Mike Leeder Interview, the walking Encyclopaedia of Asian cinema

Budomate: Do you remember when you were asked to help with casting for the first time? And what was your biggest project you worked on?

Mike: I’m not really sure, after i’d started working on Films an TV here, I would get asked if I could help find people for movies, tv shows, commercials etc, but I never really took it too seriously, I helped out with some of the stunt/fight casting on films like Gen-Y Cops, Extreme Challenge, Accidental Spy, The Medallion etc but I never got credited or didn’t really think about it to seriously, until Fearless came along. That’s the project where I think I really got to learn the ins and outs and really become a Casting Director .

I was on Fearless for about a year and a bit through pre-production, production and some of the post production period, and I got to learn so much on this movie, and can not say enough of a thank you to Producer Bill Kong, Director Ronny Yu, Jet Li, Yuen Woo-ping, Lee Chiu-wah, and Ean Tang for all the help and opportunity they gave me on this film.

Ronny Yu and Jet Li in FearlessThey had already been developing the project for some time, Bill, Jet & Ronny had been collaborating with the scriptwriters on developing it, and when I first came onboard it didn’t even have an English name. The funny thing is one day we were having a production meeting and Ronny came in and said that he had an English name for the movie, and that the movie was going to be called Legend of a Fighter!

Everyone thought it was a good idea, until I had to point out that there had already been a movie called Legend of a Fighter about the same character Hua Yin-jia, and that Yuen Woo-ping had directed it! Yuen Woo-ping was laughing, “is that what the movie was called in English?”

When we originally began the project, the idea was to have 12 fighters in the tournament at the end of the movie, Jet and two of his students would fight in the finale (and Sean Yi a Wushu champion and another gentlemen, a Xanda guy who’s name I can’t recall were hired to play these two), and we wanted to find all these other fighters, so we put out this huge international casting call for the various fighters we needed for the finale, plus the Thai fighters for the village scene, and originally there were going to be several more Japanese fighters including a female one.

I spent 5 months doing a big casting around the world, in Thailand, in Japan, in Europe and North America, and at the same time we were shooting this epic and sadly never-released series of documentaries that chronicled the casting, the making of, and the exploration of the martial arts and what they meant to be people and how they related to the film and the ideas behind the movie.

The documentary was being directed by Roy Chow (Chow Hin-yeung) who later directed Murderer, Nightfall and the recent Rise of the Legend, we ended up with three really cool documentaries exploring the casting, preproduction, training (we got great footage of Jet working his way through Wushu forms and weapons in the gym in Shanghai), filming and more, but although snippets were used in some of the China cinema release promos, for whatever reason the full documentaries were never released.

We met with many incredible fighters all over the place, shot tons of interviews with various Masters, students, action actors and more about the Passion of Martial Arts, their thoughts about Jet Li and Yuen Woo-ping, and so much more.

It was probably one of the best ways to do casting, as we were able to really met people in the flesh, see what they could do as opposed to just seeing a showreel etc, and a hell of an experience.

And eventually we’d found all these great guys, we’d found this incredible Savate guy in LA, Michael Giordani who is probably the first Savate player I met who really made the style seem like an effective fighting style, and so many more great fighters.

Michael Giordani was born on April 30, 1973 in Sallanches, France. He is a Bronze Medalist at World Championships of Savate in 2005, and a North American Champion in Muay Thai. Also he is the writer and creator of the comic book Descur. He worked on Las Vegas, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Alias TV Series, and worked on stunts in Call of Duty Video Game.

Then after one of the final rewrites, the tournament had changed and was only going to be four fighters in the finale, along with the Thai fighters and the big wrestler. We went with:

  • Former kickboxing champion JC Leuyer to play the British Boxer
  • German actor Brandon Rhea to play the German fighter
  • Anthony Delongis to play originally a Spanish Whip and sword fighter
  • Shidou Nakamuro as the Japanese fighter
  • Nathan Jones as the wrestler

and various Thai fighters lead by Somluck Kamsing.

nathan-jones-jet-li-fearlessNathan Jones is a man mountain, there’s a lot more to him than people think. He’s a huge physical specimen and can move like nobody else, but he’s no dumb big guy. He’s very intelligent, very funny and that’s something that nobody’s really seen him show on screen as yet, you got a tiny glimpse of it with the ‘I had a brother!” moment in Mad Max: Fury Road but I think he could do a lot more as an actor in the right projects.

