I Got Ousted Out: Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson on Liberator and His Long Career
If you had cable in the ‘90s, you know Don “The Dragon” Wilson. A real-life world champion kickboxer, Wilson was relegated to straight to video martial arts movies in his movie career. He’s back after a five-year absence, with a role in the short film Liberator, which premiered over the weekend at the Hollyshorts Film Festival. Wilson couldn’t make the premiere because he was teaching a seminar and attending a banquet at the Masters Hall of Fame. We got to catch up with Wilson by phone and he was completely open about some shady producers on some of his movies, and his big plans for a comeback.
CraveOnline: I was surprised to see Liberator is your first film in five years? Why did you decide to take a break?
Don “The Dragon” Wilson: Well, it’s not actually a film. I guess you could call it a TV presentation.
But it’s your first project in five years.
It’s the first acting thing I’ve done, and my agent was waiting for me to do something again. I guess for a certain period of time, most of the movies were being done here in L.A. and I loved that. What happened was, after I would say 2002-2003 I was the only one left in L.A. that was still shooting movies here. Everybody was doing them overseas. Basically I’ve got two small kids and I don’t want to go for a month and a half, two months overseas. So I resisted but finally my agent calls me in the office and he shows me on paper, on his computer anyway, that I turned down more money as an actor than I’ve actually made. I’ve been acting for a long time so that’s not a good number.
That’s a very practical reason for taking a break, with your kids.
Well, the first time it was in the ‘90s and I had a son that was born in ’88. He was a small child and I literally missed his whole childhood. I was doing up to four films a year. I really was nonstop working. You know, I produce these movies so I’m in pre-production, post-production, I was selling the movies. It was the video days in the ‘90s. I didn’t really even see his childhood unfortunately. He’s 23 and he’s all right but I missed it so these kids, I didn’t want to do foreign films. They’re American films but they’re shot in foreign countries. I turned it down over and over until this year, I finally did one in Thailand in January. I was gone for two months in Bangkok but the kids are older and we’ve got Skype now so it’s not as bad.
Well, what is your character in Liberator?
Sidewinder, which is an unusual snake. It’s not like a rattlesnake. It’s a snake I’ve actually never seen, a sidewinder, but I’ve heard of them. Anyway, my character’s a martial artist.
Did you do a fight scene for this short?
You know what, I was fully expecting to. I mean, I’ve never been asked to do anything where there was no kicking and punching. That’s just my plight as an actor. I expected it but it turns out that I get in position to do some fight action, and from what I was being told on the set was they’re going to substitute my actual physical fighting for a comic book rendering of it. So I don’t really know what it’s going to look like.
They didn’t have you do motion capture for the animation? They’re just doing it themselves?
No. Fred, I’m flying in the air, as I’m recalling it, and I’m going towards Lou, and then I’m in a position to throw a kick. It really felt awkward. I’ve never been on wires before and I have a lot of new respect for Jet Li and other guys who spend half the movie up in the air. I never did it. They got me in position to fight Lou in the air and then cut. They assured me that they were going to have a famous comic book guy that’s going to do a couple of action inserts in there and that was going to be the action. This is just a teaser. This is not a finished product. This is just something to see if they can either raise the money for an actual pilot, or hopefully get green lit for a series. So it’s not really a movie and it’s not even really a pilot. They call it a presentation.
Do you wear a costume as Sidewinder?
Yes. You know, The Liberator is an old comic book character from the ‘40s. It was a World War II era comic book character, and they tried to keep some of that idea because they made us older superheroes that are done being superheroes and we’re called back for more action.
From Nedor Comics, which I’ve never even heard of, and Alan Moore even did a revival series in 2001.
I think the respectful thing to call them now is graphic novels. I was a comic book collector back when I was 10-12, but now they’re the big budget movies of Hollywood. I worked on one of the Batmans, Batman Forever. That was the tent pole movie of the year for them, so they’ve gained a huge amount of respectability when you’ve got Academy Award winning actors and nominated actors as the leads. It’s not just for kids anymore.
With your Sidewinder costume, do you somehow manage to lose your shirt?
