Inside the Mind of the Muscles
Jean-Claude Van Damme on being Jean-Claude Van Damme
"Je suis fasciné par l'air. Si on enlevait l'air du ciel, tous les oiseaux tomberaient par terre. ... Et les avions aussi."
Translation: "I am fascinated by air. If you remove the air from the sky, all the birds would fall to the ground. ... And all the planes, too." – "Abstract thinker" Jean-Claude Van Damme
Say what you will about Jean-Claude Van Damme's checkered film career, but the Muscles from Brussels has rarely been anything less than committed. Committed to what, however, has long been the question. A case study in steely determination and a hopeful athletic romanticism that allowed him to master, from the age of 10 forward, multiple key martial arts disciplines including karate, Muay Thai, tae kwon do, kickboxing, and those legendary airborne splits. Unbeatable. But still in Brussels, dreaming of Hollywood.
In 1982 he moves to Los Angeles – with no leads, no contacts, no English – and drops his family's surname Van Varenberg in favor of, well, you know. By day he delivers pizzas, cruises cabs, odd jobs. By night he stalks the nightclubs hoping for a break, an introduction, a chance. What he gets is uncredited extra work in Breakin'. Ouch.
And then one night in 1986, Van Damme catches sight of producer Menahem Golan exiting a restaurant. Golan, who, with his partner, Yoram Globus, oversees exploitative-action Cannon Films, is a major player: Missing in Action, American Ninja, Invasion U.S.A.
Van Damme, in an inspired, if reckless, moment, dazzles (and terrifies) Golan with one of his soon-to-be-signature high kicks that nearly exfoliates the poor producer's cheek. The producer is nonplussed but impressed enough to meet with Van Damme and set him up with his first major role: Bloodsport. The film is crap but fun crap, and it nonetheless rakes in the cash. The Muscles have arrived. Sort of.
If you know anything about Van Damme, whether it's the increasingly uninspired films he acted in during the mid-Eighties to mid-Nineties (after that, they stopped being released in most American markets) or his drug-and-divorce-filled personal life that regularly made for tabloid fodder, then you know his was a story of promise squandered. One bad script led to another. Double Impact, Street Fighter, Double Team, the Universal Soldier series; even the fact that Van Damme helped bring John Woo to America for Hard Target was upstaged by his own damnable mullet and Lance Henriksen's infinitely more interesting villain.
Dreams die hard, all the more so when you're a washed-up action star with a penchant for making bizarre, Zen koan-esque statements to the international press. Bernard-Henri Levy Van Damme was not. Still, it hurt to be mocked, or worse, forgotten.
But most of us – hardcore film geeks and Alamo Drafthouse denizens excepted – did forget.
This is about to change, and in a very surprising way, with the release this week of JCVD, a darkly comic riff on Dog Day Afternoon by way of Charlie Kaufman's absurdist sensibilities. It's nothing less than a revelation, part mea culpa for all the lousy movies Van Damme's cranked out to pay the bills of late, part brilliantly executed career turnaround. Jean-Claude Van Damme, it should be noted, plays Jean-Claude Van Damme, or a close approximation thereof. It's one of the most riveting, emotionally devastating, and altogether unexpected performances of 2008. And, love the guy or hate him, JCVD really needs to be seen to be believed. Down for the count? Nope. Back from the dead.
The Austin Chronicle spoke to Van Damme from Bangkok, where he's just wrapped his second directorial effort, the True Romance-inspired Full Love, which also stars his son and daughter.
Austin Chronicle: There's a sequence in JCVD that is going to blow people's minds, not because of any action or stunt work but because it's such a naked exposure of who you are and what you've been through. Without giving anything away, could you speak to that a bit?
Jean-Claude Van Damme: To be able to talk about yourself, and also about the others, you have to open yourself to show people you're not just like a genius or a special guy. Just like a normal guy. And then you can start to talk about life, because you first open yourself to the screen, to the people, to the audience, and then you have the right mode – so naked! – the right mode to talk about us. People are surprised to hear that I'm one of you guys. [In my career] I was at the right time, the right place, the right moment. And it is true that some people are working so hard and are very intelligent, and if only you give them half the chance that I had, well, sometimes you can [feel] guilty from that. But now I feel good with JCVD, because all that guilt [that I felt] is over. I worked very hard to make [JCVD and Full Love]. And I'm sure some people push as hard as me and do not get the same results. And that sucks, because me, I know what pushing is.
AC: What brought you back to directing [Full Love] 12 years after The Quest?
JVD: Yeah, The Quest was a movie directed without being directed. Full Love, which I'm also producing, is not like that. I spent one day doing 29 shots in a big club called the White Rose, with lots of extras. It's 35 millimeters, and believe me, you see mistakes if you are very attentive, and the mistakes make the story [not] look real, and then it starts to look like a movie, the actors start to look like actors and not people who are telling the truth. But because the actors are being with me for a long time and because I talk to them with lots of passion – with tears in my eyes, because I know this script so well – when I talk about the film and I give all my insights to them, they absorb it, they feel it, and that's what you do. And then they go away from my hotel room, and then I'm naked, then you're naked, and you're sad. And then you wait for the day when you start to shoot with the camera, rolling, because then you can resee and refeel what you left them with, and they come back with added thoughts about making this true story which is based on another reality.
AC: You just turned 48, and suddenly you're back in the game after a pretty rough couple of decades, both professionally and personally. If you had the chance to do it all over again, would you?
JVD: First of all, no, I wouldn't change anything. I am JCVD because of life, because of my life; I am what I am, you know? And even if I want to restart again, it would be too tiring. Just to think about what I've done in my life – and I don't want people to think I'm [bragging] "blah, blah, blah" – but I left early from my country, I've been all around the world, and I've seen the same hotel, motel rooms, you know? I like to stay in the same rooms. I'm getting old. I've done so much traveling and training and competition and parties. Really, my body should be broke in pieces, but not yet. I don't know why. I guess my passion for life, my passion for many things. The good things and the bad things.
AC: What has Jean-Claude Van Varenberg learned from Jean-Claude Van Damme, or vice versa?
JVD: The most important thing I've learned is that [in] life, in general, you really have to think that life is like a window. You open a window, and you look from left to right or right to left, depending on your religion, and your life is gone very rapid. It's there, and it's gone, very fast, very quick. So the most important [thing] in life is to think, "What am I going to do with this life, as a creator?" In the small way and in the big way, people should create something. And then their life is beauty, you know? Even though they have problems with the wife, divorce, accidents, drugs – whatever it is, the mission is still there. And the mission is to create that dream we want to do in life. Lots of people don't have a dream; they just are well-educated, and they go to work, and they build a family, but they have to do something they enjoy. I'm sure some lawyers enjoy [being] lawyers. Me, I wanted to be a movie star. But what's a movie star? It's nothing special. Now my joy is to make good movies. After 20 years of being in the business, I finally found joy in trying to make the best movie possible, by being there, by being very attached to a script, by being responsible for a story. And also to respect that story. And to become that story. That's the most beautiful experience you can have.
JCVD opens in Austin on Friday, Nov. 21. Read the Chronicle review, Nov. 21.