Martin Scorsese took a break from promoting “The Wolf of Wall Street” last night to help get the word out on another film that has his name on it: Wong Kar-wai’s “The Grandmaster.” At a special screening at the Lighthouse International Theater in New York City, Scorsese and Wong participated in an entertaining and detailed question and answer session, where they discussed everything from the film’s grueling three-year production to its beautifully meditative fight sequences.
“It’s a great honor to be here with my hero, and he’s very gracious to join us in light of his terrible schedule,” said Wong about Scorsese.
It’s been a long road from script to screen for Wong’s new martial arts flick. His ode to grandmaster Ip Man––who went on to tutor kung-fu legend Bruce Lee––hit plenty of snags during production, including broken bones and inclement weather. But when it was finally released in China last January, it became an immediate hit. That eventually lead The Weinstein Company to purchase the film’s U.S. rights at the 2013 Berlin Film Festival. The following August, Scorsese had thrown his full support behind the movie, giving it the prestigious “Martin Scorsese Presents” brand.
Now, four months after its initial U.S. release, Wong and Scorsese were on stage together, talking about the making of “The Grandmaster” as well as Scorsese’s earlier work, which Wong holds in high esteem.
“It was a very hard process to do the action in this film. In fact, when we were doing our choreography sequences, I looked at your secrets in ‘Raging Bull,’ because it’s one of the best action sequences made in the history of cinema,” he told Scorsese, who seemed pleasantly surprised by the flattery.
Luckily for Wong, his bold attempt to go above and beyond with the fight scenes ended up paying off; the martial arts sequences in “The Grandmaster” are both haunting and gorgeous. But unfortunately, there was a price to be paid for shooting them over and over again: Tony Leung, who plays Ip Man, ended up breaking both his arms during production. But Leung was a trooper, and dedicated to the mission of the film. As Wong recalled: “I spoke with Tony and said ‘I am going to make a movie about Ip Man and you’re going to play his master. You have to do hand-to-hand combat sequences by yourself. There won’t be a double. You have to do some serious training.’ He thought about it and said ‘OK.’”
Wong wasn’t joking about the lack of a double: both Leung and his co-star Zhang Ziyi went through intense training sessions in order to nail the numerous complex kung-fu moves the film called for. Wong even brought in grandmasters from around the country to help supervise them.
“It’s funny. When you’re shooting a scene, most of the time people look at the director after to see if it’s OK or not. But on our set, all the [martial arts] masters were standing there. So after everything, all the actors would look not to me, but to them,” he said.
Scorsese seemed positively delighted by this answer. In fact, throughout the evening, both he and Wong were clearly enjoying their time on stage, particularly when they began to talk about music:
Scorsese: “I was told that you play music often when you are shooting”
Wong: “I heard that you did that also.”
Wong: “I learned from you! I think it’s the most efficient way ... I think the music on set gives a sense of the rhythm for the camera for the blocking and for the movement of actors.”
While the two rambled on about film scores (fun fact: Wong used two tracks from “Once Upon a Time in America” in “The Grandmaster” as an homage to Sergio Leone and Ennio Morricone), there was one topic that felt conspicuously absent throughout the evening: the issue of cutting out scenes from the U.S. version of “The Grandmaster,” a subject that has dominated the film’s press coverage since its release last fall. Compared to the original Chinese cut, the U.S. version is 20 minutes shorter and includes new title cards, among other things. However, that argument was muted last night, possibly due to quotes Wong gave at a screening in Los Angeles earlier this week, where he insisted that the U.S. cut was in no way “watered-down.”
Whether or not you believe that depends on who you’re talking to––or when you’re talking about it. Because when you have Wong Kar-wai and Martin Scorsese sitting on stage next to each other, there are a million other things you can discuss, like feeling nostalgic for the pre-digital days of shooting on film or the music rights in “Mean Streets.”
As one audience member said after asking a question during the q&a portion of the evening: “I am so honored to be with you guys. Who needs film school?”