An Auteur + This Actor = Game Change
Oscar winner Christian Bale becomes the first Western actor to star in a Chinese movie (a $100 million one at that) as he and director Zhang Yimou shake up the Hollywood model of doing business with "The Flowers of War."
Christian Bale was baffled to find stone-cold silence when he arrived on the set of Zhang Yimou's $100 million historical epic The Flowers of War in January. After the 14-hour flight from Los Angeles to Nanjing, China, Bale found it downright unnerving. Sets are usually noisy hubs, not mausoleums.
"There were a couple of hundred people just staring at me. Even Yimou was whispering. I thought to myself, 'I guess this is how it's done in China,' " Bale recalls. "It turns out they'd all gotten together the day before and said that in the States, everybody is quiet on the set. I told them, 'Please, start shouting.' "
And so began an unprecedented alliance: The most expensive Chinese film ever made, helmed by the country's preeminent director and starring a Western actor in a lead role -- unheard of in the 100 years of Chinese cinema -- that's designed both for mainland and international audiences. Set against the 1937 Japanese invasion of Nanjing (then called Nanking) and the atrocities that ensued, the film is 60 percent in Mandarin and 40 percent in English.
"In the past, foreign characters were almost like decorations, they didn't have flesh and bones. This is the only movie so far that actually brings the West and East together organically. And this movie will really make China that much closer to the world on a global scale," says the soft-spoken Zhang through an interpreter, his daughter Mou Mou.
The bond and affection between Zhang and Bale is impossible to miss as the two men sit together at the Montage Hotel in Beverly Hills. It's mid-November, a month away from the world premiere of Flowers of War in China, to be followed quickly by an awards qualifying run in the U.S. in late December and a wider release in January. The movie is already China's official selection for the Oscar for best foreign language film (the fourth such nomination for Zhang), but the producers are hoping to land additional Golden Globe and Oscar categories.
Bale is surprisingly rested and sharp-eyed, considering he's been back in Los Angeles for only three days since wrapping production on the last Batman movie, The Dark Knight Rises, shot in India, Pittsburgh, Los Angeles and New York City. (Bale is clearly glad to be home, and happily invites his wife, Sibi Blazic, along to lunch at the Montage on this day.) It's virtually the first press he's done since the night of the Academy Awards in late February when he won the Oscar for best supporting actor for The Fighter, adding to his reputation for being reclusive. But it becomes clear he's not so much press shy as he is efficient: He does what is needed to promote a movie, but no more.
Bale isn't fazed by the end of the Batman franchise, and already has moved on. "I'm not really thinking about what's next. But there's a couple of projects I'm doing with Terrence Malick, but it won't be for a while. So I'm going to have a little bit of a break."
With a penchant for demanding and far-flung assignments, Bale says he quickly accepted the offer to star in Zhang's epic when it came to him through his William Morris Endeavor agents Patrick Whitesell and Boomer Malkin, even though he spoke no Mandarin (Mou Mou translated on the set).
"Some people scratched their heads when I told them I wanted to do the project and said, 'Really, why?' I don't understand that sort of thinking," says Bale. "I like the adventure aspect of making movies, so the opportunity to work in China, not on an American movie, but on a Chinese movie, really appealed to me. How many times do you get that sort of opportunity, and on top of that, get to work with a fantastic director? It was a no-brainer."
But the movie's implications go far beyond the individual aspirations of a world-renowned director and actor. China's cash-flush film industry and box office are exploding, and Hollywood is feverishly trying to gain entry to a marketplace severely restricted by the government's quota limiting the annual number of Western films to 20.
If Flowers of War works, a whole new revenue stream could open up for Western actors (not to mention producers, directors and writers). At a $100 million budget, Zhang's movie is the most expensive production ever mounted in China, and Bale likely received millions for his work and perhaps a piece of the back end in an era of shrinking U.S. budgets.
Says Whitesell: "One of the reasons I was excited was that this will up Christian's exposure in China. It could be China's Saving Private Ryan."
