To put it bluntly, “Man of Tai Chi” kicks all kinds of ass. The film follows the Faustian rise and fall of Tiger Chen (the actor’s name and also the character’s name), who gets involved in a deadly underground fighting ring led by a wonderfully over-the-top villain named Donaka Mark. Keanu Reeves, who knows a thing or two about kung fu fighting thanks to his role in the trio of “Matrix” films, both directed and co-stars in the film as Donaka (who, unsurprisingly, gets all the best lines). We got to speak to Reeves about what about this project made him want to direct it, whether or not his experience in the film world documentary “Side By Side” inspired any of his choices, and what, exactly, is going on with his other big martial arts project of 2013, “47 Ronin.”
In the movies, Reeves gives off the aura of slight detachment, like he isn’t so much experiencing things but rather looking in on them, from some heightened astral plain. Talking with the actor/director, you realize that it’s not detachment. In fact, he’s keenly aware of the questions you ask and gives them an almost inappropriate amount of thoughtful examination. He seems deeply contemplative and just listening to his voice over the phone casts a Zen-like spell of tranquility over you. In other words, if there’s one person who could sucker you into selling your soul for an elicit world of underground fighting, it would probably be Keanu Reeves.
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What appealed to you about this project to the point that you wanted to make it your directorial debut?
You know… We worked on the script, developing this story, for about five years, with the lead Tiger Chen and the screenwriter Michael Cooney. And I had spent so much time with the story that it eventually suffused and filled my mind and vision, to the point where I wanted to direct it. I asked Tiger if it was okay if it was okay if I direct it and he said, “Yes.” And I said, “Thank you.” And I love the genre and I love the story and the themes became personal in a way.
Were you always supposed to be in the movie?
In the very, very beginning of the process I was a guy named Mark and Tiger was my dojo and trained me to enter competitions. I had a very supporting role. And then the story kept changing and we finally came up with the idea of underground fighting and the Donaka the villain was born. I just had a sense for his voice, this Mephistophelian dark master and so we wanted to work together and act together and then when I started directing it, I thought I was the perfect casting.
Last year you did the documentary “Side By Side,” about the battle between digital and film. Did your investigation into that world change your approach to shooting this?
Yes, for sure, after having worked on “Side By Side” for over a year and meeting filmmakers and getting introduced to the digital cameras and the digital workflow, having that experience… My feeling was that I had walked some of the paths of the forest, this new digital world in a way. That was much more comfortable when we decided to shoot the film digitally. And we had great support from the makers of the digital cameras.
It’s a beautiful looking movie. Did you take any inspiration from any particular kung fu or martial arts films?
You know, I think we’re a sum of all of our experiences, but most definitely. I had a couple of homages in there; I had the snap zoom which is something I always wanted from the beginning. There’s that first fight scene with Tiger at the tournament, and I wanted a different kind of look for that. You know, I wanted all the fights to have a different quality, editing, choreography, and cinema. And instead of thinking of them as action sequences I wanted to look at them as dramatic scenes as we follow Tiger down this dark path to power. All of the kung fu films I’ve seen, we looked at a lot of films for camera placement, editing style, and how fights were covered.
You’ve done a fair amount of kung fu fights sequences in your career. What appeals to you about these scenes?
Two things: a sense of play and the physicality of it and the drama of it. When I was a kid we would play Wolverine. There was something about being physical and when I started to get involved in the theater. I loved them as a young film viewer and to do them was physically fun. They’re just fun. And dramatically, these are parts full of struggle and transition. And those parts are very fulfilling.
What was it like going from “Man of Tai Chi,” where you had creative autonomy, to going back and doing reshoots for “47 Ronin?”
I was doing “47 Ronin.” I did a little “Side by Side.” Finished “47 Ronin.” I was getting on board directing “Man of Tai Chi.” So when we were doing reshoots for “47 Ronin,” we hadn’t started production on “Man of Tai Chi.” But going back in to do reshoots and additional photography, I had to get trained again for some of the sword work, which was great to do. And there’s a particular focus to these scenes, which helps to get you into it. It was “they need this, they need that.”
Have you seen “47 Ronin” yet?
Yeah. It wasn’t completely, completely finished. But it’s pretty close. You know… the world creation is incredible. The acting and story are, of course, remarkable. There’s a lot of movie there; some big themes.
I had heard he wanted to do a live action Miyazaki movie.
Who wouldn’t want to do that? Carl Rinsch had a great vision and the costumes and production design and the cinematography… The world creation was amazing and to also know that we were shooting in 3D was really amazing. There’s a lot of attention paid to the way it was shot.
Would you want to shoot in 3D?
Yeah. It’s not something I would say, “Never! No!” For the right material, it could be extraordinary. It’s when you do the whole round hole/square peg thing that you get into trouble. It’s either too dark or they make the edits too short. But I think when 3D is done well and specifically, it can be really immersive and enjoyable.
Have you thought about what your next directorial project will be?
You know, in the sense that I am just open. I am waiting for the right story to tell. Just like “Man of Tai Chi” just seemed to be the right story to tell. So I’m looking for that. Because I really love directing. I love developing the story. I love actors. I love the cinema of it, the way that you tell a story visually. And, of course, post. I love the whole process.
Actors are usually very focused on acting so it’s interesting to hear you talk about the technical side of things so lovingly.
I have definitely been curious and involved in the process, even as a young actor. I was always looking at where the camera was, what story it was telling. And as my experience grew, I wanted to know even more. And then when I was producing it was putting me in those different rooms and showing me how those different elements of filmmaking were put together.
“Man of Tai Chi” opens tomorrow in theaters and is also available On Demand.