The day of the kung-fu film seemed to be waning as of late. While over the top, tough-guy action is back in a big way, the classic martial arts action of, say, Enter the Dragon has been missing at the box office. This weekend saw the release of a film that could rectify that. In my review of the film, I noted that Keanu Reeves’ Man of Tai Chi is a straight-forward warrior’s tale with great action and just enough character development to keep you rooting for the hero.
We talked with the director and star of the film, Keanu Reeves and Tiger Hu Chen, about how the movie came together, the film’s stunning fight choreography, and how to let yourself go over-the-top with a kung-fu villain when you’re the director as well.
Nerdist: First off, how did you two start on this movie?
Tiger Hu Chen: I would say it was me who started it. I have a script before, so I bring it to him: “I want to be part of the script.” I mean, part of the movie. He said, “Yeah, yeah, you’ll be part of the movie, but your script sucks.” It’s rewritten. Okay, then. We spent, like, over five years to get the script rewritten. Over that time, it became – the script would become – the story became his own baby, and you can take over from here.
Keanu Reeves: Let’s see – how do I – the look of it also – we worked with a wonderful cinematographer, Elliot Davis, and a production designer, Yohei Taneda, and costumer Joseph Porro. I was hoping to get something that was modern and at the same time – yeah, I would say modern, looking for those looks even though we had traditional elements to it. And actually, I wanted it to kind of feel almost a little – like a little in the future actually.
Nerdist: Yeah, it was very sleek.
Keanu: Yeah, in a sense.
Nerdist: One of the things I loved about the movie, and this speaks to kind of the globalization that we’re all experiencing right now, is with the amount of access China is starting to give. Americans are seeing for the first time what the daily life of the people is over there, and you’ve made a very human movie. How important was that for you to be able to invest in the character’s daily life and not make it where he’s got somebody kidnapped he had to rescue or something like that?
Keanu: Really important. First of all, being in Beijing, Chinese story, working with CFG, the financing and distribution part of the film, and then with the actors and even with the script, we’re just, like, “What would people really say?” because it was originally in English, then we needed to translate it, and then get it to the ground, but I did want to have this world that would feel familiar and true to the Chinese and also would have a little experience of letting foreigners look into the hutong, to see the city streets, to see the skylines, and his parent’s house, so to get into the world of it.
Nerdist: I watched your documentary –
Keanu: Side by Side.
Nerdist: Yes, I absolutely adore it. I used to be a projectionist.
Keanu: Oh, really?
Nerdist: For about 10 years, so that whole thing is kind of –
Keanu: Oh, you know it, in and out.
Nerdist: Yeah, and I actually just saw the retrofit of the Chinese Theater [in Hollywood] with all digital projection and it’s a little sad actually –
Keanu: The IMAX.
Nerdist: Yeah, now that it’s in IMAX, it’s all digital, and I feel like we kind of lost something there because that’s one of the big ones. For this film you shot digitally. Did you shoot this with the RED?
Keanu: No, I did Alexa Studio camera. So it’s a four by three chip Arriraw.
Nerdist: The fight scenes are beautifully choreographed, but something I noticed, when you guys were planning those out, were you – for lack of a better term – choreographing in the shooter or was that – were you framing it out? How do you approach those fight scenes? Because you guys had great camera movement alongside the fighters that got us in close to the action but didn’t feel like we were cutting away or missing anything, and that’s very – you don’t see that in modern martial arts movies anymore. It’s like kind of a classic thing where it was more of letting the fight speak for itself.
Keanu: I’m glad you felt that.
Nerdist: There were so many times where I’m, like, “He’s about to hit the cameraman,” and you would think you would have to cut away but it moved out gracefully. How much planning went into those fights. What’s that process like?
Keanu: Well, we were hoping to have the fight scenes be dramatic, and so to put you in the space of it and to hopefully make them feel more emotional, to make them feel, like, the visceral, emotional, like, impact of them. You need a good operator. All of the fights are choreographed in stages, so I would break down, do a fight breakdown, plot of all the fights, like with the moves and then stage one, stage two, stage three. And then working with the cinematographer, just go, “Okay, what’s the story here?” Whether sometimes we’re just blocked off to the side or if we were doing handheld coming inside, you obviously need a great operator. That dance, as we went along between the fighters and the camera, there are some – that interview fight, there’s one shot where he comes right around and comes right down to Tiger onto the ground.
