Interview: Mike Leeder

Feature by   |  Sep 20, 2009

Mike Leeder has been a supporter and contributor to the Asian movie industry for more years than he would care to count, and as such has earned himself something of a celebrity status amongst the fan community.

For many Brits like myself, he first came to light when he began writing for Impact magazine (where he now serves as the Far Eastern editor), as well as contributing regular articles to popular publications such as Inside Kung Fu, Black Belt, Femme Fatales, Combat, and many more. Since those early days, Mike has gone on to work both in front of and behind the camera for a number of well known films like ‘Fearless’, ‘Rush Hour 3’, ‘The Mummy: Tomb Of The Dragon Emperor’ and ‘Blood: The Last Vampire’. He has also served as a consultant and producer on several independent features and provided DVD commentaries and interviews for various releases from the Hong Kong Legends and Premier Asia DVD labels. We managed to grab a few minutes of Mike’s time to discuss the various choices he has made throughout his illustrious career, and perhaps steal a few hints and tips on how to make it in the industry…

Far East Films: You’ve been based in Hong Kong for a long time now, did you ever think that it would become your permanent base?

Mike Leeder: I arrived in Hong Kong in 1990, as a pretty wide-eyed and innocent young fella who’d just turned 21. I kind of flunked out of the whole higher education system and had spent a few years working the 9-5 at Allders of Croydon, selling lighting, mirrors and wanting to sell my soul for a way out. I was already quite a big fan of Hong Kong & all kinds of action cinema, especially those with an Asian flavour and had been thinking about maybe coming out to HK for a while and seeing if I could get in to the industry and do something. My Mum suggested that if I was going to do it, I should do it sooner rather than later and I jacked in my job and pretty much jumped on the next plane to Hong Kong. I didn’t really have any solid game plan or anything, I thought maybe I’d get a chance to meet a few people I’d seen in movies, maybe get to be at most an extra in one or two movies, and that probably I’d only stay for a year or two at most before returning to the UK. But as clichéd and corny as it might sound, I landed and pretty much just felt like this was it, I felt at home from the minute I arrived. I liked the people, the atmosphere, the energy, the vibe and here I am nearly 20 years later and I’m still here, and pretty much still loving every minute of it. It’s funny but when I get back to the UK to see my family and friends back home, I really feel like a tourist, I’m a little bit lost, I don’t know the price of things, really have to think about how to get around etc. I really think of Hong Kong as my home.

FEF: For anyone who’s been to Hong Kong after having seen so many films from the region, it proves to be a strangely surreal experience. What did you first think of it?

ML: I had a major case of culture shock when I arrived; it was pretty surreal to say the least. I mean the first night I arrived, I think I was just wandering the streets with a no doubt ridiculous smirk on my face, just overjoyed about being here, and thinking “this is it, I’m really here”. And over the years it can still catch up, when you realise a certain location is where this film or that was shot, or that this is where so and so lived, or lives, or hangs out. And it can still work both ways, I was just watching Hung Yan-Yan’s directorial debut ‘CoWeb’, starring the incredibly talented Jiang Liu-Xia, and there’s a really cool fight scene that takes place on bamboo scaffolding outside an old building, and I’m watching it and I realise that it’s the building where I used to have a flat with Australian stuntman Mike Miller (‘Knock Off’, ”Once Upon A Time In China 2′) and Bobby Samuels, that was kind of surreal and brought back a lot of memories from when we used to live, work, and train out of there. It’s funny because while so much of Hong Kong is always changing, evolving, there are certain areas, locations, that have somehow remained exactly the same. The staircase just off Queens Road Central, which many a Triad gang has stomped down onscreen, or the Lee gardens in Causeway bay where Chow Yun Fat is cleaning the cars in ‘A Better Tomorrow’, they have remained exactly the same and I always get that little thrill whenever I go there, and I’ve used it as a backdrop for a lot of shoots for projects.

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FEF: What first ignited your interest in Far Eastern cinema?

