Battle royale

John Woo's recreation of one of Chinese history's greatest conflicts required years of hard work and millions of dollars -- and the extraordinary resourcefulness of his producer.

Since the earliest days of his career, John Woo -- the action maestro who burst onto the world cinema stage with ultraviolent thrillers like 1989's "The Killer" and went on to helm Hollywood studio projects like 1997's "Face/Off" and 2000's "Mission: Impossible II" -- had longed to bring to the screen one of the most epic tales in Asian history. "Red Cliff" tells the story of two rival armies facing off for control of southern China in A.D. 208, and shooting the $80 million Mandarin-language project required years of hard work and a marshaling of resources that rivaled launching a wide-scale military campaign.

Apart from navigating the bureaucracy of the Chinese government and enlisting the aid of the nation's army, Woo and his producing partner Terence Chang managed a daily workforce of some 2,000 cast, crew and extras, often shooting in torrential rain. That, of course, was after the pair secured financing and had recast the lead of the movie, after Chow Yun-Fat dropped out of the film the day principal photography began.

It's no wonder that Chang found himself hospitalized briefly for stress and exhaustion. "The hardest thing was to strike a perfect balance between John's vision and the film's already humongous budget," Chang reflects. "I was sick with stress and fever."

In some ways, though, it was indicative of the chaos inherent in making the film. Back in 2004, when Woo felt that he had the stature in the international marketplace and the experience required to undertake his dream project, Chang flew to Beijing for the first time in his life to meet with prospective partners, without a script or budget in place. The trip, he acknowledges, was a near-disaster.

"I met with China Film Group, the government-owned film production and distribution company," he says. "If an American film wants to go into China, you have to go through CFG. So I met with (then-CFG chairman) Yang Buting, and he didn't show any interest."

Undaunted, Chang approached a second company, Poly Culture & Art Co., which has an ownership stake in Chinese production company Asian Union and immediately sparked to the project. Chang then returned to his base in Los Angeles and mentioned this to Woo, who immediately wrote to Asian Union, affirming his commitment to the film and to making "Red Cliff" with Chinese technicians.

"'Red Cliff' is full of special effects and special filmmaking techniques," he notes. "I want to prove to the world that a Chinese crew can make a film at the same level as they do in Hollywood."

Chang adds: "He wrote a very passionate letter -- 'I want you to be a partner' -- but without letting me know. (Asian Union) told everyone -- magazines, newspapers -- 'We own the rights.' It got messy."

Asian Union began billing the film as a $50 million project -- a number execs there had essentially pulled out of thin air -- even though no script was in place. But other investors quickly came calling. Although the company would later be replaced by other Japanese funding, Japanese distributor Rentrak signed a deal with Chang at Cannes in 2005 agreeing to invest in the film, and at that point, Woo started work on the screenplay, going through draft after draft with half a dozen writers, trying to decide which part of the epic tale should be the central focus.

At the same time, Woo went public with the news that Chow Yun-Fat, who starred in many of the director's early films, would star in "Red Cliff," despite the fact that no deal was in place. The news stirred plenty of excitement, though, especially from Columbia, a pioneer among the major studios in investing in Asian film. "(The press) announced all the big-name stars, and then I had to go to every one of them and explain, 'No, you are not in this film yet.' Then Columbia came to us and said, 'We want to buy the film.'"

But negotiations ground to a halt when Columbia insisted on the Chinese distribution rights, arguably the biggest market for "Red Cliff." "We all had a meeting in China with Asian Union to talk about how we were going to work out the deal," Chang says. "But Columbia said, 'We want China, otherwise we will drop the whole deal.' I said, 'It doesn't make sense. There is no way Columbia can match CFG's numbers. It is obviously the biggest market for that film.' Then they pulled out."

Rather than seek another U.S. studio's participation, Chang partnered with other investors -- Taiwan's CMC, Korea's Showbox and Japan's Avex, among them. The rest of the budget was financed through territorial sales handled by Summit Entertainment at the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year. "In the market at the moment, everyone is looking for something a little bit different," says David Garrett, president of Summit International. "To have the biggest Chinese film ever made, with John Woo directing, was an incredibly enticing project."

