The Emerald had the opportunity to interview Chinese film star Daniel Wu, a prolific actor in gangster and Kung Fu movies with Yuen Woo-Ping (choreographer for “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) and Jackie Chan. Wu was part of the Cinema Pacific Film Festival from April 18 to 22. Tall, well-dressed and remarkably nice, this University alumnus has made it big in the Hong Kong movie scene, and he’s only getting more popular. Wu received a Golden Horse for his acting role in “New Police Story” with Jackie Chan, and a Golden Rooster award for best director for his film “Heavenly Kings.”
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
ODE: You wrote, directed and produced “Heavenly Kings,” which was quite a departure from a lot of your other films like “Cop on a Mission” or “One Nite in Mongkok.” Why was this so different from your other films?
Daniel Wu: I think my personality tends to be more subversive. And so, that kind of film is a very subversive film! I think as an actor you’re more passive. They take you on for projects, and it’s not necessarily representative of you. But when you’re directing a project, it’s all you. It’s your personal taste, your personal views on society, or whatever. Especially the things we were critiquing in that: the idea of the packaged music these days; the pop industry where you don’t necessarily have to be a singer to be a singer. You know, because there’s auto-tuning computer stuff. You can fake it ’til you make it, you know what I mean? And then there’s the whole celebrity culture of this Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian world where people are really famous for doing nothing. And so, we wanted to make a movie that commented on that and use a boy band as the basis of that. A funny idea, it’s kind of a reflection on “Spinal Tap” of course. “Spinal Tap” was a metal band, making fun of the hair-band era, and this is what we wanted to do is bring it into a 2.0 version, you know. Where it was about what was going on at the time. There’s a lot of boy bands in Asia, a lot of boy bands in Europe and in the States happening and so, we wanted to use that as the premise to talk about all those topics. Actually, I wasn’t meant to direct it. We shopped the idea around to a bunch of different directors for awhile. And, because of the format of a fake documentary, a lot of the sort of narrative directors we were looking for didn’t really understand that concept. We just got frustrated, and we almost dropped the project. The one day I was just like, “Screw it. I’m going to do it.” So that’s how I became director, writer and producer of the whole thing! You know, because we couldn’t find anybody else to do it for us!
What did you shoot it on?
We shot it on (this is before HD cameras were available, right before), so we shot it on a Panasonic DVX 2000. It had a 24-frame rate that you could blow up to film. Because we knew we were going to blow it up to film at some point. And so we wanted a camera that would do that. Luckily, we knew some people at Panasonic, so we worked a couple of cameras from them. Plus, they had an anamorphic lens on it so you could shoot cinematic style instead of just a 4:3 format. It was good for us, because we shot 300 hours of footage, which you would never be able to do on film, because it would have just been too expensive. Because it was documentary style, it was fine to have that camera and do that. I was really happy with the blow up print. It ended up looking really good.
I saw your fight scene in “The Banquet” with the masked guards. That scene was choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping. You’ve also worked a lot with Jackie Chan, and I know that he’s a big hero of yours. How has working with those people influenced your career?
I learned a great deal from them. I mean, I practiced martial arts my whole life. That doesn’t necessarily mean that you can do martial-arts movies. It’s a whole other art form. It’s completely different from what you learn in a martial arts studio. That’s more traditional martial arts, and you practice for an hour or two hours. But when you’re working on a film you could be doing a fight scene for a whole week. And you’re filming eight, nine hours a day. So it takes a certain kind of stamina. You have to know when to conserve your energy and when not to. You have to know constantly warming up and cooling down so you don’t get injured. And you’re working with stuff like wire work. I think working with masters like Yuen Woo-Ping and Jackie Chan who’ve been doing it for so many years, your learning curve is quick. And they’ve worked with so many people that they know how to ease you into the process so it wasn’t very difficult at first. It was great that I had the foundation of martial arts so I wasn’t a total newbie, and I didn’t have to go through three or six months of training like Keanu Reeves in “The Matrix.” I could just jump into it and do it. It was just a matter of being free in your mind to adapt to their style and be malleable to what they wanted to do.
You started the Wushu club here at the University. Where did that idea come from?
