|Donnie Yen at the Marriott Marquis photo courtesy Hubert Vigillia|
Donnie Yen is one of cinema’s most charismatic screen presences, yet if you were to happen upon him in a crowd, it would take you a minute to realize who he was since he so completely blends in. That anonymity disappears when Yen begins to speak and reveals himself to be a well-mannered, well-spoken man of thought. To be certain he is a man of action on screen, but his choice of roles is always based on the character and the opportunity to grow as an actor.
Hubert Vigilla and I were recently given the chance to sit down with Yen while he was in Manhattan for the New York Chinese Film Festival. The statement about Yen blending into the crowd was borne out while I was fumbling to figure out where we were to meet the actor. He walked past us completely unnoticed, or unnoticed until Hubert did a double take at the man in the winter jacket and ripped jeans.
The interview was held in a restaurant on the 8th floor of the Marriott Marquis in Times Square between screenings of Ip Man and Special ID. We were given 20 minutes to ask any questions we wanted with no restrictions. The questions had been prepared by Hubert and myself with input from Mr C. What follows is a slightly edited transcript of our talk. One question was moved from the end into the body of the interview to improve the flow, and one question and some of my stumbling was removed.
Before we start, I want to thank The New York Chinese Film Festival for bringing Donnie Yen to New York, Anne Takahashi from Springer Associates for arranging the interview, Mr C for his guidance, Hubert for being my wingman and co-conspirator, and I want to thank Donnie Yen for being gracious enough to sit down with a couple of crazy fans and letting them ask a lot of questions.
Now as you begin to read the interview, imagine yourself at a half-empty restaurant sitting across the table from one of the biggest stars in all of Asia. He’s slightly tired from the jetlag but game and you’re a bit nervous…
STEVE (S): I find it interesting that you've been doing movies for thirty years and only now, a couple years since Ip Man was released that it's being heralded as your international break though when you've been making movies all over the world. Do you think of it as your break through film?
DONNIE (D): I don't know, I just feel like I'm learning every day. I'm growing. Every movie that I do now, is, I feel like there is so much space for improving so sometimes I forget that I've been in the business this for so long. I feel like a person who has only been in the business for a few years, that kind of freshness that I get, you know, every time I take on a new project. I feel there is so much, new ideas, and vibes that I feel for that film and I look back and I say "Wow man I've done so many films in the last 30 years". I just feel like it didn't feel like its been thirty years, I feel like I'm constantly getting new simulations
S: Talking about new simulations, I'd had always heard that you always shyed away from sequels or remakes..
D: Not really...
S...but then you did Ip Man 2...
D:...I think I get motivated by new projects, new concepts, and new character. When I've been in Ip Man, 2 Ip Man, I want to take a break because I know there is no area for me to grow as as Ip Man. What am I going to do challenge 80 in it? So...but I know what the audience wants me to do one day and I probably will do, but I don't feel it now. I want to take on other challenges. I did Monkey King,I did some comedies, Monkey was a huge break for me, so I'm going to continue to look for different materials that as an artist allows me to feel fresh.
S: I know you're doing comedies now...
D: I think it's fun I just want to try it. I don't stress out. I goof around with my colleagues So why not? They pay me so why not?
S: Talking of Monkey King I'm really curious because I heard you talking about it last year at the (New York) Asian Film Festival. Are you following...
D: Following. Following
S: How Much...
D: It's Very different than the Stephen Chow...you know...
S: I didn't get a chance to see it yet...
D; We follow the basic classic novels but of course I added a lot of new elements.As far as playing that character, playing Monkey King. I draw from cartoons. I draw from animal studies in the hopes of creating a brand new Monkey King played by Donnie Yen but with in the frame work. Some people want to... in the past I set that example... Stephen Chow's Monkey King, what he did last year he came out with this blockbuster totally opposite from the classic novel which is something that we're not doing. We're sticking with the tradtional story lines but the way I deliver the acting, its like slightly different, slightly more modern of course.
S: Is that being done...Super Hero Films is the new company?
S: Is being done through Super Hero Films?
D: No Monkey King's been done two years. Its coming out because of post production. Super Hero's first film will be Dragon City.
S; Which is Dragon City? I was looking at a list (of your films), I saw Iceman, something called The Master coming out.
D:The Master is in development. Iceman is coming out in April
S:There's two of those ?
D: Part one and Two
S: Is that a remake of...
D: Not really. not really we use the story line slighly but its big different
HUBERT (H): Whats Dragon City actually?
D: Dragon City is kind of like The Untouchables.
S: When does that come out?
D:After I make the film. Its not in the making until maybe next summer
S: Is that going to be producing your stuff or other people?
D:Probably primarily my stuff.
S:Are you using Super Hero to branch out to do more international co-productions?
D:Not really. Not really I have... I don't have any plan, or so called international or not international or what.ever projects that I like. If I like a project I'll do it. It doesn't have to be so called international. I'm not even sure I want to do Crouching Tiger. I'm considering doing it but it's not at the top of my list that I must do one project or the other. Not right now I don't have a favorable projects that I want to do right away.
S: Are you going to do more producing? Its like with Iceman, Special ID you're producing...I see that you're producing much more..
D: Probably produce...I'll probably produce more more because Special ID is really interesting. At the moment we had a lot of problems with the production. I helped out as producer but I think that later on when I'm wholly a producer of my own films I'll have more control of the quality, the over all quality of the movie- so yes I'm probably going to produce more.
S: Are you going to use that as a platform to to go back to directing? Writing...
