John Fusco on LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS
by Gene Ching
My first encounter with John Fusco was a cold phone call. He reached out to me as a fan of our magazine, and told me rather modestly that he was the screenwriter for what was the most anticipated martial arts film project of 2008, the long-awaited match between Jackie Chan and Jet Li in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. I get a lot of crazy calls, so I was suspicious at first, but after some background checking and several more conversations, I found John to be very earnest about his kung fu practice. Since then, we've had many delightful conversations about kung fu, sharing insights from our mutually unique perspectives on the discipline. When he asked me about looking for a comic-style artist to illustrate his first foray into children's books, LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS, I knew just the guy. Our own Patrick Lugo, senior graphic design artist for our publications, was a perfect fit. I formally interviewed John about his exciting new work.
GC: First I have to thank you. Back when we were discussing THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, you told me how you read JOURNEY TO THE WEST to your kid as a bedtime story. I'm doing that now with my kid. We're almost finished and we've had a wonderful experience with it.
JF: Yeah, it's really magical.
GC: Yeah, I think once you get comfortable saying "shit" and "piss" to your kid, because of Pig, it's a great story for kids.
JF: That's right. (laughs) It is. It really is. My experience with that was back when my son was really young, he was fascinated by it. But then it would kind of lose him. So that's what led me to go off and start my own bedtime story—time travel, a kid like him, into that world with Monkey King and mixed in with the Shaw Brothers films we were watching. I hope that he would come out of it with his appetite whet and it worked. That's sort of all tied into LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS.
GC: One of the many things I enjoyed about JOURNEY TO THE WEST is that almost all of the demons they encounter are animal spirits who studied the way enough to gain some magic skills, but then fell off the path and became evil. I love the metaphor.
GC: Yes. Donnie Yen has a big IMAX project coming soon and Neil Gaiman has discussed one. But to get to LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS, how do you view the metaphor of the animal-imitation styles in kung fu?
JF: It's interesting because I have a real connection to the Native American world. I think we've talked about it in the past. I've spent a lot of time in the Pine Ridge Reservation involved in ceremony. The animal spirits in the native world trace back to shamanism. I know a few bear medicine men and I've watched ritual where they really take on the spirit of these animals. It's always fascinated me wondering about the roots of shamanism in kung fu. How far does it trace back to that?
I think that what the book is about is looking for answers in nature, listening more closely to nature and finding a spirit that you connect with, finding traits that that animal embodies that speak to you, and creating this bond and relationship with this animal that really informs your kung fu.
I always felt that with mantis. There are different styles that I was exposed to. There's just something about mantis that really connected with me. I have another friend who just embraced the bear. In fact, his favorite character in JOURNEY TO THE WEST was the bear spirit up on the hill. He does bear bagua. And he's a big bulky guy. It's just fascinating stuff.
Wang Lang, like any founder of an animal style, did not simply study his creature to adopt its movements; he absorbed its essence, its poetry, and its metaphors. If he'd been a Native American or Mongolian, one might say he found his power animal.
Elders from many indigenous cultures believe that one can gain deep insight into their inner nature through the observation and alignment with a certain animal spirit. The elders believe that one's "animal" is a symbol of subconscious wisdom; honoring one's power animal in dance or ceremony is a channeling of the creature's essence—not simply a mechanical imitation of its physical movements...
In the 1980s I witnessed a Cheyenne medicine man "become a bear" in a healing rite, and a Lakota dancer channel the wary energy of a sage hen. Twenty years later, in China, I watched an old man in a park seemingly transform into a praying mantis. In an impossibly low crush stance, torso rocking and swaying in a hypnotic tempo, his movements seemed to defy human body mechanics. In the same park I have seen a Chinese woman take on the stately essence of a crane in such a convincing way that I've half-expected her to take flight and land on a branch. Tiger stylists, I've been told, don't just try to fight like a big cat. They conjure the "nature" of the tiger and embrace the combat philosophy of "no retreat, no surrender; no blocks, just strikes; hard strength and power through breath."