For their part, Hollywood studios have been busy focusing on striking co-production partnerships with Chinese film companies, such as Legendary Pictures' newly announced pact with Huayi Brothers and the creation of Legendary East. The first project is the Edward Zwick-directed The Great Wall, which won't be subject to the quota.
"China is the fastest-growing market in the world. Co-productions are advantageous both for revenue share purposes and the challenges of the quota system," says Sanford Panitch, president of Fox International Productions, which has made four films in China with a local partner, including box-office hits Hot Summer Days and its sequel Love in Space.
For Zhang Yimou and his longtime producing partner, Zhang Weiping -- whose New Films International fully financed Flowers of War -- the intent is to up China's profile on the world stage of filmmaking.
Intentions are one thing, carrying out that vision is another. American audiences are notoriously finicky about watching a movie with subtitles, even if that movie stars a famous actor and is 40 percent in English. (The highest-grossing Chinese movie to date is 2000's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, which earned $128.1 million domestically.)
Zhang Weiping and Flowers of War executive producers David Linde and Bill Kong began shopping the movie to American distributors at the Toronto Film Festival in September, hosting a crowded screening that drew nearly all of the U.S. buyers, including Harvey Weinstein. But the film left Toronto without a domestic distribution deal. Some felt the movie, which runs roughly 140 minutes, needed to be trimmed. Others commended the direction and cinematography, but didn't have the room on their slates to wage an awards campaign this year.
Earlier this month, Chris Ball's new distribution company Wrekin Hill closed a deal to release Flowers of War in the U.S. after agreeing to a one-week awards qualifying run in late December, likely in Los Angeles. Flowers of War will open early in the new year, and Wrekin Hill is planning to target the Chinese-American community through screenings and cross-promotions with businesses targeting that demo. The distributor also will use hopeful awards attention, as well as Bale and Zhang's names, to whip up interest in the movie among general audiences. And in February, Glen Basner's FilmNation likely will start selling the film in earnest to foreign distributors.
The awards push in the U.S. already has begun, with Zhang Yimou and Zhang Weiping attending a Nov. 12 screening of Flowers of War for the Hollywood Foreign Press Association, home of the Golden Globes.
"The feedback was extremely positive," Zhang Yimou says. "There were more than 30 members who showed up with their families, and afterwards they told me this was the most complete storyline I've ever created. They asked a lot of questions about how Christian and I worked together."
Like the 37-year-old Bale, Zhang -- who turned 60 on Nov. 14, the day of the interview -- is famous for ducking the limelight. He's beloved around the world for his body of work, a library that includes such classics as Red Sorghum, Ju Dou, Raise the Red Lantern and Chinese martial arts films Hero and House of Flying Daggers. He's known for being incredibly intelligent and warm-hearted, as well as having a fierce sense of humor that clearly rubs off on Bale (it's also possible Zhang understands more English than he lets on).
"I think there was only one initial misunderstanding because of the language barrier," Bale jokes, "which was that Yimou actually wanted to cast Christian Slater, but he ended up with me. He pretended that he wanted me from the get-go."
Humor was a necessary tonic on the set of Flowers of War. Bale plays John Miller, a boozy American mortician who is mourning the death of his young daughter and ends up in Nanking -- then China's capital city -- during the attack known as the Rape of Nanking. He seeks refuge at a Catholic cathedral and convent school, where a group of girls find themselves abandoned after their priest dies. When a houseful of famous courtesans demand shelter within the cathedral, an uneasy alliance ensues between the girls and the prostitutes as they try to ward off the Japanese. Bale's character, who pretends to be the priest during a visit by soldiers from the Japanese Imperial Army, slowly transforms and becomes a protector.
"The story of the Rape of Nanking has been told before in films, and is a very political and serious subject," Zhang says, "but what intrigued me about this story was that it's actually told from the female perspective, so it's more humane and has a personal touch."
The movie's original title was The Heroes of Nanking, but it was changed midstream to emphasize the female aspect of the storyline.
