Governors Awards Honoree Jackie Chan: "Sometimes the Simple Stunts Are the Most Dangerous"

9:00 AM 11/11/2016

by Gregg Kilday

The actor-filmmaker is one of four films icons — behind perfect films from 'The Graduate' to 'Lawrence of Arabia' — who will be honored at Saturday's eighth annual ceremony.

Jackie Chan at the 2016 Governors Awards in Los Angeles on Nov. 12.
Jackie Chan at the 2016 Governors Awards in Los Angeles on Nov. 12.
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

The lineup of honorees who will be feted at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' eighth annual Governors Awards, set for Nov. 12 at the Ray Dolby Ballroom at Hollywood & Highland, reads like one of those lists of the four interesting people you'd like to have dinner with. Each of them boasts an impressive résumé that includes some of the greatest films in Hollywood history.

  • Anne V. Coates

    Film editor

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    With the bold decision to cut from Peter O'Toole blowing out a match to a wide shot of the sun rising on the desert, Anne V. Coates, 90, gave David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia one of the most famous edits in movie history. She won an Academy Award for the 1962 epic and went on to earn additional film editing nominations for Peter Glenville's Becket, David Lynch's The Elephant Man, Wolfgang Peterson's In the Line of Fire and Steven Soderbergh's Out of Sight.

    Of the famous match cut, she says, "The French were doing that direct cutting. I suggested to David that he have a look at it, and he loved it and did it, of course, better than anybody else. In those days they were doing more exact matching and things like that; I used to always try to experiment. I remember I did a direct cut in Becket where [O'Toole's King Henry II, who was in London] says, 'And I will go and face him in Canterbury.' I cut immediately to Canterbury. And I was told, 'You can't do that. One of them is in London and the other is in Canterbury; you have to put a dissolve in there.' I said, 'No way am I putting a dissolve in there. A direct cut works perfectly.'"

    When Coates accepts her honorary Oscar at the Governors Awards, it will be the first time she accepts an Oscar in person. She wasn't in attendance the year Lawrence won seven Academy Awards, including best picture. "In those days, they didn't typically pay for editors to come over, and on Lawrence they didn't pay for the cinematographer [Freddie Young], production designer [John Box] or me to come over — and we all won Oscars." While she could have made the trip on her own, she adds that it was expensive and she "didn't realize if you were nominated you are meant to go. I knew nothing about Oscars, living in England and coming from a little market town [Reigate, Surrey]."

    "They didn't show the Oscars so much in England in those days," she adds, saying she received the news by phone. "[Producer] Sam Spiegel told me, 'Tom Tryon accepted it for you and you have to write him a thank-you note.' So I wrote him a thank-you note but never heard back. Some years later I was given an award by BAFTA and they ran some clips including the actor accepting my Oscar — except it was not Tom Tryon, it was Richard Crenna! I was speechless."

    — Carolyn Giardina

  • Jackie Chan

    Actor-filmmaker

    VCG/VCG via Getty Images

    Jackie Chan, 62, the Hong Kong-born dynamo, conquered martial arts action pics on his way to becoming an international star. 

    How important were Hollywood movies to you when you were growing up?

    Hollywood movies left a great impression on me while growing up. I remember watching The Sound of Music and absolutely loved it. I also liked watching black-and-white films, such as Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

    What did you learn from Bruce Lee when you worked as a stuntman on Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon?

    To me, Bruce Lee was a big star, a huge hero. I was just a stuntman in those movies. When the camera starts rolling, he’s very professional and continues acting until the director says “cut.” One thing I learned from him is to always be nice and kind to people.

    What’s the most dangerous stunt you ever did?

    Actually, from my point of view, every stunt should be safe because we carefully choreograph each stunt and practice many times before shooting and doing the actual take. But sometimes it’s the simple stunts that are the most dangerous because we think of them too lightly and we’re not as cautious. Sometimes we become too confident and overlook the small details, but that’s when accidents happen.

    Do you have a favorite among your Hong Kong movies that you would like American audiences to take another look at?

    Honestly, every movie is worth watching again! But if I really had to name a few, I think Drunken Master II and Operation Condor are a few of my favorites that I think the audience will enjoy as well.

    What was it like to be introduced to American moviemaking on a movie like Cannonball Run?

    Filming Cannonball Run allowed me to experience the very systematic style of American moviemaking. I was very impressed because this movie was one of my first experiences working with an American film production team. Everything was very organized with rules and formality.

    Why do you think you and Chris Tucker made such a good team in the Rush Hour movies?

