The Director's Chair Interviews

The incomparable Jackie Chan talks about making First Strike, conquering the American public, and--gasp!--the possibility of faking his own stunts
by Ray Greene
Mr. ShowBiz - November 10, 1999

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NINETEEN-NINETY-SIX was a banner year for Jackie Chan. After more than a decade of fitful attempts to break into the American market, the Hong Kong action king finally notched a bona fide U.S. hit with Rumble in the Bronx, which grossed some $32 million during its North American run and was reportedly New Line Cinema's most profitable release of 1996. That's the kind of success Chan is used to in Asia, where his amazing popularity can be likened to that of a Chaplin or an Elvis Presley. He's the object of such overwhelming fan adulation that when rumors of his secret marriage circulated in the 1980s, two female fans committed suicide in separate incidents. (It was only last year that the forty-two-year-old Chan finally felt comfortable enough to let his Asian audience know that he had been happily married for years.)

His popularity in the East notwithstanding, Chan recognizes that his vogue in the U.S. has shallower roots, and he remains wary about his long-term possibilities for a sustained presence in the American market. That doubt may or may not be borne out by the relatively disappointing grosses ($16 million) notched up by the American release of Chan's 1992 hit Supercop last summer. The real test of Chan's American drawing power is ahead, beginning with his latest U.S. release: Jackie Chan's First Strike. The fourth installment in his Police Story series--known as C.I.A. Story in its Hong Kong incarnation--Jackie Chan's First Strike involves Chan with both the U.S. and Russian espionage communities in a desperate attempt to stop a purloined Soviet-era nuclear weapon from wreaking havoc.

Like Rumble in the Bronx, FirstStrike has an intentional American angle--a "rooting interest" for U.S. audiences, to use the parlance of movie marketing executives. Chan admits that such considerations now enter into his thinking when he mounts new projects--one unmistakable sign that, where America is concerned, he continues to hope for the best. The push for success in the States comes at a politically opportune time: Hong Kong is set to be assimilated by communist China in July, an event with unsettling implications for the island's once-thriving film industry. With other Hong Kong film luminaries including John Woo, Ringo Lam, Chow Yun-Fat, and Stanley Tong already relocating to America, it seems only prudent that Jackie Chan--the biggest and most lasting star Asia has yet produced--is keeping his options open as well.

Mr. Showbiz: You told me at the time Rumble in the Bronx opened that you didn't think that you were going to be able to find an American audience.

Jackie Chan: Yeah.

So, what happened?

Because, fifteen years ago [with 1980's The Big Brawl], I tried to get into the American market, doing the same thing, the same humor--I picked an American director, of course [Robert Clouse]--same fighting. They seemed to not accept it. So why suddenly can Rumble be released in America? I still doubted it, and I really scared box office not doing so good. Suddenly, big huge hit and I don't know. I still don't have the confidence how long this audience will continue to like this kind of movie, but seems I do have a big following. But how many people in America? There's almost two billion people, right?

No, 275 million.

I think, "How many people know me?" That's the question. Not like Asia. In Asia--wow. Almost everybody knows me.

But many more Americans know you now.

Yes. I still need more people to know me. And also, it depends how long they will keep following me. I know [in Asia] it's a big following. They're with me more than ten years now. And the newcomers: "Wow, Jackie Chan, new action star." I'm not new. I'm old. I'm antique now in our country. But I'm still worrying on it. Every movie I'm thinking more the American way now.

I was going to ask you about that in terms of when you were creating First Strike. Was that part of the thinking, that the plot line had to deal in some way with America?

Yes. Before, when we were doing Rumble in the Bronx, we never did think we could get into the American market. When we first tried, we still doubted. So this one we still have, like half-and-half. So, I've been helping American C.I.A. It's half-and-half. We do have a point for the American market.

Something they can identify with?

Yeah.

How did you feel about the commercial performance of Supercop, which was less successful in America than Rumble?

I don't know because American market for me is totally new. I don't know what is the good, what is the bad. Really. So, I am still learning American market. I believe because Supercop is like six or eight years ago, a lot of people watched it already. They know it already--not even one time--twice. So, for this kind of old movie to be released, they said it's fine.

Another thing you told me in our last conversation was that you would never consider faking any of your stunts, and that you were opposed to blue-screen work and so forth. Is that still your belief?

For myself, yes. If I'm doing things, I'm still doing real things. Some other way I really hope can work with American director, like work with very good special effects director like Steven Spielberg, James Cameron. They can use some special effect, blue background with my real stuff, not totally fake things. [This would] help my career go longer. Because, how long can you keep doing this kind of crazy things? Not very long. And also, I don't want to kill myself. And also, on the other hand, I would learn something from the blue screen. I'm a filmmaker. I want to learn everything. Besides, after I retire, if I just become a director, if I know some blue screen, I can help some other young action actor. "Don't learn by me--broke ankle, broke finger--no." Then I can use my real technology, my real action with the new technology together.

That's great. That's a big change from our last conversation. So, you're really starting to think in terms of . . .

