The last dragon

This comes from the horse’s mouth. The horse being Donnie Yen, who you will recognize from either his U.S. or H.K. work. Before you accuse him of being a braggart, he was quoting someone in the Orient (a Japanese author to be precise). When you look at the people who he has worked with and the projects that he worked on, he is definitely the last legendary martial arts movie star to come from the Far East. Shockingly, he made Tony Jaa (of Ong-Bak fame) look like a flash in the pan. Rob Larsen’s Drunken Fist site deserves more attention, so here are excerpts from two interviews with Donnie where you can see the correlation between Highlander: Endgame and Blade II (Donnie was hired because of how he complimented the first one). After that, you will be treated to a 1999 interview conducted by Tom Mes on his defunct site. It’s actually Donnie’s best interview. Period.

DY in 1999: Most of the talent has gone to Hollywood, a lot of good talent. Look at Blade. That’s a very good example. 5 years ago, I said – Pretty soon, Hollywood is going to bite off all of the essential of the Kung Fu movies, but with a much bigger scale of production. Look at Blade compared to 10 years ago – Chuck Norris movies. The fighting, the cutting is actually better than a lot of today’s Hong Kong action movies.

DY in 2000: Miramax called. They want a “Miramax Action Guy,” the next martial arts star. They wanted me to be in Highlander and two other pictures. Highlander is just kind of a welcoming on board movie. I played one of the featured roles and also acted as martial arts choreographer on the film.

Rob: How was that experience? One thing I’m curious about, what was the stunt team comprised of mostly? Americans? If so, how was it working with them?

DY: It was pretty good. I mean, all these stunt guys they hired from America – they’re very familiar with Hong Kong films and they know my work. So I’d say try this, try that and they’d understand. There wasn’t a communication gap there. It wasn’t like they hired some motorcycle stunt guys who have no idea to do martial arts stuff.

Rob: What do you think of the work of former Hong Kong talent now working over here? How do you rate the work you did on the Highlander film? Who, of the Hong Kong imports, has done the best job?

DY: Oh, definitely Jet Li. Definitely, because he’s smart enough to bring in his own team. I don’t know how he got his way, but he actually had people from Hong Kong shooting this stuff. That’s very important in making sure the quality is under control. Unfortunately I didn’t really have that kind of freedom in Highlander. Luckily I have a lot of experience, both in working with different circumstance and being… diplomatic. I think it’s going to be pretty strong. Even by Hong Kong standards. I choreographed everything in the fights. I kind of manipulated it to the point where they can’t really cut up the shots. At the end of the day I saw the rough cut and looked all right.

Tom Mes offered up an introduction that explained how he met the last dragon: “On my recent trip to Hong Kong, I had the great fortune of finally meeting Donnie thanks to the ever amicable Bey Logan. In fact, one of the reasons I went to HK was to interview him. For this humble reporter, a few yes and no answers to some simple questions would have made my day. But the interview that followed soon turned into something much bigger, as Donnie talked and talked, offering his views on filmmaking and being quite outspoken in the process.”

TM: These days, you’re mainly known as a director. You made your directorial debut with Legend of the Wolf, which I thought was a great film. One thing that struck me about that movie was the influence of Spaghetti Westerns, especially on some of the plot elements.

DY: Actually, I don’t recall it being inspired by any particular film. When a director makes a film, he brings in his own feelings and pattern of images. I grew up in Boston and now I’ve been in the HK movie industry for quite a number of years, I tried to balance that, to capture both worlds when I directed Legend of the Wolf. Personally, I’m not satisfied with the results, because I was short on budget. It was shot on a very, very small budget, so there were a lot of limitations. Unlike a lot of established directors, they do a scene, cut the scene, maybe they see something that can be improved, they go back and reshoot it. For me, I had to make every decision right then and there. Basically, I had to fight a battle with the outside world all the time.

TM: Don’t you think it’s a good thing for a filmmaker to never really be satisfied with his own work? It leaves him striving for better results.

DY: I’d like to look at it that way, but I think I’m always better off having that budget than not having that budget.

TM: After Legend of the Wolf, didn’t you get offers from American companies?

