Directing Shanghai Knights
Shanghai Knights' Director David Dobkin is Singin? in Jackie?s Reign
by Dr. Craig Reid
"When I signed on to this project the first thing I said was that I'm a major fan of DRUNKEN MASTER and DRUNKEN MASTER II and all of Jackie's old films and there is room for us to do better than his American films have. He's always being treated as a co-star in the film and not as the essential piece of entertainment," the burning eyed David Dobkin, director of Jackie Chan's latest Hollywood hit SHANGHAI KNIGHTS, blurts out to me. And he's the first director of any of Chan's films I've spoken with that has really put it into perspective in regards to how Jackie is treated on his American productions. And when he says there is room to do better than Jackie's other American films, he's not talking box office numbers, he's talking about what the Chan fans want.
Dobkin continues, "I wanted to see things a bit more extended and dancelike and choreographed the ways he does in Hong Kong. We made a conscious effort to do that. The difference is, Jackie can shoot 40 days on a fight sequence in Hong Kong, it's not expensive, so I reworked the schedule so he could get 6-8 days to do his fight scenes, and shoot the rest of the film very simply to accommodate that. So a lot of these scenes are shot like Abbot and Costello movies and movies like that. I'll shoot a wide shot, a few close shots and then let the guys work."
And if you think he's full of bull, consider that the final fight scene in DRUNKEN MASTER II (after he beats up the long haired European guy that had a chain wrapped around his arm) - it took Jackie three months to shoot. Furthermore, Hong Kong stuntmen get paid $200/day with no adjustments, where American stuntmen get paid up $6,000/day for doing the exact same thing. You tell me who is more passionate about their work. Dobkin is the first American director for Jackie that has really tried to let Jackie do his thing. And there's more. "By watching and speaking with Jackie, it really helps me to understand how he shot his action sequences, his style, his philosophy," Dobkin respectfully shares, "what makes his fights distinct from Jet Li or Bruce Lee.
"The philosophy of Jackie is that you see it's him. Wide enough shots to see the full body as much as he can and be close enough at some point to see that it's him and do it in the same shot. Whether it's blocking towards the frame or away from the frame or panning him into the frame. You want to make sure that it's Jackie. Then it's like seeing something live and really happening as opposed to using edits to hide it or accentuate it."
If you haven't seen the film, major action scenes are staged on a floating river barge; inside a revolving hotel door (something Chan has dreamed of doing for many years) and among the stalls and surrounding walls of a crowded open air marketplace. A hair-raising finale clash occurs inside London's famed Big Ben clock ala PROJECT A. Four massive sets were built for this sequence alone, in which an epic sword fight between Wang and Rathbone provides Chan a thrilling stage on which to create his trademark physical artistry.
"Choreographing an action scene can be a very difficult task," says the beaming Chan (a far cry from the disturbed face that showed up to talk about TUXEDO last year), "you have to get the rhythm just right or the audience will be bored. You design it just as if you were designing a musical sequence. And for this film I've done more fights than any other American film I've made. I mean we just kept adding more and more fights to each scene, each one more difficult that the next."
The fight sequence in the Rathbone library and corridor took up much of the first two weeks of shooting. For the fight, Jackie revisited his love for ladders from MR. CANTON AND MRS ROSE and FIRST STRIKE by this time using a ladder that moves alongside a bookcase to fend off attacker from Rathbone's personal guard. Books, bodies, Egyptian masks and antiquities, sarcophaguses, and basically anything not nailed down go flying as Chan proves once again that "sooner or ladder," you can't keep a good Chan down.
Dobkin recalls, "Actually, that scene was originally written for everything to get smashed in the room, then they wreck his car and everything he owns. So we walked into the room and talked about the blocking of it and how it was going to work. Jackie starts playing with things as he always does, then he comes in the next day and says, 'Something is not working for me. We're shooting something in the library with these vases.' After I nodded, he continued, 'Then the guys who work for the boss know they are valuable and should know not to break them. So when they hit me, I should do this and put it under his arm and he has to prevent them for being broken.' I'm like, 'Wow!' To use this story in the action, it's dynamic and the physical action to do that makes sense and that's the world that's distinctly his."
Some may say it's a nod to RUSH HOUR but it really stems from Jackie's fight between Lily Ho and Shih Kahn in YOUNG MASTER, where Shih attacks Jackie with a sword and Jackie use's Shih's precious smoking pipe to block the sword strikes causing Shih to hold back the strike for fear of breaking the pipe. And of course this is done to the cheerleader band music as Jackie whips the pipe around like a cheerleader baton.
The library scene also required newcomer to American film Fann Wong to put her crash course martial arts training to the test right away. "I've never done this type of martial art action before, although I've appeared in those Chinese kung-fu soap operas in China and Singapore, but for this I was quite nervous about being able to perform to Jackie's satisfaction," Fann shares. "The first few days of practicing I was very sore and I could hardly move. But it got better. But I'm not a martial artist I just train in wu xia (stuff for film). Jackie's stunt people come over to Shanghai when I was there working, so my schedule couldn't allow me to train so when I started SHANGHAI KNIGHTS, I had about two weeks training."
