Roger Yuan has found spectacular success in Hollywood from coordinating fights in some of the biggest movies like Warcraft, Skyfall, Black Dynamite and 47 Ronin to Jason Bourne which hits home video this week. He has also had roles in Batman Begins, Skyfall and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny as well as training Henry Cavill for Immortals.
Today I got to chat with Roger on the new Bourne movie and how he put the fights together.
You’ve coordinated the fights on Jason Bourne and Skyfall; how would you describe Jason Bourne’s fighting style compared to James Bond’s?
In terms of Jason Bourne he seems to have more of a background in the Filipino side of martial arts: Eskrima dirty boxing and Kali. Then for this particular Jason Bourne, because he’s been underground and trying to maintain an under the radar status, he has been involved with bare-knuckle boxing. In terms of servicing Paul Greengrass’ request that Bourne’s character, even his movement is reflective of that recent history. So we used much more of that boxing technique; the fluidity of flipping, weaving and still trying maintain elbows and knees when needed and the tactical close quarters combat for which he’s known. For Daniel Craig and James Bond I always likened him to be someone that is similar in terms that he’s not bound by any martial arts styles so he’s doesn’t really have a particular style. He moves like whatever is needed at that exact moment in time, he will utilize. So it’s more of an organic, animalistic almost survival instinct that Bond films have; it’s much more frenetic.
With Jason Bourne, because of his background and the amnesia it’s less about being frenetic; he’s always very calm. He’s always two or three steps in front of his opponent. It’s almost as though Bourne is constantly in the midst of a chess game (even though he might not know why he is playing chess), but he is playing chess while everyone else is playing checkers. Bond is more organic, instinctual, reactive and animalistic because Daniel is such a physical creature. I think those would be the main differences.
Bourne likes to use anything as a weapon which is something Jackie Chan has always done in his movies; is he an influence at all?
Yeah, I’ve worked with Jackie and he’s very very creative; generally, with Jackie it’s using the environment and anything as a weapon but it’s always to service the need of comedy or drawing “oohs” and “aahs” from the audience in entertainment whereas Bourne, if he doesn’t have a weapon he has to find something. It could be a magazine, a phone chord or in this case in Jason Bourne he picks up an old broken up tea kettle (laughs). Anything can be used as a weapon but always in the frenetic energy of survival mode and turning his opponent on his ear. Even using a book [as a weapon] as well; it’s about that aspect.
How challenging is it to make a fight scene look natural rather than overly choreographed?
It is more challenging because I think it has progressed since 70’s style kung-fu films from Hong Kong to the modern era; mainstream audiences are more and more educated and they have definitely seen a lot more. By seeing a lot more it’s difficult to be completely creative, so what we have to do now is it’s that freneticism which makes it look as unchoreographed as possible and not that stylish. I think my personal taste which is possibly a good thing is to not be reliant on wirework and all that. There’s a world where in Chinese mythology in terms of the Wu-xia pictures, the Marvel films or The Matrix where that superhuman ability fits into that world. But as you say, in modern era fight scenes like Bond and Bourne I think we’re going back to being down and dirty, gritty, visceral but still entertaining, effective and fine-tuned fight sequences – but they can’t look like they’re pre-planned. They have to look like “oh shit! last second evasion; just by the seat of my pants! How do I escape that punch or that kick?”. It’s the freneticism and I think that the average person that’s watching can buy into that more because they’re putting themselves into that situation. It’s like “yeah, he barely escaped that!”; they can identify with that, whereas if you’re on a wire or you’re flying about it’s less of something they can identify with.
What is your pre-viz process for setting up the fights for Jason Bourne?
