My interview with Donnie Yen

Ask a dozen HIGHLANDER fans what they thought the most kick-ass part of HIGHLANDER: ENDGAME was, and odds are they’ll all mention the fight between Adrian Paul as Duncan MacLeod and Donnie Yen as Jin Ke.

Running up and along a wall with scissors is dangerous enough, but Duncan MacLeod does it with a katana in hand as he fights his way through a band of Immortal bad guys in what’s left of his kinsman Connor’s New York loft. When Duncan’s wildly costumed and heavily armed opponents see that they can’t keep up with the Highlander’s speed, agility, and power, they realize it’s time to take it up a notch.

“Let my man Jin Ke deal with him,” snaps the one called Winston.

And there he stands with an introspective look in his eyes, a contemplative hand on his chin, and a wicked-looking bladed staff stabbed into the ground beside him. Duncan addresses him cautiously. “Jin Ke… who served with the Emperor Chin.”

The man’s reputation obviously precedes him.

“The same man,” Jin replies, still contemplating MacLeod.

“Some say you’re a man of honor,” Duncan says, wondering why a man like Jin Ke is running with this group of losers.

“What do you know about honor?” And in a flurry of hands and feet, Jin kicks his weapon into his hands and moves at MacLeod with speed that would make a cheetah feel inadequate.

“Great,” says the weary Highlander, and charges. They lock weapons, each man as fast as the other. Duncan leaps, spins, and swipes at Jin’s head in a strategic bid to end it quickly, but Jin ducks low, matching everything that MacLeod throws at him in a dazzling display of skill from both men.

Finally their weapons lock; Jin vaults himself around on his staff, kicking his legs, but Duncan ducks under his furious feet and cuts the staff out from under him. Like a cat, Jin lands on his feet, setting himself into a stance that would make Bruce Lee nervous.

“Honor is not in the weapon,” Jin says. “It’s in the man.”

Duncan MacLeod, also a man of honor, wordlessly rolls his sword in his hand, stabs it into the floor, and engages Jin in a beautifully deadly ballet of martial arts mania that’s unlike anything ever seen in HIGHLANDER. When the fight is interrupted, Jin and MacLeod share a nod of acknowledgement and respect that adds yet another dimension to this exciting character.

Jin Ke is an effective character because the actor who plays him, Donnie Yen, has a screen presence so smoldering that it’s impossible to take your eyes off of him. It’s in his eyes. It’s in his voice. He commands the camera’s attention, and the audience has no choice but to be swept into his performance. But Yen is far more than just an actor. He’s a filmmaker in his own right who’s directed and choreographed some of the hottest action to come out of Hong Kong over the last two decades. I recently caught up to Donnie on the set of his current TV series, CODENAME: PUMA, in Germany.

When I first spoke to him to set up a time for this interview, Donnie’s first concern was with time zones. He didn’t want to do it at a time that would require me to call in what would be the middle of the night on my side of the Atlantic. “We must consider what would be the best time for you,” he said.

Donnie Yen. Asking me what would be most convenient for me. What a guy. We decided on 2 p.m. my time, 8 p.m. his time. When I called, Donnie was busy in the editing room. He’s doing director and fight-choreographer duties on PUMA.

We kick off the conversation by talking about martial arts. While many young martial artists cite legends like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan as their idols, Donnie found his inspiration closer to home.

“My mom teaches martial arts,” says Donnie, who grew up in Boston. “My mom is actually one of the top female martial arts instructors in the country. Since I was a child, I was brought up in a martial arts family. I traveled all around the world to study various styles of martial arts.”

One of those teachers was Yuen Wo-ping, who choreographed the mind-blowing and physics-bending action in THE MATRIX.

“I started my film career very, very early,” Donnie explains. “In Hong Kong, my mentor-the person who brought me into the film circle-was Yuen Wo-ping. I started working with him way back when I was 19. He was looking for the next Jackie Chan. Actually, he’s the man who launched Jackie Chan’s career with the films SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and DRUNKEN MASTER, which put Jackie on his way to becoming a superstar. Yuen Wo-ping was obviously one of the key players in terms of being a director of martial arts films in Hong Kong. He wanted to launch my career. I started working with him, doing features. I started building a lot of followers in Hong Kong, and I’ve never stopped working. I’ve made about 31 features, and I started doing a lot of action choreography for him for all of his films, so I sort of became his number one man.”

Later work found Donnie doing double duty in front of and behind the camera, simultaneously performing actor and director duties on martial arts features and television series. Six years ago, he started his own production company, and the quality of his work caught the attention of Miramax.