ML: It can all be traced back to one afternoon when two friends and I took the afternoon off school, and watched a back to back double bill of Jackie Chan in ‘Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow’ & ‘Drunken Master’, the old Rank VHS releases, that double bill really set me off. Before that afternoon, while I’d watched things like ‘Kung Fu’ & ‘The Water Margin’ etc I’d never really been that into the genre, but after that I was hooked, and on the road that eventually lead me to Hong Kong. I decided I wanted to see as many of these movies as possible, Hong Kong movies, Japanese movies, American movies, this was also round about the start of the Ninja boom in the mid 80’s, I wanted to see them all, didn’t care where they came from. What’s funny is that the majority of people, especially of my age, will talk about how they got into martial arts movies because of Bruce Lee, and I have to say I was never the biggest Bruce Lee fan while I was in the UK. The first Bruce Lee movies I saw were the terrible butchered versions that were available in the UK back then, and I just didn’t think that much of them, although I will admit to a fascination with the credit sequence and soundtrack to ‘Game of Death’. It wasn’t until I’d been in Hong Kong for a few years, and I was hanging out with American actor/stuntman Bobby Samuels and Sammo Hung, at Sammo’s house just prior to the start of shooting on ‘Don’t Give A Damn’. We were talking about movies, and Sammo got onto the subject of Bruce Lee, and just how much of an influence Bruce had upon him with regards to movies, martial arts and life in general, and that’s why so many of Sammo’s movies feature references to Bruce and his movies. He lent me his LD’s of the uncut HK versions of the Bruce lee movies and got me to rewatch them, and reappraise them and that’s when I really started to appreciate Bruce & his achievements.

Back in the UK, god I would go into any and all video shops trying to rent or buy copies of every martial arts movie I possibly could. I would head up to Chinatown and try and rent and buy movies there, pick up copies of magazines like ‘Cinemart’, go to double bills at the Cinemas as often as I could. It’s funny now, but you have to remember that back then, there was so little genuine information about Hong Kong & Asian movies in general, and there was a lot of learning as you went. But I persevered and spent far too much money on dodgy bootlegs that were often all that was available, that people in colourful tracksuits would sell to you, claiming they were helping the fans by charging 20 pounds a tape for a bad camera job, or an unsubtitled 2nd or 3rd generation VHS, but I didn’t care. I loved it, I built up quite a collection, and was also tracking down whatever memorabilia I could get my hands on too. And I’m still a collector, I have far too many VHS tapes, LDs, VCDs, DVDs, Posters, pics, occasional props etc taking up space in my house and my offices, I even shipped over a lot of my stuff from the UK to here.

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FEF: How did you make the leap from being a fan to being involved with the film industry and writing about it?

ML: I’m still very much a fan! Yes, I have been lucky enough to break into the industry and make my living from it, but one of the main reasons, and what brought me here in the first place was my love for these films, and I’ll never forget that. I arrived not really knowing anyone here, and was able to get some film & TV work, and started to make friends and connections both in and out of the industry, and have worked a variety of jobs here before I was able to work fulltime in the industry. I tended bar, taught English, dressed as a Cartoon Character and did live shows for Warners & Disney, Hong Kong can be a very expensive place to live, and Film & TV work etc wasn’t always as frequent as I’d like back then. Often I get people e-mailing me asking about them coming to Hong Kong to work in film & TV, and when i tell them you need a good financial nest egg to support you, and should be prepared to have some other form of work to help support you, I get the “no I am just gonna do film work” response, and I wish it was that easy.

I had always done a lot of writing, and had written a few things for magazines etc, and started getting pitching articles/interviews to some of the magazines like Eastern Heroes, Martial Arts Movie Associates, Inside Kung Fu etc and gradually I started getting asked by the magazines to write for them, and this lead onto things like Combat, Femme Fatales, Impact etc. I was happy to be writing about the films and those involved, and it also gave me an excuse to pick the brains of certain actors & directors and ask the questions you’ve always wanted to get the answers for, and help give them the exposure they all too often haven’t had a chance to get in the West. One thing that really frustrated me when I arrived, is just how little the English language media here knows or cares about the Hong Kong Entertainment scene, and it continues to be ill informed a lot of the time these days. I think more because they feel they’re above it, and it can be even more annoying when as local press they are given far more easy access then most people, and still often get the facts wrong.  I like writing, and have had the opportunity to do some interviews with some remarkable people, for the magazines, for TV and documentaries and for DVDs for companies like MIA, Hong Kong Legends, Premier Asia, Media Blasters, BCI, Dragon Dynasty etc… And yes I did help track down Hwang Jang-Lee, and get an incredible interview with him, and it sits in the vaults of Hong Kong legends, and I don’t even have a copy of it! (What’s also remarkable is how I often get e-mails from people implying how they actually set up the interview for me, and the very least I can do for them is send them a copy of the interview. Especially as the interview was set up between myself, Brian White, Jason Hwang (Master Hwang’s son)and the late great Linn Haynes who helped put everyone together).

