Hello Editor Johnny Au sits down with comedian, writer and director Lawrence Leung. Lawrence chats to Johnny about playing the lead character of Simon Chan in the new ABC2 kung fu comedy Maximum Choppage. Lawrence also talks about the writing process for Maximum Choppage and the impact that it has on the Cabramatta community.
Lawrence Leung thank you for your time today. Do you want to start by telling me a little about your character Simon in Maximum Choppage?
Simon Chan is a guy who is really out of his depth. He’s under the threat of violence by all these local gangs and unfortunately his mother has convinced everyone that he’s a martial arts warrior. But really unbeknown to her, Simon has lied and instead went off to Arts school in Melbourne. So he’s not a warrior. In many ways a lot of people may relate to him because he’s faking it till he makes it. He’s in one of those situations many people are in; they have to inveterate themselves for a job interview or try to talk themselves up on a first date. However in our Maximum Choppage universe, the stakes are so high that it becomes quite a deadly thing for Simon. He would rather die at the hands of a warrior or thug than disappoint his mother.
Just looking at the themes of family expectations. Coming from someone who is of Chinese heritage as well, that resonates a lot with me. The pressure that is put on you to have a certain career but you really want to do something else with your life. Did you draw on any personal experiences in your writing for Simon?
I guess a lot of people have experienced the expectation of parents, especially if the parents come from a traditional background. And we hear stories about how they want their kids to be doctors, lawyers or someone with a proper job. With Simon its quite a similar thing as he is a son of a very powerful martial arts warrior who is deceased and his mother has raised him very much in the shadow of his father. The only difference is our show is a comedy so everything has been turned on its head. Even though he has the same dilemmas and the same parental expectations and the same feelings of guilt, we just switched it around so in this Maximum Choppage universe, the respectable job is to be a warrior. To be a sensitive artist is the opposite. But we’ve kept the universal theme of expectation in there. For myself being a comedian and a writer working on TV and also performing on stage its something my parents would never have expected me to be. They wanted me to be a doctor when I was younger. I did some work experience in a doctor’s surgery when I was younger and that turned me off because I saw a lot of blood (laughs). I grew up realising I have this artistic bent, not so much like a painter like Simon but definitely being creative and telling stories and making people laugh. My parents are from Hong Kong and it doesn’t really have a tradition of stand up comedy and trying to explain to my parents what it was they thought I wanted to become a clown! (laughs) So I finished my degree in Psychology but at the same time I was moonlighting as a comedian performing on stage at pubs and clubs. Slowly the comedy took over and here I am today.
How important was it to shoot all the scenes of Maxiumum Choppage in Cabramatta? Also having extras all come from the area as well?
The production was very ambitious not just as a comedy but as an action adventure series that throws together a whole bunch of genres and incredible and complicated stunts. And on a ABC2 budget as well! If you can imagine us turning up in Cabramatta and saying we want to make an action comedy in your area and we want to do it quickly but we don’t have much money. A lot of generosity and goodwill went behind it. A lot of people from Cabramatta loved the fact that we were filming in their town and more so we are making it quite funny. Cabramatta has had a pretty checkered recent history with a lot of problems and issues but that’s all in the past now. However, when people talk about Cabramatta a lot of documentaries were made about that time. So it’s good to film something in Cabramatta that is not a dark story but something that is fun and with a sense of humour. But more importantly this show is a chance for a lot of Asian faces who wouldn’t normally be on television to get a shot. A good example is Kathryn Yuen who plays Simon’s mother Mrs Chan. Kathryn is from the Cabramatta area and came to one of our open auditions and she just blew everyone away because she’s just so funny! A lot of the extras are from the local area as well and some of them stuck around from day 1 of the shoot to the very end purely because they get to make a show in their own town which is exciting and new.
With the three major characters in Simon, Egg and Petal, to me it seems that Maximum Choppage is a strong story about friendship and loyalty to each other. Would I be correct in saying that?
