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Director Zhang Yimou came close to directing a Chinese-language version of No Country for Old Men, only for it to collapse because of money issues.
“I loved No Country for Old Men,” he said during a brief trip to Los Angeles on Feb. 17. “But it is very challenging to find actors who can play these roles. And then, of course, they [the Chinese backers] told me it was too expensive. [They said] ‘Find something that’s older.’ That’s why we ended up with Blood Simple.” Zhang remade that 1984 movie as 2009’s A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.
Speaking two days after the Feb. 15 domestic premiere of his Universal Pictures action drama The Great Wall, the biggest-yet co-production between China and the U.S., the Beijing-based director said he was about to start work on a more personal movie. “It’s a historical drama based around the Three Kingdoms era,” he noted of the untitled picture, set in the third century A.D.
Great Wall, he said, only came to him after years in development. “The movie has been in development [at] Legendary for seven years. So when it got to me, the script was pretty well developed. I was very interested in the story about people fighting monsters on the Great Wall. Of course, this is a completely different type of movie than my previous films. My agent asked me: ‘This is a monster flick. Would you be interested?’ But I read the script and thought it was very interesting. It’s very complicated to make something this big. It took three years to make. In China, I could make two movies in that time.”
Asked about arguments between the Chinese and Western crews who worked on the movie — which used some 100 interpreters — he said: “I didn’t really hear a lot of arguments. But I have to tell you, from making several co-productions, there are always arguments; arguments exist every time you have co-production. You know why? Because people are always getting their own ideas through, and they all want it to be good.”
Zhang took part in the ongoing interview series The Hollywood Masters, held at the Loyola Marymount School of Film and TV.
Having gone from being an outsider to the ultimate insider (he directed the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics), he acknowledged recent personal attacks on him for being too cozy with the Communist party, as well as for his more large-scale films, have hurt.
“I have gotten used to it, having been in the industry for so long,” he said. “Everything always gets some criticism, especially nowadays with the information age; people are very fast with the information, they are very quick and the audiences are very specific, and sometimes they’re very picky. It just inspires me to do better.”
Was Zhang himself ever anti-government? “No, never,” he insisted.
A full transcript follows.
STEPHEN GALLOWAY: It’s 1978. The Cultural Revolution has come to an end. Where were you at that point in your life?
ZHANG YIMOU: The Cultural Revolution is just when I was 16 to 26, and when I got the opportunity to go to college I was 28. Of course, I was already quite old to go to college. For me, at that time, I didn’t even dream of making movies. I just wanted to go to college to get an education, so I could change my destiny.
GALLOWAY: What did you think your destiny might be?
ZHANG: At the time, I was working in the factory and I was thinking maybe [in] the union, maybe I could help be one of the people working the promotional department, because I could draw, so maybe I could get a job there. At that time my goal was not to work at night, you know. As long as I can work during the day, that’s fine, [as long as] I don’t have to do the night shift.
GALLOWAY: Your parents suffered quite a lot. Your father had been, I believe, an officer in the Kuomintang. Tell us about how they influenced you.
ZHANG: My mother was a doctor, a dermatologist, but my father — sadly, his whole side of the family was part of Huangpu Academy. And they are looked on as the five negative elements.
GALLOWAY: You have said that they were the worst of the “five bad elements.” What does that mean?
ZHANG: [The five bad elements were] landlords, wealthy owners, any kind of wealthy businessmen; they were all looked on as negative, but the worst is somebody who is anti-government. Because they were part of the Kuomintang, it’s looked on as anti-government.
GALLOWAY: Were you anti-government?
ZHANG: No, never.
GALLOWAY: There are a lot of skeptics in this audience. So, were you happy as a child growing up? Where does the artistic impulse come from?
ZHANG: Yes, there was a lot of self-loathing and I grew up to be an introvert, and I remember as a child I was playing under my bed, and I found a button, and the button actually had the Kuomintang symbol on it. I took it to my grandmother and I showed it to her and she grabbed it right away and said, “What are you doing with that? Don’t ever have anything to do with that!” And so, I immediately understood that maybe there is some connection between my family and the Kuomintang.
