Chee Keong Cheung and Mark Strange are busy men. In the past few years alone they have worked on three major independent UK action movies, including producing and directing both ‘Underground’ and ‘Bodyguard: A New Beginning’, as well as working alongside Sir Ian McKellen on ‘Displaced’.
‘Underground’ follows the story of twelve fighters who compete in an illegal underground tournament for the prize of £500,000. The fighters come from a variety of backgrounds, each handpicked for a gruelling no-holds barred competition, which pushes each fighter to their limits. Each fighter has their own reason for competing and each give everything they have to take the prize… but there can be only one winner!
As you read this, ‘Underground’ would have just been through it’s modest one screen UK cinema release. It may not sound it but this is no mean feat, especially when you consider just how difficult it is to get a film screened in a cinema these days and even multi-million pound blockbusters struggle to find long runs.
‘Displaced’ follows the story of a humanoid alien who teams up with a British soldier to track down a top secret file which contains details on advanced energy production. The film was in production for almost four years and should finally make it’s way onto UK shelves this year. The sci-fi actioner, featuring narration by Sir Ian Mckellen, was recently released in the US on DVD (available now from Amazon.com).
‘Bodyguard: A New Beginning’ (currently finishing production) tells the story of Leung (Vincent Sze), the bodyguard of a Hong Kong Triad boss, Wong (Richard Ng), who is sent to the UK to protect a woman whose identity is known only by his boss. Even the boss’ own errant son, Yuen (Carl Ng), is kept in the dark. The efforts of a rival boss, Kai (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) to take over Wong’s territory leads Yuen to a betrayal that threatens to destroy all that his father has worked hard to protect.
Between them, they have set themselves out very much as names to watch. In the last few years alone they have worked with and alongside Anthony Carpio (who has worked with Jackie Chan on almost every film since 1985), fight arranger and stuntman Dave Forman (‘Batman Begins’), two time Academy Award winning cinematographer Jack Cardiff, genre legend Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa and Danny John-Jules (‘Blade II’, ‘Red Dwarf’).
I caught up with Chee & Mark on the eve of the Seni ’08 ‘Underground’ screening to talk about their films thus far, their inspirations and working with some of the biggest names in the industry…
Phil Hobden: You’re here at Seni08 screening ‘Underground’ in the “Best of British” day. What was the appeal of bringing the film to Seni08?
Mark Strange: We want to highlight British independent filmmaking and showcase the British martial arts and acting talents, and where better to do it than Seni? The majority of the actors in our film come from a real fighting background, which adds an authenticity to the action, which I am sure will satisfy fight fans!
Chee Keong Cheung: Truly a one of a kind event in the world and with such a large audience, Seni was an ideal platform for the launch of ‘Underground’ and it is truly a privilege to be part of and I’d like to thank Joe Long for making it possible.
PH: ‘Underground’ has been getting some great advance press in the UK and quite a fan base on the web. What’s it about?
CKC: ‘Underground’ follows the story of twelve fighters who compete in an illegal underground tournament for the prize of £500,000. The fighters come from a variety of backgrounds, each handpicked for a gruelling no-holds barred competition, which pushes each fighter to their limits. Each fighter has their own reason for competing and each give everything they have to take the prize… but there can be only one winner!
Principal photography on ‘Underground’ was completed after 35 days in the UK, and filming was undertaken in Lancashire and London. With a total of 13 fights, the film features non-stop action from start to finish.
PH: You brought on board Dave Forman, whose credits include ‘Batman Begins’ & ‘The Last Samurai’, as well as Matt Routledge (‘Mersey Cop’, ‘Crazy in Love’) to work on the fights for ‘Underground’. What do you think the appeal for them was coming onto the film?
MS: Before we started shooting the actual film, we shot a promo trailer which they viewed and were very impressed with. It clearly showcased the huge potential that the project had and they wanted to be part of that. I think we were doing something new and fresh to what has come out of the UK before.
CKC: I think the ‘independent’ aspect of the film was a real appeal. Dave Forman, Matt Routledge and Mark Strange had all worked on some diverse and high profile productions and I think ‘Underground’ offered a creative platform for all involved. Whilst of course independent filmmaking can bring limitations, it also forces the filmmakers and all involved to become more innovative in ones approach and I think everyone really enjoyed and embraced that challenge.
