High-flying rebel genius

With the contributions of Jude Poyer, this 2001 interview with Ridley Tsui was conducted by Tom Mes on his long-defunct site – Project A. A Peking opera alumnus, Ridley started doing stunts at age 12, became a stunt coordinator at 19 and a director just three years later. When he was 31, Ridley was on the eve of his U.S. breakthrough as his work as an action director on Mortal Kombat 2 had won him popularity with stateside producers. A star-spangled future never quite took off. Anyway, I edited this interview to make it flow better with a tighter pace (there is nay redundancy in sight).

TM: So how does one get a name like Ridley?

RT: Actually, my best friend suggested it to me a long time ago. But I just said no way. Because back then I didn’t know the famous director Ridley Scott. But some time later I saw one of his films and I thought “Wow, this man is my hero!”

TM: I have to say you do seem to be the master of the high fall. How many times have you done one of those third storey falls?

RT: Oh, a lot of times. Actually I can’t remember how many times I did.

TM: Is that from falling so hard?

RT: Yeah, I lost my memory (laughs). But one serious stunt was where I fell from the third floor window, and then landed on the second floor balcony and then on the ground. That was a very serious injury. I hurt both of my ankles. I had to stay home for half a year. I was just nineteen years old.

TM: How long had you being doing stunts for at that point?

RT: I started doing little stunts at twelve years old. When I was nine years old, my father found me a Peking opera master to teach me the Peking opera skills. Because my father was a Peking opera performer, he thought that I should follow in his footsteps.

TM: In the West, people know how Jackie Chan and Sammo Hung came from Peking opera and went straight into movies. Is that how it went with you as well?

RT: For me, it was basically the same as Jackie, Sammo, Yuen Biao, those people.

TM: Is the Peking opera still a very active training ground for stunt people?

RT: No. Almost no one learns these kinds of skills in Hong Kong, because the HK movie industry is going down, so there’s not too many people that go into this kind of business. Almost all the Peking opera masters passed away, because they were very old, and there was no one to take their place.

TM: All the people who could take their place are now in movies.

RT: Yeah, exactly (laughs).

TM: So that’s another threat for the HK movie industry. People leaving for Hollywood and nobody to take their place.

RT: I think the major problem is that even TVB, the big HK broadcast company, are going to lay off the stuntmen in the future. So how can you make a living as a stuntman in HK?

JP: People can make more money working in an office. That’s the way the young people look at it. They think – “Why should I have to train my body so hard for five years to be a stunt man?”

RT: Yeah, that’s it. That’s right.

JP: The opera training is crazy. So young H.K. kids who’ve had it easy think – Oh, I’ll be a banker or an accountant rather than work in the movie business. It’s like before, the Peking opera guys realised that opera was dying, so they moved into TV and film with their skills. But now the stunt industry is having its problems.

TM: And people are moving into banking with their skills.

JP: Or whatever. You know, some of the top stuntmen in HK, they drive a taxi, or they work in bars full time. There’s this guy who’s an amazing acrobat, he went to Hollywood to play one of the Ninja Turtles, he’s a hairdresser by trade. He does get movie work, but he’s got something to fall back on. That’s the state the movie industry is in right now.

TM: It just seems strange to me that people would choose banking over movies.

RT: If Jude can get enough money from the movie business, I think he wouldn’t have to teach drama and would spend a lot of his time in the movie industry.

TM: You’re right, if I could get a job as a scriptwriter, I’d quit my job like that. There’s something I don’t quite understand. What’s the difference between a stunt coordinator, a fight choreographer and an action director?

RT: It’s a big difference. Because if you’re an action director, you’re in charge of the action scene, but you have to let the director approve your choreography. Maybe the director doesn’t like it, then you have to change. Maybe the director doesn’t know what’s good choreography, good punches, good kicks. That’s why I prefer to be a director – to be in charge of everything. So everything’s in my mind and everything’s under control.

TM: It’s common in HK movies to have one director for the action while there is another for the non-action.

JP: It’s not the same as in Hollywood, you know. In American movies, they’ll often have a second unit director doing the action, someone like Charles Picerni who’ll film things like cars exploding. But the director has the final say, where the camera goes, what happens in the scene. With a lot of HK movies, they’ll be shooting the dramatic scenes, and they’ll go to the action director and say – the next scene is totally for you.

The action director takes care of everything. The camera, the editing, the lighting, the movement, everything. Some direcors like that. With Downtown Torpedoes, Tung Wei does all the action and he’s the main man. Other directors, like Ringo Lam, they will be there and then the action director is just like a stunt coordinator. It’ll be – Show me what you like and this is how I will film it.

TM: Which is good, because often when you get an action director and an overall director doing two different things, you’ll get an unbalanced movie. But if you do everything yourself, you can keep everything in check and make sure everything is levelled.

RT: Yeah, but I think in Hollywood it’s very hard to do it like that. Because in Hollywood, even though I’m a second unit director, I will have to let the director know what I will shoot before we go to the set. That’s Hollywood style. In HK, I can take over the cameraman’s job, I can just operate a camera, but in Hollywood they don’t allow me to do that.

TM: How did you cope with this change when you went to Hollywood?

RT: The Hollywood condition is very, very good. I got my own trailer, I got a car, first class for the plane. But we have to do a lot of rehearsal before beginning the film. Day by day, we have to train the actors and actresses.

TM: Harder work, but the conditions make it easier.

RT: Actually, it’s pretty easy, more so than in the world of HK film. Everybody’s hard working, everybody knows what they’re gonna do, so the system is very, very detailed. No one sleeps on the set, no one is lazy on the set. With a HK movie, you can see after lunch, everybody’s sleeping (laughs).

TM: I’ve seen that, yes.

