The universally positive response to JCVD has given Jean-Claude Van Damme a career boost. While fans have long championed the man and his movies, only now do the mainstream media seem willing to acknowledge his appeal. In this Black Belt exclusive, the comeback kid talks about his latest films and what he has planned for the future.
Black Belt: Were you surprised by how well JCVD has been received?Jeane-Claude Van Damme: It's been refreshing and inspiring to see [that] the film is getting such great feedback and that people have taken it to heart. (laughing) It's funny as for a long time I didn't think we would make the movie. The first time the project was discussed was after I'd been interviewed for a documentary a few years ago. The director had come up with an idea for a movie about me being caught up in the middle of something, but it never went any further. The project came up a few more times, and then I met this young guy named Mabrouk El Mechri, and he'd expressed his interest in doing such a project to show people a different Jean-Claude Van Damme. He told me that he thought I was a good actor and that he wanted to do something very different. Mabrouk is a very charismatic, very intelligent guy—he really sold me on the idea of the film, and then I didn't hear from him for some time.
I didn't know that Mabrouk was going through a hard time. When I spoke to him again, I told him how disappointed I was that he'd made this big speech and sounded like a man of his word and then nothing had happened. He apologized and asked me to give him 15 days to put something together, a rough screenplay to show me. I said he should come and see me when he had something real to show me.
It was maybe 10 days later [when] he traveled by train to Belgium and came to my house. He sat down in front of me like a little kid and proceeded to tell me the whole film, not just a rough outline but pretty much the entire film with all the dialogue, situations and characters. I knew then that Mabrouk was the right man for the job.
I have never had such a positive experience making a movie. Every day when I came on the set, he would be happy and enthusiastic and welcoming. One day, I was having problems with a scene—something kept going wrong, and I was having to repeat the same things again and again—and I was getting frustrated. Mabrouk just came over and put his arm around me and told me not to worry, that we should stop shooting for the day and come back tomorrow. He wasn't upset or worried. He felt that if we weren't going to get it right, we shouldn't be killing ourselves to keep doing it; we should step back and try again the next day. And we did. He was able to rework the schedule and shoot what was needed. His attitude helped me give the film everything I could. He was the writer and director, but it was a collaborative way of filmmaking. He's a genuinely talented director.
When I first saw the film, I was disturbed. It wasn't exactly what I thought we'd been doing; I hadn't realized how raw it was. I wasn't sure how people were going to react to it. I wondered if the fans of my earlier films—who want to see me kick ass—might not accept me like this. But it struck a chord with a lot of people. The response has been very good, and I've gotten a lot of positive feedback about my acting.
Black Belt: For your most recent project, The Eagle Path, you served as producer, writer, lead actor and director. What can you tell us about the film?
Jeane-Claude Van Damme: I just finished the editing. It's a project I've been wanting to do for several years. I've been rolling the idea around for a long time, and I just kept coming back to it. You saw the first cut—maybe you should tell me what you thought of the film.
(OK, here goes. The Eagle Path, formerly known as Full Love, tells the story of a disillusioned, dysfunctional former soldier named Frenchy (Van Damme), who is working as a taxi driver in an unnamed Southeast Asian country. His life is turned upside down when he meets Sofia (Claudia Bassols), a beautiful woman working as a “companion" in an exclusive club. Frenchy sets out to save her from the life she's living, from her vicious boss Soli (Adam Karst) and from herself.
During production, I visited the set in Thailand and was impressed with the way Van Damme was shooting the movie and working with the actors. After watching the first cut, I liked what I'd seen. It's not a conventional Van Damme movie; it's a dark journey that at times seems reminiscent of the work of Johnnie To or Pierre Melville in terms of character development and the way things play out. It has an interesting feel to it, and Van Damme gives another “raw" performance that shows that JCVD wasn't a one-off in terms of how far he can take things as a dramatic performer.)
I put my own money into The Eagle Path—it's a very personal project for a number of reasons, not just because [of that] or because my son Kristopher and my daughter Bianca are in the movie. It's a story I wanted to tell for a long time. When I'd talked about making the film before, people told me they liked the idea but then suggested changing so many elements that it would no longer have been the movie I wanted to make. After JCVD, I knew I wanted to do something that was a little different, and I thought it was time to do this project. So I decided to put up the money myself and shoot the movie I wanted to make.