DY: Yes. I was approached by Chrome Dragon, a branch of Francis Ford Coppola’s company. The producer there was called Tom Luddy. He and Steven E. de Souza, another producer who was the scriptwriter of 48 Hrs, came to Hong Kong in search of new directors for their company. He was really happy about my work and they even sent me a whole script. But I don’t know what happened. My understanding from Bey Logan, because Bey has been in touch with them, is that Tom Luddy quit that company. Maybe it’s politics, so I guess it’s not going to happen anytime soon. But I spoke to them in Hong Kong several times. They kept faxing me and sending me material, then that was it. They never followed up.

TM: Would that have been an American film with you as a star?

DY: It wasn’t decided, but definitely directing.

TM: I personally was very impressed with Legend of the Wolf. Not just because of the fight choreography, which I thought was amazing, but because there are little details in there that make you go – Wow, that’s really something else! For instance: it’s an action movie, and action movies are usually filled to the brim with guns. In Legend of the Wolf, there are no guns, until about three quarters of the way in, when somebody suddenly pulls out one gun. And that one gun has so much more impact than any scene in another action movie that’s filled with them.

DY: I think that creativity can come from a lot of pressure. I understand that if I’m going to make an action movie, there’s a couple of rules you have to set for the audience. In a modern day action movie, guns are involved. Often, HK action movies they miss the point. They can film or choreograph the greatest fight scene, but the audience is going to question “How come that guy doesn’t just pull out a gun?” So before I shot Legend of the Wolf, I had to create a setting, set the characters and set all these restrictions to make sure the audience don’t say “Hey, how come he didn’t pull a gun in the beginning?” So, sometimes, restrictions can push a person to be more creative.

TM: Didn’t all those restrictions you mentioned put you off from wanting to make a directorial debut?

DY: There’s been so many little problems on those two films that I’ve done. Every single day there’s problems. Big problems, small problems, all kinds of problems. Dealing with the crew, with the cast, dealing with distributors, I have to handle everything. The hardest part is not to direct and act at the same time. I’m quite confident that I’m capable of delivering under whatever circumstances. The toughest part is dealing with creativity and business at the same time. That is the hardest. If your producer comes up to you in the middle of shooting, when you’re totally into the film, and says “We’re fifteen thousand short.” I mean how are you going to continue?

That is the toughest, you have to maintain a certain kind of cool, a certain kind of calmness to deal with whatever unexpected circumstances that can occur every single shooting day. But again, if I had more budget, or if I had a company that was somehow semi-supportive and behind me, I think my films can be a lot better. I can totally dedicate myself to just creating. In terms of just directing and acting, I don’t have any problems.

I strongly believe that I have a certain type of vision about editing. I have a background in music, so all those elements together made me very fortunate to be able to be a director. A lot of people ask me “How can you direct and act at the same time?” To me, that’s no problem. I know exactly how the film is going to come out in my head before I shoot it. That really helps in the process of trying to finish a movie within a small budget.

TM: This vision you’re talking about, did you develop this when you were still an actor and an action choreographer? Were you going “I would shoot it this way” or “The director should do it that way, but he’s not listening to my proposals?”

DY: Yes, definitely. You know, I have always been a rebel in my whole entire life, since I was just a martial artist. I always have questions in the back of my mind. Why does it have to be this way? Can it be that way? I always try to challenge that system. I guess that kind of attitude I brought into the film industry when I was just an actor. I see different films, I see how a director or choreographer would choreograph it. I say to myself – “It can be improved, it can be better and in less time.” Or I’d wonder – “How come this film is a good film and the other one a bad film, when the budget is not much different?”

There’s certain techniques, a certain system. When I was an action choreographer, when I used to work for Yuen Woo-Ping, I used to grab a whole team of people and just raise questions. To the photographer, or to Yuen: “Could it be that way? Could be it be that? Can why try it this way?” Very soon, I established a kind of trust from him, because I made a lot of his films happen with my suggestions. I also had a very strong sense of framing, because of my background with my music, that I can kind of calculate all the shots in my head and I would tell him.

So at that time I realised that I could be a very good action choreographer, because I know my shots inside out in my head before photography. I started becoming an action choreographer myself, but against the big boys. I was never an established action choreographer because I never won any kind of award. I’d like to win an award, but I think all awards are political. Every year the HK Film Award is won by Golden Harvest. Every single year! So you know they give it to their own boys.

After being an action choreographer, I proved myself that my vision was right from making several successful action movies. Doing choreography, helping with editing. I was the one that told Yuen what lenses and what speed to use to come out with that kind of result. So all those credits gave me the confidence to want to become a director. But it’s very hard to go up to an investor and say “I’m Donnie Yen, known action actor, and I could be a very good director.” That’s very, very tough. So you have to have a trade-off.