“As a matter of fact, I was in the middle of another production when Miramax called me,” Donnie says. “They were looking for the next action icon. They wanted to have their own action icon. They were very impressed with my work.”

Miramax main man Harvey Weinstein had seen Yen’s film IRON MONKEY and liked what he saw. “Iron Monkey is one of the most influential martial arts films of the decade,” Donnie explains. “Miramax wanted to put me in a film, but they didn’t really have a film appropriate for me at the time, except for HIGHLANDER. It was an action flick. So they talked to me about putting me in the film, but there was no specific role for me. They were so enthusiastic about wanting me to be in the film that they had the scriptwriter call me up. We collaborated and made up the character, which eventually became Jin Ke. I’d just finished watching a movie called THE EMPEROR AND THE ASSASSIN, and I had an idea about a character that would fit into the world of Immortals.”

Donnie based Jin Ke on his favorite character from that film. He also collaborated on the set with director Doug Aarniokoski to further develop Jin. But even given the important role he played in creating his character, Donnie wasn’t sure what to expect from the world of HIGHLANDER.

“I had no expectations whatsoever,” Donnie says. “Miramax just sent me to Romania, where I met up with the crew and Adrian Paul and Doug. I’d only seen the first two HIGHLANDER movies. So I went there with an open mind. The weather was very cold.”

Miramax wanted Donnie to be the film’s martial arts choreographer. Swordmaster duties were already being handled by F. Braun McAsh; Adrian Paul’s own martial arts arranger, Vernon Rieta, was not only working on martial arts with Adrian but also starring in the film as one of Jacob Kell’s henchmen. “It was a mixture of collaborations,” Donnie says.

It was a mixture that certainly paid off. The Duncan MacLeod/Jin Ke fight is a masterpiece of motion that combines weapons, hands, and feet. “On HIGHLANDER, I just kind of walked in and collaborated with Adrian and worked with him and his martial arts style and tried to work out mutual ways to bring the best choreography to the film.”

Given their mutual levels of skill and dedication, it’s not surprising that the fight was packed with so much kick-assitude.

“Adrian Paul is a very nice guy and a dedicated, hard worker,” Donnie says of the Highlander himself.

Donnie also designed Jin Ke’s awesome entrance in the film’s Sanctuary scene, in which the helmeted Immortal drives out of the fog on a motorcycle toward shotgun-wielding Watchers. When shotgun blasts blow big holes in his motorcycle, Donnie stands on the still-moving bike and spins in the air as it explodes, sending a belching ball of fire into the air behind him. He lands two devastating kicks on his opponents before his feet even hit the ground.

What follows is a flurry of martial arts action that includes one of the film’s most exciting visuals: Jin Ke rips off his helmet, tosses it high into the air, leaps, and kicks it at an approaching gunman. When two more armed Watchers approach him, he spreads his arms out to his sides with beautiful grace and cool defiance. He’s the only one the confrontation ends well for.

Donnie talks about what Doug’s enthusiasm added to the scene.

“He’s young, he’s open, and he’s willing to do anything,” Donnie says of Aarniokoski. “In the last couple of years, Hong Kong filmmakers have kind of taken Hollywood by storm. It started with John Woo, and now many are crossing over, like Jackie Chan and Jet Li, and Yuen Wo-ping with THE MATRIX. Doug was quite curious about what I could come up with. He was very cool. He had a lot of respect for Hong Kong films. I asked Doug, ‘You want me to kick some ass, right?’ He said, ‘Yeah! What are you going to do?’ Again, this is the kind of stuff we do in Hong Kong. I wanted to develop the idea but at the same time be confident that it would work. It worked.”

Damn right.

Donnie explains how designing the look and choreography of his entrance is representative of how Hong Kong films happen. “First of all, American martial arts films are totally different from Hong Kong martial arts films,” Donnie says. “The whole dynamic of Hong Kong itself-because we work at such a fast pace-is because we come from a different background. I’ve worked in Hong Kong for 17 years, and in the beginning I don’t think that I was used to a slower pace. In Hong Kong, for example, I normally walk onto the set with a crew of people overlooking the martial arts and action scenes required. Then I choreograph the stuff with my own stuntmen and finally I edit my own stuff. That is the true flavor of the end product.”

I ask Donnie if he did all of his own stunts in the Sanctuary scene. He did. Even that move where he stands on the moving motorcycle?

“Yeah, I did that,” he says, like it’s an everyday thing. “John, did you walk down to the mailbox today and mail that letter?” And I’d say, “Yeah, I did that.” That’s how he said it.