I used a lot of new actors, and I gave them the chance to improvise, to breathe life into their characters. We had a cast that was all working together for the same goal. It's a hard film to talk about without giving too much away, and I am interested to see how people respond to the project and the performances.
Black Belt: There have been lots of rumors about sequels. In addition to Universal Soldier: Regeneration, your third Universal Soldier movie, which came out in 2009, there's talk that you're considering making follow-ups to Timecop and Double Impact. The one that's really got people interested, though, is a possible Bloodsport sequel.
Jeane-Claude Van Damme:Bloodsport holds a special place in my heart. It was my first real movie and really introduced me to the world. It was ahead of its time in a lot of areas—it not only helped give the martial arts genre a boost but also foretold certain things like the Ultimate Fighting Championship and the idea of pitting different styles against each other.
I want to make a movie that fully respects the ideas and spirit of the original. It will have all the martial arts action people want to see, but the story and drama will be handled in a more mature way this time. I want it to have an epic feel; I want it to be The Godfather of martial arts movies (laughing)—something people will look at as a milestone, something that embraces the genre and respects the martial arts.
I have a lot of ideas that I'd like to explore. I'm older now and can't play the young idealistic hero this time. I want to play a character that's my age, somebody who has experienced the highs and lows of life. He's not this fresh-faced young fighter anymore; he's almost a bum, he's out of control when it comes to his life. I'd like to explore that idea and the relationships he has with the people around him—maybe he's not been the best father or husband, maybe he's neglected his children, and as they've grown up, it's gotten worse. As his son became an adult and started to stand up for the rest of the family, maybe things turned violent. [Maybe] he's taken things out on his son without even realizing it. It's the kind of thing that can destroy a family, turn father against son, especially as maybe the father is so far gone he doesn't even know what he's been doing.
I want to see what would make someone follow that path and what could possibly turn him around and make him become somebody again. But I'm not sure if the studios like that idea. They [say]: “You can't play a hero like that. How can the hero of the movie abuse drugs, abuse himself and neglect his family? That's just unacceptable."
I ask them why not, and they say it's against the rules, but I believe that if we can show something real, show someone having to overcome real problems, it makes the character and the story that much more real. There are real athletes and people who have overcome incredible difficulties in their lives, people who had success and opportunity given to them and wasted it. They lost it maybe because they took drugs, maybe because they were with the wrong people, and sometimes they manage to make it back. That's what I want to explore. I don't think that just because it's a martial arts film it has to be a very simple story, that we should only concentrate on the action. I want all the elements to be there: the story, the drama, the characters and, of course, the martial arts action. If I can make a movie that delivers in all those areas, that would be a martial arts movie worth making.
The title I have for the project is
The Pit Bull. It can describe the way the character thinks and behaves and the way he fights—he's beaten and battered but keeps going. I am gathering the right people around me to work on this film. It's very important that I have people who have a real passion for what they're doing, a real love for film. I don't want people who think of this as just another job. I want people who will give me 100 percent, who want the same thing as me, [which is] to make a great movie.
I want this to be a full-blooded martial arts film, but in addition to the action, we will have a story. There will be real drama, real characters that people can identify with. Some people might think there are some semi-autobiographical references in the film, and maybe they are right. If you can put real elements into a character, real experience, you can make the characters and situations more real for the film. I really want to make movies that work on a number of levels—not just action, but action and drama combined. I want this film to stay true to the spirit of films like Bloodsport, but with heart and substance to back up the action. I've been through some ups and downs in life, through good times and bad times, and now I can bring real life experience into a project like this. I really believe that The Pit Bull will be the movie that people have been wanting to see me do for a long time.
(This article originally appeared in the June issue of Black Belt. Mike Leeder is a Hong Kong-based writer, producer and casting director. His credits include Jet Li's Fearless, Jackie Chan's Rush Hour 3, The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor and Yuen Woo-ping's True Legend.)