GALLOWAY: When you were a child, what was your happiest memory and what was your most unhappy memory?
ZHANG: There aren’t a lot of happy memories, but the one I remember is that on weekends my mother would bring me a few peanuts. I put them in my pocket, and I would feel them and rub them. And then occasionally I would separate them into two halves, and then take that half and bite off a quarter and then eat that. I could enjoy and make those peanuts last all day because there weren’t a lot. Even today, I love peanuts.
GALLOWAY: That’s the happy memory. And what about an unhappy memory?
ZHANG: It might have something to do with eating, as well. As a child, you never get to eat enough food, and of course, there are all kinds of diseases such as tuberculosis, and at that time when you are sick the government wants to up your protein intake. So they allowed me half a kilo of soybeans per month, they give you that. And of course, my dad wanted to make sure that my body absorbed all of it, because if you eat it straight sometimes you just pass it all the way through. You want to absorb to soybean. So [he would put] it in a thermos overnight. He calculated, for half a kilo, for a whole month’s supply, three soy beans every night [would be] put it in the thermos, and put it in the water overnight. And [when] it gets a little bigger, and he is able to cook it, and then make sure [I eat] it the next day. My dad would sit next to me and watch me eat, and tell me, “Chew your food. Make sure you digest and absorb it.”
GALLOWAY: You do know how obsessive-compulsive this is, right? [Laughter.] I’m only joking. When did you discover your love of photography?
ZHANG: I started as a painter. I liked to draw, and then my cousin had a really cheap little camera, for 8 RMB at the time. It was a really cheap, small, little camera, and of course I borrowed it, and I played around with it, and then he discovered that some of the pictures taken were pretty good — because you’re a painter you probably do it pretty well. And then I found out that I could study it as a trade. And, of course, I gathered a lot of books and read up a lot about it.
GALLOWAY: Did you read about some of the great photographers from the West, or were you forced to discover on your own?
ZHANG: At the time, in 1974, China wasn’t open yet. So everything was closed, and I used to sneak into the library. I’d climb over the wall, and then I’d steal one or two small pamphlets on how to take pictures. And of course, all our friends were interested in photography. We would copy down all the texts. We learned how to take pictures and how to develop your own pictures.
GALLOWAY: Is there one photo you took that you still have nostalgia for?
ZHANG: From 1974 to 1978 until I went to school I took a lot of pictures, and they are all, of course, very small prints, and a few of them got published in photo magazines, and I was so happy. I thought I was very famous already, because I did that.
GALLOWAY: Were they landscapes or portraits? And were they black and white, because I presume it was hard to get color film?
ZHANG: Yeah, both. Both portraits and landscapes, and yes, they all black and white. I took portraits of my friends and coworkers, my family members and then the landscape. Whenever I had time off work, I would go around to the countryside and surroundings, and I would take landscapes.
GALLOWAY: Look at this room. What would you find interesting to photograph in this room?
ZHANG: I think everybody. Everybody is good. I can find something special in everyone. It’s always been my goal to take pictures of people from all over the world. The first time I got a chance to leave my country, I saw there were so many people. I was so surprised that people can look like that, all kinds of colors and sizes. So my goal is to be able to photograph everybody.
GALLOWAY: You were turned down when you applied to the Beijing Film Academy, because of your age. How did you get in?
ZHANG: I was 28 and the age limit was 22. I was turned down because of my age and I had completely given up. I didn’t know what to do. And then, suddenly, one of my friends said, “Why don’t you send your pictures? You take such great pictures. Send them to the head of the cultural department. Maybe if you write him a letter, show him your pictures, maybe he will reconsider, and maybe overrule this decision.” And, at the time, I didn’t really quite know how to get that to him. So he’s trying to find all kinds of relationships. The idea is that you have to have a relationship with people, and then you can get business done. I mean, it actually happens in a lot of different places, too.
GALLOWAY: Including Hollywood.
ZHANG: Including Hollywood, yes. You have to know people to get things anywhere. So I am asking friends and friends of friends, and eventually I was able to get that to the head of the cultural department. And I wrote a letter, and designed an album, about 40 pictures, and I was able to send it to him, and then I didn’t hear anything back. So I gave up. It was pointless. Two months later, suddenly I get a letter from the cultural department. They want me to go there and have an interview at the Beijing Film Academy. I was overjoyed. I thought, “This is my chance.”
