Background on Forbidden Kingdom
Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the two most revered martial arts superstar actors in the world today, have come together for the very first time in filmmaking history to pit their skills in The Forbidden Kingdom as Lu Yan and the Silent Monk respectively.
In this one-of-a-kind project, producer Casey Silver has not only succeeded in bringing together an exceptional group of people, including some of the best talent in Asian and Western cinema, for the first truly international Asian blockbuster movie. He has also pulled off a great feat in making the entire film in China.
This epic production is written by veteran screenwriter John Fusco, whose past works include the Academy Award®-nominated Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron, and directed by Rob Minkoff of The Lion King fame, who brings his unique blend of character, comedy, drama and storytelling to the enthralling and innovative time-traveling story structure…
In this spectacular and unpredictable epic action-adventure tale, Boston teenager Jason Tripitikas (Michael Angarano) confronts the toughest journey he has ever faced in his life – one which takes him through ancient China, facing battles with murderous Jade Warriors, the villainous Jade Warlord (Collin Chou) and the indomitable one with no remorse and no conscience – the White-Haired Demoness (Li Bingbing). Last but not least, Jason experiences first love with a revenge-bent female fighter (Liu Yifei).
“Making the first film in which Jackie Chan and Jet Li are starring together is in itself already special. But being both a martial arts film and a contemporary American film makes this film unlike any martial arts film before. All we want to do is to make a good movie; a fun, good movie that will appeal to both the East and the West, and I think we have done it,” surmises executive producer Raffaella De Laurentiis.
Actor Collin Chou rounds up, “This is such a great production combination. We have the world’s best director of photography and action choreographer, the best producers, screenwriter and director. Last but not least, we have the two best martial arts superstars in the world – Jackie and Jet. How do you top this?
“It is pure ingenuity for John to develop such a smart idea for a screenplay. By using the Monkey King as a basis and through adapting and interspersing different characters from the many well-known Chinese legends, he has created a totally unique story. Brilliant.”
The Forbidden Kingdom is thus brought to life as the martial arts action-adventure movie audiences all over the world have all been waiting for.
Unknown to the world, Jet Li and Jackie Chan have actually had two missed opportunities at working together – once fifteen years ago and another time eight years ago. So upon hearing that the other would be involved in The Forbidden Kingdom, it was a strong push factor and serendipitous of sorts as well for the both of them. Chan attests, “Once I heard that Jet had agreed to do it, I agreed right away.”
Says Li, “Finally, we get to work together. Of course I am delighted. Before this production, we are already close friends so this has been such a great opportunity. If given a chance, I will definitely work with Jackie again.” Chan agrees, “It has been really fun!”
Getting Maestro Yuen Wo Ping Aboard
Getting an action director who could appease the two superstars of martial arts cinema was not easy. As producer Casey Silver says, “The only choreographer who could truly stand in the middle between these two giants and serve each of them, serve the movie, bring credibility and respect from everybody and keep it all real was Yuen Wo Ping.”
Jet Li was all for hiring Yuen Wo Ping to do the job. “Everyone knows that Wo Ping is the most famous action director in China and in the world. That is why I really pushed very hard to work with him again in this movie. I told the producers that they must bring Wo Ping into this movie. I believe in him and that he and his team will deliver great things for this movie.” Wo Ping and Jet have worked together consistently over the years, the most recent film being the period martial arts piece, Fearless.
While Yuen Wo Ping was waiting for Li and Chan to commit to the film, Li and Chan were doing the same. That was the amount of standing Yuen Wo Ping had in the hearts of Chan and Li. “Wo Ping, for me, was an essential ingredient to making this movie work so I spent a long time wooing Wo Ping to the table,” says Silver. They all ended up saying yes at the same time.
Besides his work in Asian cinema, Yuen Wo Ping has also made Hollywood films like The Matrix, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill. These are all movies choreographed by Yuen Wo Ping that has translated globally and become massive box office hits.
