September 21, 2006


Ronny Yu directs Jet Li in FEARLESS

The director of FEARLESS, THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR and BRIDE OF CHUCKY recently made some time to speak over the phone to plug this Friday's release of FEARLESS (you can read my review here). But despite the fact that this was a promotional event, Ronny Yu was an absolute joy to talk to. Unafraid of stating his opinion and eager to talk about absolutely everything the only criticism I have is that he didn't laugh at my Jean Claude Van Damme joke and that I didn't come better prepared with more controversial questions.

So what was it like to go back and shoot a movie in Hong Kong after being in Hollywood for ten years?
I think it was like anything else: you’ve been away for a while so you have to readjust to the system. Working in China or Hong Kong, there is no defined system in place for making movies. You don’t have to have a lot of preparation, especially when dealing with all the action sequences. I’ve gotten used to storyboards, but they do it on the spot and come up with all the choreography right there. In Hollywood, everything has to be prepped so that you can coordinate between the photographer, the action choreographer, the director, the various department heads. I think that’s because in Hollywood you have a much bigger budget than you have in China, where the budget is very limited. But overall, you know, moviemaking is the same all over the world. You just have to adjust your thinking and adjust to the physical aspect of doing the work.

Hong Kong has a very unique system of filming action where the action directors are very involved, often picking camera angles and participating in the editing. Can you talk about the role of the action director in a movie like FEARLESS?
First of all I don’t know how this whole system came about. In my movies, in all the years I worked in Hong Kong, I never had an action director. I thought it was below me. There’s only one director. This system has survived somehow but it reflects the laziness of the director. No director should have another director doing his work for him. I think this came about back in the 60’s when they were credited as “action choreographer” but they soon figured out that they were doing all the work. The director would just say, “Give me five minutes of fighting here,” and then they’d be off at home eating their dinner while the action choreographer did all the work. It was an unfair system, and later on some high-powered choreographers demanded that since they have to do all the work anyways, they wanted the “action director” credit.

Yuen Wo-ping (center) on the set of FEARLESS On FEARLESS I went along with all this because of marketing. Yuen Wo-ping has such a fantastic reputation based on all his previous work that the distributor thought this would have a lot of marketing value. And I have such a high degree of respect for Yuen Wo-ping that I had no problem going along with it. If you look at the credits of FEARLESS in the worldwide release you have Yuen Wo-ping as the stunt choreographer and he’s also the second unit director. I think this is more accurate, because sometimes he has to do shots on his own that are second unit and he designs the stunts.

Working together, he and I talk about the story and we talk about the tone and we come to an understanding. We didn’t storyboard the action scenes because that’s not how Yuen Wo-ping works, except of course for the visual effects shots where you need to plan them carefully. All the action was designed on the set on the day of shooting and luckily we had Jet Li as a leading man which makes life easy for me. I’m there during all the action scenes, even though I know some directors pass on this responsibility and let the action director do everything. I did all the editing myself, too. Some directors let the action director edit their sequences, but by that standard then why no let the photographer who shot the movie edit it? Why not let the costume designer edit it? The director can just take a holiday. To me this is disrespectful to the artistic value of the movie, and it’s unfair to make the action choreographer do so much work. Directors do this who are lazy or have no vision. If you don’t know action and can’t direct an action scene then don’t direct an action movie.

Was it a difficult decision to cut 40 minutes from the movie?
It was tough. I think it was tougher for Jet. I remember I had to convince him, he felt really bad. We had worked on the script together. We spent a long time living with this story. But when you make a mainstream, commodity movie you have people saying that the market cannot support a 2 hour and 40 minute action movie, a foreign movie, a Jet Li movie. It’ll never happen – that’s what I was basically told. So in order to bow to commercial demands I had to comply. It was a terrible experience. How do you reconstruct the movie after taking out so much? Fortunately I have a good attitude about life: it’s not meant to be fair. You make a choice. Do you want 2000 theaters and millions of people watching your movie? Then there’s a price to pay. If you can accept this philosophy you’ll be happier. Was it the right decision? I’ll never know because the 2 hour and 40 minute movie was never released, although I just finished up my extended director's version that will come out on DVD by the end of the year.

There are so many different accounts of Hua Yuan Jia's death. Why did you decide to go with the poisoning story for the death of Hua Yuan Jia?

For dramatic reasons. I did a lot of research and there’re a lot of different descriptions about how he died, but none of them make sense. The most popular version points the finger at the Japanese. This version says that Hua accepted a challenge from a Japanese karate master and in a very short time he broke his arms and defeated him. That same night he was invited to dinner with the fighter and his doctor. Hua had asthma and during the meal he was coughing so badly that the Japanese doctor offered him some medicine. He took it for three months and died. When an English doctor examined him at the autopsy he found that all of his internal organs were damaged from the medicine. He'd been poisoned. That doesn’t make any sense. If you take cough medicine and it's not working then you probably stop taking it the next day, sooner if it's making you feel bad. You wouldn't take it for three months. So I thought, "How am I going to shoot this ending?" I decided to forget about the historical fact since there were no historical facts. And we weren't making a documentary about Hua, this was more of a chance for Jet Li and I to explain the spirit of Chinese martial arts. So like I said, everything serves the story and I changed the ending to enhance the dramatic effect.

