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BEIJING – The Life and Times of Sneezing Baby Panda is an upcoming mockumentary made for the big screen by Lesley Hammond and Jenny Walsh, Australian wildlife documentarians whose 1999 film about the giant pandas of China produced a viral video clip they’re now turning into a feature film.
The $1.3 million co-production, set to start shooting in China in October with Zhejiang Roc Pictures of Hangzhou, will follow an Australian zoologist whose zoo faces financial difficulties she thinks she might solve if she travels to China to save the black and white fuzzy sneezer whose (real life) video clip still gets more than 150,000 hits per day.
The clip, which Hammond and Walsh shot by chance in Sichuan province is truly adorable and has been used countless times illegally by the likes of South Park and 30 Rock, and legally in Drew Barrymore’s Going the Distance and Justin Bieber: Never Say Never.
“Honestly, we were feeling a bit pissed off but then we realized that we’d accidentally been given a star,” Hammond told The Hollywood Reporter over the phone from Brisbane, the headquarters of the film’s production company, Wild Candy.
Riffing on the Chinese penchant for going way, way back when telling one’s family story, Hammond decided to employ the techniques used in Forrest Gump or Woody Allen’s Zelig before that to place the ancestors of the Sneezing Baby Panda in crucial roles throughout history.
“One panda’s a terracotta warrior. Another’s on the Long March,” said Hammond, who with former Nine Network news producer Walsh dug through archival footage they’ll incorporate into the film. “You know the famous photo of Nixon sitting with Mao? Using visual effects, we’ll replace the woman interpreter sitting between them with a panda.”
Its intent is “all tongue in cheek,” Hammond said, but she and Walsh, who’ve made 10 panda docs in China over 20 years — always working through the state-run China Film Co-Production Corp. — are aware of the pitfalls when addressing a national animal, especially China’s.
DreamWorks’ Kung Fu Panda drew some heated criticism, so Wild Candy worked with China Film Co-Production President Zhang Xun from the start. ”She’s read the script,” Hammond said, adding that she and Walsh “settled into the odd bottle of red (wine) and tried to think of what piece of lunacy would be entertaining with panda in it but not disrespectful.”
For one thing, Hammond chose not to put the famous images of Mao swimming in the Yangtze River in the film. “Chinese are sometimes sensitive about the portrayal of the elders of their cultures,” she said.
Without spoiling the plot, Hammond says the zoologist, who’s now being cast, and the Sneezing Baby Panda manage to make it Down Under on a visit to the Gold Coast where viewers will see the bear exhibit particularly Australian aquatic skills.
Wild Candy is the majority partner in the film, which will be the fourth to be made under the Sino-Australian Film Treaty – the latest being 33 Postcards – and Zhejiang Roc, led by Chairwoman Peng Sun, will contribute about 20% of the film’s production in the form of cash investment, post-production sound and visual effects, Hammond said.
Hammond hopes that the marketing and production will take care of itself: “After all, it’ll be easy since this is the first feature film to come out of a viral video clip.”
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