This similarity between animal style martial art and the transformation ceremonies of indigenous people has often made me wonder if the origins of kung fu might trace back to shamanism. It's been theorized that the roots of Taoism lie in the shamanic cultures of ancient China, a time when the Wu would invoke elemental powers through dance and ritual... The germane revelation, for me, is that a Mantis Boxer must place more emphasis on capturing mantid essence than on striving to emulate its physical techniques.
GC: You know, I practice some mantis too—Shaolin seven-star mantis in fact. Personally, I find I have a hard time relating to a six-limbed creature. What is it about mantis that speaks to you?
JF: Yeah, right (laughs). When I was preparing for my black sash test, along with the regular testing, our sifu has us do a project. What I did was replicate the Wong Long research using faunariums, kind of high-tech insect habitats, and high-speed photography. I imported mantids brought in. I had traditional Chinese mantids that I raised. And then I had a larger Malaysian mantid. I raised them in these faunariums over a six-month period and I kept a journal. I wrote a paper on it called Mantis Meditations. In watching the mantis, it's the stillness. It's the blending with nature. I've heard the mantis described once as the Shaolin monk of the natural world. Even watching them when they molt, they go into that stillness, and then they cast off the old shell and they come out reborn. Metaphorically, that's connected with me when I think about zazen and my training. The movements really connect with me—the element of speed, the element of surprise. Having done crane and tiger, I've had some elders in China say, "Oh you should do tiger. You really have the right build for that." But it's just the mantis stance comes to me real naturally. I love the feeling—the waiting, the luring. Really, it's kind of the roots of intercepting fist. Have you ever seen that Bruce Lee sketch of the praying mantis?
GC: Maybe. I don't recall.
JF: I want to post it and show Patrick how much better he did than Bruce Lee (laughs). When Bruce Lee studied praying mantis for a while, there was a book on Northern Shaolin praying mantis that was given to him by one of his close friends. And he gave it to another friend and he signed it "From the Northern Mantis Clan" and he drew this sketch of a praying mantis, so I know he was really into it at that time when he was putting all these ideas together.
In doing some of the mantis research and going back to the training manuals and the style that they called at that time "secret hands," a lot of it had to do with intercepting the opponent. And in studying my mantids, I'd watch the mantids have a great opportunity to just snag a moth but he wouldn't. He'd go into his wavering and his bobbing. And if the moth didn't take the bait and move, he would use one of his back legs to kind of prompt that moth into making a move. And then once that move was made, he would then attack. So there's just so many elements of the style and the insect. I just think that whole zen spirit to the praying mantis—the ability to camouflage.
You know Dr. Craig (Reid) did some research on that. I finally got to meet him, by the way, a couple weeks ago. He came into the Marco Polo writers' room and did a private martial arts cinema lecture for us. As an entomologist, he's always talking about 51,000ths of a second—the speed. It's just an incredible insect.
But I hear you. I know what you mean. There's something about relating to a mammal that's more like us. Paulie Zink and the monkey. But I've always been fascinated by praying mantids.
GC: For the record, who did you study mantis under?
JF: Sifu Arthur Makaris. I've been with him for 13 years. He just goes by Northern Shaolin praying mantis and his roots are he was an original Boston Chinatown student of Pui Chan, so it has a Wah Lum foundation. But he's also studied with Kwan Sai-hung, the Daoist monk, and the late Dr. Xie Peiqi, who would come to our school routinely. So we had northern praying mantis going on and bagua that Sifu Makaris had studied under Kwan Sai-hung and Dr. Xie.
GC: What made you decide to turn the creation tale of Wong Long into LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS?
JF: Going back to THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, between 2004 and 2007 when we started shooting, I was travelling back and forth to China to see Jet Li. Jet and I had a collaboration going. We were having talks about the movie and working on my first draft. I got to spend some wonderful creative time with him talking about kung fu history and the animal styles. He always got a kick out of the fact that I practiced what he called "old school" praying mantis. Bayeh—(Yuen) Woo-Ping—he did too. I'd practice in the training center. Still, you don't see a lot of that, even around here. Jet and I had so many conversations about origin stories in martial arts. And it was on a flight back from Hong Kong, flying to the west coast, I couldn't sleep. It was one of those endless flights. I kept thinking about the mantis origin story, the most widely accepted one with Wong Long, and a lot of images were going through my mind as I was in and out of sleep. And then I thought, you know, it's such a great legend tale that it's a shame that it's not really known outside of Asia. It could really make an interesting children's book.