With Legend of the Wolf, originally this company wanted me to just be an actor, so they could sell their film internationally. It’s a funny thing, my market as an actor is a lot stronger outside HK than in HK itself. Anyway this trade-off is that I will appear in this company’s film if I can direct that film. Part of the deal was that the film would be called New Big Boss in Korea, because that’s very marketable. Of course they want it to be very commercial, New Big Boss sounds like Bruce Lee. But I don’t want to make those kinds of films.

Especially as a first-time director, I want to make breakthrough action movies. So we made a deal that I would deliver a certain number of action scenes so they could market it, but in exchange I would have a certain amount of control over the film’s creation. The result was: let’s make a half-and-half contemporary and period film. So I made a time-crossing, travelling type of story. That was how I started my first film as a director.

After the first film I saw what I could do with such a low budget. At the time, I shot it with four million HK dollars, which is incredibly lean. Very, very small. People in the industry were shocked that I made a film that looked like Legend of the Wolf. That gave me a lot of confidence, I wanted to get more into distribution and how to market my own films. So I started my own company and made Ballistic Kiss, but that is another story. Many, many things happened that made Ballistic Kiss turn out the way it did. It had the potential to be a lot a better.

TM: From what I understand, it started out with you wanting to do an English-language project.

DY: Exactly. I thought – “I’m a first-time director, Legend of the Wolf came out okay; I want to find a way to upgrade action movies in my own way.” I can’t compete with the big guys like Jackie Chan’s movies, because I can’t blow up a whole building. I can’t make mainstream movies because of the budget. I have to make something different that the audience would pay to come and see, even though it’s a low budget movie. At least they’ll say – “When I see a Donnie Yen movie, I see something new every time.”

So I wanted to make a modern movie. One, to prove that I can make contemporary movies, not just Kung Fu movies. Two, to add to the uniqueness, I wanted to make it in English. Now that would be very topical, to make an English sync-sound Hong Kong action movie would be a first time. I was very ambitious and optimistic about how Ballistic Kiss could come out. Then problems started to come: my actress couldn’t speak English, she couldn’t act.

Because of the whole crisis of the stock market in Asia, all the cashflow that I relied on stopped coming. So I had a lot of financial problems in the process, many of my crew I had to pay lower fees. I was trying to make a good movie to start off with and in the end it just became trying to finish a movie. So that was a really unfortunate thing. But if Ballistic Kiss was shot with the original concept, the original script and the whole idea intact, it could have been a lot better.

TM: Bey Logan wrote the original English script, right?

DY: Bey wrote the first version. It was my story. He and I worked on it several times. A lot of times, my mind just goes real quick, I always change things: “This is not as good, I want something more unique.” I had to keep changing it and he was busy at the time, so he only wrote the first draft. I had enough people to make a second draft, then a third draft. I was quite happy with the third draft. If I had a good actress, if I had no problem with the finance, I had confidence that movie could be an award-winning type of movie, you know what I’m saying? But unfortunately, it just became…especially towards the middle of the movie, you could see I had no more money to shoot. A lot of what was built up ended up just unsatisfying.

But the next movie, I already have the ideas in my head, is going to be totally different from Ballistic Kiss. As you can see, I love films. You can see the passion I have when I’m talking about films. I want to satisfy audiences; I want to satisfy myself. Maybe it’s the whole ego thing, I don’t know. Even if it is, it doesn’t matter. You need a certain type of ego to be a good director. You have to be interested…basically in yourself, otherwise you can’t have that confidence in your point of view. After Ballistic Kiss, I took a couple of months off to just lay back and look at what happened. Now that I’ve kind of recharged myself, I believe with the next movie I can deliver something totally fresh.

TM: You have a story or a script for that movie yet? Because what I heard was that you were so burned out from the whole Ballistic Kiss experience that you didn’t want to direct anymore.

DY: Yeah, I was burned, there were just too many problems. But this time I want to make a monk movie. Sort of like the Kung Fu TV series. It’s about a modern-day character, he was a monk, but then he grows his hair for certain reasons. He broke some kind of religious code; he had sex with a woman and he was kicked out of his religious clan. So he goes in search of the truth of religion. It’s deep and I’m still working on the script, but it’s about…basically I’m trying to challenge Buddhism. I don’t want to say it out loud, because this is going against everything. I mean, how can a Buddhist believe that a monk won’t have certain desires?

