Film Courage: Where did you grow up?
Dennis Ruel: I was raised in San Francisco CA. Life at home was pretty normal. Mom, Dad, and Sister.
Film Courage: What were you like as a child?
Dennis: I played sports: Baseball, Basketball,Soccer and I thought I knew martial arts before I started officially training. I would fight all types of imaginary opponents at home and throw all sorts of kicks at friends trying to be like Bruce Lee.
Film Courage: Favorite or first ever martial arts movie?
Dennis: Tough question! Drunken Master 2 as it was such an epic story and featured such out of the box choreography- at least to me at the time. The whole idea of an unorthodox style becoming more powerful during intoxication is just hilarious! Those fights still make me laugh even though I’ve seen them a million times. The match up with Jackie and Ken Lo is maybe my favorite all time match up in a finale (maybe tied with Jackie and Benny in Wheels On Meals). The first martial arts film I remember was “Enter The Dragon” and I remember that cave fight really impressed me to the point of mimicking every move!
Dennis: Martial Arts was first presented to me through film so I really developed a love for both at the same time! I wanted to pursue each and learn how to do both since I was a kid.
Film Courage: What were your plans after high school?
Dennis: I wanted to go to college for film and I did for a few years but had a lot of trouble getting the classes I wanted. The prerequisite classes I had to take before getting into certain film courses had repeat curriculum from my high school years and I felt like I was wasting my parents’ money. I started teaching Martial Arts full time and decided to make my own short films and learn how to shoot and edit as I went along.
Film Courage: Did your family support this decision?
Dennis: Fortunately yes, my parents (although divorced by that time), both agreed with my plan to pursue film while teaching Martial Arts.
Dennis: Yes, I formally trained in Hapkido and although I took a few film classes, they didn’t help me as much as actually going through the film making process on my own.
Film Courage: Do you currently live in the San Francisco Bay Area? How does the area view/embrace filmmaking and acting?
Dennis: I’m now in Los Angeles as the cost of living in the SF Bay Area is INSANE nowadays. The housing and small business climate has been extremely unforgiving as the Tech Boom has reached the Bay. Last year it exploded in my face when I was forced to close my Martial Arts school due to a ridiculous rent raise. It wasn’t long after that I found out I would have to move out of my residence, too. But as this was a recent HUGE change in my life, I can honestly say that San Francisco was extremely friendly with film making. The city is full of people pursuing the arts and there seems to a pretty wide acceptance of anything associated with the film, art, music and theatre. On the other hand, in other parts of the Bay Area, there has been an unsettling trend in robbing film crews for their equipment – Sad to say that no matter where you are, it would be safe to hire security for your set no matter how “low or no budget” the project.
Dennis: I’ve had an acting agent in San Francisco since 2008 and while there have been a few TV shows and Films, the majority of acting opportunities come from indie films, industrials, voice over and commercials.
Film Courage: What prompted you to open a martial arts school? How does it parallel making a feature film?
Dennis: I was given the opportunity as the previous owner wanted to sell the business and I figured running a MA school would be the perfect compliment to my pursuit in the film industry as a martial artist and actor. As Martial Arts schools usually operate in the late afternoon it allowed me to make auditions and work on my own projects during the day. Not to mention that teaching can be a great way to continually train. But unfortunately, things didn’t work out as a business owner so I’m focused on a career in film now.
Film Courage: How did you meet Vlad Rimburg and Ken Quitugua?
Dennis: In 2004, I connected with Eric Jacobus and started training with the “Stunt People.” Vlad was there on the first night of practice shooting a short film! We became friends pretty quickly and in 2008, we reached out to Ken and made our first Prototype Monks short “Rival Grocers.”
Film Courage: Why/when did you decide to make UNLUCKY STARS?
