The internationally famous Jackie Chan is a real life “Rocky” story. He was born into such poverty that his parents wanted to sell him to the doctor who delivered him because they could not afford to feed him, and at age seven his parents had to leave for Australia for work. Chan decided at that young age to enroll into the Chinese Opera Research School, which also spawned the careers of other famous Hong Kong martial arts stars including Sammo Hung (Jackie’s senior, who he affectionately calls “Older Brother”) and Yuen Biao (Jackie’s “Younger Brother”), a story which was depicted in the movie Painted Faces.
Interviewed over the phone while he was in San Francisco after a Chinese senior citizens home benefit, Jackie Chan was much like his screen persona, sincere and open. We talked about the dangerous stunts he performs in his films; swimming in a pool of sharks in First Strike, that movie that New Line Pictures will release this month; his singing career; his Hollywood plans; his lengthy yet organic method of fighting choreography and why American martial arts movies pale in comparison.
Jackie Chan: Hi John!
John Kreng: Hi Jackie! It’s an honor and a pleasure to talk to you. I’ve been a big fan of yours since Snake in Eagle’s Shadow first came out in 1978 and have followed your career ever since then. I’m glad to see the American mainstream public has finally begun to embrace you and accept you as a star.
Jackie Chan: Thank you. I hope so. It took a long time. Have you seen First Strike yet?
JK: Yes. I saw the Mandarin version on Laserdisc.
Jackie Chan: In the American version the sound effects are much better. They are doing digital sound and surround sound. They cut it and I wasn’t satisfied so they re-cut it again. I’m glad it’s a PG-13.
JK: Are you happy with it?
Jackie Chan: Yes, because Rumble in the Bronx in Hong Kong is PG-13. But I don’t know why in America they say it’s too violent! I think it’s because there were more than two expletives in the movie.
Jackie Chan: Yeah, really! I think there was three. (Jackie Chan acts out the scene of a tough guy), “Don” f*** with me!” Something like that. Also Super Cop was not PG-13. I don’t know why. But First Strike is PG-13.
JK: A lot more kids will be able to see it.
Jackie Chan: Usually my movies are less violent. No dirty things. No dirty jokes. Nothing too sexy.
JK: In First Strike there was a chase sequence where you had to use a snowboard to escape. How long did it take you to learn how to snowboard?
Jackie Chan: You know everything I learn is for the movies. Like barefoot skiing. I learn for fifteen minutes. Then I know how to do it. Snowboarding took four days, two hours a day. And after eight hours I just knew how to do it. The mountain was very cold. I think it’s because a long time ago I already knew how to ski, roller-skate, and barefoot ski. I really know how to balance myself. That’s why I learn every sport very fast.
Also the stilts scene. I learned it in about two to three minutes! I fell once, then I knew how to do it. The problem is whenever I’m on the set nobody thinks I’m the new student. [Imitates another actor talking to Jackie] “Jackie, will you chase me? OK let’s do it! Cameras rolling!” And I say, “Wait a minute, I just learned it. You asked me if I can do it or not! Let me rehearse it!” They just forget.
JK: Also in First Strike, there’s a fight scene in the pool. How long did it take to shoot it?
Jackie Chan: Total of about three months. It was very difficult. We used a real shark in Underwater World. Then when we used an underwater light the shark would not come. So we had to make the shark hungry for one day. Next time we had the blood of a fish so the shark could smell it so it could swim close around my eyes. These kinds of things take a long time.
JK: Weren’t you afraid of getting eaten by sharks?
Jackie Chan: No. Because when we were training the coach told us the shark usually will not bite people and just to be careful. When we filmed the coach was beside me and had an underwater gun with 22 bullets in case there was something wrong. First couple of days you were really scared. After about 10 days you just forget. You get used to it like a friend! And every first hour you get down there you get very tense and careful. But every day we were underwater for more than 20 hours! The talking was a problem. Nobody knows what I was saying or what anybody else was saying. We developed a silent language using hand and face expressions. By the time we finished everybody knew what I wanted; I communicated by using my fingers and my face. We had a lot of trouble shooting the snow mountain scene and the underwater scene. We don’t have the American technology where you can talk underwater. We just shot everything traditionally, basically.