ZHANG: Well, the letter was written on a regular paper, so it looked very casual and it wasn’t sent directly to me. It was sent to this factory where I was working. It was sent to the leader of the factory, and it says, “Zhang Yimou at your factory has expressed that he’s interested in photography, and we want him to come to Beijing for an interview,” and that’s it. It was very casual, but the leaders had never seen something like this. They had over 7,000 workers, and mostly women, because it’s a textile factory. So, suddenly they had an emergency meeting. [Laughter.] You know, everybody is having this meeting. “What do we do? What do we do?” And they came to this conclusion that first, he has to go to Beijing, and this is something that’s so big that we should probably put it in the newspaper.
GALLOWAAY: Oh, wow! [Laughs.]
ZHANG: It’s so important, we’ve definitely got to send him to Beijing. Second, we’ve got to give him vacation. So, he has the vacation. He’s allowed to go for a week. If he needs more than a week, we’ll give him two weeks. And then, all the transportation, we’ll cover that. They were very supportive.
GALLOWAY: What did you say that tipped the balance when you got the interview?
ZHANG: It’s very simple: First of all, the people that [were] delayed, because of the cultural revolution, they delayed this opportunity to go to university. So first of all, you had to say terrible things about them. You said, “Well, they delayed me. I couldn’t go to college.” And then, of course, you say …
GALLOWAY: Oh, you have to badmouth them?
ZHANG: You badmouth them, yes.
GALLOWAY: OK. “Those bastards!”
ZHANG: Yes, and they’ve ruined my opportunity. I wanted to go to university. I didn’t have this opportunity. Please consider me, and that’s it.
GALLOWAY: What was the most important thing you learned at film school?
ZHANG: There were two things. First of all, my teachers were able to teach me basic skills on how to make a movie and how to tell a story. You know, that’s one thing that I was able to learn the right away. And then, the second thing is that at that time culturally and artistically China was the most open it has ever been, and there were a lot of outside influences coming in, and I remember at that time every week I could get to see two foreign movies. And I would go to the theater and my eyes would be wide. I’m absorbing all these films from the outside world.
GALLOWAY: Which ones most impacted you?
ZHANG: There were so many movies, and I was very messy because there were movies from every part of the world, what they call “passerby films.” Films that are in the country for just a short amount of time, usually shown to the consulates, different countries’ consulates, and for their own people. The film school would go borrow the print and they would show it for one night. And there would be a translator standing by, actually translating the lines with a microphone just as they were being said on the screen. Then there were also [films from] the ‘50s and ‘60s, some older films from the Soviet Union. Every time we would get into the theater, we’d always look in the corner and see if there was a table and a lamp and a microphone. If so, we’d go, “Oh, these are new films!” [Laughter.] “These are the passerby movies in the ‘60s and ‘70s. These are current films.” If they weren’t there, we’d go, “Oh, it’s an old movie.”
GALLOWAY: Name one film that had a particular impact. Kurosawa?
ZHANG: No, not that artistic. [Laughter.] Not that great. The first day of school, and of course being my first time in Beijing, I’m from the countryside, there was a French film, Fantômas, which was like an 007 type of a movie, with a car chase, gun fights, women on the beach with bikinis. It was like, “I’ve never seen movies like this.” I was completely dumbfounded watching that.
GALLOWAY: Would you like to direct a James Bond film?
ZHANG: Sure, I would. Yeah, because of that movie. [Laughter.]
GALLOWAY: You left film school. You went into the provinces, and became an extraordinary cinematographer. You helped launch the Fifth Generation with films like Yellow Earth, and then you got to make your first film. Red Sorghum.
GALLOWAY: How do you feel when you see that film again?
ZHANG: It’s very interesting that you selected this clip. [The clip is from the early part of the film, when Gong Li is being carried in a sedan chair.] I’ve seen many different parts of Red Sorghum, but this is the first time I’ve seen this clip. It’s probably 20, 30 years since I last saw it.
