Donnie Yen Interview From 2000

More astute Shovel readers (although you’re all pretty astute) will remember that I sat down with actor/director Donnie Yen last year. As I mentioned last month, Donnie was back in town recently for a screening of his film, Legend of the Wolf, and he graciously made time to sit down with me again. We met at The Chinese Wushu Research Institute and tried to catch up on what turned out to be a pretty interesting year in Donnie’s career.

Rob: It’s been a year since I last had a chance to talk to you and from all appearances it’s been a pretty interesting twelve months. Want to fill us in?

DY: (Laughs) A lot of things happened… I guess there’s a reason for the way things happen. I went back and did a couple of things. I co-directed a TV series called Puma. It’s a German version of Martial Law. Have you heard of it?

Rob: I’ve caught a couple of mentions of it. Mostly in reference to your work on it.

DY: (Laughs) Well, I never saw it. But, they premiered it last month and it was the number one rated show- actually second to the 8 o’clock news. But, then again, the 8 o’clock news has been number one for the last thirty years…

Rob: Well, there you go.

DY: So the prime time rating was very good. We’re going to do eight more episodes. I’m going back to Berlin to cast a new crew and new artists at the beginning of next month. So, that’s pretty good. Actually very good. (laughs)

Probably next month, simultaneously, I’m going to be in New York directing my first American feature. The stars are going to be Jay-Z, the hottest rapper in America, and Damon Dash the CEO of Roc-A-Fella. The story is going to be about them and a couple of their crew. Y’know, how they made their money… So it’s like a high powered, aggressive, urban, kick-ass, martial arts type of film.

I just finished Highlander, I think you knew about that.

Rob: Yep.

DY: In Romania… I spent two months there. Right before that I worked as action director for a Leslie Cheung movie, Moonlight Express.

That went pretty well. Even though it was it wasn’t an action action piece.

It was a coincidence. I didn’t know Danny Lee, the director. Daniel Lee…

Rob: Daniel Lee, directed Black Mask, not Danny Lee, starred in The Killer.

DY: Yeah, Black Mask. He and his producer called me up, said they’d seen Ballistic Kiss and they gave me a lot of compliments. We met up and he asked me to help him out. I said, ‘what do you mean help you out?’ He said, ‘Help me out with the action.’ I said, ‘Well, you’re obviously a director with strong visuals and I guess you can see my style is very strong visually. If you’re just looking for someone to choreograph the movements, you don’t really need me. You could have anybody in Hong Kong come in to choreograph the movements. He said, ‘No I want your style to integrate with my style.’ He told me in that film he wanted to break through. So, with all that and encouragement I took that job. It went pretty well.

Then I was about to go do a TV series in China and Miramax called me– I think I did another film. In Taiwan…

Rob: City of Darkness

DY: Something like that… I don’t remember some of these things…

Rob: (smiling) I’ve seen it. You floated in and out of it…

DY: I went to Taiwan for four days. I gave them four days and got a good chunk of money.

Rob: For what it was, it was fun. It appeared that that’s the kind of thing that you did, floated in and out for a couple of scenes.

DY: Absolutely. So I did that and then 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- the guys they hired from America- they’re very familiar with Hong Kong films and they all know my work. For these guys its like- they study Hong Kong films. So I’d say try this, try that and they’d understand. There wasn’t a communication gap there.

image, donnie yen drinking a beerIt wasn’t like they hired some motorcycle stunt guys who have no idea to do martial arts stuff. They had a couple of guys who were pretty good. The guy who doubled for Christopher Lambert and another guy who doubled for Adrian Paul. I worked with them. It wasn’t like I had a lot to work with….

(pauses) It wasn’t that difficult. After all, if you walk out of the Hong Kong film industry, it’s like walking out of Shaolin Temple. You know, no big deal.

Rob: Do you know what else is going to happen with Miramax. Is that still up in the air?

DY: They’re looking for the right project. That’s going to be a real Miramax film. They’re going to find a starring role for me. They’re going to push it.

The first one is…

Rob: Getting your feet wet.