I think, Gene, what happened was my mind was in this sort of young people's mindset. The whole reason why I did THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM for my son, that all speaks to an interest I have in martial arts education for young people. I remember speaking with you about this in the past. With all the MMA and mixed dojos out there, I don't think there's enough exposure to the beauty of kung fu. So that was the mindset on that flight. I started thinking through how it would work as a children's book. I saw illustrations in my mind and said, "God, this would have been a book I would have loved." So I took out my laptop and I started writing it until the battery died. And then I went to legal pads. By the time we landed, I had it written.
Then when I got back I looked at what I had. When I had the time, I typed it up and made some revisions. Then I put it aside and basically forgot about it. I did read it to my son. He loved it. I gave it to another friend and had him read it to his daughter at bedtime and he called me and said she loved it. Once it was written, I was like, "I've never thought about children's books. This was just an inspired flight back from China."
Woo Ping and John Fusco at the "Monkey King Falls" in China, 2008
Then, flash forward, when I was testing for my black sash and doing mantis research, I went into my mantis box, which has a lot of your magazines, by the way, and I found that manuscript. I sat down and read through it and said, "Oh yeah. Hmm. I really should try to do something with this. It's not going to do any good sitting in this box."
Just on a whim, the name Tuttle came to me because I have a martial arts eastern history and philosophy library by my bed. It's the stuff I love to read at night before I fall off to sleep. And I always got a kick of the fact that every third title I would pick up, it would seem, was Tuttle. And I loved their slogan: Tokyo, Singapore, Rutland Vermont. That just fascinated me because I live in Vermont. I thought, "Who are these people?" I did a little bit of research and read Mr. Tuttle's story—thought it was fascinating. So I packed up the manuscript, typed a cover letter and sent it to Tuttle. And then I never heard anything and completely forgot about it. It was months later when I got an email from their acquisitions editor. And he said, "We love this book. It's not what we do, but it's taken a while because we've just kept passing it to the next group, and everyone's come back, and we feel strongly enough about it to take a gamble on something we don't normally do. Where can I send a contract?" It was great. I had forgotten about it. The editor, William Notte, he and I started an exchange of emails and discussed the approach to the book. One of the things that really impressed me about Tuttle—and there are a lot of them including the way the book ultimately came out—they realized that there was more text than you normally find in a children's book. They had a meeting about paring down the text and came out of it and said, "You know what? We don't want to change a word." So that was music to my ears.
JF: (laughs) We didn't change a word. It's really basically what was written on the flight.
The next big question was, "Do you have any illustrators in mind?" I reached out to my friend Gene Ching. When you mentioned Patrick's name, I knew of him. I had read Tiger's Tale and was aware of his work. I looked into his portfolio and felt, "Wow. This guy's got it." He understands what it's about and he's got something fresh. He can capture—and again I'll use the zen—simple zen images. And yet there's also something irreverent about his style that's youthful and accessible. We had our initial conversations and I felt he's got it. He did some mock ups, a few rough sketches that we got to Tuttle. They came back quickly and said, "We agree with you. This is the guy." So that's how it all came together and took off running.
GC: I love that it was such a great fit.
JF: Yes, definitely! He was constantly blowing me away with what he was producing. I sat there with the board at Tuttle at one point. We were going through his drawings. They were staring at this scene where a young monk is tossed into a lake. The fish are coming out and you have this comic style "splash." The jury was out on that. The consensus was that we hadn't seen this before in this type of book. It takes you by surprise. It makes the images so much more lively and accessible to today's young readers. So definitely a great fit.
GC: What does your mantis master think of LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS?
JF: He's seen the illustrations and the basic rough idea on it. He was very excited for his young people's class that he teaches to make them aware of the origin story behind the style that they practice and to get them further excited.
