This interview took place 1-9-1999 at the Chinese Wushu Research Institute, Donnie’s mother’s school.
Short bio: Donnie; grew up in Boston, studied Tai Chi and Wushu with his mom (Bow Sim Mark- CWRI is her school. Famous.), went to China to further his studies, stopped in Hong Kong, got discovered, been in the movies ever since.
Fifteen years later he was back in Boston seeing his folks and (through the oddest set of circumstances) sitting down for an interview with your truly.
<duh.>(RL= Rob Larsen, DY= Donnie Yen)</duh.>
RL: The first thing I want to ask you about… I’ve read basic overviews of how you got started in the industry. You went to China to study, you stopped in Hong Kong and you were discovered. But I’ve never really heard the specifics of how that happened? How did that happen?
DY: That’s pretty much it. I never though of myself being in the entertainment business, in the first place. I was training in martial arts, as you’re aware, but I was traveling around studying martial arts. I was in China back in the 1980s, the early 80s, studying so-called Wushu or what we call Chinese Wushu. Wushu is the exact translation from the Chinese Mandarin meaning, "martial arts." I was 15, 16 at the time and I went to Beijing. I lived in Beijing and some other parts of China for, back and forth, almost two years. When I stopped over in Hong Kong, I met up with a director, who, at the time, was casting for the leading man to play the movie called Drunken Tai Chi, which happened to be my first film. The reason we got hooked up was; his older sister was a student of my mother. Okay? Somehow, he had heard of me when I was in China, through the sister. He was trying to look for a young martial artist who had the potential to act in front of the camera. So, he wanted to meet me. We met and he wanted to have a screen test. I went through the whole thing, signed a contract with him and made two films. That was the first two film that I’ve done.
RL: Do you have any thoughts about Drunken Tai Chi? I mean it’s been fifteen years since you did that.
DY: When I was making Drunken Tai Chi it was the hardest- Don’t forget, I’m like any other audience. We kind of grow up with martial arts films. Like watching Bruce Lee films, y’know, and Jackie Chan films, right? So, when you go see a movie, you see the best of it, you see the final cuts. You don’t really understand the process of making movies. You see the glamour of it, right? So, making Drunken Tai Chi, was an experience. First of all, I realized it takes takes and takes and takes to have an okay shot. And that was a disaster because you can be the greatest martial artist in the world, but, if you’re gonna wake up at six o’clock in the morning and constantly throw the same kick for the next twelve hours- you’re gonna run out. I don’t care how good you are.
I’ve learned throughout the years to reserve my energy…
In the first movie I just kind of let everything out, trying to pull the fastest techniques possible. Which, most of the time, the director’ll say I was going too fast. The camera could not catch me. Or, your opponent cannot work with you because you’ll be kicking him all over the place and he doesn’t know how to block the techniques. Especially during that time where kung fu movies… the pace of kung fu movies was a lot slower than what you see today. A lot more visible. You see the techniques. Sort of like a mechanical step by step
RL: Kind of the Shaw Bros. influence…
DY: Right… A little bit later than the Shaw Bros. I think Shaw Bros. was the very early stage. I think it was more like the Drunken Master era, when Jackie Chan… That 1-2-3… (illustrates the concept) very tango…
JL (Jean Lukitsh. Published a great kung fu movie calendar. She sat in on the interview): More like two-person forms or something.
DY: Yeah, pretty much like that. Like a 1-2-3 (snaps fingers to emphasize the rhythm)
DY: Yeah… So, I came with no experience and my director Yuen Wo-Ping, he’s from the old school. He doesn’t teach you anything. It’s like, you have to learn it on the set. So, I’ll be messing up, and you’ll hear him yelling at you behind the camera. But, he doesn’t tell you why… Let me give you an example. I would kick a person, say, in the chest or something. And he’d constantly, "N.G." Y’know, it was not a good take. Constantly making comments, like "no power." I’d say, " What do you mean, no power? I kicked the guy across the room already. He’s down on the ground." Then I realized later on that there’s techniques to emphasize the so-called "power on screen." In other words, you can kill the person, but not necessarily look very powerful on screen. The movement has to be exaggerated a bit. Say, in Wing Chun, a one-inch punch would not look very powerful on screen because it’s a very short movement. You’ve got to wind that punch up… with the expression of the face and the body, to make that punch powerful.