D: I don't know when I'm going to direct again because when you direct you spend a year or two, you know I don't have that kind of time and I don't have the material where I'd really want to.
H: I have a question based on Special ID. This is the third time you're fighting Colin Chou and the second time you're fighting Andy On. Could you talk about choreographing fights with people you've worked with before and....
D: I don't... I mean I could choreograph with anybody so long as they have athletic potential. Thats part of my job as action director. The role fits for Andy On... there is no fighting for Colin Chou. Like I said there are a lot of problems with Special ID. Like I said a lot of production problems and I wish the film came. A lot of areas can be more all around quality wise. Unfortunately this is a co-production between Hong Kong and China and sometimes, unfortunately, I can not call the shots, but the action is pretty kick ass.
S: I've heard about a couple of recent projects that also had problems with doing the co-production thing. Does the co production between Hong Kong and China make it that much more difficult ?
D: Co-production is complicated because of material, censorship...at the same time China is going through...like...the film industry is growing rapidly in China which allows all sorts of different people to be part of the film business,some of them may not be filmmakers and have their own agenda. Its not a good thing all the time. At the same time the its the process that as a growing industry must face and it will take a few years or longer to be able to scan out these... Probably kind of like the early 80's of the Hong Kong movie industry. You had stock people or business people who just want to be part of the film business. They invest in a film. They have their own opinions that are not necessarily good opinions because they are not filmmakers... That pretty much gives you an answer about Special ID.
H: How do you feel about your being known through bootlegs which were the way that they were available in the United States almost like a cult thing?
D: I don't feel anything. I'm fine with it because that's just the way it is.
S: That was the way I discovered you in Iron Monkey and I feel bad because you never got the money..
D: I'm not getting the money anyway, because as an actor I was paidas a salary so who ever owns the films gets the money. Back in the old days it was bootlegging. Now there are proper channels. It doesn't really effect me.
S: Jumping back to the fighting, is there any sort of fighting style that you'd like to try on screen?
D: Fighting style on screen? I don't ... I've done a lot of different material. I get excited more about story lines and the characters. I find a character that I'm drawn into then I pick a style that fits the character. I don't pick a style and go okay that's the character . Like I did Ip Man, well Ip Man was a Wing Chun master so I have to do Wing Chun. Special Identity I did MMA because I thinkthat a cop can't do MMA and be out of style, you're not up to date. You're not as well rounded capable, not all around capable fighter nowadays. Its not the 80's. The 80's you do full contact and throw a few kicks and you're well equipt as far as being the hero of a film. Nowadaysbeing the hero of a film people are used to watching Bourne Identity, so even Matt Damon can do a few MMA so to be able to stay on top and say why you want to watch a Donnie Yen film. I want to show the audience I'm on top of my game I'm going to lead the trend to show you what I can do with MMA different from...but with that said I'm not going to continue to do MMA, don't get me wrong, I mean I think I like MMA but I like different styles of martial arts.I watch UFC but as a filmmaker, as a person who creates characters in my films I will move beyond ...I'll find a style when I get there.
S: Because you bounce between modern and period films do you ever want to mix up Modern and period?
D: I'll Mix it up
S: Do you have a problem mixing it up?
D: I don't have a problem mixining it up. I like mixing it up. I like different...I like new stuff that surprises people and I have been and I feel pretty good about my work the past four years has been constantly bringing something new to audiences. "Oh this is something different". Monkey King is of course mythologies and flying around. that said that's one style. Iceman is another style. I did this movie called Kung Fu Killer, originally it was called Best of the Best. Its Kung fu. Its strictly Kung fu style. But I like to mix it up to create excitement for an audience.
S: I know you've been asked this a thousand times, but do you have a favorite film?
D: I don't have a favorite film. I really don't have a favorite film
S: Do you have a film that you wish you could do over again?
D: Everyone of them because I know I could do a better job.
H: Do you notice that on first watch or is it one of those things where you get a few years out and you get critical of yourself?
D: I get critical when I'm done finishing the film. I find an area where I can do better. I look back on my work and I can do it this way or that way. That's why my motivation is to be striving to be better all the time.
S: What do you watch...
D: What do I watch?
S: ...when you're chilling out
D: I watch all kind of materials. Lets just say that when I'm on the plane I switch through all the channels, first and foremost I don't watch action movies
S: Oh no I figured you wouldn't, but what would...
D: I like interesting, (ponders) I like interesting material. I like acting. I like watching modern films because I can reflect to it because it happens to us everyday. City people, I'm a city person, I live in the city right. Drama. I watch a lot of drama because of characters played by good actors I study and appreciate their performance and I try to learn from it as well as having a good time watching it.
H: What is it about a character that attracts you Is it a quality or a story?
D: Well first I want to see if I've done it before. If I haven't done it before then I go off and then I try to imagine what I would look like? How would I come off? but at the same time I'm very level headed especially more and more nowadays as I'm getting even more experienced as a filmmaker. I'm constantly think about how an audience would feel if I played it. I'm not wise enough to take on any material and roles and think I can do everything. I'm not. I'm very practical in what I play. But as an action guy my range is really wide I can even play a fireman because it involves action.So I have a lot of choices. But I'm not smart enough to play I don't know, a doctor and a specialist. Why would I want to do that and why would an audience want to see Donnie Yen playing that so I first evaluate how the audience would feel and what I want them to be.
ANNE: Okay thats time.
S: Thank You
H: Thank you
D: Thank you