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As The Weinstein Co. prepares to release its long-lost thriller Shanghai on Friday, Harvey Weinstein is blaming the Chinese government for decisions that led to a seven-year delay in bringing the movie to the big screen in North America.
Speaking about the project’s long odyssey for the first time, the outspoken mogul is pointing the finger squarely at the Chinese government, which he says revoked the film’s permits to shoot in Shanghai on the eve of production back in 2008, propelling the movie onto a troubled trajectory and forcing TWC to take on third-party investors who held up the film’s domestic release for years.
“We had been approved by China, and we were getting ready to shoot, and one day I’m there and the [government’s] film people come by and they say, ‘Ken Watanabe’s character shows sympathy to a Chinese person, played by Gong Li, in the film,” Weinstein tells The Hollywood Reporter. “We said, ‘Yeah, you read the script a long time ago, and we got clearance.’”
Weinstein says China’s state film regulators ordered him to recast the part to be played by the Japanese actor with an American actor in order to begin production. Weinstein balked, he says, prompting China to send the Mikael Hafstrom-helmed film into a tailspin. “They said, ‘I’m sorry, we’re cancelling your right to film the movie,'” Weinstein recalls. “In those days, there was a much more heightened Japanese-Chinese antipathy.”
Weinstein was quick to point out that the regulators were part of the former Chinese regime, known for hard-line tactics.
“I like China, but this was the situation, and I couldn’t talk because they didn’t want me to,” he says. “I’m just saying this has been a matter of conscience. Everybody wants to make sure their relationship with China is good, but I have to speak out. Now, there’s a more open government, a more welcoming government, more welcoming to Americans wanting to do business over there.”
But that was not the case in 2008, he says. Before being booted off of Chinese soil, the film had a budget of $22 million, which was largely covered by presales in international territories. TWC already had a crew of 150 people on the ground in Shanghai as well as a cast led by John Cusack. The entire team subsequently was forced to move to London and Thailand, causing the budget to more than double to $50 million.
“There was no insurance for the Chinese situation,” Weinstein says. “We had to go through alternative means of financing, which got extremely complicated, and we probably ran up another $20-plus million on the budget, which for us is insane.”
Because of that, TWC was forced to bring in outside investors, whom Weinstein declined to name. Those investors held up the domestic release until now, he says.
“There was an embargo on America,” he adds. “Once the movie went over $22 million, it was out of our control. These other financiers fought with each other. The rights were holed up — who owned what rights and when can you release it. And when it finally became available, we released it. It’s all solved, maybe a little too late.”
On Friday, TWC will release Shanghai in 100 theaters, a move that came as a surprise to much of the cast and crew, including its producer Mike Medavoy. But Hafstrom, for one, is grateful that it will now be seen in U.S. theaters.
“Making this movie was almost as big an adventure as the one we were trying to put on the screen,” Hafstrom says. “I have very fond memories working with a great international cast, re-creating a time and place I’ve always been drawn to. Thanks to Harvey and TWC for giving me and others a chance to see Shanghai on the big screen.”
After its theatrical run, Shanghai will head to Amazon platforms, where Weinstein says he expects it to play strongly. But it also will close a difficult chapter in TWC’s 12-year run.
“For me, it’s a painful episode in my career,” Weinstein says. “But I am so proud of my company and myself for saying, ‘We will not do the movie without a Japanese character in that role. We will not do the movie without Ken Watanabe in that role.’”
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