Fantastic Fest 2010 Interview: Retrospective interview with legendary fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping (THE MATRIX, KILL BILL)

James Wallace

by: James Wallace
May 13th, 2011

Editor's note: This interview was originally posted on September 25, 2010 as a Fantastic Fest interview. TRUE LEGEND opens today (5/13) in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Austin, and Honolulu.

For their honoree of this year’s Lifetime Achievement Award, Fantastic Fest chose to honor master martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping, complete with a double feature of his latest film TRUE LEGEND - his first directorial effort in 14 years - and his directorial debut 1978′s SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW starring a then unknown, yet soon-to-be superstar Jackie Chan.

We were given the distinct privilege to speak with Mr. Woo-ping about his vast and impressive career boasting hundreds of films and including duties as an actor, producer, writer, director, assistant director along with being a stunt man, stunt coordinator, and fight choreographer on such films as DRUNKEN MASTER, KILL BILL: VOL. I & II, THE MATRIX TRILOGY, CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON, and KUNG-FU HUSTLE amongst countless other kung-fu and martial arts films. Not to mention his latest film, which marks his return to the director's chair. As it has been said "If you’ve ever walked out of a movie theatre after watching a martial arts film and left your jaw on the floor, your eyes were probably dazzled by the fight choreography of filmmaker Yuen Woo-Ping."

Read on for our interview with a true master, in which he discusses his regarded body of work.

Let us start very simply by talking about how you got your start with martial arts films.

I first started with my father doing martial arts and then, after doing that for about 30 years, I gradually changed over to being a martial arts director. Which is what I’m back to doing right now...directing my own films.

You've worked on hundreds upon hundreds of films including THE MATRIX trilogy, KILL BILL: VOL. I & II, and CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON just to name a few. Is it even possible for you to pick a favorite film?

Yes, I very much liked my experience on CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON.

What are some of your favorite martial arts films, past or present, that you did not work on? Or are there even any martial arts films that exist without your work?

I very much enjoyed BOURNE IDENTITY and that whole series!

Your probably most well known for your work on THE MATRIX trilogy and KILL BILL: VOL. I & II. What fond memories do you have working on those films?

For those films, I very much appreciated my experience working with the actors. They put a lot of effort into the training because they were self-conscious and thought they weren’t doing well. They would even like to do the training on the weekends even though they didn’t have to. Especially Keanu Reeves. He only had to train five days a week but he asked to do more...even on Sundays. So we just kept on working on it. And I really appreciated his hard work.

How do you approach an actor, like Keanu Reeves for example, that has never had any formal fight training before working with you?

For actors like Keanu who don’t come from a martial arts background, I typically have to work with and train for about four months so that they are ready by the time they have to be on set.

You've jump started the career of Jackie Chan with your first film SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW, as well as having worked with some of the most well-known martial arts actors including Jet Li and Chow Yun-Fat. How do you approach working with different actors like this that have vastly different fighting styles?

For Jackie Chan, he has a really good foundation because he has a strong background in martial arts and had already won many championships. So he pretty much knew a lot about martial arts by the first time I had worked with him. So I just helped him develop his own style to go beyond what he already knew.

You've worn as many different hats as you can, having been an actor, a director, a producer, a writer, a second unit director, a fight choreographer, and a stunt man amongst other things. I'm actually surprised that you don't have a few craft service credits to your name. What is your favorite role on a film set?

I prefer to do martial arts design because I get to do what I like. But I also prefer directing because then I’m in control. I get to chose the actors I want for a film. Because if I work with another director on a film, I have to follow that director’s opinion. It’s not my own creation...I pretty much like to create my own style of martial arts.

TRUE LEGEND marks your first directorial effort in more than a decade. What about this film made you want to get back in the director's chair?

Producer Bill Kong gave me the script and after I read it I liked it right away and I thought I was well suited to directed it.

Now that you've returned to directing, do you have plans to direct another film in the near future?

If I have a good script, I would like to direct again soon. But right now I’m preparing two film projects so that’s what I have on hand. If I don’t find the right script, being a martial arts director would be fine!

Something tells me Mr. Woo-ping has a bright future ahead of him.

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  • David Cain

    Looking forward to checking out TRUE LEGEND this weekend. Check out the movie’s Facebook page! It has tons of cool extras. 

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