GALLOWAY: Do you like it?
ZHANG: Yeah. The guy who plays the bandit was our AD.
GALLOWAY: Gong Li, this was an extraordinary collaboration. You made, I think, your first seven films with her. Tell me how you first met.
ZHANG: We went to the Central Art Performance Center, which is the biggest performing arts school in China. We were looking for the lead actress for the movie. We described to the teachers what kind of character we were looking for. Everybody was saying, “You should work with Gong Li.” Everybody recommended Gong Li, but unfortunately Gong Li wasn’t there at the time. She was perhaps on another project, on a TV show, so they showed me a picture. It was a group photo, and about this big [small]. So, Gong Li’s face was smaller than a grain of rice. I looked at it, but I couldn’t make up my mind. So we selected another actress. Then the night we were about to leave, they told us, “Gong Li’s back and you should really meet her.” And so, I decided to go meet her. I met her and she wasn’t really exactly what I imagined the character to be, but the cinematographer was filming her the whole time. So we said, “Why don’t we go back and we’ll look at her on the screen, and see what she looks like.” But when we did, it turned out that she was out of focus all the time. She was just out of focus the whole time. [Laughter.] Only maybe the last three to four seconds of that image she was in focus. So we paused it, and I looked at that image of her on a black-and-white TV and thought she was so emotionally expressive that I decided to take a gamble.
GALLOWAY: At what point did you realize how extraordinary she was?
ZHANG: Immediately after we started working on this movie. The moment she put on her costume, she got into character, and immediately I knew she was extremely talented. And then she is very charismatic. You know, she has one of those faces; there’s a lot of very beautiful people in the world, but there are a few that are perfect for movies, their faces are made for movies, and when they’re filmed and they’re put on the big screen, the audience gravitates toward them. She’s one of those people.
GALLOWAY: Do you miss that period in your life of working with her?
ZHANG: Yeah, absolutely. During the ‘80s and ‘90s, it was the best time in Chinese cinema. That was when everybody cared more about the artistic integrity and the cultural relevance and everything, how deep a movie was. It wasn’t like these days when we just care so much about markets. But at that time, when everybody was looking for a movie, they were looking for what the movie’s message was, how much thought was going into it. And when a movie received an award, when a movie came out, the entire country paid attention. I would say that was the golden age of Chinese cinema.
GALLOWAY: When you shot, what went wrong with the sorghum? You paid a group of peasants to plant sorghum, and they screwed up.
ZHANG: Red Sorghum is based on Mo Yan’s novel, describing sorghum when they mature. And they change a little bit of color and the setting sun has that reddish hue to it. I thought about changing the name, maybe to 99 at the Crossroads, but that felt too commercial, so in the end I decided to keep the original one. I was a little worried that the name Red Sorghum might come off as an educational film about how to farm.
GALLOWAY: You were watering the sorghum yourself with the crew to get it to grow, right?
ZHANG: Absolutely. After the government separated the land, there were a lot of farmers and they all owned small [plots of] land and we needed almost 100 acres, so we decided to buy or rent the whole section from all these different farmers so that they agreed to plant sorghums. We rented a large plot for 40,000 RMB at the time, which was a lot of money. And it was risky to make this kind of investment. Then, of course, the farmers thought, “Oh you’re going to make a movie,” so they didn’t water the sorghum. So when I showed up, they looked like onions. I had to water them myself. And fertilize them myself.
GALLOWAY: I want to come to maybe the most famous film you made in that period, Raise the Red Lantern.
GALLOWAY: That’s such extraordinary filmmaking. Break down the scene [in which Gong Li discovers her servant has a voodoo doll with her name on it] and what your thinking was.
ZHANG: The original novel was set in the south, but I chose to shoot in the north because I really liked the [period] architecture, the very square yards — and there are several squares within the squares that compose this whole house. It’s a very strong architecture and shape. So when you put a person inside, it feels like they are in a jail cell. And when you shoot it from a high angle, which I did a lot, you can see that a person is trapped inside. This was the first time I intentionally started using the color red. With Red Sorghum, it was described in the novel, so we shot a lot of red. But here if you look at [Gong Li’s] costume and the lighting, the lanterns, there’s a lot of red that I intentionally put in.