JK: How long did it take to film First Strike?
Jackie Chan: I think around six months. Two months to shoot the snow mountain chase scene. Underwater scene with training was about three months. And the other scenes took about 1 1/2 months. Something like that.
JK: When you were training as a child in the Chinese Opera, did you ever dream that you would ever be this successful and famous?
Jackie Chan: No. Never. I didn’t know what I was doing when I was young. At that time I just prayed everyday the teacher wouldn’t hurt me or hit me. I wanted to run away but there was no where to run because my parents already were in Australia. I saw a lot of my older and younger brothers went shopping and never came back. I wanted to run away but I had nowhere to run. Somehow I became a child actor. Then after awhile we were filming, I found out it required less training and I could sleep more. I would tell the director to please use me in your next movie. Not because I like movies; I didn’t like training. Training was very tough. Then being a child actor became very natural. Then I became a lower class stuntman. The director would say, “We need some people to die here!” They’d put some blood in my mouth. Then he’d say, “Don’t breathe!” Then he’d say, “We need some more people to die here.” Then I’d change costumes and die again. Because I was on the set every day. I learned a lot of techniques. Sometimes they would use just one stuntman and I would just do it. And they would say, “Wow! He’s great!” Very quickly I became a first class stuntman. My dream then was to be a stunt coordinator. I was the youngest stunt coordinator in Asia when I was 18 years old.
JK: Do you remember the title of the movie?
Jackie Chan: First one is called “Ma Toh Loong Fu Dah” (Dragons and Tigers Fighting at the Pier). The second movie I did was called “Say Wong Yut How” (4 Kings and 1 Queen). Then next was John Woo’s movie. It’s called “Heung Kong Goh Hak” (Visitor of Hong Kong). He was the first director and I was the stunt coordinator. [These movies are the literal translations of the Cantonese language movie titles and not the English-given titles].
JK: There is a beautiful chemistry with your two opera classmates (brothers) Sammo Hung and Yuan Biao who have co-starred in Dragons Forever, Wheels on Meals, and Project A. Are there plans of you three ever getting back together to do another film?
Jackie Chan: A long time ago when we were doing those films together with all three of us, it became a good combination. Later on, we realized before the audience got tired of us we should split for a little bit. This year I did a movie with Sammo.
JK: A Nice Guy?
Jackie Chan: Yeah, A Nice Guy. He’s the director. Maybe later on we’ll find Yuen Biao again. It seems, not only you, but some other people are really interested in it. I might find Yuen Biao again to make a movie together.
JK: The chemistry between you three: Was this what it was like when you were growing up in the Opera school?
Jackie Chan: Yes. I think because Sammo is my older brother and Yuen Biao is my younger brother. So that’s why in the movie we already have a very good ma kai (chemistry). We just know each other.
KJ: Besides First Strike, what film of yours do you feel is your best performance?
Jackie Chan: Umm…Drunken Master 2 and Police Story 1. I think for my director’s skill and techniques I like Miracles (a.k.a. Mr. Canton and Lady Rose).
JK: In Armor of God 2, the final fight scene was in a working wind tunnel. How did you come up with that idea?
Jackie Chan: The idea was in my mind for a long time. I’m the Image Point Man (Spokesman) for Mitsubishi. I visited the Mitsubishi factory and I saw the wind tunnel. I see everything in my mind and thought, “Aah, that is going to be a good fighting scene!” Did you see Twin Dragons?
Jackie Chan: I used everything I thought of then in Twin Dragons. But Twin Dragons was a low budget film to benefit the Director’s Guild. So they used cheap sets and didn’t use the wind tunnel. So I used the wind tunnel in Armor of God 2: Operation Condor.
JK: How long did it take to film the wind tunnel scene in Armor of God 2?
Jackie Chan: almost four months! We used a “wire” and didn’t know if we could raise it. We had to film it and it the camera didn’t see the wire then we were satisfied! Then every day we use the wire and we’d go see the rushes and if we’d see the wire then we’d have to re-shoot again. It was very dangerous. Probably next year we’ll release it in the United States.