Zhang researched the Rape of Nanking for more than three years, and some of the film's more graphic scenes were drawn from actual photographs, while the movie itself was based on Geling Yan's novel The 13 Women of Nanjing.
Over the years, Zhang has had his issues with the Chinese government -- several of his films were banned -- and on its face, Flowers of War was potentially problematic.
"This is not the sort of mainstream movie the Chinese government would usually approve," Zhang says. "Topics about foreigners, about religion and about World War II are not well-received by the government, but because this movie is about who we are as humans, and what we would do to save other people, the government actually supported it."
Zhang created an elaborate set for the film, while the U.K.'s Joss Williams (The Bourne Ultimatum, The Pacific) spearheaded the special effects used in the war scenes.
"There are common elements amongst all the films that Zhang Yimou directs. As to the difference this time, I think this film is more international in respect of its theme and story," says Zhang Weiping.
Zhang Yimou and Zhang Weiping knew from the start that they would need to land a Western actor to play the central character in the book. (Westerners played a crucial role in documenting the invasion of Nanking since the Japanese were not targeting them and they could evade danger and even get out.)
During the Berlin Film Festival in 2010, Zhang Weiping and Bill Kong, who also has produced many of Zhang Yimou's films, approached Linde, the former Universal studio chief who had risen up through the international sales ranks and handled several of Yimou's films. Linde, who now runs Lava Bear Entertainment, agreed to wear the hat of executive producer and help land an actor. Bale was at the top of the list, based on his ability to adapt and be completely in tune with new situations. Steven Spielberg, who had cast Bale in Empire of the Sun years earlier, also recommended the actor to his friend Zhang Yimou.
"When I was asked to join the project, it struck me that the film represented the shifting dynamic within the world of feature film," Linde says, "not to mention a chance to work once again with Yimou."
Bale was in the midst of preparing for the release of The Fighter when he received the script, and was immediately drawn in by the story.
"This was a very poignant and painful moment in Chinese history and I was drawn to the radical difference between the atrocities that happen, versus the incredible humanity that emerges," Bale says. "Yimou and I had spoken a little about the character, and this was not a guy who was a hero from the get-go, this was a guy who really just wanted to have a good time in China and make a buck."
Becoming an actor was a natural step for Bale, who was born in Wales to English parents. His mother was a circus performer, so Bale and his three sisters spent their early years on the move, living in countries including England and Portugal. His father was an entrepreneur and talent manager who would later marry feminist Gloria Steinem.
Unbeknownst to Zhang, he and Bale's paths had crossed 20 years earlier at the Telluride Film Festival, when a riveted 17-year-old Bale saw Raise the Red Lantern. From that day on, Bale revered Zhang, who is among the iconic Fifth Generation of Chinese filmmakers. Raised in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi province, Zhang took up painting and photography as a young man, but found himself over the regulation age of 25 when the Beijing Film Academy reopened its doors following the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and '70s. He refused to give up, and showed his portfolio to officials at the Ministry of Culture, who finally relented and granted him a spot.
Zhang is as prolific as he is praised, having made 19 films, including Flowers of War. He gained additional recognition in 2008 for directing the opening and closing ceremonies of the Summer Olympics in Beijing with fellow director and choreographer Zhang Jigang.
From the beginning of his career, Zhang Yimou intentionally used first-time actors who would go on to become famous stars, including Gong Li, who appeared in many of his films. Zhang relied on that same practice when casting the schoolgirls and courtesans in Flowers of War, all of whom are newcomers and from Nanjing, so as to ensure the proper dialect. The ensemble cast includes 13-year-old Zhang Xinyi, who plays the role of Shu and narrates the film.
"When you have first-time actors, a lot of times they give performances that are very real and refreshing," Zhang Yimou says.
Zhang also wanted to use Japanese actors to play the Imperial soldiers, a touchy proposition, since the Japanese government has never acknowledged that the atrocities took place, only that there were military deaths. "It wasn't as difficult as I imagined, and I think everybody who worked on this film decided to set history aside and just focus on the story," Zhang says.
