A man who knows action, Will Leong has been a stuntman, stunt coordinator and choreographer for more than 20 years having worked on such hit TV shows like Revolution, Heroes and Lost as well as feature films like Rush Hour, Letters From Iwo Jima and Mission Impossible III. He took some time out of his very busy schedule to talk with us about Bruce Lee, the differences in doing work on TV as opposed to film and his thoughts on the ever-changing world of technology and how it affects his line of work. Read below for the interview…
How does one fall into the line of work you are in? Was there ever an option for you, or were you always going to be a stunt man?
Will: For me, I wanted to be in this business. I wanted it so badly, I dreamt about it several times that I was performing stunts and then I woke up thinking, “Oh, it was only a dream!” So it made me work harder to follow my dreams and to do what I wanted to do. I wanted to give this career a decent, hard working chance and it’s definitely paid off. Was there an option? Yeah, I gave myself a couple years to try and make a living, make a go at action films. There were definitely options in my life later on but I told myself to give it a good honest try. It’s been good. I’m thankful.
As a Stunt Coordinator/Fight Choreographer, do you experience any dry spells as well, or is there always a steady demand for your work?
Will: There are dry spots. It’s not like a regular 9 to 5. You’re kind of an independent contractor. You have to push yourself a little harder and promote yourself. There definitely is some down time so I can do some house projects or catch up with the family. I love working on my house so sometimes during my downtime I’ll just create a little house project, work on my vehicles, walk the dog, take the family out, whatever. So, it’s actually very welcome. I wouldn’t be happy if I worked 365 days on a movie set. It would feel more like a job and I probably wouldn’t appreciate this job as much.
You are well-versed in Muay Thai, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Kick Boxing, and naturally…a black belt. Are the more skills and fighting styles you master attribute to the level of success you can obtain in your field?
Will: It would help you for say a martial arts movie. It wouldn’t help for say a movie like Tokyo Drift. Most coordinators are not versed in every aspect of action but they have references. I’m not an expert in horses by any means. If there was a horse in the film and I knew a little bit about horses, I could give a decent answer to a director’s question, then I can have my horse specialist go and set it up. It takes a team to create this.
You split a lot of your work between TV and film work. Is there a major difference between stunt work on television versus film?
Will: There is a lot of similarities because a stunt on TV is set up the same way as compared to a stunt in a feature film. Of course main differences are within a TV show, you have seven days to film or tape, an episode, one hour or half an hour episode. But on a feature film, you have a certain degree of a little bit more (freedom) as far as time is concerned depending on the budget of the film. Some budgets on a TV show can be around 2 to 3 million dollars per episode. On a film, just for the stunts alone can be 3 million dollars.
Of all your work, which film or TV show do you believe would be your proudest work?
Will: It’s almost like saying they’re all my babies. I’m happy when I’m on set working on a low budget show because it’s a different challenge, less pressure. They are all real interesting. To work with Jackie Chan, it was like, “Wow!” He is the man next to Bruce Lee but I idolized him. Then I worked with Tom Cruise on movies like The Last Samurai and Mission Impossible and I was like, “Whoa! I just worked with Tom Cruise on five consecutive movies.” I was very proud of that. Then I worked with Mr. Clint Eastwood on Letters From Iwo Jima and I thought, “Wow! Clint Eastwood, Dirty Harry!” If I had to pick one, one does stand out. I wouldn’t say it was my best but it was The Matrix Reloaded. Part of it that made it so memorable for me was working with a great team of stunt people. We filmed the freeway scene in my hometown of San Francisco so part of the joy for me was to go home every other night and have dinner with my family. So, if I had to pick one, I would pick The Matrix Reloaded.
Have you ever worked on Hong Kong films? If not, do you intend on trying it out? I know Hong Kong stunt work is a lot different from Hollywood stunt work.
Will: I traveled to Hong Kong for two projects, Hong Kong 97 and Spitfire. I traveled to Hong Kong to do a couple action sequences with the Jackie Chan stunt team and actually I made the introduction to the Jackie Chan stunt team to the American production and their stunt coordinator. I thought they are pretty much the same. The productions try to rush you and say we don’t have time on both American and Hong Kong films.
What is the biggest challenge for you when working on a stunt?
Will: Yeah, you learn every day. Every time you work with good people, a good team of people, you learn. Sometimes, it comes upon me like, “Wow, that was cool the way they set that up.” I’m trying to learn something new because I’m trying to better myself as a fight coordinator, stunt coordinator because stunt coordinating may not be the last career goal. I try to learn a lot more from directors and producers as well. The challenge is probably to myself. To stay on top of my game and to better myself on the set. This job is by no means guaranteed to me so I have to work hard to maintain that status quo.
What are some of your favorite Asian films?
Will: Anything Bruce Lee because Bruce Lee is the man. They were classic to watch and you learn so much from watching him and he was way ahead of his time.
As technology and innovation progress, what are some of the ideas you have that you would like to execute in the future?
Will: I don’t look at it that way with the technology because whatever goes my way, I just want to make sure to the best of my ability that it is performed and set up safely. As far as technology is concerned, that is not as important to me. I’m not really excited what technology is coming for stunt people. Computer graphics is starting to take over a lot of the action that stunt people do. The technology is actually taking away from what I’m looking forward to, which is to work. So, what I do look forward to is when I perform a stunt, or help set up a stunt, it looks original as far as stunt choreography.
Lastly, any advice you could offer up to anyone looking to get into your line of work?
Will: If you want to do it, give it a honest try. The best advice I can give to someone is, there are no shortcuts. Don’t look for shortcuts. Plan on working hard every day to do what you want and if there is a shortcut on a particular day because someone offers it, then that’s great, then accept it. Other than that, don’t expect it because if you expect it, you are going to wake up every day thinking, ’Wow, I just don’t want to do anything today.’ Well, because you’re not going to get anywhere. That’s my advice: If you commit to it, give it an honest try and don’t expect any shortcuts because there are none, even in life.
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