Jackie Chan Takes Manhattan, Discusses His Life, Movie Career, and "I Am Jackie Chan: The Musical"
The fine folks at Subway Cinema and the New York Asian Film Festival scored a major coup last week when they brought action film maestro Jackie Chan to NYC for a two-day visit on June 10 and 11 in advance of his upcoming retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center from June 23-27. On June 10, Chan was presented with the Star Asia Lifetime Achievement Award and sat for a conversation with Grady Hendrix prior to a screening of his latest film Chinese Zodiac at Lincoln Center. On the morning of June 11, a press conference with Jackie Chan was held at the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office (HKETO). Below is my report on Chan's comments at that press conference.
Chan began his remarks by saying that he wanted a director to hire him to "make a love story, without all action. That's what I want." Moderator Ted Geoghegan told a personal story about how he first heard of Jackie Chan from a reference in the Sylvester Stallone vehicle Demolition Man, when Sandra Bullock's character says she learned to fight by watching Jackie Chan movies. He remarked that many Americans' exposure to not only martial arts movies, but Asian films in general, was through Jackie Chan, and his "wonderful mixture of humor and action" that made it very approachable and engaging for many people. "So thank you very much from me and all the other nerds out there," he said.
In answering a question about how he began to incorporate humor into his films and building his films around his own comic persona, as well as his usual practice of including blooper reels during the credits of his films documenting outtakes, and the often painful results of stunt attempts gone wrong, Chan related the story of how he began as a young action star in Hong Kong in the 1970's. When he started out, he "didn't have the right to say anything," and had to simply follow his directors' instructions. After Bruce Lee's death, there were a slew of Bruce Lee imitators in martial arts movies, and Chan himself was initially forced into that mold. He told an amusing story about how excited he was when he was on a poster for the first time, and the poster prominently had the words "Second Bruce Lee," and in much smaller letters below, his name. None of these early films were successful, Chan said. His directors made him do his fight scenes in slavish imitation of Bruce Lee. "I don't like it, but what can I do? I have to follow the director." According to Chan, all of these films starring Bruce Lee clones, including his, were full of nothing but fight scenes - "You look at me, I fight you" - with no story. He then met with Yuen Woo-ping to discuss how to counteract this situation and come up with something unique. The solution? "Let's do some comedy, just total opposite of Bruce Lee. Where Bruce tough, you're not tough. You just be yourself." Shortly after, Chan made Snake in Eagle's Shadow, his first big hit, followed up by Drunken Master, another big hit. "Then, the whole movie industry totally changed. When I make The Young Master, that break all time record in Hong Kong, there's so many Young Sister, Young Father, Young Brother coming out." Now the situation in the Hong Kong movie industry was reversed, and Jackie Chan became the model for others to imitate. He then decided to change up his formula with Project A.
Chan also recalled his initial attempt to break into the US market with The Big Brawl. "I tried to bring Jackie Chan style into American market, but nobody liked it. [People said,] Jackie, why you fight so long with this guy? Ten minutes, he's still standing there ... 'Cause John Wayne, pow! One punch. Clint Eastwood, boom! Make my day. Bruce Lee, one kick, he kill people. That's easy! But no, they didn't like this kind of style." He ended up staying two years in the US, which proved to be a very disappointing and frustrating period of his life. "I speak no English. No matter what I do, the director, they would never say the fight's good, the acting's good, they just [say] wow! Very good English. Every day, I just practice my English! And wrong script, just everything's wrong. How can I be an ABC, American-born Chinese, [with] my kind of accent? Now, my English is ten times better than before. And they don't care anything, just practice your English." Chan returned to Asia and continued to develop his unique approach to action filmmaking. "But fifteen years later, all of Hollywood learned from Jackie Chan style."
