Interview: Johnnie To on “Mad Detective”

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07112008_maddetective.jpgBy R. Emmet Sweeney

Since the formation of his Milkyway Image production company in 1996 in Hong Kong, Johnnie To has been the most imaginative (and prolific) director of genre films in the world. Mainly known stateside for self-reflexively stylish gangster flicks like “The Mission” (1999) and “Exiled” (2006), he’s also produced a slew of hit romantic comedies (including the delirious 2002 supernatural love story “My Left Eye Sees Ghosts”). Whatever the subject, his films hum with the skill of a committed craftsman, every shot jiggered for maximum lucidity and intensity. There’s no wasted motion in a To film — every gun crack or eye-poke carries the weight of the character behind it.

To’s collaborated with screenwriter and Milkyway co-founder Wai Ka-Fai on his most daring projects, including the bodybuilding Buddhist thriller “Running on Karma” (2003), and they reteam again for “Mad Detective,” which recently screened at the New York Asian Film Festival and which opens in New York on July 18th. A knotty noir about a burnt-out cop (Lau Ching Wan) who claims he can see people’s inner personalities as distinct individuals, it shoehorns black comedy and psychological musings into its pistol operatics. I got the chance to chat over email with Mr. To about the film as well as his sublime new pickpocket tale “Sparrow” (also a part of this year’s NYAFF, and currently without U.S. distribution), and his next project, a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.”

What’s your working relationship like with Wai Ka-Fai? He’s given a co-director credit on “Mad Detective.”

To put it simply, Wai Ka-Fai is the brain of Milkyway, whereas I consider myself the hands that handle the execution. All the ideas come from Wai Ka-Fai, although I handle everything that’s related to shooting. For “Mad Detective,” Wai and I were on the set together because the story was very complicated. We conferred with each other frequently to make sure I didn’t shoot incorrectly. Without Wai, there wouldn’t be “Mad Detective.”

How do you prepare to film a major action set piece like the final shootout in “Mad Detective,” or the long opening take in “Breaking News”? Do you storyboard every shot beforehand, decide on the blocking once you arrive on set, or both?

I don’t storyboard. Everything is kept in my head. For “Breaking News,” after initial location scouting, I planned out the sequence step-by-step while rehearsing with the cast and crew. I don’t like to plan things too early because it takes away the fun of actual shooting.

07112008_sparrow.jpgI understand you filmed “Sparrow” over a three-year period. Could you describe the production process?

“Sparrow” was a personal and fun project for me. I would shoot whenever I had ideas, be it a scene or an image. Basically we shot for three years, but it was for a few days every 3-4 months between projects. Without the Berlin Film Festival’s invitation, I probably would’ve gone on shooting! I really appreciated the actors’ patience and their ability to stay relatively the same over a period of three years.

What was your original conception for the film? Did it change over the course of the shoot?

When I shot “The Mission,” it was about a group of bodyguards. Then I made “PTU,” which was about a group of cops. So I thought it’d be fun to make another film about teamwork, but this time without guns and blood.

Could you comment on the score? It seems highly indebted to Michel Legrand’s work for Jacques Demy.

For me, “Old Hong Kong” meant a combination of Eastern and Western culture. So I thought the sound of “exotic oriental” would be perfect for the film, something similar to the score of “The World of Susie Wong.” The last scene in the film is an homage to Jacques Demy, so our composer followed that direction as well.

Your work uses the richness of the film grain to such an expressive extent, I’m curious as to what your thoughts are on digital photography. Do you ever see yourself shooting in HD?

I am a 35mm person. But recent developments in digital cameras has impressed me, like with the Nikon D3. Also, I liked a lot of what David Fincher did in “Zodiac.”

The “Bourne” films have created a bit of a stir in the U.S. for their hyperactive editing schemes. As someone who places great importance on editing, I wondered if you had seen these films, and what you think of their style?

I’m not familiar with the “Bourne” films, but I think editing is very crucial to storytelling, not simply for providing a sense of motion and speed. Too much of Hong Kong cinema has focused on that in the past and in the end, audiences don’t care about the story anymore.

07112008_johnnieto.jpgYou’re an incredibly prolific worker, and I’ve read that you’ve started preparing a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Le Cercle Rouge.” What do you value in Melville as a filmmaker?

The remake is currently in development and the script is written by Wai Ka-Fai.

I think my work and Melville’s bear a lot of resemblance to each other, not just visually but also philosophically. I must admit I didn’t know much about Melville when I was young. I saw all his films when they first came out because I was a fan of Alain Delon!

[Photos: “Mad Detective,” IFC Films, 2007; “Sparrow,” Milky Way Image Company, 2008; director Johnnie To]

“Mad Detective” opens in New York on July 18th.


New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…


IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon.

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number!

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time.

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by.


IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo.

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim.

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t?

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?”

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud.

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.


The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”


Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).



Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.


And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.


Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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GIFs via Giffy

In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.


Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.


Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!



Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.


Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.


If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.