But while financing was falling into place, Woo's vision for the movie became larger and larger, until the script was more than 200 pages with three major set pieces. Although Chang asked Woo to scale back the screenplay and trim one of the most expensive sequences, the director never did, and the budget for the project soared to $70 million, even as its anticipated March start date grew closer and closer.

The stress took a very real physical toll on Chang, who, in January, was hospitalized in Beijing. "After John refused to cut it, I was in the hospital in Beijing, and there was still no script," Chang says. "Or there was, but I didn't like it. We had a start date of March. We still didn't have all the money -- we had $50 million but not enough money to shoot the film that John wanted. So I went to him with an idea: to basically split the film into two movies."

It turned out to be the project's saving grace. Chang was able to raise the extra money for the budget by promising investors that he would deliver two films -- at least for the Asian markets. In Europe and the U.S., "Red Cliff" will be conflated into a single picture.

"When we started selling it, it was not set in stone whether it would be one movie or two," Garrett says. "We agreed that we would provide a roughly two-hour version for the Western market and that the Asian market would get the two-times-two-hour version. Because they are so familiar with the story, there were simply characters they couldn't cut out."

He adds, "That presented another problem: We would have to hold back the release of the single version until the second part had been released in Asia."

Shooting was delayed until April so that the deals could be signed, but even with all of the financing in place and help from the authorities -- with a prod by one of its top executives, CFG had agreed to become one of the major investors in "Red Cliff" -- Chang and Woo found themselves without a leading man. Tony Leung had originally been set to star, but he dropped out just before shooting began. The actor was simply exhausted after starring in Ang Lee's two-plus-hour Focus Features' drama "Lust, Caution."

Chang and Woo recast the part with Takeshi Kaneshiro and planned to move forward, confident that the presence of one world-renowned star, Chow Yun-Fat, who was on board at that point, would keep the backers happy. At least, Chang thought he was onboard.

Looking back, he admits: "I had had a really tough time negotiating with Chow Yun-Fat's wife (Jasmine), who is also his manager. The bond company (CineFinance) would not agree to 73 clauses in his contract. I told her, 'OK, whatever CineFinance will not agree to, I will put it in a separate deal.' But she was tough, unreasonably tough."

The day before principal photography began, Woo phoned Chow to confirm that he was still in, and the actor said he was, even though his contract was not closed (a situation that's fairly common on most films). Later that evening, Chang says that Chow's wife, Jasmine, also confirmed that they would arrive on location, as planned, two weeks into the shoot.

"Then, the first day (of the shoot)," Chang recalls, "I got an e-mail from her lawyer saying they passed. I was furious! The whole crew, all the other actors, were furious."

Indeed, Chow's departure jeopardized the whole production since the film no longer had a major international star. In a sweat, Chang manned the phones, desperate to find a replacement. "We were calling and asking actors, but there's only a handful who (count commercially)," he says. "Andy Lau wasn't available, and Jet Li was committed to another film. The only choice we had left that the investors would agree to was Tony Leung."

Chang and Woo immediately flew to meet with Leung to try to convince him to take over Chow's role, and fortunately for the sake of "Red Cliff," he assented.

After all this, whatever problems occurred during the eight-month shoot seemed minor by comparison. So what if rain bucketed down, destroying some of the sets? So what if Chang and his line producers had to figure out how to house and feed 1,000 soldiers a day, not to mention the 300 horses and 1,000 cast and crew who worked with them? "Nothing went wrong," he says. At least, "nothing serious."

Woo clearly appreciates everything he did. "I could not have made this movie without him," he says.

With CAA set to broker a domestic deal for "Red Cliff," Chang, at press time, was still shuttling between Los Angeles and China, trying to get the film wrapped by late November. The battle isn't over, he says: "There is going to be another battle in the cutting room."

Still, though, the producer confesses that he would do it all again -- though maybe just a bit differently. "I would do it smartly," he says. "I learned from what happened on this picture. If I had to do another film of this scale, I would sign every goddamn actor."

Woo has no regrets either. "I've always wanted to show the true spirit of Chinese culture and let people know that there is more to Chinese film than martial arts films and art house dramas," Woo says. "'Red Cliff' is about history, but it's also about courage, bravery, intelligence, friendship and honor. ... I have wanted to make this film for over 18 years, and now is the time."