Q&A: Lu Chuan

Acclaimed Chinese director Lu Chuan recently began shooting his fourth feature film, a tale of two great generals, Liu Bang and Xiang Yu, who fought for control of China at the end of the Qin Dynasty and started the Han Dynasty. Centered on the legendary Feast at Hong Gate in 206 B.C., at which one general betrays the other, Lu’s new movie The Last Supper tells the tale cemented in the Chinese imagination as a metaphor for an invitation with sinister ulterior motives. Lu’s last feature, City of Life and Death, won best picture at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain and was hailed for giving a human face to the much-reviled Japanese invaders who perpetrated the "rape of Nanking." Again backed by the state-run China Film Group and Stellar Megamedia, Lu spoke to The Hollywood Reporter’s Jonathan Landreth from the set on the outskirts of Beijing.
THR: Please explain how The Last Supper will differ from all the ancient Chinese epic films that have come before it.
Lu Chuan (LC): The president of Venice Film Festival, Marco Mueller, saw our footage today and said for the first time he saw something real from China’s past on the screen. I want to show something to the audience that they can believe. Many Chinese epic movies look like they were shot in a luxury location with colorful wardrobes. But what really happened thousands of years ago was different. I want to show the real history, what really happened. This time we’ll rely on the spirit of the people in the film. We constructed the set and redesigned the costumes and the armor. We spent a lot of money to show the real picture, that everything was so rough. People were chasing their dreams in green fields and forests and running for the goals in their heart. It was an age of life and energy and an age of freedom, actually. Secondly, I want to say something about the Liu Bang, the first Emperor of the Han Dynasty. He and Xiang Yu destroyed the Qin Emperor, Qin Shihuang. But Liu Bang turned out to want to be another emperor himself. I want to show why a freedom fighter would turn to out to be another dictator.
THR: The invitation to betrayal at Xiang Yu’s banquet is similar to the story of Jesus learning of Judas’ betrayal at the Last Supper in the Bible. Do you expect this story will appeal to Western audiences?
LC: I chose the title, Wang De Sheng Yan, in Chinese, because I want to say something about betrayal. It’s not only betrayal of one friend. It’s also one man’s betrayal of his own original dream for his desires. The story starts in the morning, when an aged Liu Bang is recalling his life. He’s trying to separate his friends from his enemies because he wants to celebrate his victory with a huge feast for those who helped him survive the wars. The most famous guest is Han Xin,  who helped him succeed in all the wars. But others tell Liu Bang that Han Xin is a traitor.

THR: I gather you began shooting the film in Beijing on March 9 with a prayer ceremony. Please tell us more about this and how this sort of ceremony fits into filmmaking in China today?

LC: It’s a tradition in the Chinese film industry. We burn incense and pray to the heaven and earth and the gods of the four directions and then we have the leaders from the film companies make speeches and then the actors and me, the director.

THR: What will The Last Supper teach us about the ancient Chinese culture and how has that lesson changed to apply in modern times?
LC: It’s a sharp question, but I’d better not answer now because I don’t want to bring trouble to my baby. I can say that I’ll never make movies only about the past. I will always make a movie that will try to inspire or awake something now. You’ll find the answer in the film.
THR: Did you write the script on your own? Tell us about your writing process when dealing with such an old and famous tale.
LC: I wrote it by myself. I think writing a script is the best homework for a director to make a movie. Directors in China always get a lot of invitations to dine and drink. When I announce I’m going to sit down to write, those invitations stop. I spent months reading the books about this period. That’s only the first step. Then I want to find something unusual. I don’t believe all that’s written in books. I have a dark side. I never trust books and I start to doubt and analyze. I look for experts and pay them a visit. Several months of homework later, I start to write. I had a feeling from the starting point, a strong feeling, but the feeling wasn’t clear. I just knew that I wanted to make a movie. The first sentence: “Two thousand years ago, all the cities were built in the forest.” This sentence inspired me. I revised everything else many times, but not this sentence.
THR: Chinese actor Liu Ye (City of Life and Death) will play Emperor Liu Bang opposite Hong Kong actor Daniel Wu (Inseparable) playing General Xiang Yu. Chang Chen, from Taiwan (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), plays Han Qin. Were your casting choices designed to ensure appeal across Greater China?
LC: I chose them because they each represent a different understanding of the same history even though they are all Chinese people. This movie is about finding out who your friends are and who are the real traitors.
THR: City of Life and Death cost $12 million to produce and more to market and distribute. It grossed more than $24 million in China. What’s the budget for The Last Supper?
LC: The budget is lower than Nanjing! Nanjing! (City’s Chinese title) because I want to pay back my producers, Han Sanping and Qin Hong. I want them to make some money, so I lowered the budget. Actually, I need more money. It’s almost equal to $12 million.
THR: With more and more modern stories playing in China’s theaters, do you think an ancient Chinese story can still win at the box office?
LC: I’m not sure. This year, there are a lot of Asian epics being made in China. Some are making money and some have lost it already. I’m not sure. I have confidence in my abilities.
THR: Do you expect Hollywood competition to increase now that China is supposed allow greater foreign participation in film distribution and if, so, what would you advise Chinese filmmakers to do about it?
LC: China’s films have a long way to go. We are making progress, but we are not competitors yet. There are some young and talented directors who can make movies of equal quality. More and more, American movies are looking for money and locations in China. This is good news for the Chinese industry. It will help the Chinese industry to get more professional and broaden the view of Chinese filmmakers.  The global film market is the same market everywhere. As more American movies make it overseas, more Chinese movies will go overseas, too.
THR: What is your role as producer on this film?
LC: In China, you have to have the power to decide the fate of your movie, otherwise you’ll lose the chance to help it along. I was an executive producer on Nanjing! Nanjing! but I didn’t have control. I had no power. We lost the best chance to be distributed in the U.S. I felt so sorry for my movie, for four years of effort. This time, my company will play a very important role in the distribution. My company has grown from three or four employees to 40 people. We want to be the best production company in Asia. We want to make movies that can be seen all over the world
THR: What happened with Nanjing! Nanjing! in the U.S.?
LC: National Geographic invited us to be distributed in the U.S., but I had no rights to sign the contract. It will finally release in the U.S. in May.

THR: Describe the role played by actress Qin Lan, who so memorably played Mrs. Tang in City of Life and Death.
LC: She’s Liu Bang’s queen.
THR: What about the role of Yu Ji, played by Yang Mi, the actress whose role as the time-travelling adventurer in the TV series Palace has generated a huge following?  
LC: It’s a secret.
THR: Yan Ni (All’s Well That Ends Well) is expected to play a role in the film. Which is it?
LC: She’s my close friend. She’s a great actress. But I can’t tell you her role now.
THR: Where are you shooting now and where next?
LC: Until end of March, we’re shooting outside Beijing in Huairou [at the China Film sound stage], then we’ll go to Zhejiang. The story is set in Xi'an [China’s capital in the Zhou, Qin, Han, Sui, and Tang Dynasties].