Picturehouse screening 'Mongol' epic at ShoWest

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Making "Mongol": Hollywood doesn't make the kind of big epic movies it was known for 40 or 50 years ago, but that doesn't mean they've entirely disappeared.

In fact, epics are still a popular genre abroad and two very different foreign made epics got into this year's Oscar race. "Atonement," a sweeping British romantic drama period piece in the tradition of "The English Patient," was up for best picture after winning a best picture Golden Globe and BAFTA. And in the best foreign language film category "Mongol," a large-scale battlefield action-driven drama about the legendary Mongolian ruler Genghis Khan, was the official film selection of Kazakhstan. Neither epic took home an Oscar, but the fact that they both got nominated suggests the genre still resonates with Academy members and could have new life with moviegoers if Hollywood got behind it again.

Exhibitors attending ShoWest will get an early look at "Mongol" on March 10 when it's screened by Picturehouse, which is opening it domestically June 6. The film may be in Mongolian with English subtitles, but it's got the kind of on-screen action that moviegoers have enjoyed for many decades. Directed by award-winning Russian filmmaker Sergei Bodrov ("Prisoner of the Mountains"), it was written by Arif Aliyev and Bodrov. "Mongol" was produced by Segey Selyanov, Bodrov and Anton Melnik and executive produced by Bob Berney, Bulat Galimgereyev and Alec Schulmann.

"Mongol" focuses on the life and battles of Genghis Khan, who was born in 1162 and survived a perilous childhood to become a fearless and visionary leader. Looking at the film's battle scenes involving a thousand or more extras on horseback, it's clear that it took plenty of skilled filmmaking work under very tough conditions by Bodrov and his team to bring it to the screen. I was happy to have an opportunity to talk to him recently about what into making the film.

"I am an independent filmmaker and to start this kind of movie was very risky," he told me. "But I liked the story. I love good stories. I love to tell good stories. I love to read good stories. And I love to make movies with a good story. Many years ago I put on my list that I wanted to make a movie about the boy who became Genghis Khan. It was especially interesting for me because Russians lived under Mongolian rule for almost 300 years (after their first invasion in 1222 under the command of Khan's grandson, Batu). We used to blame the Mongols for everything, but at the same time I knew that in Asia he's a hero. In Mongolia he's a God. It was interesting for me to understand who he was. I started to do research and I watched every film (about Khan). What I understood is that there are no reliable sources. Or if one source existed but was found at the end of the 19th Century and written in Chinese and translated from Mongolian and some pieces were missing, it (was questionable)."

Bodrov's writing partner on "Mongol," Arif Aliyev, had collaborated with him on his earlier film "Prisoner of the Mountains." "I was very pleased with the result," he said of their first collaboration. "I came to him with the idea for the story and we started to work together. I used to write alone, but when I'm directing I believe I need fresh blood. It's important for me because it's more interesting for me. I'm more excited than if it's only my own writing. We spent a year just (researching the project and writing) a few drafts of the script."

While writing, he knew he was going to ultimately direct the screenplay, but that didn't keep him from writing scenes he knew would be expensive and difficult to film: "Of course, I was (aware) of this. I was kind of thinking and hoping that we could make it for less money because I knew that our budget would be limited. But I didn't think about this too much because for me it was most important to put everything that I wanted on the page.

"The original budget (was that) we were hoping to make it for $10 million, which was, of course, very reasonable for this (kind of large scale epic) movie. We went to China. I know how to work (there) now, but I didn't know (at that time) that they can't say 'no' to you. You ask, 'Can we make this movie for $10 million?' They said 'yes,' but it means no. So we learned the hard way. But $10 million was pretty easy to find. Everybody liked the idea and the story and they (believed) I would make a good movie. And $10 million was a reasonable budget for us."

There is, indeed, a lot on the screen for $10 million. Well, actually, it's a lot on the screen for what turned out to be more than $10 million. "We ended up, of course, over budget," he explained. "After four years, it cost about $18 million. It was a big (thing) resting on my shoulders. But it was impossible to make for less. It was financed from Kazakhstan and Russia and 25% came from Germany."