GALLOWAY: What about the actors?
ZHANG: In terms of directing actors, this is most important thing that a director can do. Of course you can have visuals, great visuals and great visual effects, but the most important thing is developing the character and developing and creating the performance. And that’s something I’m still learning today. I think that it’s the most important thing between one person and another person, to bring out the best performance out of somebody else. That is the hardest thing to do. And that’s something I continuously learn how to do and it’s what makes a good director great. I always say there are no bad actors, only bad directors. And still, even today, I try very hard to achieve that.
GALLOWAY: There was a point, earlier in your career, when you said you liked to get together with the actors a month before you started shooting. Do you still work that way?
ZHANG: Yes, I love working with the actors. I like to work with them for one month, even two months before we start shooting, to understand each other, to rehearse and then to get into the character. But unfortunately, in the current market, especially in China, it is impossible to do. The actors are working, they are so busy and they are booked completely before and after the movie, and sometimes even during the production. The good old days of being able to spend so much time with the actors, to create a character, are long gone, and will never come back.
GALLOWAY: Gong Li said something interesting. She said you’re too nice and you’re too deferential with the actors. Do you agree?
ZHANG: Yes, I absolutely agree. I’m a good guy. [Laughter.] I am very selective with my camera and I am very, very, very hard on the camera, and I make sure that the shots are well done. But I am very giving for the actors. I give them a lot of liberty and give them a lot of confidence.
GALLOWAY: I’ve heard that you’re a good guy, but the Chinese government didn’t always see you that way. I want to talk about my favorite film of yours, To Live.
GALLOWAY: Who was the doctor [in the scene at the hospital]? How did you find him?
ZHANG: There’s a little bit of black humor, dark humor here. The story of the doctor actually is based on my mother’s story. It is based on a real thing, a real event. My mother was a doctor, and there was a celebration in the hospital and there was a chef making what they call an oil stick, which is Chinese doughnuts basically: You fry them and then you eat them. And people usually are only allowed one each, but he was the chef, so he would cook one and he would eat one, he would cook one, he would eat one. Pretty soon his stomach was completely full and then they gave him some water — and it burst his stomach. His stomach burst! So my mother came home and said, “Luckily, he was in the hospital and we were able to operate right away, we were able to save him.” Originally this wasn’t in the script, but because I remembered it, I put it in the movie. If you look at all these actors around Gong Li who used to be unknown at that time, they are all famous huge stars right now.
GALLOWAY: What about the doctor himself?
ZHANG: He was an extra. We were looking for somebody extremely skinny, so that’s why we picked him.
GALLOWAY: He’s so good.
ZHANG: The close up [of Gong Li crying] was actually additional photography. We finished shooting that whole sequence, and then I came up with the idea: I wanted the close up and I wanted the erhu, the Chinese instrument, playing in the background as we transitioned to the next part. So we rebuilt the set in Beijing, and set everything up, all the lights, and Gong Li showed up. We prepared a whole day to shoot that scene. And she said, “Give me 10 minutes.” And then she goes in the corner for 10 minutes and I don’t know what she was thinking, but after 10 minutes she comes over, she sits down, we get the focus just right, and she does it in one take. It was one take — and I remember everybody on set crying, and I remember looking at the monitor, on her big close up and I go, “Wow. She’s an amazing actress. She’s truly magnificent.”
GALLOWAY: Do you cry easily?
ZHANG: Maybe it’s [because] my childhood was too hard, so I’m used to it. But now when I watch TV or movies, I cry very easily. It could be a terrible movie, a terrible story, I just cry.
GALLOWAY: Visconti would go see really terrible B movies and would just sob, and he hoped his friends wouldn’t find him going to see Dr. Zhivago — not a bad movie — because they might not regard him as such an intellectual filmmaker.
GALLOWAY: You wrote this script, but you showed a different script to the censors. What happened?
ZHANG: It did not pass censorship because we shot something different than we presented. And, probably because it portrayed really harshly all the different Cultural Revolution elements and in Chinese history, to this day it’s the only film that I’ve made that did not pass censorship.
