Kungfu magazine interview with David Belle
SPIDERMAN is to Peter Parker as DISTRICT B13 is to “PARKOUR”
by Dr. Craig Reid
David Belle jumping from rooftop to rooftop David Belle wasn’t bitten by a spider to give him inhuman leaping abilities and the skill to traipse across the rooftops of a city; instead, his foundation lies in the reality of nature, in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s (1712-1778) “noble savage” philosophy (when mankind unencumbered by civilization becomes the natural essence of the unchained man), as well as in a volcanic eruption in the West Indies. Like the May 8th, 1902 eruption of Mont Pelee that, in three minutes, killed the 30,000 residents of Saint Pierre, Martinique, Belle explodes onto screen within the first three minutes of DISTRICT B13 (produced by Luc Besson), showcasing his “body in maximal motion” creation: art of parkour. Although you’ll be agape at this traceur’s (parkour practitioners) athletic prowess (reminiscent of the wild and wacky stunts of Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa and Yuen Biao), Belle insists it is not the same thing.
“It isn’t fair to say I’m copying ONG BAK and Jackie,” Belle told kungfumagazine.com last week in Hollywood via a translator. “We don’t want to do a film that is specific in trying to demonstrate anything. We followed the script and that is important. I also did what I do every day, and we didn’t want to do something to embellish the film, which is different from Tony and Jackie. So no, I don’t feel we are doing the same thing, and what we are doing is special for us. But let me say that we do love their work, that’s for sure. What I’m doing is also a way of life, where the training is of course physical, but we also have a moral philosophy.
David Belle on a rooftop
“Parkour is a way for our bodies to face and move in and around obstacles in our environment, whether that be manmade structures (like the far-out climbing structures created by Hungarian architect Pierre Szekely) or the natural environment. It’s about tackling fears because obstacles don’t always appear as we imagine, and it’s also about attaining self-knowledge. So you can see then that parkour is in the spirit of the martial arts, but it’s not a martial art.”
Set in Paris, 2013, DISTRICT B13 centers around the intersecting lives of two men that must overcome their differences to save a walled ghetto on the brink of destruction by a nuclear bomb and anarchy at the hands of the sanely insane Taha (Bibi Naceri, who co-wrote the film with Besson). Damien (Cyril Raffaelli) is a member of the police elite task force. As a special intervention unit officer and expert in martial arts, he is a master in the field of infiltration, and well-versed in successfully completing his operations through rapid, precise and often strong-arm actions. Leito is a one-man army living inside the walled city who realizes that, even with his fleet feet and flying lizard finesse, he can’t rescue his sister from the city’s most powerful crime boss alone. When Damien and Leito unite, the two literally leap, flip and crash into action.
Belle and Raffaelli designed the most spectacular scenes of DISTRICT B13. The hardest part of their job was to reproduce on a film set actions that they generally do solo.
“Even the most extreme stunts I’ve been able to pull off in my demos, I did at times when I felt good and wanted to do them,” Belle shares. “But on this film, we were on a shoot where everything had been clearly mapped out ahead of time, and it was impossible to double-back. You just can’t come out and say, ‘No, let’s wait, I don’t feel quite into it.’ If you said that on D Day, ‘I’ll do such and such,’ then you’ve got to do it. That’s what I really learned: that to go over and beyond physical qualities and the ability to perform feats, you have to be able to maintain the rhythm to the very end.”
Cyril Raffaelli fight choreographerStunt-jump and -climbing specialist Belle found in Raffaelli an ideal partner for his fight choreography experience via his roles as a stuntman working with some of Hong Kong’s top fight directors, such as Yuen Woo-ping on KISS OF THE DRAGON (the smaller blonde twin that fights Jet Li), Corey Yuen on TRANSPORTER and Philip Kwok (Mandarin: Guo Zui) on BROTHERHOOD OF THE WOLF.
Quietly sitting next to Belle, the stone-faced Raffaelli comes to life and recounts in French, “I started studying martial arts at six, joined the French circus at 16, have worked on 15 major French action films and studied Sanda kung fu. Now that I’m an actor, I’m open to any martial arts discipline, which I can use to make my characters appear as true as possible.
“When Pierre (director Pierre Morel) saw my work, he immediately had confidence in me; and when I started work on DISTRICT B13, I really wanted to stick to the choreographies and action scenes in the script. The idea wasn’t to make a demo but rather for each stunt to serve the story. It was an awesome job and a hell of a challenge. Everything was written down on paper and we were left to do our own thing, but then David would add his elements to make the fights look better, like when he jumps through the window, things just came alive.”
The window scene is a gag seen in a Chan film and in Yuen Biao’s KICKBOXER, where Belle, being chased toward a locked door, leaps and smashes feet first through a closed window above it. According to Raffaelli, to prepare for the gag, they first put an elastic cord in the shape of a window above the door so Belle could practice jumping through it. They eventually made the space smaller and smaller to the point of the correct window size. The stunt was shot twice and used twice in the film, Belle breaking into the room and then on his way out.
“David doesn’t have a martial arts background,” Raffaelli continues. “He learned what he needed for the film for about two months before shooting. David is from the ghetto, and I adapted his fighting style, which is more like shadow boxing. But because of his physical ability, he was able to learn things from me within a year that would take a normal person five years to learn. But ultimately, our goal was to make sure that what happens on screen rings true, with real punches and shocks, just as can be seen in the Hong Kong School of fights and action.”