No. [Laughs] In every movie, I’ve starred in 29 movies now, but in all the early ones, and I’m saying the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, regardless of what the story was, the plot, somewhere in there I had to figure out how to get my shirt off to have a shirts off fight scene. Preferably, the producers liked it if it was the last fight of the movie. If you go over some of these 29 movies, you’ll see a lot of shirts coming off just at the tail end of the movie. I think I’ve gotten away from that now. It hasn’t been a major topic of discussion with directors anymore.
Obviously it shows off your physique, but did it make fight scenes harder since you couldn’t wear pads?
Well, look, if you’re going to do any rolling and falling and all that, like in this movie White Tiger I had a tank top on and it was a little rough because I had to take a bunch of shots. There’s no elbow pads or anything really. Certainly if you have your shirt totally off, you can’t even have that back pad so if you’re hitting the ground, you’re actually hitting the ground. Yeah, it makes it a little more difficult but you know, the audience wants to see their lead actors, when it comes to the martial arts genre, in the ’80s and ‘90s anyway, they wanted to see that it was actually you doing it. And the shirt off, I think Bruce Lee’s the one that started it. In Enter the Dragon I think his shirt gets ripped and then he rips the rest off, so in the final action sequence in Enter the Dragon, which is kind of like the prototype for everybody else’s movies afterwards, he gets his shirt ripped off and he fights bare chested.
I think that’s why we love the homage any time it happens in a movie since.
You know, I’ve done it for a bunch of movies. Go watch the old ones, the Ring of Fires and all these Bloodfists I did. I did eight of those Bloodfist movies for Roger Corman.
I knew that but I didn’t realize there were two Ring of Fire sequels. I just discovered those.
Yeah, there were three of those. Actually one of the questions I get asked is what was your most favorite film. Ring of Fire III was, of all the movies I did. The reason for that is my five-year-old son is [in it.] On that movie I did not miss him because he was in the movie playing my son. So we were on the set together every day. He was five years old and he was on the set with my every day.
Did you ever get to do your dream project?
No, I’ve never really done [one.] I’ve coproduced these movies so I have a dream in my head, I have an idea for something I want to do and I get a writer. We write a treatment and I pitch it to a producer and get the money, we make the script and on the basis of the script, we decide what the budget’s going to be and the other actors. I’ve actually coproduced, I think I got credit for like 15 of the movies, but I actually coproduced more than that. Probably at least 20 of the films I’ve been in. So those were my dreams. I don’t see my ultimate, ultimate dream but at the time I was just dreaming about an idea I had for a film. Then I end up making it come true by getting a script. The actuality is I can pitch things just based on a treatment though. At a certain point, luckily for me, I got to lead in films. All 29 films were moneymakers. Not a single one ever lost a dime so I’ve got a good track record, and producers do seem to be trusting me.
Are you a little jealous that now the video market movies are high definition Blu-ray quality widescreen films?
Not really because I think I’m going to be moving that way with the films that I’ll be doing in the future. Every actor’s always working on several projects. I haven’t made a big deal out of it. In fact you’re the first one in the media that I’ve even mentioned it to, but two films that I was attached to and really loved both of them and actually got paid money for one of them, other actors ended up doing the movies. That’s one of the reasons [I took a long break.] I was going to try to pick one good movie, bigger budget, per year. That was what I was advised to do by people in the industry instead of doing four not so good movies a year, just do one good one. The two good ones I picked, Van Damme ended up doing one and Ray Liotta did the other one. So I got ousted out.
Which ones were they?
One of them is called The Line and it was shot in Mexico. That’s the one Ray Liotta took. They even went so far as I gave them my script notes, they rewrote it and they still went with Ray Liotta!
I imagine they took out the martial arts though?
