GREEN HORNET Fight Choreographer Jeff Imada Interview

What do Fight Club, Big Trouble In Little China, The Book Of Eli, The Bourne Supremacy and The Green Hornet have in common? that would be fight and stunt coordinator Jeff Imada. A virtual legend in the industry, Imada has been one of the best in the biz for decades now and he took the time to talk with Diva Velez about making The Green Hornet.


The Lady Miz Diva:  A lot of Bruce Lee fans are interested in this The Green Hornet film was because the 1960's show was the first time many had ever seen Lee.  I noticed there was an instance where during a fight, Jay Chou as Kato does Bruce's famous one-inch punch.  Was that something you threw in as an acknowledgment to Lee?

Jeff Imada: It was mutually brought up because actually {writers} Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are huge Bruce Lee fans.  It was incorporated into the script because we were all talking about Bruce Lee.  I put a few things in there, like the big sidekick that he did and also some hand-trapping and things like that that Bruce was known for.  So, I put a few things in there and also Jay is a huge Bruce Lee fan.  He said, "Yeah, but I gotta look cool.  It better look cool" {Laughs}
 

LMD:  I wondered about Jay's training?  His fighting has a very distinctive style and he looked more muscular than I'd seen him before.

JI:  We put him into some training.  We talked about how he wanted to be more fit and look really good.  We wished we had more time with Jay; we had about a month.  We put him on a diet and exercise program, we just tried to bulk him up cos he wanted to look good.  He worked hard at trying to portray the physical aspects of Kato.  He was a super nice guy, he did quite well actually.
 

LMD:  Jay has a very interesting mix of fighting styles as Kato.  How do you decide what the style of fighting is going to be for any given film?

JI:  I go through the character, go through the script and get into their character.  Kato was very interesting to me.  And also there's a discussion with the director as to his vision of what he sees.  For this project, it was very important because everybody's going to compare this Kato to Bruce Lee's Kato.  And so there was a discussion about whether we were going to have a martial artist who's as good or better than Bruce Lee, cos people are going to expect that, or are we going to have to go in a different direction?  {Director} Michel Gondry decided Kato shouldn't know anything, no martial arts, no nothing; he should've been a street fighter.  Basically, he'd have had no training at all, but he was able to fight his way through things.  But then Gondry decided he should have "Katovision," so he can see things before they happen, so he wanted to try to find a way to present that to the audience.  It was quite an interesting process with Michel.  We tried to incorporate a little bit of everything and just make it so it's a little more gritty, but yet have a little bit of style to it.

 
LMD:  Jay has only made films in China, where they have no mercy about their stunts.  They'll happily throw their stars off of bridges.  Was he willing to do a lot of his own stunts?

JI:  Yeah, Jay was very willing.  He actually wanted to do everything himself if he could.  Of course, he also wanted to be safe... or his managers wanted him to be super-safe, but Jay was more willing than they were.  They were, "You can't hurt his hands. You can't hurt his face."  I said, "I understand I play piano too."  It was very important, that's his other means of income.  He was very willing to try and do as much as possible.  He worked hard and like I said, he wanted to make sure he looked cool. {Laughs}
 

LMD:  On the other end of the action spectrum in Green Hornet, we have Seth...

JI:  I'll tell ya, Seth is very athletic himself.  It's very deceiving, but you figure you're doing physical comedy, you've gotta have some sort of physical ability.  He pulled through with everything, he was great.  He'd go, "Am I gonna come out okay?"  I'd say, "That's fine."  "You're sure?  If you guys think it's okay, I'll do it."  But he and Jay both wanted to do as much as possible.  We showed him some light stuff and some other stunt moves, swinging off of things and he was quite happy and willing to do as much as possible.
 

LMD:  As a fight choreographer, stunt coordinator and stuntman, you are responsible for so many different aspects of a film.  Which of those roles is most challenging and which is most creatively fulfilling?

JI:  The challenging part is when you have to deal with the politics of what's going on. With any kind of company or process, you're going to and that can sometimes be challenging because you're being pulled in two different directions, either budgetary or different creative opinions.  So trying to pinpoint who has the most say to do what you're trying to accomplish, while trying to keep to the director's vision under whatever budget restraints you have.  On the creative side, trying to have something different about each project and trying to get into the characters, knowing what the characters are doing so that the actors are comfortable doing the actions for the characters.  The enjoyable part is also the same thing; helping to create the characters.  Having the physical action like a physical dialog, telling a story without dialog.


LMD:  Were there any particular films that inspired you to become a fight coordinator and stuntman?

