“I became Chucky”
Ronny Yu on the set of Freddy vs. Jason (2003)
It often takes an outsider to bring in a fresh, new perspective. A marketing graduate with minimal formal training, Ronny Yu had an unexpected #1 hit at the Hong Kong box office with his 1979 cops and robbers debut The Servant, sparking a prolific run of action/fantasy thrillers throughout the ’80s and early ’90s, including Brandon Lee’s first starring role in Legacy of Rage (1986), and multiple collaborations with Chow Yun-fat. Known domestically as a jack of all trades with a bombastic, frantic style, Yu caught the attention of US executives in 1993 with the success of The Bride With White Hair—a martial arts romance with a unique combination of feverish visuals and frenzied violence—leading the director to a brief but significant career in Hollywood.
His two major US hits, Bride of Chucky (1998) and Freddy vs. Jason (2003), rejuvenated the stagnant Child’s Play, and A Nightmare on Elm Street and Friday the 13th franchises respectively, earning Yu a cult following—Bride of Chucky was a particularly idiosyncratic entry in an already idiosyncratic series, setting the tone for future installments and building a devoted queer following. Unfortunately, Yu was unable to bring this energy to Snakes On A Plane (2006), exiting the project (and instead making 2006’s Fearless with Jet Li), despite his enthusiasm for the concept, due to creative differences with the production team, much to the chagrin of its lead, Samuel L. Jackson, who, naturally, expressed his displeasure to Yu directly, in floral language.
Now based in Sydney, I spoke with Yu about his continent-hopping career and, of course, Bride of Chucky.
FELIX HUBBLE: I read that you got an early film education by watching up to three or four movies a day at the cinema in Hong Kong, is that right?
RONNY YU: My father introduced me to the Western cowboys and Indians movies when I was like four or five. During the holidays, he would take me to see a movie almost every day. I grew up watching films like High Noon (1952), The Magnificent Seven (1960), The Wild Bunch (1969). I just loved the action, the shootouts and bar fighting and all that.
FH: I would say that influence is there in your later films especially. Did you have favorite directors back then?
RY: Only when I started getting older, in my teenage years, did I start to look back and try recognize the director. I think Sam Peckinpah was the one who really blew me away—the way he handles action, the way he stages action, the way he edits an action sequence, and then the slow motion—all that registered heavily in my mind. And then Kurosawa’s movies, like Seven Samurai (1954).
FH: How did you end up at Ohio University?
RY: Laughs. I went to high school in England, and then after I finished high school I really wanted to go to America for university. At that time, I was asking my father because I needed his financial support. I really wanted to study film at UCLA, because I was always so fascinated by film. But he said no. He hated the idea. He thought filmmakers were goofballs, people who don’t take life seriously. Bu he said, “If you really want to understand America, you go to the heartland. You don’t go to the east coast or the west coast.” So that’s how I ended up in Ohio, in university. Laughs. In Athens, Ohio. And he was totally correct. I got to understand what America is all about.
FH: So you didn’t do a film degree?
RY: No, I ended up studying marketing, communications, because he wouldn’t allow it, unless I paid for it myself, and of course, I didn’t have the money. But I attended a lot of the film courses without any sort of credit. I was just curious. At night, I just walked in, and I would listen to people talk about film, and I got to watch a lot of free movies.
FH: So you head back to Hong Kong, and then you cut your teeth with The Servant, an independent production that became a surprise success.
RY: It was such a surprise. Because I knew nothing, I really knew nothing about the craft of filmmaking, I had just watched a lot of movies and read a lot of comic books—Superman, Spider-Man, all that. I just translated all those images in my head into the movie that I made. Every time I encountered a scene, I would say, “How would Kurosawa set this up?” But later, thanks to my first editor [Yee Shun-wong]—he’s the one who really got me into the craft. He gave me a book to read. The book was called Film Grammar. Laughs. He said, “You better read this back to front, before you make your second movie.” I did, I read it. And I said, “Oh okay, so there’s a grammar, there’s a film language, there’s certain techniques about why you want to place a camera there and all that...” You see, you guys today are very lucky, you know! Anybody can just—you don’t need to go to film school, you can just go to YouTube. You learn everything, inside out.
The Bride With White Hair (1993)
FH: After The Servant, you’re working in Hong Kong, making action flicks like The Postman Strikes Back (1982), and The Occupant (1984), both with Chow Yun-fat, and then you work on Legacy of Rage (1986), which is Brandon Lee’s first starring role. What were your memories of working with him on that film?
RY: Oh man, I tell you, nightmare! Total nightmare. The producer had just signed a two-picture deal with Brandon. And because I went to school in Ohio, and I had spent time in England, I spoke English, so I was sent to America to meet with him. But in our first meeting, I just sat there with my mouth open. He said, “I hate martial arts. I hate it. And don’t talk, don’t even mention Bruce Lee to me!”
I said, “Wow. The whole reason that I flew over was because of Bruce Lee, you’re the son of Bruce Lee! The whole reason that you got a two-picture deal and a lot of money is because of your father. And, of course, we’ve got to make a kickass action-packed movie, in honor to your father.” But he said, “No, no! I hate it!” I said, “Well, I don’t think anybody wants to see you play Shakespeare.” I was just honest, very straightforward. I spent a week just talking to him… He was 19 when I met him. He was wearing a leather jacket, leather boots, riding a bike, he was very rebellious. I spent a week explaining to him, “It doesn’t matter whether you like it. You’ve got to make yourself like it. And I’ll be there 24/7, I’ll be behind you, supporting you, making sure everything is good.”
