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An Interview with Zack Ward, Director of The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms

by Mike Haberfelner

June 2024

Films directed by Zack Ward on (re)Search my Trash


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Your new movie The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms - in a few words, what's it about?


This movie is a love letter to the 70s & 80s films that I grew up on: Meatballs, The Goonies, My Bodyguard, Big Trouble in Little China, The Last Starfighter, Labyrinth, Never Ending Story. They were filled with hope and had real people who were flawed but trying to be better. I could relate to their worlds and saw myself in their stories.


It’s about a family overcoming their grief and appreciating each other for who they really are. And that includes being a 95-year-old action hero!


How how did the project fall together in the first place, and how did you end up on the directing side of things?


James Hong called us, as he wanted to rent gear from our studio (Brilliant Screen Studios - to shoot a test for his story concept. Of course we were excited to be talking with the legendary Lo-Pan and offered to help wherever we could. The conversation grew from him renting from us into producing, writing and directing. I’ve worked with FX houses for the last 20 years and have a HUGE love for practical effects, so when we discussed the filming style, James felt I would be a natural fit.


The story for The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms was written by the film's star James Hong - now how detailed was his outline, and what were your sources of inspiration when turning the story into a screenplay?


James’ concept was centered around Chinese mythology and fables. He wanted to connect the ancient stories to modern values, just as he wanted a senior character to share the protagonist’s role with teenagers. Building on this goal, we reached out to Professors of Cultural Anthropology at USC and UCLA to gain clarity on the ancient stories of China. Learning that their myths date back over five thousand years and have been adjusted endlessly over the centuries as different monarchies, ideals, or beliefs held sway, we chose to involve them as a baseline similar to the story value in the Marvel movie Thor, where they state that ancient human mythology was merely a story to explain technology or magic that couldn’t be grasped otherwise. With that established, we scoured for stories and myths to see what would fit in our world and then checked them with James. Once we had his approval, we created a story to incorporate them.


James wanted a film the whole family could enjoy. Which meant we had to keep it friendly enough for everybody. But we also wanted moments like a Warner Bros cartoon, that are meant for parents and go straight over children's heads. Comedy, pathos, tragedy, heroism, we knew it could all fit in the script if we kept it honest and simple. So, we studied films we loved and questioned how the classic moments resonated for us, the ones we could quote without hesitation

“It’s our time. Our time down here.”

If you know where that quotes from it gives you all the feelings immediately. If not, watch The Goonies again and you’ll get it.


Our goal was to make a story that lived up to James Hong’s legendary career and impact on our young lives, something that parents and kids could watch together and connect on. A friend of mine watched it with his kids and they loved it. But the best part was a few days later, when my buddy was having a bad day and getting really angry, his son turned to him and said, “Dad, you must choose to drop your potatoes.” That's a quote right out of our film. That made me so proud! That my buddy’s 12-year-old son could quote our film to encapsulate a concept as complex as “emotional responsibility” and be funny at the same time? That’s just the best!


What can you tell us about your co-writer Ace Underhill, and what was your collaboration like?


Ace Underhill is a monster, an inhuman beast that walks like a man and must be stopped before he kills again! ... kidding, I just wanted to get that into print somewhere.


Ace is awesome; incredibly smart, technical, diligent, curious, layered, specific, and all in ways that are sometimes the polar opposite of me - which makes for a great collaboration. Ace is also the director of photography, my producing partner, and my editing mentor, and we did all the VFX post-supervision together. I saw more of him than my wife while we made the movie, and we haven’t killed each other yet, so that says a LOT! Ace is also my business partner and the big brains behind Brilliant Screen Studios. He can also play the piano, guitar, and drums, and writes music and computer code. Yes, he may be a cyborg from the future, but he’s MY cyborg!


I am grateful every day that I get to do what I love for a living. Ace is a huge part of my gratitude. He’s an incredible person and a joy to work with.


Do talk about The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms' approach to the fantasy genre!


Ground it in reality. But how? How do the Goonies go into One-Eyed Willie’s cave that looks like a skull and into his pirate ship with us believing it? Why do we cheer when Bastian flies Falkor over the bullies and they jump into a trash can in Neverending Story?


Ground the fantasy in real emotion. If the characters are genuine and the stakes are relatable to the audience, then you’ll go along for the ride. That’s why the first Iron Man is great and Black Adam was not.

Always come back to the character's motivations. If I can’t relate or don’t care about them or their problems, then I’ll fast forward. If I DO care? I’ll have their back through thick or thin.


The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms is chock-full of (mainly practical) special effects - so what can you tell us about those, and how were they achieved?


I’ve had the honor of working with legends in the FX world for decades and was able to get an incredibly talented team involved. I wanted to do as much practical as we could with our timeline, so juggling the production schedule required a massive team effort.


Jerry Constantine created and built the Ao puppet that George Takei does the voice for. It is similar to a Yoda puppet in complexity of design with multiple molds and rigs for various positions, functions, close-ups, wide walking shots, etc. It took a team of 4 to puppeteer the walking action used in the motion control shots and then 3 people to puppeteer the close-up shots.


Terry Sandin built the animatronic head for the eyes in Ao that I puppeteered off-camera while directing.


Todd Tucker from Illusion Industries was the lead puppeteer for Ao and also cast the prosthetics for Dante Basco and Dave Sheridan.


The key to practical FX is trusting your team, communication, lead time, and enjoying the process. Otherwise, the stress and toxic chemicals will make you go crazy and you’ll just destroy yourself and your relationships.


A few words about your overall directorial approach to your story at hand?