There is another fascinating story within this: Yuen Wo Ping directed Jackie Chan in Drunken Master in 1978, and the Lu Yan character in this film is loosely based on the Drunken Master, which was incidentally played by Wo Ping’s father. Chan and Yuen Wo Ping’s history go way back to when they were kids, the two of them actually grew up together learning martial arts in the same school. However, they have not worked together in more than two decades and coming together for The Forbidden Kingdom is the reunion that everyone has been anticipating.
“What we really wanted was to get the best choreographer we could because we were putting the world’s two best martial artists together and we did not want to disappoint the audience. We wanted what was to be choreographed for them to be at the highest level possible. And I have heard stories from Jackie about growing up and working closely with Wo Ping on their earlier films. So this is like a reunion for all of them,” says Silver.
Action Choreography By Yuen Clan
Earlier in the process before principal photography, Yuen Wo Ping, Silver, director Rob Minkoff and John Fusco the writer, would discuss the script and map out the stories that would take place before and after each fight scene. This kept an eye on the characters and the narrative they were trying to tell and within those boundaries, they would discuss the broad strokes of where the story was heading. The numerous fight sequences were also worked into the different set designs.
Minkoff says, “Wo Ping has been given a very wide berth with a lot of leeway to create, interpret and use his inspirations. As such, in all the many different ways, regardless of how big or small, the fight sequences for Chan, Li, Drunken Master or the Monkey King, are all different reflections of Yuen Wo Ping himself.”
To allow the master to present his work, Silver and Minkoff have generously stepped back on many occasions. As observed by Silver, “I was struck by the beauty of the martial artistry that Wo Ping has created.”
The action choreography for this film was done in the certain style that many Asian martial arts films are completed but not like how the American martial arts films are done. Using the Hong Kong style of action filmmaking means that the stunt team is choreographing the fight about five minutes before the fight is filmed. For some of the non-trained actors, it took some getting used to.
“At first, it was quite intimidating for me as we did not get a chance to rehearse the moves adequately. But as filming went on, I found myself getting more and more used to it. I could adapt to the moves and the pace better,” says Michael Angarano. “It is all about your mindset. You cannot think about what you are going to do. They show you what you have to do, you learn it and you just do it, and you have to do it fast.”
Yuen Wo Ping takes the ideas of the basic storytelling and then spins them in a new way and this is carried out on the day of the shoot. This is untypical of any Hollywood production.
“Wo Ping, his brothers and a couple of his key team people will get together, form a basic idea, and they literally work out a few moves at a time, where one will suggest an idea and then someone else will refine it and then another person will take it and suggest something else. At the end of it, Wo Ping is the one who says yes to the final idea. And then they go ahead and shoot it,” explains Minkoff.
“When the camera is moving and the actors are moving and spinning around, they literally shoot everything one moment at a time. To do this kind of work is to cut into the camera literally, collecting piece by piece what you need and then put them together literally like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s quite unusual because sometimes they move the camera in three hundred and sixty degrees which requires all of the crew to move all of the lighting equipment so they shoot on one side and then they pick up everything and they move it to the other side, and they move so fast and adjust all the heavy equipment with such coordination, it’s just an incredible thing to watch.”
Jackie Chan feels less pressure working on The Forbidden Kingdom and cites the reason, “The action sequences for this film has been a breeze for me. Normally, when I take on an action film as an actor, I will still be advising on the action choreography, directing the action and even act as stunt coordinator. It was especially so in Rush Hour. Whenever I was in my trailer, they will walkie-talkie me and say that the director is looking for me. I don’t get to rest. I have to practice my English dialogue, I have to train the people how to fight, I have to design the fighting sequences and teach people to do all the fighting sequences. In this case, because there is Wo Ping, I am totally relaxed and at ease. We have been working together since thirty years ago on films such as Snake Eagle Shadow, Drunken Master.”