You saw a lot of movies as a kid and I wondered if there were any actors or movies that had a lot of meaning for you from that time?

I went through different stages. When I was young I was so intrigued by action movies because they made me feel like I’m 10 feet tall and I saw all the Shaw Brothers movies with Jimmy Wang Yu who was my hero. Later on I really enjoyed King Hu's movies because he changed the genre. And then later in life I got to watch a lot of Mainland Chinese movies, and I especially love all of Zhang Yimou's movies.

How have you succeeded in Hollywood? It seems like something difficult for Hong Kong directors to do. And you didn't have to make a Jean Claude Van Damme movie. How'd that happen?
A lot has to do with my own philosophy. When I was 8 months old I got polio, so right off the top I’m a little bit handicapped. You learn to accept that. In the beginning you have a lot of anger: why can’t I play soccer or football? Why can’t I start a fight? Slowly you learn to accept that: this is life. I have to go on this journey, so I accept any challenge. Challenges are a motivation for me to continue. I didn’t study film but I love film. It’s my father’s doing. I didn’t have friends because of my handicap so he would just drop me at the cinema every day during the summer holiday and I watched tons of movies. I realized a director had the power to transport an audience to a different world and all the audience's pain, all their problems, can be forgotten for two hours. I wanted to do that but my dad didn’t agree because it wasn’t regular work.

Later I got into the film industry and started making movies. When I pick a project the motivation is not that I have something to say and you need to listen - I just want to entertain, it’s my duty to entertain people for two hours in that dark cinema. All along I’ve been accused of being a sell-out but I believe a movie is designed to enterain. I don’t care what they say. That mind set got me through cutting 40 mintues of FEARLESS.

Making these B-movies in Hollywood is fun. I wanted to try to make them as entertaining as possible. And I get to learn. Being an artist is the most painful job because you need to convince the audience to come in and watch your movie. You have to ask them to come in and sit through your movie. It’s a commercial thing. You make a choice and everybody has the right to make that choice, but once you make that choice you have to stick to it. My choice is to make mainstream entertainment and I have to accept that. Just like I have to accept polio. I have to take 100 steps to get somewhere, I have to accept it. That’s fine. That’s the choice you make early on.

I still don’t think I’m successful. I wish I could be Spielberg and every one of my movies strikes gold. One very important element in filmmaking is that it’s a collaborative art. You have so many artitsts working on a movie: photographers, actors, writers, art department. So I always hire people who are more intelligent and more talented than me. If you accept that moviemaking is collaborative you make your life a lot easier.

Can you talk a little about working with these actors?
I think he’s still crazy after 10 years, but I think it’s all relevant. He’s such a talented actor and he has so much creative energy that maybe the industry doesn’t allow him the opportunity to express himself. I love that he’s crazy, and I learned a lot from him. I learned not to build a boundary when you try to be creative, just let it all out and then try to put it back. That’s what he said to me and I truly agree with him. But the trick is that you have to have a way to pull back, otherwise you’re just a crazy horse.

Shido Nakamura (FEARLESS)
I love his face. I love his acting skill. I really love his training in Kabuki. He has the body language. I was told japanese actors were very professional, and he's the only one I've ever met and he takes his art very seriously. We had a fantastic time. Yuen Wo-ping trained him for 2 weeks, just basic movies and jumps, because he understands the camera. That helped sell his skills onscreen. Also, he studied Mandarin. He didn't want his fans to think he copped out so he worked really hard on that.

Just now, when you mention him, I get goosebumps. I think a good movie comes about when the director and actor really understand and respect each other and that's what I had with him. I have that same experience with Jet. He was such a kind human being, it doesn’t matter how talented you are, you have to be a kind person. You can pretend, but the audience can read it. He would accept other people’s opinions and express his own opinions. He didn’t have a huge ego. And he was very generous with his fellow actors and actresses. He was a great collaborator. He would try anything. If I came up with something different he would say, ”Yeah, yeah, yeah - let’s see if it works." Leslie and Jet share that positive energy. It makes me miss him so much. All those memories. All those long hours shooting on the set. It all that comes back.

What are you doing next?
Right now I'm preparing the adaptation of an anime, BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE. This was meant to be a long time ago, but I couldn’t find the time. We're still casting. We’re looking for Asian actors. Hopefully we’ll be able to start in January.

