It’s hardly surprising that the first movie Keanu Reeves would direct would be a martial arts picture. With “Man of Tai Chi,” the onetime Neo teamed up with two of his “Matrix” colleagues — stuntman Tiger Hu Chen, who stars, and choreographer Yuen Woo-ping — to tell of a student of the titular peaceful style who gets coerced into an underground fighting ring run by a sinister businessman (played by Reeves). The project was filmed in China, and had to contend with the nation’s restrictions.
Were you nervous to direct your first picture?
I wasn’t, actually. I’d been around prep and production my whole career. The only thing I didn’t have a lot of experience with was post-production sound. A lot of the rooms I was walking into I’d been in, but never been the director of them. I don’t know, I felt comfortable.
The action scenes are clean and allow viewers to clearly see the fighters’ performances.
The ambition, the hope was that the action sequences work dramatically. I wanted to treat them as scenes. In that sense, you want to know where you are and what’s going on. I felt we should be with Tiger’s journey as he was changing from this innocent guy to this person who’s going to a darker side — he’s losing his compassion, he’s losing some of his innocence. There are certain shots during the action scenes where he’s fighting where we’re not actually seeing punches or hits. We’re on his face. We’re seeing his expression.
Were you a marital arts student growing up?
I studied a little aikido when I was a kid. Other than that I just know movie kung fu.
Some actors who direct themselves talk about that fear of having no one to answer to. How was it for you?
The first day was tough. There’s a scene where Tiger has an interview with Donaka, who I play. We shot-listed it, storyboarded it, so I didn’t have to think about that. Jumping from being responsible for everything to having to play the character, I didn’t have the neural pathways formed for that yet. The first day wasn’t as fun, but as we kept going, experience helped, and I got more comfortable with it.
You’ve never played the full-on villain before. In films like “The Gift,” you’re dangerous but not the villain.
I haven’t played villains, I’ve played red herrings. Villains are great. They have a great passion. They’re simple. They know what they want, and that’s what they want. I thought of Donaka as being interested in a kind of vampirism. He wants to consume someone’s life to see them transform from innocence to killing or being killed.
This has a relatively low budget.
Yeah, it’s not $200 million. With the story that’s just the number we could get. I don’t think “Man of Tai Chi” should be $50 million. The big budget didn’t come into that question, personally. But I had a lot of resources. We filmed in Beijing and Hong Kong for 105 days. That’s a long time.
What is it like working with the Chinese film industry versus Hollywood?
We had SARFT. That’s the Chinese censorship administration. They don’t have a rating system, so there’s no R or PG-13 or NC-17. I tried to make the film thinking part of a PG-13 kind of platform. They do a script review, then an image review. I had to make a couple cuts. I had to take down the intensity of the violence a little bit. It was weird. It was going from 11 punches to 5 punches, or 33 strikes to 17.
Reeves' favorite martial arts movies, at least when he was asked:
“Five Fingers of Death” (1972)
“Fist of Legend” (1994)
“Drunken Master” (1978)
“Once Upon a Time in China” (1991)