Jet Li in person: “My film career is only one aspect of my life. Relationships are more important”, the movies (2)
Превод на български виж ТУК.
As a huge fan of the eastern Mortal Arts and moreover of the appealing to me people in the film industry, Jet Li was one of those, who I was happy to explore close and therefore years ago I used to check from time to time his beautiful website with interest, where I found a lot of stories and essays written himself (in English). Some of my favourite readings were his stories about the shooting process of his films in the aspect what he learned through it each time – growing up. Here you are some (part 2)… Enjoy! (For his life essays, written wonderfully and with lovely sense of humor from end to end, click HERE.)
– the Editor, Ralie Blag
Video above: “Kiss of the Dragon” trailer
Jet talks about “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”
I’ve been asked: why didn’t you do Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon?
Ang Lee did ask me back in 1997 if I would be interested in doing his movie. At the time, I didn’t make a commitment either way, but I did recommend that he hire Yuen Woo-ping. I told him: if you’re going to make a period martial arts movie, you’ve got to have Yuen Woo-ping choreographing the action. And if you’re going to shoot the film in China, you’ve got to get Chui Po-chu, the best producer in Hong Kong, on your team. These two production members have proved to be wonderful colleagues in my own career. I worked with them on several projects in Hong Kong. They’re brilliant at what they do.
But there was a reason why I couldn’t do Crouching Tiger, and it dates back to ten years ago.
When I first met Nina in 1989, on the set of Dragon Fight, we fell in love right away. Our feelings for each other were very strong. People wondered how long it would last. We wondered about this as well. One day, when we were talking, I said to Nina: “Let’s not rush into anything. What I mean is, if we still feel this way about each other ten years from now, I think we should get married then.” And she replied: “Alright. If you ask me then, I promise that the answer will be yes.” “Well, if that’s the case,” I said, “then let me make another promise to you. If we ever decide to start a family, I will take a break from my career. Through every month of your pregnancy I give my word that I will not make any movies, until the child is born. I plan to be by your side the whole time.” It was a man’s promise.
1999 rolled around. And we were still as much in love with each other as we had been in the very beginning! Ten years had passed like a single day. We started planning the wedding. As chance would have it, we had more good news. Nina had “good fortune,” as we say in Chinese. She was carrying our child! In order to keep my promise to her, I had to turn down the role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Naturally, I told Ang Lee about my situation – why I couldn’t do his movie. He was very understanding.
So I didn’t make that movie. In fact, starting from the time that Romeo Must Die wrapped production, I didn’t work on any films for about 12 months, a whole year, because I was at home with my wife.
Many reporters have asked me, “Given the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, do you have any regrets that you didn’t do the movie?” To this day, I have only one answer: “None whatsoever.” My film career is only one aspect of my life. Relationships are more important. And I believe that keeping one’s word is one of the most basic principles of human conduct.
Jet talks about “Kiss of the Dragon“
Around the time that Romeo Must Die appeared in theatres, my assistant showed me how to check the message boards on my website, where fans post all sorts of opinions. I was most interested in their criticism – the aspects of the film that they had been dissatisfied with. What I found is that one segment of my audience – the enthusiastic, young hard core fans with very high expectations – didn’t like the fight scenes. Interestingly, my assistant, Beaver, was expressing opinions that were very similar to this segment of my audience. This group urged me to make a movie that relied less on wires and more on real “on-the-ground” martial arts.
In fact, I had been thinking along the same lines, ever since The Matrix came out. Wire techniques and computer effects make it possible for nearly any actor to do those scenes. As long they are reasonably fit, they can manage it with only a short period of training.
I had seen it happen before – in Hong Kong. After the success of Swordsman II, the market was flooded with a hundred imitations. Suddenly, everybody could fly: Brigitte Lin, Maggie Cheung, you name it. Without any foundation in martial arts, you could star in an action movie. When I saw what was happening, I wanted to give my fans a more realistic film. Real combat, no flying. That was Fist of Legend. I poured my energy into it. Not only did I produce it, but I was also very involved in the script, the story, the fight scenes, the philosophy. I had high hopes for the movie. I really pushed myself creatively.
