Saturday, April 13, 2019

Yuen Woo-Ping: The Unseen Films Interview

Yuen Wing-Poo Photo from IMDB
With MASTER Z : IP MAN LEGACY opening in theaters across the US I was given a chance to interview via e-mail the film's director, the legendary Yuen Woo-Ping. Woo-Ping is responsible for changing how action is portrayed in the movies. His work in DRUNKEN MASTER, THE MATRIX films, The KILL BILL films, the IRON MONKEY  films, KUNG FU HUSTLE,  and dozens of others set and reset the bar of what is the cutting edge in action. The chance to interview him was a once in the life time sort of thing and of course I jumped at the chance.

It may have been a once in life time chance, but I realized that in order to do the interview properly I was going to have to ask for help. While I would have no questions asking about MASTER Z I felt out of my league discussing his extensive body of work, so I did what any rational person would do and turned to the members of the Unseen Film and asked for thoughts and questions. Mr C, Nate Hood Hubert Vigilla and Jared King responded with the questions that ended up making up the bulk of the interview. (Actually Jared went even further and asked his friends what they thought would be the best questions.) Without the help of the experts this would have been two questions instead of 
twenty. (Thank you gentleman. Having friends like you is what makes Unseen Films a family. I appreciate your help to no end) 

I want to thank Yuen Woo-Ping for taking the time to respond. It was an honor. I also want to thank the people at Falco Ink for setting this up.

UNSEEN FILMS:  With MASTER Z being a sequel you have to set up just how good Cheung Tin Chi is for anyone who hasn't seen the earlier films and you do that by having him effortlessly take on an entire gang of men. Later on we can gauge how good someone is by how many people he is fighting. How do you decide how to show how good the various characters are in your films?

YUEN WOO-PING: Each hero has to be special in some way. Whether it’s a character extraordinary ability or an ordinary person faced with extraordinary challenges. Tin Chi is a bit of both. He possesses talent in wing chun but has sworn to stay away from wing chun and the trouble it brings. He wants an ordinary life for him and his son. But trouble eventually finds him no matter how hard he tries to stay away.

UNSEEN FILMS How did you cast the film? MASTER Z is so perfectly cast, how did you choose who would be in the film? How did Dave Baustista end up in the film? Frequently when a Western actor is brought in for a film like this they seem out of place but he seems to fit in perfectly.

YUEN WOO- PING: I wanted someone unique in each role to bring sometime different than the most obvious casting. For example Michelle Yeoh’s role was originally written for a man. But that story of a gangster trying to turn good has been told many times using a male character. It’s more interesting as a woman, especially an elegant woman who doesn’t look the gangster part. But put a Sabre in her hand she turns into a different woman. With Dave Bautista one of my producers suggested him for the part of Owen Davidson. I wanted someone physically intimidating but who can really act and bring the character to life. Dave fit the bill.

UNSEEN FILMS:  How does casting affect or influence a film or sequence? Do you wait to see who is going to be in a film before designing a sequence or do you alter it once casting is done?

YUEN WOO- PING: Casting is everything in drama or action. Every actor has a different read on a scene and different physical ability. With action it looks best if the actor can perform as much of a sequence as possible so it helps to tailor the sequence to their strengths. Whether it’s Muay Thai for Tony Jaa or wrestling for Dave Bautista, performers need to be comfortable in the character for them to shine.

UNSEEN FILMS: Where did the idea for the neon sign sequence in MASTER Z come from? How difficult was it to shoot?

YUEN WOO- PING: It was something I thought up during development. That Hong Kong street was the main exterior location and they spent quite a lot time (and money) creating these vintage neon signs. So after we shot the rest of the movie, I designed a fight sequence on those signs so we could destroy them! The trouble came when we were about to shoot the sequence and a typhoon was about to make landfall. If it hit us our set, it would surely destroy our signs before we could and at that point we couldn’t afford to rebuild. We went back and forth on a contingency sequence. But in the end we took the chance and stuck to the sign fight. The heavens watched over us and we had perfect whether. We even finished the sequence 3 days early!

UNSEEN FILMS: Could you talk about how you link action to story telling and how that affects the choices when you are designing a scene?

YUEN WOO- PING: The goal is that story and action need to inform one another — story should motivate action and action should tell story. It’s not always about fighting for literal survival. Sometimes I use action to further character moments for example the drinking glass sparring between Tin Chi and Kean or the rooftop fight with Max and Fu, those scenes are to develop the story through an interesting fight.

UNSEEN FILMS: How important is plot to your films? Do you have to have a story that works from start to finish or are you more interested in using the plot to hang the action sequences from it?

YUEN WOO- PING: I try not to over complicate the plot to distract from film because audiences see my films for entertaining action sequences. On this film we had different versions of the script where the drug smuggling plot was much more complicated. I felt that plot dragged on and got rid of it. We just got to the point quickly.

UNSEEN FILMS: How Important is rhythm when you Choreograph a fight? Do you view the sequences as pieces of music?