PH: In front of the camera it’s even more impressive: kick boxing champion Nathan Lewis, ‘Bourne Ultimatum’ star Joey Ansah and Danny John-Jules (‘Blade II’, ‘Sucker Punch’). How did you attract them to the ‘Underground’?
CKC: I was introduced to Nathan and Joey through Mark Strange, who had worked with them previously on ‘Batman Begins’. Danny I’d known for a few years after we met at the Raindance Film Festival in London and we stayed in touch since. With Nathan and Joey, I think the appeal was, as with the fight choreography team, that ‘Underground’ provided a unique opportunity to showcase everyone’s abilities. From the outset, I wanted to structure the film in a very different way to any other action film. The idea that there would be no protagonist and no clear winner, and we wouldn’t favour one fighter over the other to keep audiences guessing was something quite unconventional. It was quite an organic process, but a relationship that was developed with all involved.
MS: Nathan is a long time friend who I met again while working on ‘Batman Begins’ after not seeing him for years. Nathan and I used to compete against each other in the UK national tournament circuit, so we go back many years. I also met Joey on the ‘Batman Begins’ set too. We met up with all of them and showed them the trailer and after seeing the footage it made them hungry to be involved with the project. Danny was one of Chee’s colleagues.
PH: For the other key fighting roles in ‘Underground’ you undertook a four-week nationwide search to find the 12 principal fighters. What was that experience like? Was there a massive range of talent?
CKC: The casting experience was very eye opening. I was very impressed by the level of martial arts and stunt talent within the UK. We literally reviewed hundreds of CV’s and went through a diverse range of showreels. I was keen to meet with as many performers as possible and to get a real sense of them as individuals. I think given any independent production, talent of course is key, but equally so is desire, determination and hunger to succeed. These are qualities I always look for in all actors and performers and there was certainly no shortage of that.
MS: We were very fortunate to find some amazing talents. The UK could easily become the action capital of the world with the talent available. The fighters that we ultimately chose, we not only chose for their talents, but also because they fitted their characters.
PH: You’re also just finishing work on your next film, ‘Bodyguard: A New Beginning’. Tell me more…
MS: It was a great experience shooting in Hong Kong. In terms of the cinematography – the skyline is epic! It is amazing to be able to showcase it in our film. We also managed to secure some great locations. We had a great crew working with us, and had some of the Jackie Chan stunt team helping to choreograph the action. Once again I took multiple roles as producer, actor and action director, and it was all a great experience.
CKC: Films such as John Woo’s ‘The Killer’, ‘A Better Tomorrow’, Johnnie To’s ‘The Mission’, Corey Yuen’s ‘Bodyguard from Bejing’ and Kim Jee-Woon‘s ‘A Bittersweet Life’ are a few of the inspirations behind ‘Bodyguard: A New Beginning’. I knew I’d never be able to re-create the scale of any of these productions but for me, many of these action films share very universal stories and themes of love, friendship, power and loyalty, and that was the basis of ‘Bodyguard: A New Beginning’.
MS: We had always wanted to make an epic film shot in Hong Kong. At the AFM we met the legendary Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (‘Memoirs of a Geisha’, ‘The Last Emperor’, ‘Mortal Kombat’) and showed him the completed version of ‘Underground’. He was very impressed, and wanted to join us on our new project ‘Bodyguard: A New Beginning’. We also worked alongside long time friend Mike Leeder in Hong Kong.
CKC: Furthermore, rather than shooting an entirely Asian film, I was keen to make it a unique blend of UK and HK story, creating a more international project but with a European sensibility to the film.
MS: We wanted to make the film bigger and better than anything we had done before. The film is now in post production and will be going to Cannes and the AFM this year to be sold worldwide. We are looking forward to everyone seeing it.
PH: ‘Underground’ is screened at Seni08 this year, along with other UK action films ‘Sucker Punch’ & ‘Ten Dead Men‘. UK action movies seem to be having a renascence at the moment with a string of high and low profile releases. What are your thoughts on this?
MS: I think it is a very good thing for Independent moves and the British film industry in general. Martial arts and action movies aren’t something you usually associate with the UK, but in the next few years I am sure that will change. The UK has some amazing talent at the moment, both in front and behind the camera. We are dedicated to putting Britain on the action movie map!
