EXCLUSIVE: John Woo, Imax expand 'Tigers'

Director likes Liam Neeson for aviator role

BEIJING – Director John Woo will work with the Creative Artists Agency and IMAX in an effort to super-size his roughly $90 million 1940s epic, the bilingual aerial battle epic movie “Flying Tigers," which is due to go into pre-production in China in September.

Woo, who returned to China to work on the 3rd century war picture “Red Cliff” after a decade making Hollywood films such as “Face/Off,” told The Hollywood Reporter that CAA will package “Flying Tigers” by hunting down U.S. studio finance and casting on both sides of the Pacific.

Woo said he had a CAA client in mind when mulling who should play the lead role of U.S. Army Air Corp Lt. Gen. Claire Lee Chennault -- the contentious American officer whose volunteer Flying Tigers squadron trained the first generation of Chinese fighter pilots taking on Japan in WWII.

“It’s got to be a star but it’s hard to find the right one, because at that time Chennault was almost 50 years old. Ideally, I’ve been thinking of Liam Neeson as the title actor,” Woo said. CAA confirmed it represents Neeson but declined comment on “Flying Tigers.”

Playing opposite whoever is cast as Chennault will be a young Chinese actor in the role of a pilot in training. Woo mentioned the likes of actor Liu Ye, who last appeared in a lead role in Lu Chuan's Nanjing Massacre picture “City of Life and Death.”

Meanwhile, IMAX CEO Rich Gelfond, who lately has focused much of his NASDAQ-listed company’s expansion energies in China -- co-producing its first non-English film there and selling a raft of new digital screens -- said working with Woo was a dream come true.

“Woo's passion and the story lend themselves in scope to an IMAX film," Gelfond said by telephone from New York. "John is so visual and his great talent will help us from the start to make sure that the IMAX version of [Flying Tigers] realizes the technology’s potential.”

As China’s economy, now the world’s second-largest, encourages its swelling middle class to spend some of its savings, local boxoffice has ballooned 86% in the first half of 2010, up from the $909 million reached in 2009 when the year-end growth was a mere 46%.

Woo, 64, said he is co-writing the “Flying Tigers” script with a young Los Angeles-based writer called Chris Chow. Woo will co-produce the film, first announced in July 2009 with his long-time business partner Terence Chang of Lion Rock Productions of Los Angeles, the state-run China Film Group here and a new addition to the mix, Beijing Galloping Horse Film & TV Productions.

Just as “Red Cliff” was an epic based on a historical battle well known in China, Japan and Korea, “Flying Tigers” is based on a story well known in China and the U.S. -- at least among WWII and U.S. Air Force history buffs.

Chennault -- whose 85-year-old widow is Beijing-born journalist- turned Washington, D.C.-based Sino-U.S. relations lobbyist Anna Chennault -- ran the Flying Tigers squadron from southwest China. His volunteer fighter pilots flew successful missions around the city of Kunming in Yunnan province against the raiding Japanese and flew supplies to both Nationalist and Communist Chinese forces.

“Chennault really did a great job for China,” Woo said in an interview in his new east Beijing office, where production will begin in a few weeks. “He really loved China. Older Chinese people really remember him, respect him and love him. No matter what kind of party was in power, they all liked him. Chennault worked with them all so well.”

“Flying Tigers” goes into production at a time when the State Administration of Radio Film and Television with the support of China’s cabinet is pushing the nation’s cultural industries to make movies that reflect the one-party government’s views on the big screen.

Woo said censors at SARFT had not interfered with his script and that the current day People’s Liberation Army Air Force was encouraging him to make the movie. “It’s meaningful for everyone as the whole movie is all about friendship,” he said.

And it’s a dose of friendship that could be welcome by the time “Flying Tigers” starts shooting in the spring, toward a planned late 2011 release. Beijing on Wednesday denied claims in a U.S. government report, saying the Pentagon has exaggerated China's rapid modernization and expansion of its arsenal of missiles, ships and aircraft.
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