JL: Yeah, the whole body language
DY: Exactly. You can barely touch the person, but if the person reacts to that punch it can appear to be a powerful punch. Well, of course, at the beginning I was kicking the guy with all full force, but without that clean extension of the leg and blah, blah, blah. So I’ve learned through these little details.
Now, when I look back, I think that it was a great opportunity for me because I believe Drunken Tai Chi was probably the last of that kung fu fighting movies. It was totally different from Once Upon a Time in China. It was another era. Once Upon a Time in China, you’re dealing with kung fu films with the whole package; with the music, with the wardrobe, with the drama, with the love story behind it. But, with the traditional kung fu movies, I believe Drunken Tai Chi was the last of it’s kind. So it was fortunate for me to have gone through that experience. If had came into the circle maybe a few years later I would not have that kind of experience. Like lots of action actors in Hong Kong- or stuntmen. For the past ten years, they did not have the opportunity to experience the kung fu movies, they came into the circle and they started doing crazy falls.
RL: Like Jackie in Police Story.
DY: Exactly, you’d have a lot of daredevils. But they did not have the opportunity to go through that horse stance. That technique… It’s completely different, different techniques, different knowledge. So, for me it was a great experience.
On the other hand, I’ve discovered there are many, many areas that need to be improved in terms of how to make a good movie. How to make a good fighting movie. I remember Drunken Tai Chi, it took almost nine months to shoot. It was ridiculous. Sometimes it took a whole day to take one shot. Y’know there were just too many unprofessional areas that need to change… to learn from the West, you know, how they produce films… (Pauses)
Yes, that was the beginning of my career.
RL: Okay, well, like I said, since you’ve branched out recently I’m gonna ask a little bit about your thoughts on each of some of the things you’ve done. First off, I want to touch on directing, since that’s kind of the newest aspect you’ve taken on. How do you like working as a director and how do you feel about your own work?
(He offers me some buns. I refuse politely. Donnie munches for a bit.)
DY: Well, personally, I like directing better than acting.
DY: I don’t think I’m a good actor, frankly speaking. I think the main reason is because of me being a martial artist. Maybe five years ago it was a matter of ego, being a martial artist. To be a good actor, you have to be adaptable, you have to be flexible. Basically, you have to be soft when you have to. You could be playing a weaker person as a character. You have to kind of adjust to that. But as a martial artist you can’t. You always gotta be strong about it. I think five years ago it was more of an ego thing; that "hmmm, I’m a martial artist…." Right now, I don’t think it’s an ego thing for me, because I’m more of a mature man now. Now, it’s more like, I appreciate being a martial artist, so I take pride in being a martial artist.
Plus, I don’t think I have the potential to be one of the top actors anyway. I don’t want to say I’m giving it up– Oh! There’s another factor that’s very, very important that I recognize. Being an actor you can be so limited in areas where all the creativity has to be surrounded by the producer, the script, director. So you’re told what to do. You have a boundary, a limitation where the creativity is. But as a director… the range of directing in Hong Kong is huge. You can basically do whatever you want.
RL: Well, in one film it’s huge as well. You can float back and forth if you feel like it.
DY: Great. I mean for me, I love directing. I think– I sensed the kind of talent when I walked into an editing room years ago being an action director. When I felt the Steambecks- we used Steambecks in the past, you know? I knew how to edit, y’know? To me it was pretty easy, I don’t know why. Probably my years training martial arts, doing forms combinations, step-by-step.
RL: You had an intuitive sense of pacing
DY Yeah. Plus I have a music background, so that gave me that sense… So, when I walked into the editing room, after about ten minutes I asked the editor to go to lunch. Then I knew; that’s the area I’ve got to concentrate. I became a director; Legend of the Wolf, then Ballistic Kiss. I do not think they are my best work. I’m not making an excuse for myself. I do think for the budget– I shot both of these films for under half a million US$ which is 3-something HK$. Now, for action movies, pound-for pound, I do think I’ve gotta give the big, y’know, hand up to myself. Because if you’re looking at, Once Upon a Time in China or Iron Monkey, movies like that. They’re great because of many combinations. First of all it cost 3 million US$ to make Iron Monkey and it cost (does imaginary figures on his leg) almost 6 million to make Once Upon A Time In China, part one. So, your talking about elements of; rewriting the script over and over again, the best photographer in the world, all the time in the world to make the best possible fight. I was trying to make the best possible within that money. So I think Legend of the Wolf, pound-for-pound wise; I think I did a pretty good job. But in terms of the creativity, artistic side of it, I think that if you give me a little bit more money I could do better. I have to be fair about it. Also, Ballistic Kiss, just got nominated as the best young director in Tokyo..