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I had other work and things that kept me going, and I began to build my reputation in the industry, and friends in the industry would ask me if I could help out with certain stuff, like English dialogue, or subtitles, and casting, and play a role here or there, and it slowly progressed to getting asked to come in on bigger projects like ‘Fearless’ for instance with Jet Li, Ronny Yu, Yuen Woo-Ping and producer Bill Kong. I was lucky enough to be able to come in on pre-production to do casting and work on a couple of behind the scenes documentaries for the project, including one that was directed by Roy Chow who recently helmed ‘Murderer’, which followed us through 5 months of casting around the world, looking into the history of some of the fighting styles we were using in the film, as well as Jet Li’s thoughts on martial arts and much more. Before ‘Fearless’, there were a number of projects that I did a lot of work on, that I often didn’t get credited for, sometimes frustratingly by supposed friends who were quite happy for me to do the work, and then take the credit, but you live and learn. Shortly after ‘Fearless’, I got asked to come in and handle the Asian side of the Casting for ‘Rush Hour 3’, along with my partner in Screen Ops, Ean Tang. That was quite an experience, Brett Ratner’s a very interesting fellow, a lot sharper than people give him credit for. That also lead onto the casting for Baz Luhrman’s ‘Australia’ which saw Yuen Wah making his English language acting debut opposite Hugh Jackman & Nicole Kidman, and hopefully a lot of the footage that he’s in will appear on a subsequent DVD or Blu-Ray release, they shot so much for that film. And I’ve also been able to work on projects like ‘Blood: The Last Vampire’, ‘Displaced’, ‘Underground’, ‘Phoo Action’ for the BBC, and of course ‘The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor’ which was a great experience working on the action unit with Vic Armstrong and his team, I helped produce ‘The Bodyguard: A New Beginning’ with Cheung Chee-keong and spent about a year on Yuen Woo-ping’s ‘True Legend’, which was a hell of an experience. I’ve also done a lot of documentary, TV, DVD stuff for various companies and countries, which is all good fun. I think I’ve been lucky enough to be in the right place at the right time, when opportunity came knocking, and taken the chance and done my best.

FEF: Have you ever found yourself starstruck in Hong Kong?

ML: Many times, being able to sit down with Jackie or Sammo and talk about their movies, and have them ask you for your genuine thoughts on them, it still blows my mind. On ‘Fearless’, one night we were in the restaurant at the hotel, and I was sitting at the table with Jet, and some of the crew and we were talking about various films and we got onto the subject of ‘Dragon Fight’, starring Jet & a very young Stephen Chow, now this is a movie that is pretty much unknown in Hong Kong, and it was so funny when so many of them were saying “A movie with Jet & Stephen Chow in America? Is it recent?” and Jet was laughing and asking how come a foreigner knew more about Hong Kong movies than the Hong Kong crew! It got worse when he said, “next you’ll be saying you didn’t know I directed a movie?” and of course I was the only one who remembered he had co-directed ‘Born to Defence’ with Tsui Siu-Ming in the 80’s.

There are many times I’ve been starstruck, and many of them are pretty embarrassing and perhaps best kept for later publication!

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FEF: Most of us remember reading Impact magazine in those days before the internet, where ‘China Beat’ and its like were the only contact with Far East film news that we had – exciting days. Could you ever have imagined that they would be nearly so mainstream as they are now?

ML: Oh god no, if you’d told me when I left the UK in 1990, that we’d get to a time where you could go into most shops selling or renting movies, and there would be a proper large selection of not only Hong Kong but other Asian movies available, with a choice of subtitles or dubbed audio, that Keanu Reeves who back then was probably most famous for ‘Bill & Ted’ was going to be the star of a movie where he’d get to do Kung Fu choreographed by Yuen Woo-Ping, that Jackie Chan movies would be released at the Cinema, that Sammo Hung would get to headline an American TV show, that a swordplay movie like ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ would get such acclaim and be so widely seen and even nominated for Oscars, I wouldn’t have believed you. I still find it hard to believe sometimes even now. I think it’s great that Asian films & culture is so much more acceptable and easy to access these days.

FEF: Impact’s influence on many of the team at Far East Films is obvious when you consider that three of us actually wrote letters to you commending the ‘China Beat’ section. It must be great to have been involved in popularising the films we all love now?

