'Made in China' label comes to Hollywood

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"Forbidden" film: The label "Made in China" is found on a wide range of products sold in the U.S. and movies are now starting to be one of them.

A case in point is the action adventure epic "The Forbidden Kingdom" from Lionsgate and the Weinstein Co., opening wide April 18. Directed by Rob Minkoff ("Stuart Little 1 & 2," "The Lion King"), "Forbidden" is a Lionsgate and Casey Silver presentation in association with Relativity Media. The film, which was shot entirely in China, was produced by Casey Silver ("Leatherheads," "Hidalgo") and written by John Fusco ("Young Guns," "Hidalgo"). Its executive producers include Ryan Kavanaugh, Woo-Ping Yuen, Jon Feltheimer and Raffaella De Laurentiis.

"Forbidden" marks the first onscreen pairing of martial arts superstars Jackie Chan (the "Rush Hour" franchise, "Shanghai Noon," "Shanghai Knights") and Jet Li ("Lethal Weapon 4," "Cradle 2 the Grave," "Fearless"). Also starring is Michael Angarano ("Music of the Heart," "Almost Famous"). The film's fight sequences were created by action choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen ("The Matrix," "Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon") and its cinematography is by Peter Pau ("Crouching Tiger").

American moviemakers are now starting to work in China making movies that can be released in China, an enormous and at this point largely untapped market for Hollywood, as well as in all the other territories around the world where Hollywood's already doing business. It's a trend that's just getting underway, but is clearly going to be of increasing importance to Hollywood in the next few years.

For some insights into how the process of filming in China works I was happy to have an opportunity to talk to Rob Minkoff. When we spoke, Minkoff was in Seoul, South Korea, where work had recently been completed on the visual effects for "Forbidden," which was shot in China on the sound stages of Hengdian World Studios as well as on various locations around the country.

"There's a lot of talk about movie companies wanting to work more in China," he told me, "and I think our experience was overwhelmingly positive."

Asked how the project came about, Minkoff replied, "The writer, John Fusco, pitched this to Casey when they were working together on 'Hidalgo.' Casey liked the idea and John started writing the script. Some time later I came across a copy and read it and I really liked it. I thought it had great potential. I think that what was driving me most to make it was two things. Number one, I'm a big martial arts fan and saw in it an opportunity to do something that was unusual for me but something that I was really excited about.

"And that got even more magnified when I took my first trip to China in 1997 and then started going back quite frequently. And then I bought a Beijing apartment. My finance is American-born Chinese and her brother owns an apartment in Beijing. So I got more and more involved and interested in China and the idea of actually being able to make a movie there seemed like such a (great) opportunity."

That was about three years ago. "I remember when I first met with Casey about the project I was telling him, obviously, that I liked the script and told him my ideas about what I thought needed to be done with it," he said. "We talked creatively about it for a while, but then at the end I said I think the reason it would be valuable for him to hire me to do the movie was because of my Chinese experience. That challenge was going to be big for anyone."

Looking back on shooting in China, Minkoff said, "We based out of a place called Hengdian, which has become quite well known in China. They have enormous sets in a big back lot that they've been building for the last 10 years or so. Originally, they built the palace for a picture called 'The Emperor and the Assassin' (the 1998 historical drama directed by Kaige Chen) and they've been adding to it ever since. They have this really huge back lot, including a nine-tenths scale Forbidden City. It's about a five-hour drive from Shanghai. We shot a lot there, but we also traveled for a couple of weeks all over China -- to the desert in Dunhuang, which is in the Gobi Desert, and to the mountains of Wuyi. We had several substantial movements of the cast, crew and equipment, but we settled ultimately in Hengdian and shot there primarily."

Minkoff worked with a crew that, he explained, was "pretty much all Chinese. I think it was 90% Chinese. It was also a combination of (crew from) Mainland China and Hong Kong. They've been making films in Hengdian for years. (Besides) 'Emperor and the Assassin' they did 'Curse of the Golden Flower,' some of (which) was shot there, and 'House of Flying Daggers.' It gets used quite a lot for films so it does pretty much everything you need. We had to adapt to Chinese customs to some degree."