The paper I turned in—the dissertation—examined several different versions of the mantis origin stories. Along with the Wong Long Shandong Province story, there's the notion that he was really a Daoist priest from Mount Laoshan—the mountain of the immortals. Then in other accounts they call him Liu Chi, which happens to be the same name as the wandering Daoist swordsman from the late Ming. So I've explored the different origin stories, but for the children's book, I just felt this is the popular one. I think it'll be a lot of fun for the young people, and like with FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, the goal is really to get them interested—let them feel a little bit of the magic and then go look a little more deeply on their own.
GC: As the martial arts have garnered more scholarly attention, many creation stories are being debunked. I haven't heard of anyone going after the Wong Long myth yet, but I imagine that might be coming. What do you think about this?
JF: (laughs) Right. Well, you and I have talked about Damo.
I don't know what the point is in debunking. I see it as a legend. There's history there. With Wong Long, we know he was a Ming Dynasty patriot. Where the style really came from—we've got that training manual. And that symposium of the 18 styles in the Ming Dynasty—1794—the gathering of the 18 great teachers and styles. And they list Wong Long as number 18 and called the style "secret hands," also known as praying mantis boxing.
GC: What are some of the children's books that inspired you?
JF: I remember Grimm's fairytales. I had a wonderfully illustrated book when I was really young. I'd get lost in the images and those stories. I was drawn towards animal stories. RASCAL by Sterling North, and a lot of Sterling North's children's books are so dear to my heart. He was very connected with the natural world and lived in Michigan up in the woods. As a kid, I always had pet raccoons and foxes instead of dogs.
GC: Pet raccoons? How do you keep a raccoon?
JF: Oh yeah. Those are my animal. If there was a raccoon style, that's what I'd probably be doing. (laughs) They make amazing pets. They're highly intelligent. They would come into my backyard and I would leave things out for them. I was eventually able to get ahold of a raccoon kit as we call it—the young ones. His name was Bandit and I would actually take him to school with me. I'd walk him in a harness like they have for a cat and he'd sit on my desk. So I was drawn to animal stories.
GC: Any chance that LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS might become a movie someday?
JF: You know, I don't know. I think the first step is to see what the reaction is to the book, how it does out there. I think it's a great story, and in martial arts cinema I know that there's been a mantis motif.
GC: The Wong Long myth has been explored in kung fu movies, but not as a children's story.
JF: No, it hasn't been. We'll have to see. I think there's definitely a lot there. Patrick had asked me about animation because I wrote SPIRIT for DreamWorks. And DreamWorks had done KUNG FU PANDA, so it's kind of connecting the dots. But I think LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS could really work as a live-action Shaolin story.
GC: Have you been to Shaolin Temple?
JF: I have not. That's definitely on the schedule. I'm headed out to China next month and then I'm pretty much there until January of 2013.
GC: And this is for your MARCO POLO project, right? Tell us a little about that.
JF: It's a real exciting one, Gene. To bring my son back into it, when he came out to THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM set, which I wrote about in that cover story in 2000. He and I took off and went to fulfill a dream of his. I'd say lifelong dream but he's only 13. And that was to follow the Genghis Khan trail in Mongolia on horseback. When I showed him some online guided tours, he was kind of turned off. He was like, "No, no. I want to do the real thing. I really want to live it and sleep in gers." So through my film connections I found a Mongolian guy who would take journalists up there, take them off the beaten path, all the way up to Taiga forest and gave the real experience if someone really wanted to capture Mongolian daily life. And I took my son up there. We crossed central Mongolia on horseback with nomads, living in gers. And we had a few adventures—quite a few adventures—it was an amazing experience.
