An Old Steenbeck Machine: Donnie Yen on Dragon and Ip Man 3

The martial arts legend tells stories about his most memorable fight scenes and wonders who could play Bruce Lee in Ip Man 3.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I saw Donnie Yen’s latest movie at Actionfest under the title Wu Xia. RadiusTWC changed the name to Dragon and put it in theaters Nov. 30 after a VOD run. Yen plays a small town man who foils a robbery, leading an investigator to suspect he is a long-lost great martial artist in hiding. With Yen in Hong Kong, and busy working on several new films, it took a little bit of coordinating to get him on the phone, but we did. So we got to talk about Dragon, his Hong Kong classics, and the eagerly awaited Ip Man 3D.

[EDITOR'S NOTE: This article previously referred to a "Steenbeck" editing machine as a "Steinbeck" editing machine. The offending typos have been fixed. Thanks to CraveOnline reader Katie Rife for the correction!]

CraveOnline: How hard was it to do fight scenes and make it look like you can’t actually fight?

Donnie Yen: It is an art form itself. It takes years of building that experience as a filmmaker, as well as physically. You have to have a high level understanding of martial arts. On top of that, you’ve got to understand how to shoot this stuff. It’s very difficult to try to explain in a conversation, but it is very difficult. Obviously the audience’s understanding has gotten so sophisticated the past 30 years, ever since the Bruce Lee movies. Nowadays, in every aspect, every element, any type of multimedia platform that you can put your eyes on, whether it is movie, TV, internet content, animation, MTV, anything, even dance is involved with martial arts. Look at every action movie in Hollywood. Every leading man from Spider-Man to Batman to James Bond, Bourne Identity, every one of them possesses martial arts skills. It’s kind of like 30 years ago in Hollywood, you’ve got to know how to dance and sing to be an actor. Right now if you want to be an action star in a film, that’s one of the skills you need to have. As a Hong Kong filmmaker that’s been in the business for 30 years, I’m very fortunate to be able to go back in the Stone Age where we were filming with nothing, from morning to day punching and kicking each other in the face. That was the era of, we called it the popcorn movie, the B rated movie, the afternoon Sunday matinee movies. Nowadays it’s part of mainstream commercial films.

Wang Yu comes from that era too. Was it easy to choreograph a fight with him in Dragon?

Well, choreography was the main thing back in those days. It was all about body expression. It’s kind of like watching a Charlie Chaplin movie where you really appreciate how he interacts with the audience with his body if you look at these silent films. When you look back at the ‘70s or even the ’60s, look at martial art movies coming from Hong Kong, first of all there’s no story, but you like it. Somehow the audience was attracted to these types of performers. Then because of that, it gave us an open window for filmmakers to grow and became filmmakers. All the Hong Kong filmmakers that came along started off on this type of primitive filmmaking. We didn’t know anything about filmmaking. We started off doing these kinds of Kung Fu movies and nowadays, of course the world changed. I was just one of those fortunate guys that I started off really, really early and understands the world. When I started in the mid-‘80s, I cut my films on the Steenbeck. I don't know if you know what a Steenbeck is. It’s an editing machine.

I absolutely do. I used one in film school.

I used to cut my films and we’re talking about hundreds of shots, as you know, to formulate action movies. Especially these Kung Fu movies, there’s a lot of quick cut shots. So just thousands of short cut shots where I was trying to cut the film together in pieces in an old Steenbeck machine. I remember a time when I was in China to do one of those martial arts projects, and they didn’t even have the Steenbeck. They had the old Russian model. It wasn’t even a machine with four wheels or eight wheels. You know those really old ones where you roll with one hand? I actually cut an action movie on that. So I was very fortunate. I started off in that area and then had the opportunities as a working actor and learned acting and learned true filmmaking, from then to know.

And working with Wang Yu and Kara Hui?

Great. I love working with older actors because number one, I can learn so much from them because they have so much experience. And it’s fun to hear their stories from their era, some of the jokes. Sometimes you need a little balancing because it’s so stressful, especially making an action movie, especially when I’m the action director as well because I’m very hard on myself. Every movie I try to be as innovative as possible and it’s really, really hard. How much more fresh can you do it in each film? But it’s a good balance to have a little bit of joking around on the set.

With the story in Dragon, did you think about the American film A History of Violence?

Actually, I recall Peter Chan, our director, really was inspired by that movie.