Asked how crews work in China, he told me, "Typically, in Mainland China they work seven day weeks and quite long days. So it's a wall-to-wall kind of working affair. We did not do that. We worked six-day weeks, which is still more than I was used to working. On the pictures I'd done before, we were always on a five-day week. So it was six days shooting and for me, obviously, I didn't have much time to sleep. Sundays we were getting ready for Mondays."

Shooting was done over the course of 101 days, Minkoff noted, "and there were two units (with) 70-some-odd second unit days. We had a very short prep (period), too. We were kind of forced into it because of Jackie and Jet's schedules. By the time we figured the budget out and got the (completion) bond company to step up, we were too close to losing them so we had (only) seven weeks or so to prep the movie."

Both Chan and Li, he added, "speak English to varying degrees. I know a few words of Chinese -- enough to order myself a plate of noodles at a local restaurant -- but we didn't really communicate in Chinese. English was the preferred language (during shooting). But their skill with the language is limited and it required extra effort from all of us to bring them up to the requisite level (to play their roles). Particularly, Jackie's role demanded (that he) learn a lot of dialogue -- and not just dialogue, but it's a period piece so the language is a little more formal and (included) words he'd never heard before.

"The film actually does have both English and Mandarin scenes. It uses the convention that when the hero is in the scene everyone is speaking English because the hero is American and then when we're in scenes with (the hero not present) they are speaking Mandarin. It's a little bit like a World War II (movie where the Germans are speaking German only amongst themselves)."

Asked how he worked with his actors, Minkoff replied, "We took time before we started to shoot the movie and went over all the dialogue as much as possible. Jet asked me to record his lines so that he had a chance to listen to what the intentions of the lines were because they're really using English as a second language and aside from the ability to communicate in English, learning a script is a whole different thing and understanding the cultural attitudes that the line is supposed to convey is something obviously that they have to learn."

Given all the action in "Forbidden," did he storyboard scenes? "We did storyboard," he said. "We did that all in China. We got a small group (of artists) together, one of whom was actually American but was born in Beijing and spoke Chinese fluently. It was really indispensable to have somebody who was English speaking and yet really understood the language and all the (nuances of what was being said)."

Preparation for shooting, he pointed out, "started with location scouting. Most of the movie is shot outdoors. We had a substantial amount of green screen work to deal with. We had to physically take one of the few soundstages they had there and wrap the whole thing in plywood and paint it green. It was a pretty spectacular thing to see."

As for whether he's a director who does a lot of takes, Minkoff observed, "I don't think there's any real consistency. I'm certainly capable of doing a number of takes depending if we're not getting it or if the shot is complicated or difficult to achieve. Otherwise, it was a lot about making sure we got done on time and (stayed) on schedule. Our original schedule was for 100 days. The fact that we managed to get out in 101 days is pretty remarkable. With such a short prep and dealing with all the language barriers and all the rest of that, we did really well."

The challenges involved in making "Forbidden" were, not surprisingly, many: "One of the biggest challenges was for the production designer (Bill Brzeski, whose credits include "As Good as It Gets" and "The Bucket List"), who I'd worked with before (on 'Stuart Little' and 'Stuart Little 2'). We had a lot of stuff that we had to build or we were (working with) sets that we kind of had to build over. He couldn't bring any of his American crew. For budgetary reasons we were pretty much working with all local Chinese or Hong Kong Chinese. So he had to adapt some of his processes and not having all of the vendors lined up that you know you can rely on, he really had to plunge in and do it in a different way.