    I have no idea! When I first met Christ Tucker, I actually didn’t like him that much, but then we got to know each other and had a lot of fun moments while making the Rush Hour movies. We became a great team and had a mutual understanding for each other.

    What do you see as the future of moviemaking in China?

    The moviemaking market in China is always growing, and I think the future of the Chinese film industry is cooperating more with other countries around the world, such as with Hollywood or Europe or India and many other countries. The direction is moving toward global collaborations.

  • Frederick Wiseman

    Documentary director

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    Frederick Wiseman’s patient, observational movies, from 1969's High School to his upcoming Ex Libris: New York Public Library, have found the drama in public institutions — making their director, 86, something of an institution himself. His filmmaking career began with 1967’s Titicut Follies, which documented the hellish conditions inside the Bridgewater State Hospital for the criminally insane in Bridgewater, Mass. — because of objections by the state of Massachusetts, the film got tangled up in the courts and didn’t become available for public viewing until 1991. In the meantime, Wiseman had made more than two dozen other films and he’s kept up that pace ever since.  

    How did you arrive at your approach to documentary filmmaking?

    I started making movies five or six years after technological advances made it possible to shoot sync-sound documentaries without being attached by a cable. That gave enormous flexibility about what you could shoot. As long as there was enough light, you could shoot anything and move around easily. I was tired of seeing narrated documentaries telling me what to think. I thought it would be interesting to make a movie where you didn’t know in advance what the themes were going to be. My approach has been more novelistic than journalistic. I don’t use narration. I try to cut sequences in a way that is self-explanatory and not didactic.

    From the very beginning, you focused on films about institutions. How did that interest of yours come about?

    When I was shooting Follies, it occurred to me what you could do about a prison for the criminally insane, you could do about other places. So I thought a natural follow-up for a film about a prison for the criminally insane would be a high school. Then a whole series of possible films, a so-called institutional series, flashed across my mind. So I just systematically set out to do them.

    Was it hard to get permission to do that sort of fly-on-the-wall filmmaking in various institutions?

    Actually, it was quite easy. Follies was the film it was most difficult to get permission for. It took me about a year, 14 months to get permission. High School I was going to make in Boston, but because of the fuss about Follies, the high school that had given me permission withdrew permission. But then I got in touch with the superintendent of schools in Philadelphia, and he said, “Sure, right away.” In most instances, it’s been very easy. You get permission on the basis of a phone call or a visit or a letter or some combination. My big secret about getting permission is that I ask.

    There’s a superficial view of your movies that you are just observing and that you don’t bring much of yourself to them. How do you respond when you hear that?

    When I said a moment ago, that my movies are novelistic, not journalistic, I think my films always have a very distinct point of view. All of them, I think, are dealing with abstract ideas. When any movie works, it works because it proceeds on two levels. It proceeds on a literal level — who says what to whom, what are people wearing, what’s the nominal subject of the sequence. But it also has to work on an abstract level — what is suggested by what people are saying and doing, what more general ideas are suggested by the choice of sequences and the order of sequences. People who work in any art form deal with the same set of issues — the literal and the abstract. And by abstract, I mean metaphor, point-of-view. In any form, you have to deal with things like passage of time, introduction of people, etc., etc.  Whether you’re a novelist or a filmmaker, you have to provide enough information, so the viewer understands what’s going on. Very often the films are dealing with complex ideas, which are suggested by the literal sequences.

    There is a tradition of documentary filmmakers making films to bring about social change. You can read critiques of the institutions into the institutional films you’ve made, but how much has bringing social change been part of your agenda?

    Sometimes. Where I made Titicut Follies was such a horrible place, it’s inevitable you see that in the film.  But I deliberately don’t make didactic, exposé movies because it’s too one-dimensional. When I made Law and Order, which is about the police, it’s a complex movie. You see the police doing kind, generous and useful things as well as cruel things. There’s a scene where the police strangle a woman who’s accused of prostitution. But at the same time, you see the kind of human behavior that the police have to deal with on a daily basis. You see them doing generous things as well as violent things. You get an idea of what people do to each other, which makes it necessary to have police in the first place. I’m giving you an illustration of the way I approach these subjects. I try to have the film represent the complexity of a situation, not a simple-minded exposé. Exposé movies basically preach to the converted.

    In recent movies, you seem to be turning your attention more to arts institutions …

    That’s only because I didn’t do it first. If I’d started off with a movie about a ballet company, a theater company, a nightclub, and then I made Titicut Follies, someone would say to me, “Why’d you give up making art movies?” The real answer to the question is I’m trying to make movies about as many different subjects as possible. It’s true in the last few years, there’s been a cluster of movies about arts institutions. But that’s only because I hadn’t done them before. Not because I switched my interests.

