THE DRAGON'S ALLY: An Interview With Alexandre Bailly
Well, this was a pretty wicked trip back in time. It was certainly a regular pit stop for my nightly enjoyment of independent action group, Z-Team in my regular bingeing of action shorts everynight as the online action community continued to bloom, and indeed, The Z-Team were pretty big for me, right next to Zero Gravity and The Stunt People.
I was always fascinated by their quality of work in terms of action and storytelling, and I was certainly happy to see the likes of French actor and martial artist Alexandre Bailly among them. His participation in the 2007/2008 shortfilm, Brothers Forever, helped continue to signal a calling for the mainstream to pay attention and watch, much like other teams at the time - something that inspired me to start a freehostia.com account to get my own news site going and help discuss martial arts and action movies on a larger scale.
Unfortunately, as many of you might know from my story, my computer died in 2008 which impeded me from growing my blog further. Not to mention it essentially servered any and all communication or connectivity to the indie film community - a connection I honestly didn't think I would ever establish again since my departure as a netizen was so abrupt. However, who woud have guessed I would end up here doing the same thing and sustaining myself?
I didn't, but I'm glad I did, as it allowed me a chance talk and mingle with some great people who put out terrific work every year. And that goes for Bailly who I would have never recognized with his newly bleached blonde hair as per his latest role in Cui Lei's newest Chinese action thriller production, The Ultimate Hero which opened in the mainland last week with actor and martial artist Dragon Chen starring and co-helming.
The following was a treat to enjoy in our email conversation, and I have to say, I respect Bailly's candor greatly, and I thank him humbly for sharing his story, his memories thusfar in film, his opinions and wisdom here in our latest interview.
Alexander Bailly: This year has been very good with the release of Marco Polo: Season Two and the upcoming release of Ultimate Hero. I wrapped a movie called Mission 911 where I play the lead bad guy and also I co-choreographed - It looks very promising and the fights are pretty unique for the Chinese market since we used CQC, Catch Wrestling/Grappling and Keysi.
I worked on a film titled Reborn with action director and stunt professional Nick Powell; I only did stuntwork here but it was nice to work with Nick and study the way he operates, and particularly since Chinese and U.S. productions are very different in their approach. I also did a movie called On The Ropes with Reel Deal team in Canada They are really the top guys when it comes to Hong Kong-style choreography, and the fact that we are all good friends made shooting it a lot of fun. And finally, I might co-choreograph a North American-Chinese production but the deal is not signed yet, so wait and see.
AB: It's a pleasure for me to be here and answer your questions.
I started martial arts around four years old with Judo and then some Shotokan Karate. My father and grandfather used to be in the military, and so it was kind of expected of me to practice martial arts whether I wanted it or not. In the mid eighties, Jackie Chan and manga and anime were already big in France (especially Dragon Ball, Saint Seiya and Fist Of The North Star) so they kind of gave me interest in practicing and taking martial arts more seriously.
I tried a lot of different martial arts styles, and as a teenager I became very interested in CQC and Pancrace (the Japanese pre-Pride MMA), so I started to train in grappling. At that point, I found myself wanting to either be working in the movie business (I have a literature and scriptwriting diploma) or be an MMA fighter.
|Chen and Bailly in KUNG FU FIGHTER (2013)|
When I was around twenty-one years old, I moved to China to train full time, and mainly because Tokyo was too expensive for me at the time. Sometimes, I would go to Tokyo to train for a few months in Shooto/Catch Wrestling and then go back to China. I won a televised MMA competion in China and I also met with the Z-Team at the time. So I kind of started doing both of the things I wanted to do for a living.
A while after, I received an offer from a Japanese MMA promoter to go pro, but the offer wasn't very good and I felt that MMA wasn't really fulfilling creatively for me. So I decided to go full time into writing/acting/stunts.
