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'Dark Knight's' Christian Bale on Why He's Starring Next in a $100 Million Chinese Movie

Issue 44 Christian Bale
Joe Pugliese

From Nolan to Nanjing? Directed by the legendary Zhang Yimou, the Oscar winner is the first major Westerner to play a lead role in a Chinese movie with Rape of Nanking epic "The Flowers of War." In the latest issue of The Hollywood Reporter, days after "The Dark Knight Rises" filming wrapped, the pair discuss what it means for business in China, and if the language barrier mattered: "Yimou actually wanted Christian Slater but ended up with me," jokes Bale.

In the current issue of The Hollywood Reporter, senior film reporter Pamela McClintock sat down with the notoriously press-shy Christian Bale, 37, and famed 60-year-old Chinese director Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern), who together just finished making the most expensive Chinese movie ever, the historical epic, The Flowers of War. The movie centers on Bale as a mourning American mortician who seeks refuge in a Catholic cathedral and finds himself in the middle of a war, in a story based on the Rape of Nanking, the brutal invasion of Nanking by the Japanese army in 1937. The movie will be released for one week in America in late December; it premieres in China on Dec. 16. In this exclusive interview, the men, who clearly like each other enormously, reveal how an American actor came to be the star of a Chinese major motion picture, Bale's 20-year fascination with the director, and how they overcame cultural and language barriers. 

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BALE SAYS SIGNING ON TO THE FILM WAS A 'NO-BRAINER'
With a penchant for demanding and far-flung assignments, Bale says he quickly accepted the offer to star in Zhang's epic when it came to him through his William Morris Endeavor agents Patrick Whitesell and Boomer Malkin, even though he spoke no Mandarin (Mou Mou translated on the set). "Some people scratched their heads when I told them I wanted to do the project and said, 'Really, why?' I don't understand that sort of thinking," says Bale. "I like the adventure aspect of making movies, so the opportunity to work in China, not on an American movie, but on a Chinese movie, really appealed to me. How many times do you get that sort of opportunity, and on top of that, get to work with a fantastic director? It was a no-brainer." Says Whitesell: "One of the reasons I was excited was that this will up Christian's exposure in China. It could be China's Saving Private Ryan."

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Bale was in the midst of preparing for the release of The Fighter when he received the script, and was immediately drawn in by the story."This was a very poignant and painful moment in Chinese history and I was drawn to the radical difference between the atrocities that happen, versus the incredible humanity that emerges," Bale says. "Yimou and I had spoken a little about the character, and this was not a guy who was a hero from the get-go, this was a guy who really just wanted to have a good time in China and make a buck."

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WHY BALE WAS UNNERVED WHEN HE GOT TO THE SET
Bale was baffled to find stone-cold silence when he arrived on the set of Yimou's $100 million historical epic The Flowers of War in January. After the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Nanjing, China, Bale found it downright unnerving. Sets are usually noisy hubs, not mausoleums."There were a couple of hundred people just staring at me. Even Yimou was whispering. I thought to myself, 'I guess this is how it's done in China,' " Bale recalls. "It turns out they'd all gotten together the day before and said that in the States, everybody is quiet on the set. I told them, 'Please, start shouting.' "

One of the more awkward moments of the shoot came when Zhang asked Bale if he would instruct the first-time actors. Bale was stunned, since no director he's ever worked with would tolerate such an intrusion."Yimou explained that it's different in China, and that the more experienced actor is considered rude if he or she doesn't tell a less-experienced actor how to do a scene," Bale says. "What we had was a culture clash of what's acceptable, and what's not. I mean for me to tread on Yimou's toes would be incredibly arrogant. I just couldn't do it. At the same time, I didn't want to be perceived as being rude myself." Bale came up with a plan -- he was willing to leave the set and speak to an actor, but only if Zhang came along.