We talk a little more about the stunts. I ask him how he prepares for a scene like that. “In Hong Kong, first of all we drink a lot of whiskey!” he laughs. “We have a lot of balls and a lot of guts!”

American films slow down the pacing of their stunts. “They were quite safe,” Donnie explains. “In Hollywood, every department is so professional.”

In addition to his lightning-fast hands and feet, Donnie wields a deadly staff with blades on each end in ENDGAME. “They just gave me that weapon, so I took the weapon and started swinging it around.” Donnie explains that in Hong Kong films, specific weapons are usually not designed for specific characters. Weapons often come in the form of chairs or whatever else happens to be nearby when the fight breaks out.

“We are trained to improvise on the set,” Donnie says of Hong Kong movie-making. “We don’t have any kind of specific planning or preparation, unlike a lot of American productions, which is very fortunate for the American productions, I feel, because in Hong Kong, we never have that type of luxury.”

Just as awesome as Donnie’s scenes that are in the film are those that aren’t. Some of the most important and powerful Jin Ke moments ended up on the cutting room floor, casualties of the film’s under-90-minute running time.

Another of Donnie’s ideas was not pursued. Donnie, like many HIGHLANDER fans, felt that Jin Ke should have taken a stand against Kell. “Men, for the most part, can mend their ways only after they have made a mistake,” Jin says to Faith (Lisa Barbuscia). Donnie talks about his ideas for a confrontation between Jin and his master.

“I felt personally that there should be a fight between Jin and Kell,” Donnie says quite firmly. “I believe so. Given the character buildup in the first two scenes, I think the audience would have liked to see me try to assassinate Kell. But they couldn’t change it. I said, ‘I understand. I appreciate it.’ It is a HIGHLANDER movie. I’m a guest. The host is so warm, asking you to make yourself at home, and you really can’t make it into your own home, you know?”
Donnie turned his idea into something that did make it into filming but was edited out of the final cut.

“I came up with an idea that perhaps would save the character. I came up with the idea that Jin would plan to assassinate Kell.” In a scene that was cut from the theatrical release of the film, Jin expresses to Faith (Lisa Barbuscia) his intent to kill Kell.

“There was a certain buildup and a subplot with her character,” Donnie explains. It culminated in what should have been Jin’s true death scene. Unfortunately, the scene was trimmed from the theatrical release. In the theatrical cut, Jin leaps on the table and points his sword at Kell. Jin shakes his head, Kell makes a cutting motion, and that’s it. That may be how it was edited, but it’s not how it was filmed.

“During the dinner scene, I look straight into Kell’s eyes and realize I can’t beat him,” Donnie explains. “He wants to take my power, but I will not give him the pleasure of killing me. I stab my sword into the wall and behead myself. I thought that was a pretty interesting idea and we shot it that way, but unfortunately it was cut. I was disappointed, and a lot of HIGHLANDER fans, a lot of my fans, and a lot of hardcore martial arts fans were really disappointed.”

I tell him that Doug Aarniokoski talked about a DVD director’s cut in my recent interview with him, and that I hope his scenes are restored in the DVD.

“I hope so, too.” Donnie says. He speaks highly of the HIGHLANDER fans who’ve shown him their support. “They follow the histories, the concepts, and the stories.”

Indeed, HIGHLANDER fans are thrilled with Donnie’s work in ENDGAME. So is Miramax. “Miramax is very happy with what they saw, and they want to pursue my career in the states,” Donnie says. The studio has purchased the rights to his Hong Kong films. The future is even brighter. ENDGAME was the first film in a new three-picture deal Donnie has with the studio. Currently in the planning stages is a role opposite Freddie Prinze, Jr., in “an exciting and energetic film” that’s heavy on martial arts action.

Donnie’s career has been a path not just of success but also one of growth. The acting and martial arts skills so formidably on display in ENDGAME are just one facet of the man’s talent. Actor? Director? Choreographer?

“The same man.”

Finally, I ask him for the Donnie Yen Philosophy of Life.

“I have to say passion,” Donnie says, not surprisingly passionately. “I have to say a passion for life, and everything in life. I think that without passion, it’s not worth living. I’m talking about everything under the sun. When you wake up in the morning, until you sleep at night, as time goes by I think you should try to take a moment to appreciate all things. You should have passion for your work, your family. Let me just use an example: You and I should have passion having this conversation, because I believe that everything is meant to be for a reason-that life is short-and you’ve got to really live fully to take advantage of it.”

Talking to Donnie was a pleasure. He is a polite, respectful, and thoughtful man who speaks enthusiastically about the amazing work he’s done throughout his career.  For a splendidly detailed account of his life, career, and philosophies, check out his awesome official site.