ML: As I said, its hard to believe just how far we’ve come, and if I did have anything to do with helping to popularise the genre then I’m very proud and will say a humble thanks, and that I just wanted to pay my respect to some of the people whose movies I loved, and get more people to take a look at their work. I will admit that sometimes, I do feel that some fans got too much info and access too quickly, I’m not trying to say “oh you’re not ready… oh in the olden days”, just when I started to watch HK movies, you really would have to experience so much, so many different films, and genres in your pursuit of actors, or directors that you liked. Sometimes you’d see a poster, and recognise a few names, but not know if it was an action movie, a comedy, a drama, whatever until you saw it, I remember going into watch ‘A Better Tomorrow’ & ‘Eastern Condors’ & ‘Rouge’ etc with no idea of what to expect. And that was when I really fell in love with Hong Kong movies, getting to see Chow Yun Fat for instance in everything from ‘A Better Tomorrow’ & ‘The Killer’ to ‘The Eight Happiness’ & ‘The Greatest Lover’, and being blown away by just how versatile he was back then. I sometimes think that a certain percentage of fans got to see the very best Hong Kong Films too quickly, they were able to google ‘Hong Kong Cinema Top Ten’, and I’m not trying to say “you’re not ready!” but they didn’t have to persevere and fall in love with the whole industry the way some of us did. A lot of people saw the ’10 Best Hong Kong Movies’ in one weekend and then complain that the rest of the output doesn’t live up to it, they didn’t really get to absorb the industry and acquire a love or at least tolerance for Wong Jing craziness etc.

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FEF: How did you find yourself appearing in front of the camera in a few Hong Kong productions?

ML: When I first came to Hong Kong, I dropped off my pics and info at various film & TV companies, and casting agencies, and got to appear in a lot of films, TV & commercials, often as an extra, or background artist, and it was great fun. I got to be on set, and see how films were made, and make contacts, and friends, and meet people I had admired from afar. I’ve always been a very occasional martial artist and it’s something I kick myself for, that I’ve had opportunities to train with some incredible martial arts people, and never really took advantage of that, I knew I was no spectacular or impressive screen fighter, and left that for the people who really could deliver onscreen. I did a lot of movies when I first came, I did stuff for Cinema City, Golden Harvest, IFD, etc certain stuff pops up on TV sometimes and there I spy a skinny young version of myself mugging in the background, normally with very bad hair, and a lot of stuff I don’t even want to be credited for, because I feel embarrassed by my performance or that I did nothing to deserve a credit. I think IMDB has me listed for a fraction of the shows I actually did.

In recent years I’ve stepped back in front of the camera for various reasons, sometimes for the simple matter of they needed a white guy and I was available, or I fitted the costume! On ‘Fearless’, when we were doing the casting, Ronny Yu suggested I play the boxer originally, I thought he was joking so didn’t really take any notice, and then he asked me why I wasn’t training, and I realized he’d been serious but it was too late for me to try and get into any kind of shape, and I have a few too many tattoo’s than they wanted the character to have. So Ronny decided I should play the referee, which I was very happy about until he said that I needed to grow my hair, as I’d kept my head closely cropped for many years. But he was persistent, so I started to grow it, hiding under a variety of baseball caps etc, until we got closer to the shooting of my scenes when I unveiled my very unflattering mullet which Ronny thought was perfect for the role, and the only problem being that I looked like a little kid with the hair, so they decided it was moustache time, and I can’t grow one! So I would have a fake tashe glued and repeatedly re-glued to my face to play the character, and get endless amounts of good natured (I hope!) ribbing from the crew including Jet Li, who would remind me that when we began the project, he had hair and I didn’t, and now things had changed!

It’s fun, I don’t think I’m any great shakes as an actor, I’m not the worst but I don’t think of myself as a serious actor. There are a couple of projects I’m developing where I will be playing a specific role, but they are roles pretty much tailor made for me! As I said there are a lot of movies and TV shows that I appear in, that I don’t get credited for, you can catch glimpses of me if you’re quick enough in ‘Once Upon A Time In China 1 & 2’, ‘City Hunter’, ‘Saviour of the Soul 2’, ‘Chinese Box’, ‘Armageddon’ with Andy Lau, and various lower budgeted movies including several IFD & Godfrey Ho movies. If you’re a member of a Hong Kong crew, there is always a good chance you’ll get roped into playing a character at some point, and when they need a big horrible looking white guy, often they seem to find me!

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FEF: When working on some of the smaller productions, do you find there is more of a sense of teamwork that you perhaps don’t get with bigger productions?

ML: It depends, while of course on smaller productions you have a lot more interaction just because there’s less crew and everyone is wearing multiple hats and doing several jobs half the time, you end up helping out more, there’s less visible division between departments. The stories of leading HK actors sometimes helping move equipment etc on set, it’s true that does happen sometimes. Another great thing is how easily everyone jumps between big & small productions in Asia, just after we wrapped the HK shoot for ‘Bodyguard’, I went onto ‘The Mummy’, and quite a few of the crew joined me.