What did you think of the title change from Wu Xia to Dragon in the U.S.?

Whatever the company feels. They know marketing. That’s another form of art itself. I always tell younger filmmakers, it’s not just about the acting or the art itself. It’s about how big of an audience watches your film. If you don’t market the film properly, no one’s going to see how well you did. It doesn’t really matter if you put a lifetime of effort into making a great performance acting in a film, if you don’t market it properly. If the company feels this name should do better in marketing, then by all means.

How is Ip Man 3D going?

Very good question. Everybody’s asking me about Ip Man 3. I know that I probably will do Ip Man 3 one of these days. It depends on the timing. I understand that a lot of fans would like me to play Ip Man again. I really have a lot of feeling for Ip Man because of how influential those two movies became. It wasn’t just a successful vehicle for my career, but it was also very educational. I met so many young kids who came up to me, and their parents came up to me, and thanked me for making that film, inspiring their kid to be a better [student]. I guess when you make a heroic movie, it allows certain morals that you write for these characters. Ip Man is a family man, righteous man who can fight, the basic elements of a leading hero character. Anyway, the movie really did well in terms of inspiring others. I always tell myself that as an actor, I want to be able to choose vehicles that not only do well in marketing and business, box office wise but also brings good positive messages to our society, which we have a lot of problems today.

That’s why I think he’s such a great character for you. Is 3D an exciting reason to come back to it?

Oh yeah, we don’t want to miss that opportunity to combine the two. Imagine watching Kung Fu fighting in 3D. That would be fun.

Have you had any information on The Grandmaster, Wong Kar Wai’s Yip Man film?

Not at all. It’s been so long, so many years. I would love to watch it and get an understanding of what he’s been working on in the last five years, and perhaps learn a few things from it.

Ip Man sent Bruce Lee away at the end of Ip Man 2,so where is he going to be?

That really depends on Wilson Yip, our director, what he wants to do. People want to see Bruce Lee but it’s like a catch-22. Who can play Bruce Lee? There are so many expectations on the role of Bruce. He’s such an icon that you could mess it up really easily I think. We’re not sure we want to go there.

I agree. I thought it was a great tease. Of course one of my favorite movies of yours is Iron Monkey. At the end, when you’re balancing on all the poles, even though you’re using wires wasn’t it still hard to balance on the poles?

Absolutely, especially in those times, we didn’t have CGI or much understanding, knowledge or budget. So we were actually using real fire. Fire burning around me, it was hot. It was dangerous too. If a wire broke, I’d be burned to death. We actually had fire on the bottom of those big poles. We set up gas pipes, we’d turn on these gas pipes and have fire coming out.

Even with wires holding you, you still have to balance on the pole. You could still fall off, right?

Yeah, and also it’s very hard to compose yourself because it’s really hard to do all this choreography standing on these poles. We had to make a judgment. It’s not like we had two months of preparation. The one thing about making martial arts movies and Kung Fu movies in Hong Kong, or any movies in Hong Kong, we don’t have rehearsal times. We don’t have two months of preparation because it’s just not our practice in the industry. Things are moving too quickly over here and actors are too busy. You get a script, you sign the contract and do your costume, test it one or two times and you start working. You do scene 65, you know.

In The Lost Bladesman, there’s a great scene where you close the doors and we don’t see the fight. Did you still choreograph in your mind how he beat all those guys?

There were several thoughts when I choreographed that scene. We have to stay somewhat true to history. Secondly, we didn’t have any more money to shoot so we came up with that scenario. The director said, “We don’t have any money to get 1000 soldiers and have General Guan chop down 1000 soldiers, so I think the ending should be like that.”

How was your Hollywood experience with Shanghai Knights, Blade II and Highlander: Endgame?

Some good, some bad. I learned the organization and planning and professionalism of a machine, the Hollywood machine but at the same time, there’s a lot of restrictions because of that. Particularly in creativity, because when you have 50 people driving a truck, you always make the wrong turn. Over here, one or two people call the shots.

What are your favorite martial arts movies?

I have so many. Of course all of Bruce Lee’s, I’m a big fan of Bruce Lee. Everybody contributed a lot of classics to the library of martial arts films, the well known ones like Jackie or Jet. Myself, I did a few that I’m really proud of, particularly the Ip Man series and Kill Zone and Flash Point, I’m very proud of these works. I’m hoping I can do more.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel