A year had passed since I wrote “Blood, Sweat, and Gold” (also temporarily titled “Mato Grosso” for the reason of the mine – which is significant in this story.)
It was 8 at night, in March. A bit cold, but not freezing or wet. The phone rang. I answer and hear, “Is this Scott Morgan?” I say, “Yes.” I hear, “Scott Morgan that wrote “Mato Grosso”?” “Yes.” “This is Jean-Claude Van Damme.” Long pause. Me, “Rigggghht. Who is this, really?” Jean-Claude, “This is Jean-Claude Van Damme. I just read it, and it’s the best script I’ve ever read. I want you to write one for me like it set in Hong Kong.” Long pause. Me, “Right, who is this, really?” “It’s Jean-Claude Van Damme. The Muscles from Brussels. I’m working on a night scene north of the city. Can you come out here? I want to hire you to write for me. A script set in Hong Kong.”
After some more dialog and his giving the phone to a P.A. to give me instruction, I believed him. I drove out into the middle of nowhere, some place in Valencia. They were filming some action scenes at night out there.
I was guided to his trailer. And there he was. Good natured. Pretty funny, really. We hit it off well.
And I loved his motivation. He said that Mato Grosso really captured the true feelings of the people in a region that are being exploited, yet did not slow down the action. In his own words he said that he owed the people of Asia, especially Hong Kong, a tribute, to thank them for being such great fans. And he wanted a script set in Hong Kong on the year of its return to China rule A film story that shows how the people there feel …while giving them an action story to enjoy. He was ready to hire a screenwriter, me, and pay all expenses to goover there, for over two weeks, while I tracked down the real underground stories. I would be given a guide, and a nice hotel room. And $25,000 down. He would share the writing credit. None of the usual writers were willing to go underground into the darker areas of Hong Kong, and to me, that was a bonus, not a threat.
So I got a passport update, and flew there a few days later. Business class. Cathay Pacific. I was met at the airport by a man from Salon Pictures. They are a local production company in good standing with both the Hong Kong government and the Triad, which is mandatory. (You can’t really film there without getting the okay from the Triad, they will hold up production or your raw film at customs.) I do not remember the man’s name. But I do remember that he took me to my hotel, then over to a very expensive Asian massage spa. He said that this was the only way to get over jet lag in one night and wake up at 7 ready to go. It was 1 a.m. at night, but on USA time it was only 10 in the morning. The flight was overnight. And 19 hours long.
Now to me, at 30 years old, I was not into Asian culture yet, and surely not one with a lot of massage experience. Especially a two-person set in a posh room. That’s right, this older guy was being massaged at his table only 8 feet away. Odd for me. But I will say that that was the best massage of my life – without the sex. A very skilled, young Chinese woman was working on me. He kept talking the first 30 minutes about locations we would see. And he asked me what was important to me as a writer.
Wearing spa boxers we got bathed by two other women, and then he sent me to my room. The next day his assistants picked me up, and I began touring Hong Kong. It took two days of solid driving and pictures. Then we went to tour South China beyond the mountain range, where I met my first Chinese orphans. I returned secretly the next morning to give them some aide.
A few days later in Hong Kong I went to the Walled City.
The Walled City was the brainchild of a city planner that wanted organized housing for all low-income people. They had built hundreds of these cubes of apartments, sort of like Lego’s. You could stack them. So they made a figure 8 out of them and started stacking up to I think about 11-14 stories. This was the center of the Triad prostitution, drug dealing, and crime. As I approached it, I noticed the sidewalk turning red. By one more final block it was all red, and this was due to being stained by blood. Nice, huh? We entered, and no one messed with us. But I could see why this was the headquarters of crime. It was impenetrable. The alleys were at times only 5-6 feet wide. There was so much done without permits that many apartments had no utilities. But in these walls, the crimes originated. They loved Jean-Claude Van Damme, so they let me and my guides pass in. They were dismantling it soon, and most tenants had been relocated. But still it had that evil feeling. Great location that we could use for the first time because it would be vacant and soon dismantled.
The other locations I wanted to use were The Bird Alley, a bar that had a pig as a bouncer named Dog that was trained to kick ass on command, and an opium den inside some alley in Kowloon. Very trippy.
Returning to over the mountains and into China we went to a derelict shipping bone yard. What this means is that this is where they take tankers to dismantle them. There were stacks of metal like daggers going straight up in the air over stories that you would swear would tip over and kill everyone! It would be a domino effect. Then there was this great mall with a glass ceiling.
Then the second to last night, the Salon guy took me to a private dinner club. Then he took me to this private call girl club, built under the city buildings. It was so big, that it had a Rolls Royce with an electric engine shuttling clients from one end to the other. It was staggeringly expensive. As they paraded Asian women past me, I could pick one and talk to her. I didn’t want to go home with any of the women, but was curious to find out about their lives. It costs my host about $100 per ten minutes of talk. I was asked several times if I wanted a girl, and did not know it was an insult to say no.
As for the film story, I talked with about 30 people about what is going to go down when Asia talks over, and they told me some juicy underground stories, including how the top man got control and toppled years ago.
They flew me to Bangkok. I was in a smaller hotel for a day, and when I asked the bellhop if he would show me where to have fun, he said, “Thank you, but no sex with tourists.” He thought I wanted sex with him, and it was a good laugh. In Bangkok, that is where I found some of the true caged fighting arenas. We also went into the countryside and up toward Chang Mai. The best moment there was when I picked up a giant 20+ foot boa constrictor, not knowing how fast they move if they are wild. The trainer’s eyes got huge, and they raced to save me, and it took three people to unwrap it off my body. I was an official Thai tourist idiot from that point on.
But I had my story by then. I flew home and started writing. It was the story of an alcoholic newspaper reporter with all the dirt on the local political men, and how he tracks his wife as she is kidnapped for white slavery. All this amid a major drug score. I got a call from Jean-Claude who was flying on a private jet to his next movie. He said he loved the script. Then we both found out the bad news. Warner Brothers wanted an all-action film from him, not love story like I had written. They had to do a new script, and take my best scenes, which appear in The Quest. The earthmover scene, and the motorcycle ride, shooting out the glass ceiling, and a few other scenes ended up in the movie.
I must say this about Jean-Claude. He was a stand-up, caring guy. He knew his limits and wanted a chance to work on good dialog. He paid my way, he was really cool, and I to this day would love to work with him. I think he has grown a lot, and his recent semi-autobiographical movie got good reviews.