This interview was originally conducted and published in 2012 for Kung Fu Cinema.
Jason Yee is a former kickboxing and san shou champion who has delved into the world of filmmaking. He made his film debut with the self-produced Dark Assassin, which was picked up for distribution in 2005. His latest film, The Girl from the Naked Eye, has been gaining a generally positive response with its combination of film noir and martial arts action.
Jason, it’s great to hear from you.
Thanks, Albert. I must say I’m glad you appreciate the film and the hard work we did on the film.
No problem. Now, before we get into the film, can you introduce yourself for the fans who are unfamiliar with you.
My name is Jason Yee. I am originally from Boston, Massachusetts. I am Chinese-American. I started martial arts as a kid under my grandfather. I was a big fan of Bruce Lee and the classic kung fu movies of the 70’s. Soon after training with my grandfather, I took on formal instructors in various parts of Boston and I trained with Yao Li. Aside from martial arts, I tried out other sports, such as hockey and baseball.
At the age of 18, I began competing and this was at a time where I was trying to figure out what to do with my life. A lot of kids my age were getting into trouble, but I decided to focus on martial arts. I eventually went to art school and I was learning fine arts, where I would draw my own comic books. That was, until martial arts began to really be my life.
When I was 20, I began teaching while I was competing. I finally got my own place at 21 and began running my own gym. It was around this time I was thinking about getting into filmmaking. I decided to leave school as the stuff I was learning was more related to graphic arts rather than filmmaking.
How did you begin your transition into filmmaking?
While I was teaching, I began to make short films using Super 8 and 16mm films. I was shooting short martial arts films, working on fight scenes. I was a huge fan of Hong Kong action films but I felt it was at the time, a hobby, because I was focused on martial arts and training my own team. However, as I progressed, I began to get a vision to make an actual film.
I picked up a copy of Robert Rodriguez’s book Rebel without a Crew. This was about how he did everything with no filmmaking experience when he made his first film, EL MARIACHI. I came up with an idea for a film and that would evolve into my first film, DARK ASSASSIN.
What was it like filming Dark Assassin and what was the general response when it was released?
Well, I made the movie in Boston with friends and family. My mom even provided the catering for the film. It was definitely a learning experience as I was learning as I was filming. Script-wise, it was a bit amateurish. I had bought books on filmmaking and applied my martial arts disciples into the aspects of filmmaking. I was very green as an actor and I was quite surprised when it got picked up for distribution. [Ed note: Blockbuster Video picked up distribution in 2005.] The general reaction was that some people liked the film and others thought it had the feel of a cheap studio film, or needless to say, “a piece of crap”.
I shot the film in pieces using Super 16mm film. I had film sitting in my car and even my refrigerator. It was a bit ridiculous but once I got the film developed, I did get it made and it took about three years to get everything done. At this point, I was deciding on a career change. I was making virtually no money in kickboxing and I really wanted to follow my heart and work in films. So I made the decision to turn over my gym to my students and move to Los Angeles.
I noticed kind of a Bruce Lee vibe in your character of Dark Assassin. You even seemed to resemble him. Mind you, I only saw one fight scene from the film but I was impressed with what I had seen.
Well, that was exactly what I was going for. As a fan of the classic kung fu films of the 70’s, Dark Assassin was to pay homage to that genre, especially Bruce Lee as he was a major influence on me.
What was it like moving from the streets of Boston to the glitz of Los Angeles?
It was very different. I began taking acting courses to hone my skills and learned the Hollywood lingo. I wanted to come up with my own stories for films and to this day, getting help from my business partner, Henry Mu. [Mu and Yee are the founders of Mu-Yee Productions, who produced The Girl from the Naked Eye].
Let’s talk about The Girl from the Naked Eye. As you know, I got to see the film and I really enjoyed it. When it comes to martial arts action, filmmakers tend to do typical action, tournament films, or in the case of many recent Japanese films, horror/martial arts films? What inspired you to make a film noir/martial arts action film?
I was always a big fan of the film noir of the 30’s and 40’s. What I liked was that there were no clear good guys or bad guys. When we were going through scripts, we found Larry Madill’s original script of the film. Well, in his script, the main characters were actually Italian-American. This was a project that really appealed to me, so we tweaked it up and made some of the major characters Asian-American and was in the process as to how to apply the martial arts action in the film.
How long was the production of the film?
We actually began shooting in 2007 using 35mm film. We had a budget of only half a million dollars, so we were trying to figure out how to utilize that. We were also plagued with problems during production. However, as time went on, we eventually did get the film completed despite the throwbacks.