Fann is a Singapore native known in that neck of the woods for her singing with four hit albums. Her debut film role was in the 1999 Hong Kong art cinema THE TRUTH ABOUT JANE & SAM, in which she played a delinquent teenager who finally makes good. It earned her a nomination as Best New Performer at the Hong Kong Film Awards. One of her earlier successes was starring in the 1997 period TV drama RETURN OF THE CONDOR HEROES followed by her Singapore Best Actress Award for the TV show CHRONICLES OF LIFE. Already in her thirties, Fann was born and raised in a middle-class Chinese family in Singapore. After graduating from the La Salle Academy of Fine Arts in Singapore, she hit the modelling circuit and was discovered in Taipei by a Singapore TV producer. A speaker of several dialects of Chinese, she says English is her first language so acting in English was easy. However the love scene with Owen was a different issue. She giggles, "I liked the licking scene but was really more worried about the kissing scene because I didn't know if we would have enough chemistry. I remember after a few shots I said, ?Hey you (Owen), you are very flexible.? But I had never worked with a Western guy before so I was concerned. But Owen is a nice, sweet guy and made it all easy. But of course when it came to fights, Jackie would nag, nag, nag. And he can be scary sometimes too, but I feel loved when I get things right and it means a lot to get satisfaction on Jackie's face when things go correctly."
And we will have smiles on our face when the SHANGHAI KNIGHTS DVD is eventually released. Dobkin fills us in on that one. "There weren't that many opportunities to have that many extended fight scenes. The wax museum was longer but we had to shorten it because it didn't service the film. The library fight is about four minutes longer and it's extraordinary. But it was in the second act and so it was really hurting the movie. It was too much. And this is sadly the editing process. Everybody takes a little piece out of every fight in Jackie Chan films so you end up having to compromise. However, the market chase has to be full length as well as the finale sword fight at the end of the film had to be full length. And for all you fans, yes, and again sadly, the Donnie Yen fight on the barge with Jackie had to be shortened, there's about a minute and a half gone. It really was amazing. The problem with that was you knew there was a whole other fight coming up. To the audience, it's a cumulative affect, so something had to be sacrificed. But...." Dobkin pauses for a while grins a grinning grin then continues, "All this and more will be on the DVD including the extended version of the library fight, museum fight and of course the Donnie Yen barge fight, which was actually the one fight we were dreading."
Seven barges for the sequence was indeed a staggering task. Two for picture, one for camera and grip equipment, two for the massive fireworks that would be set off during the fight, one for lighting, and another for the stunt rigging cranes. In addition, three loading platforms and two special effects boats were required, along with four transport boats to shuttle cast and crew. One of the barges also had to be prepared to mount a 130 foot crane. "When Jackie does a fight scene, he gets into the minds of the attackers, like a writer has to imagine all voices of all different characters, Jackie imagines the voice of each fighter. So it was great with Donnie, because Donnie could be that voice since he knows Jackie's choreography. It's why we wanted him. So it was like a Ali-Frazier bout, to see Donnie and Jackie go at it over an eight day period. I can't wait for the DVD."
But to all of Jackie's purist fans, it's the homage to Gene Kelly that takes the cake. In the history of musicals, no single scene is more fondly remembered than Gene Kelly's song-and-dance routine to the title song "Singin' in the Rain.""I originally wanted to get 'A Hard Days Night' in the market fight," Dobkin enthusiastically tells, "Jackie and the Beatles is a match made in heaven, but it didn't work. But the "Singin in the Rain" was something I came up with as I was watching Jackie playing on set with an umbrella and I know he loves Gene and the song. So I approached him on this and he said, 'I don't know, I can't really do that kind of dancing.' But I said to Jackie that we've got to do something. I mean here we are with the umbrella and the idea was to just try to improvise.
"So one day while we we're shooting other stuff, at dinner, he said, 'You know, maybe it can work if it looks organic. If for some reason they are like trying to stab my feet and doing the poses but not looking like I'm conscious of doing poses.' So when we got on set, I set up the cameras the way Gene Kelly did, three camera all wide shot, like you're in a studio and we did it. There were a couple of shots where we went too far and shortened it a little bit. So next was to think about how to make sure you get the joke but not go beyond it?
"The music. I'm watching on set thinking that I've got to use the music to make sure the audience knows that we know what we are doing but be careful not to kill it. So during editing and cutting in the music, I intentionally didn't use the melody of "Singin? in the Rain," but just the "do, do-do do" kind of thing. So you know it, and we don't have to completely go there."
Dobkin closes by noting that they were concerned about all the nostalgic humor inferences and some of Owen's cruel orphan lines, but test audiences loved them as well as the kids. As I?m writing this, it?s in its third week, the film has already grossed almost $50 million in America, already eclipsing SHANGHAI NOON. I can't wait for the DVD.
Written by Dr. Craig Reid for KUNGFUMAGAZINE.COM