The Hong Kong actor, director, producer, martial arts stunt choreographer and star of "Drunken Master," "Rush Hour," and "Shanghai Noon" attended the Far East Film Festival as one of its guests of honor and the recipient of the Living Legend Award. In honor of the achievement and as part of a retrospective of Hong Kong Martial Arts films, the festival screened some of the genre's most important films such as "The Young Master," "Once Upon a Time in China," "The Way of the Dragon," "Spooky Encounters," "Duel to the Death" and "Righting Wrongs" but also the international cut of his new hit, Daniel Lee's "Dragon Blade", that served as well as the festival's opener and that also stars John Cusack and Adrien Brody. [The below answers were culled from questions asked by press members who attended the "Dragon Blade" press conference, which you can view here.]
You have an exceptional career as an actor. You started it as a stuntman, doing combat scenes and karate. Lately, however, your films are much more philosophical and have an educational aspect that highlights a peaceful China. Can you talk about that?
Before, I wanted to make money… But later on, in 2000, I changed. I changed my character because I am not young anymore and also because I don't want to always make "Rush Hour," "Rush Hour 2," and "Rush Hour 3"… I am tired. I want to change myself. I want to be a true actor. I want to be like the Asian Robert De Niro! Even this morning, I was walking around in the small town [of Udine] and you could see the children saying "Oh Jackie Chan!" Why can nobody see Robert De Niro in me? I wish that in ten years time people would say "Oh! Jackie Chan, he's a good actor!" I want to be a true actor because for an action star, life is very, very short. So, that is the reason why, for the last 15 years, I have tried to change myself. I want my audience to know that I am the actor who can fight and not the fighter who can act. Also, why am I always making Chinese films? Well, because it's the only thing I know! This is the only thing I can do so I do the best I can to promote my own country and my own culture. That's what I'm doing!
You worked on "Dragon Blade" for seven years. Can you talk about the genesis of the project and its filmmaking process?
I had heard of Daniel Lee although I had never met him before. My cameraman thought I should meet him and because I trust my cameraman, I called Daniel up and – because in Hong Kong everybody calls me "Big Brother" – I said, "Daniel, I am the Big Brother, Jackie Chan" and he said "Haaa... the Jackie Chan?" I said, "Yes!" and he went, "What can I do for you?" and I said, "I want to meet you, I want to know you". I said, "Where are you?" and I drove to his office and we talked about finding something special. So, a month later, he called me up to do another Kung Fu cops story but I told him that I had heard of this story. So, we did a lot of research and decided to do it.
And, for the filmmaking process, because we needed Romans and don't have enough Caucasians in China, we had to go all over China to look for students in International Schools to hire them. The shooting was hard, the hours were long and we had to walk to the Gobi desert because we couldn't drive because of the tire marks because of all the aerial shots. We also invited the press to the desert to take a look at how we were making the movie. I asked the director at times, "Why aren't we using the green screen today? We are wasting about a hundred-twenty buses every single day!" and he said, "No! I want the real feeling, the people's feeling!" Then, I realized that only two directors had made their films in the Gobi desert! The first one is Daniel Lee and the second is also Daniel Lee! Nobody else! He just loves the desert! When the sand storm would come and everybody would hide, he would just sit there in his director's chair with loud music on…. Lalalaaaa [Chan sings] He was just so happy! He enjoyed it so much!
As the director of choreography on the film, can you talk about how you devised and executed the fight scenes?
Well, before we started shooting, I asked the director what kind of style we wanted. We wanted everything to be real. The Roman fighting is very tough, very strong and there are not too many tricks. But in China, there's a lot of flying. It's a different kind of fighting. Also, we didn't want to use special effects and flying around like in "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon." I don't think the audience likes this kind of things. But, right now, there are too many movies; modern movies, period movies in which everybody is flying around… it's ridiculous! So, I said that we had to make a realistic movie. Nobody can jump and fly from one horse to another! Nobody can jump and fly from one roof to another! So, when you see "Dragon Blade," everything you see is real! We just wanted something humanly possible. Something that everybody can do but actually not everybody can do; only a stunt guy or me or some people who trained can do it! But, you believe it!
In that sense, in this digital world where technology prevails, do you think there is still space and future for the real thing, for stunts like yours and the purity of the gestures of martial arts?
I think, slowly, slowly, the real action's gone. Really. Because, now we still have a few people who do the real stunts, the real action like Hong Bang, like me, like Sammo Hung and others. But, when these people are gone, when we retire, I think it's going to be difficult because the real action is really, really difficult! But, in America they're so good! They're so clever! They can use special effects and computer graphics to make everybody become an action star. Even you can be an action in America! But, I wanted to do this kind of things when I was young. We didn't have money and we had to do the real stunts. We had to jump from one building to the other… I cracked my feet, I broke my finger, I broke everything. But, when I made money, I had money to do special effects but the audience didn't like it! They wanted to see Jackie Chan hurt himself! They wanted to see Jackie Chan do the real thing. They just don't like to see Jackie do Superman. Spiderman is so easy, right? I want to do it! Directors hire me! But, no director wants to hire me to do this kind of thing. They want me to do "Rush Hour," "Rush Hour 2" and "Rush Hour 3." They still want me to do this kind of things but I think that after Sammo Hung, these guys and me… after we retire, the young generations will slowly change because they have already learned how to use special effects, how to use the tricks. Poor me! I will continue to do that for another five years I think, and then after five years, adios. Then, I'll do a romance film!