JK: In Hong Kong you’re known to take the longest to film a movie. Is it because of your fight choreography?
Jackie Chan: Yes.
JK: How do you go about choreographing a fight scene?
Jackie Chan: [Sighs, deep in thought]. I just come up with it. I don’t know how. I’ve been choreographing myself for like 20 years. Whenever I go on vacation or a location, even right now in San Francisco, wherever I go I see buses, cars…I’m constantly designing fight scenes. Also when I’m designing a fight scene I have to let the audience think, “That’s reasonable and not ridiculous.” Using a refrigerator, jumping into the pool…I don’t know, I just come up with it. It comes very natural. It becomes very professional!
JK: You have said that you have always admired Gene Kelly and he influences you in your fight choreography. Can you explain how?
Jackie Chan: Yes. Right now you can see a lot of dancers on MTV. When they move, bup…bup…bup. You have 20 cuts. Camera tricks, camera movements, with special effects. When you look back in the old days with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire: five minutes without editing. Just singing, dancing, moving to the piano or the light pole.
Dat…dat…dat…dat…dat. Along with a lot of other things, that’s what I want. In the old days if you see Drunken Master 1 or 2, you can see the long fight scenes without editing. That’s difficult. I don’t see anybody who can do it right now. My idea is I want to do the more difficult things than do the easy things. Before the technology of laserdiscs and home video, I was already doing these kinds of things. Then later I saw Gene Kelly’s movies when home video was available. I said, “Aaahh! What they’re doing right there is almost like me!” That means we have the same kind of ideas. So the more I watch them, the more I learn a lot of things.
JK: I remember you saying that a real martial artist doesn’t always make a good film martial artist. Is that right?
Jackie Chan: Yes. I have already hired a lot of good martial art people. They really know how to really fight, but they don’t know timing. They don’t know the rhythm. Of course they say, “No, no! One punch and you’re out!” I say, “Yes, but that’s an American movie!”
I know one punch and you’re out. But nobody wants to see one punch and out! We have to choreograph and make the real fighting like dancing. Like entertainment. Entertainment is not violent. I don’t like violence. Violence of course, is one punch and you’re out and the blood comes out. I don’t like that. You can see in my movies I have a lot of punching and kicking. I show the audience and they say, “Wow, that’s difficult fighting!” It’s not a violent thing.
JK: And that’s what makes your choreography so fun and exciting to watch. What do you feel is lacking in the martial arts films today? If you look at the American martial arts films, they are so boring compared to what you’re doing. Do you see what’s missing?
Jackie Chan: Yeah. They are missing the tempo and rhythm. Sometimes if they have a good fighter they don’t have a good stunt coordinator to choreograph. I know there are a lot of American movies that learn from me. They learn what Jackie Chan choreographs. But the actor doesn’t know how to do it. I know how to choreograph by myself. I know what I’m doing and I have my own stunt team. Like right now, a lot of American movies are hiring Hong Kong stunt guys. But if you hire them, you have to know how to use them. But they just don’t know how to use them. They still use American rules.
JK: What rules are those?
Jackie Chan: The rules of rehearsal before filming and you can’t change it on the set. Two days to fight and two days to finish.
JK: Wheras your fights would take three or four months to film?
Jackie Chan: Yes! Like in Drunken Master 2, in the end when I fought Kenneth Lo. Five minutes of fighting. Three months of shooting!
JK: Wow! Three months?
Jackie Chan: Yes! One day on the set I just say down. Nobody talks to me because they are afraid. Because I had no ideas coming up. I just sit there and think, think, think. Wrap. Go home. Then next day I come on the set. Just sit and think, think, think. Then go home again. The problem in Hong Kong is that we don’t like to rehearse on the set before shooting.
JK: Why is that?
Jackie Chan: I don’t know! We just got used to it. At rehearsal nobody is productive. We’re just fooling around.
JK: So you’re saying that if you rehearse it will look real stiff and boring by the time you shoot?
Jackie Chan: Yes!
JK: But the way you would do it is right before shooting you say, “When I say action you’re going to kick, punch, punch. OK? Action!” Is that how you do your films?