I think I aged 10 years making that movie. I had to push myself to be the psychiatrist, the professor, and the filmmaker, the artist, everything! I had to use any trick possible in order to make Brandon fight. But looking back, I learned a lot. I had to pull every trick from my pocket. How do I make it work? Okay, he doesn’t want to kick, how am I going to find a double? At the end of the day, Brandon Lee has to look good, otherwise I’m not doing my job—and I was worried Bruce Lee’s fans were going to cut my throat. Laughs. That was so much pressure. But I’m happy that the movie came out, and I think people really like it.
FH: Totally. And then your big breakthrough in the US was, of course, The Bride with White Hair. What do you think appealed so much about that film in particular to Western audiences?
RY: It’s so funny, I have no idea. When I got the call from Hollywood, they invited me over to screen The Bride with White Hair, and all the studio heads and executives watched it, and after the movie, you know what they said? They said, “Ronny, Ronny, that was the best horror movie from Hong Kong.” Laughs. Oh, really? Okay. I thought I’d made a martial arts romance. You know, a tragedy, like Romeo and Juliet. They said, “You’ve got to make a Hollywood horror movie for us.” Life is so funny, really. Like Forrest Gump says, you really never know [what you’re going to get].
And then because of The Bride with White Hair I got offered Bride of Chucky. To be quite honest, it was mainly curiosity driving me. Hollywood is the movie empire of the world, so that pushed me—now I’ve got a chance to really get into it, to learn something new making movies there.
FH: How was it directing a film with a cast half comprised of animatronic dolls?
RY: Fascinating, and also frustrating. Luckily, right before Bride of Chucky I had made a children’s movie for MGM called Warriors of Virtue (1997). It’s all about animatronic kangaroos. For me, that was great. I got to learn and to meet with all those technicians, and that experience helped me tremendously in making Bride of Chucky. It was frustrating because it is difficult—every doll has like 20 people controlling all their expressions, the eye movement, the nose, the mouth, the head, the scalp, the body movement, everything.
Warriors of Virtue (1997)
FH: Essentially, you’re directing 20 people per actor.
RY: Exactly, and you have to find a way to communicate. So after one week, I became the doll—I became Tiffany, I became Chucky. I told the technicians, look at me, watch me. I tried to show them how I wanted Chucky’s eyebrows to be, how to smile when they fire the gun, you know, what the expression is like. It’s exciting shooting with those dolls. And of course the script is very funny. Before we started shooting, all the dialogue is pre-recorded, so I got to already direct Jennifer Tilly during the recording session. Then when we do the actual shooting, the playback, the technicians can see the emotion, and it makes life a lot easier.
FH: Were you familiar with the other Child’s Play films before you took on this project?
RY: No. I knew about this killing doll but only when I was directing did I go back and watch.
Bride of Chucky (1998)
FH: How was that experience, working on a big US production, versus what you were doing back in Hong Kong?
RY: Oh, the experience was totally North Pole, South Pole. In Hong Kong, the movie-making system is not that, say, solid, as in Hollywood. The machine has been there for hundreds of years. Whereas making a movie in Hong Kong is like guerrilla warfare. Really! And the director is the king; whatever the director wants or asks, you’ve got to deliver. And every time you start a movie, the script is never ready—only the director knows what they want to shoot next day, and they will come up with an idea that night and then write it.
But luckily, for myself, because of my handicap—I contracted polio disease when I was born, which limits my mobility—that always forced me to plan everything well, ahead of time. I’ve got to plan, and I’ve got to ask people to help me execute my plans, so I grew up being a very disciplined person; that helped me tremendously working in Hollywood where you’ve got to have the script and everything ready. So I didn’t have too much problem adapting to that system. And also, I really wanted to learn. I had the mindset: I’m not going over there telling them how great Ronny Yu is, I’m going over there to learn. My mind is open, and I want to absorb everything. Because you know, Hollywood is Hollywood, man! It’s up there on the hill. Hong Kong is just this little small part in a map of the world. That helped a lot. I sort of left my ego at home.
FH: But you did bring over cinematographer Peter Pau [a collaborator with John Woo, Tsui Hark, Ang Lee, winning an Academy Award in 2000 for his work on Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and most recently Wong Kar-wai] and editor David Wu [also a regular Woo collaborator] to work on the project.
RY: Yes! That is something I told the producer: if you want me to work fast and efficiently, then I need to have my own people. And the most important people on a film set, which is the director of photography, and also my editor. We have made so many movies in Hong Kong together, we have almost a shorthand communication. Also, both Peter and David speak English pretty well.
"making a movie in Hong Kong is like guerrilla warfare. Really! And the director is the king!"
FH: I was wondering about your feelings about revitalizing the franchise, and your visual style setting the tone for most of the future installments. I read that you passed on what was called Son of Chucky at the time due to scheduling conflicts. Were you asked to come back once it got greenlit, a few years down the track?
RY: Yeah, and the TV series too. Don Mancini [the Child’s Play series creator] and the producer, they really wanted me to come back. But the timing was not right because of the pandemic. And in Australia, we could not travel. I would love to go back and do it again, and to use the new technology and animatronics nowadays. It would be a lot of fun.
FH: Maybe season two or three.
RY: Yeah, let’s hope.
Felix Hubble is the co-founder of Static Vision, an independent screening collective that distributes films and stages festivals across Australia and New Zealand. He is also a program advisor at Sydney Film Festival and a film classification specialist.