One of the more awkward moments of the shoot came when Zhang asked Bale if he would instruct the first-time actors. Bale was stunned, since no director he's ever worked with would tolerate such an intrusion.
"Yimou explained that it's different in China, and that the more experienced actor is considered rude if he or she doesn't tell a less-experienced actor how to do a scene," Bale says. "What we had was a culture clash of what's acceptable, and what's not. I mean for me to tread on Yimou's toes would be incredibly arrogant. I just couldn't do it. At the same time, I didn't want to be perceived as being rude myself."
Bale came up with a plan -- he was willing to leave the set and speak to an actor, but only if Zhang came along.
Oddly, the language divide between Bale and his director wasn't an issue.
"It was fascinating," Bale says. "I was prepared for the experience of being in the dark throughout, having no idea of what I'd just done, or if it was anywhere near what Yimou wanted. But that's not what happened. With Yimou and myself, we just grew to understand each other and we moved beyond the language."
To prepare for the role, Bale studied the period, reading books and looking at photographs. And since his character disguises himself as a priest, he studied Catholic prayers and became deft at using a rosary. Bale also grew a beard for the part, which he sported in late February at the Academy Awards. The "mystery" beard sparked furious rumors, and fanboys lit up the Internet questioning whether the new look was for The Dark Knight Rises.
After the Oscars, Bale returned to Nanjing until mid-April. He had intended on bringing his wife and 7-year-old daughter over for the entire time, but they ended up coming only for a short visit, which Bale says was a good thing, since Zhang worked seven days a week.
Until now, Zhang has had little interest in working for an American studio. His only official gig in the U.S. was directing The First Emperor for the Metropolitan Opera in 2006.
"I was very against working in Hollywood because I don't speak the language, and I don't know the cultural differences," Zhang says. "Also, I don't like traveling. But working with Christian was such a pleasurable experience, that I now have the confidence to collaborate with a Hollywood studio. Flowers of War has changed how I view working with foreign actors, and Hollywood actors, and I definitely want to do the same thing again on future projects."
Zhang is certain of one thing -- Bale is about to become famous at the Chinese box office. Many of the actor's films haven't been released in theaters there, including The Dark Knight and The Fighter, although Bale reports with a laugh that pirated copies of both films were widely available on the streets of Nanjing.
Indeed, the first time Zhang watched a copy of The Fighter, the subtitles were botched. After he was done shooting Flowers of War, he watched another copy. This time, the subtitles were right.
With a glint returning to his eye, and the end to the interview at the Montage approaching, Zhang tells Bale: "I regret that I didn't see The Fighter with the good subtitles the first time. Your performance was so good, I would have added more scenes for you in Flowers of War."
ZHANG YIMOU'S WORLDWIDE BOX-OFFICE TALLY: Ju Dou, raise the Red Lantern and hero were the first Chinese films nominated for foreign language Oscar
- Hero (2002) -- $177.4 million
- House of Flying Daggers (2004) -- $92.9 million
- Curse of the Golden Flower (2006) -- $78.6 million
- Raise the Red Lantern (1991) -- $2.6 million (U.S. Only)
- Ju Dou (1990) -- $2 million (U.S. only)
"MOU'S GIRLS": China's two most famous actresses were both discovered by Zhang Yimou, spawning the popular phrase
Gong Li: The actress, now 45, was a student at the Central Academy of Drama in Beijing when she met Zhang Yimou. He cast her in his first film, the critically acclaimed Red Sorghum (1987), followed quickly by Ju Dou and Raise the Red Lantern, which introduced her to audiences around the world. After To Live in 1995, they didn't work together again until Curse of the Golden Flower in 2006.
Zhang Ziyi: The now 32-year-old also was a student at the Central Academy of Drama when Zhang Yimou asked her if she'd star in The Road Home (1999), which won the Silver Bear award at the Berlin Film Festival. It was her first film. A year later, she achieved international fame for her role in Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She went on to star in two of Zhang Yimou's most prosperous films, Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004).