DY: Well, it’s like- I guess even though they say they believe in me based on my work…. this is a business and they have to see some kind of significant work on screen before they can really go forward. They liked it and they’re very excited about the dailies and how I’m going to turn out. I went to LA and hooked up with some of the top agencies and lawyers.

It’s a strong foundation… I mean, my lawyer is Jacob Bloom, he’s one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. He represents Arnold Schwarzenegger and all those guys… Bruce Willis, Stallone, Jackie…

Rob: Not a bad position to be in.

DY: All of a sudden I have all these powerful people who want to invest their valuable time with me.

Rob: Is Miramax trying to play catch up with this- getting you– because of the success companies like Warner have had with films like The Matrix?

DY: Oh no doubt. I mean it’s strictly business. Asian guys are hot and they want their own guy to ride out that success. I think anyone would. Miramax is smart enough to grab someone they think fits their image. Miramax has always been a little more artsy, aggressive company.

The whole company- the president of Dimension films is 100% percent behind me, constantly scouting for the right script. I’ve heard he wants to put me in films during the next few months.

I’m going to be in GQ next month. With all the big boys. Of course, that’s due to Miramax hype. ‘Oh, Miramax has got this guy he’s going to be the next Jackie, Jet Li…’ So, I did the photo shoot, all the big boys, Jackie, Sammo, Jet Li… It’s going to be a feature article in GQ coming up in March. It’s all Hong Kong action stars so Miramax said, ‘This is the guy who’s going to represent us.’

Rob: They’ve come up and since you’ve started on this Hollywood thing yourself…. I’m curious, what do you think of the work of former Hong Kong talent now working over here? (A) How do you rate the work you did on the Highlander film and (B) 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. Based the rushes I saw, unless they screw up in the editing- which I don’t think they will- I think it’s going to be pretty strong. I really think so. 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. The idea was, ‘let’s choreograph fundamental, basic movements.’

That was an experience in itself, because I never had to do that. I think that was the hardest part: learning how to deal with people. The DP had just finished Eyes Wide Shut. Big time. The second unit director, Joe Dunne, goes all the way back to the Pink Panther films. The special effects guy won an Oscar© for Alien

A strong crew. No joke.

The director, Douglas Aarniokoski, was very helpful. He was second unit director on From Dusk ’til Dawn. He worked with Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez. He’s like Miramax’s golden boy now. He’s also very new, very young. I worked with him a little bit in order to get it right.

It was kind of a strange environment to try and bring that performance to the screen. But, at the end of the day I saw the rough cut and looked all right. It was basic, but it was purely relying on the performance. I did two fights. The beginning fight scene where I beat up people and a fight with Adrian Paul. A huge fight, like Jet Li versus me in Once Upon a Time in China II.

I think, if they do it right, it might have even a stronger appeal than Jet Li’s Lethal Weapon, because Lethal Weapon is a modern cop thing. The movements cannot be surreal. With Highlander, you can go off. You can do wires, you can walk on the walls…

Rob: That’s great….

DY: I think with Miramax marketing and promotion maybe it’s going to be all right.

Rob: You brought up wires, so I guess I’ll ask, what do you think about The Matrix?

DY: I think the whole film is great. I love The Matrix. Action wise, it’s not Yuen Wo-Ping’s best work. I was actually a little disappointed. But for the American standard, they’d never seen that type of stuff, so they see something like that it’s ‘oh wow, off the wall.’

The fascination wasn’t with the martial arts choreography. It’s the overall impact; the Dolby Surround Sound, beautiful Panavision shots, the beautiful outfits… The dynamic of it comes together. But if you break it down to pieces the martial arts choreography is pretty basic.

Rob: I was just curious about what you thought of it since it was so successful here.

DY: I think it’s great. With that direction you can’t go wrong because it’s surreal, you can do all the wire work you want. But, you’ve got to be careful. I think a lot my countrymen from Hong Kong need to be really careful about what film genre they shoot. Everybody in Hong Kong tends to have their own style, some are strong with wires, some with stunts. The ones that are strong with wires have got to tone it down.

Rob: Well, just to get American audiences used to it.

DY: You have to, because Hong Kong Chinese eyes are trained to watch the larger than life action.