With the nature of Belle’s daredevil attitude and Raffaelli’s circus adventurism, one of the major concerns that Besson and Morel had was safety on the set.
“David and I showed them demo tapes of what we did live,” Raffaelli says with a straight face. “In my demo, I do a somersault from one building to another, on the 15th floor. No mattress, no nothing. We have absolute confidence in ourselves.
“During the shoot, they explained to us that they had to set up nets, mattresses and cables. We tried to negotiate, explaining that we had already done it without them. The production heads reminded us that we’re the leading male actors, and that if one of us got injured, the shoot was done for. So, at the outset, they said ‘no’ to everything, but with my constant discussion, we finally managed to swing them over to our way of thinking. And what you see on screen is 90% real without any special effects.”
Film director Pierre Morel
And what better Frenchman to know how to shoot and capture Belle and Raffaelli’s action than director Pierre Morel, who was the cinematographer on Jet Li’s UNLEASHED and Corey Yuen’s THE TRANSPORTER. When I asked Morel during a recent visit to Los Angeles what sort of things he picked up from being a cameraman working on these Hong Kong stylized action films, he said in accented English, “I don(t know if it was conscious, but they both had differing styles of shooting action; and I learned their ways of changing angle and camera positions, and deepening it if it was Jet or his double, where they would cheat accordingly. So I picked that up without thinking about it. I did no undercranking with the fights; in fact, it was opposite, where I shot a lot of the action at 105 fps (frames per second) but then in post I would bring it back down to 24 fps, and it came out okay.”
Producer Besson also had a lot of faith in Morel, as Besson never visited the set during the shoot and basically gave complete control of the project to him. Furthermore, dissimilar to Hong Kong productions where the director usually sits back and lets the action director take over the fights, Morel played an active role and worked closely with Belle and Raffaelli.
“I also think that by working on these films with Woo-ping, Jet and Corey, I was not intimidated by doing the action for B13,” the die-hard STAR WARS fan Morel says. “And basically there was no improvisation. Everything was rehearsed, and they (Belle and Raffaelli) knew that there was no way they could do everything they want. Besides, that would have been too dangerous, and if they started improvising the movements — which is the nature of what they do in real life — then we would miss that action on the camera.
“So yes, I went though all the action with them, and told them to do their homework. When they’d suggest something, I(d say, ‘I like this, not that, and this is too Chinese,’ and we eventually came up with action beats that are interesting.”
District B13 action sequence featuring David Belle Although it is merely an action film, Morel points out that there are a few timely underlying themes that tie into the film, such as the worldwide discontent of people living amid violence in the suburbs. “Just like the uprisings last summer in France,” he alludes, “populations are not happy, and the wrong solution is to isolate parts of those cites and not build a wall around a neighborhood. These situations need to be addressed.”
Morel also explains that because nowhere in Paris looks as bad as the walled city they tried to create in B13, it was easy to find places in Romania that fit the bill. “This is sad, that places like we were looking for exist in Europe,” Morel relates. “Yet landlords in Paris would never let us do the stunts David and Cyril wanted to do for the film. The chase scene through the building at the beginning took one week to shoot, and during the casino fight Cyril got hurt. David got hurt doing the bathroom scene, but they constantly kept going without complaints.”
Belle adds, “I don’t really remember any scene at all which was really hard. Everything was so well-prepared. It was more the stress, the fear of messing it up, not doing what you’re told. But we rehearsed so much ahead of time that everything went like clockwork. The problem if you get hurt is that it blocks the entire crew, so you watch out. When you decide to make a jump, you have to be 100% sure and get everyone else to be equally confident. That’s what you learn: certainty. In B13, the action scenes, chases and jumps, I was sure I could do them. It becomes like parkour, that if you’re in physical condition and can handle it, you have to let your instincts guide you.”
It was undoubtedly French Naval officer George Hebert’s physical training and instincts for recognizing and evading environmental obstacles that were responsible for his survival during the devastating Mont Pelee volcanic eruption previously mentioned. From this he developed the motto, “Be strong to be useful,” a creed that reflected the profound effect the disaster had on him. Through his extensive travels in Africa, where he studied the physical development and movement skills of the African natives, Hebert began to develop principles of physical education. Spurred on by Rousseau’s “noble savage” philosophy, by his own experiences of facing and executing dangerous exercises (avoiding the volcano, plunging off ships, leaping over moving objects on ships during storms, walking on unstable ship decks, etc.) and understanding the power of breath and the musculature, Herbert created the “natural method” of exercise. Herbert is the man responsible for developing obstacle courses that every military in the world uses today.
David Belle, creator of Parkour Raymond Belle learned Herbert’s methods and passed them onto his son David, and David brought these things into the urban environment and, thus, the 1998 birth of parkour.
“I wasn’t raised by my father,” Belle relates with solace, “so I used it as a way to connect with him. I presented something that was structured. It started to spread and now it has eventually become a sport. You have to be like an animal that can move in the trees, be in good shape; and based on what you chose to do in parkour, you then become what you want to become.”
Belle shares that there has already been a split in the parkour ranks, something he credits to those who wish to make it more commercial, which in turn threatens the “inner spirit of the sport.” In speaking with him, I got the sense that this indeed saddened him; but being a man of his word and art, he wasn’t whining about it, and wasn’t trying to eagerly convince the world that everyone must practice the art. His humbleness is sleight of hand, as evidenced by his response when I asked why on the film poster his back is turned. As he puts it, “It is not necessary to see me.”