AB: Overall, it was a good experience even though the fight part was a bit tricky since Yannick had a pretty bad back injury. I don't think that anyone ever noticed, so it means that Yannick was pretty good in the short and I'm happy with the end result. Moreover, I think that for a low budget, the production values are pretty good, and I think Lohan Buson is amazing at making a quality project no matter the budget.
After the project was done, however, it was also clear that we (the Z-Team and I) had a vastly different style both in martial arts and in movie making skills. So it came very naturally that Paul Clark (from Dragon Blade and Kung Fu Yoga) and I left the team. The Z-Team are excellent WuShu artists and terrific fight choreographers, so they will obviously put emphasis on these two aspects in their movies, whereas Paul and I are more interested in the narratives and will pick a fighting style that would reflect or enhance the narratives. One example is Pikey Paul, the short we worked on which won the Best Short Movie Award at the AOFF in 2014. You will clearly see that acting and storytelling are put first. The fights emulate more from that of John Carpenter's They Live compared to that of a normal martial art film because it was what fit with the characters and story.
Around the same time, the Z-Team produced a pilot for a web series called "Drained World" and the action was amazing. I think both products are very good even as they both target their own respective audiences.
AB: Every movie is a different beast, but I would say that if you are working on a movie with a good story or interesting characters, try to enhance those aspect with your choreography. A good story will always touch more people than a good action scene, although sometimes you get a bad or not very interesting script, in which case it's best to just go for broke with some crazy action and stuntwork that will make the movie memorable.
Another thing to add: What I always dislike in some action movies is when they attempt to put some locks in the fight and that they either do it improperly or pick the wrong move depending on the character background.
FCSyndicate: Drawing from this philosophy - and I know this sort of question is hard because there could be so many - if you had to pick just a few classic or contemporary albeit memorable fight scenes that stand out to you the most, which ones would they be? And tell us why.
AB: Okay, let's pick an old(ish) movie and a recent one:
The Blade (1995) from Tsui Hark. It has a very unique type of fight choreography, especially considering that it's a Hong Kong movie. The story is a classic WuXia Pian, but it's deconstructed to fit in a real world. The film look super gritty and everything you expect from the tropes of the WuXia genre are thrown to the wind (no one wears silky white clothes, they all wear rags, the love interest is not a princess but a whore, etc.). The fight scenes are fast and furious, and the moves are anything but pretty. At some points the hero attempts some acrobatic move, fails and falls to the ground and has to fight from there, and that is something you would never see in any other HK/Chinese movie. Even the camera work is pretty realistic. If the fight scenes had been the usual "Once Upon A Time In China" wire style, it would have ruined the movie.
A more recent film example is John Wick. It has amazing fight scenes that struck a very good balance between realistic and fun. From the way John ejects the empty clip from his gun to his cold but deadly facial expression while he shoots or beats up the thugs. I thought it was very well done and believable, and it showed you what the character was really like.
AB: If you would have asked me ten years ago, I would have said "yes" without hesitation. Nowadays I know more about myself and what I can do well and I what can do just 'okay'. I'm good at writing stories and finding ways to help tell those stories, but I'm not super good at making it look visually interesting for a whole movie. Can I make it look decent? Yes. However, there are directors that would potentially make it look better.
I believe in a team effort to make a good movie, and from my experience, when different artistic teams don't cooperate well or don't listen to each other, it doesn't really work. One example I think serves this issue is Batman V Superman. Zack Snyder is amazing with visuals, but he doesn't care one bit about the story. Or, maybe he does care but doesn't know that he is not good at making decisions, storywise. In the end, it could have been a good movie, but now it has so many plot holes that it's hard to enjoy.
So to give you an answer, I would say still say "yes", but I would be very careful about what project I would take. And, I would get an awesome DP to help me out with the visuals.
AB: This movie was very difficult to do, and mostly because of Chinese censorship. Three months before going into production, the Chinese government released a new "book of rules" for Chinese movies, and so they had to change about 50% of the script to be able to shoot it.