The fight between him and Jet in the circus tent was a hard one, there were some communication issues, that at the beginning caused some misunderstandings, but once they were cleared up, he really delivered. Whatever Yuen Wo-ping and his team asked of him, he could do, he can throw himself around like a small guy, and take some mad crashes and falls. He knocked out a couple of teeth during one of the falls he took, he didn’t break his fall he took a hard hit but we got a great shot.

Nathan Jones in FearlessRonny and Jet were very impressed by him, especially once he got in the swing of things, and Yuen Woo-ping and his team really liked him. We were originally going to see if he would be interested in coming back for True Legend, but he wasn’t able to join us for that one.

Somluk was very funny, as he is such an unassuming fellow, he was helping us out with the casting in Thailand, and on the first day every fighter or stuntman who came in would be so respectful to Somluk, and then we realized who he is, he’s a champion boxer and competed in the Olympics for Thailand, world class fighter and such a good guy.

Somluck Kamsing

That’s why in Panna Rittikri’s Born to Fight, his character is so funny for Thai audiences, he’s the big loud mouthed bully always threatening to hit people who keeps getting knocked out! He’s a hell of a real fighter, but adapted very well to the choreography although I think we could have done with a day or two more for his fight scene and that would have also given the other Thai fighters we brought in, the chance to do something.

Somluk is one tough dude, he was the first fighter that Jean-Claude Van Damme was talking about having a real fight with, and I would have loved to see that battle. Somluk is this unassuming smiling friendly guy until the bell rings, then his stature and attitude changes and the beast is let loose!

JC LeuyerJC Leuyer phenemonal real fighter, originally his character was a bit more villainous, he was supposed to pull knuckle dusters and a straight razor when the fight went wrong, great guy, hardest part for him was we needed to tone down his physique and fatten him up as Ronny wanted him to be less chisselled and more rough and ready.

Anthony, I had been a big fan of for many years, great swordsman and probably one of the world’s best whip guys, precision skills, he can crack the whip and take a cigarette out of your mouth (he did it to me a few times!), he’s made whipwork its own fighting style, and we were all looking forward to him using both whip and sword in the movie, but Yuen Woo-ping and Jet decided to change the idea, and have him as the swordsman.

I think they were worried about the whip with regards to the location etc, so they swapped it out. (they also changed the idea for Anthony’s character, as he was meant to be a sneakier dirtier fighter, they wanted him to be more gentlemanly and I think that was also an issue with the whip, they felt that seemed like a bad guys weapon).

Brandon Rhea and Jet Li in FearlessFor Brandon, it was hard, he had been training in German sword styles since he was young, but at the last minute we changed it over and he had to fight with the Cavalry Lance, (still not sure how and when he became Belgium!), so Brandon had to re-learn and adapt his fighting style, and Cavalry Lance vs Jet Li with a spear when it’s Jet’s favourite weapon is a tough one!

He also had to suffer through fighting in the height of Shanghai summer, in his dress uniform. Originally he was supposed to enter the tournament riding a horse, and in his dress uniform, before stripping down to a singlet and shorts for is fight.

When they decided to go with him fighting in the full uniform, the uniform was very thick and hard for him to fight in. His wife was also pregnant at the time so he had a lot on his mind but really rose to the occasion. We shot long long days for the finale, Yuen Wo-ping, Jet and Ronny were so focused on the action and what they wanted, we were doing average 14 hour days of full on action, and with about 2000 extras on set a lot of the time, so it had a lot of atmosphere and pressure at times.

Shidou Nakamuro and Jet Li in FearlessEven Shidou really stepped up, he’s not a fighter by trade, he’s an actor, and he arrived without any real time for rehearsals, and was thrown straight into the action. He doesn’t speak any Chinese, a little bit of English but not much, so everything was going through his translator. His first scene was actually the first part of his fight with Jet, so there’s Jet, him and me in this scene and they’re explaining that I’m going to step up between them, and UFC style ask “are you ready? Are you ready? let’s fight!’ and then both of them will go into fighting stance.

This is explained to him, and on the first take as I say to Jet ‘are you ready?’, he grabs my arm and does a take down on me, so I’m on the stage with my arm up my back and Jet locking me, Shidou is looking very confused and Jet shouts to the crowd in Chinese , “I am Jet Li, I an invincible!’ and starts laughing and cracks up all the cast, crew and the crowd. He helps me up, and is laughing and then we realise Shidou is standing there looking very very confused!

