District B13 : A Leap Forward in Action

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French filmmaker Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita, The Professional) has always been on the cutting edge of action, and with his latest brainchild, District B13, he brings the popular sport/art of Parkour to the big screen, teaming the movement’s creator David Belle with martial arts expert Cyril Raffaelli (Kiss of the Dragon). Also known as “freerunning,” Parkour is the sport of getting from one place to another in the fastest way possible, which often involves running, climbing, leaping and jumping over any obstacles.

Conceptualized and co-written by Besson, District B13 combines two very different styles of action into a story that takes place in the near future of 2010 in a section of Paris where gangs and drugs run rampant, a bit like the Brazilian favelas of City of God. Belle plays Leïto, a loner who steals drugs from the local mob boss, who gets revenge by kidnapping Leïto’s sister and throwing him in jail. When a nuclear device is stolen by the same mob boss, the government assigns Raffaelli’s Damien, a member of an elite undercover task force, to work with the imprisoned Leïto to break into District B13 in order to retrieve and disarm the nuclear weapon.

Besides showcasing these two new action stars, District B13 is also the directorial debut of Besson’s latest protégé Pierre Morel, who cut his teeth as a cameraman, shooting many of Besson’s action scenes, and acting as director of photography for movies like The Transporter and Unleashed.

On a recent trip by the trio to New York, David Belle told ComingSoon.net how the film came together. “Luc Besson came up with the idea first. He had seen my demo tape and already knew what Cyril could do, and he incorporated it into the movie.”

“I got on the boat later,” Pierre Morel continued when asked about his directorial debut. “Moving from DP to this movie wasn’t easy. The action part I felt comfortable with. The directing part was a challenge for everybody, me because it was my first time, but especially for them, because it was their first time acting. That made it very interesting. With a little help of Luc Besson, who gave me a few tips at the beginning, and a lot of rehearsals, we got it.”

David told us of his background and how he used that to help start Parkour. “I took gymnastics as a kid and went to school with the firefighter’s kids, which included gymnastics. “If I’m able to do gymnastics and acrobatics, I’d be able to do what my father did. When I was 15, I asked my dad what his training was to do all those amazing things as a firefighter, and my father told me it was Parkour, which is how I started doing it.”

After having spent his teens touring France with one of the biggest circuses and becoming a kung fu champion, Cyril Raffaelli began building an extensive resume in film. “I have a totally different background [than David] that comes from the martial arts in competition and stunts,” he said, mentioning his stint as Jean Claude Van Damme’s body double and his acting debut in Kiss of the Dragon as high points. “I basically did sixty movies before being brought on this project. I also come from a background called acro-street, like doing acrobatics in the street, which is similar to Parkour. It’s what brought us together in the movie and made things very easy.”

“I did karate for two months and kung fu for three months in Thailand, just to learn the basics,” David replied when asked about his own martial arts background. “Actually, my mentor for martial arts is Cyril, who showed me a lot of techniques.”

“He had amazing physical abilities, which helped a lot,” Cyril quickly added, deflecting any of the credit. “David learned within months what it might take years and years for other people to learn, so it was very easy. For example, David never did stunts before, so I had to teach him. It’s a great friendship story, because the two of us really clicked and we each took things from the other, techniques and stuff, so it was a non-stop exchange. In the end, Luc Besson let us do our own things and experiment, and if it was good, they would keep it. In the final scene, where the two of us fight, I wanted it to be believable and I wanted David to really be comfortable in the action scenes, so we spent a month together in Thailand and trained a lot, which made it super-easy in the end, as you can see on screen now.”

Cyril also explained how he learned from Jet Li and the other martial artists he worked with in past movies. “When I worked with Jet Li, I was a nobody and I wasn’t in a position to do things my own way, so I had to learn Jet Li’s way of doing things, which was a great learning experience. I was scared at first to work with Jet Li and be overwhelmed and not have a chance to show my personal touch, but that was not the case. They asked me to do several very distinctive things that I could do, so I’m very proud of that final fight with Jet Li. Jet Li’s someone who comes from very traditional kung fu and adapts very quickly, and you have to be very careful, because he’s quick.”

“Parkour is not a martial art,” Morel explained when asked about the similarities between the two styles of action seen in District B13. “There is some Parkour action in the movie, which is all the chases, and there are some fight scenes, which are just martial arts. They’re not one big thing, they’re two separate things. [David and Cyril] have been working together, so they used each other’s style to improve, but Parkour as a sport is not a martial art. It’s just a way to move and go over obstacles from Point A to Point B in the best possible manner without making any fancy moves. It’s really two different things, though it does relate to the same philosophy. They both go in the same direction of personal improvement and making things flow.”