The movie is about a renowned bodyguard (Dragon Chen) who goes to Africa to find his missing wife and kid. But my team of mercenaries are pillaging the place, and Dragon Chen is caught in the middle of it.
The good thing is that, Cui Lei, our director, was very good despite this being his first long feature film. We worked very well together because we both can put our egos to the side to make a better movie. Moreover, Dragon Chen is a very giving person; Unlike most of the stars in China, he remembers that you put in some effort to make him look good, which enables him to consider you for better opportunities on upcoming projects. Usually you help a star to look good and they just destroy you in the fight without giving you any offense, and then they do the exact same thing in the next movie.
With respect to Ultimate Hero, I'm not gonna lie to you and tell you it's the best movie ever, because it's not. However, what I will tell you is that the film has earned some good reviews in China. From my perspective, it's a very solid, straightforward action movie with some moves that you don't see often, such as a real German suplex on the solid ground.
AB: Well a big part of the changes concern me directly. One of the new censorship laws was that Chinese movies were obligated to diminish the roles of foreigners (or non-Chinese actors) unless it's an historical figure or a co-production with another country.
In the movie, Dragon Chen's character is kind of like Clint Eastwood in the "Dollars Trilogy" from Sergio Leone. He doesn't talk much but when he does, it matters.
In the original script, my character, Sean, was a lot more developed because he was a counter point to Chen's character. Sean had a lot of dialogues, was brash and even funny at times. When they sent the script to the censorship for them to approve it, they said it wasn't okay because Sean had way too much dialogue and looked too important in the plot. They had to make some rewrites and so they sent a revised draft where they removed a lot of lines that weren't necessary to the story but really helped to flesh out the character. Again, they were denied, saying it was still too much. They could have added dialogue to Chen's character but they wanted to keep him the way he was, which is understandable.
For the third draft, they took Troy, a supporting character initially written in the subplot, and wrote him into my mercenary team for the role of a semi-retired leader, and they gave him some of my original dialogue as well. The sub-plot was completely removed from the film and the censorship board finally approved the script.
Sure, it might sound like a bad deal for me but it turned out to be positive on two levels: It was positive for the movie because it got more streamlined and became more efficient as an action film. And, it was eventually positive for me with the reduction of Sean's characterization, which allowed me a little bit of space to help him stand out and make him memorable and interesting. Since most of the cast had black hair, I decided to grow a black beard and to bleach my hair and part of my goatee. I would visually stand out right away. I decided to make him as charismatic as possible to compensate for lack of dialogue.
When they tested the movie with the audience, Sean got the best responses of the whole movie. My character is even featured in front of one of the two posters for the movie before Dragon Chen, and so, I think we managed to turn a negative into a few neat positives.
If we had been able to shoot the original script, characterwise, it would have been very different, but I'm not sure that it would have been better.
AB: The Chinese market is like a double edged sword - On one hand, censorship can either augment or diminish greatly depending on who is in charge. It was actually easing gradually a little bit until 2013 when it augmented.
On the other hand, the Chinese market is very close to surpassing the U.S. market in terms of box office gross. I think a lot of us here see the Chinese market as a stepping stone to try to make it in the European or U.S. market.
AB: I was very happy to work with them, because first and foremost, we are friends and get along very well. They wanted me in the movie for the opening fight since they wanted to make it very brutal while keeping it super fast paced. They love fast choreography with a lot of energy, and they really care for your safety while shooting. It's always interesting for me to work with people with unique styles because it's sort of like I'm learning a new language. We had a good exchange of different techniques and ways of blocking and striking, and they were very open to ideas, and in the end it was beneficial for everyone. They are happy about the fight, and James Mark (the director) is happy with it as well. So it's all good.
AB: Well, from personal experience, I've had and still have some problems with some people who can't take constructive criticism. One such example was a moment on the set of Outcast with Nicolas Cage. I had a small part (which got cut with most of the crusader scenes in the movie) and also performed stunts. The production decided to test the design for the crusaders costume on me.
