Ronny Yu and Quint discuss FEARLESS, Jet Li's retirement and BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE!!
Published at: Sept. 14, 2006, 5:42 a.m. CST by quint
Ahoy, squirts! Quint here once again. The interview train keeps on a-chuggin' with this chat I had with Ronny Yu, director of such films as THE BRIDE WITH WHITE HAIR, BRIDE OF CHUCKY and FREDDY VS. JASON. Now he's got a complete change of pace with FEARLESS, Jet Li's historical martial arts epic, reportedly his last. We talk a lot about Jet, his retirement from Wu Shu martial arts work, film of FEARLESS as well as Yu's upcoming live-action adaptation of the great Japanese anime flick, BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE.
I had met Yu previous when he showed up with Robert Englund at Camp Hacknslash here in Austin, an event Harry threw together with the help of the Alamo Drafthouse. They premiered FREDDY VS. JASON there and interviewed him then. While I was on my New Zealand vacation over the summer I was offered a phoner with the man. Since I had just seen FEARLESS I was quite excited to talk to him about it. The movie's great, so we arranged a time and off we went. I guess they told him I was in New Zealand because that seemed to be what he wanted to talk about more than anything else. But I'll let you read the rest in the interview! Enjoy!!!
RONNY YU: How're you?
QUINT: I'm good, I'm good. I don't know if you remember, but we met when you brought FREDDY VS. JASON to Austin for Camp Hacknslash.
RONNY YU: Oh really? That's great! What're you doing in New Zealand?
QUINT: I've been out here a lot, but in the past I came out to visit sets, like LORD OF THE RINGS and KING KONG, which was great, but I've never had any time to just come out and relax, enjoy the country. I love this country and thought I could use a little time away.
RONNY YU: Great idea! Great idea! I've never been to New Zealand even though I lived in Sydney. Is it pretty?
QUINT: Very much so. I haven't spent much time in Australia, but I spent a day in Sydney last year. I liked it, but there's nothing that compares to the atmosphere here. Everybody's just so laid back.
RONNY YU: Yeah. So you just hang out there?
QUINT: Yeah, this time it's just a relaxing vacation.
RONNY YU: (laughs) Great! Great! That's important, you know?
QUINT: Luckily for me, I got to see your movie, FEARLESS, the day before I left Austin.
RONNY YU: Great!
QUINT: Harry got a copy and insisted I watch it. I was like, "Dude, I have to pack! I'm leaving the country for 2 months in the morning!"
RONNY YU: (laughs)
QUINT: But I relented and I'm very happy I saw it.
RONNY YU: And Harry saw it?
QUINT: Yeah. He told me I'd regret it if I didn't watch it.
RONNY YU: Wow, that's great compliment, eh?
QUINT: And we were watching it and Harry was doing these big reactions while the action went on, like, "Oh! Ahhh! Eee!" and I was like, "Have you not seen this yet?" He said, "No, this is my 6th time!"
RONNY YU: (laughs hard) Yeah, you know... like you said, taking a break and enjoying nature. That's the reason I put in that middle part where (Jet Li) hangs out at the village.
QUINT: Yeah, where he gains that spiritual centering...
RONNY YU: Yeah. That's how you gain your centering back.
QUINT: That's a great sequence and thinking about it now, I went to the South Island of New Zealand and had many moments like Jet Li has in your film... just standing there, feeling the wind and letting the beauty of my surroundings sink in.
RONNY YU: You don't need to do anything, you don't need to think anything, just absorb. I had that experience one time in Australia. We just drove out to the outback... you know, just standing there. That's how I came up with that sequence and Jet really responded to it. He said, "Yeah, yeah... That's what is missing."
QUINT: Was Jet already attached to the project when you came onboard?
RONNY YU: Yeah, man. He's been working on this for, like, 5 years. He's been trying to get this off (the ground) for 5 years and he just couldn't find the angle that really satisfied him. Two years ago I met with him and he talked to me about this project, but my first impression was, "God! This is going to be boring," because at this time Huo Yuan Jia has been known in China and Asia. Everybody knows this guy and knows his story.
So, I said to Jet, "Why do you want to retell this story?" He said, "No, no, no. I don't want to retell the story," but somehow all the writers, all the directors that he's been talking too couldn't give another perspective. So, I said, "Why do you want to make this movie. Just tell me. Why do you want to do the movie." He said that he's been practicing Chinese martial arts, like Wu Shu, for 30 some years and sort of recently realized what is the importance, what is the true spirit of Wu Shu. He wanted to express this to the world.
Five years ago he was researching for characters in past Chinese history to see if anybody had an identical idea with him, regarding the Chinese martial arts. So, he finds this guy, Huo Yuan Jia, which is exactly similar philosophy with him, you know? So that's why he want to make this movie, he just wanted to say that Wu Shu was not about killing, it's not about revenge... Because we see all Chinese action or martial arts movies are all about revenge. Somebody killed your brother, somebody killed your wife... then you go to a master and you learn, you learn, you learn. Even KILL BILL! She learns, she learns, she learns, then you kill the guy at the end of the story.
