Interview Joey O'Bryan

I saw that you were involved in “Martial Law” before “Fulltime Killer”, so obviously it's not a coincidence. Could you tell us more about you and your work?

All I’ve wanted to do, for as long as I can remember, is make movies, but I spent five years writing movie reviews before I finally worked up the nerve to have a go at it. I intended to move to Los Angeles, beg Roger Corman for a job, and work my way up to directing quirky exploitation movies. I wanted to be Larry Cohen. Funnily enough though, the week after I left the paper I found out Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark, and Jet Li were going to be making the sixth “Once Upon a Time in China” about five hours from where I was living. I was a huge fan of course, so I postponed my trip, went down to the set, begged for a job, got one, and spent the next four months fetching coffee, pumping smoke, building sets, and locking up locations. A real crash course in the physical realities of moviemaking, one of the great experiences of my life.

I moved to California afterwards, and, as planned, bum-rushed Corman’s Venice studios. I worked my way from unpaid intern to assistant director over the next year. I was having fun and learning a lot, but the movies were very questionable and it was hard to imagine much of a future there. Then one day I'm walking out of the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood and who should be walking in but Sammo Hung. He remembered me, we exchanged numbers, and I wound up spending the next couple of years as his assistant on MARTIAL LAW. The work was less demanding, but the down time with Sammo was more rewarding.

When the show was cancelled, Sammo headed overseas and I was out of a job, so the time seemed right to sit down and devote myself to writing. I finished my first screenplay, found representation, and embarked on almost a year’s worth of meet-and-greets. I got high marks for my writing, but the stories were considered too dark and offbeat. It was frustrating. I was probably sulking on the couch the night a friend called from an industry party to tell me Johnnie To was there. He was one of my favorite Hong Kong directors, so I jumped up and boogied over there just hoping for a chance to talk to the man. We hit it off and found that we loved a lot of the same movies. I sent them a sample and I guess they thought enough of it to put me to work. My first assignment required me to knock out ninety pages in two weeks so I made sure to finish ahead of schedule. I was so jazzed to be working for such a high-talent, no-bullshit outfit like Milkyway Image that I probably would've done it for free, and I practically did. I must've done something right because they offered me “Fulltime Killer” a few months later.

Why you are interested in Hong Kong cinema?

I’m interested in cinema, period. Foreign or domestic, big or no budget. Just like Tok says in the movie. Hong Kong cinema does hold a special place in my heart though, alongside westerns and horror films.

What do you prefer in this cinema?

Like a lot of people, I fell in love with Hong Kong cinema because they I thought they were making the most purely entertaining movies in the world. Sly, stylish, modest, crass, funny, inventive, and usually action-packed. They were chock-full of effortlessly charismatic performers and very eager-to-please. They delivered. These days though, I find myself more impressed with their narrative freedom, the ability to nonchalantly subvert story structure and audience expectations.

As a HK movie fan, what do you think about the crisis it's facing for 5 years now?

Well, it’s sad of course, because there are a lot of talented filmmakers who don’t have the resources or support to fully realize their vision, but at least there are still a lot of interesting movies being made, a lot of work worth following.

Do you feel any nostalgia of the "golden age" like a lot of fans?

I feel nostalgic for the kind of cheap martial arts pictures I grew up with, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t blown away by “Swordsman II” or “Once Upon A Time In China.” And loving those didn’t keep me from loving “Shaolin Soccer”, you know? You can’t be blinded by nostalgia or hype. Judge films for what they are, not for what they aren’t. You hear these conversations at festivals: “Hong Kong cinema is dead, Korea’s where it’s at.” That sort of mindless hype drives me nuts; people so eager to declare the death of what they consider passé and desperate to be on board for the next “big thing.” Nothing against Korean cinema mind you-- I’ve seen lots of terrific Korean movies-- but how many recent Hong Kong films have these guys seen before making such sweeping generalizations? “Time and Tide”, “My Life With McDull”, “The Mission”, “Just One Look”, “Golden Chicken”, “You Shoot, I Shoot”, “Princess D”, “Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone.” The movies speak for themselves. Hong Kong cinema is far from finished.

So you do find interesting things in the recent movies?

Absolutely! How can anyone dismiss contemporary Hong Kong cinema when there’s stuff like “My Life With McDull?” I mean, I’d put that or “The Longest Nite” up there with the greats without hesitation. I’m interested in people and how they live their lives, no matter where they’re from. Hong Kong is an amazing place and My Life With McDull, Just One Look, and Golden Chicken are fantastic films, but I’d be weary to give them extra credit because they run counter to the stereotypical perception of Hong Kong cinema. They’re just damn good movies. Hong Kong cinema would be a lesser one without it’s brainless comedies, kung-fu flicks, and triad movies. Besides, I think populist filmmakers like Michael Hui, Tsui Hark, Stephen Chow, and Johnnie To have had plenty to say about Hong Kong.