I showed up and they put the costume on me but they had a big red Templar cross on the tunic. Since it was the first crusade, the Templar order didn't exist and the crusaders' knight would have wear a Maltese cross on their tunic, and I told one of the designers about it in case they wanted to be accurate.
The same day, I had to go meet the dialogue coach, to review my lines. As I was checking the script, I noticed that the dates for the first crusades were wrong, so I pointed out to the dialogue coach and we even had a good laugh about it. Somehow thereafter, the two things I pointed out got reported and the next day I received a call from an authority on the production, and that person just went berserk on me - something to the effect of "Are you a fucking costume designer?! Are you a fucking historian?!", and I nearly got fired for casually pointing out some mistakes.
It was the same on CZ12 when I pointed out that Jackie was literally only hurt by gravity during the course of the film (no one ever hit him) and that the master plan of the bad guy was really silly (throwing a bronze head into a volcano...). At any rate, I'm playing it safer these days: I have some authority on a production - say, a lead role or if I have some executive role on a film set when it comes to action, I will voice my opinions. If I don't, then I shut the fuck up.
From a general perspective, I'm really tired of Holywood remakes of films that are already good. I really don't see the point of remaking something that works well or stands as a classic. Of course, the studio is gonna fail if they try to remake iconic films such as "Robocop", "Total Recall" or "Ghosbusters".
Mind you, I'm not completely against remakes, but if you have to do one, take something flawed and bares potential and make it better or different. "The Thing" from John Carpenter or "Scarface" from De Palma are remakes of older films, although they improved the original vastly and were different enough in their approach that it worked well.
AB: Yes, Dredd 3D was really good. However, I would call that a reboot more than a remake since the IP exists outside of the movie industry. Also the first movie attempt was pretty bad.
Concerning the new Scarface, it depends on the way they do it, but it's unlikely they will succeed because the previous one is so iconic. You never know though. Look at "Seven Samurai" from Akira Kurosawa who is a masterpiece of directing. Hollywood did its own version with "The Magnificent Seven" and it was pretty good because the tone and setting were very different. I like the original a lot more but the remake was still good.
AB: I will probably give it a shot somewhere down the line since I really like Denzel Washington.
Concerning what movies I'm waiting for in 2017, the answer is easy. None. I've stopped watching trailers for new movies for many years now because I feel that most trailers either spoil the plot of the movie (i.e. Terminator Salvation, Terminator Genisys, etc.) or try to sell you something that the movie is not, like Joe Carnahan's The Grey. It really diminishes my interest in the films or thwarts my expectations. I like when I find a movie and that I don't know anything about it and it turns out super good, like the movie Black Death for example, starring Sean Bean.
That said, if you really need something, I really like what Christopher Nolan does, and I do have a long list of TV shows to watch. I think we are now in the golden era for TV shows.
AB: Yes. I might play the lead role in an action sci-fi movie, and the director is pushing hard for me to do it, which is why the movie will be shot mostly outside of China, and with some foreign investments. That way it will qualify the movie as a co-production and it will essentially meet the standards of Chinese censorship. Also, I have already been contacted to be in the sequel for "The Ultimate Hero", so if we can work out some scheduling issues, I will probably do it.
AB: If you want to be in stunts, assuming that you have a good level of training in martial arts, my advice is to be nice and easy to work with. In stunts, you will be part of a team and you need to be able to get along well with your teammates. Really, it's kind of like a brotherhood. If you can't get alongs with the boys, it will be very difficult to find a job.
Now if you want to be an actor, it's a lot more difficult. You need to either be skillful at acting, or be very charismatic. Or both. Being very good looking or very bad looking could help as well. But one of the key aspects is to know how to audition. Auditioning is very difficult because you often have to deliver a good performance with very limited information about the character. And when you do audition, and even when you don't get the part, ask for constructive criticism from the casting director or his/her assisstant as it will help you improve.