I think there’s a much bigger sense of teamwork on Asian films than in the West, possibly because of the unions in the West that prevent people from crossing between departments and stuff, whereas here, everyone can and will help out in various positions depending on what’s needed. On some of the bigger international projects I’ve worked on, I feel there are more divisions and it can sometimes slow down the film making process or create obstacles between various levels of crew.

FEF: You’ve been very active in producing the new generation of British action films and it must be quite invigorating to put your considerable support behind such positive initiative. What can we expect in the upcoming years?

ML: There is some incredible talent coming out of the UK, both in front and behind the camera, genuine talent who can deliver, who work hard, and who put their heart and 150% effort into doing the hard work necessary to succeed in the business. People who put in the hours, take the bumps and the lumps often for little or no money, and are genuinely putting their heart and soul into what they’re doing. People like Ross Boyask, Cheung Chee-keong, Mark Strange, Seamus Walsh, George Clarke, Simon Wyndham & Steve Lawson (I wish these guys would do more projects!), Mike Holdsworth for all his efforts in helping people get the best promo and action shots and presentation they could need, Chris Jones, Andy Taylor, Andy Prior, Andrew Scriven, Shane Steyn and many more. These guys are doing films because they want to, to get more experience, to get more opportunity to show what they can do, to learn more, to make connections, and not whining about everything. These guys and many more in the UK are doing a great job, and I really look forward to seeing their continued output as they constantly progress to the next level. And you have the guys who are already breaking out, people like Scott Adkins & Silvio Simac for instance, they have both repeatedly proved their ability, their determination, and just as importantly the right attitude. Their success is deserved, it didn’t come easily, and yet they still have level heads, great attitudes, and keep themselves sharp and ready for the next opportunity.

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What I find frustrating, and this is sure to ruffle a few feathers, is the amount of people who talk about wanting to be an action actor/stuntman and in many cases, even have the necessary skills, but just have completely the wrong attitude when it comes to promoting themselves, or getting people to hire them, people who expect work to just be handed to them. When we were just starting on ‘Fearless’, one would be actor was in HK at the time, and called me up about coming to cast for the movie. He had no showreel, no pictures, and then when I asked him to come in and do an audition, he asked if Yuen Woo-Ping & Jet Li were gonna be there, and when I said no, you’d be casting for me, one of the other casting directors and one of Master Yuen’s stunt team, he actually told me, “Then why should I come in? Who are you to evaluate my ability?”. The guy might have all the talent in the world, but you need to be able to show people. He then returned to the UK, and as far as I know until now has yet to do anything film wise with anyone, but still talks about his intentions to work in the industry here. I’ve had people tell me that it’s too much effort to cut a showreel, yes when I first came to HK, cutting a showreel did take some effort, but now every computer has video editing software, Windows movie Maker or IMovie work perfectly well for cutting a reel, but you have to make the effort. And be prepared to have both hard copies of your reel that you can submit, and a streaming/downloadable version that can be seen on the web. Put it on YouTube and Vimeo, some streaming sites are blocked in certain countries, that way if someone needs to see your reel ASAP, you can tell them where it is online, and follow up with a hard copy.

I’ve also had people complain about why they need to submit their material for a casting call, can’t the director or action director just check out their website? Other people have submitted materials and then never answered the phone or e-mail when I have tried to offer them work. When we did ‘Blood: The Last Vampire’ for instance, a decision was made that we needed a few western stuntmen/action folk for an action sequence. I had ten days to get the guys together, I e-mailed out a mass e-mail to about 50 people telling them the deal, and that I needed answers straight away. 49 people answered within 24 hrs, including one guy who was at the airport on a flight to work on another movie, and in the end I bought over Jude Poyer, Chris Jones & Andy Taylor from the UK & Siros Niaros from Australia, all very talented guys, who have the skills and the right attitude, and all of whom did a great job. Nearly 6 weeks later, I get a somewhat obnoxious e-mail from one guy over the fact that how dare I use other people, despite the fact it had taken him 6 weeks to answer an e-mail, and we had an inane deadline! If the opportunity comes you have to be ready, and willing to take the chance.  Another guy came to Hong Kong, and asked me to help him get work, as he wanted to show people how good he was, and as chance would have it, a few days later I could have gotten him about 4 days work nicely paying on a commercial, and he didn’t answer his phone for the next 24 hrs as according to him, “I was with my friends having fun, and didn’t want to be disturbed”… and then he wonders why I am reluctant to want to recommend him for anything else.