What has been the reaction towards the film?
Well, we brought the film to Europe first. The film performed well in Europe and that was before we got distribution for a limited theatrical release here. [The film was released in ten markets in the United States last month.] And soon we will be hitting the home video market. So far, it has been a generally mixed reaction.
There seem to be many references in film to not only film noir, but classic Hollywood films like perhaps The Godfather Part II due to its used of flashbacks. The highlight of the film in my opinion is the hallway fight scene as it screamed Oldboy. Whose idea was it to pay homage to this film?
his was actually a collaborative idea between me and the director [David Ren]. We loved the fight scene in OLDBOY as in a way; it took action to a whole new level. These days, filmmakers use quick cuts, edits, and cheap tricks to make actors look like they can fight. I thought using the long shot and long take would make it better to see that we are really doing what we do best.
What should also be interesting in this fight is that Jake is doing what it takes to fight off the guards, even going as far as looking tired and at first, seems to be defeated. I didn’t want to go the route of the invincible kung fu hero as seen in most films. I felt that had I gone that route, it would take away from the story. I wanted to show [Jason’s character] Jake as someone who can fight, but not someone who is a superhero, because that’s not what Jake is.
Having watched martial arts films for a long time, I tend to notice faces and there are a lot of familiar faces in the film. James Lew pops in as well as Lateef Crowder, who you fight not once, but twice in the film. The action scenes tended to be more realistic as opposed to using Hong Kong-styled wirework and CGI. Did you have any input in the fight sequences?
Oh, absolutely. Ron [Yuan] was the action director and he knew exactly what we were going for when it came to the action. He designed the main frame of the fight scene and I would come in and think about what techniques could be used. It was a collaborative effort and Ron is not the only who deserved credit. The guys who I fight in the film really gave it their all. They kept up with the rhythm very well. I have to thank them as well because as they say, “it takes two to tango”.
What is interesting is the difference between fighting for real and fighting for films. In martial arts, you have to use your power to break something. In films, you have to use some power but also pull back and react. It is that sense of timing and rhythm that makes a fight scene work as Ron really knew what he was doing. It was great to learn this brand of choreography from Ron and his stunt team.
Former adult film star turned mainstream actress Sasha Grey makes a cameo appearance while Dominique Swain makes of a more extended cameo in a somewhat pivotal role. What was it like working with these two actresses?
Well, Dominique’s character was supposed to be bigger than what is seen in the final cut. However, as mentioned, we kept having problems during production. We had shot that film in downtown L.A. and while it would have been great to have made her role bigger, we would end the scene with me laying in the ground.
As for Sasha Grey, we were shooting additional scenes and she happens to be a friend of Ron Yuan’s. When she came on the set, we just decided to come up with a scene that she can appear in and it was a last minute decision. When it was time for distribution, they were looking for some big names and despite the fact that these two do not have big roles, their names appear on the promotional art, which isn’t a problem for me.
Another thing I really liked in the film is Ron Yuan’s straight acting role of Simon, yet he also served as action director. Do you see yourself taking a straight acting role in the future?
Well, yeah. I would love to work with many filmmakers and eventually showcase myself as a straight actor. Right now, I’m having fun doing the action and martial arts films. However, I am following Clint Eastwood. I like his transition from action to acting to filmmaking. Eventually, I would like to do what Clint Eastwood did in his career and eventually delve into straight acting and filmmaking.
Ron Yuan had worked with Michael Jai White on Black Dynamite and with you on The Girl from the Naked Eye? Can you see yourself working with Michael in the future?
Well, maybe. I mean I saw Black Dynamite and found it to be funny. If the opportunity does come, I would definitely work with Michael, but we’ll see.
What’s next for you?
I have lots of projects in development. I’m hoping to combine martial arts action into other genres. One idea I have involves a gangster film paying homage to the 70’s and 80’s to be set on the East Coast. Another is a western to be set in San Francisco’s Chinatown at the turn of the 20th century. Another involves a samurai warrior who finds himself in Central America in the mid-1500’s and fighting alongside the Conquistadors. I can’t drop any names, but I may appear in Asian action films in the futures. I’m working with many producers to get my ideas out and we’ll go from there.
Do you have a message for all the fans at KungFuCinema.com?
Definitely! Keep kicking!
Jason, it’s been great talking to you and we should definitely keep in touch.
Thanks a lot Albert. Once again, thanks so much for checking out the film. I’m happy you appreciate the hard work we put into the film. We make these films for fans like you.
A special Thank You goes to Katrina Wan PR and Jason Yee for this making this interview possible.