The Replacement Killers – Director’s Commentary
Obviously I have not been getting out into the fresh air enough. Recently I spent many hours transcribing large excerpts from the director’s commentary on the Collector’s Edition DVD release of The Replacement Killers. I will be posting excerpts from this transcription over the next few weeks. I first saw this film, which features Chow Yun Fat in his first lead role in an American movie, on DVD a few years ago and then listened to director Antoine Fuqua’s commentary. Fuqua turned out to be a surprisingly candid commentator, and devoted much of his commentary to articulating his huge admiration and liking for Chow Yun Fat, and the challenges surrounding Fuqua’s experience of directing his first ever feature film (prior to The Replacement Killers he had extensive experience in directing commercials and music videos). As a fan of Asian action movies I have long been dubious about the quality of the films Asian artists like Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li and Jackie Chan as performers or Yuen Woo Ping and Corey Yuen as choreographers get to make when they take on Hollywood. Their American films never seem to be able to allow a space for the unique inventiveness of Asian action to flourish, and these films often look crude and dumbed down in comparison to the gloriously creative and beautifully crafted action scenes in Asian films. What I heard Fuqua say in his commentary made me want to stand on a chair and cheer. Fuqua explains – what I have long expected – that the American film studio system butts in on the creative process way too often, and that American bean counters and investors – the men in suits who write the cheques – don’t have a deep enough understanding of the appeal, abilities or potential (artistic, box office or otherwise) of the Asian talent they cynically feed into the maw of the American film industry.
“… box office figures do not tell us much about how a film was received and the conditions under which its success was permissible.” Leon, Hunt, Kung Fu Cult Masters, p. 12
On the internet it is easy to track down little colonies of hard core fans of Asian action movies, but outside of these online communities I think Asian action movies are often dismissed as silly nonsense or even treated with contempt. Perhaps I am exposing myself as having an especially disgruntled, paranoid or distorted view of the world (I suppose I have to allow the possibility that viewing too many Chang Cheh gorefests from the isolation of my couch might be having an unhealthy effect) but this is my personal perception of the state of affairs and it irritates me. I believe that I see this contempt manifested in many different ways – from the poor utilisation of the aforementioned artists in Hollywood films, to attending rare screenings of old school kung fu movies on the big screen only to hear people in the audience make fun of them, to having people I meet doing a double take and ask “You watch WHAT???”. I don’t know if this ‘evidence’ of contempt that I believe I am accumulating is evidence in the sense that a sociologist’s recorded observations might be taken as evidence, or in the sense that the messages a delusional person believes the mother ship is transmitting to them via the telly is evidence. I don’t care. All I know is that I am interested in trying to understand through what cultural filters us whiteys try to view Asian actors, Asian action and Asian ideas. What conditions are we setting either Asian artists working in Hollywood films or Asian films trying to compete in an American dominated marketplace? What access to success are we either permitting or denying foreign film makers, and why are we doing it? Bearing these questions in mind, I think you will understand why I found Fuqua’s commentary so interesting, and why I am so impressed as to how honestly he appraised his own film culture.
A few notes about the actual transcription:
- Please bear in mind that this is transcribed commentary i.e. spoken English written down exactly as it comes out of the speaker’s mouth. It is not carefully written formal English. This is why there are so many unfinished sentences, repeated phrases, and small grammatical errors. Fuqua is an articulate man, and the best way you can understand his commentary is to hear it rather than read it. If my transcriptions pique your interest, I encourage you to get a hold of The Replacement Killers, watch it and then listen to the commentary yourself.
- When you see ‘…’ it is meant to indicate that Fuqua started a sentence that he didn’t finish, rather than me editing out something he said.
- Unless otherwise indicated, when Fuqua says “he” then Fuqua will be referring to Chow Yun Fat.
- Where I feel the need to put in extra information to clarify things for the reader’s benefit, I have done so by putting this information in italics in brackets like (this).
- A new paragraph can mean a new subject matter but it often also means the speaker paused in his speaking.
- Naturally, spoken English comes without punctuation, so any choices with punctuation are arbitrarily my own. I have tried to use punctuation to make the flow of ideas easier to read.