CKC: The British films are a great showcase as to what can be achieved both in front and behind the cameras. I don’t think the UK is particularly known for action films (other than larger scale productions such as Bond) but I hope that the films coming out of the UK will change this perspective and also showcase the potential.
I think independent filmmaking obviously does bring its own restrictions and challenges, from resources to finances and I think certainly it’s a credit to those filmmakers who go out and successfully produce a film
MS: Also a big budget doesn’t necessarily make a good film. I mean I would love to have a big budget, but as the above films show, we can come up with original ideas and make great action films. It’s very encouraging to see people getting out there and making films and flying the flag for the UK film industry and for action and martial arts cinema.
CKC: Without a doubt we have some of the best action talent in the world and I think it’s exciting times for all and its important to keep building and pushing the boundaries of what can be achieved as well as increasing awareness of the work that is being created.
PH: Speaking from experience, Independent filmmaking can be a thankless job sometimes. Long hours, little money and even less of the glamour the industry is meant to have. So guys… what IS the appeal for you?
CKC: Without a doubt independent filmmaking isn’t glamorous and in particular can be a very challenging process working within the constraints and confines of budgets, but I find it a hugely rewarding experience.
I think also independent films provide a unique level of creative freedom and also opportunities. You work with individuals who are passionate about what they do and that all adds the experience for me. From conceiving an idea through to the production and eventually to distribution stages is an amazing process. For me filmmaking is an opportunity to share stories with audiences, to entertain, engage and make people think. With cinema, the possibilities are endless and are only limited by one’s imagination. No two days are ever the same, no two productions are ever the same, and that’s what is so unique and special about independent filmmaking and filmmaking in general.
MS: I just love making films. I love the whole process, and taking on all the roles both in front and behind the camera. It’s amazing to be in front of the camera and be pulling it all together as producer behind it. It’s a very tough industry and it would be an impossible job, unless you love what you’re doing.
CKC: It’s important to take the good with the bad. It’s all part of the process. I’m grateful that to date, I’ve had the opportunity to work with such a diverse and dynamic range of talent both in front and behind the camera.
PH: So after conquering Seni, what’s up next?
CKC: We’re currently developing a slate of indie action films which we hope to go into production 2008/2009 as well as meeting with other production companies and talent to form potential collaborations, so hopefully very exciting times ahead.
MS: My main aim is to raise the company’s profile, and propel it forward. We also have a three-picture deal together with Intense Productions. I also aim to push the bar forward with bigger and better projects in the future.
Personally, I also want to push myself as an actor and action performer. I would like to secure even bigger roles for the future, and develop that side of my career too.
The Fun 4 questions:
PH: What’s your favourite action film?
CKC: John Woo’s ‘The Killer’
MS: That is a very hard question, as I have a lot of favourite films. But if I had to pick one it would have to be the Rambo series.
PH: Best fight scene you have ever seen?
CKC: ‘Police Story‘ – Mall Fight with Jackie Chan
PH: Jackie Chan or Jet Li? And why?
CKC: That’s tough. Whilst I’ve yet to have the opportunity to meet with either, I’ve worked with various people who know them both well, so I’ll have to say both.
MS: Jackie Chan – I prefer his style of action, I find it more hard hitting and powerful. I love the way he choreographs the action, and I am not a fan of a lot of wire work
PH: The film you wish you had made?
CKC: Francis Ford Coppola’s ‘The Godfather’ or maybe John Woo’s ‘The Killer’.
MS: ‘Rocky’ – I like the whole rags to riches story. He starts off as an average boxer and ends up going toe to toe with the world champion.
With ‘Underground’, ‘Displaced’ and ‘Bodyguard: A New Beginning’ all currently doing the rounds, it’s fair to say that Chee Keong Cheung & Mark Strange are on the verge of great things and along with other UK directors such as Ross Boyask, Mark Holland and Steve Lawson, they are very much spearheading a new age for British film making.
Phil Hobden is an independent filmmaker and freelance writer. His second film, ‘Ten Dead Men‘, is now available to buy from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk, and he is currently developing his third feature film through his company Modern Life?, as well as writing for various websites and magazines including Combat Magazine and Impact. For more on Phil Hobden, check out www.philhobden.co.uk.