So, I said, "Okay. If that is what you want, then give me some time. I'll think of a new approach of how to do this, to incorporate what your ideas are, what your ambitions are." After 2 weeks, I come back to him and say, "Listen... Why don't we just do a man's story. An ordinary man's life journey. This guy is a martial artist, he finds enlightenment and realizes what he can do humanity with his talent and then his sacrifice for his nation." That way really touched him.
Let's just take the historical background, okay? We just replicate this guy's life story a little bit, so that anybody all over the world, the world's audience will understand, not just Chinese will understand this guy. So, that's how the whole thing sort of evolved. It's an ordinary man, a misguided martial artist, how he made mistakes in life and then learned, find enlightenment in a village and appreciate the life he learned in villages. He's using his talents to help his fellow countrymen and humanity.
QUINT: Speaking from the point of view of someone who didn't know Huo Yuan Jia's story at all, one of my favorite aspects of the film is that when I saw the very first act of the movie... it feels like it's setting up Jet Li as a villain. He comes across as the villain of the film.
RONNY YU: In a way... another interesting thing about the film structure is there's no villain. It's almost like... it's just human. It's human nature. Everybody has their dark side. I'm sure Freddy Krueger also has a good side! (laughs) We don't want to tap on that, but that's what my beliefs are. There's no villains, there's just where you're standing, looking at a guy and what kind of perspective you're looking and which point of view you're looking at a guy.
In the beginning, Jet wasn't sure... He said, "Is it going to be okay?" I said, "Yeah, yeah. It's going to be okay."
QUINT: They're making a big deal about Jet saying this is his last martial arts movie. Do you think it will be?
RONNY YU: Yes. He told me upfront when we talked about this movie. He said... at that time, he was using the words "Could be" at that time, two years ago. He said, "Oh, Ronny. This could be my last film about Wu Shu, (my last) Wu Shu martial arts movie." That's sort of part of the reason why I chose to go on this journey with him for 2 years. I really respect that. I ask him, "Why? Why is this going to be your last?"
He said because of what he learned and what he has practiced about Wu Shu for so many years... he finally (found) a vehicle for him to express all he learned and his philosophy about Chinese Wu Shu on this one movie. He had nothing more, or nothing better to top this, to give to the world. He doesn't look at this like just an ordinary action movie because of the philosophy behind it. So, he said, "This is it. All I have to say is all in the movie."
He's not saying that he's not doing action movies. I mean, he's going to do a cops and robbers... with guns and all that. It's just not a full force martial arts (movie). Plus, he told me he's 43, you know, and almost every bone in his body has to have been fixed up.
The difference between all the movies that are out there, like all the martial arts movies, especially recently... the wire-fu movie, the HEROs or whatever, all the shots were short because the actor himself is not a martial artists. So, the choreographer had to make everything short. All the fight sequences short just to hide the fact that it won't look good. This time around, I said to Jet and, also, to Yuen Wo Ping (fight choreographer) I said, "We have the world's best martial artist actor. Why don't we just give him room to play? Give him room to perform?" So, all the shots had to be long, not just one-two-three, cut! One-two-three, Cut! You know? But that demands lots of physical... demanding on the abilities. That is tiring and difficult.
QUINT: I can understand that. If his heart isn't in these big, you know, martial arts epics anymore, it's probably for the best that he's not making them anymore. I'm sure his disinterest would start to show...
RONNY YU: I think, like anybody else... he came to a certain stage in his life that he finds he needs to do something more. He said, "This is, I've done it. I've got to move on to something." That's also the respect I have for him.
QUINT: It certainly doesn't benefit us as fans if he's not passionate about doing it anymore.
RONNY YU: Exactly.
QUINT: So, what's your favorite sequence you got to work on with Jet?
RONNY YU: I think the most emotional one is really the restaurant fight because that one is really a turning point of Jet Li's character. I love the intensity. My idea, when I spoke to Jet and Yuen Wo Ping, I said, "I want to see 2 animals in a cage." Almost like those A-1 fighters, you know? They fight to the death... For no reason! For stupid reasons! (laughs) That really enhanced the dramatics. I wanted... Let's just destroy the whole set. Let's destroy the whole restaurant.
QUINT: That's a really massive sequence. I also really like the big platform fight.
RONNY YU: Oh, yes! The platform fight! Oh, my! That platform fight was more difficult than the restaurant because of the height and because I had to deal with all the bond companies. They don't want Jet to be up 40 feet, so I have to really design every shot to be sure... you know... to get some bluescreen, to get some greenscreen, get some platform so I can cheat everything. I wanted some real Jet Li shots on top of this 40 foot tower, so I had to really plan that whole sequence out in detail.
QUINT: It looks great onscreen. Just looking at it made me queasy.
