Everyone professes to have a rags-to-riches story, but for Jackie Chan it's actually true — he really did work his way up from doing stunts to become a martial arts superstar.
In this unpublished interview from 1997, we hear how Chan started off as a stuntman and moved up to choreographing stunts and fight sequences for John Woo Yu-sum.
You started off working as a stuntman. What made you decide to move into stunt coordination and fight choreography?
Being a stuntman was a low profession in those days. We would just sit there on the set, and the stunt coordinator would say, "We need two people to be dead", and then they would put some fake blood on us.
All I had to do was lie there not breathe — that was the job. I was doing things like that every day. But each day on the set, I would watch the stunt coordinator, and I gradually realised how powerful he was.
Everybody took notice of the stunt coordinator. He would direct the actors in the fight scenes, and even operate the camera sometimes. He chose what the actors would do, whether it was a knife-fight, or a somersault — he controlled the whole set.
He would stand behind the camera and shout, "Quiet on set!" and everyone would obey him. He would even call "action" and "cut", which is the most important thing you can do on a set. So that really impressed me — I thought he was the man to be.
So when I wasn't doing a stunt, I watched him and learned what he was doing.
I knew that someday my chance would come. I was tough — I had no money, no nothing at that time. I would get hurt but say I was OK - I just kept at it. and became a well-known stuntman.
I worked hard, making sure to be fast to get myself more jobs. Soon I became the directors' first choice for stunts, and they would even choose me to be in the drama scenes [in the background], which meant that I got paid more!
How did you finally move into the stunt coordinator role on 1973's Cub Tiger From Kwangtung?
I worked with a lot of directors as a stuntman, so everyone got to know me. I was young and I had a happy-go-lucky personality, so they liked me.
One day a director who worked independently from Shaw Brothers [prolific cinematographer Ngai Hoi-fung] asked me if I wanted to be a stunt coordinator for him, working with Corey Yuen Kwai, and I said yes.
I was just 18, so I was the youngest stunt coordinator in Hong Kong, and I admit I was not very good at it to start with.
I knew all the techniques, but I didn't understand the human angle — I didn't have very good communication skills. So it turned out that directors didn't really like working with me much at this time.
How did it work out on Cub Tiger From Kwangtung?
Not very well. They didn't give me time to prepare — they asked me to create everything on the set without doing any preparation, and that is difficult. The director would just call me two hours before I was needed.
When I worked on the set, I was much too slow. In the end, the director stopped the shoot, although he let the filming go on for a bit, so I didn't look bad.
He said, "Jackie, you are too slow. We really have a lot to do, and you are slowing us all down." I agreed that I was too slow, and it was then that I realised that I still had a lot to learn.
I didn't know the camera angles, I only knew how to do the stunts, like a stuntman. But I thought about how to improve myself, and after my next movie, I felt I had improved a lot.
Then John Woo called you for The Young Dragons…
Yes, I got a call from John Woo, which was a surprise. John said, "Jackie, I want your advice about the action on this film". I had known John for some time, back since he worked as an assistant director [for Chang Cheh].
I thought, this is good news! I went to talk to him, and after the talk, I realised that I had learned something really important that I hadn't realised — how to b**ls***!
This time, I went to the set before I went to work to do some planning. On the day I started work, I was there early, at 7am. "Hi, good morning Mr Director, I am here" I said to John — I made sure I was noticed.
By now, I had learned to speak loud, to speak up for myself. I had also started smoking, and I spoke with a cigarette hanging down from my lip to look older.
I was just 19, and I was trying to be talkative and confident. I knew that would give me more power, as directors really like confident people. I had to work hard to learn these kinds of things.
Working with John Woo, I realised how I could make myself stand out. John was already a great director, but he did not know how to fight, he just knew how to direct actors.
Many directors have that weak point — they know how to direct acting, but they can't fight and they don't know how to make fighting look good on camera. But I knew all the tricks.
How did it go on the set with Woo?
I was on set fooling around, and suddenly I was called by the assistant director — 'Jackie, the director needs you now.' John told me to show him what I had in mind for the fighting. I made it seem very exciting when I showed him what I was going to do, and I did it all really fast.
John look stunned, and said, "Yes, that's very good, let's film it after the dialogue scene." So we started it two hours later.
I went over it with my assistant, and we taught the actors how to do it. Then I got on the set, and shouted, "Hey, I'm ready!" I had to show everyone that I was in control, that I had power. I was very young, so I had to make the point — I was choreographing the action, and people had to take notice of me.
I worked very quickly — one shot, two shots, three shots, all done. We did a shot of someone smashing through a window. Then I asked what was needed next. I really looked like I knew what I was doing!
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.