There is no one central governing body that regulates the criteria for what a black belt has to be, particular in America,” explains Johnson, a ninth degree black belt and current head of the National Tang Soo Do Congress. “Some organizations will give away a black belt in six months. Others require five years. So, to really get concrete information on what a black belt is and what a black belt would do in a given situation, there are so few sources.”

Johnson does recommend at least two experts who can be contacted online. The first is Judo expert Gene LeBell, who famously clobbered number five-ranked light heavyweight boxer Milo Savage in 1963 in what some call the first-ever, mixed martial arts fight. The second expect is karate black belt Fumio Demura, who acted as Pat Morita’s fighting double in the Karate Kid movies.

Alternatively, if you’re just looking for broader information about the various martial arts, have a look at the World Martial Arts Information Center, which features intel on the various styles, as well as hundreds of links, biographies and contact information for scores of reputable masters.

Kung Fu Writing
Written by Denis Faye

Pat E. Johnson returned from Korea in 1964 only to discover that few Americans practiced Tang Soo Do, the martial art he had become a devotee of while overseas.

Eventually, he did run into a fellow black belt in the obscure discipline at a tournament. The two hit it off and his new friend invited Johnson to look him up should he seek his fortunes out west, so when Johnson moved to Los Angeles, he gave his buddy Chuck Norris a call.

That’s how he got started in the movies.

Johnson’s first gig was as a stuntman and actor in Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon. He then went on to coordinate stunts for dozens of films, including Jackie Chan’s first American effort, The Big Brawl along with To Live and Die in L.A., Batman and Robin and, most recently, Punisher: War Zone.

He also choreographed the fights for the entire Karate Kid series, the first three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles films and the Mortal Kombat series. In addition to this, he co-wrote the 1979 karate film A Force of One with Ernest Tidyman, and he was Steve McQueen’s karate teacher.

In other words, if anyone understands the intersection between martial arts and the silver screen, it’s Pat E. Johnson.

And if there’s any doubt that such an insider could possess the objectivity to discuss what Hollywood gets right and wrong regarding martial arts, when Technically Speaking asked Johnson to name an example of something on the wring side, he pointed out Delta Force -- a movie starring none other than his old friend Chuck Norris.

What does Hollywood do wrong when it comes to martial arts?

There are extremes as to what they have gotten wrong. You have to respect the martial arts. When doing martial arts, you have to be true to the arts, but you also have to be true to the story.

Usually, the writer does not have to be a martial arts expert. Instead of the writer telling me move for move what’s going to happen in a big fight scene, I’d rather the writer just put “fight to be choreographed.”

That works if a writer has been given an assignment. If I’m writing Karate Kid V, I have the luxury of writing, “fight to be choreographed,” but if I’m writing a spec script, it’s meant to be an entertaining read. What should I do in that situation?

If a writer did not know the martial arts, he should talk to a martial artist. He should talk to someone who knows two things. One, the martial arts, and two, what a writer would have to go through.

The reason I say the “to be choreographed” idea is that there are very few directors or writers who know martial arts. When the director then reads what the writer puts in, it’s in there and ends up hampering the choreographer. I like to say that I will promise not to tell the writer how to write his script if he will promise not to tell me how to choreograph my fight scenes. He does his job, I’ll do mine.

How about the other aspects of martial arts, the history, the philosophy? What do TV and movies get right and get wrong?

The martial arts originated with Buddhist monks, 3000 years ago. These monks were holy men. They didn’t believe in violence and they would do everything to avoid violence. They developed it as self-defense.

However, I’m going to take one example Chuck Norris did in Delta Force. If you recall the opening sequence, all too often, what writers do in martial arts film is have what I call the “obligatory fight.” And the obligatory fight generally has nothing to do with the plot. It’s to show that this guy, our hero, can fight and use these particular skills.

In one of the earlier sequences, Chuck Norris was sitting in a Chinese restaurant when three young, punk kids come in. They started making a lot of noise, and they badger this old, Chinese man who’s a friend of Chuck Norris. So Chuck Norris comes over, and he beats the crap out of these three young kids.

It was the wrong thing to do.

If I’d either written or choreographed it, I would have had Chuck walk over to the guy with the biggest mouth, place his hand on the guy’s shoulder and put some pressure on a pressure point at the clavicle. You can see the guy react in pain, and Chuck says in a very calm voice something like, “You know, Mr. So-and-so is just trying to do his job. You don’t want to give him a hard time, do ya?” When the kid’s friends get up, he puts a little more pressure on it and says, “Would you please ask your friends to sit down?” and the guy says, “Ahhhh! Sit down! Ahhhh!” And he lets the kid go and he walks back to his table.

That, to me, would have said so much more about Chuck Norris and the true spirit of the martial arts, as opposed to walking over, losing his cool and beating the crap out of three kids who were not worthy opponents.

All too often, we get that obligatory fight that has no meaning, discredits our hero and discredits the martial arts more than it helps and enhances or really demonstrates what the martial arts are all about.

Do you have any examples where you feel martial arts were handled respectfully?

Actually, it’s very hard to say this, but the Karate Kid films really handled it the best -- and I hate to say that because I did them.

But you’re not really bragging because it was the writing that drew you to the project.

Yes, yes. I was very fortunate in the first three of them that Robert Kamen was the writer and Robert Kamen was a black belt.

Are there any other things you’d love to see in a martial arts movie that you’ve not seen?

The ideal martial arts movies to me are Jackie Chan’s. Jackie is a reluctant hero. He’s trying to avoid the fight all the time, and really, that’s the philosophy of the martial arts, trying to avoid the encounter. You don’t want to get physical, and that’s how Jackie plays it, although he plays it rather comically, which fits his style, but he’s doing the right thing. So if someone wants to see the way a true martial artist should respond to aggression, Jackie is the one to see.

How do you work these philosophies into your choreography?

When I put a film together, the first thing I do is to read the script itself. I don’t try so much to get the physical aspects of what’s going on because, again, the writer can’t really tell me what he wants because it’s probably not the right thing anyway, but I try to find out who the character is. And trying to get into the character’s head, how would the character respond in a situation.

I always try to take the set and environment into consideration. I try to utilize that as much as I can. I also try not to step out of what’s really true to the situation. Like, with the Ninja Turtles, I had the turtles using some nunchakus, but I had them pick up a set of sausage links and use those as nunchakus, so they weren’t really lethal because they’re just hard meat. I liked the idea of using these chakus, but I did not go to the idea that these turtles would do something that vicious, like clubbing someone with real nunchakus.

So a writer working on a martial arts script shouldn’t just have their lead kick butt, they should actually look to character to see how they would fight.

That’s exactly what I’m saying. It’s been very successful for me.