I’m paraphrasing Bruce Lee but all of us as human beings only have 2 arms and 2 legs, so all the weapons are pretty similar – whatever the styles – so I try to dig in to several different styles and yet be bound by none of them in terms of a particular martial arts technique. You don’t want to pigeonhole yourself but first and foremost you service the script, the story and the Field General which is the Director (Paul Greengrass). So to get what his ideas are, what his thoughts are and where Jason Bourne is in this character’s life. Also talking with the actor who portrays him (Matt Damon); where does he think Bourne is at any given time and any given moment? From that is where I take the building blocks to build the fight sequences.
First and foremost you service the script, the story and the Field General
That’s the process that we ultimately try to do but also the environment; where is it? So one of the fights that we have is inside, where Jason Bourne goes to Germany to an apartment and the fight is with a character called Dassault, played by Vinzenz Kiefer who is very lean, thin and a slightly smaller person. So to make it challenging and threatening against Jason Bourne we had him attack him with weights; at first a dumbbell and then a barbell. So as Bourne is trying to avoid a 45 pound barbell being swung at his head; he falls over a chair and breaks a chair leg, so he uses that to deflect the barbell. He redirects it downwards, then into they guy’s shin and knocks him out with the chair leg. It’s all kind of dependent on the environment we are going to be in, where the set is and where the director and actor are, in terms of what they think of the character’s energy or where they’re at emotionally and physically. This helps us determine where the fight scene is going to go.
How much of the fighting and stuntwork does Matt Damon do himself? He seems like someone who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty.
He does and he did most of it, in terms of that last fight and also with Dassault; obviously, I prep with (excellent) stunt doubles but Matt is very handy and very keen on doing most of the fights himself. He’s very, very easy to work with and just a gem of a person.
What’s been the toughest fight scene to put together for Jason Bourne?
I think the climactic battle, only because two days prior to shooting the scene we’d already prepped and pre-vized; Matt and Vincent Cassell as The Asset had already rehearsed a fight on a different set. Bourne goes through all this detritus, he was through a homeless camp inside the tunnels of Vegas but then Paul Greengrass made a very astute creative choice where he said “no, I don’t want there to be all these people in this homeless camp with all this stuff”. Instead, he wanted them to change it to this empty tunnel and so the way it looked on film was like two gladiators fighting in the bowels of the coliseum. They were fighting to the death, so we had to completely change the fight to adapt to that new environment and the actors had to relearn the sequences and be ready to shoot at the same time. It was a big challenge but a very enjoyable one too.
Have you ever had to research a specific time period to see what kind of fighting they did during that time to make it look authentic?
Not necessarily on this particular film but I did look into bare-knuckle boxing and I worked on a low budget film, when I was living in Ireland many years ago. So with the travelling community and the bare-knuckle boxing we discovered that they actually fought by rules. They stuck with the Queensbury rules; there were just not gloves, only hand wraps. Obviously in terms of fighting when I did stuff on Warcraft or working with Henry Cavill on Immortals, you look past in terms of gladiators and how they moved to what type of weapons they had. I looked into it to see what was available, what’s the actual pieces of equipment, how thick the leather was on the costumes and so forth, so I piecemealed what would work creatively. I asked myself how would you move using your arms and legs in that outfit during that time-period to create a more visual and possibly entertaining fight, but still stay true to that timeframe and what they actually did.
Finally, you’ve worked on indie movies and big budget blockbusters; do you have a preference?
No, they all come with their own challenges and their own rewards. Low budget generally means that you don’t have a lot of time and it’s a labour of love but you’re allowed to be totally creative in that perspective. I’ve written a short and acted in them but also did the fight choreography so you have a lot more control in terms of being creative. On bigger budget pictures you service the need of the script and story foremost and the director. You have a lot more people to answer to and to collaborate with, but you also have a lot more time and a lot more preparation, so they are all enjoyable and they all have their inherent challenges. I don’t really have a favourite; as an actor, I’ve done Bollywood films as well as Vietnamese films and that challenge has been being in a completely different country with different languages and learning my dialogue and trying to speak it phonetically. Each of those challenges in retrospect has also been a pleasure.
Jason Bourne hits Blu-ray and DVD December 6th.