Hopefully this film will take place in Tokyo. Full-on action, powerful, but not like Legend of The Wolf. That was a bit dramatised, not real. I made it that way, I made a period film so the action could be exaggerated. Ballistic Kiss is a modern movie, so certain actions can’t be too exaggerated. But this movie is going to be a Kung Fu fighting movie. No guns, just raw, powerful fighting with a lot of philosophical, religious messages.

I think the next couple of years, I would like to make films that are more spiritual. Because I think the world needs it. I’m not saying that I’m a saint or anything. I’m in a position where I realise that somehow people can be influenced by films. I’d like to be more positive in what I give the world. There’s so many problems. Hopefully my films can do something, bring some good to the world.

TM: I understand that Legend of the Wolf was quite a cult hit in Japan, and you’ve been getting quite a bit of Japanese backing since then. Ballistic Kiss had a Japanese composer.

DY: Oh, Ballistic Kiss is going into the Young Directors Film Award in Japan. But it’s already fixed, some Japanese movie’s going to win.

TM: You’ve just finished working on a film with Leslie Cheung, also with Japanese backing.

DY: Yes. Moonlight Express is a big, big production. Leslie Cheung plays an undercover agent and they have the most popular actress in Japan playing opposite him. Also, Michelle Yeoh is doing a special cameo. But the director saw Ballistic Kiss and, through a friend, he knew Jimmy Wong, who played the villain in my film. So he called me up and told me that Catherine Hun Ga-Jan, the executive producer, happened to see it, was shocked and wanted to meet me.

So I went out, we started talking and she told me she thought the film was incredible, because she didn’t expect Donnie Yen could direct. So she told Daniel Lee, the director, to go see it, and he said that with Ballistic Kiss, I did everything he wanted to do for his next film. So he wanted to meet me and also wanted me to help him with his next movie. He told me that originally it was just a love story, but he wanted to make the scale a little bit bigger, he wanted to put action into it. They only gave me three whole days to shoot action scenes for the movie, so I tried to give him my point of view, not just action-wise because action blends into drama. He was working on the script and I went in to help him with that, how the character develops, how can we blend certain types of action, editing. Then I did my three days on set.

TM: So for this one it’s back to the action director days.

DY: Oh, I love directing. Actually, action direction and directing are the same thing. My action direction is a little different from other action directors. They help the director on set, choreograph a few scenes, then let the cameramen and the director place their cameras. But when I’m filming, I basically control the set, I’m the director. Daniel is a very nice guy, there’s not much politics to him. He wanted me to help him and he gave me the full authority. I also told him that there’s two types of helping: do you want me to be an action director like anybody else or do you want me to be Donnie Yen helping you? He wanted me to be Donnie Yen helping him, so on the set I basically controlled everything and I edit my own film afterwards.

TM: As an action director you’ve worked with Yuen Woo-Ping so many times. How has he shaped your vision towards action choreography?

DY: To be honest, he really didn’t teach me anything. That was the unfortunate thing. I learned everything by myself. I guess himself and most of these older directors, their knowledge of directing is based on experience, but they never went in to study theories behind filmmaking or directing. So I don’t think they can answer any kind of question. If you ask them why, they don’t know. I think with all kinds of creation, you have to understand the truth, the motivation, or why, when and how.

That’s so very important. If you’re going to direct a movie, you have to understand what kind of message you’re trying to bring across – what kind of film. What are you trying to bring into the world? If you want to film a character, you have to understand that character. If you choreograph action, you also have to understand that character before you choreograph it. A lot of times, action directors and directors in HK don’t have the same kind of wavelength. You see a character this way, then all of a sudden you see some action that way and they don’t blend. It’s like two directors directing two different movies.

All these years I always wanted to go on a quest for that understanding. I would watch other director’s films, whether they’re Hollywood directors or HK, I would study them and analyze them. What are they thinking of? Why would they place a camera this way? Why do they direct an actor to speak that way or to move that way? I would try to understand where they’re coming from. So when I direct, I try to understand myself before I direct. Even when I’m choreographing action, I would think “What am I trying to do? Am I helping this character or am I actually distracting from it? Is it going to deliver something that audiences expect or not expect? Is it going to come out well-received or not well-received?”