Jet Li agrees and explains, “For movies such as Fearless, it is a very personal project so I will get involved in the story, the action choreography, the creative aspects. I demand more out of it in order to achieve my personal vision. But for The Forbidden Kingdom, I left it entirely to Wo Ping and his team whom I believe can do their jobs very well and complete the film’s requirements, so I contribute less.”
Cinematography and Capturing the Action
Like the rest, Peter Pau was attracted to the film because of the strong script and cast elements. “I think it is a great idea putting two of the most significant and well known Chinese martial artists together in a film and shooting it entirely in China. My initial response to this was “Wow, what a great opportunity to be working with the two greats in a film!” says Pau.
He adds, “Also, this very ambitious script not only provides learnings into Chinese virtue, it is unique in the way that it links cross-cultural events in the modern and the ancient worlds. Being a martial arts practitioner, John Fusco must have treated the script as part of his journey into comprehending Chinese culture. By entwining the two unique cultures together, he has made it meaningful, yet entertaining and fun.”
For Pau, this is by far the biggest film he has shot in China to date. He says, “I had to put up two units with more than fifty crew members each for the cameras, lighting and grip departments. For everyone to maintain a consistently high standard and professional working attitude in a 17-week shoot with three to five weeks of preparation was quite a challenge indeed. Plus, there was the intensive travelling required for both the crew and the equipment. But I must say I am very pleased with my crew and their working spirit.”
Silver adds, “I have great admiration for Peter. If we were making a movie in Hollywood, it would already be a blessing to have him. But to have him on this project makes it wonderfully special for all of us here from Hollywood. Working with Peter has been an incredibly significant ingredient to realizing the look and feel of The Forbidden Kingdom.”
Approaching cinematography through the eyes of an artist, Pau describes the source of his inspiration, “If the mild non-saturated tone of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was inspired by Chinese watercolour painting, then based on the fact that The Forbidden Kingdom is a fantasy-adventure-action film with lots of room for creativity, it’s purely Van Gogh’s nature saturated with vivid colours.”
The whole filming process was made easier with the new Panavision digital Genesis camera systems that Pau used. He is the first in Asia to do so and professes, “I am very pleased by the quality of the CCD and of course, the lenses of Panavision, the one-hour-recording capability and the possibility for it to run at 48fps in real frames. It’s a reliable and safe system that we have tested with the heat and dust in the desert, the moisture at the waterfalls and mountain valley and the heavy-duty usage in the non-air-conditioned stages in hot summer. There is no danger of shipping it out and having the “negatives” processed and so far no dust or scratches reported.”
Known for his relentless vision and hard work, Pau has single-mindedness and a drive that distinguishes him from the rest of the horde. As Pau explains fully, “I usually pre-plan all shots at the beginning of the day to make sure the shots-order works well with the actors, with the equipment set-ups and saves time. I try to incorporate as much movement as possible but yet not jeopardize the processes on the day of the shoot.”
An example of how Pau completes his work with aplomb can be seen in how he shot what he considers to be the most important fight scene of the film. “For Jackie and Jet’s fight, I suggested a stage interior of a ruin temple and created a golden major hour look with a subdued atmosphere to enhance the action. I think this is the most memorable scene of the film so I put all my focus on it. As Rob and Wo Ping asked for the actors to be able to move around as much as possible, I resorted to using a 15-foot Technocrane for the flexibility, and two remote heads with two Super Sky-Mode cranes to enable extensive movements by both the main and action units. My crew of camera and grip did a fantastic job as always,” elaborates Pau.
Besides his ability to execute and move things through every day as an accomplished cinematographer with no language or cultural barrier working in China, Pau’s celebrated work in numerous martial arts films especially in the acclaimed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, together with his Chinese background, culminated into a cultural sensitivity and awareness that ignites the material Western interpreted material something precious and tangibly Chinese.