Dennis: In 2009, I just finished working on “Owned,” a feature film written and directed by my buddy Jose Montesinos. It was a relatively no budget crime/drama that was made “guerrilla style” in the SF Bay Area. The experience of making Owned (which included a fight between Ken Quitugua and I) combined with a few collaborations with Ken and Vlad Rimburg, got me extremely eager to start writing a fun feature length script that we could ALL jump into. At that time, we had a pretty decent number of stunt-friends and Giovannie Espiritu, who played Amera in “Unlucky Stars,” was not only my acting teacher but she also had access to a large group of actors that we needed for all of the non-action roles. It seemed like the timing was just right so we went all in!
Film Courage: How many short films had you been a part of before making UNLUCKY STARS? How many feature films? What was it like transitioning to longer content?
Dennis: Prior to Unlucky Stars, I was involved in three feature length films. First was “Contour,” a Stunt People Production by Eric Jacobus. Then “Owned,” and then, naturally, I had a quick bit in the Bollywood film “Love Aaj Kal” – The progression from Indie Action to a Bollywood Romantic Drama was of course all part of the plan since I was a kid haha!
In terms of short films, my friends and I made a pretty decent amount (can’t remember the total). Most of them are out there spread across a few Youtube channels.
Film Courage: How long did it take you to write the script?
Dennis: I’m pretty sure I wrote the script over a 6 month period. I would come home from teaching and keep chipping away until it was finished. The first read through with some of the cast gave me a great deal of input and I believe the next draft was the shooting script.
Dennis: I believe it was just a few months. The film was not fully casted when we began and the script changed A LOT as we were going along – The biggest change in the script was the result of an injury sustained by a stunt/actor the NIGHT BEFORE his first shooting day. Luckily, everything ended up working out!
Film Courage: How is your character Josh Whitman like you? Different?
Dennis: The character is a lot like me. I sometimes find myself in situations where I feel like I’m missing something but everyone else is in tune with each other. I always found a lot of humor during those parts of my life. There was one scene that I cut out in which Josh is expressing his views on “bad luck being connected with bad people” and Ken is arguing “that is not always the case” – That scene came from an ongoing internal argument with myself and while I thought it would help the story, a lot of people agreed that it slowed the film down so I cut it out.
Film Courage: What is Josh’s vulnerability in the film?
Dennis: Josh is definitely the “fish outta water” in the story. He’s always a step behind but luckily has the skills to deal with the craziness because if he didn’t…the film would’ve been over after the first scene!
Film Courage: How long was the shoot?
Dennis: 2.5 months… and maybe around 26 more. Seriously, the film was done in 38 shoot days that were spread out over quite a bit of time and some days were only 1/2 days due to availability.
Having a low budget meant we had to shoot when people had the time and everyone had jobs so if one person had to back out of one shoot date – There was a chance that the shoot could be pushed back for months. Sometimes that happened, but we did what we could when we could!
Film Courage: How long was post production?
Dennis: A little over a year because again, no budget. Although the post production team were professionals in their fields, the incredible favor they were doing for me had to take a back seat to their daily job. Without their amazing finishing touches, I wouldn’t have been comfortable releasing the film. They really saved some scenes and put the bow on the film!
Film Courage: What are some ways to fall or give yourself a softer landing in a fight scene that people aren’t aware of?
Dennis: I don’t think I’m the best person to ask about falling (haha). I usually suck it up and try my best to find the ground without making it look that way but falling is definitely an underrated art and I’m still trying to figure out how to improve in that area. I have a lot of friends who manage to fall like leaves. Some of them are big guys too, so it clearly doesn’t have to do with size. I’m always impressed with stunt guys that can sell insane “wrecks” but manage to land softly with next to no injury.
Film Courage: Do you have tips for other martial arts actors on putting together an action stunt reel?
Dennis: Again, I’m not the best person to ask unless I’m casting – I recently re-cut my own reel and feel like it’ll always be an ongoing project as you want to update your reel with recent work. It would be best to ask big time Stunt Coordinators what they’re looking for. I’ve always assumed that reels should show a little bit of everything: Punches, Kicks, Falls, Wire Work and Gun Work.
