China and its people were key to successful wrap of latest 'Mummy'The third film in Universal's "Mummy" franchise takes Brendan Fraser's Rick O'Connell and his team on an exotic Asian adventure to battle a resurrected emperor and his terracotta army. To give the installment an authentic feel, all exteriors for "The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor" were filmed on location in China.
China was not a new experience for director Rob Cohen, who shot "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" and the TV series "The Vanishing Son" in the country.
For "Mummy," which opens Aug. 1, the crew used locations in areas including Beijing, Turfan, Ningxia, Heng Dian, Inner Mongolia, Shanghai and Tianmo. Scenes that involved sets were lensed in China and Canada.
Cohen said the production experience on the film — a China co-production, which Cohen says includes "guaranteed distribution in very favorable terms" — was wonderful.
"The weather was very kind to us, especially where we were most vulnerable — in Tianmo, up in the deserts above Beijing," the helmer says, describing the isolated site as "a valley with beautiful sand dunes in a flat plain, which lent itself to the climatic battle.
"We were shooting for over a month, and it was to be a sequence that took place in a few hours," he says. "For three-quarters of it, we got gorgeous light. For a quarter of it, when the winds were reserved, the smog from Beijing would blow up toward us. Those days, the light was very flat. We only were shut down by two sandstorms, so we were lucky with that too because they were quite brutal. It was unbelievable — the force of the winds and the driven sand.
"In Shanghai, which is a rainy city, we got almost no rain," he adds. "And we were shooting an exterior chase for about three weeks. In Turfan, it was very hot and dry."
The team also filmed from the air.
"The hardest thing we did was to get permission to shoot some aerial plates," Cohen says. "All Chinese airspace is exclusively reserved for the military."
Joel Hynek, co-visual effects supervisor at Digital Domain, which with Rhythm & Hues handled the bulk of the film's VFX, says a small team went up to lens the Tianmo area. During that portion of the shoot, the crew stayed in a smaller city north of Beijing —"which was our joy because we got to know the people," Cohen says, though getting to the location was challenging.
"Most of China is paved beautifully, but once you go off into the hinterland, the potholes are so big you don't know if you are going to get out of them," he says. "Everyone was dodging and weaving."
In the remote area, the team also found a key location with Ming Dynasty village ruins as well as remains of the Great Northern Wall.
"It gave me an opportunity to put my sequence of building the Great Wall of China next to the wall ruins," Cohen says. "We had such a richness of palette. It could not have been achieved without going to China, not just for the locations but also for (the input of) the people behind the camera to make sure the details were correct."
At the production's high point, there were more than 2,000 Chinese and 200 Westerners on the film.
"It was a really wonderful co-production," Cohen says. "We had real, Chinese, knowledgeable people on every aspect of it from production to prop-making to sets to set designs to costumes. It just made the experience magical."
Cohen said there also was a Chinese production staff, adding, "There was no Western presence that wasn't mirrored by a Chinese contingent."
Bill Kong produced in China.
At the time of the shoot, China was readying for next month's Beijing Olympics, so the team got a preview of what was being prepared. "When Americans get a view of what the Chinese have done for this Olympics, they are going to have their minds really blown," Cohen says. "It's a spectacular thing that they have achieved."
Summing up his time shooting in the country, Cohen says: "With everyone getting along, it was so wonderful. We learned from them; they learned from us. It was nothing but hugs and tears when we wrapped."
Carolyn Giardina can be reached at carolyn.giardina@THR.com.