Do you have any plans to work again with Hong-Kong people, in the US or in HK?

I’d love to, but it’s not really my decision. Mr. To was talking about using me for another project just after “Fulltime Killer”, but it has yet to pan out. I hope it still happens, of course. I have a project in development stateside that he’s taking a look at. The lead was written for Lau Ching-wan. He wants to do it, so I hope the producers will consider him. We’ll see what happens.

How did you feel working with the Milkyway team?

Like I’d just won the lottery.

As a westerner in a team of Hong-Kongese people?

I spent several years of my life writing about Hong Kong cinema and have been hanging around it’s fringes ever since, so working with Hong Kong people is no great shakes. People are people, you know? We moved around a lot when I was a youngster, so, for me, sliding in and out of different worlds, different cultures is natural, familiar, and pleasurable.

And as a fan working for people you admire?

When you admire the people you’re working for, it’s harder to get too riled up when you lose a battle over content, because you’re familiar with and trust that person’s instincts. That doesn’t mean you don’t stand your ground and plead your case, but I’m also not about to pretend I know better than the guys behind The Mission and Too Many Ways To Be Number One, you know? It’s much harder to take that attitude if you don’t respect the people you’re working with.

You worked with Wai Ka-Fai on the script of “Fulltime Killer”. Could you tell us more about your collaboration?

Wai Ka-fai wrote the first draft before I came on board. I read it and we sat down and talked about what he and Johnnie hoped to achieve with this project. Style. Tone. Theme. Then they turned me loose to write the second draft. I think they wanted to see what I’d come up with on my own, knowing they would always be able to disregard whatever didn’t mesh with their vision. Ka-fai and I met again a few weeks later to discuss what we thought were the strengths and weaknesses of the work-in-progress. I did another pass based on his feedback and he did a final polish before shooting began. Ka-fai seems unassuming when you first meet him, but his mind is exploding with wild ideas. One feels free to try anything and everything when you’re working with him, no matter how abstract or off-the-wall. It was a wonderful experience, a real education.

Did Johnnie To take part in the scriptwriting?

Mr. To rewrites the movie on set, with the camera!

When one watches FTK, it looks like an entertaining movies with plenty of references, a movie made by cinema lovers for cinema lovers. Was it really the aim when the project begun? Or was it something different?

It seemed the only place for a well-worn story like this to go cinematically. At first I was pretty frustrated. My first produced credit and the premise is as old as the hills. I knew people were going to compare it to A Hero Never Dies, Branded To Kill, and Assassins. It was depressing. Ka-fai kept telling me to stop trying to fight convention. “This is a story about archetypes”, he would say. I understood, but I couldn’t find a way in. I couldn’t stop thinking about all those movies with similar scenes, a similar premise. That got me to thinking about westerns and for some reason I thought of Francois Truffaut’s review of Johnny Guitar, “ A Wonderful Certainty.” One of the most passionate reviews I’ve ever read. Now memories of Johnny Guitar, Rancho Notorious, and Forty Guns are suddenly exploding in my head. All offbeat, underappreciated westerns. Playful films that had fun with genre, but not at genre’s expense. Their beauty came not from the originality of the stories, but from their “dream-like delirium” of their worldview. I thought I had finally found a way in. I re-approached Fulltime Killer as a fantasy, deliberately artificial and unreal. An action movie about action movies, for fans, by fans. We tried to mix celebration with criticism, convention with subversion, familiarity with dislocation. It felt right and gave a different context to the movie references Ka-fai had begun weaving into the script. We suspected a lot of people weren’t going to get it, but Mr. To and Ka-fai had just made a couple of very successful films and were in the mood to take some risks, so we just went for it.

With several languages, nationalities, countries, the movie looks very "panasian", and not only Hkgese. Was it also one of the purposes?

Johnnie and Ka-fai were keen to make a crime film that reflected the changing reality of doing business in Asia, but I also wanted to emphasize the idea of cultural schizophrenia in a near future scrambled by globalization. The picture is set in 2004 and not a one of the main characters is a Hong Kong native, though the casting very appropriately presents a duel between local and foreign influence. Whether the outcome is cynical or optimistic about the future of Hong Kong cinema is up to the viewer. The dialogue may not have always come out as well as I’d hoped, but that was the intention behind the jumble of languages, the smearing of geographic and cultural boundaries. Though there were several such “international” action films at the time, we were attempting to evoke the spirit of Contempt or The City of Lost Souls, not Gen X Cops or China Strike Force.
  • July 2003