Film Courage: Did you have a specific time range for how long you wanted each fight sequence to last?
Dennis: Vlad had a clear idea of how important each fight was to the story. You’ll notice that the Abandoned Church Fight, Rehab House and Factory fights were the 3 big fights in the script, so Vlad planned those fights to have pretty decent running times while other fights were much shorter as their purpose was just to move the story along. But we still wanted the short fights to be great too!
Dennis: Absolutely. I often wonder how long “Reality” TV will last, especially because it’s scripted…or the opposite of reality. I always found a lot of humor in reality tv with the way it’s edited and the way they fill shows with musical cues. So I thought the Sameer character finding himself on a reality show face to face with his “enemy” was just about perfect for that character.
Film Courage: The line in UNLUCKY STARS “Everyone Here is Probably in Trouble with Bad People,” can you explain the meaning of this insightful line (without giving spoilers)?
Dennis: This would’ve gone hand and hand with the cut scene I mentioned above and was supposed to show that the character, Stacie, had the same viewpoint Josh had earlier in the story. That moment was supposed to show the audience that Josh had matured past his old belief and that he was now on the other side of the conversation. But I felt the line still worked for the scene even though the other Josh scene was cut. I feel a lot of people, including myself, are quick to judge people in certain situations. I think that’ll always be something for me to work on.
Film Courage: Where did you film the interior/ exterior scenes of UNLUCKY STARS?
Dennis: We shot in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles.
Film Courage: What is a fun fact that no one would assume at first guess about Vlad and Ken?
Dennis: Vlad can kick straight up! 180 degrees! The picture exists! And Ken has super double broadsword skills!
Film Courage: What’s next for you creatively?
Dennis: I already have Unlucky Stars 2 written but it would need a budget substantially higher than part 1 to be properly made but it’s definitely coming! And Richard Norton is enthusiastic about joining us this time!!! I’m hoping that someone will see Unlucky Stars and absolutely INSIST on helping us financially, but in the meantime, director Stephen Reedy and I have a new feature film in preproduction. The film would require less of a budget than Unlucky Stars 2, so we’re trying to take that next step forward as soon as possible! Eric Jacobus and producer Clayton Barber are also planning to add a third part to the Rope-A-Dope series so I’m looking forward to that as well!
Born and raised in San Francisco, Dennis began training in the martial art, Hapkido in January, 1994. He directed and starred in his first action short film in 1999. At this time, Dennis started teaching martial arts while continuing his film pursuits. Dennis submitted his second short film to a local public access channel in 2001, and connected with local filmmaker Jose Montesinos. They began to collaborate on several independent film projects. After his third short film, Dennis connected with The Stunt People in 2004 and they released the feature film “Contour” in 2006. In 2007, he became a Martial Arts School Owner. Soon after completing “Owned” (Another feature film by director Jose Montesinos) in 2009, Dennis took part in several collaborations with Vlad Rimburg, Ken Quitugua and Stephen Reedy. A year later, they began pre-production for their first independent film, Unlucky Stars! In 2013, while Unlucky Stars was in post production, Dennis landed a lead role in “American Brawler” (aka Barrio Brawler) which received a limited Theatrical Release, Redbox Distribution and is now streaming on Netflix and Itunes. 2015 started out with a tough life altering change as Dennis was unfortunately forced to close his Martial Arts School due to an outrageous rent raise, an ongoing epidemic effecting small businesses and residents in the SF Bay Area. Fortunately, at around the same time, Unlucky Stars acquired a distribution deal in the fall of 2015. After receiving great reviews from martial arts action reviewers, Unlucky Stars earned Four Nominations including Best Action Feature of 2015, Best Choreography, Best Action Sequence in a Martial Arts Feature and WON the award for Best Action Sequence in an Action Feature!
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