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Doing a casting, going to auditions, I know it’s not fun, and the waiting can be a killer, but you know what, it’s part of the job and what people seem to forget is that sometimes if you make a good impression, even if you might not be exactly what they’re looking for, characters can be rewritten/changed, and even if you’re not right for this particular project, there could always be an opportunity down the road. I used the Duff brothers, John & Jamal on ‘Blood’ as well, I had met them two years earlier when we were casting for ‘Fearless’, and while I couldn’t use them for that, they made a great impression, and when a suitable opportunity came up on ‘Blood’, I was able to recommend them and bring them in for that. And they did a great job, and I would highly recommend them for other projects. Too many people seem to forget that it’s called show business, the entertainment industry, you have to come in with a professional attitude, you wouldn’t submit an incomplete resume or turn up for a job interview with a shitty attitude and expect to get hired, and yet people seem to think they can approach the industry with that attitude.

What also worries me is the people who are proclaiming themselves as established action star/film stars without any real credits to their name, or one job under their belt, suddenly opening official fan clubs for themselves etc. I completely understand people trying to promote themselves, but do it the right way, but beware the hype isn’t perceived as complete bullshit. You list all these movies you’ve done that are strangely not available anywhere in the world, or you can’t supply footage from any of them? It does start to make you wonder what else is shall we say ‘tenuous’. The sad thing is many of these people have genuine skills and potential, but the ego kicks in and they make themselves look bad in the long run. Bullshit might get you a certain distance, but eventually the truth will come out and you have to have the talent to back it up, and the bad thing is sometimes the BS will cost you the job.

Also have the right attitude, I sometimes feel people don’t realise that ‘attitude determines your altitude’. The industry doesn’t owe you anything, don’t come in with that attitude. You want to succeed be nice, be professional, be hard working, you don’t have to kiss ass but you should not be an asshole! I get confused when people contact me asking about trying to get work, but come in with a disrespectful or just unprofessional attitude from day one.

With regards to being involved in helping produce the new generation of UK indie action, I am honoured to be a part of it, and if someone comes to me with a genuine attitude and I can do something to help, I’ll try my best. Mark Strange was already in production on ‘Displaced’ when I met him, and he impressed the hell out of me, skill wise, attitude wise, he’s one of the nicest guys and we have built a strong friendship and I’m proud to have been able to work with him on ‘Displaced’, ‘Underground’ and ‘The Bodyguard: A New Beginning’. The same goes for Chee the director of ‘Underground’ & ‘Bodyguard’, yes we banged heads occasionally during the shooting, as I produced and he directed, but he’s another person I really respect, he’s very motivated, very reserved, incredibly accomplished for his age, and I’m proud to consider Mark & Chee to be very good friends, and it’s great to be working with them on the projects that have already been made, and many more projects to come.

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I’d been impressed by Ross Boyask’s ‘Left for Dead’, it wasn’t perfect but you could see what he was aiming to do, and he’s another genuine talent. ’10 Dead Men’ wasn’t shot on the biggest budget or under the greatest conditions, but it’s a major step forward, and has done remarkably well. George Clarke is a madman, in the best possible way, I mean to make your first film a Zombie action thriller that manages to touch on the troubles in Northern Ireland without getting preachy or sentimental, and is great fun, he’s gonna go far. He’s been working on numerous short films and music videos since he completed his debut ‘Battle of the Bone’, and he’s well on his way. Seamus Walsh is another young film-maker from Ireland who has a lot of potential, he made ‘Somebody to Love’, a very impressive short film, shot in Hong Kong with a multi-lingual cast and crew, and made quite an impression on me and quite a few people in Hong Kong, he’s another one to watch out for.

As I said earlier, I came to Hong Kong as a fan and yes now I work in the industry, but I still have the passion for the genre. It’s very easy to play the whole “oh now I am a professional, I have to act condescendingly towards people making genre films, especially when I have worked on some bigger ones then they have!” but I love making movies, and being involved in any way shape or form, is great fun! I finished work on ‘Blood’, started prep for ‘Bodyguard’, then went away to do location scouts for ‘The Mummy’, came back shot ‘Bodyguard’, and then while I went off to do ‘The Mummy’, my business partner Ean who produced ‘Bodyguard’ with me, he went off to work on Baz Luhrman’s ‘Australia’. And you know what they each offered us challenges, and experience, and I’m happy to have worked on all of them. On every project, big or small you learn something, you get to do something different, you get more experience, and on smaller budgeted projects you often get to be much more hands on, and I ain’t afraid to get my hands dirty. At the moment, I am in talks for a number of projects, some big, some small, and they are all projects that excite me! When the time comes that working on a movie of any size really doesn’t interest me, that’s the time for me to go do something else. In 2009 I was able to work on ‘The Amazing Race’ reality show, two different incarnations of it helping produce the Hong Kong & Macau portions of the shoots, and I learnt a hell of a lot doing that. Its not film and its damn hard work, but its all a learning experience.