We worked hard on Fearless, but it was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had on a project. I learnt so much on this movie, and enjoyed every moment of it, and made friendships that continue to this day. To be able to spend that much time with Jet, Ronny, Yuen Woo-ping and co was fantastic, and there are conversations and exchanges we had, that I will never forget.

Ronny Yu and Jet Li in FearlessRonny Yu is one of the best directors in the business, I was a huge fan of his Hong Kong films especially Bride with White Hair, Phantom Lover and of course Brandon Lee’s Legacy of Rage (we recorded a great audio comentary for the Shout Factory release a while back). Was hoping to work with him again on Blood: The Last Vampire, but he left the project which was a pity as I really think his vision for the film would have done Gianna Jun (Jun Ji-hyun) and the character a lot more justice.

Yuen Woo-ping, he is a living legend. It was a double bill of Snake in the Eagles Shadow & Drunken Master (Rank Video, Neal Adams artwork) on a rainy afternoon with Leslie Toth and Chris Brennan, when I should have been at school that really got me hooked on Hong Kong cinema, so I blame him for everything!

Yuen Woo-ping in FearlessTo work with him on any level is a privilege and to spend so much time with him on both this and True Legend was a great insight. He’s got such a great eye and vision for choreography and how to choreograph, design and stage action, he knows every possible fight has probably been done before, so he knows how to take it to a new level, how to add tension, to make the drama work in the fight, to add comedy at times, and to get the best from the people he works with.

He & Jet Li work so well as a team, they don’t hold back from each other and that’s why they do so well, there’s no tip-toeing around to make the other one feel comfortable.

I think at first he thought I was a little strange, who is this big white guy but then he seemed to realise I understand what he was looking for, and knew the difference between what works for real and what works for a movie, and that I knew his movies!

As I mentioned we had a few moments where he’d mention an idea or one of his movies and be laughing about me being able to reference the film each time. He and his stunt team are like a family, on Fearless we probably had his team at their best, he had DeeDee Ku who used to be Jet’s long time stunt double and is now off choreographing on his own right on projects like Into The Badlands, Tony Ling who has also worked with Yuen Woo-ping, Yuen Kwai, Philip Kwok on everything from Tomorrow Never Dies through King of Beggars, this, True Legend and so much more, Tiger Chen was still on Yuen’s team at the time, he was doubling Shidou Nakamura for some of the finale, there was the late Ju Kun, and so many other good guys on the team.

<a href=Mike Leeder and Jet Li in Fearless” width=”300″ class=”alignleft size-full wp-image-13228″ />Jet is interesting as I had previously met him very briefly on a few projects Once Upon a Time in China 1 & 2 where I was an extra, My Father the Hero and Hitman when I visited the set, but I’d never really worked with him before. He’s a cool dude very different from Jackie Chan, Jackie is very outgoing and exactly how you expect him to be, most of the time, unless he’s very tired or in a bad mood.

But Jet is very mellow, very not stand offish but not the most outgoing of people at the start. So it took a while to start to know him, he was one of the driving forces behind the movie from day one, and the message of the movie was very much from him ref people overcoming their hardships. He did make fun of the fact that when we began shooting he had short hairstyle and I had none, and that changed as soon as shooting began.

We had some nice moments like one night we all having dinner and we got talking about Dragon Fight the movie he made in San Francisco with Stephen Chow, Dick Wei and the lovely Nina Li (Jet’s wife). It’s a favourite movie of mine, I remember seeing it at late night in UK on the Chinese circuit but its pretty much unknown in Hong Kong, it now sits in the Warner Brothers vault waiting some form of release.

We were chatting about it, and some of the crew were “Jet made a movie in America? With Stephen Chow? When is it recent?”… and Jet was laughing that how come I was a foreigner and knew more about Hong Kong cinema than they did, and then of course he makes a comment “Next none of you will know I directed a movie!” (Born to Defend) and the crew are all “Jet, you directed a movie?”

We got along I think pretty well on set and off, once he was comfortable with me, he’d make jokes and stuff but hes quite reserved, but really cool and I’ve been fortunate enough to work with him again on The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, and interview him various times, and whenever I see him, he always very respectful and friendly.