Chan followed up on an earlier mention of Demolition Man, and told the story of how he met Sylvester Stallone. When Stallone was making that film, he called Chan to invite him to the set. Chan didn't believe it at first; to prove his sincerity, Stallone sent his personal secretary to the Hong Kong airport to present Chan and his manager with two first-class plane tickets, after which they immediately traveled to the US to visit Stallone. When he visited the Demolition Man set, "Stallone looked at me, then I just go, wow, Stallone! When Stallone looked at me, he's just like, wow, Jackie! And he hugged me just like an old friend. I don't even know him! He grabbed my hand, walk around on the set, just show all the stunt team, you know, [does Stallone's voice and points], 'Hey, Jackie Chan.' There's so many stunt guys on the set. And everybody standing up gave me a bow." Stallone then took Chan to his trailer, where he opened a cabinet and showed him his videocassette collection of Jackie Chan's films. "'When I run out of ideas, I just watch your movies.' Stallone told me that." Chan credits people like James Cameron, Stallone and Schwarzenegger for often mentioning Chan in interviews and making the American public aware of who he was, paving the way for his eventual success in the U.S., beginning in the 1990's. Chan and Stallone have remained close friends ever since.
Responding to a question about his music career, Chan broke the news that he was preparing a musical theater project based on his memoir "I Am Jackie Chan: My Life In Action," which was published in the US about 15 years ago. Chan also mentioned that he would be writing a second memoir, called "I'm Still Jackie Chan." He said they were currently searching for a director, and he then animatedly described what the staging would look like, and how the musical would go through key areas of his life. This show sounds like it would be a very exciting and colorful one, with many intriguing stories, such as that of his father, who was a spy and got shot, and who fled to Australia, hiding out in the American embassy, while he sent Jackie Chan to martial arts school. The show would have no dialog, consisting of songs with a narrator who could be translated into different languages, depending on the country the show would be performed in, so that the production could travel anywhere in the world.
In answer to a question about the current state of Hong Kong film, Chan remarked that since he is no longer a young man, and cannot physically do the stunts that he used to, he now writes his own scripts with approaches to action more appropriate for his age, such as Little Big Soldier and Chinese Zodiac. He also said that today, there isn't really a true action star successor to him and his contemporaries. "After Sammo Hung, Yuen Biao, me, we cannot find the second action star. It's very difficult. Because right now, the stars know how to fight, they don't know how to act. When the actor can act, they don't know how to fight. If you really want to be the next Sammo Hung or next Jackie Chan, it's very difficult. Because we've been in the film industry, me with Sammo, more than 53 years. You know, since the child actor. We never go to the school, we're just born on the set, every single day. So that's how we learn how to be a writer, a director, cameraman, a stunt coordinator, stuntman ... on the set, we know everything." When he would come to make films in the U.S., directors and others would ask him how to solve problems. They would call him "the Pope," because of his knowledge of filmmaking. Chan spoke of how in Hong Kong, they would compensate for lack of expensive equipment like cranes by improvising solutions for getting particular shots that they wanted. He cited an example of a shot over the roof of a building in Police Story. Because they didn't have a crane for the shot, he had a stuntman hold him over the roof while he used a handheld camera to get the shot.
Chan said there really needs to be an action school for formal training in Hong Kong like there used to be. "We don't have stunt men anymore in Hong Kong," he said. "We only use old stunt guys as stunt coordinators." He stressed again the need for a school for training people in the art of stunt work.
Chan answered a final question about how he comes up with the elaborate choreography of his films by remarking that it was increasingly difficult to come up with fresh ways to do this. Since he's not a technological person, and approaches his action filmmaking with real and practical effects, without the use of CGI or other special effects, he has to survey a particular location and figure out how all the objects in a room could be used as weapons or props.
With that, the press conference ended. Chan later that night appeared at a screening of his classic Drunken Master 2 at Asia Society with more amusing stories and much animated acting about his career. In his short visit to NYC, Jackie Chan reminded many of us why he is such a unique, groundbreaking, and beloved figure of action cinema.
"The Jackie Chan Experience," the film retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which forms a fine preamble to the upcoming New York Asian Film Festival, screens at the Walter Reade Theater from June 23-27. For more info and to purchase tickets, visit the Film Society's website.
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