A long time ago, I tried to bring the Chinese culture to America but that wasn't a success. I mean, at that time there was "Cannonball Run," "The Protector." And I used Chinese action and Chinese culture but it just didn't work. I think it was the wrong timing but now, over thirty years later, I went to America because America invited me. So, when I go to America, I still do the same kind of action, the same kind of comedy and it's the right timing, the right moment and the right mood. But, I think America is a free country; they like everything but when you bring something in, are you bringing it at the right time, at the right moment? That's all. And, right now, China is probably – I don't know yet – the biggest market in the world. I think it's time to bring not only American culture to China, but whole Asia. Everything in China should be like a collaboration movie with Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Malaysia. Film is the international language and we should combine everything together.
How do you feel about the fact that Wuxia and the tradition on martial arts you were raised on have become the predominant style of action across global cinema?
Of course, I am very happy! Because, we're talking about a long, long time ago, about Wong Yue, Bruce Lee, and so many who have followed in their footsteps and continued to promote our culture throughout the world and I believe that after me, there will still be a few more people who will continue in my footsteps. And, just like there are so many American directors and actors who promote American culture to the world, it's the same thing; we accept our culture, we learn it and we try to return something to it. If everybody knows everybody's culture, there would be no more wars and no more misunderstandings. I think culture, film and music are very important.
My impression, and you have confirmed it, is that Hollywood is producing less films involving real martial artists than in the past. What, in your opinion, has changed in the world of action films?
Because martial arts films are difficult to shoot, it's not easy, you know. You have to have an actor who can really fight and then you can do "Papapapapammm" [Chan shows a move] and use a sword for everything. But, honestly, in Hollywood, not many actors know martial arts! Maybe they know action like Tom Cruise, Sylvester Stallone – they like boxing, that's a different kind. So, if they use a special effect, like in Batman or Superman, good, they can use a special effect to do all kinds of action.
Sometimes, the action is even better than my action! Like in "300," I was like "Wow! That's so good!" So, they spend a lot of money to create this kind of action and I think it's ten times better than mine but they don't really use the action. Liam Neeson, for instance, is not an action star, but they can use a small shot and make him become an action star. There's actor action star and there's action star. It's different. Now, Liam Neeson is an actor action star. First, he can act and his action is easy. There's easy action and difficult action and easy action is just like Matt Damon and "Bourne Identity." They can use a camera and "Papapapapammm" [Chan shows a move] and, it's so good! And, even I see it and I'm like, "Wow! Matt Damon can fight that good!" My kind of action is the difficult action. But, the audience doesn't know that. They just want to see good or bad, that's all!
In "Shanghai Noon," for instance, the two tomahawks were real tomahawks! Eeeeyyyuuuuu! [Chan does the motion of throwing a tomahawk in the air] When I use explosions, I want to use a real explosion behind me. Sometimes, when I make a Hollywood film, they say "Jackie! Action! Act scared!" And there's nothing behind me! They just use pretend scare… When you see the Asian films that I make, I am really scared! You can tell from the face! Maybe I like the excitement! I'm stupid, that's all. But, sometimes I like stupid and also the audience, they like to see Jackie stupid!
For me, when I was young, a long, long time ago, the box office result was very important because if there were no box office, nobody would invite me. And, making money came first, and then the quality because I had to feed my family and myself. And, slowly, when my movies were successful, then I would think about being an actor, a producer, a director. We do have the responsibility towards society, towards the world and this is why, for example, when I made "Drunken Master," it was only drinking, fighting, drinking, fighting -- and when I got older, I realized it was the wrong message! So, I made "Drunken Master II" and the message was: don't drink, don't fight.
I had to correct myself and now, when I am making a movie, it's about not the box office anymore. I want to make the movie I want to make. I want to speak out the things in the movie. I want every movie to have a message, just like "Dragon Blade." Of course, if the box office is good and the credit is good, it all makes me happy and if the box office is not good, it still makes me happy, mostly because I speak out my message. Today, I don't need money. I have enough money already. I want to do something right for when I pass away, for when, in a hundred years, your grandchildren and my grandchildren can say, "That's some movie! It's very good!" and they can forget "Drunken Master" and talk about who I am or "Dragon Blade." That would make me happy. Some movies made a lot of money and people, boom, they forget… but some movies don't make any money but people, 20 or 50 years later are still talking about it and that's what I want!
You once said that you love action but that you hate violence. This is kind of a conflict of interest, isn't it? How do you deal with it?
It's a very big dilemma indeed! People always think that action is violence so it's quite a dilemma! Yes, you're right! I just do the best I can to show the whole world, you know, that violence is wrong.
What are your next projects? There are a lot of rumors about a sequel to "The Karate Kid." Can you talk about that?
I think that, in a way, I have already planned the next eight years of my life, almost. Next month, I will start a film called "Railroad Tiger" or something like that. Later on, the title might change... I just translated literally "Railroad Tiger"... Then, I'm doing a Kung Fu yoga film in India, and after that, "Civilian" and the director will probably be Peter Segal and then probably something with Michael Campbell and then again something with Daniel Lee; then "Chinese Zodiac 2" with myself directing again and after that, "Police Story 2."
There are just so many things going on! I think that I just like the challenge! Every movie is different! I want the audience to see every year a different Jackie Chan. This year, at Christmas, "Skiptrace" will be released. It's an action comedy with Johnny Knoxville. And, for "The Karate Kid 2," right now, it's almost the third or fourth draft and Will Smith is concentrating very seriously on it. Every time he gives me a call and says that the script is almost ready, I tell him, "Hurry up! Otherwise, your young son will be taller than me!" Also, there's probably a "Shanghai Dawn" coming to and "Rush Hour 4" -- no, I'm just joking!