TIFF 2013: Keanu Reeves on Man of Tai Chi
by Fred Topel
Directing his first action movie, playing with the fourth wall and the future of Rufus in Bill & Ted 3.
Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut Man of Tai Chi premiered for North America at the Toronto International Film Festival, but you will get to see it on VOD later this month and theaters in November. While in Toronto, we got to speak with Reeves. Man of Tai Chi introduces the world to Tiger Chen, a fighter Reeves worked with on The Matrix Reloaded. Reeves himself plays Donaka Mark, the mogul of an underground fighting tournament who recruits Chen. We also got some excellent news about the new Bill and Ted sequel.
CraveOnline: When was it while working with Tiger that you decided he needs his own movie?
Keanu Reeves: Probably when we were doing the second Matrix. He had a small role in that and he was doing a piece there. He was talking even then, this is like 2001/2002, about doing some acting. Then he had a small role in Laurence Fishburne’s film. Just as a backstory, he worked with Yuen Woo-ping on the action team there for The Matrix so I met Tiger during training. Then through the course of the film, you spend so much time together, you talk about your lives, we became friends and seeing what he was doing and wanted to do, we started to talk about doing something.
Then over the course of time as we were developing the story, we eventually came to a place where that movie that was playing in my head while we were talking about the story became a story I wanted to tell as a director. To answer your question, way back in the day. He’s got a wonderful presence and obviously on the action side of it, he’s a very highly regarded stuntman. I thought he has that thing, that charisma, I’m kind of interested in what he’s thinking.
He does, he’s magnetic.
Yeah, he’s easy to go along with. You kind of follow him. I got lucky as a director. I had a really wonderful leading man.
Did you learn how to shoot fight scenes from doing the Matrix movies?
Certainly a part of it. We did some of the profile shots but this is a little different than that. Certainly for me, that’s my experience. That’s the only experience I’ve had with Kung Fu fights is the Matrix series so it was definitely a part of it.
You’re good, but you’re a movie fighter. How did you make it look like in the climax, you could really be tougher than Tiger?
Because he tries everything he can, but he can’t beat me. He can’t beat the dark force. I mean, symbolically, metaphorically in the movie, he throws everything at the dark force, all of his intention, even his Tai Chi but that’s not the answer. To make that convincing, I don’t know. I’m pretty good at movie Kung Fu.
It’s a very classic theme of Kung Fu movies that the battle is as much within himself as it is against Donaka. I mean this as a compliment, I think you achieved what Bruce Lee imagined for Game of Death with the tower of martial artists.
Right, different styles, yeah.
Did you think about Bruce Lee’s ideas and classic Kung Fu structure in adapting it to a modern day story?
I’d say yes to that but I wouldn’t go to the specifically Bruce Lee perspective of it. Certainly the work that I’ve seen him do in it, and I’ve read a couple of interviews with him, seen a few interviews so definitely that’s part of my experience, but when I was working on the storytelling part of the movie, I didn’t have that “how would Bruce do it moment?”
I know, it’s as loaded a question as it is complimentary.
Yeah, but certainly I’ve seen a few Kung Fu films in my day. I’m certainly not an aficionado but in preparing for the film was looking at editing styles and where are they putting the camera and all of those kinds of things. That was a part of the work to go into how we were going to shoot.
In coming up with the script and working on it with your screenwriter, what was your idea for keeping the dialogue minimal?
I don’t know if I set out with an ambition to do that. I guess it became those were the words that we needed for the story we were telling. It’s not Woody Allen. But there is a minimalistic aspect to it. I would just say that. Those were the words that we needed to tell the story.
And the shot where you just scream directly into camera.
What was your idea with that?
Well, I’m playing a lot with the fourth wall so that’s one of the moments where for me, the dark character starts to let us into the transition of the idea of Donaka as a Mephistophelean dark, devilish kind of entity. His mask gets pulled away for a moment as he’s watching Tiger’s state where it’s quite a high point of Tiger’s descent where he’s lost compassion for another person, where Donaka is quite excited by that idea. His darkness has a demonic element to it. I hope you enjoyed it.
CraveOnline: I loved it and I might have referred to it as Keanuisms. I think most movies shy away from that sort of visceral attitude, and it plays in with the minimal dialogue. Do you feel a lot of movies shy away from a visceral approach?
Keanu Reeves: You know, for me making this film I felt like I didn’t have any rules. I wanted to not, and so there are a couple of things that happened. Even on Tiger’s introduction, it’s really close to looking into camera. There’s a lot of playing with, and I hope the audience becomes kind of complicit in terms of the reality TV show aspect of the film, but also that it’s a communication for the fable aspect of the movie.
There’s also a moment where Tiger hits the camera. He’s walking out from the director who’s turned down his petition for the heritage petition to save his temple. He hits the camera, but it gets absorbed in the moment of that shot. He’s walking out and the music’s coming up an it’s before he says, “Get me a fight” and he hits the camera.
I don’t remember specifically that shot, but I’m on day six of the festival and I saw the film before I got here.
That’s okay, man. That’s fine.
But when it’s on VOD I will be re-watching it many times.
Oh, thank you, but what I mean for that is that was part of that visceral kind of moment where we’re watching but he hits the camera. Yet there’s no commentary on that. That was just one of the rules I felt I could break, for a reason, for storytelling.
And the temple is a great aspect where fighting won’t save the temple. He has to learn that fighting can hurt the temple. It’s not the solution to everything.
Yes, it’s Tai Chi! I was hoping to use, for me, themes of it. The idea of when you’re winning you could be losing, the idea of the yin and the yang, the light and the dark, the idea of taking energy or pushing energy. So Tiger’s winning these fights but he’s losing his soul. He’s getting money to save the temple and he sees his improvement but ultimately this also costs him the temple, so I’m glad that that stayed with you.
It resonated very well. Does the name Donaka have a specific meaning?
We made it up as a name so I didn’t take it from anywhere. It has a Japanese aspect to it. If you see Donaka’s set, there’s a cave-y aspect to it, the stone. His office has a stone [material]. I wanted him to be a darkly, earth element.
You directed a Kung Fu movie as your first film. What kind of movie would you like to direct next?
You know, for me it’s what story would you tell next? That’s how I came to it in the first place. I was thinking about directing but I was like, “What’s the story?” So I’m looking for a story. I want to do it again though. I really enjoyed it.
Was it easier to get your directorial debut made since it’s a Kung Fu movie starring Keanu Reeves?
Probably, yeah. I think so. I know that people were excited by that idea which was great. I was very fortunate and happy to have had the opportunity to tell the story and I hope other people get something positive out of it.
As much as I’m a Kung Fu fan, I also grew up a Bill and Ted fan and I’m very excited you and Alex are working on another one. I know the script is still in the works, not looking for spoilers, but do you have to explain and undo how Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey ended? We saw a montage of them making it and fulfilling the prophecy.
Yes, we do and we did, but did they? That’s all I’ll say.
Right, so you didn’t go into it thinking you could ignore that.
No, there’s logic [Laughs] to the approach.
Is there a new Rufus character?
That’s the question, how do you do that? Obviously with respect and appreciation. There is a Rufus character and there have been different incarnations so we’re figuring that out.
But not someone else playing George Carlin’s character.
No. No, no, no, no, no. It’s not like the Vacation movies where the kids change or the wives in Bill and Ted.
Is 47 Ronin a martial arts movie also?
There’s some swordplay. I get to do some swordplay.
Was that a different aspect of learning martial arts choreography?
A little bit, a little bit because you have a big sharp, pointy object in your hand that you have to be responsible.