Each project is different but I always search for a moment of truth, of emotion, for the characters to start from. That way it motivates everything else they do. When it comes to camera movement, framing, lighting, production design, comedic timing, or tension, it’s hard to generalize the overall process. I’ve been working in the entertainment industry for 45 years and I’m constantly searching how to be better. I think curiosity and empathy are key.


What can you tell us about The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms' cast, and why exactly these people? And being an actor yourself first and foremost, did it ever occur to you to cast yourself in one role or another?


First off, I AM in the movie! Can you guess who I play?


With the casting process, I got incredibly lucky. I was starting with James Hong as Uncle Chuck. That was my starting place, a LEGEND! Knowing that my leading man was respected by every actor in the world gave gravitas to the casting process, so that raised everyone else’s game at auditions.


We saw so many fantastic actors for the role of Patsy, but Michelle Mao was immediately IT. The minute she walked in the door it was YES! She carries the story on her shoulders like a seasoned pro, standing toe to toe with James Hong in some seriously moving scenes. She kills it.


Anna Harr is my RINGER! I’ve known her since she was a tween, she can do pretty much anything and makes it look easy. I knew I could depend on her for comedy improv as she’s hilarious and talented. She makes me laugh out loud and can convey massive emotion with a single look of her giant blue eyes.


Matt Sato was pure luck! He was the very LAST audition for the role of Hopper. The other actors were good but seemed like men playing kids. Matt WAS a kid! He was 17! He reminded me of Leonardo DiCaprio in Growing Pains, all arms and legs and sweet and goofy. But you can see how handsome and talented he was going to grow into. And he did. Love that kid.


George Takei was a HUGE GIFT! He’s old friends with James Hong and he loved the Buddhist subtext of the Ao character. So he very kindly said yes. Working with him was a dream come true in every way and he brings such a rich and loving voice to Ao, I am eternally grateful.


Gedde Watanabe was amazing as Trader Joe. Such an incredibly talented, kind, and funny man.


Dante Basko and Dave Sheridan for Hank and Frank. They steal the movie. Those two together are pure comedy, a new Laurel and Hardy. They played off each other so perfectly. It was amazing to watch them get into character once their facial prosthetics (nose and Adam's apple on Dave, nose, mouth, and mustache for Dante) were applied. Dave would start bobbing his head when he walked and Dante would sniff the air and lick his “paws”. The only problem is that Dante is too buff. Seriously, the guy was a rock and made it look… like cosplay? So I added a fat suit to his costume and BOOM! He took off with it. Now he was rubbing his belly while he talked, and waddling as he walked. Now Hank and Frank were total opposites and worked perfectly! They make me laugh every time I watch them.


Bai Ling was fantastic and terrifying! She brought so much rage and energy to her character that really raised the stakes, making her the Darth Vader to Patsy’s Luke Skywalker.


Do talk about the shoot as such, and the on-set atmosphere!


We all knew we were making something rare and special. These type of fantasy movies are usually giant studio budgets from existing IPs and we’re making this original indie film? That’s very punk rock. Everyone knew we couldn’t waste time or money, that opportunities were short so we had to pull magic out of our butts. And we did. Everyone gave 100% to make it the best they could. You can feel the love in the film.


Anything you can tell us about audience and critical reception of The Keepers of the 5 Kingdoms?


We had a cast and crew premiere in a beautiful 250-seat theater. It is a magical feeling to watch a room full of people connect and respond to your film the way you intended. After the film, some of the guests, complete strangers, came to me saying, “Wow, it was so funny and sweet, and I cried... like really cried a few times, but then I laughed again… so much fun!” They got it! That’s the feeling we wanted to share.


But who knows what the future will hold? Some people will love it, others will hate it, and others won’t care. We’ll just have to wait and see. Our goal was to make a film we could be proud of, that deserved to be in the pantheon of films that James Hong has done, that families can watch now and years later and still feel connected to. Yes, it’s a crazy big goal, but life is short so take big risks.


Feeling lucky?
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No matter what they think, I’m grateful to the audience for taking a chance and giving us a shot. Unless you prefer Black Adam 2. LOL.


Your/your movie's website, social media, whatever else?


Instagram & Twitter: TotalZackWard

Instagram: Brilliantscreenstudios



Anything else you're dying to mention and I have merely forgotten to ask?


Ace and I run our studio - 4 stages, LED wall volume, Unreal Engine, full post house for sound & color, cameras, lenses, lights, grip gear, trucks, picture cars, armory, props, stunt rigs, EVERYTHING! We make movies from A-Z (Ace to Zack, lol) ... or you can just rent from us. We work with big studios and indie filmmakers. If you’re in LA, come for a tour and make your project Brilliant!


Thanks for the interview!


© by Mike Haberfelner

Legal note: (re)Search my Trash cannot
and shall not be held responsible for
content of sites from a third party.

Thanks for watching !!!



In times of uncertainty of a possible zombie outbreak, a woman has to decide between two men - only one of them's one of the undead.


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Luana Ribeira, Rudy Barrow and Rami Hilmi
special appearances by
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directed by
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written by
Michael Haberfelner

produced by
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now streaming at


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Robots and rats,
demons and potholes,
cuddly toys and
shopping mall Santas,
love and death and everything in between,
Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

is all of that.


Tales to Chill
Your Bones to
a collection of short stories and mini-plays
ranging from the horrific to the darkly humourous,
from the post-apocalyptic
to the weirdly romantic,
tales that will give you a chill and maybe a chuckle, all thought up by
the twisted mind of
screenwriter and film reviewer
Michael Haberfelner.


Tales to Chill
Your Bones to

the new anthology by
Michael Haberfelner


Out now from