DY: (continued) Legend of the Wolf. When it first came out, a lot of reviews, frankly speaking, mostly are good. There are some bad critics, right? But overall, it’s been pretty good. Ballistic Kiss— again a mixture of reviews. I think until I got nominated as the best young director… In Japan they kind of choose fifty films worldwide and they’ve come down to six films, and I’m the only representative from Hong Kong. I kind of beat out all the director. So that says something. I am not saying that I’m the director, right? Better than all the great names. But it does give me some kind of security at being a director. And I like that because my objective is to really try to make, or bring a certain level of action movies. It’s saddening, the past ten years, when I look at action movies in Hong Kong, it’s actually declined in a big way. And a lot of people don’t realize it, and they still have that positive attitude about, "We are the best." But, unfortunately, Hong Kong production is not the best anymore, in terms of the fighting.
RL: The talents watered down…
DY: Exactly, most of the talent has gone to Hollywood, a lot of good talent. Look at Blade. That’s a very good example. Five years ago, I used to predict, 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 ten years ago, look at Chuck Norris movies. The progressive of Blade, I mean it’s actually– the fighting, the cutting– is actually better than a lot of today’s Hong Kong action movies. So for me, I try to give it that support because Hong Kong movies– action movies, have put me to where I’m at, given me the opportunity to produce, and direct. So I really wanted to do something for the circle.
RL: Y’know, I was really impressed with that opening fight scene in Blade. I was pretty much floored. I don’t think the rest of the movie held up as well, but I loved that scene.
DY: Y’know, I think pretty soon– I mean, twenty years ago, a side kick was like amazing. Now, everybody, little kids can do it. So the standards have gotten a lot higher.
RL: Well, you talked a little about doing choreography. What’s your philosophy behind that?
DY: Well, I think all forms in life are an expression. An expression of physical movement, an expression of emotion. A lot of people ask me, how do you distinct action and drama? I say, "I don’t. They’re all the same." Director or action director is just reflecting their thought of emotion at the particular moment of their life, or whatever they want to bring across. But for me as an action director… Like Bruce Lee said, "We have two hands and two legs, we can do so much. We can’t fly." So basically you’re trying to transform the physical movement onto screen. Of course, the physical movement you’ve got to do with the character, the script, with the particular scene. I’m looking at it as a whole picture. I’m looking at it as a whole project. I will analyze the character at that particular moment- "What would he do?" then I come up with a certain pace, because everything is about pacing, about rhythm. Life is about pacing. When I look at a 2 hour movie, I look at two hours of composition. Music composition. It has an intro, it has a climax, it has a resolution. So when I choreograph, or if I’m directing a whole movie on a big scale, I’m using the same principal. It’s a matter of how, through films, to bring your message, or how to attract– how to touch– how to reach out to the audience. If you can reach out to the audience you’re succeeding. If you watch a movie, you’re touched by that, you will cry or you will get excited, you get inspired by it, right? Whether it is drama, through dialogue or through emotional acting, or physical. You get excited. You look at Rocky. You look at Rambo. Look at the latest film, Armageddon. I think that’s the key element. So, whether I’m choreographing action or directing a movie whole, I try to stand as the third audience. To see, if I look at this; will I get inspired by it? Will I be touched by it?
A month ago, there was a question that I raised while I was driving. I was watching some movie the night before and I cried. I said, "Hmm, how come people cry when they watch movies? What’s the magic behind crying watching movies?" And then I came to it… because, when you watch a movie and the movie touches you, it brings you back to being a human. Living in society today, a lot of times you tend to just put a wall, because of the insecurity or whatever reason. Trying to survive in the world. When a person cries, you can be the strongest, toughest macho man in the world, right? It brings you back to a little baby. That is so important, that we- sometimes we have to recognize that, as a human being. So watching movies, movies can have that magical touch. That kind of gave me more inspiration to be a director, to want to continue making films. Anyway, back to that question. That action director…
DY: I kinda took that to…
RL:(laughs) No problem.