RT: Yeah, you have to wake them: “Hey, get back to work.” – that kind of thing. You have to yell at them. HK style is like that.

TM: That’s the advantage of Hollywood, everybody does their job and nothing else. Sometimes, I can imagine you’d appreciate some help from someone else, but if everybody does their own job, that means everything is going well. It’s the union thing.

JP: That’s right, but I think when it becomes so organised it becomes like a factory. I believe action directors are artists. They’re creating something. But if they’re not allowed to be in charge of the camera angle, the camera movement, the lighting, or the editing, there’s going to be a problem. You watch Batman, they’re fighting martial arts, but you can’t see what the Hell is going on. Because the cameraman has his vision, the editor has his vision, the stunt coordinator has his vision and the director has his vision. It doesn’t work.

TM: Almost all the movies you’ve directed, you’ve also starred in. Is that a conscious choice you make?

RT: Actually, I didn’t like it. I want to concentrate on the director’s job. But sometimes, if I hire someone else to play that role, that actor maybe doesn’t know how to fight, how to do the stunts. I don’t have to spend time to teach him how to do it.

TM: I don’t think that’s going to be just as easy in Hollywood – to be in front of the camera as well as behind it. Again, because of rules and restrictions.

JP: I also think Hollywood will give you time. On a HK movie, they might say – Ridley, here’s the money, you’ve got thirty days to film. You can’t spend an hour on the set telling the actor what his motivation is. Ridley is actually a very good actor. He can act in front of a camera, which a lot of guys can’t do in HK. But in the West, you’ve got time, you can spend five to ten minutes to say to the actor – This is what I need for this shot. In HK, you can’t do that. In HK, you’ll rarely hear an actor say “What is my motivation?” or something to that effect. Usually, what they’re doing is so robotic that they know exactly what’s wanted of them.

TM: But then you might as well do everything yourself, become a one-man moviemaking machine.

JP: Have you noticed how Ridley uses the same actors more than once if he likes them?

TM: Yes, I have.

JP: It’s the same with crew. Because these people have worked with him before, they know his vision.

TM: So that’s the Ridley Tsui family then? You know, a lot of American independent directors do that as well. A lot of times they also write their own scripts. That’s possible if you do an independent movie where the budget’s not too high.

RT: But when one man is in charge of so many positions…you have to let the other people share your pressure, share your stress. With Jackie, every movie is the same, no news at all. If you want to make it fresh, you have to let other people share your pressure. Someone should say – Jackie, the last film you did was a cop story, maybe this movie we can talk about a fireman. He goes – No, just police.

TM: There’s a danger in not asking other people their opinions. You have to be open to other people’s criticism and advice. Because often their advice is something you hadn’t even thought of.

RT: Then I will figure out if he’s right or if he’s wrong.

TM: How did you get in touch with Hollywood?

RT: Robin Shou recommended me for that job then Larry Kassanoff saw my showreel, he saw my works, and my tapes. He said – Okay, I would like to see this guy. Then he hired me, initially just for testing. They think – “Ridley is not bad, let’s give him that chance.”

TM: Have you found that that’s the way it works, that there’s a lot of testing before you actually get the job?

RT: Yes, you could say that. It’s very lucky you know, because with Mortal Kombat 2, I think I really showed off my skills and my style then Larry hired me again for the Mortal Kombat TV series. When Mortal Kombat 2 was released in America, the audience thought “This is pretty good, it’s different from part one and other action movies.” then another producer contacted me by long-distance phone call – Would you like to make a movie in America?”

TM: Have you found that in America you get a lot of things offered to you, and they’ll say “Yeah, you’re fantastic, we should work together some time.” and then it doesn’t really happen?

RT: No, not really, because they want to put more HK style into their movies at the moment. They saw what I’d done, so that’s why they trust me. They know I’m a director, so they know I can handle everything on the set. That’s why they invest money in me.

TM: You mentioned there’s a Mortal Kombat TV series coming up?

RT: Larry is still working on it. I think there’s a rights problem. Larry owns the rights, but New Line invested money in the movies and they have a say, so they’re still arguing.

TM: But when they get the rights cleared, you’ll definitely be part of that?

RT: I think so, yes. But, for now, I’ve still got my own projects.

TM: Tell me something more about those.

RT: One movie is about the golden child, Jude is helping me with that. I would likely hire Robin to play the golden child. He’s going to fight the devil who killed his entire family. There’s this great twist at the end. Then the other project I would like to talk about – the Chinese railroad workers. They were brought to America to work on the railroads, you know? Of course, there’s discrimination – the Chinese get beaten. Robin will play the Chinese doctor. So I would like to talk about Chinese medicine, how it works. The Americans don’t believe the Chinese medicine can heal the body. There’s this murder plot that the doctor gets involved in.

TM: There was talk about you doing another project, an action film set in a high rise building.

RT: Yeah. It’s called Strychnine. That came through J.J. Perry, the stunt guy from Mortal Kombat 2. A producer saw that film and asked J.J. about me. So he gave me a call and asked me if I wanted to direct an American movie. I said okay, so they sent me a script. It’s a low budget movie, but I would like to do it, as a first step. Even though the script is not spectacular, everything happening in one building like Die Hard.

But there’s action, kicks, punches, guns shooting, so I still want to make it. This film, I want to make it different from American action movies. I want to put more HK style in it. Stunts, wires, have the bad guy pulled back ten or twenty feet against the wall when he gets shot. Make it much more spectacular, to really show off the HK style.

TM: And you think you’ll have the freedom to do that with this film?

RT: I think so. Because the producer trusts me, he believes in me so much. But first I will do the Mortal Kombat TV series. Then after that, I will do my own projects with Robin.

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