Guest Post: My Adventures of Filming in China

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by Dennie Gordon
September 17, 2013 12:00 PM
2 Comments
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My Lucky Star

This film was the hardest thing I have done in my career but ultimately the most rewarding. I was asked to develop My Lucky Star as an adventure-comedy for the biggest female star in China, Zhang Ziyi. She had loved my Colin Firth movie, What A Girl Wants, and wanted to do something new with a character she had created in 2009 for her comedy Sophie's Revenge. Having seen her in Crouching Tiger, House of Flying Daggers and Hero, I knew she was a brilliant actress who really knew her way around a fight, but I did not know that she was also a brilliant comedienne. What we were attempting had never been done before-I am the first American woman to direct a film in China for the domestic Chinese market.

In China, you must first get the government to approve your script. Chinese films are usually pure genre films, but we wanted to try a new blend of comedy with romance and action, and also do a film with glamorous locations (now that the Chinese are starting to travel extensively). With a team of US writers, we created a James Bond style romantic adventure story for her that would give her a chance to use her many talents, including singing and dancing. We set our sights on Wang Leehom, Asia's biggest pop star, as our romantic lead. I had seen Leehom in Lust, Caution where he had a supporting role, and I was excited about seeing him as a romantic lead. I had a hunch he would become China's George-Clooney and sure enough, he is currently co-starring in Michael Mann's new cyber-thriller. Luckily for me, Leehom and Ziyi had always wanted to work together.

Getting the script right in English was just the beginning of our cultural obstacles. It was hugely challenging to capture the particular flavor of Beijing wit. Ziyi herself was instrumental in getting the dialogue as sharp as it could be. Scripts such as this must be "localized" and vetted for Chinese audiences who are becoming very discerning. But it was a very complex and tricky process, especially since I wanted to leave room for the actors to improvise around some of the jokes.

Also I was terrified to be directing in a foreign language, but quickly learned that comedy, action and romance are common international languages. I wanted to introduce China to romantic comedy-action in a new way, not Hong Kong style fighting but something fresher, and I was very lucky to have the support of Jackie Chan who gave me his entire stunt team. Jackie is a Big Brother to many filmmakers in China, and was very honored to be amongst these giant talents.

Two big surprises: Censorship in China does exist of course, but I had tremendous creative freedom and I only had to cut one joke that made fun of Kim Jong Il as an arms dealer. China is very receptive to female directors and there are a number of successful films being made every year by women in China. Compared to the US, it is the Land of Opportunity.

We shot the film in Singapore, Macau, Hong Kong and Beijing. Our production meetings were conducted in 3 languages, Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.

I was only able to bring my DP, Armando Salas, on to the production. And I was able to bring in my long time editor Zack Arnold in Los Angeles for my director's cut after a Hong Kong editor did an assembly. Many of the early reviews mention the cutting style.

One of the biggest challenges was earning the respect of my crew, who questioned why a Caucasian blonde woman from Hollywood was directing this movie. To win them over I cut a trailer of the first few weeks of filming and walked the set sharing it with each member of our crew to help them understand the style of what I was doing. This was a seismic shift in their attitudes toward the film. And it gave the studio the confidence it needed that we were making a homegrown Chinese film with a specific Hollywood style that audiences would spark to.

Our first day of filming in Hong Kong we got hit by one of the strongest typhoons in the last 20 years and had to evacuate our "floating village " set on the water. The typhoon completely destroyed our set and we had to halt production for 10 days to rebuild. It was almost a blessing because we really needed more prep time, although there was no insurance for this disaster and I had to make it up in production. There was nothing to do but tear pages and scenes out of the script and we had to make some tough cuts.

As I write this we are premiering the film in Singapore. We open in 7 North American cities on September 20. In China we open on 5,600 screens-that's 25,000 showings of the movie per day. I am slated for two more features in China, one of which we hope to shoot in English and Mandarin for a greater international appeal. I hope more filmmakers will be able to work globally in this way.

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Dennie Gordon (30 Rock, What A Girl Wants, The Practice) and her new film, the Chinese language production My Lucky Star. It opens in the states on September 20 and stars Zhang Ziyi, and is the long awaited prequel to the Chinese blockbuster Sophie's Revenge.

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2 Comments

  • Marian | September 17, 2013 4:21 PMReply

    This is wonderful! Thank you!

  • Linn D. | September 17, 2013 12:56 PMReply

    Thank You Ms. Gordon for taking the time to share your experiences. Educational and inspiring on so many levels... I wish you all the best on this project and your future ones.

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