GALLOWAY: What were the consequences for your career?
ZHANG: I was punished. This was a co-production with Taiwan and I was not allowed to do any co-production for three years.
GALLOWAY: After that, you shifted direction and you began with Hero, House of Flying Daggers, to make a very different kind of film. Why?
ZHANG: I felt like there was a huge change in the market. We have spent the last 50 years talking about politics, but it was very new at the time. Of course, now you look at China and it’s all about entertainment, it’s all about the market. But at that time, when I made Hero, it was still very new. Nobody dared to talk about something more relaxed and more fun, more entertaining, so that was a challenge for me. And, like any director, I felt I needed to grow, keep one foot in the art culture, making art films, and then the other foot doing something else. So I keep challenging myself.
GALLOWAY: How will you challenge yourself next? Do you have another film?
ZHANG: Yes, of course. I’m actually leaving tonight and I’m going back to China. Next month I’m going to start shooting my next movie. It’s a Chinese movie and it’s probably a little more art house.
GALLOWAY: What’s it called? And what’s it about?
ZHANG: I haven’t released the name yet, so I’m going to keep it a secret for now.
ZHANG: It’s a historical drama based around the Three Kingdoms era. We always say it’s like an old bottle with new wine.
GALLOWAY: I want to talk a bit about your new film, The Great Wall. We’re going to show a clip from this massive $150 million co-production with Legendary.
GALLOWAY: Who did Gong Li play in that? [Laughter.] How did this come to you? What was the genesis, the origin?
ZHANG: The movie had been in development by Legendary for seven years. So when it got to me, the script was pretty well developed. I was very interested in the story about people fighting monsters on the Great Wall. Of course, you can see, this is a completely different type of movie than my previous films. My agent asked me: “This is a monster flick. Would you be interested?” But I read the script and thought it was very interesting, and of course it’s very complicated to make something this big. It took three years to make this movie. In China, I could make two movies in that time.
GALLOWAY: What was the biggest challenge for you?
ZHANG: Working in a genre that I hadn’t worked in before. And also a co-production, shooting a movie that’s predominantly English. I found that challenging. People may say this is too commercial. Maybe. But you can learn something from everything. There is something worth looking at in every genre. And here, I definitely learned a lot.
GALLOWAY: What was the most important thing you learned?
ZHANG: The most important thing I learned was this: story. A story needs to be good. It is very difficult to find a story that can cross both cultures, that people from different sides of the world can really appreciate and like. The action and special effects come later. Story is the most important in this, the source of everything.
GALLOWAY: Which is interesting, because at one point, you said the most difficult thing for you was narrative. Is that still true?
ZHANG: Narrative and story are the same for me. I look at narrative in story and also in character development. And for me, actually, the biggest challenge is working with somebody as great as Matt Damon. He is such a wonderful actor, but since I didn’t speak the language, the challenge was to judge the performance, all the little nuances that the actors put in. So to make something that is really deep and has great character, it is still better to have it shot in your native language.
GALLOWAY: Would you want to make an English-language film again?
ZHANG: Yes, especially if it was a good story, and something that I’m interested in. Definitely. This is why I am always looking for a good story, you know. We want a good story, good actors, so they can really help me once I get on set and judge the performance.
GALLOWAY: You did a remake of the Coen brothers’ film Blood Simple, but I heard the one you really wanted to remake was No Country for Old Men. Could you now do that?
ZHANG: Yes, I loved No Country for Old Men. But it is very challenging to find actors who can play these roles. And then, of course, they told me it was too expensive. “Find something that’s older.” That’s why we ended up with Blood Simple.
GALLOWAY: You’ve gone from working in the fields and tending cows, and then being an outsider to the system, to now being extraordinarily inside the system, and criticized for that. How do you feel about that, personally? Does it hurt you? Do you care?
ZHANG: Yes. In the beginning, I did care. Everybody likes to be praised. But then I have gotten used to it, having been in the industry for so long. Everything always gets some criticism, especially nowadays with the information age; people are very fast with the information, they are very quick and the audiences are very specific in that they are very well educated, and sometimes they’re very picky. It just inspires me to do better. You know, it’s actually my goal in life. Every next movie is what inspires me.