Production began, he said, in 2005: "We filmed for nine weeks and afterwards we stopped. I knew from the beginning that we would not finish the movie (at that time). The movie was not ready to go to the end because we still were not prepared for the big action scenes. But I still wanted to start shooting. It was a risky move, but I knew that if I waited for another year I would lose my money. We had to do it in two seasons. We shot eight weeks in 2005 (doing the) simple easy stuff -- not easy, but (less complicated scenes like those from Khan's) childhood and some small action scenes.

"After that we stopped and then we went again into preproduction and we were much more well-prepared. The next year we came back and we started to shoot the big action scenes and the more complicated scenes. I found more money and we started once again and we shot 12 weeks in 2006."

Asked how he worked while directing the film, he replied, "Of course, complicated scenes, action scenes, were storyboarded. I spent three months doing this with my cinematographer. It was logistically a very complicated movie. We were shooting in remote places and there were four different moves. Very complicated. Big crews -- 600 people."

Organizing such a shoot with 1,000 or so extras and another 600 crew members requires that a filmmaker function more or less like a general moving troops around a battlefield. "It was a battle. It was a struggle. It was a fight. And it was a war," he noted. "I had to win. There was no (other) way out. In the big battle scenes there were six and sometimes seven cameras. I was working with the Russian cinematographer Sergey Trofimov and he's very good. It was not easy. (His team) were shooting. We gave them instructions and storyboards and they worked with the stunts. It was a big operation. I had a great Chinese A.D. who worked with (me and from past experience) he knew how to work with a thousand extras. You understand, we were shooting in the Mongolian language. My lead Japanese (actor) six months before the shoot learned Mongolian and the second lead is Chinese and he also learned Mongolian. But the rest of the cast was Mongolian."

Looking back at the challenges of production, Bodrov told me, "The most challenging, of course, were the big action scenes. To put together a thousand people -- you have to understand (the difficulties). The Chinese can't ride on horses. It's not their thing. So I brought (people) from Kazakhstan with their trained horses. And there were resources with the local people in the north of China who could ride. The Mongols and (others) who also live in Kazakhstan can ride. So just to put together a thousand people, it sometimes was not going well because people are not used to spending so (much time) together -- different people, different psychology. In the beginning (it rained a lot and there were) muddy roads. It was tough, tough, tough. I had a lot of sleepless nights."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Nov. 5, 1990's column: "If the holiday season starts with the arrival of high-profile Oscar consideration product, it may well get underway Friday with Orion's limited release of 'Dances With Wolves.'

"The three-hour Western period epic was directed by Kevin Costner, who also produced it with Jim Wilson and stars in it with Mary McDonnell. 'It opens Nov. 9 in eight cities in exclusive or semi-exclusive engagements, partly to set the picture up because it is a big expansive epic kind of film and our reactions to the picture have been so good,' David Forbes, president of Orion Pictures Distribution Co., told me. Its openings will be in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Washington, Seattle and Dallas.

"Orion's game plan, he added, was 'to put it into a sampling of markets around the country that would be media hubs and markets which could support that kind of an opening. We're going to take the picture wide on a national break on Nov. 21 for Thanksgiving. We'll go to about 900 screens. What we were hoping to do is start off in these eight cities with what we're starting to find out are excellent reviews and good word of mouth and then take it wider.'

"Asked about its length, Forbes laughed, 'It is the shortest three hours I've ever spent.' Nonetheless, 'Wolves' will mostly play one showing per night. 'In a lot of cases the three hour time does put that limitation on it,' he said. 'In theaters where you have the option of two screens you can stagger the starts and get more shows. But the reality of it was that we screened this film to an audience in a couple of different cities at three hours and they not only loved it but, literally, we had comments saying they could have stayed longer...'

"In spreading the word about 'Wolves,' Orion has had Costner's full cooperation: 'He had done a lot of work doing advance magazines and other print publicity prior to his leaving the country to shoot another movie. He returned two weeks ago and spent a 3 1/2 day weekend (promoting 'Wolves') in Washington. He really has devoted a great deal of time and he's coming back for (last night's) premiere in Los Angeles...'"

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