Jackie Chan. Yes, yes! On the set we’ve got our stuntmen, cameraman, lighting, and everybody else. I tell them, “let’s do this…” [Imitates the rhythm of the fight] dah…dah…dah…dah. Everyone says, “Ah, good!” Then we have to gather a lot of energy. Energy, energy, energy, energy! Then all the energy comes. And maybe this guy gives me a kick and makes me angry. OK, let’s do it!
Wham…wham…wham. Then one take. Everyone likes one take. Then we feel tired because you’ve already done it twenty or thirty times! Then you go home. When Kenneth Lo was kicking me in Drunken Master 2 he just keeps kicking me…quick kicks. After 20 takes he cannot kick anymore. He was shaking. He was very tired. I said, “Go home.” We make sure the shot is good. Timing and rhythm is very important.
JK: In Project A, when you fell from the clock tower, you shot the same scene twice and both times you fell on your neck. Why did you shoot that scene twice?
Jackie Chan: Because at that time we were very poor. We were not like the way we are now where I have a lot of different angles. After Project A, I would use 12-15 cameras. Before that I only had 2 cameras. On the clock scene, I only had a camera on top of the clock and one below. But the camera on the bottom can see the camera at the top of the clock. So either you use the camera shot on the top of the clock or the one on ground level. So we used the one on top and I was not sure the shot was good. So we moved the camera to the ground. Right now I can use a helicopter or a high crane and can shoot it once. But in the old days we were very poor, using two cameras, and a small budget. But now for every big scene we use four to ten cameras. Even normal days we use three or four cameras.
JK: How many times did you do the fall?
Jackie Chan: I did it two times. The stunt guy tried once but he totally missed. He just missed the second roof.
JK: So did you perform the fall?
Jackie Chan: Yes.
JK: Do you still hurt from that injury?
Jackie Chan: (Groaning) Yeeesss! But it’s getting better. But my injuries are coming back now. When I’m jogging for more than 20 minutes my ankles will hurt.
JK: In your early films you took some crazy risks.
Jackie Chan: Yes.
JK: And now you’re toning down a little bit. Is it because of the injuries?
Jackie Chan: Yeah, a lot of injuries. After Rumble in the Bronx, now every time I jump I’m scared. The ankle might break again. Because I don’t have the confidence any more. And besides that, a lot of people told me don’t take those risks anymore, we want to see more movies. I’m using my choreography techniques with different things. I don’t want to risk my life anymore.
JK: Is it true that sometimes on the set there is someone off camera who beats a drum so you and your stuntmen can get the rhythm and timing?
Jackie Chan: That’s my idea. When I write down my choreography I don’t write down the punches or the kicks. I write bum bum bum…bum bum bup bup bum bup…bum bup bum bum! So this way you can see in my movie it’s like…ta da ta da ta da! Then music! [He sings] Ha da ta data duh duh duh ta da! Then breathe! Then the feet! [Jackie makes a shuffling of feet noise] sha sha sha sha! Then I come up. In slow motion, glass breaking! Bwaaang! Daaang daaaang daaaang! They come at me! [hits] da da tung ta ta dung dung. The whole thing comes up just like dancing. I shouldn’t tell you that. This is my secret.
JK: [laughs] Do you want me to publish this quote, Jackie?
Jackie Chan: No, it doesn’t matter now. I’ve been talking o a lot of people. They know what I’m saying but they don’t know how to do it. It’s not easy; it takes a long time.
JK: Do you do the beat of the drum in all your films?
Jackie Chan: Yes.
JK: Is that why you don’t shoot with sound?
Jackie Chan: No no no! We don’t have a drum beside the camera. We write it down. I let all my stunt guys know I want this: da da dum da dum. They already know what I’m doing.
JK: We talked earlier about how a real martial artist doesn’t necessarily make a good film martial artist. What about someone like Benny Urquidez? You used him in Wheels on Meals and Dragons Forever. What did you see in him?
Jackie Chan: Oh he’s good! Because he fights with us and we know how to choreograph. We know how to use his real action in the movie. So that’s why we both looked very good. I think it was the best fight of my modern style films.