Pau shares his experience on making martial arts come alive, “The timing of the movement is the key issue to emphasizing action. The crane movement usually involves one or more crane operators, dolly operators, zoom control person, either on a Technocrane or zoom lens, and I myself will be operating the remote control head. To put all these people in sync with the fast paced action requires what I called “dancing beats”. All the relevant crew must memorize the action beats in order to do this right. That needs a dedicated crew to work years together to achieve such a result.”
Director Rob Minkoff is full of appreciation, “Peter has been a terrific collaborator as we have had to rely on him to show us the true Chinese traditions that end up in the content of this film. It is very important to me that the film does not end up being an Americanized version of this Chinese story even though it is telling the story of an American boy and his journey to this foreign place.”
Delivering the Martial Arts Sequences
Jackie Chan believes that Yuen Wo Ping may have been under some pressure to design different sequences for he and Jet Li but he was totally confident that Yuen Wo Ping would deliver. What surprised Chan was that during the very first fight sequence that he and Jet Li had to perform, they hit upon something rare. “It was seamless. With most people, you have to practise. But with Jet, I don’t know why, we both looked at each other and we just said, “Let’s just do it, yeah” and we did it. He probably wanted to try how fast I am and I wanted to try how good he is. The first two takes were so fast that everybody had to tell us to slow down or they would have had to put the camera speed slower.”
The chemistry between Chan and Li was a bonus to the entire film. “Mostly, when I fight with people, it will take ten to fifteen takes. Jet and I took three to five takes for our fights, that’s all. All I do is tell Jet I will do these few strokes and let him know my rhythm. He then picks up my rhythm and just reacts with his strokes. It’s not common. All these years, this sort of chemistry has only surfaced when I fight with Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, nobody else. Jet is a professional just like me,” says Chan.
For Michael Angarano, he has gained a whole new perspective for something he was not privy to before, “Now I feel very special about kungfu movies. Watching them and being in one are two very different things. I have always respected it but now, I really admire the people who make Chinese kungfu movies because there is so much hard work that goes into it.”
“It is not just about fighting, but more like dancing. You have to be in tune with the person next to you, because if you are not in sync, then the fight is not going to work. That is something that Jet Li taught me. It is about performing and so much goes into that. Not only is it important how hard the person throws the punch, it matters how hard it looks like they are throwing it. It is also equally important that the person receiving the punch makes it looks good, so it takes cooperation from both sides. I am really so honored that I have the opportunity to do something like this. It is an opportunity that not many people get and I think I realize that I have tried to do to the best of my ability to fulfill that opportunity,” he continues.
Out of all the fight sequences that Angarano had to do, what he found most challenging was an intense fight scene with Jet Li. “We were depicting a scene where he is training me but the tempo and the speed at which we had the fight with these staffs was very fast and I did not want to let Jet down. That was really stressful,” recalls Angarano.
Despite his lack of martial arts background, Angarano was a natural on set and even Jet Li is full of praise for him, “Michael is very smart and I am not the only one who thinks so. Wo Ping has also commented that Michael is able to grasp the action sequences very quickly. I think he has the talent to learn action movies and kungfu. Not many people can control their body well but he can do it.”
In return, Angarano has this to say about the action team, “Wo Ping and his team are such good teachers, they really do a great job of relating to you what you have to do. When there is something physically or mentally that you are not understanding quite well, they can see it and can pinpoint exactly what it is. Just by looking at a sequence once, they will have all the things that I was doing wrong down pat. Unbelievable.”
The two female actresses, Li Bingbing and Liu Yifei, have their own nuances in dealing with the expectations for the action sequences.
Bingbing laughs and relates her experience, “It was most frightening to fight with Yifei as we are both non-professionals and belong to the weaker sex. We cringe when we have to fight each other. It’s an innate reaction I suppose. For example, I will use very little strength to strangle Yifei. Then Wo Ping will stop me and say it doesn’t look realistic and that I need to put in more strength. However, I am afraid that I might hurt her and she feels the same too. So I will apologize every time before I do it with more strength.”