And in the end, Fist of Legend did not do well at the box office. I had done my best to make a movie with a fresh twist. But the Asian audience didn’t embrace it. After this setback, I closed my production company and decided to focus on acting only. I wanted to give myself time to find projects that I really wanted to work on.
Years later, I knew that the same wave of imitation would take place in Hollywood. Sure enough, look at Charlie’s Angels, Spy Kids, Scary Movie, etc. The environment had become just like Hong Kong’s in the early 90’s. And so, once again, I found myself searching for a story that could showcase some hard-core fighting. Although I had liked Romeo Must Die’s production values, I had not been crazy about the story.
Last June, my manager Steve Chasman told me that the French director Luc Besson was in town and wanted to meet me. I thought this was interesting, so we met and talked for two hours. I was curious about how movies were made in Europe, and he asked me questions about Hong Kong filmmaking. It was a valuable experience; most people don’t get a chance to reflect on and explain their own particular way of working. We compared notes on each system – what worked and what didn’t. We found that we agreed on a lot, probably because we were both outsiders to the American system.
To put it simply, filmmaking is like a big family. Every set has its mom, dad, grandmother, grandfather, siblings, cousins, uncles, aunties, etc. In Hollywood, when you get an idea, you need to get approval from every single family member before you can proceed. It might take six months or a year to approve your idea; then you actually start production. It’s not unusual to take two to three years to make a movie. Both of us felt that was too long. I really wanted to take control of the process – to make a movie that was true to the original idea. To present it to the audience, and say, “Here! This is what I had in mind. Maybe you’ll like it too.” The best way to do this is to do it quickly, propelled by the original burst of energy.
During our conversation, I told Luc an idea I had for a movie, about a man’s promise to a woman and how he would be challenged to keep it. The main character is just an ordinary guy. He wins in the end, of course, but you want to see how he reacts to crisis, and how he handles his fears. You want to care whether he lives or dies. Neither of us was interested in making the protagonist a superhero, the kind who saves the world. I don’t like an action hero who’s too perfect. The character should grow as a person, just like each of us learns something new everyday. It’s more realistic. So we decided to make this movie together. In three weeks, we had a completed screenplay. About five or six weeks later, we started shooting. Four months after that, we wrapped up production. The entire process had taken about six months, from beginning to end.
I enjoyed the experience, not just because it was my first time making a movie in Europe, but also because the combination of European, American and Asian talent made it a truly international production. A French producer, an American writer, a Hong Kong martial arts team… and no parents! Luc and I were like two brothers, gleefully free to do our thing without any authorities looking over our shoulder. It was a collaboration of great energy.
For example, when we received the first draft of the script, there were lots of details that needed to be straightened out. My assistant and I came up with a list of 37 questions – the type of questions moviegoers might ask themselves while watching the movie, like “Why would the character take this action? Is that a logical thing for him to do?” Whenever I did not feel completely comfortable with a plot point, we wrote it down. As soon as we arrived in Paris, we sat down with Luc and the writer, Robert Kamen, to discuss these 37 issues.
I’m very happy to say that Luc and Robert were willing to talk it out. Of course, because we really were like family, the discussions occasionally got very loud. We weren’t always polite. We argued and yelled at each other like brothers. But when we were all finally satisfied with the script revisions, we started shooting immediately, because we didn’t need to ask anybody for permission.
Regarding the actual production, I found that the French film crews were very similar in some ways to the Hong Kong crews I had worked with, but there were some differences. Hong Kong crews are very good at following orders; they carry them out very quickly and very efficiently. French crews are accustomed to having some creative input. If you tell them to do 123, they might reply: how about 123456? They would offer alternatives and let you choose. They were very good at thinking on their feet.
And then, of course, they drank wine at every meal. They seemed to really enjoy life. I used to tease them that they were drinking so much so that they’d be too drunk to resume work after lunch.