September 21, 2006 at 02:40 AM in Interviews | Permalink


Ronny Yu was one of my favorite Asian directors until I met him...and now he's one of my favorite people working in movies. The guys is just so unbelievably modest and affable, and not at all like you'd expect him to be.

Posted by: EDouglas | Sep 21, 2006 3:44:44 AM

This is very interesting to read Grady, thank you.

He seems like a person who values kindness and that makes me like him even more.

Posted by: eliza bennet | Sep 21, 2006 4:40:27 AM

great interview grady,
i didnt realize he's so opinionated and honest,
now if he'll only talk smack about other actors...he'll be up there with Johnnie To,


Posted by: Buma | Sep 21, 2006 5:57:10 AM

Great interview...but his comment on action directors I simply do not agree with. There are some directors out there who simply do not understand how to film action and that's what an action director is for. Also, to say that action directors should be called "2nd unit" directors is very much an insult to the art of action film making.

Now, it is important to pick an action director that closely resembles the director's own style (like how Zhang Yimou got Ching Siu Tung) or that the action director adapts his style to the style of the director in action terms. So perhaps he was talking about it from the point of view of how some directors wouldn't be involved with the action at all, he could have a point there. But to say that action directors shouldn't be directing action is incorrect. It seems he has a bit of the Hollywood ego in him. It's that very ego here that gets directors that think they know it all cause they are making a Hollywood movie and as a result you get disgusting and insultingly bad action sequences in films like The Bounre Identity, Bounre Supremacy, and Batman Begins. In fact, almost all of Hollywood action movies.

On another note, I really hope that his director's cut comes out in the US on DVD because while the movie had great action and it had great potential to be a true masterpiece, it was all pissed on in it's current version. The current version has almost no emotional connection to anything that is going on and all that is left is tons of empty exchange of cliche babble talk of bettering yourself and peace and love. It was disappointing for me sadly.

Posted by: the running man | Sep 21, 2006 7:27:34 AM

What a nice interview! Thank you. I especially loved reading about Leslie. I miss him too.

Posted by: nanoo | Sep 21, 2006 11:14:30 AM

Ronny Yu's comments about action directors are a little strange and I don't entirely agree. It has been a huge problem in Hong Kong where a director will basically let the action choreographer direct large sections of the movie for them (Wong Jing, anyone?) and I think this is what he was responding to. But, the impression I got in our interview was that he objected more to the name "action DIRECTOR" than anything else. I think he wanted them called "action choreographers" - it was having another "director" on the movie that bothered him because to him it seemed to imply that someone else was helming the movie and steering it artistically when he believes that there needs to be one unifying vision - the director's - and that the action choreographer is no more a director than the cinematographer or the art director...wait a minute!

Posted by: Grady Hendrix | Sep 21, 2006 1:47:46 PM

Wow, wow, wow - what an interesting interview. Thanks Grady! Yu's always been a fav with a very distinct style all his own. Thought your questions were great but wish you had asked Ronny's take on just one other star: Ms. Brigitte Lin.

Posted by: Jennifer | Sep 21, 2006 2:37:16 PM

Nice interview, Grady! Ronny Yu has always been one of the most consistently entertaining directors both in and out of Hong Kong, so it's nice to listen to him speak his mind on the filmmaking process and the industry.

And, looking back it seems that Grady was probably closest regarding what Ronny Yu meant about the action directors-he doesn't think they should be doing any 'directing', since that's not their job-they should be choreographing, and working with the director.

Posted by: Five Venoms | Sep 22, 2006 7:30:46 AM

"And, looking back it seems that Grady was probably closest regarding what Ronny Yu meant about the action directors-he doesn't think they should be doing any 'directing', since that's not their job-they should be choreographing, and working with the director. "

That's exactly what I said as well and is exactly what I don't agree with. Neither does Grady.

Posted by: the running man | Sep 22, 2006 8:16:31 AM

Heh, sorry I didn't read your post more closely!

It's probably the exact terminology/role of the action director that leads me to believe this isn't neccesarily a bad thing, though. The way the interview describes the process with Yuen Wo-Ping it seems right on-It's described as more of a collaboration, as opposed to letting the action director do whatever they feel like in the scene. Naturally, that's just my opinion, but if you have a different point of view I'd be interested in hearing it.

Posted by: Five Venoms | Sep 22, 2006 9:56:04 AM

I could have sworn I read that the extended version of this film was released in Thailand to capitalize on the presence of a Thai actor whose scenes were all cut from the version that other countries got. Or did that not actually happen?

Posted by: Rhythm-X | Sep 22, 2006 4:24:41 PM

Rhythm-X: As far as I know, they just put the scenes with the Thai actor back into the movie... basically consisting of a fight scene between him and Jet. So yes, the Thai's got an "extended version", but not the full "director's extended version".

Posted by: Mathew | Sep 23, 2006 2:01:04 AM

Post a comment