RONNY YU: Yeah! The worst is me and Jet. We both have high anxieties. We both can not deal with heights. Most of the time, I said, "Hey, Jet. Why don't you go up there? I'm not going to go up. I'll be down there with the monitors." (laughs) He said, "No, no, no. If I go up, you have to come up!" (laughs)
So, we havet his elevator, you know? Like this crane thing to move us up to the top. It was fun, but had a lot of difficult problems he had to solve and all that. But I found that even though this is the first time we worked together, I really appreciate his enthusiasm, his passion. It was a wonderful, wonderful experience.
QUINT: The actions had its own difficulties, but was there any worry on your part about balancing the drama, balancing the moral of the movie with the action?
RONNY YU: Yeah, that was the first of the difficulties I had to solve. That was number one. How can I balance the drama and the fighting? I don't want to water down anything. This has to be kick-ass because it's Jet Li, because of Yuen Wo Ping and because of (their) fans, you know? But then I don't want to fall into the trap, just for the sake of... okay, there's a fantastic sequence that has nothing to do with a story. The audience sees through that, especially nowadays. So, finding that balance is my first sort of mission. My philosophy about that is really... as long as you get the audience to identify with this character and go on this life journey with him... all the fights, there is a reason, there is a motivation behind them. Either it's a dark motivation or the good motivation. It doesn't matter as long as the audience can identify with that motivation. Then you have the audience identifying with it and following it.
Also, the design of the fights has to be different. There should be some significant difference, you know, on the design of the fight, the environment, the way he fights, how he fights, what kind of weapon he's using. This time I said now we have a podium for Jet to demonstrate how good he is with all different, not just hands and feet, but with all different weapons. So, I think we achieved that.
QUINT: I also really like that the tone of FEARLESS is much different than what Americans, at least, know you for. Do you think you'll ever bring this kind of serious tone to another genre you do, like a horror movie, since the horror films you've done so far have all been pretty much horror comedies?
RONNY YU: Oh yeah, oh yeah. Oh yeah. I think that can be applied to any genre. Working in Hollywood there is a lot of restrictions because of the studios, because of the kind of movie they want to make. So, I have to find a way to kind of sneak in without upsetting everybody. I think it's a great challenge. I can see it coming in my future projects. I'm gonna sneak in my sort of Ronny Yu feel to it.
One thing that is too bad with this one is... because I want a vast audience, especially a young audience, to come watch this movie... that's why I had to go for a PG-13 cut. So, wait for the DVD. There's a lot more blood there! (laughs)
QUINT: When we last talked you said you were trying to develop BLOOD: THE LAST VAMPIRE. Do you still have that on the books?
RONNY YU: Yes, we're actually doing it. Probably we'll start in October/November. Right now I'm working with a visual effects supervisor designing all the monsters.
QUINT: That's such a crazy-ass piece of work. Can't wait to see it in live action.
RONNY YU: That's another departure from FEARLESS. It's a totally different thing.
QUINT: Are you going for a campy tone for the movie, like BRIDE OF CHUCKY, or will you be going for the horror?
RONNY YU: I think I want to try reinvent this genre... You know, every time you talk about vampire or whatever, you have this blue/gray tone and stuff like that. I'm going to take a multimedia approach to it, with color and all that.
And also, I changed the setting of the story. In the animation, it was set in the 1960s. Now I move it to 1948 in Tokyo, just after the bombing, just after the war. I think it will look visually stunning because of the ruin of the city and all the death all around the city. Then the story happens right in the middle. There's a US Army camp because Japan at the time is occupied by the US. So, you have this apple pie, good old wholesome American army camp and surrounding it is death and ruin.
QUINT: That's really interesting. For a second there, I thought you were going to say that you moved the story from the '60s to modern day...
RONNY YU: No, no, no. I won't do that. I won't do that. I just wanted visually more powerful... more impact.
QUINT: Do you have anything else in the works right now or are you just concentrating on BLOOD?
RONNY YU: I think at the moment BLOOD and then there's other things in the pipeline, but it's still sort of talking about it or thinking about it... we're still working on it, so I don't want to talk about (them). I think BLOOD should be a lot of fun.
QUINT: Are you shooting BLOOD in Tokyo?
RONNY YU: Um... all over. We're going to be shooting some Tokyo and some in Melbourne... there's an abandoned army camp there with all the supplies there, like jeeps and planes and all that.
QUINT: Is a studio financing it or are you shooting independently?
RONNY YU: Again I'm doing it with Bill Kong, my producing partner. We financed it independently ourselves.
And there you have it. I really dig the idea of setting BLOOD immediately after WW2. Sounds great. Can't wait to see the flick!
There's another interview down and a half-dozen more to go. Keep an eye out, squirts. Tons of goodies for ya'... if my fingers don't fall off from all the transcribing... Between the Peter Jackson interview and Max Brooks interview I've already typed up 25,000 words. C'mon fingers... hold together!