Nerdist: And then when he’s throwing him up against the wall, when he comes back around and he’s back behind the guy, that was such a good shot. I thought something you did with this film that was kind of interesting that they never got to finish with Game of Death was seeing the versatility of a martial art against so many different styles. What was the process like for you training and being able to adapt and go through that choreography against so many different fight styles with that version of tai chi?
Tiger: First of all, you have to be able to do kind of the style. For me, it’s kind of hard. I have so many styles I had to learn, to train, and especially the MMA, the guys go to ground. It’s brand new for me, so tai chi guy never goes ground.
Nerdist: Yeah, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Tiger: Yeah. That’s brand new. The fresh feel; Also, we want to have it in the movie, in the fight. We want Tiger to just, like, “What the fuck?!” Sorry.
Nerdist: Oh, no. Cuss all you want.
Tiger: Yes, I could – absolutely. Like really in the movie, the story is about a tai chi guy. First time, you get the opponent, I try to put you in the ground and try to fight you in the ground, so it has to get the reaction wide awake. You have to be wide awake, otherwise, you lose. Otherwise, you die, your death there. In real life, it’s real training. It’s the same. It’s fresh for me. I think I’ve kept it fresh all throughout the movie shoot.
Keanu: Yeah, we were hoping that we would see him adapt his style and, like, absorb the other styles and stuff, and then going from soft style to a hard style.
Nerdist: Oh, it came through beautifully.
Keanu: Oh, good.
Nerdist: Yeah, it wasn’t lost. I found that all very fascinating. One of the highlights of the movie to me was as your character arc is – you’re kind of dealing with two masters throughout the film, but I could be totally off here but it felt like (Spoiler Warning) when your character didn’t kill, suddenly, you two had become equals and that’s when your fight happens. And you’ve got so much height on him. How long did that fight take to shoot?
Keanu: The super fight?
Nerdist: Yeah, that was pretty awesome.
Keanu: Oh, thank you. Super fight was about 10 days. Yeah, so it was 10 days. Yeah, we changed it up. I changed it up a little bit. I went to a nine-degree shutter and tried to give it another look, and yeah, there is this – we wanted it to be an epic battle but Tiger does everything he can, all of his energy, all of his hate, all of his –
Tiger: Even tai chi.
Keanu: Even tai chi.
Tiger: Even tai chi, that’s all I have.
Keanu: But he can’t beat the dark master.
Keanu: I know, sad Keanu.
Nerdist: The reason I bring it up is because you did something I was very, very happy to see. You went broad a few times and you really own “I’m a bad guy in a kung fu movie,” and you were the director. You could have stopped yourself from doing that. Being able to do that, you do know there are a couple of scenes in there, you’re going to get memed out like crazy.
Keanu: I hope so.
Nerdist: The gist for “AGH!” (A scene where Keanu just yells straight at the camera for a moment), that was just beautiful. But what was that like directing yourself, being able to decide for yourself what was right for the character?
Keanu: The first time was difficult just because it – broadly, the director having an objective responsibility to the story into how it’s being craft into what’s happening, directed, and from the actor’s responsibility, a more subjective involvement in that. There are the two hats, the two sides, the two perspectives. I hadn’t done that dance before, so as we went along with filming, it got easier, but that moment that you’re talking about where Donaka kind of reveals the inner demon – like that wasn’t scripted.
Nerdist: Oh, it wasn’t?
Keanu: No, so it was the actor performing and the director going, “Oh, that’s good. I have to tell you, that’s good. Then if I cut that with this that’d be good.”
Nerdist: In the press screening alone, the roar of approval at that scene was just awesome.
Keanu: Oh, lovely. I’m happy to hear that.
Nerdist: You’re playing our strings, man. It was pretty good.
Keanu: And again, I want to break the fourth wall and I wanted Donaka to be pure.
Nerdist: Well, I mean, he definitely had an ideology.
Keanu: He has an ideology.
Nerdist: That’s more than most.
Keanu: All of those kinds of people do, right? You know what I mean? There’s a kind of fascism to that.
Nerdist: You can’t do evil things unless you’re committed to it.
You can see Keanu do those evil things in his directorial debut Man of Tai Chi, in theaters now and available for digital download.