JK: Your fight in Wheels on Meals?
Jackie Chan: Yes.
JK: What about your classic style films? What was your best fight?
Jackie Chan: The last fight in Drunken Master 2. And Project A was also very good.
JK: What are your plans right now?
Jackie Chan: I’m in San Francisco doing a charity show for the elderly; then I’m going to Hong Kong tonight and work on my script for my next movie called Who Am I? We do have some projects in Hollywood going on, but I’m waiting to get a “yes.” But now they are still talking.
JK: In the Hollywood trades there was an article saying that you were interested in using a “blue screen” for special effects to aid you in your stunts. Is this true?
Jackie Chan: Yes. Maybe a blue screen can help me with something. I really want to learn something from Hollywood.
JK: I was really concerned that it was going to cheapen what you were doing and everything you would do was with special effects.
Jackie Chan: No. If I’m going to jump off a building, I will still jump off a building. But we can have the mat up as highest as possible. Not like in Supercop, where I jumped from the top of the building on to a helicopter, there was only a little mat. You’re really scared. You really risk your life. But with blue screen I can put the mat at the eighth story, not at the first story. I’ll still jump, but I’ll use the blue screen to wipe out the mat. I’m not going to cheat.
JK: That’s nice to know. I was afraid you were going too “Hollywood.”
Jackie Chan: Oh no no! I know the audience doesn’t like those kind of things.
JK: You’ve just finished a cameo in a film called Allan Smithy and you got to play yourself.
Jackie Chan: I play myself and Stallone gets to play himself. It was very fun. Shot it in two days.
JK: What is the difference between Hong Kong filmmaking and Hollywood filmmaking?
Jackie Chan: The difference in Hong Kong is we don’t have a union. We do everything as if it was a family business. In Hollywood, everyone talks about rules and union. Hollywood of course has a big, big market. Some other Hong Kong films have only a local market, so they have a small budget. Me, I’m lucky. I have an Asian market. But of course now I have a world market. I have a lot of money to use for production and to go out and shoot. I think I’m the only lucky one. Some other Hong Kong films are very cheap now.
JK: You’ve done a number of CDs where you sing. You even have a CD of your greatest hits for songs from your movies. Do you plan on going in concert?
Jackie Chan: Oh no! A singing career is not my business. It’s just for fun, really. I concentrate on my films.
JK: You have a great singing voice.
Jackie Chan: Thank you. I do like to sing. But I’m not too serious about a singing career. I still like movies. Making an album almost takes the same time to make a movie. Six months to one year! I hate being in the recording studio by myself. It gets me crazy. I want to be on the set with 100-300 people.
JK: You’re more of a people person.
Jackie Chan: Yeah.
JK: I keep hearing rumors every year that you’re going to retire.
Jackie Chan: Oh, I’m just kidding! I’ll continue coming up with projects.
JK: Do you still train every day?
Jackie Chan: Yeah, I still train every day.
JK: What do you do?
Jackie Chan: Right now it’s kicking, punching, and jogging. That’s all.
JK: How long is your training every day?
Jackie Chan: Three hours!
JK: You can still train with all the injuries you’ve suffered?
Jackie Chan: Yes! That’s my career, I have to do it.
JK: When you’re preparing for a “classical style” movie like Drunken Master2, how did you prepare for it?
Jackie Chan: I don’t have to train anymore because I already know how to do it. We just train on the set as we prepare for it. This is why it takes three of four months for fighting. The basic things we already know. So to me it’s the same. Of course I want to work with a lot of people. Sylvester Stallone, Wesley Snipes, John Travolta, a lot of people. Especially with directors like Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Michael Bay, Tarantino. We’ll have to wait to see what’s happening.
JK: Is there anything you would like to say to the readers of Wushu-Kungfu magazine before you go?v Jackie Chan: Thank you for all those years of support, and now I have come to America and have made it. I hope they continue to support me. Anything they don’t like, too, please give me advice so it can help me.
Editor’s note: This interview was originally published in the March/April 1997 issue of Kungfu-Qigong Magazine.
About John Kreng:
John Kreng is a Burbank, California based martial artist and screenwriter.