Mainly as a way to have a place to practice on my own. I’ve been doing Wushu since I was like, 11 in the Bay Area. When I came up here that wasn’t available. There was Karate and Taekwondo and Judo, but there wasn’t any Chinese martial arts. So I wanted to start a Chinese martial arts club, a Wushu club. I went down to the club sports office and asked them, “how can I do this?” I found out that if I signed up enough people, you can get a club started. I got 150 people to sign up and I think 60 people showed up on the first day of class. We had a really good core of people for that entire time, it was great. And then one of my students Brandon Sugiyama, who eventually taught the class when I left, got on the U.S. Wushu team afterwards. It’s great to see that they’re still there and they’re still doing it 15 years later. I’m really proud of that, actually. A seed became a tree.
Are you working on writing and producing anything else for the future?
Yeah, last year I started a production company called Diversion Pictures with a friend of mine, Steven Fung, who’s also an actor and director. We actually got our start together, we did our first film together. He started directing way before me. I’d say, maybe 2000. He’s directed three or four projects. So we started this company last year. The China film industry is booming now, it’s just getting started. But as it’s getting started we’re seeing problems in terms of there’s not enough choice for the audiences. What happens is a lot of producers see one type of film be a success and everyone chases that and tries to do the same thing. For example “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.” Many years ago everybody was trying to do that second one. We don’t believe that works. We want to do innovative things where we can create niches or genres of films that people aren’t doing that exist here in the states but don’t exist in China. And we want to bring fun back into filmmaking. So, like, my first project Steven filmed, he directed it last year called “Tai Chi Zero” and “Tai Chi Hero;” it’s a two-part series, and we shot it all at once. What we’re trying to do is get back to the old-school Hong Kong “Once Upon a Time In China” Jet Li movies. Where it’s really crazy action, really fun, but now with the technologies that you have bring a whole new visual element. And we’ll throw in a rock ‘n’ roll soundtrack versus a traditional kind of gong soundtrack. Just make it more updated and focused on the youth audience. The problem now in China is that everybody is trying to make films that satisfy a five-year-old to an 80-year-old, and I don’t believe in that. The films that I saw growing up were age specific sometimes. Or for certain types of people. I don’t think a whole general sweep — you’re going to just create a saccharine, boring type of movie. That project is really directed toward a 16-, 25-, 30-year-old audience who’ve had exposure to western films through pirate DVDs and all that kind of stuff and want to see all that kind of fun stuff in Chinese cinema. The next project we’re putting together now is in pre-production. I’m starring in, and producing through our Diversion Pictures, “Control.” It’s going to be a modern film noir piece in the vein of “Sin City” and “Blade Runner,” because that’s not really being done in China as well. We’re starting that end of June. That’ll be our third project. So, we have a plan to get 10 movies out in the next five years.
What do you think are the primary roadblocks against Chinese cinema coming west to the U.S.?
I think it’s a multi-pronged issue. I think there’s one culturally. I think that Americans may not know much about Chinese culture and history. If you load up a film, let’s say, John Woo’s “Red Cliff,” which is based on a traditional, very famous ancient story, Americans may not be familiar with that. So, if you don’t shoot in a way that is explanatory for western audiences, it’s going to be difficult for them to digest. It didn’t do so well here because of that. The reason “Crouching Tiger” did so well is that it’s very simple. It’s a love story with an action piece in it. And that’s all it is. There’s no history. I’m not saying we should do historical films, but what I’m saying is that you can’t pack too much into a film. There’s only so much a person that is new to that genre of film can digest at one point. You’re also dealing with subtitles, you’re dealing with different actors and different faces that you don’t recognize from before. Then the story becomes too complex, it becomes hard for people to catch onto that stuff. It’s a complicated issue, and we’re trying to figure that out now in the Chinese film industry. Everybody is trying to make global films now, not just region-specific. Chinese people are trying to figure out what they can do to make more globalized films, and you also see Hollywood trying to push into China. What kind of films can Hollywood make that Chinese people would be interested in? You see big studios like Disney and Warner and MGM trying to move into China now. Because that’s a huge emerging market. 1.3 billion people, you know? Right now there’s around 6,000 in China by 2014 the government wants 20,000 screens. So you can imagine the revenue increase, the amount of screens increase and the amount of people wanting to see movies is going to huge in the next four or five years. It’s the only place in the world where you see film culture exploding like that. Of course, it’s very commercial and massed. But that’s just the start, and the other stuff can follow after that.