FEF: You were involved in ‘Rush Hour 3’, a film that many hoped would pit Jackie Chan against the rising star of Tony Jaa. Was this ever anything more than just a rumour?

ML: I think casting rumours for ‘Rush Hour 3’ began the moment the second film was complete. At various times people announced that Ekin Cheng & Steven Seagal were going to be the villains, and when it was announced that shooting would take place in France, people started adding Jean-Claude Van Damme’s name to the IMDB listing. When your casting a film, scheduling issues can sometimes be a problem, you might want this person but they’re unavailable until a certain date, and then by the time they’re available some of your other cast may have had to drop out, and character ideas change etc, its hard finding the right people for the right role. I was contacted by the films American Casting Director Ronna Kress, about handling the Asian side of casting along with my business partner Ean Tang. And we spent several months getting a lot of actors & actresses in for auditions from Hong Kong, China, Thailand, Korea & Japan for consideration. Brett Ratner had publicly expressed his interest about working with Tony Jaa, and was already in talks with him prior to us beginning the casting. Tony was already committed to ‘Ong Bak 2’, and declined the invitation. With regards to Hiroyuki Sanada, when we were casting in Hong Kong, Brett had asked me for some suggestions and I bought up Sanada’s name, I was quite impressed that Brett was already aware of his work, not just from ‘The Last Samurai’, but also from his work with Sonny Chiba etc, and eventually Sanada got the role.

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FEF: We’re all pretty big Jun Ji-Hyun fans here (and a few of the team are still single *wink wink*), do you think ‘Blood: The Last Vampire’ will get her the Western recognition she deserves?

ML: I met Ms. Jun for the first time in Korea, at the premiere of ‘My Sassy Girl’, a very good friend, Raven Chang had choreographed the action scenes for the movie and he invited me to the premiere. I was introduced to the film’s director Mr. Kwak, its producer Charlie Shin (who was developing the ‘Dragon Warrior’ CGI Bruce Lee movie at the time) and this incredibly tall, beautiful young lady named Jun Ji-hyun. She was very polite and then I saw the movie, not really having any expectation and was blown away by both the film, and her. If you’ve only ever seen the abysmal American remake, shame on you, and shame on the producers for managing to license a remake and then take away every single element that worked and waste the talents of everyone involved. I like Elisha Cuthbert, she could have kicked butt in the role, but anyway. The next time I met Ms.Jun was at the HK premiere of ‘Windstruck’, and then again in Korea a few years later, by which time she’d not only become the biggest female star throughout Asia, but also demonstrated some very solid acting skills in both Korean and in English, and when I heard she’d been cast for ‘Blood The Last Vampire’, I was very excited.

I was able to work with her briefly on the film, especially during the scene where she is fighting the Duff Brothers, a scene that seems to be in certain prints of the movie, but not all of them strangely enough. She really impressed me with her attitude, she’s a superstar in Asia, and she was out there in the rain every night battling the stunt guys without complaint, and then shooting a pretty hard hitting fight scene in a meat freezer with the Duff’s. They’re both 7’ft something and have a lot of power behind them, and she got in and mixed it up with them, and took a few bumps, and was very giving and easygoing with them, she has so much potential. I’m not sure if ‘Blood’ really showcased her as much as it should have, I have very fond memories of making the movie, but feel the finished film didn’t live up to expectations. Ms. Jun is a real talent, and has a long career ahead of her in the East & West if she chooses to pursue that path.

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FEF: One thing you must have noticed – as indeed we have – is Asian movie stars going West and almost becoming self-parodies, great actors not ever given a chance to play anything beyond stereotypes. Do you think this will ever change?

ML: One thing I want to say, and I’m sure certain factions will attack me for it, is that people do need to remember that its not as if anyone is being forced at gunpoint to come and work on Western films, nobody forced Chow Yun Fat to sign for ‘Dragon Ball’, maybe the script was far better and sadly the transfer from printed page to the screen didn’t work well, who knows. One time during an interview with Jackie Chan we touched upon this. He said he was frustrated by the roles he was offered in the States, a Hong Kong Cop, a Kung Fu Master etc but then again as he said, if Tom Hanks wanted to come and work in Hong Kong, how many suitable roles could we find for him to play?