As for the martial arts that we would use in the film, I had two objectives in mind. Just like with Fist of Legend, the action had to be very realistic. But it also had to fit the uniqueness of the Parisian setting. I put a lot of pressure on my team – Corey Yuen and my stunt guys from Hong Kong – to be creative and innovative. In fact, I am very grateful to my entire martial arts crew, especially since I asked so much from them. We did a call for qualified stuntmen from all over Europe who had martial arts training: karate, Tae Kwon Do, various other styles. Out of an initial pool of 80, we selected about 30 to 40. It was a pleasure to work with them, especially because my goal for Kiss of the Dragon was to create something real.
Perhaps I should explain. In movies, certain tricks are used to deal with the limitations that arise on set. Film is normally shot and played back at 24 frames per second (fps), but you can slow the filming down to 22, 20, even 18 frames per second as a concession to actors or stuntmen who can’t keep up with “normal” speed. When the footage is played back at 24 fps, their actions are sped up as well. But when you use this trick, you sacrifice the perception of force. Blows and kicks don’t look very powerful.
For Kiss of the Dragon, we basically decided to film it at 24 fps so that we could convey the force of the blows through the speed. At that speed, what you see is not camera tricks but the stuntman’s own physical skill. That meant I needed stuntmen who could keep up. Of course, when you do fight scenes at full speed, a lot of the “safety” techniques become less effective. You can’t “pull punches” as easily as when you are fighting at slower speeds, and as a result, bodies get struck with a substantial amount of force. Before we started, I told the stuntmen that my goal was realistic action, and warned them that they would probably end up taking a few real blows. I think most of them had probably seen my movies before and were looking forward to working with me, but I wasn’t terribly kind to them during the fights.
In short, we pummeled them like Hong Kong stuntmen. They wore protective padding, yes, but some of those shrieks and cries of pain that you hear were real. They were very brave. I’d like to commend them. Faces got bruised and swollen, but the stuntmen didn’t complain. I was accustomed to encountering this type of dedication in Hong Kong, but to be able to find this type of spirit in Europe was very unexpected.
I’m very satisfied with the results, especially the ending of the film.
We had scheduled six days to film the final fight scene. After the third day, back at the hotel, Beaver suddenly told me why he thought the scene didn’t work. He and I started to argue, and the argument lasted several hours. Later that night, I lay awake in bed, quietly rethinking the entire scene and his objections. I didn’t agree with all of them, but I spent that night re-imagining a fight scene that could solve all of those problems. The next morning, when I arrived on the set, people were in the middle of shooting the original scene. I said to them, “Stop filming. Let’s scrap it. We have something new.” I think the final cut really shows the results of the pressure we put on ourselves to produce an interesting film.
It also made me very glad to have an assistant like Beaver. Often, when a person becomes successful, the people around him stop expressing their true opinions and start saying only what they think he wants to hear. I’ve worked with people who have agreed with everything I said and never, ever contradicted me. I’m lucky now to have an assistant, whom I also consider a friend, who will very frankly present his opinion of how my fans will react to certain scenes. Beaver speaks for that audience. After twenty years, one can get too familiar with one’s own work, and that’s when you need new ideas and perspectives. Don’t get me wrong, he and I get into big fights, but I really do value his creative input. We may not agree 100%, but we may ultimately end up changing 30-40% of the scene, and the result is worth it. I believe Kiss of the Dragon is a movie that really tries to do something new.
Overall, I would say that the production went quite smoothly in France. Even the skies cooperated with us! It rained when it was supposed to, and stayed sunny when we needed it to. In four months of filming, I would say that the weather only postponed production for one day of shooting. We were very lucky. Believe me, when you’re a producer, you care about these things.
It was only after we wrapped production on Kiss of the Dragon that I realized, “I didn’t get to see Paris at all!” I had been too busy. For most movies, I put in 100%. For this one, it was closer to 120% or 130%. Having made the film, I have to say that I am not terribly concerned with how much it makes at the box office, or how other people define its success. Personally, I am deeply satisfied with the film because I fulfilled a duty to myself. If you watch this movie, you will know who Jet Li is. I would like to thank the entire crew and cast. Especially Beaver, who was always against me!