Yeah, you know I did watch the movie. I rented it one time, probably a year afterwards, but I was just curious, I wanted to see it. It was pretty good but of course Ray Liotta doesn’t do martial art action, no. He’s a much better actor than me, no doubt about that. I’m a big Ray Liotta fan. In fact, if they wanted to treat me right, they should’ve just given me a role in the movie at least. But he doesn’t do any martial art action and you lose that whole element of marketing for the movie. It’s not a martial art action movie anymore. It is kind of an action drama. The other movie Van Damme ended up doing. It was a movie Sheldon Lettich and I worked on the script and when we got it, we went to one producer and we did the pitch. I went in with Sheldon Lettich who’s a theatrical director and did a couple Van Damme movies. We pitched this script. It was eventually shot in Canada which is a big mistake. It was meant to be an inner city L.A. gangster kind of a movie. When I called Sheldon, because I finally met a producer who was willing to go up to $5 million to make a movie, and we could make it for $5 million. The trick is you make it for five, you can make it look like 20 and then you can get into theaters. But what happened was when I called Sheldon, he was on the set in Canada with Van Damme on the last week of the movie. So it was no longer available but I didn’t know that.
Oh, The Hard Corps?
That’s it, that’s it. Hard Corps because I remember it had a name that almost sounded like a porn film.
I haven’t seen it but I looked it up.
Well, that one was my idea. It was my original concept with Sheldon of course. I wanted to have a black leading lady. That was my idea, not his. I think Van Damme did have a black leading lady [Vivica A. Fox]. It was about her brother being a criminal getting out. So those were two movies. You asked why haven’t I been more active since I did The Last Sentinel, and that’s one of the reasons. Two of the movies I worked on very hard fell through basically and other guys did them. And one of the scripts that I liked, and one of the best directors Rick Jacobson, we’ve done four films together, we worked on a script and we verbally had a commitment from the writer for the amount. I had dealt with this writer before so I went and I got a producer from Florida. He flies out from Florida with more money than what the writer had verbally agreed to sell the script for, and he said he was prepared for the writer to up his price just in case. I said, “Well, he’s not going to do that. I’ve worked with this guy before. When he says it’s one price, that’s going to be the price.” I don’t want to say what the price was but the final number that the writer gave the producer after he flew out here was seven times what he quoted me. Now, that’s another movie that I planned and worked on and the director arranged his schedule. I even had the money for it. That guy flew out here to buy the script and produce the movie. When you do that, you’ve got a lot of egg on your face. The guy came out here and he said, “I thought this was a done deal.”
Basically the writer blamed it on his agent but the way it works is this: Once they knew I had money, what they thought was I had sold just that script idea to this producer. The reality was he was going to do whatever movie I said I wanted to do, and I ended up doing a different movie with him. The point is that’s the movie I wanted to do. You never know. These movies by the way, I could’ve sued every single producer and gotten probably more money than I was going to be paid, but I’ve never sued anybody out here. That’s just not my thing. If somebody renegs on a deal, in my opinion I just tell the truth about them and I never work with them again. But one of the movies I worked on [was working titled] Bad Guys and I worked on that, I got the director hired and while I was at the Cannes Film Festival, one of the buyers comes up to me. He says, “Mr. Wilson, I’m angry at you. I’m angry at you. Why aren’t you in Bad Guys?” I said, “I am in Bad Guys. I signed a contract. They already paid me.” He said, “They’re shooting it right now.” So I call my agent, come to find out Daniel Baldwin’s got my part. This is after I rewrote the script with the writer and got paid some money up front. This is Hollywood, man. This is the way Hollywood works. It’s not because I wanted to go on an unpaid vacation for the last few years. I tried to limit myself to one good movie a year and many times, not every time because I did do The Last Sentinel, but several times they fell through because of, not backstabbing, just producers think they’re going to make more money with another actor.
You were still in the ring ‘til about 2002. 28 years is a long career for any athlete, let alone a fighter.
I think the longest. See this sport, Kickboxing/Full Contact Karate, started in America in ’74. So I was one of the first Americans to participate in our version of kickboxing, American western. When I finally retired for the last fight was 2002. Yeah, that’s 28 years. That’s a long fight career.
When MMA started, how did the kickboxing community feel about that?
Well, I love it. First of all, I was never really a kickboxer. It was just a sport that I participated in. I’m a martial artist. I’m a Kung Fu style black belt. They came up with kickboxing and I thought wow, I can improve my striking skills because I could actually hit people for real and they can be trying to hit me for real. It’s not real fighting but at least I can improve my striking skills which I did do over 28 years. I’m a much better puncher and kicker than I would’ve been without that training. But, I was a wrestler in college before I was a kickboxer so I always knew, as just a collegiate wrestler, I could take a normal guy and tie him into knots on the ground. But if I’d learned submission Jujitsu, well then it’s a whole different ball game.
