Mike Leeder Interview, the walking Encyclopaedia of Asian cinema
Budomate: Please tell about your experience working alongside Yuen Woo Ping on True Legend, I heard it took you a year.
Mike: True Legend was great, I was asked by Yuen Woo-ping to come in and handle the casting for the fighters on the movie. And we put out a big casting call both locally and internationally, we got inundated with peoples reels etc, some good, some bad, some insane (the gentleman who sent us footage of himself dancing while smashing Garden Gnomes in a black leotard!).
I’m a big fan of Master Yuen and had been lucky enough to work with him on Fearless previously, and also of Vincent Zhao who I had worked with briefly on the Once Upon a Time in China TV series, and had seen him murder many of my friends in Black Sheep Affair! But he’s still a man in search of that trademark role, and I really thought this would be the film to break him out. He’s such a talented guy, his Wushu is incredible especially for someone his size and he’s a really good guy.
Originally the idea was to have Wu Jing as the villain of the film, as Yuen Woo-ping liked the idea of some art imitating life, they come from the same Wushu school background and having that real life rivalry, but for whatever reason that didn’t come to pass. And we went with Andy On, who may not be the life long martial artist but he’s a hell of an actor and hard worker.
He really put in the effort on this movie, he even got sick at one point due to the make up but he battled through. He’s a great villain in this movie. We also grabbed Kitty Jiang, I had friends working on her debut movie CoWeb (I will not call it Ninja Masters), Kane Kosugi and some of the stunt guys like Caspar Keung, Andy Taylor, Mike Moeller etc and they all were telling me how incredible she was. I went down to visit the set and she was really throwing herself into the action and Yuen Woo-ping liked what she could do, so we brought her aboard.
We brought in Strikeforce Champion Cung Le, who did a great job as the warlord in the opening of the movie. I think he’s a force to be reckoned with, great fighter in real life, great attitude but I still don’t think he’s found the right showcase for what he can do as an actor or screen fighter.
And we brought in Conan Stevens, Sylvester Bear Terkay, Matt Weise (formerly Luther Reigns of WWE), John Heidenreich and Dominique Vandenberg to work on the movie as the fighters for the finale.
Conan Stevens, is a hell of a good dude! He is a big guy but his brain is as big as his muscles, he has really marketed and presented himself well since he started, I’d heard about him from some friends who had worked on a few movies in Thailand with him and he had an still has a very nicely laid out website conanstevens.com which has his blog where he discusses his film work and aspirations, fitness, marketing and much more, and it also has his pictures his showreel, his profile etc all in one place which helps a lot!
I connected with Conan and we exchanged e-mails and I told him about the movie, and flew out to Thailand to meet with him in Bangkok and discuss the project, we hit it off and I spoke to several people who all spoke highly of him, and what he could do, so Yuen Woo-ing confirmed him and I think he did a great job, he gets that great intro killing the first fighter before taking on Beggar So’s friend and then getting the epic takedown from Vincent Zhao.
Conan came in, was in great shape physically, very honest about what he could do and did a great job, and its been very satisfying to see him go from strength to strength, and I think that Game of Thrones did themselves an injustice when they didn’t bring him back as the Mountain that walks!
Mike has been both a mentor and advisor for me since I first met him. Having no agent nor manager this has been most helpful at times so if there is anything I could do to help with this please let me know.
Matt Wiese was a bad guy for WWE and I do think that he likes to present himself that way, but he’s actually a pretty cool guy once he trusts you enough to drop that aspect of his persona. He’s gone through some tough times in life and I think the persona became part of his protection, he makes a hell of a bad guy on screen too, can move well, got such a great look. He had quite a health scare after we finished filming but happy to hear he’s healthy now and got a much rosier outlook on life.
John Heidenreich is a madman, in the best possible way! His character in WWE was the schizophrenic poetry writing bad guy, and while he is a Poet in real life, he’s one of the nicest most genuine guys there is. I really like John and hope to be able to use him again for something, great fun! I also have to say that my respect for these guys is huge, people say wrestling is fake, but these guys put themselves through some major punishment in the ring, they are taking hard hits and falls, day after day after day, and they pay the price on their bodies, I can’t say enough how much I respect them, and they can move!
Sylvester Bear Terkay, I miss this guy! I had met Sylvester the first time when we were casting Fearless in LA, and really liked his look, his personality and his moves, he’s 6’10 but moves like Jackie Chan! He has wrestled around the world, he’s been a pro-fighter around the world in full contact disciplines, he’s a very good actor, got the greatest look and genuinely one of the nicest most easy going guys in the business.
He had worked for a very good friend of mine, Kenji Tanigaki one of Donnie Yen’s mainstays for many years, on the utterly insane House of Smackdown aka Oh My Zombie Mermaid! (imagine Russ Myer meets WWE meets Troma!) and he spoke highly of his skill set and attitude. Sylvester rocks, Yuen Woo-ping loved him, “Bear! Bear! Can you do this for me?” he would shout and ask Sylvester to do some insane crash or move and he’d do it without question. I really want to work with him on more stuff, great guy!
Now we had all these wrestlers, and we also had Dominique Vandenberg who was supposed to play the Master of the Unknown, this smaller guy who is actually deadlier and more dangerous and can bring in this much more varied set of skills. Dominique is the real deal, he’s a hardcore Karate fighter, ex-French Foreign legionaire, Thai Boxer, real cage fighter, turned actor and choreographer.
I first saw him in action on the first Mortal Kombat movie, he’s the really ripped guy who gets frozen by Sub-Zero and also did some of the action for Sub-Zero in the later scenes. He is a true warrior, and someone I respect the hell out of, there’s a book about him that really needs to be more widely read, he talks about his life and doesn’t pull any punches, he doesn’t paint himself as an angel, he admits to things he’s done that have affected his life and others.
He was the star of Jesse Johnson’s Pitfighter and did the knife fight training and choreography for Gangs of New York. We brought in Dominique as Yuen really liked his look and skill set, now we were filming in some really rough conditions, crazy freezing cold Beijing in early January and unfortunately Dom got sick, he got a really bad case of pnemonia, that I really think would have killed or incapacitated a lesser man. It wasn’t diagnosed until after the shoot, and unfortunately it meant we couldn’t make the best use of him in the movie, and that really frustrated me and Dom himself. I think we missed a great opportunity to showcase his skill set properly against Vincent Zhao, it would have been such a memorable fight scene.
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And of course David Carradine! I had previously taken him to the Shaolin Temple for David Carradine: A Martial Arts Journey and our paths had crossed on a couple of other movies over the years. So it was good to catch up with him again, for what was sadly one of his final movies. David was how do I say this, David Carradine, he broke the mould, he didn’t suffer fools gladly, he told you how he felt, if he liked you or didn’t like you, he’d let you know.
Eccentric to the max, great story teller and when he was telling you a story it was hard to walk away. On True Legend he was sadly not at his best health wise, and was fighting his demons and at times it affected his performance.
But I have some very fond memories of working with him on this and the Shaolin project, be it from me and him watching ‘English for Soldiers’ on Chinese TV one afternoon, or from him freaking out a young Western would-be monk by coming round the corner dressed as Kwai Chang-caine from Kung Fu, complete with hat, satchel and flute at Shaolin to deep discussions about his movies, life, martial arts and so much more. It was a great loss when he passed away.
True Legend was another great experience, script was written by two very good friends of mine Roy Chow (Chow Hin-yeung) who directed Nightfall and Rise of the Legend, and his wife Christine To, but I do think it lost something in the journey from script to screen, the original story was more like A Beautiful Mind with kung fu and I think the finished film while great fun, is not quite the A movie it should have been.