[FILM] Ronny Yu and "Formula 51"
- Getting to Know Yu
Part One - Ronny Yu on Formula 51
Ronny Yu avoided the popular Hong Kong trend of breaking into
American films via Jean-Claude Van Damme. True, his U.S. debut,
Warriors of Virtue was arguably less successful than JCVD's straight
to video fare, but his follow-up, the brilliant satire Bride of
Chucky made up for it. Now, as he begins work on Freddy vs. Jason,
Yu granted an interview to discuss his latest film, Formula 51.
"I love to do interviews," Yu told me in his hotel room at The Four
Seasons in Beverly Hills. "It helps the film. It helps you
understand more about the film." That makes Yu another in the John
Woo tradition of friendly, accommodating Hong Kong filmmakers.
Yu obtained Formula 51 from the film's star, Samuel L. Jackson. A
longtime fan of Yu's, Jackson brought the script to his office
personally, along with a laserdisc of Bride with White Hair that he
wanted autographed. The collaboration was formed and the film now
speaks for itself. But let's let Yu speak for it instead.
What is something Americans don't know about the Hong Kong style of
working? The flexibility. In the middle of a shot, if it doesn't
work, in Hong Kong, everybody will try to make it work. The props
and every department try to make it work. In Hollywood, it's
difficult that way. They need a lot of prep time to prepare for a
shot. Everything has to be known or they understand beforehand, well
in advance. When it's time to do a shot, if some problem arises,
maybe we need to do something else or change a prop or something,
they would have a hard time adjusting to it. I think that is the
thing. Especially for a shot, a camera move or something. You have
to know exactly are you sure you want to put it there 10 days ago,
or a month ago. When you get on location and say, "Oh, that doesn't
look well now." Maybe something changed and you want to put a camera
on the other side. Everybody's like, "Oh my God, you're going to do
that now?" I think the flexibility is what Jackie Chan was saying.
It seems like his hands are tied. In Hong Kong, you have to be more
flexible in your thinking, even in your operation.
Do you talk to a lot of the other Hong Kong artists who have made
the transition to American films? No, I don't have that opportunity.
The closest is John Woo because he's also living in Los Angeles and
I spend a lot of time in Los Angeles. So, he's a guy I sort of talk
What experiences have you shared? The same thing. It's just the
system. It's so different from Hong Kong. You cannot have that much
flexibility here, but that is the nature of the system. Either you
go with it, or you just don't go with it, so you just have to learn.
Why was it important to you to get into the American system? Well,
what's the saying, when in Rome? If you want to make American
movies, you can't really come in and try to change everything. The
system, the machine has been working for so many years, for so long,
you cannot just come in and say, "Okay, I'm a director and I want to
do it differently." Then you're on your own. Nobody can support you
that way because you're so different.
What are the advantages of working in America?The whole reason, the
dream of making a Hollywood movie for me is because of the market.
It's such a big market. Everywhere in the world, you point your
finger, you open a world map, point your finger, it has a chance to
show your film. If you make Hong Kong movies, you can only point
your finger to a Chinatown or Asian territory.
Have any of your American films been as close to you as your Hong
Kong work? I think this one. I think because it has a lot of sense
of humor and then it deals with losers. Also, because we have great
acting. Just like when I was working with Chow Yun-Fat [on Postman
Fights Back], he's a great actor and we had such a good time.
In Formula 51 were you careful not to glorify drug dealers? Oh, yes.
I think it's more for me, it's more like an anti-drug movie than
After Sam brought the project to you, did he then become just the
actor? Oh yeah, but he's sort of like wearing two hats. It depends
on the situation called for. But in front of the camera, he's
totally an actor. Behind the camera, he really supported me in
dealing with the rest of the producers on creative issues or
arguments or something. He really supported me.
Did you look for his Pulp Fiction bravado in this character?
Actually, I just told him, "Sam, just do your thing. You understand
the character same as I do, so just do it."
How did you cast Meatloaf as the villain, Lizard? It so happened
that three weeks into production, we still didn't have the character
Lizard. Me and my producer were walking down Soho and we came by a
record shop that still sells those old records. A Meatloaf poster is
right there. He's such a larger than life character, so we look at
each other and say, "Oh, that's Lizard." That's how the whole thing
started. Then we went to tell Sam and Sam's like, "Wow, fantastic
idea." As soon as Sam was on board, everybody, like Robert, Meatloaf
and everybody just said, "Okay, yeah, let's do it." Even though for
little money, because they know it's going to be this spectacle,
Why have you been drawn to slasher franchises? That's interesting. I
think it's funny that the movie I made, Bride with White Hair,
received a lot of attention in the western world. I didn't intend to
make it like a horror movie or a slasher movie, but somehow, in the
west, people look at it as a horror or slasher movie, and then they
send me scripts all the time, slasher movies, assuming I'm a slasher
movie director. But I'm not.
Who are you rooting for in Freddy vs. Jason? Hmm, difficult question
to answer. I'm rooting for the human actor, really, because at the
end of the day, it's the human actor that becomes the hero.
Will there be any Hong Kong style in their fight? The action will be
fast, pacing will be fast but it depends what you mean by Hong Kong
style action. Like Crouching Tiger, no. Definitely not because I
think the audience would be disappointed. You have two guys like
flying everywhere? No, no, no. But some very dynamic action, yes.
Is wirework overexposed now?I think wirework is only good if you try
and enhance the story, telling a story. If you just abuse it, any
time you use wirework, then I think it's boring. If the situation
tries to tell the story, for example - - you cannot have Freddy and
Jason fight like Crouching Tiger. It's just unbelievable. It takes
you away from the story. I think that's bad. Even Matrix works
because Matrix is dealing with a fantasy, with a sci-fi movie. Same
with my movie. The Bride with White Hair is a surreal fantasy movie,
so that's why the wirework enhances it rather than took over.