You know, a lot of wrestlers became MMA guys because wrestling is like a very, very restricted version of grappling. It’s under very tight rules. You can’t hit the guy, you can’t hurt the guy, you can’t go against joints but if you become a good wrestler, what you know is you know how to condition your body and how to use the muscles only required for the physical task you’re trying to do rather than use the whole body and getting tired really fast on the ground. Wrestlers know a lot of stuff about self-defense on the ground even though it’s not really a self-defense martial art. It is a restricted sport but when you take those restrictions off and you let them elbow, you let them punch and you let them knee and go against the joints, well then wrestling is a great way to defend yourself. So anyway, I would’ve loved MMA. If it was around when I was 18 that’s what I would’ve been doing.
Do you know what your next movie will be?
Oh man, I’m juggling so many right now. I’m juggling one in Papau, New Guinea. It’ll be shot there on location and it’s called The B Team. It’s kind of a takeoff of Expendables because it’s going to have a bunch of different martial art actors, B movie guys, hence the name B Team but it’s got a little comedic element. We didn’t want to go hardcore and take ourselves too seriously because it’s kind of goofy to have all these B movie guys all in the movie. So the producer wanted to add a little comic touch to it, so it’ll probably be a little funnier than my other movies. There’ll be at least one comedian hired for the film but that one’s pretty close to getting done. Then I’ve got a movie called The Good Fight which would be an MMA film. One of the actors attached to it is one of the stars of the Twilight series. He’s one of the werewolves and he’s also a martial artist. He’s signed to play the lead, a young fighter. I’d be his trainer basically. If that one goes, that could be my next one. This guy played me in The Last Sentinel. Do you remember there was a scene where it was my character as a child? His name is Booboo Stewart.
Who have you got for The B Team?
These are the names the producer right now has said he wanted: Michael Dudikoff, Jeff Speakman, Cynthia Rothrock and myself. Those four positively, but since there’s a lot of bad guys and a lot of good guys in it, there’s room for anybody that’s going to be available. They would only be in for a few days and then out. The ones I listed, we would have to be in New Guinea the entire six week shoot but the other actors can come and go. There’s going to be plenty of action and the game plan is to get as many guys as we can get in. I literally know every one of them.
Olivier Gruner, Mark Dacascos…
Evvverybody. Mark and Richard Norton. I would get even obscure ones. I don’t know if you know Karen Sheperd or Billy Blanks. I put him in his first movie, Bloodfist. I’d get any of these guys and even if they don’t do action, they would play just an officer coming into a room or do one line or whatever, just to stick with our strange goofy thing of putting all these guys in one movie. It’s a comedy. Well, not a comedy. It’s an action movie with comedy. You’d see every one. If you watched these B movies back in the [‘80 and ‘90s], I’d put Jerry Trimble in there, Loren Avedon, if you could send me a list of the guys you want in, I’ll try to get every single one of them in. Are you writing about B-movies and the lower budget films?
Yes, everything and I’ve been really fascinated lately by the Scott Adkins movies.
Oh yeah, you know what? We made an offer to Scott to be in this movie White Tiger in Bangkok. First of all, it’s below his budget range but I didn’t say anything because I did not coproduce this. I just was an actor for hire. Everything you could do wrong, they did wrong. As much money as got on the screen was stolen by those Thai local producers. In fact, I’m not even sure what’s going to happen because they actually have footage that we need to finish the film over there. So it’s a can of worms. I did not work on this film but Scott Adkins was offered the lead role of this early on. It ended up going to Matt Mullins, I don't know if you know him but he’s an up and coming martial arts action guy.
Well, I’ve just seen the latest Jet Li movie, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. I love all the Jackie Chan movies, wirework, the Donnie Yen movies Ip Man, Legend of the First.
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate? Wow, that’s a mouthful. You know, any publicity is always a good thing and I appreciate it. Especially somebody who actually watched my movies.
Photo Credit: Lucia Fasano