Fighting Chan is less stressful according to Bingbing, “No matter how you fight, whether with the right or wrong moves, Jackie will be able to receive them and help you finish your strokes. If I strike too high or too low he will still be able to intercept and we can complete the sequence. So fighting with Jackie is the least worrying and the most fun. In fact, I actually look forward to it.”
For actress Liu, carrying a pipa while horse riding proved to be challenging, “The pipa was always hitting my head. So Jet took care of me, as he is more experienced with galloping fast on the horse. He would always turn around to see if I am alright even before his horse comes to a complete stop.” Jet Li also showed Liu the art of throwing darts with finesse while Chan would encourage her on if her fighting scenes with them suffered numerous retakes.
When it came to the large-scale finale scene in the film, it proved to be a massive coordination and designing effort to script the action sequences with hundreds of extras and the extensive and intensive action choreography for all the lead characters, especially the White-Haired Demoness. The uncontrollable factors in such a long scene escalate in numbers and the finale fighting took almost a month to complete. The sweltering heat of over forty degrees Celsius did not help the entire process. The actors felt drained even before they lifted up their heavy weapons and makeup artists were kept busy constantly touching up the melting makeup.
Bingbing laughingly says, “No matter what, I still have to be cool and fight with the most zest. I have to believe and show that I am the most highly skilled fighter in the kingdom. I have to be in the best state but I have to control my perspiration.”
Injuries in action movies are real and unavoidable. Bingbing and Jet Li had bad scratches on their arms and palms from hanging off fake rock surfaces. Bruises were constant sore points covered up by costumes. Chan and Bingbing both hurt their backs filming the finale battlement scene through extensive backbreaking wire-hanging and flying.
But despite all these, the actors only have positive things to say about filming the action sequences for this epic.
Actor Collin Chou, who has worked with Yuen Wo Ping countless times including in Fearless and The Matrix comments, “There is always something new that he will bring to a film so it is always a pleasure and a breath of fresh air to work with he and his team. For the Jade Warlord character that I play, he has created some excellent action choreography. I really enjoy doing the stunts for Wo Ping every time.”
First-time action actress Liu is also a huge fan of Yuen Wo Ping’s work. She says, “I am delighted to be able to work with Wo Ping as I like all his films including Kill Bill, The Matrix and Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon. So working with him, and with Jackie and Jet gives me a lot of opportunities to improve myself.
Exploring The Meaning of Kungfu
The Forbidden Kingdom is not the cinematic version of any specific Chinese literary work and even less of the classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West”. Rather, the filmmakers wanted to draw some of the characters and situations from such tradition to tell a new and contemporary story.
Producer Casey Silver explains, “The movie is about a classic hero’s journey. It is a big adventure movie with exotic locations and characters, humor, action, romance, even some fantasy elements. At the core of it, it has an emotional center and a specific theme – one that inspires.”
Executive producer Raffaella De Laurentiis adds, “This movie has its heart in the right place.”
Silver was filming Hidalgo five years ago in Morocco when screenwriter John Fusco told him the story of The Forbidden Kingdom and got him hooked.
“My son practices martial arts and I started to wonder why there hasn’t been a broad appeal movie for the West with a deeper idea about the beauty and poetry, as well as the deeper philosophy that underlies kungfu. The possibility of capturing something that would translate to a Western audience and have the cinematic elements of acrobatics and athleticism and to showcase above all of that, the underlying philosophy of: “What does kungfu mean?” ” What is it really about?” was the primary thread in my head once John told me the story,” explains Silver.
Agrees Fusco, “Besides hoping that Western moviegoers come away from this movie wanting to read “Journey To The West” and to explore more about the classic Chinese novels and mythology, we also hope that they come away from the movie having learned that there is more to kungfu.” At the end of his adventures, the young hero in The Forbidden Kingdom would learn to face his fears while learning the deeper meaning of kungfu.