  • Lynn Stalmaster

    Casting director

    Alberto E. Rodriguez/WireImage

    Jeff Bridges, Geena Davis, John Travolta, John C. Reilly and Christopher Reeve are just a few of the dozens of actors who have Lynn Stalmaster to thank, at least in part, for their careers. The seasoned casting director has cast some of Hollywood's most iconic stars in their breakout roles, and worked with top directors including Stanley Kramer, Billy Wilder, Hal Ashby, John Cassavetes, Mike Nichols and Sydney Pollack. "I save everything, I have all the lists from all the more than 200 films that I cast," says Stalmaster, 89.

    You started out as an actor. How did you realize that you would want to move to casting?

    I was an actor in the 1940s, in radio to begin with in high school, and then in theater, television and motion pictures up until the late '40s. Acting was going to be my life. At one point, after I had a featured role with John Wayne and Robert Ryan in a film called Flying Leathernecks. I said to my dad one day, who had encouraged me in acting, which is unusual, and I said, "You know, I'd like to have a backup position. What if I want to get married and have children? I'd like to learn all of the aspects of producing." And he said, "I know a man name Philip Krasne and he has a partner name Jack Gross. Let me give him a call." So I met with Phil and Jack and I told them that I was going to give up acting for the time being and I wanted to learn. I was with them for a year or two as a PA. Then they asked me to cast their TV series. They had five on the air. I thought to myself, "What an opportunity to treat actors with dignity, with kindness, with real concentration and not read with them the way, when I was an actor, a script was in front of your face." How are they going to see what you are feeling emotionally?

    With Harold and Maude, how difficult was it to find the right pair of actors to play the leads?

    I did a lot of films with [director] Hal Ashby. He's one of my favorites, a great man. Hal and I had, from the very beginning, said it's going to be Ruth Gordon, but Hal said to me and I said to him — we would almost talk in concert; we could sometimes sit for hours and exchange ideas. It was all instinctual, kind of spiritual — he said, "But maybe you should go to London and meet all the grand dames. So in a hotel in London, Hal met all the great ladies and he came back. We were right, it was Ruth. With Bud Cort, he had done one picture with Robert Altman, and we met everybody. I think finally it was no contest — that complement, that team.

    You helped Travolta get his breakthrough role.

    I got a call from New York from a personal manager whom I had enormous respect for. I had met so many wonderful actors from him. His name was Bob Lamonte. He says, "Lynn, I've got a young actor here who is doing musicals, getting great reviews, very talented. He just starred in one on Broadway and he wants to keep doing road companies, and I believe he has a shot in film. Would you meet him?" I said, "Of course." I love those calls. Bob Lamonte came into my office one day and the lights and the sirens and everything went off when John Travolta walked in. He had that innate magic that you don't learn in acting school. They don't teach us at UCLA. He sat down, and he had this humility, and I said, "I want you to stay — don't go back. You can always go back to Broadway." Well, the timing just always seemed to be right. Magic, serendipity was a big factor in my life. I brought John to James Komack and ABC for Welcome Back, Kotter. Then he became a big star, he took over the nation. Quentin Tarantino, who was a young guy, saw him and became a fan.

    When did you start working with Christopher Reeve?

    He was like a son to me. I saw him in a play with Katharine Hepburn on Broadway, and what I sensed was he is not only a conventionally very attractive guy, but there is something, a dimension there, that goes beyond just that visual. I told my assistant, "Bring him in tomorrow. I want to talk to him." I told him I'd get him a small part in a film and we will see where we go from there. I was doing a picture called Gray Lady Down and he played a sailor in it, and it got him his SAG card. Then when they were casting Superman, I wasn't on the picture at that time, but Richard Donner and the producers called me, and in my heart and my eyes, everything inside of me, I know it was Christopher Reeve. I kept bringing his picture in and putting it on top of the pile. I finally got them to test him, and he got it. We were friends to the end.

    You don't like to use the word "discover" when it comes to casting talent. Why is that?

    Everybody knows I never use the word "discover." I feel I'm "instrumental." Somebody once told me that Travolta once said that I'm the reason he is John Travolta, that I had power with network studios. I don't have power, but they do listen to me. And we have mutual respect, and they know when I make a statement that I really believe something. It's based on experience. It's just as satisfying as when I would act in the theater and an audience would react — I feel it. Meanwhile I know that I'm changing lives and helping. You never know where or when you will find the answer to satisfy the director's vision. I believe that "open" is my favorite word because I'm open to everything.

    — Rebecca Ford

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