I think in Jet Li’s case for instance, the fact that he made his debut in ‘Lethal Weapon 4’, which many people including myself think was very disappointing, actually helped him, as instead of people walking out of the cinema saying “Oh Mel Gibson was great, Danny Glover was cool, oh Joe Pesci was so funny etc” people came out saying, “Hey that Chinese guy, he’s really someone to watch!”  If you were already a die hard fan of Jackie Chan, than yes ‘Rush Hour’ might not have been a revelation to you, but for the mainstream American audience, ‘Rush Hour’ served as a great introduction to Jackie Chan.

There will always be a certain amount of type casting, it happens everywhere, but everyone is quick to accuse the West of typecasting Asian actors when nobody is forcing people to make the movies they’re making. When ‘Forbidden Kingdom’ opened, we had a discussion about the film one night, and that film wasn’t really intended for a Chinese audience, it was for an international audience, and it gave them what they wanted, Jackie Chan as a Drunken Master, Jet Li as a Monk, a beautiful woman with White Hair, and while maybe the majority of the audience in the West, watched it, and loved it, and maybe didn’t think too much about it later, there was a certain amount of the audience who were no doubt impressed enough to start investigating some of the elements themselves, and checking out some of the other movies those involved had made previously.

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Has every Asian star been given fair treatment in the West? No! Has every film served them well? No! But it can work both ways, prime example is Bolo Yeung, he’s very well remembered and respected in the West, while in Hong Kong, very few people remember him or his work, and even fewer have any idea of how much work he has done in the West. It’s hard to find something that really hits both markets, ‘Enter The Dragon’ is the least thought of Bruce Lee movie in Hong Kong, while its so highly regarded in the West. There are musicians who have huge markets in Asia, while the West may have forgotten them and vice versa. Yes I would love to see Chow Yun Fat for instance getting directed by Martin Scorsese in something, rather than in ‘Dragon Ball’, but I didn’t see anyone forcing Chow to take that role!

Zhang Ziyi has done some interesting work in the West, I really liked ‘The Horsemen’ movie she did with Dennis Quaid, and yet in China, the response to the fact that she’s playing a serial killer hasn’t been “look she’s getting to show her range”, its been that she’s being shown in a negative light. Its very hard to pass judgement on this situation, you can sign to a film that’s meant to be going in one direction, only for someone to come in and change the script, the direction of the movie and your character.

FEF: You’ve got quite a body of work: books, articles, involvement in television and films. What has given you the most enjoyment over the years?

ML: There’s far too many to really choose one. Can I mention a few? Sitting outside the Shaolin Temple swapping quotes from ‘Kung Fu’ with David Carradine, and catching up with him for the last time on the set of ‘True Legend’, where he was as warm and rambunctious as ever, and he will be greatly missed. Getting to sit with Jackie and have him show me the unseen footage from some of his movies, and having him tell me that I was one of the few people who really knew his work. Hwang Jang-Lee dropping his stoic demeanor and telling me he was impressed that I knew so much about him. Having an attempt to hit on some Japanese girls with Mike Miller & Bobby Samuels disrupted, by the arrival of Sammo Hung with a toy rubber hammer which he proceeded to amuse the girls with by hitting us repeatedly until the girls left in tears of laughter.

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Getting to discuss philosophy and films with Jet Li, having Ronny Yu congratulate me on some of the work I’ve done, having Yuen woo-Ping give me a hug and thanks for the work I did on ‘Fearless’ & ‘True Legend’. Having had the opportunity to meet and work with people I’ve admired for years like Jackie, Sammo, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Ronny Yu, Bill Kong, Vic Armstrong, Rob Cohen, and so many more. To have been lucky enough to make friendships here that I hope will last a lifetime and that have taught me so much and opened my eyes to a lot of different things. Having people say they’ve enjoyed the work I’ve done, stuff in the magazines, the books I’ve been involved with, the DVD commentaries etc., I’m still a fan as much as anyone, so its nice to get positive and sometimes negative feedback from your peers.

There are so many memories and people who have helped me, guided me, advised me, tried to point me in the right direction, shouted at me when I’ve done something wrong and tried to get me back on course, and they’ve all meant a lot to me. It might sound stupid and clichéd, but I never thought I’d be here this long and getting to do a fraction of the things I’ve done, and I’m in no way trying to say “oh the life of Mike, I recommend it to everyone!”… I’ve done some very stupid things in the course of my time here, and there have been ups and downs, but you know what I have enjoyed the ride so far and really hope the best is yet to come.

Far East Films would like to thank Mike Leeder for taking the time to speak with us

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Phil Mills

Film fan, anime addict, gaming geek, metalhead, and supreme dark overlord of Far East Films.
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