As I said in my essay on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, “My film career is only one aspect of my life. Relationships are more important. And I believe that keeping one’s word is one of the most basic principles of human conduct.” And that’s why I chose to make Kiss of the Dragon – because the theme of the story also revolves around one man’s promise to a woman. The protagonist is not an earth shaking hero who saves the day, but instead a very professional and dedicated worker. What happens is that he inadvertently makes a promise to a woman. In fact keeping his word may not be in his best interest, but in the end he decides that a man must keep his word. In order to fulfil this promise, though, he might have to violate the rules of his work, the orders of his superiors and possibly even the laws of his country. This is exactly the kind of thing that he has been indoctrinated not to do. But he feels that his integrity as an individual must come first.
Call me a very traditional Chinese guy, but I feel very strongly about these things. When I had discussions with the writer and Luc Besson, we immediately decided that this was the movie we wanted to make – a movie about a simple, subtle promise. Of course, the action sequences in Kiss of the Dragon are very realistic and grounded like those in Fist of Legend and Besson’s The Professional. It is an action movie – it has this packaging – but it’s not purely about action. There’s a strong flavor of something else inside.
This is Jet Li.
Just yesterday I watched the completed version of Kiss of the Dragon.
After Romeo Must Die was released many fans on my website posted their opinions about the movie – what they liked and didn’t like, what they wanted to see in my future films – and so I utilized many of these suggestions when developing Kiss of the Dragon. I want to thank all the fans who gave me their honest opinions. Kiss of the Dragon is my response to the suggestions of many of my fans.
The movie utilizes very realistic, hard-core, action-packed fight sequences. I’m very proud of the final result and hope that my fans enjoy the movie, however, this is a movie that I do not feel is appropriate for children.
Over the years, I’ve received many suggestions from people about which of my movies are their favorite. Some people like Fist of Legend… some people like My Father is a Hero. It is impossible to please all of the people in the world with any one movie. Kiss of the Dragon is an adult movie and deals with adult themes of a man keeping his promise and understanding his responsibilities. The action scenes are also directed towards an adult audience and as such the movie is rated R. I ask that you please do not take your young children to see Kiss of the Dragon.
If you would like a movie to share with your children please wait a few more months. On November 2 my film The One will be released. This is a PG-13 film and more appropriate for younger children to view.
I want to thank each of you for your support and I am looking forward to reading your opinions about my latest release, Kiss of the Dragon. I’m happy with how this movie turned out and I hope that, after watching it, you will share my enthusiasm.
Jet talks about “The Matrix”
Many people have asked me: you’re not going to be in The Matrix sequels?! They’ve heard that I was offered a role in The Matrix 2 and 3, and that I declined it. They want to know why.
I’d like to say, first of all, that I consider the Wachowski brothers good friends of mine. And I think they’re remarkable filmmakers. They have a keen understanding and respect for Chinese action cinema. They managed to translate that into an American idiom and that’s why they made such a great movie.
It is true that when they were outlining the two sequels, we had a few conversations about a role that I might play. But when I heard what they had planned, I began to think – and this is just my opinion, of course – that the movies would be just as successful without my participation. The Wachowski brothers are very smart and they have such a keen grasp of the Asian culture that made the first movie so unique. Trust me, all of the Matrix movies will do well! My involvement is not crucial.
My priority has always been to consider the audience; I would rather give them a lot of options. Imagine if you made a Matrix film starring Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat; imagine all these action stars crammed into one big movie. It might be an incredible film, but it might also be the only one that action fans get to watch all year. From the movie fan’s point of view, having a great selection of movies is what is wanted the most, right? I mean, let a hundred flowers blossom! Go watch Rush Hour 2, Kiss of the Dragon, The One AND Matrix 2 and 3. Why assemble super-casts when you can have more moviegoing choices? More movies to love!
(to be continued; read also about “Shaolin Temple”, “Shaolin Kids”, “Martal Arts of Shaolin” HERE)