Keanu Reeves first caught the eye of audiences and critics in Tim Hunter’s incendiary 1986 film River’s Edge, playing a suburban high school burn-out struggling to find his moral center after his best friend murders a classmate. Reeves went on to carve a unique and prolific filmography over the next 27 years, in such diverse hits as Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Dangerous Liaisons, My Own Private Idaho, Little Buddha, Point Break, Speed and the Matrix Trilogy.
2013 finds Keanu Reeves bowing with his directorial debut, Man of Tai-Chi, a muscular martial arts adventure set and filmed in contemporary China. Starring legendary Hong Kong actor/stuntman Tiger Hu Chen as an impoverished young man who uses his deadly martial arts skills in lucrative underground fights, Reeves co-stars in one of his few villainous turns as the corporate kingpin behind the pay-per-view death matches. The Radius-TWC release hits theaters and on-demand simultaneously today, November 1.
Reeves spoke with me recently about Man of Tai-Chi and his nearly 30 years in movies.
First, I have to acknowledge the fact that you’re a fellow ’70s Kung-Fu movie buff: I loved the zoom shots in the opening fight sequence.
(laughs) Yeah, I knew I had to pay homage to those movies somehow and that seemed like the appropriate place to do it. I wanted to make a modern film, as well, but had to give credit where it was due.
With this film, set in China, and the Japanese classic 47 Ronin coming out almost simultaneously, what is it that draws you to Eastern-themed stories, in general?
I know, it’s a coincidence, but I guess you’re right, I am drawn to them. In a broad sense, I like the internal and external relationships between people; who they are and how they look at the world. There is a lot of Eastern philosophy I find to be very positive in nature and I’m attracted to that. It also allows for a lot of internal and external struggles between characters in a dramatic setting. In Man of Tai-Chi, there’s this idea of power and control as Tiger struggles with his dark side as his master tells him to meditate and slow down, and be thoughtful about what he’s doing.
Was it during the Matrix films when you first became interested in martial arts and Eastern philosophy?
No, it probably started when I was younger, at least with the philosophical aspect of it. I took Aikido for a couple weeks when I was about 10 or 11, but didn’t actually start doing martial arts until the first Matrix film. Looking back, I wish I had started younger. (laughs)
When did the desire to direct begin to stir?
I think it began when I was about 42. I started a development company, and the more I developed stories, the more I found myself wanted to tell the stories a specific way, which naturally manifested into a desire to direct.
Reeves and Tiger Hu Chen.
One thing that impressed me about this was it’s a very self-confident debut: You’re almost invisible as a director, which is unusual for a first-timer.
Yeah, thanks for that. For me, one of the best experiences I had was the cinema of it, to focus the story and decide where the viewer goes. I was interested in having objective and subjective points of view. I wanted to follow Tiger in the action sequences dramatically and through the different fights he has and how his character changes, both through the camera placement and the editing. But I’m glad you feel they’re invisible, because that was my intention. So much of the film is about surveillance, so I also wanted to make the audience complicit, in a voyeuristic sense, to the illegal fights and push the fourth wall a little bit.
You and Tiger worked together on the second and third Matrix films, where he was a stuntman. Have you wanted to work together since then?
We have and, in fact, I have another story that’s still in my head that I would love to make for him to star in.
I really liked the sequences of Tiger stuck in traffic, listening to Americanized Chinese radio.
The American cultural virus. (laughs)
What were your impressions of modern Hong Kong and China?
I had been to Hong Kong before the handover in ’97 and then to see how the mainland had influenced the island of Hong Kong. Their relationship is very different than it used to be, much more open. The economics have changed, so that’s very different. Making a movie there was just making movies: They use the same tools we do, so that felt much more familiar than different.
We have to talk about your fight choreographer, Woo-ping Yuen, who’s regarded as the best in Asia.
His style is very clean. It’s very story-oriented. It has power in it and it has drama. He was very collaborative. If you look at the direction of his action, the film Fist of Legend is a great example, there’s a very specific type of storytelling happening there. Woo-ping has also worked with Tiger for many years, so he knows what Tiger can do. It allowed him to take the Ferrari out. (laughs) It was great to have a partner like that.
In terms of your own directing style, who have some of your influences been?
Well, we’re all the sum of our experiences. But I’d say that most of the directors I’ve worked with have been very collaborative, but my favorite was Bernardo Bertolucci. I’ve probably said this before, but he’s a master. The earth and the sky at the same time. Or rather a rainbow that joins the two because he’s a poet, a painter and an intellectual. He’s cerebral and emotional at the same time, and he holds these two facets. I think that of all the directors I’ve worked with, the one who resembles him the most is Gus Van Sant, who also shows great sensibility. Bertolucci is voice, animation, noise. Gus is more silent, calm. Bertolucci directs a lot. Gus leaves the reigns loose, he directs by osmosis.
The first film I remember seeing you in was River’s Edge, which was the first of two films you did with Dennis Hopper. How well did you get to know Dennis?
Dennis was a really cool cat. Frederick Elmes, who shot River’s Edge had just finished shooting Blue Velvet with Dennis. I was a huge fan of David Lynch, so Dennis spent a lot of time talking about the shoot and his character. Then to end up on top of a subway doing a fight with him on Speed, it was slightly surreal, but awesome. He was such a professional and such a wonderful man. I’d see him socially sometimes and his humor, warmth and intelligence were always great to be around.
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure made you a star, although I’m guessing nobody expected it to become the phenomenon that it did.
Absolutely not! (laughs) It was great fun to make. Alex Winter and I are still close friends and it was such a joy playing those characters. Alex and I would just make each other laugh non-stop. Not every film shoot that’s lots of fun winds up creating a fun movie or even a successful movie. In that case, it did both.
On Point Break, another guy you got to work with twice was Patrick Swayze.
Patrick had passion like nobody else. He really just put it between his teeth. He was jumping out of airplanes while we were filming and got other actors to jump, who ordinarily never would have. He got Kathryn (Bigelow) to jump. He was a lovely man.
That was also the film that broke out Kathryn Bigelow as a director.
And her level of talent was evident from the first day. She was the driving force. There’s an energy about that film that’s infectious. I run into so many people now who say things like “I sky-dive now because of Point Break!” or something similar. That was all Kathryn. She really pushed everyone to go to that place, that extreme place.
You co-starred with River Phoenix in Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho. It was the 20th anniversary of his passing on October 31, and I know the two of you became close friends on that film.
I miss River very much. It was… the environment and the story, there’s a kind of longing in the characters. They’re like orphans. Somehow Gus found this sweet, romantic, tragic level for us to operate on, as well as a lot of humor. Everyone in the cast got along so well, and it really was like a theater company, a band. River was a man of fierce intelligence, humor and heart and was very inclusive. It was different than being “collaborative,” I can’t quite find the right word. It felt like he would get every molecule to vibrate into the character he was playing.
In terms of a phenomenon, few movie franchises will ever come close to the three Matrix films. Did you realize it was a game-changer right away?
Yeah, absolutely. I thought it was a visionary piece immediately and when I saw the final vision of the directors realized, it was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. The Wachowskis were an amazing team, completely unique in their approach to filmmaking.
You’ve been lucky to work with a lot of unique filmmakers during your career.
Well, yes, but c’mon, everyone’s unique. (laughs)
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