What would be your dream project? I just want to have a chance to
work with great actors, great American actors. That's all.
Is Robert Englund a great American actor?Robert Englund is a great
actor as Freddy. He's great. He knows every single thing about
Freddy and that's also one of the reasons I took on that, because I
know that Englund is going to do Freddy again. Everybody thinks it's
easy but no. It's a very difficult role to play, Freddy, and I think
Englund knows it well.
Did you ever want to talk to Wes Craven of Sean Cunningham?
Actually, Sean is a producer. He's still on and we got a chance to
talk, and through Englund, I know something about Wes, his thinking
and how he started the franchise.
What did you learn?I think that seeing less is better. That's what
Wes was telling Englund all the time. Seeing less is better, more
How do you find humor in macabre situations? I think this is a very
personal thing because I have polio, so I didn't get to have a lot
of friends to play with, because I was a burden to them. I could not
run and all those things. But rather than look at it as so sad, like
feeling sad for yourself, I try to find some fun out of it. I try to
find some fun out of a difficult situation. It's sort of like
therapy, to get over from day to day to day. So, I think that's what
kept me going for so long.
What humor do you derive from polio? Don't take things so seriously.
Always look at the bright side. There's always something fun out
there in a difficult situation.
How did you overcome physical obstacles about directing? Find a good
assistant director that does all the running and climbing for you,
and also a good cameraman that will climb up there and look at an
angle and tell me. Find the best people around you to do some of the
physical work for you.
Are you signed for more Chucky? No, just one. And I don't think I'm
going to do another Freddy either.
Anything lined up after Freddy vs. Jason? No. I actually have a
script, an Australian movie. It takes place in the turn of the
century. It's a mate ship with two men, one Chinese and one
Australian. It's about pearl diving in the northern territory in the
turn of the century in Australia. So, we're on the eighth draft, so
What's a mate ship? It's Australian, like, "Hey, mate!" They always
talk about mate ships. It's about friendship, male bonding. They
call them mate ships.
What are your memories of Brandon Lee? It was tough. It was very
tough because at that time, it was his first Hong Kong movie and he
was not familiar with the culture, because he was totally American.
When he came to Hong Kong and he had to work with the Hong Kong crew
and all that, they're totally different cultures and working styles.
So it took him a lot of time and effort to try to adapt to it. So,
it was difficult for everybody at the time. Also, the most difficult
part was he didn't want to do an action movie. He wanted to do a
drama movie and that's why every time when I designed an action
thing for him to do, he would feel very painful in a way. He was
asking me, "Ronny, do you really want to do it?" I said, "Listen,
you're the son of Bruce Lee. I hate to say it, but you have no
choice. You carry that thing on your head. Even though you don't
like doing action films, people expect that. Audiences expect it."
So, it was very difficult for him to accept that. But later on he
got over that hurdle.
Besides Bride with White Hair, what older films would you like
people to notice? There's a movie called The Postman Strikes Back
with Chow Yun-Fat. That one is interesting. Also, I made a horror
movie called The Trail which is almost like Seven Samurai but in a
more horror and comedy way. Also, I did a movie with Chow Yun-Fat
called The Tenant. Oh, now I'm thinking, yeah, because I've done so
many horror movies, that's why people think that. Also, horror with
a sense of humor. Probably when people look at my body of movies,
they say, "Oh, this guy can do horror."
What are your favorite movies to watch? The Godfather. And also Once
Upon a Time in America, the Sergio Leone movie, because that's the
movie that has so much friendship, loyalty and betrayal. Same as
Godfather. I always love those, and Lawrence of Arabia, Seven
Samurai, High and Low. All the Kurosawa movies. In the beginning,
when I was younger when I'd look at it, I'd just go for the action.
Now as I grow older, I can see more into the moral message about
society. That's why I love to revisit all these movies time and
again, The Godfather, Seven Samurai, High and Low and Yojimbo, Red
Beard, all that.
How did you start out making movies? Well, when I was still in
school in America, in Ohio, I went to Hong Kong on summer holiday,
and I hung out with a police superintendent. We became good friends
and every summer when I'd go back to Hong Kong for a holiday, we
would hang out and talk. Both of us loved movies. One summer, we
just sat down and wrote a story. He wanted to quit the force and be
an actor. So, we came up with a story, like a buddy movie, Lethal
Weapon type of story about two cops, one corrupt and one straight.
So, we had a story but not a total script because we didn't know how
to write a script. By chance, we met a friend of mine who was in the
garment business making jeans, so he had tons of money to spare. He
gave us $90,000 and said, "Why don't you guys make your movie?" So,
we were glad to have the money and a story so we went around town
looking for directors. Nobody wanted to do it because they
thought, "It's just a story, not even a script." And it's boring,
cops and robbers, so nobody wanted to do it. At the end, I ended up
directing it because nobody wanted to do it. My friend, the cop, now
he's an ex-cop, became the leading man only because we're doing it,
so it's a big opportunity to be a leading man. Otherwise, nobody
would hire him. So, with $90,000 we made that movie and that movie
became a summer hit. That's how it started.
Are you an American citizen? No, I'm always Hong Kong. Now I'm
Australia because my family, my father retired in the '70s. Because
my father loved the climate in Australia, they moved over there.
While I finished school in Ohio, I went back to Hong Kong and
started my movie career. After my father passed away, my mom
said, "You better come back to join us in Australia," so now I've
become an Australia citizen.
What did you study? Marketing.
Do you still put that knowledge to use? Oh yeah. You know, that's
why I'm very conscious about how to market a movie and what does the