Absolutely. It’s about childhood friends and what happens when friends get separated because Simon went away and the expectations of where the pieces are at when he comes back. It’s also complicated by the fact that there are past history and unrequited love in the relationship between the characters. We wanted to write the three core characters as best friends who grew up together and in many ways are outsiders in their town. Simon doesn’t fight and is not a warrior. He is quite risk adverse, whereas everyone around him just jumps into action. Even Simon’s mother loves a bit of action as well! (laughs) Egg is someone who is an outsider because in the Maximum Choppage Cabramatta he’s the white guy who thinks he’s Vietnamese. He loves really the culture. The reason he is called Egg is because he’s white on the outside but yellow on the inside. There’s Petal as well who is quite the action hero amongst the trio. Unlike the stereotype of the submissive Asian flower she’s extremely tough and also has trouble expressing her emotions. Petal would rather punch Simon than actually tell him how much she likes him.
I believe Maximum Choppage has been in the works in some form over the years. What has been your involvement from the beginning of Maximum Choppage? I believe it was a short film to begin with?
Maximum Choppage started off with Timothy Ly and he is a filmmaker and noted martial artist around the Cabramatta area. He made a bunch of short films with his martial arts friends which included Maximum Choppage. He then had this wonderful idea of pitching this to the TV world and approached Matchbox Pictures the production company and said how about making a martial arts/kung fu comedy? Everyone thought it was a fantastic idea and everything kicked off and that’s where it all started. I came onboard as part of the development of the creative that would turn the pages of Maximum Choppage to the screen. I was excited to be part of the writing group with Maria Tran from Cabramatta and Timothy Ly to make sure the original vibe of the series is intact. What we also did was start from scratch. We’ve kept the name Maximum Choppage because it evokes guerilla film making and chaotic excitement, fun and action. But what we have done is we’ve built up a brand new universe for Cabramatta which feels familiar but at the same time different. The stakes were raised because it became a comedy. There was a saying in the writers group “How do we Max Chop something?” (laughs).
How difficult was the choreography for the fight scenes?
Pretty difficult. We had a lot of training behind us. We also had an amazing stunt team behind us who were from the Fairfield area. They are called Dong Tam Martial Arts Association who is owned by Tung Ly who is amazing and has worked in action films in China. Basically they trained us up to do all the fight moves but especially Stephanie Son who pays Petal. She went through this amazing regime to turn her into an action fighter and by the end of the shooting phase, Stephanie had become so good at learning the moves she didn’t have to use a body double for the scenes. Myself on the otherhand, I was very lucky because Simon is not a fighter. Which meant I only had to learn to get punched in the face and look realistic! (laughs) There were the occasional scene where I was thrown through a glass window and luckily we had a double for that. I did take some kicks and had plates break on my head so it made it exciting but sometimes dangerous at times too. The wonderful thing was it looks great on screen.
What’s on your horizon for the rest of this year?
I’m currently working on a comedy festival show for the Melbourne Comedy Festival. It’s called The Escapist. It’s my latest comedy show that will be taken around Australia to the Sydney Comedy Festival and the Perth Comedy Festival. I will be taking the show to the other states later in the year was well. I’ll be busy promoting Maximum Choppage which is great because I’m excited to finally see it onscreen. But I’m really excited to get back on stage again and stand in front of an audience and telling stories.
Would you see a second series of Maximum Choppage being made?
I hope so. Everyone is being tight lipped about it at the moment. We have tonnes of ideas still on the whiteboard as to where these characters can go and what happens to them.
Hopefully we get to see a second series. Congratulations on making a fantastic series. It’s also great to see a series where the majority of actors are Asian-Australians. On a station like ABC2 as well.
During the table script read of Maximum Choppage with the entire cast assembled, veteran Asian-Australian actor Anthony Brandon Wong who plays Le Bok on the show, he looked around the room and got quite emotional at the end of the reading because he noticed for the first time for an Australian TV show, it was a majority of Asian faces around him. Also, often on set I had people say “I’m playing this character but I usually audition against the other actor over there for exactly the same token role on a commercial or TV show”. These actors were used to auditioning against each other but now have their own parts and own roles in this show and they can bring their talents to the individual characters in a TV show that caters to them.
That’s fantastic to hear. Also great to hear is a positive and fun story about Cabramatta as well.
It’s not all positive because there is a crime element in the series but at the same time we’re portraying it with a sense of humour much like Jackie Chan or a Stephan Chow movie as opposed to a gritty heroin drama. This is a fun series and I think a lot of people will like.
I can’t wait for everyone to tune into ABC2 on Tuesday 24th February at 9pm to see the first episode of Maximum Choppage. Lawrence Leung thank you so much for talking to me today.
Maximum Choppage screens Tuesdays on ABC2 at 9pm