Yeah, because all those years, I keep watching American movies. They're really something. Even the stunts. What movie did I see? Eraser. They go out of the window of the airplane. I know that's a blue screen, but okay, we find something simpler, not this kind of thing.

Right. So, you would try to find a way to make it look more authentic?

Yes. Everything and the blue screen. I still jump off the building. Then I can put the mat [superimposition] at the seventh floor, not at the first floor. Then I can wipe out. We still jump. We not use wire. We use the real things with the blue screen.

Now you could make it the hundredth floor if you wanted.

Yes.

I see. That's great. You talked about wanting to work with a good American director. Another thing that's changed since the last time we talked is that a lot of the directors you worked with in Hong Kong are now here. John Woo is here. Ringo Lam is here. Tsui Hark is here. Stanley Tong is here.

Yes.

If you were to make a film in the U.S., would you want to work with one of these directors who is familiar with you, familiar with your style, speaks your language?

No. Honest--no. Because I want to learn something new. So, this is why I want to find a new director. Stanley Tong and Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam--they are also very new in America. They need somebody to help them. I need somebody to help me. If we come together here in this new place, you don't know some of the people, it's difficult. And also, what they have, I know. So, I want to find something new. If [I was making a movie and they came] back to Hong Kong, yes. When he gets success, we get success, we know everybody, we know American market, then we join back together. I think that's the best way.

Further on down the line?

Yes.

I want to talk for a second about the imminent handoff of Hong Kong to China, and the consequences for the Hong Kong film industry. The consensus seems to be that it's not a very good time there, that people aren't going to the movies, that there's a talent drain and all the rest of it. What do you predict is going to become of the Hong Kong industry?

Right now the Hong Kong movie industry is going down very badly. We do produce a lot of bad movies, because everybody wants to make quick money and run away. After 1997, they're gone already. There is some other Hong Kong movies that are still very good business--me and some other few persons. I think it's not going to change. I think the Chinese government--they will support the movies. Even if we say something bad, they will still let us do it because China has to show to the world after the handoff from British government, they run it better than the British government. And they want to show Taiwan [they can be trusted].

So, it doesn't worry you, for example, that Zhang Yimou is having so much trouble, and that the Chinese filmmakers who were allowed to make critical films are suddenly being stifled on the mainland?

I think they won't change Hong Kong. They will stay.

There would be too much of a public outcry?

Yeah. Because if suddenly they change something, a lot of public will say, "Wow, why do you say, 'One country--two systems!' You have to keep your promise." I think China will keep the promise because too many people--their eyes are watching Hong Kong now.

If they didn't keep their promise, would you relocate?

If they didn't keep their promise, nothing would happen to me because I don't care. All those years even now, my movies play in China. My movies, you can tell, there is no politics, nothing change for me, no sex, no dirty jokes, no dirty violence.

That's true. Your films are very family-friendly. Along those lines, Jackie, I was wondering how your many female fans reacted to last year's sudden revelation that you were an old married man.

I don't know. They just want me. So, this give me a lot of big pressure. I remember long time ago, as soon as the suicide, then I went to Japan to see all the fans. I said, "Hey, Jackie is only one Jackie. Even if I don't get married, how can I marry all of you?" But I think now they still love me. Right now they love my movies, then my talent, they love me for what I have done for society, and in the movies. They really respect me because I like the movies. I put everything in the movies. And, right now, the young girls, they are grown up, they are getting married already. They have children. They let their children see my movies. They say, "Learn from Jackie." So, the old-time girl is grown up. The new girl coming up already know I had a girlfriend. I got married. So, different kind of love now, not like before, "Yes, Jackie, I want you. You are my man. How can some other girl touch you?" Now, it's totally different, different kind of love now.

And was that the reason that you hid it? I know about the suicide. That was a long time ago, and you hid the fact that you were married because you were worried that similar incidents would occur?

Yes, because there were two girls' suicides--one jumped in the subway, one jumped in front of my office. Then I found out that I am a public person. I have a responsibility to all my fans. No matter how you say it, they don't listen. They just do crazy things.

Your influence, I think, as a performer, is more and more visible in American films, and certainly it's always been apparent in the Hong Kong films. What are you doing to stay special? What's different about Jackie Chan now? You can look at Eraser and you can see your stunts, or True Lies, when he fell out the window, which is very much Jackie Chan-type filmmaking. What is it that makes you special now that your influence is so visible around the world?

Yes, I can see in some other American movies. They did learn from me. At least they steal my things to change some other special effect things. I'm very happy because I really learned a lot of things from American movies--Buster Keaton, silent movies. And later on, American action movies learned from me. I think that's the way to be--the whole world, like a circle--I learn from you, you learn from me. But, I still learn from American movies.

So, you're honored by it?

Yeah, because right now I learn from American movie--special effects, blue background. They are the best. They learn from me real stunts--the fghting scenes. Before you only see Americans fighting--boom, boom. Now, you can see Americans--bup-bup-bup-bup-bup-BOP! BOP! That makes me happy. At least people really respect me--what I'm doing right now.

But, you think you're special because you're still the real thing?

Uhhhhhh . . .

Would you allow me to say that ? I think you're special because you're still the real thing.

Okay.

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