JI:  I always loved films from when I was much younger.  I would always watch movies at home on the weekends and watch a lot of the older films that stand up better today than some of the films nowadays. {Laughs}  I think I just loved the actions films like Hooper {1978} and I grew up on a lot of the Hong Kong films and martial arts films.  It was always exciting to go to Chinatown and watch the movies in theatres over there before anyone else saw them.  "You saw what, where?"  It was fun to see even Bruce's films in Chinatown before the titles were changed and they were put into English.  So all the old martial arts films, the John Wayne films, westerns and car chase films were always fun.  Then I think for my career, what was interesting, is I was going to UCLA and I was walking through Westwood and stopping at a storefront, and at the time they used to have TV monitors in the windows and they'd show trailers of movies.  One of the trailers I remembered seeing was The Thing {1982} and I thought, 'Wow that looks really cool.'  Then it was ironic cos later when I got into the film business, I first met John Carpenter when I did Big Trouble in Little China {1986}, so it was amazing to go from seeing the trailer to working with him, then him asking me to coordinate all his projects after that since then.  So that moment sticks out in my head, to go from 'Wow that's a cool film. That guy is a great director,' and then later getting to know him and call him a friend.  He's one of the great filmmakers; he knows everything in the process, from writing, directing, producing, editing and composing for film, and has really let me watch and let me in on the process of everything that he does.  I owe him quite a bit, actually.
 

LMD:  Bruce Lee's memory looms heavily over The Green Hornet and you mentioned putting in tributes to him in the action.  How has he affected you in your study of martial arts?

JI:  Bruce is Bruce, you know what I mean?  He changed everything.  He brought martial arts more out into the open, he brought about more Eastern awareness.  He was one of the first Asian superstars that was recognisable in the States.  Also, he was so ahead of his time as far as the martial arts and as a physical specimen, even -- his philosophies and everything else.  I use his principles and concepts all the time, because I've been fortunate to be one of the ones that carry on his art because of {Bruce Lee acolyte, Imada teacher and martial arts legend} Dan Inosanto.  It comes into play in daily life and I use it for work.  I'd say my background originally was more traditional, and to be involved and being taught the way I was was contradictory to most systems because the traditional styles are very strict and structured; you have to do this or do that.  Which was good because then you understood the freedom of Bruce's method and Dan's method of teaching; which was you learn the principles and the concepts and you absorb them, as opposed to saying, 'This is the only way,' and you make it your own.  So each person you recognise is both different and moves different and may have different favourite moves, basically.  So what I may do and do well, somebody else may feel uncomfortable doing, where traditionally you have to do everything and do everything well, which is great, but in daily life you're gonna use the things you're comfortable with and some things you may not be too comfortable with.  And with martial arts, there's so many styles and so many different ways of moving, I mean there's an unlimited ways of moving and there's different ways of presenting it and having certain transitional moves and poses.  You can't learn every single thing and be excellent at every single thing, but that's what's fun about the martial arts is that it's a never-ending journey of learning.  It continues to grow, and that's what was great about Jeet Kun Do, is that it's supposed to continually change and evolve.  So what Jeet Kun Do was in the 60's and 70's is different from what it is now.  And it should change, and that's what Bruce wanted was to not even put a name to it, as you know, cos he didn't want it to be stagnant and have a title and have it be called something, and this is what it is; cos it always changes and evolves, but you have to name it something.  He didn't want to call it a style, because then you're putting a structure to it.  It changes -- right now there's Judo and Jiu-Jitsu -- different types of Jiu-Jitsu - and then it became more Karate and Tae Kwan Do more kicking and punching, and then Kung Fu and then the ninja stuff came into effect.  Suddenly you see all these ninja schools, you go, "Where are all these ninja schools coming from?" {Laughs}

 
LMD:  Yeah, is there really supposed to be a school for Ninjitsu?

JI:  I'm sure there is, but they're supposed to be ninjas! {Laughs} They're not supposed to be out in the open!

But when that first started, the style of fighting with the Gracies and everything else, that kind of grappling became more prevalent.  Now you see them doing standup kicking and punching, and those guys come out ahead, too, because they understand the ground fighting.  Before they really didn't understand that and all the Jiu-Jitsu guys were just waiting for their moment.  So it keeps going full circle and things keep changing.  It keeps evolving and growing, and to me, Bruce was one of the first ones that cross-trained and used every type of fighting.  He understood the fighting aspects of everything and would take everything.  He would say, "Absorb what is useful, disregard the rest."  He really understood movement, but it's important to understand the different styles and different ways of moving, so if somebody was coming to you that way, you at least understood how to defend yourself against that type of person. And whether or not you liked that way of moving, or that type of style, or those moves was up to you, but at least introduce it to your students and understand it, so that way you could respond accordingly.  Use everything.
 

LMD: Use everything?  That sounds like what you do in your fight scenes.

JI:  Yeah, that's why I said it's really affected me a lot in life and also in this business.  I totally appreciate it.  It's also about learning how to flow and fit in with different situations, which helps you when every show is different, every situation is different.  It's sort of nice to, like he said, "be like water."  You try to not get stuck in things and try not to be always staying a certain way.  The more you can fit in and just flow with things, which hopefully keeps moving you forward, as opposed to trying to hold on to things that you feel are the most important things at the time, which later you realise weren't so.  But yeah it's been fun, and it's just a journey all the time.

~ The Lady Miz Diva

January 13th, 2011
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