Rob: I’ve been to screenings here, films like The Tai Chi Master, where people are flying around and a portion of the audience will be enjoying themselves, but will also think it’s funny.

I look at it and I’ve seen so many of these films now it’s just part of the story. Of course he can fly, and crush boulders with his pinkie. He’s got really good kung fu.

DY: Well you’re an expert in this so you have a different appreciation. But, we’re talking about mass marketing, mass media. If you’re going to throw the product into the media , you’d better be ready for the response.

Rob: Do you have any plans to go back to Hong Kong to work again? Do you have any interest in it?

DY: Not at this point. As you know the Hong Kong industry is down. They’re either doing really low budget movies or a few higher budget films. Those are basically dominated by Jackie. What can you really do? Especially an action guy…

I do see myself returning eventually. It’s part of my roots. I have a strong heritage back there. For now, it looks like my hands are tied.

Rob: Not such a bad thing, considering the circumstances.

DY: No, it’s great. I think the world is getting smaller and smaller. There’s going to be a lot of collaboration between the film industries because Hollywood isn’t dumb. If they can get a movie shot cheaper and just as good, they’ll do it somewhere else. A lot of production companies are shooting outside of LA because it’s cheaper.

Rob: Like Vancouver.

DY: Vancouver, down in Florida. We were in Romania. And they’re not overlooking China. I had a personal conversation with these top guys like Jake Bloom. They really strongly believe in the Chinese market. He told me my career here was infinite simply because China was so huge. Everybody is keeping their eyes on that chunk of market.

Right now, I guess, Jet Li is obviously enjoying that success.

Rob: Romeo Must Die looks like it’ll do something. The soundtrack alone… It also tested better than The Matrix.

DY: I strongly believe Jet Li is going to be bigger than Jackie Chan. His producer, Joel Silver, is one of the biggest producers. If you’ve got someone like that behind you… and he’s hooked up with Mel Gibson.

Rob: I think his persona is a little more accessible for American audiences than Jackie’s, so-

DY: Jackie is too comical. How can you be like Jerry Lewisand have people take you seriously? Especially if you’re a martial artist. How can you be comical and claim to be a good marital artist? Those two elements don’t mix. You’ve got to have a seriousness to be a convincing martial artist. Jet Li brings that all to the table. Plus, he’s got a cleaner look, he’s better looking and younger. He’s also an excellent business man. I worked with him hand in hand. I know.

Rob: I think I asked you a similar question last year. What is your goal here? What do you want to accomplish in the States?

DY: As I said last year, personally I like directing much better. But, I guess they all come hand in hand. People still see me, as a product, in terms of kicks and punches on screen. For a while I wanted to move away from that and I guess I’m beginning to accept the fact that after all these years of building a certain image as a martial arts actor… I’ve made some pretty influential films. I feel responsible, not only to myself- to advance my career– but I feel a responsibility to push this type of film to a broader audience. Right now is the best time. I have to come out and play a part.

Especially with Hong Kong the past couple of years… We don’t have any followers. There’s no youngsters coming up. For some reason there was not enough development, not enough talent… Somehow, they’re all gone. Like Cheu Man-Cheuk [Zhao Wen-Zhao], the new Wong Fei-Hung. He never real made a significant identity for himself. He was always living in the shadow of Wong Fei-Hung.

Rob: Talented guy, but yeah, he never really stepped-

DY: -out of the shadow of Wong Fei-Hung. Anybody else? A book in Japan called me the Last Dragon and in some way I have to agree- with gratefulness of course because, look… we did all these big budget movies, and now nothing else is coming out of Hong Kong.

Rob: Yeah, the most noteworthy films the last three or four years have all been crime films.

DY: Y’know, Media Asia wants to push a couple of youngsters… Let’s put it this way, you have these pop singers trying to throw a couple of kicks. It wasn’t like us. We were the real deal, the ultimate martial artists bringing it on screen. You don’t have that anymore. So, if I have the opportunity to broaden horizons as a martial arts filmmaker, I want to be part of it. I want to do my best.

Plus, I’m getting paid. (Laughs.)

This interview first appeared in Shovel Magazine #21. Year: 2000.