While we were up there, we talked a lot about Marco Polo, and our Mongolian contacts knew a lot about the history and the Khan Empire. It was my son's fascination in that world fired up my interest. After THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM opened and did well, the producer Casey Silver called me and said, "We have an opportunity to do something in TV, shooting in China. We've got strong Chinese relationships right now and TV is really becoming a wide open frontier. It's becoming more creative than film in so many ways. Do you have anything we could shoot in China? And preferably, to reach a wide TV audience, anything with a Westerner in China." Without hesitation I said, "Well, let's just go back to the precursor to all of that—Marco Polo." And he just felt that, well, we've been finding this out every day from most people we run into, Marco Polo just conjures up that swimming pool game. He brought macaroni. No one knows anything about it. I was disappointed to let it go.
And then, strangely enough, I got a call from Harvey Weinstein. And Harvey had some other people on the phone with him. He said, "I'm going to say a name. We took a bet. The bet is that you will know a lot about this subject. Don't let me down." I said "Okay. Go for it." He said, "Marco Polo." And that was it. I said, "What do you have in mind? This has been a passion of mine. I've really been researching it." And he said, "I want to do a big groundbreaking TV series with Marco Polo in China, Kublai Khan, the Khan Empire, and if it's appropriate, I want to get in martial arts." I said to him. "Look, Marco was really—if you read his journals—he was adopted by Kublai Khan and educated in the scholar warrior tradition, in horsemanship, falconry, sword and archery. And Kublai was known for bringing in artisans and masters—the Chinese treasures—into Khanbaliq, into his imperial city. It makes total sense that Marco would be exposed to kung fu. And it's organic to the whole idea." And that's basically what I was thinking. So Harvey, he was thrilled. I gave him my pitch on how the show would work. The next day, I was on the phone with the STARZ Channel, who were just coming off the popularity of SPARTACUS: BLOOD AND SAND. And I gave my Marco Polo pitch and they really responded. So I wrote a pilot that they also responded to and that lit the fuse for the show.
It's been moving quickly and smoothly and it usually doesn't happen that way. But there's a real magic in the air around this show. It's going to be very rich in martial arts, kind of a wuxia approach to the Marco Polo story—a great Asian cast. Marco was over there for seventeen years, so it lends itself to episodic series. It's just a treasure trove of material and new adventures, all the relationships and intrigues going on in and around the Khan Empire.
GC: Well, we look forward to that. Do you think there will be more children's books in your future?
JF: Yes! I do! The experience of writing this one and watching it come to fruition, there was something almost therapeutic about it... when you're working in Hollywood. It was very meditative, a peaceful pure fun experience—and knowing that the audience is going to be young people that haven't lost their magic. It's really an exciting thing. And since doing the book, I'm constantly walking with my wife and saying, "This would be a great idea." She says, "You got to do it." And then she gets hooked on these ideas and she's always after me. She'll leave me notes, "Don't forget to do... you know? When you get a couple a weeks, sit down and get this written." But it is fun.
The other thing too, Gene, is that—I spoke to Tuttle and I spoke to Patrick about it—is the possibility of branching off from to think LITTLE MONK AND THE MANTIS to do a series of kung fu legend children's books. They were really interested in that. So this could be the first in a series of that type of book.
GC: Sounds great.
JF: I really appreciate your interest in it. It's fun to work together on this and with Marco Polo. I'll keep you in the loop on that. Maybe you'll come visit us in Hengdian.
GC: That would be fun.
JF: I'm really excited about getting this out there and hoping that it introduces and excites a whole new generation in the way that THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM connected with a certain age of young people. Patrick conveys the story in his illustrations in such a way that you don't even have to be reading yet to experience what this is all about. And you know, start them young.
GC: Chinese have JOURNEY TO THE WEST. Here we have the kung fu movies, most of which are too violent.
JF: It'll be really interesting to see. I'm looking at the cover right now and I think it's going to be very intriguing. I'm thinking of my son when he was very young and his different books, which we've saved—all of them. He would just sit and stare at an image. He'd have this intrigued fascination. And looking at the cover image, I think it's going to be compelling to young kids and quite an interesting ride too because then you get into Mantis and Beetle. You've got that epic battle in the grass. Very unusual. A little different than GOODNIGHT MOON.
You've got a big thing coming up June 9th and 10th. I would really love to make it and I think it's possible because I'll be doing a lot of flying back and forth from China to L.A. That would be a feast.
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