Exclusive: The Protector's Tony Jaa

Source: Edward Douglas
September 2, 2006

Last year, ComingSoon.net spoke to Thai action star Tony Jaa about his debut feature film Ong Bak: Thai Warrior, which was released in the U.S. after success in his homeland and at various festivals. At the time, Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew had already started filming their second feature Tom Yum Goong in Australia with much of the same team from "Ong Bak," and we learned that Jaa was playing Kham, a young man who has to recover his family's prized elephants when they're stolen by an Asian gang.

It's quite amazing what can happen in the space of just one year, because on September 8, the movie will be released in the U.S. by The Weinstein Company, under the title The Protector with the help of noted martial arts fanatic Quentin Tarantino and with a new score by Wu Tang mastermind, The RZA (Kill Bill). Even more significant than the wide release for the movie is the fact that Tony's name is being prominently featured on all the posters and advertising for the movie, fully realizing how many fans Jaa had made from "Ong Bak."

"I've experienced a lot of good changes in the last year, through all the movies, and the change has been for the better," Tony Jaa told ComingSoon.net on his second trip to New York. "I've had to work a lot harder, but I'm proud that I now have fans in America, people ask for my autograph, and also people in Thailand are now waiting to see how well the movie does in America."

"There are a lot of things that I had to adjust to, like the time change," Jaa admitted about the Australian shoot. "My body had to adjust to being in another country. The Australians seem to be a little stricter in terms of making sure that production was on time. It was more expensive obviously to film there and they're also stricter about the safety precautions and about licenses. But it was better, because we had a bigger budget and we had opportunities to do those things." Jaa and director Prachya Pinkaew also deliberately tried to bring in more of a culturally diverse cast, including stars from China and Vietnam.

Jaa explained how his style had changed for his second movie. "The action was a little easier because we had a bigger budget, and we were able to hire martial arts specialist from all around the world, specializing in wrestling and Capoeria. There's an emphasis on a heavier, more action-packed Muay Thai with more (simulating of) breaking of bones and then there was also the traditional Muay Thai fighting with elephants."

Even though Jaa's character takes on a number of different martial artists, he denied that those fights were meant to show how much better Muay Thai is. "The intention was really to present various forms of martial arts," he said, smiling, "not necessarily to say that Muay Thai was the best, but to actually increase exposure to other forms."

One of the most amazing scenes in the movie is a four-minute one-take action sequence that has Jaa fighting his way up a four-story restaurant full of thugs. Looking a lot like what Tony Jaa video game might be like, it's amazing since it's something that has never been done before. Essentially, the handi-cam used by the sole cameraman for the scene could only hold four minutes of film in its magazine, so Jaa had to hit every mark for his entire run for the shot to work.

"It's something that I've thought about for a long time with my instructor/teacher/mentor Panna Rittikrai," Jaa told us when asked who came up with the idea to try this. "It was a quite challenging scene, 4 minutes non-stop action. They were able to finish it in 8 takes, but we were only able to do two takes per day, so it took a long time. It took one month to prepare everything before it was even filmed; every step had to be perfectly choreographed. Everything had to be filmed within four minutes, we couldn't mess up at all. The first couple takes we couldn't use, because we were up to the third floor, they were doing fine up until then, and I was about to throw someone out the window, then I realized that one of the safety features wasn't on, so I had to pull the guy quickly back. As for another take that went bad, there was a great take, we were up to the fourth floor, and I was about to say something, and the film ended, so we couldn't use that one. It was really challenging. The 8th take was the best one."

Jaa explained how another amazing action scene in the movie was shot, one in which he faced all sorts of extreme sports fights on skateboards, bikes and other vehicles. "The scene with the bikers, the skateboarders and bladers was actually filmed in Thailand, and it took about two weeks to prepare. We hired people who had those skills and worked with some stuntmen for that scene, too." It looks like they must have shot it with five cameras, but Tony said that they only used two and then used editing to make it look like more.

By the way, if you've been reading this far, you did read that part about "breaking" right, since in one scene, Tony's character gets into a fight where he's seemingly snapping arms and legs like dry twigs, and it looks far too real to be movie magic. "Basically, it takes a lot of practice," Jaa explained. "You have to be very familiar with what's going to happen, the motion, the counts. The stuntmen have been trained so they're very familiar in terms of knowing how to receive the action. There were some people that were hurt in the process, but nothing too serious."

Jaa told us that The Weinstein Company has not asked him to tone down the violence, which is probably a good thing since they're also involved in the production of Jaa's next film, Ong Bak 2, which he will also be directing. "That's one of my new roles, in addition to starring in the film," Jaa told us. "It's going to showcase a new type of Muy Thai, which will incorporate Muy Thai and Khon, a type of traditional dancing, and there will also be new traditional weapons that will be used. In terms of the weapons that can be used, it can be sticks, spears with a sword at the end, and traditional swords, as well. There's going to be emphasis on the script, and of course, the action scenes. It's predominantly going to be filmed in Thailand, because I feel that there are a lot of really nice area in Thailand that haven't been shown in film. We're still considering using international locations, but I think it will mainly be in Thailand."

So far, no one has offered Jaa a job directing action in their films, so it may be awhile before he's following in the footsteps of Sammo Hung or Corey Yuen, but earlier this year, director Brett Ratner expressed interest in Tony appearing in his upcoming three-quel Rush Hour 3, which will reunite Jackie Chan and Chris Tucker. Tony's agent, who was sitting nearby listening intently to our interview, said that Jaa's involvement wasn't going to happen. "Brett Ratner was very interested in getting Tony to act in 'Rush Hour 3,'" he confirmed, "but we had to reject the offer, because the timing wasn't right because Tony's directing his next film 'Ong Bak 2.' But if there is an opportunity that they'll be able to work together on something, then Tony really wants to do it."

In the meantime, The Protector opens on Friday, September 8.