“Martial arts techniques are based on animals,” David elaborated. “They also have to move and walk around, which would be the Parkour side of it. For an animal to survive, it would have to know how to fight to defend itself or for food, which would be the martial arts side, and animals also have to migrate to survive and that would be more the Parkour aspect of it.”

“It’s like martial arts, using the same mindset that lets you pass those obstacles that you have in real life,” Cyril added.

When asked when it was best to feel rather than fight, David joked, “Whenever there are more than two or three, you just run.”

He also tried to explain the spiritual philosophy behind Parkour. “It’s a fight against yourself. Working on obstacles and overcoming them is a metaphor for life,” he began. “It’s just being able to overcome anything, to always move forward, to never stop and no matter what your level is, there’s always a different path that you can follow. It’s respecting the other one, having a strong mind and go through life as a strong person, avoiding any obstacles. Martial arts and parkour are very similar in that you have to adapt yourself non-stop. You never know who you’re going to have to fight, and the same thing with Parkour, because if you’re going to jump on top of a wall, you don’t know what’s behind it, and it’s a matter of adapting yourself and being able to overcome all those surprises.”

The next day, we would watch as David, Cyril, and a team of local “Traceurs”—as Parkour practitioners are called–ran, leapt, jumped, flipped and climbed all over the lobby of the Landmark Sunshine Cinemas in lower Manhattan, showing what could be done with Parkour. It’s even more impressive when you see what these guys can do live, since in most movies, these amazing stunts would be done with wires or camera tricks.

“It’s a very intricate process,” Morel said when asked about what it took to capture Parkour on film. “The point was to shoot this movie so that we could capture what they could really do. The basic idea of this movie is that they do everything themselves. Usually, when you do an action movie, you have the main cast do the close-ups and then you have stunt doubles do the action. I’ve been through that a lot of times. On this one, we didn’t have to do that. We didn’t have to cheat. What we did was that we rewrote the script according to what David could do. We knew the moves he could do, and we’d find the right locations to let him do what he could do, then we’d shoot it so that we could show it in the best possible way to show that he could do it for real. Sometimes, he just sees things and says ‘I know I can do that.’ Some places we shot in the suburb where he grew up, so he knew the places and he had done it before. He just knows his possibilities and how far he can go. He tries it on set once we’re ready.”

Some people might be aware of Sebastien Foucan and his own “Freerunning” movement, which developed after a parting of ways between the Parkour founders and former friends. (Foucan appears in the upcoming James Bond movie, Casino Royale.) David had a few things to say about these separatist movements. “I took what my father taught me about Parkour and stuck to it, keeping that same philosophy. “It was a hard choice sometimes, because I had to give a lot of myself,” he confessed. “Then the movement started growing and they have different views and vision and started doing their own thing. I could not control it, and I didn’t want to. A lot of them wanted to be involved in the movie industry and start their career and that’s it. I just stuck to the real deal from the beginning. Sebastien was walking in my shadows and copying a lot of things that I’d do and not come up with new things. I’m the original and all the others who came after are people who copied what I was doing, but they’re reasons for doing Parkour is not as noble a mindset.”

Cyril also answered the frequent question about whether there were any injuries while shooting those insane action sequences. “Before the shoot, we were training for a few weeks and I hurt my right foot, so we had to reschedule the shoot for six months. I would have needed a year to get better, but there was a scene where we go through the floor of a bathroom and as I was still recovering, I was compensating on my left foot, and I ended up spraining my left ankle. They had to change the schedule so I’d just have acting scenes instead.”

“I’m careful,” David said with a smirk, much to Cyril’s annoyance.

That said, they prefer working together rather than competing. “There’s absolutely no competition,” Cyril confirmed. “It’s a matter of changing ideas and tricks and we work hand-in-hand to achieve the best we can. Also, in the movie, I was coordinating 80% of the stunts and if there was competition, I could have done the most impressive stunts and done the best things, but that wasn’t the case. I want David to shine as much as he can, so the movie would be as good as possible.”

“Something that linked us and solidified our friendship is that we never take it for granted,” David agreed. “We’re always questioning every day what we’re all about and that’s what made us move forward.”

They have other projects together which they didn’t want to reveal just yet, and thought they also have their own careers, Cyril does think they will be working together a lot after their experience on District B13. “If one of us is working on something and like David would be needed on my project or vice versa, of course, we’d call one another and bring the other onto the project.”

You can check out examples of Parkour, as well as some great martial arts, in District B13, which opens in select cities on Friday. Also, be sure to enter ComingSoon.net’s sweepstakes in which you can win an autographed poster and DVDs.