Yuen Woo-Ping has been the go-to name in martial arts choreography ever since he helped launch Jackie Chan with his first to comedies, Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master. So much so that when Hollywood started incorporating elaborate martial arts, they hired Yuen to choreograph The Matrix, Kill Bill and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Yuen is back with another Hong Kong martial arts movie this week. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy follows Max Zhang’s character from Ip Man 3 in a brand do martial arts adventure. Other great fighters are coming at him from all sides, including Michelle Yeoh, Dave Bautista and Tony Jaa.

Yuen Woo-Ping answered some questions from /Film via a translator, and revealed he was almost involved in James Wan’s Aquaman film. Master Z: Ip Man Legacy is in theaters today

You’ve done fight scenes on bamboo scaffolding before and yet it still feels new in Master Z. What inspires you to create new scenes involving traditional scenarios?

I like scenes that are grounded in a reality. It doesn’t necessarily have to be our present reality but there should be rules. Using every day settings and objects makes the scenes relatable and gives them a sense of realism.

Did Tony Jaa’s Muay Thai style give you new tools to use in choreography?

Every performer brings something uniquely personal to the story. Max Zhang brings subdued power. Michelle Yeoh brings elegance. Tony Jaa is a fantastic performer, his jumps and kicks are extraordinary especially since not many in China can mimic that Muay Thai style.

What are your thoughts on the Silat martial arts style from Indonesian films like The Raid?

All martial arts take many years of persistent practice to master. For us filmmakers, it’s about taking elements from different styles and using them to tell a story. That is why The Raid has been successful, in both the physicality and storytelling. I really welcome that kind of creativity.

Was Dave Bautista’s wrestling background helpful in teaching him the choreography for his fight scenes?

Absolutely. Not all actors have background in martial arts but mastery in anything physical, whether ballet like Michelle or wushu like Max or wrestling like Dave, it all gives me something to work with. If an actor comes on set and runs out of breath walking up stairs, then I know we’re in trouble.

You often have five scenes with dozens of people, like the one in Kwan’s office in Master Z or the Crazy 88 in Kill Bill. How many fighters would there have to be before you say this is too many for a scene?

I typically prefer fights between two or three people. It allows the choreography to be a little more detailed and interesting. Because the story in Kwan’s office required a big gang, I decided to get as many people as we could squeeze into that room!

In the last 20 years digital effects have allowed you to erase wires. Have you been able to choreograph more ambitious sequences now that you have the ability to erase any wires?

Visual effects hasn’t really changed wire work creatively. We’ve used wires in much the same way as we’ve done in the early days. The big difference is safety. In the early days because there’s no digital erasing, we’d try to use the thinnest wires we could so they wouldn’t show up on film. And every now and then, those wires would snap. Now we can use rope, which is really strong and actors can feel a lot safer. But we still call it wire work.

How has the switch from film to video changed your filmmaking? Can you do more takes to get shots you need and does it make things easier?

Digital is less expensive and playback is easier but the benefits it offers doesn’t really alter the way I work. My fights are designed to an edit, I never shoot coverage and try to figure out the editing later. Doing more takes always takes more time and time is always money. Actors are only human so doing too many takes means they’re getting exhausted and not doing their best work.

There’s an American style that believes if you shake the camera so it’s hard to see the fight, it’s more exciting. What is your reaction to that style?

I think that style comes from American studios’ emphasis on coverage and leaving “options” in post. Typically this is also done with three or more cameras which means the fight is diluted because not all the cameras can be in the optimal position. I think that shaky camera style can be a storytelling device like in Saving Private Ryan, but it should not be used to hide poor performance or choreography.

You got your start doing comedies with Jackie Chan but most of your movies have been dramas. Why haven’t you done more comedies and do you ever want to do comedy again?

I would love to do a comedy again! I think it comes down to stories. There are fewer writers who write that kind of action comedy nowadays. It’s mostly serious drama. Maybe the comedy trends will be back.

You’ve been involved in the trademark films of famous martial artists like Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. With them and new artists like in Master Z are you able to notice their strengths and give them the idea showcase for their talents?

The guiding principle is pretty simple: Focus on a performer’s strength and avoid their weaknesses! Max will never be able to do wrestling or MMA as well as Dave Bautista and Dave will never do kung fu as well as Max. There’s no point doing action that is out of a person’s range unless they have months to train, and you rarely get that time nowadays. Liu Yan never did a fight scene in her life but with the right choreography and editing we made her look like she could fight!

From The Matrix until Kill Bill, Hollywood had a love affair with Hong Kong martial arts. Why do you think it was short-lived in Hollywood and were you hoping it would last longer?

I think it’s the global audience’s tastes have become converged because of visual effects spectacle films. Those films have such big budgets and are so well marketed, it’s hard to avoid them! Even in China, they top the box office over domestic films.  

You choreographed for American directors The Wachowskis and Tarantino. Were there any other American directors you were hoping to work with, and were there any offers you turned down after The Matrix?

I was approached by James Wan to do some sequences for Aquaman but the schedule didn’t work out because I was shooting Master Z at the same time. I’m always interested in trying something new. Call me!

Can you describe your process of choreographing a fight scene from beginning to end?

It is a collaborative process between me, the actors, and the stunt team. In prep, I get choreography a sketch of the fight, where it starts, key beats, and maybe how it ends. Like a dialogue scene, you don’t always stick with what is in the script. The actor will make a suggestion, I’ll make a suggestion and sometimes that’ll lead to changing the idea completely. Sometimes we might not change much at all. The sign fight in this film almost didn’t happen because a typhoon was about to land the week we were meant to shoot it. We debated back and forth and finally decided it was worth taking a chance. Despite all the logistical difficulties of shooting on the signs with dozens of people pulling the actors on wires, it turned out easier than expected – it was the only fight scene to finish three days ahead of schedule!

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