GALLOWAY: Do you read what people say about you on social media? Do you Twitter?
ZHANG: Yes, I do read what people write about me on the web, but I don’t do Twitter or anything like that. I don’t tweet, I don’t send out any message, because it’s too much work and actually I am busy enough.
GALLOWAY: OK. Questions.
QUESTION: As we all know, Great Wall is the biggest co-production between East and West, recently. Chinese elements dominate the story. What effort do you make to make it understandable for a Western audience?
ZHANG: It is already there in the script. This is what drew me to the movie. Of course, it’s a monster flick, but there is a lot of room for me to add Chinese culture. In this genre you’ve got to do it rather fast, and so it might be a little simple. And to me the success of this movie, if you look at how it’s being shown throughout the world, and the idea is the opportunity for collaboration, is not based on anything else but personally it’s to be able to collaborate, to build a bridge between all the cultures.
QUESTION: If the rating system in the U.S. existed in China, how it would affect the Chinese industry?
ZHANG: Of course, censorship exists in China and it always will be there. The thing is that ultimately you want to make a movie, you want the audience to see the movie. All producers and distributors know about this. It is something you have to learn and work within that structure.
QUESTION: I worked as one of the translators on The Great Wall I noticed that there were sometimes conflicts between the Eastern and Western crews, because there was such a tight working space. How did you deal with that?
ZHANG: I didn’t know that you were translating so many arguments, because I didn’t really hear a lot of arguments! [Laughter.] But I have to tell you, from making several co-productions, there are always arguments; arguments exist every time you have co-production. You know why? Because people are always getting their own ideas through, and they all want it to be good. That’s the most important thing. They all want it to be good. So they try their best, the only way they know how to do it. That’s why they are always pushing their point of view. Ultimately, though, the best thing that it all came together and we could collaborate and finish the movie. That’s the most important thing. We had the best grip department, but in the beginning I wasn’t used to the way they operated. Once I looked at an actor and said, “They’re too low. Can we bring them up a little bit?” And then, the next thing you know, 20 minutes have gone by. “Why weren’t we shooting?” Well, I went over there and they were building this platform and there were handrails and everything. In China, we would just take a stool and have the actor stand on that stool, and he’s fine. But they said, “No, no, legally this would be dangerous. So, we can’t let that happen.” It’s a mutual understanding. How do we achieve the best, you know?
QUESTION: How do you discover new talent? And has your expectation for young actors changed?
GALLOWAY: I think when you found Zhang Ziyi, you had auditioned or screened 40,000 women. Is that correct?
ZHANG: Yes. We did look all over the world for her. She was a sophomore at that time. She was 19. And Gong Li, too, she was a sophomore.
GALLOWAY: You like sophomores?
ZHANG: Finding the actors is really based on the character. So, if you know exactly what kind of character you are looking for, it’s easy to discover new talent. Secondly, because I am a cinematographer by trade, I always film them in a different light and in different settings, because I don’t trust my own eyes to judge how they might look onscreen. I am often able to find people who might not look so amazing in person, but are wonderful onscreen.
GALLOWAY: There’s a Hollywood director who just died two weeks ago, Robert Ellis Miller, who was asked, “What is the greatest myth about filmmaking?” And he said, “That the camera never lies.”
QUESTION: Is Qingdao base a good place for young Chinese students to work? Also, any suggestions for the Chinese students who are here and now going back to China?
ZHANG: Yes. First of all, Qingdao has great weather. It doesn’t have smog. It is a great place to film. We shot our exteriors there. And, of course, there is the tax incentive. They have a huge base there now; a lot of foreign productions are going to go there. I’m not sure personally you’ll find a job, but there’ll probably be a lot of positions for a bilingual person, for people who understand English and Chinese in the film industry over there. And in terms of filmmaking advice for Chinese students here, yes, going back to China is probably the best way, because China has a growing market. It is one of the biggest markets right now, not just the film, but also television. Television is growing even bigger. Hollywood is a very tightknit community, so it’s a lot easier for you to find a job in China.
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