DY: (continued) So that’s how I feel when I’m choreographing. I don’t look at the movement itself because, I think a lot of action director in Hong Kong -I have to be outspoken- they would kind of get stubborn about a particular move. Like; you have to dodge a certain way, or block with the right hand… But to me, blocking with the right hand, blocking with the left hand is the same to the audience. It’s how the audience responds to that whole combination. It’s like playing the piano, right? (mimes hands across piano keys) It’s a rhythm. So, I would work with an actor. Whatever you feel is comfortable. If you can’t kick with the right, kick with the left. As long as I can put them together and make it a beautiful composition– beautiful music composition– and then I can touch the audience. If it works, fine. I don’t care if you roll down on the ground or jump up– Of course you have to have a basic– you can’t go crazy. You’ve got to be realistic about it. If you’re gonna make a martial arts movie, it has to be martial arts techniques. You can’t start fighting with a pinkie. So, I try to always be aware of this, as a whole.
(there is some discussion about the lack of napkins. We resume)
RL: Well, looking back on it, aside from your work as a director, which you’ll obviously going to put a lot more emotional weight into, what are you proudest of, at this point. What films? Who have you enjoyed working with?
DY: In terms, of artistic, or in terms of relationships?
RL: Either way. Whatever you feel like talking about. I’m interested in both, so…
DY: I’m a perfectionist. I can never be happy of my previous work. The best work; I have to say my TV series Fist of Fury. Because, I was really daring, at the time for TV. And I took the step, made Fist of Fury to be Fist Of Fury. I went through a whole lot in terms of developing the projects and later on, dealing with all the politics behind it. I’m really proud of that TV series. Personally, I think the fighting in it is much better than my mentor Yuen Wo- Ping’s Fist of Legend with Jet Li. Because, my concept was that– first of all, Bruce Lee‘s my idol.
RL: He’s one of mine too.
DY: Great. He’s the man, right? So when I made Kung Fu Master, it was very successful. They came back to me and wanted me to do another TV series. I told them one condition is that I’ve got to have control the action completely… with the editing. I wanted to have a breakthrough in terms the techniques of editing. Also I have to do Bruce Lee. So it came out Fist of Fury.
So, the producer asks, "Oh… Uh… maybe you should not imitate Bruce Lee too much. Maybe you have to invent your own style." And I told him, if you listen to Beethoven and you don’t have the flavor of Beethoven, why do Beethoven? I just totally disagreed. You want to play Bruce Lee, you better– it’s like, he’s a legend– You’re playing Elvis, you better have your hair slicked back (Donnie does a mini Elvis dance)… Anyway, that was the initial development of Fist Of Fury.
But, you ask me if I’m proud of any one… I don’t know, I look back and I say it can always be better. I think that’s what’s driving me to be a better filmmaker, is that I’m never happy with my work. In terms of working with other people? I’m very demanding. So I would have to say, probably working with Tsui Hark, Benny Chan… You know what? (laughs) Most director in my field is probably a little overrated. So I think…
Working with Tsui Hark. Tsui Hark has a lot of talent in terms of creativity. He has a third world in his mind. He’s thinking of all these crazy stuff, right? I don’t like him as a person, right? (laughs) He’s quite, he can be quite…
RL: Well, he’s also pretty demanding…
DY: He’s pretty demanding. But, when I first met him, I was just an actor and I was involved with a little bit of choreography. Once Upon A Time In China Part 2… it was my mentor, Yuen Wo-Ping. I wanted to play the general role because of Yuen Wo-Ping. They were having a meeting; how would I come out? What kind of gimmick? How should I first appear in the film? I was having tea with him and he asked me. And I said, well, I don’t think it’s a good idea to come off in the usual way. Why don’t you do this– the rope and all that (demonstrates a mini, chair-bound version of the scene in question). So, then he thought, "Oh that’s a good idea." He told Tsui Hark and Tsui Hark thought it was a good idea. Then, I was on the set, they placed the camera and Yuen Wo-Ping says to me, "what do you want to do?" I said, "What do you want me to do?" And then I looked at Tsui Hark, "Yeah, what do you want to do?" Then I said, "Where’s your camera?" He put the camera, I said, "Okay how about this?" Then I start going off with the this and that and the rope (laughs and again pantomimes some of the scene in question)…n terms of working with Tsui Hark, it was very difficult because he was, he’s very demanding, but… Y’see, Tsui Hark is very fortunate— I have to be outspoken– he’s very fortunate that he has a very good wife. His wife is a very good businesswoman. Look at Tsui Hark’s films, all huge productions. He has the luxury to shoot a scene and say "Oh I don’t want to do that scene, lets do another scene." When I look at a director…
I think that what makes a good director is that your flexible, you can deal with drama, any kind of conditions, the lowest budget, the best possible. If a person is giving you millions of dollars ten times and eight of them fail and two of them succeed, then you have a question about your talent. Or your skill. I’m sure you understand what I’m trying to say…
DY: (continued) I think Benny Chan is a very good director. I worked with him with Kung Fu Master and Fist of Fury. A lot of time he’d scrap these bullshit scripts. He would turn around, throw the script away "let’s do this." After the cut; it has a lot of drama, emotion, it keeps the story going. Now, that’s skillful. For me that’s skillful.