Similarly, the actors and filmmakers have experienced the same from making this revolutionary movie. “Kungfu is a philosophy. It is a way of life; not just a way of fighting, but a way of thinking. It is a way of peace, it is a way to find yourself, and a way to be at peace with everything around you,” shares actor Michael Angarano who has completely embraced the beliefs of kungfu since participating in the film.
“With the source material for this movie stemming from Chinese mythology and Chinese popular culture, The Forbidden Kingdom is a celebration of all that and at the risk of being redundant, the philosophy underlying the deeper meanings of kungfu,” says Fusco.
Implementing Different Martial Arts Forms and Styles
Having studied Korean martial arts at the age of thirteen, a year before the “Kung Fu” TV series and the films of Bruce Lee created an explosion of martial arts popularity in the U.S., John Fusco has an unwavering interest in martial arts and its philosophy. So it comes as no surprise that his childhood love of Chinese culture and martial arts has found its way into The Forbidden Kingdom.
Says action superstar Jackie Chan, “You can tell that John is deeply mesmerized by Chinese culture and Chinese kungfu movies from the way he has incorporated all the different characters into one movie, from the Drunken Master, the Heavenly King, the Monkey King, the Eight Immortals, the Bride with White Hair, just about everybody. So when I first heard the story from Casey three years ago, I was sold by the ideology of how we can convert this tale based on ancient Chinese legends starting out from Chinese culture to become world culture.”
“I was deeply motivated to introduce such rich Chinese legends as the Monkey King to a global Western audience for the first time in the history of filmmaking,” says Fusco. “By bringing back some of these classic Chinese ideas and characters, we hope to expose Chinese culture and history to a whole new audience who aren’t so familiar with these classic legends and characters. If we can get the younger generations and the Western moviegoers to develop an interest in exploring these classics further after watching the movie, we would have achieved our goals,” professes Fusco.
When most screenwriters reach the fighting scenes, they usually write, “And now they fight.” Screenwriter John Fusco went much further: he scripted the exact kungfu moves he envisioned onto the script pages, and this was for one of the most successful and influential action directors in the history of Hong Kong cinema, if not the world. But Yuen Wo Ping respected Fusco’s interpretation and used his suggestions as jumping-off points when he choreographed the fighting styles for the characters.
Some styles that Fusco had designated for the characters were essential to the story, like Monkey Kung Fu for the Monkey King and Drunken Fist for Lu Yan. Yuen then assigned signature martial systems to others: Phoenix Dancing in Ninth Heaven for the villain Ni-Chang is one example.
One of the first conversations director Rob Minkoff had with Yuen Wo Ping was to put across the idea of incorporating different styles of martial arts in the film. “We have street fighting style, and then we have wire-flying, and then we have Qi Magic. So there are different types and levels of fighting, choreography and sensibility,” says Minkoff. It was something that had not been done before and Yuen Wo Ping was agreeable to trying this out.
The different martial arts and fighting styles showcased in The Forbidden Kingdom span from Shandong Black Tiger to Praying Mantis, Snake Fist, Leopard Style, Crane Boxing, Tiger Claw, Willow Leaf Palm, Eagle Claw and the Seeking Leg style.
Moving on, there are also fist fighting, swordplay and stick fighting.
Weapons used include poisonous arrows, the Crescent Moon sword for the evil Jade Warlord, butterfly knives and lethal darts for Golden Sparrow, moving on to monk cudgels to deer hook swords, spears, whips, and even the hair of the White-Haired Demoness.
To see how this all fits in, in an ambitious fight scene in a plum blossom orchard in Fang Yan, you will see Michael Angarano wielding his staff against attacking soldiers while Jet Li uses his sash as a weapon on the left, with Jackie Chan doing Hung Gar to his right. Forbidden Kingdom Production Notes, Pinema.com | Photos: Sina