VIDEO: 'Flowers of War' Trailer

HOW ZHANG CONVINCED THE CHINESE GOVERNMENT TO GREEN LIGHT HIS SENSITIVE-SUBJECT FILM
Over the years, Zhang has had his issues with the Chinese government -- several of his films were banned -- and on its face, Flowers of War was potentially problematic. "This is not the sort of mainstream movie the Chinese government would usually approve," Zhang says. "The story of the Rape of Nanking has been told before in films, and is a very political and serious subject," Zhang says, "but what intrigued me about this story was that it's actually told from the female perspective, so it's more humane and has a personal touch." Zhang researched the Rape of Nanking for more than three years, and some of the film's more graphic scenes were drawn from actual photographs, while the movie itself was based on Geling Yan's novel The 13 Women of Nanjing. "Topics about foreigners, about religion and about World War II are not well-received by the government, but because this movie is about who we are as humans, and what we would do to save other people, the government actually supported it."

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STEVEN SPIELBERG AND DAVID LINDE BOTH RECOMMENDED BALE TO ZHANG
Zhang Yimou and producing partner Zhang Weiping knew from the start that they would need to land a Western actor to play the central character in the book. (Westerners played a crucial role in documenting the invasion of Nanking since the Japanese were not targeting them and they could evade danger and even get out.).  Bale was at the top of the list, based on his ability to adapt and be completely in tune with new situations. Steven Spielberg, who had cast Bale in Empire of the Sun years earlier, also recommended the actor to his friend Zhang Yimou.

Zhang is certain of one thing -- Bale is about to become famous at the Chinese box office. Many of the actor's films haven't been released in theaters there, including The Dark Knight and The Fighter, although Bale reports with a laugh that pirated copies of both films were widely available on the streets of Nanjing. Indeed, the first time Zhang watched a copy of The Fighter, the subtitles were botched. After he was done shooting Flowers of War, he watched another copy. This time, the subtitles were right. With a glint returning to his eye, and the end to the interview at the Montage approaching, Zhang tells Bale: "I regret that I didn't see The Fighter with the good subtitles the first time. Your performance was so good, I would have added more scenes for you in Flowers of War."

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WHAT THIS MEANS FOR HOLLYWOOD AND CHINA
China's cash-flush film industry and box office are exploding, and Hollywood is feverishly trying to gain entry to a marketplace severely restricted by the government's quota limiting the annual number of Western films to 20. If Flowers of War works, a whole new revenue stream could open up for Western actors (not to mention producers, directors and writers). At a $100 million budget, Zhang's movie is the most expensive production ever mounted in China, and Bale likely received millions for his work and perhaps a piece of the back end in an era of shrinking U.S. budgets. For their part, Hollywood studios have been busy focusing on striking co-production partnerships with Chinese film companies, such as Legendary Pictures' newly announced pact with Huayi Brothers and the creation of Legendary East. The first project is the Edward Zwick-directed The Great Wall, which won't be subject to the quota. "China is the fastest-growing market in the world. Co-productions are advantageous both for revenue share purposes and the challenges of the quota system," says Sanford Panitch, president of Fox International Productions, which has made four films in China with a local partner, including box-office hits Hot Summer Days and its sequel Love in Space

Intentions are one thing, carrying out that vision is another. American audiences are notoriously finicky about watching a movie with subtitles, even if that movie stars a famous actor and is 40 percent in English. (The highest-grossing Chinese movie to date is 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which earned $128.1 million domestically.)

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WHAT'S NEXT FOR BALE 
The interview took place just three days after Bale wrapped production on the last Batman movieThe Dark Knight Rises, shot in India, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and New York City. But the actor isn't fazed by the end of the Batman franchise, and already has moved on. "I'm not really thinking about what's next. But there's a couple of projects I'm doing with Terrence Malick, but it won't be for a while. So I'm going to have a little bit of a break."
 

ZHANG YIMOU'S WORLDWIDE BOX-OFFICE TALLY: Ju Dou, raise the Red Lantern and hero were the first Chinese films nominated for foreign language Oscar

  • Hero (2002) -- $177.4 million
  • House of Flying Daggers (2004) -- $92.9 million
  • Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) -- $78.6 million
  • Raise the Red Lantern (1991) -- $2.6 million (U.S. Only)
  • Ju Dou (1990) -- $2 million (U.S. only)

To read the complete THR cover story, click here