All these years of working with different directors, I worked with big name directors and small directors– I made some poor movies myself. I’m not going to sit back and be all proud and not– I had to pay some bills at time, myself, so I made some horrible movies, with some horrible directors who didn’t know what the hell they were doing. And I also made some big-name directors, like Ching Siu-Tung— Oh, I think Ching Siu-Tung… When he came off to start cutting the way he cut in certain shots, he really was a pioneer at the time. I think the past three years they’ve overdone his style of editing and framing- I think now it’s back to the more realistic style…
RL: Well, to wrap this up… basically, what do you have planned for the near future and what are your goals for, say, the next five years?
DY: The hardest part of being a filmmaker or actor is not to get too carried away and get mixed up in a circle. What I mean is losing your identity, your values. Especially living in Hong Kong… For many years, I’ve been trying to fight, trying to find balance. I think If I give up some of these values, I could be a lot more successful in terms of having box office or making bigger movies. But, I’m very proud of keeping that values. Because ten years from now, I can look back and say, I was an honest man, I respect the work, I love film-making. I don’t like the process of dealing with this unhealthy scene. So, the next five years, what I’m trying to do is maintain that value, trying to make the best movie, action movie– I’m specializing in action movies… I’d love to drama, just purely drama. I would like to make a few inspirational movies. Because the last couple years, the worlds going crazy– the 2000… You look at 7even, 12 Monkeys, Armageddon, they’re all good films. You look at it, it’s all negative. I’d like to really– I like Good Will Hunting. Inspirational, right?
RL: And they got the Boston accents right.
DY: I want to make films like that. I don’t have to act, as long as I can bring that message across to lift people, to move people. I think that’s an achievement in itself.
JL: Do you want to tell him about meeting Steven Seagal?
JL: (Laughs) You’ve been through this story a few times already today. Because you were asking what his plans for the future were. I don’t know if you want to get into it.
DY: The past ten years, all the work, has gained me some kind of recognition and Steven Seagal was in Hong Kong looking for talent to be in his next film. On and off camera. He’s looking for a director, second-unit director, action director. He really liked my work. He scanned everybody’s tape. I was the only person he saw in person. After that we kept in touch. One of the reasons why I’m back here… He flew me down to LA, picked me up with a limo. Went to his house, met him twice, very personal meeting. Originally, he wanted me to direct his next film. Unfortunately– well, I don’t want to call it unfortunately. I think it’s a wise decision– his 40 million dollar investor did not like the idea of him taking a chance on a newcomer. So he wanted a big-name American director. So, he said it very nicely that it’s something that he and I have to deal with. I have no problem with that. I will probably be his second-unit director, and also action director, working close to him. I would control many of the– unlike many Hollywood action director, basically just set up fighting– I would set up the shots y’know? So I think it’s a great, great privilege for me, it’s an honor to work with Seagal. I like Seagal’s earlier films. I think it’s genuine. I think there’s a certain presence he has on film. In fact, he’s one of the few people that affect my action choreography. Years ago, I used to choreograph fighting and say, "Oh, let’s do some Seagal movement." But again, nothing is certain, because in this world, business. Unless it’s happening right now.
RL: (laughs) unless you’re on the set.
DY: Yeah, nothing is certain. But, I did have some really personal meetings and– I’ll be going to Germany. The two big projects is the Seagal project, but also, I’m going to be in Germany, doing a sort of like German Martial Law, with all German cast. So, I’ll be action director and second-unit director for them. With a whole bunch of Hong Kong stuntmen. These are the two big projects for the next year.
RL: Sounds pretty good. Thanks for taking the time out to talk to me…
(I’d like to thank Bey Logan [author of Hong Kong Action Cinema and screenwriter of Donnie’s Ballistic Kiss] for arranging this interview. I’d also like to thank Jean Lukitsh for providing the promo photos from Ballistic Kiss used to spruce up the print version of this interview.)
This interview was originally published in Shovel Magazine #11.