YUEN WOO- PING: I do see fights as a kind of dance but how that rhythm works with music I left for the editor and composer to figure out. Fights are so logistically complicated that it’s difficult to set that to existing music so music has to accommodate to the sequence.

UNSEEN FILMS: What shot or sequence required the most takes and most work in all the films you've made?

YUEN WOO- PING: It’s probably the bamboo sequence from Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. That was a sequence that was really unlike anything I had attempted before that. We were really at height in a real bamboo forest and the logistics were daunting. The first couple days of filming that sequence we got nothing useable. I think at that point it may everyone secretly thought this might be impossible. But we kept at it and the sequence came out beautifully.

UNSEEN FILMS: How do you deal with multiple duties on a film such as directing, choreographing and acting at the same time?

YUEN WOO- PING: Well I haven’t acted for a while so I haven’t had to worry about. Choreographing in China we call action directing. I guess you can call directing drama directing. So to me it’s natural for that to be one job. However when I’m directing a film the time commitment is much greater. For action directing I’m usually just around for the shoot but on this film because I was also directing I spent nearly two years from idea to finished film.

UNSEEN FILMS: What was it like to work with your father? Did it help having him playing say a role in a film where he could help with choreograph and direct a film? What is it like to have a working relationship with your brothers and has it evolved in regard to the new Hong Kong Cinema?

YUEN WOO- PING: It was a great pleasure to work with my father and my brothers. My father was the first martial arts choreographer so he created that position and brought me into the film industry. It was a great honor to direct my first films with him as an actor. Looking back, many of my films are about father son stories and I don’t think that is an accident.

UNSEEN FILMS: Has something been lost now that action sequences have become driven not so much by the action but by editing and special effects?

YUEN WOO- PING: In general I think having too many options and possibilities often hurts the vision of sequences. I got my start in an industry with neither much opportunity to edit or VFX. To save film we developed the “Hong Kong zoom” where we’d zoom in and out in a single take, editing in camera. And VFX didn’t exist at all back them. And we were able to make incredible films under those circumstances. The filmmaker tells the story, everything are tools to help in that process. So even now, I design my fights to an edit, it’s not shot from a bunch of angles and figured out in post. And as much as possible I try to avoid vfx to give a sense of reality to the sequence.

UNSEEN FILMS: You were instrumental in ushering in the modern-day action genre in Hong Kong would you ever return to that genre?

YUEN WOO- PING: It’s actually something I’ve been discussing recently. There are a couple modern kung fu stories I’m developing. We’ll see where they go.

UNSEEN FILMS:  What do you think of the new generation of Hong Kong Action directors?

YUEN WOO- PING: I think the young filmmakers do great work. What I’m worried about is the lack of interest in that line of work. It used to be that young people were excited by kung fu and would practice as a hobby. Then some of those people would find their way in the industry and become filmmakers. But years of hard work for a hobby isn’t appealing to the younger generation and I worry how that will affect our industry.

UNSEEN FILMS: What do you think about the future of Hong Kong Cinema?

YUEN WOO- PING: Hong Kong cinema has all but moved to mainland China because the filmmakers have gone to where the market is. A lot of storytelling is driven by the market, films are more about spectacle and VFX and the budgets balloon in pursuit of a big box office. But having good ideas doesn’t always mean spending big dollars. I hope to see more of those kind of projects.

UNSEEN FILMS: Do you have any thoughts on the seeming increasing use of action spectacles in Mainland films as a means of propaganda?

YUEN WOO- PING:  I don’t think propaganda is the right word. I think films like Wolf Warrior and Operation Red Sea are certainly patriotic, but I don’t think they are trying to convert audience into an opinion they don’t already hold, it’s not that easy to sway people nowadays. I think audiences anywhere around the world want to believe the place they live in a good place to live, a place that stands up for values. If you look st Michael Bay films they are showcases for the American military people Americans and Chinese love his films because they’re enormously entertaining.

UNSEEN FILMS: What non-action films inspire you? Even though you are so attached to action cinema would you ever make a film that wasn't action packed?

YUEN WOO- PING: I've always liked comedy and in fact most people forget that most of my early work were action comedies. Films are meant to entertain and if a non action script speaks to me, I’d love to direct it.

UNSEEN FILMS: Are you going to be involved with Kung Fu Hustle 2?

YUEN WOO- PING: There have been rumors there will be a sequel but Stephen Chow hasn’t called yet!

UNSEEN FILMS: Are you ever totally happy with any film or sequence you direct?

YUEN WOO- PING: When I watch films I’ve worked on I try to see it as an audience member rather than a crew member. Filmmaking is about taming the daily challenges that prevent you from achieving your goals. Weather, time, budget. Sometimes you have to make compromises. Sometimes they’re for the better and sometimes not. But you can’t focus on the negatives or else you’ll be too scared to work again.

UNSEEN FILMS:Will there be a MASTER Z sequel and or series?

YUEN WOO- PING: I could see many ways of continuing the story but there has been no definite plans yet!

Yuen Woo-Ping's MASTER Z-IP MAN LEGACY is now playing in theaters across the US.

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