"I remember the first day he showed up at Hengdian he nearly passed out. It was a little bit like the scene in a war movie where the shells are exploding all around and somebody just loses it. I remember that Rafaella De Laurentiis came over and slapped him a couple times and said, 'Snap out it, man!' and said, 'If you can't handle this, go home now. Don't put us in a position where you sit with us for a little while and then abandon us. If you can't deal with it, leave now or stick it out.' And it completely had a galvanizing effect (on him). He (calmed down and then got busy) making a movie, which of course he's done many times, and facing all of the different challenges and issues along the way. So it wasn't any one particularly big challenge, it was just every day there was a new one. You know, making a movie's like fighting a war -- you've got to roll with the punches. You've got to make your battle plan and then quite often go to Plan B, depending on what's going on."

Weather is frequently a major challenge for filmmakers, but it wasn't a big factor for Minkoff: "For the most part it was good. It was very hot. That was one of the difficult things. We had some work slowed down because of rain, but not a lot -- (just) a few days, a few rearranged schedules. But, I tell you, you don't want to choose to shoot in Hengdian in the summer. It's pretty bad."

While all the set building was done by local crews, Minkoff noted, "We did import some finishers. That was one of the areas that we felt may have been lacking in terms of resources in China. So Rafaella brought in a couple of set painters from Italy and that made quite an appreciable difference. It was about doing it the Chinese way, but making whatever smaller adjustments that we felt necessary to adapt it to what we were looking for."

Some postproduction was done in China, he said, but "the reason I'm in Seoul right now is because we did almost all the visual effects in Korea (and that) was a first for a Hollywood film to use a Korean visual effects company and to pretty much do the whole job in Korea. We did sound effects in Beijing. We mixed the movie in Sydney, Australia and we had our cutting room in Los Angeles. It was a multinational production."

Was the movie financed by Chinese companies? "There is some (Chinese money in it)," he replied. "We have a co-production partner, who is also our distributor in China, called Huayi Brothers, who are very, very successful. They've been around a while, but they're really expanding and growing and doing really, really well in the market. Of course, neither of the brothers are named Huayi. That's the company's name. Wang is the name of the family. I think they bought it from someone else. But they were our co-production partner. They bought the local rights to the movie, (but) I can't really say that they financed the movie. (The financing) was all actually done by Relativity Media."

Minkoff was busy traveling when he called me from Seoul: "I've been doing press the last several days. I was in Beijing and then I was in Hong Kong. I've been trying to explain to people who didn't understand how a Western guy could make a Chinese movie or a movie that really feels authentically Chinese. I think that it's important to know that that's actually what I was trying to do -- to bring a western sensibility and combine it with Chinese authenticity -- and I think we succeeded."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 7, 1991's column: "Special effects films have a reputation for being expensive, but that's not necessarily always true. A case in point is Paramount's blockbuster 'Ghost,' which was made quite efficiently for about $23 million, despite its very effective use of effects.

"'What we lean heavily into is animation-oriented effects,' explained John Van Vliet, president of Burbank-based Available Light Ltd., which created some of 'Ghost's' best effects. 'Our overhead for animation is a lot more cost-effective than any other process because we're basically maintaining desks and paper. We're not running an overhead of keeping six stages up and 14 motion control rigs and God knows what other equipment.'

"How was animation used in 'Ghost?' 'The next example is when Sam (Patrick Swayze) dies in the street,' he said. '(When) he realizes he's no longer with us and the God lights come on from above, like a big beam of pulsing viscous light and all those little angel dots coming down -- all that's animation.'

"It's an approach, according to Available vp Katharine Kean, that could give the special effects genre new life: 'Effects have often been limited to science fiction movies. I think there's much more of a place for it. It's limitless what you can do with an animated effect. You can have it in almost any context and it can mean many different things.'

"Clearly, planning played a big part in holding down the cost of 'Ghost's' effects. 'We went out there in the street with the director of photography (Adam Greenberg),' Van Vliet recalled. 'We had done a painting first of what we thought it should look like. We sold (that idea) to the director. Jerry (Zucker) said, 'Yeah, I want it to look like this.' The director of photography looked at it, shook his head and said, 'OK' and lit it in a particular way, which was not easy ...'"

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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