Ricky Church chats with Batman: Soul of the Dragon director Sam Liu…
The first of Warner Bros. Animation’s DC films of 2021 will be released in just a couple weeks with Batman: Soul of the Dragon. Taking place in the 1970s, the film takes a look at Batman’s days training in the martial arts with his fellow students and how they must come together again to defeat a powerful threat to the world. Starring alongside Batman (David Giuntoli) are Richard Dragon (Mark Dacascos), Lady Shiva (Kelly Hu) and Bronze Tiger (Michael Jai White), some of the most skilled and deadly fighters in the DC Universe.
Soul of the Dragon is a throwback to the 1970s film genre of martial arts action adventure movies, taking inspiration from Bruce Lee’s Enter The Dragon and other such films in the genre. We caught up with director Sam Liu, who has worked extensively in DC animation as either director, producer or artist on films such as Superman: Red Son, Wonder Woman: Bloodlines and Justice League vs The Fatal Five. He spoke about the difficulty in animating Kung Fu fights and movements, the 1970s influence and Batman’s place as part of an ensemble team of martial arts fighters. Check out our interview below…
Ricky Church: Batman: Soul of the Dragon is a nice throwback to 1970s martial arts movies. What inspired you to make this a bit of a period piece to that genre?
Sam Liu: That’s mainly Bruce Timm, this is pretty much Bruce’s baby. Knowing Bruce just all these years, I think the 70s is a very special time for him. I can’t take any of the credit for it. This is all Bruce. I was a little younger, but I grew up sort of in the tail end of the 70s, or at least my memories of stuff anyways. I’m more of an 80s kid. But the 70s and watching Kung Fu cinema was a huge part of my childhood, going to these really small theatres that would play those kinds of movies with my father. Obviously with Bruce Lee, Gordon Lou, those are sort of the more prominent ones I remember anyways. That was a big part of my childhood growing up. So when this project came up Bruce asked me if I wanted to do it. I was a little nervous, but it’s something that I loved as a kid.
One of the memorable things about those martial arts movies is the fights and the choreography. They’re very fast and have a lot of movements which I think translated pretty well with the animation. You guys had a lot of fast paced fights in Soul of the Dragon so what was that process like to adapt so many martial arts fights and different styles into the film?
Yeah, it’s much more complicated than, say, traditional fighting because it’s very specific to movements and we tried to, given again the time crunch and limitation that we kind of had, we tried to sort of put in highlights for them. There was a lot of work in that and I’ve got to give a lot of credit to the board team just because it’s a lot of drawing and it’s a lot of very specific moves. Thankfully the edit and the animation studio overseas were able to capture a lot of it. I thought it felt right. There are shortcuts that kind of went along the way. It was difficult because again, like each of these characters, Shiva, Richard and Bronze Tiger, I think in the past they have had their own books that they’re the stars of. So we have basically these three, including Batman four, all world martial artists that are getting the top of their game.
It was a little daunting, but it was a lot of fun and hopefully we gave each one of the characters their moments to really shine and also sort of a little bit differently too. In the back of our minds, you know, martial arts cinema, the modern one nowadays, there’s so much wirework that’s involved. I think Bruce, again, wanted it to feel like the 70s so it’s a little more grounded. There is the supernatural element which obviously is very ungrounded, but that’s sort of part of the whole Big Trouble in Little China thing. I remember reading the script and thinking “Okay, this is a pretty grounded story so far,” but then it becomes really wild and I was just like “Whoa, it’s this kind of movie.”
Those were sort of the guidelines that we had to slowly introduce and interject in. It starts as kind of action adventure, there’s some Bond in it, there’s blaxploitation and the other Kung Fu cinema in it. But then it becomes this sort of mystical part of it. Those were sort of the parameters and guidelines that we were kind of going through of how do you make it still feel exciting enough to be modern, but also try to keep it kind of in a little bit of an older school, martial arts visual style.
Cool! Like I mentioned before this movie takes place in the 70s, so there’s a lot of 70s clothing, hairstyles, cars, all that stuff. What was it like to adapt the 70s in a way you hadn’t really animated before in this line of movies?
Yeah. I think these types of movies are interesting. I think one thing they can fall short on is it sometimes feels like a genre piece or a period piece, but then a lot of times it sort of just defaults back to modern or current cinema. We tried really hard to find ways to keep or remind the audience that we’re in the 70s. Music was a huge, huge thing. I think Bruce and I, like right from the beginning, were going like, a shot is a shot, you know what I mean? You do things with clothing, you do things with cars, you do things with, hopefully, buildings a little bit less, but the thing that’s going to help keep the viewers hopefully in the 70s is the atmosphere, which is largely the music. I remember even Jim Krieg was trying to find a lot of 70s slang and jargon into it. Bruce doesn’t like to go too overboard with stuff because it kind of becomes, even though it’s a nod to it, he didn’t want it to become a joke or a gimmick. We were hoping to find things that would immediately put us in there. Hopefully it’s the overall kind of feel of all the touches and stuff like that that will kind of keep us in the 70s and again, the biggest thing probably being in music, which is just something we specifically looked over a lot of proposers to find a good 70s sound. But again a lot of them sound very contemporary and the 70s has a very specific feel whether it’s the guitars or flute and stuff like that.
For sure. Now obviously you’ve worked on quite a few of these movies with Batman, whether they’re Batman centric or Batman is a main player in them. One of the interesting things about Soul of the Dragon is it has a lot of Bruce Wayne in it. What was that like for you to work on this where Bruce Wayne plays arguably more of a major part than Batman does?
Yeah. Even though it is a Batman movie, it really is an ensemble piece, right? Arguably he is the weakest fighter of the four. And arguably also it’s more of a Richard Dragon or maybe a Shiva story, you know? One of the things that we visually talked about too was “Oh, he’s going to look weird where there’s these three people that are just wearing, for the most part, normal street level clothing and then there’s a guy with a whole mask and cowl on.” It could have looked really silly but thankfully in animation it kind of smoothed that out a little bit. But the story is a bit more about his past and his relationship with these people basically. They’re all students at one point. It just makes sense. A lot of it depends on what the story’s about. This story is a little bit more about his history, his relationship with these people and the adventures of the crew versus him being Batman and being this person that’s trying to fight crime in Gotham. Yeah, you’re right. It is kind of more about Bruce Wayne than it is about Batman and the Batman element is only his armour when he goes to fight.
Yeah, for sure. Another interesting thing is the last decade saw Richard Dragon re-imagined as a villain in the New 52 and then Arrow. What was it like to bring him back to his status as a hero in this film?
Yeah. I think with Bruce Timm, he had an idea of something that he wanted to do and vision of Richard Dragon. We were in this virtual convention in Brazil where he had the novel that Denny O’Neil had done of Richard Dragon and it was an image of an Asian guy that was like Bruce Lee for all intents and purposes. I think for Bruce, that was sort of Richard Dragon to him because that was how he was introduced to him. I think he read the novel before he was into comics and stuff like that. I don’t think we were really looking towards what’s kind of happening in comics, you know? This movie is really a sort of Bruce Timm love letter to stuff he loved in the 70s. There was so many little weird details in this that mean nothing to the audience. Things like cars and even environments and dressing rooms like that which he really wanted to sort of push into his memory of either his old home or cars that his parents and family owned. I think this movie stylistically is just being love letter that Bruce Timm had.
Thank you to Sam Liu for speaking with us!
Batman: Soul of the Dragon will be released on Digital January 12th and on 4k and Blu-ray January 26th.
Ricky Church – Follow me on Twitter for more movie news and nerd talk.