All those things you have to consider. Unfortunately a lot of directors don’t. They just go scene by scene. This scene is that many minutes of action, then the next scene – Oh, it’s a love scene or a sex scene, you know. It’s like pieces here, pieces there. It’s not one composition. I think every element – action, drama, lighting, framing, music, effects, even down to promotion and packaging – should be a whole. That’s what I’m trying to do with this film with Daniel. I have to understand the script, understand where he’s coming from, what does he want, before I choreograph, or film, or edit to bring his feeling into that film. Someone whose style really inspires me is Michael Bay. I like The Rock, I like Armageddon. His style is very upbeat. I specifically look at his style when I watch his movies, the way he cuts his shots, it’s not too crazy like Oliver Stone and Natural Born Killers.

TM: I thought the car chase sequence in The Rock was taking things a bit too far, because the camera was shaking and you couldn’t really tell what was going.

DY: I really liked it, I really did. I think the audience are a lot smarter and more educated than you’d expect. Through years of watching movies. With Legend of the Wolf, a lot of people criticised me, saying it was too fast. But the point was to be that fast, so you couldn’t see. That’s the whole point. Really. If you look at MTV, you don’t see every shot. Let me give you a raw example: when you watch boxers fight in a match, like Mike Tyson, it’s so fast you can’t see what he’s doing. But you sense it. You see it and not see it. But if they want you to see it, they play it back in slow motion. The same with many Hollywood movies. Why would they want to play it in slow motion? Because they want to capture the audience for that moment. To really say something. Of course I see every shot, because I see a movie the way a director would, when most audiences couldn’t see it because it’s too fast. But that’s the whole point, so you can feel the ride.

With Michael Bay, his style is that way. It’s about the whole movie, not individual shots. So if you thought that was too fast, look at Natural Born Killers, you probably couldn’t see anything, you couldn’t tell what the hell was going on. But that’s the director’s frame of mind, maybe he’s all high, you know. He sees the images that way, but most of the audience are just normal human beings. But if you had played The Rock ten years ago, it would have been just too fast. People’s minds couldn’t have kept up.

If you look at old Hollywood films, the punches are so slow, you can see it coming. Look at now. The editing is just as fast as a Hong Kong action movie, or even faster sometimes. But it’s the feeling, it’s the whole, with the stereo sound, the music, that puts you into that frame of mind. With Legend of the Wolf, the shots are so short, it’s hard to catch the movements. I wanted to make it that way, so you could feel the whole impact. A lot of the old veterans complain – “Oh, it’s too fast, I couldn’t see it.” I didn’t want you to see it. When I want you to see it, I’ll show you, maybe in slow motion or with multiple takes. But also, I’m a fast person, so that tends to show through in the films. Like with any other director.

TM: What about Tarantino for instance?

DY: He’s fast.

TM: Oh yeah, he’s fast, but then there’s scenes like the one in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta and Uma Thurman are having a conversation and then all of a sudden it’s quiet for a whole minute.

DY: Maybe he was tired. Maybe he was taking marijuana, he could have been high. I’m serious. Sometimes I look at a scene and I think the director must have been doing this or feeling that, you know.

TM: Oh, the director must have been high when he edited this. Then the next day he was on speed. Now, when looking at an overview of your career, one can see that you, yourself, as an actor, have made quite a few, shall I say less inspired movies. Films like Cheetah on Fire and Crystal Hunt.

DY: I’m not proud of those, but everybody’s got to make a living. So I have to give up something, give up some pride, to pay the bills. That’s the simple reason. I know they’re terrible.

TM: Actually, I really like that other one you did back then, Holy Virgin Versus The Evil Dead, it’s a great movie if you’re in the right mood for it.

DY: I hate all those movies. I made a couple, they were pretty bad, I’m not proud of them, but I did them for one reason: I need that money. Trying to make movies can be quite hard. I don’t go around kissing people’s hands, therefore I have to rely on my work and keep building. When Ballistic Kiss ran into financial problems halfway through, I returned the down-payment. Let me put it this way – if I had less pride, I would have made a lot more bad movies and a lot more money. It’s about having a passion, continuing to make it happen. It’s not about what you have today, even if that’s fame and recognition because that can just fade. A lot of today’s action filmmakers, they make a lot of films, but are they going to last? When they go home and sleep at night, I’m sure they’re happy because they make a lot of money. But from a strictly artistic point of view, do you think they can look in the mirror and say to themselves – “You know, I did a really good job.” I don’t think they can.

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