- I have only transcribed the commentary which focuses on the things that interest me, such as Fuqua’s experience working with Chow Yun Fat, the style of action, working within the studio system etc. Otherwise, I have briefly described the other things he is talking about and enclosed them in brackets.
- The scenes are split according to the scene selection on the DVD. The descriptive words in brackets describe an image from the start of that screen to help with referencing.
And now, here’s the first part of the transcription:
(Director is Antoine Fuqua. Had a background in music videos and commercials. Had watched The Killers a week before receiving the script for this movie and loved it. Thought that Chow was the “coolest thing out”.)
2nd scene (green screen)
(Says Chow had some interesting ideas about the movie while they were working on the script:)
When we finally got into the script process he had some really interesting ideas as far as the choreography and how he saw films being cut together. He had this rhythmic way about him. He would always talk to me about the camera never stopped moving and, you know, sort of capturing the dance which is what he was about. It was almost like ballet. And that’s how I saw it as well so we clicked right away because I remember watching him thinking this guy’s, like, as graceful as you could ever be with a gun. He reminded me of Clint Eastwood from the Sergio Leone films which is, in a way, the approach I wanted to take with this movie. Some of it was because he had difficulty with English and I didn’t think it was fair because when I first read the script it was full of dialogue and things that we would even find difficult to say, you know; and so what we did, me and Yun Fat, was we went through it and trimmed it down a bit in the dialogue area so that he could focus more on what he does best.
I remember him calling me all hours of the night to talk about the script, like, he is a workaholic… he had this idea that he wanted to do, which is not in the movie, where he wanted to… He had this little lighter from Mao. It played a tune, played a tune of Hong Kong, and I thought it was a great idea. I thought it would add humour and things like that. But that sort of thing is difficult to do in American films, sometimes, because it’s quirky and sometimes some people see it as being hokey. But he was used to… him and John Woo were used to having freedom to do whatever they want and try things and experiment with different little tricks and gags and, you know, like you see him with the sunglasses where he would flick the glasses and slip ‘em on his face; or, you know, he would have a toothpick in his mouth and he would, you know, move it around and make it flick and throw it in somebody’s face and shoot them and do something crazy. Roll over chickens in a, you know, restaurant. I mean, that was… his way of thinking was more… he had more freedom than what you may have in America obviously ‘cause you don’t have as many people involved in the process. So I think when we first got into it we were overzealous. There was a lot of things we wanted to do that didn’t wind up in the movie simply because they were different. They were a little more out there, you might say, for an American film but I think they would’ve been good in the film. Unfortunately they’re not in it as much.
Scene 3 (child in funeral car watching pink paper car burn)
However the stuff we do have in it, I think, is fantastic. I think we did a good job with what we had, you know. Thinking back now in retrospect, just talking about it… there was a great scene, I felt it was a great scene and Yun Fat did as well, where there was a huge pot at the temple that was burning with flames and fire and you see Chow Yun Fat walk up these steps and he stands in front of the flames and the fires there and he’s thinking and it’s just a beautiful shot; and I believe I came… I dropped down from the flames and tilted up and found Chow Yun Fat standing there and I believe we might have that. And it’s just like a great little moment where he’s not saying anything but it gives you a certain visceral feeling. It gives you a sense of his spirituality and I think things like that sometimes in, I’ll say American films, get cut out of films for pacing and I’m not sure that’s always the best thing to do. Because there’s times when the audience wants to just feel the hero and they don’t necessarily… they don’t need to hear the dialogue, they don’t always need to see some big shoot out happen. It’s just a moment to sort of, you know, touch a spiritual place. I remember Kurosawa would do that, you know, where it would just be no words. We mentioned Clint Eastwood. He barely talked in some of those films and you loved those spaghetti westerns because there was a sort of a silent strength which I think is Yun Fat’s strong point. I think he don’t has to say much so there’s moments like that that I wish I could’ve had a little more of and if I ever get my hands on him again, which I will, I definitely will, you’ll get more of that from him.
(Then mentions the art direction of a scene set in a Chinese alleyway which was actually shot in downtown Los Angeles.)