THE GREAT WALL Interview: Zhang Yimou on Its Meaning and Misconceptions

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THE GREAT WALL Interview: Zhang Yimou on Its Meaning and Misconceptions
When the man who gave us such critically acclaimed, award-winning epics as Red Sorghum, Hero, and Raise the Red Lantern makes a self-described “popcorn flick,” it’s a pretty big deal. Director Zhang Yimou had a brief chat with me about some of the misconceptions and challenges of his internationally-produced “monster flick,” The Great Wall, and what it was like to make a film that his teenage sons could finally enjoy.
 
The Lady Miz Diva:  After A WOMAN, A GUN AND A NOODLE SHOP, I believe this is the second time you are working from a story written by Americans.  As those characters in that film were transformed into Chinese, was there any discussion with THE GREAT WALL to have William and Tovar be Asian, or to make it an all-Chinese film?  Why was it important for William and Tovar to be Westerners?
 
Zhang Yimou:  This story is very much written that way; that it had to be foreigners coming to China.  It is written that way and that’s part of the reason why I selected this story.  The story is really based on a lot of historical facts.  For so long there were many Westerners who traveled the Silk Road to China: It was constantly happening.  It’s something that happened to China for thousands of years.  
 
They never encountered any monsters - the monsters were completely fabricated - but the idea is multicultural, multinational.  As we get to meet each other more in the world and then the world grows smaller with globalisation, it is part of the interaction between foreigners and people in China.  So, it is a key element of why I selected the project.  
 
And also the story is about Matt Damon’s character’s growth and his learning to give up, to let go of greed, to let go of the black powder for something that means much more; friendship.  It is something he has to learn while he is in China.  
 
And if we had an all-Chinese cast, they wouldn’t have that kind of change and growth and the differences that are between two cultures.  So, all of these elements is why I wanted to do this story and why I would be able to cast an all-Chinese cast to play this movie.
 
LMD:  Was it important to instill this film with not just the mythology and history of THE GREAT WALL, but the philosophy and belief of China, as well?  Was that philosophy of trust and brotherhood being more important than money, and people coming together to serve a greater cause a very important tenet for you to depict?
 
ZY:  Yes!  This is actually often a Chinese approach to anything, because we don’t want everything to be too simple.  Even on the outside, you would say this is just a monster flick, but if it is just a monster flick, I wouldn’t be as interested in this project.  
 
I’ve always liked to put in a little bit of philosophy and to be able to talk about certain ideas.  The Chinese always say that there is meaning behind everything that happens, that things just don’t happen without any meaning, you have to find meaning behind every action.  So that’s what drew me to tell the story.
 
 And you understand that the way that Chinese culture goes, even if you tell a monster movie, you can’t get too bogged down by philosophy, because otherwise it gets boring.  But even then, I still want to have a little bit of Chinese philosophy and thoughts in there.
 
LMD:  You’re well known for your action pieces, but you’ve never done a monster movie before, and then one in 3D.  Was the change in genre and trying this new medium also part of what attracted you to the project? 
 
ZY:  Yes, absolutely.  Trying something new has always been one of my favorite things to do. When my agent first sent me the script, they warned me, they said, “It’s just a popcorn flick.  It’s a different genre that you haven’t done before, are you sure you really want to do that?”  
 
So, I read it and I found it interesting and then also very challenging; it’s something that had primarily a lot of visual effects in it – primarily all visual effects.  So I feel like I am going to learn a lot if I do something that is very challenging.  So that was one of the primary reasons I took on this project, to try something new and different that I haven’t done before.
 
The second reason is also because my kids; two of my kids – one is 16, one is 13 – and they have never appreciated one of my movies before.  {Laughs.}  So, I finally made this monster movie and they love it! {Laughs.}  I was making a monster movie that they can watch.
 
LMD:  They’re your best critics
 
ZY:  {Laughs}
 
LMD:  This is your first film with such an integrated international crew.  Your writers, editors, production designers and producers are non-Chinese, even GAME OF THRONES’ Ramin Djawadi scores the film.  The only name I recognised from your past films was your great DP Zhao Xiaoding.  How does working with the international crew compare to your Chinese productions and what will you take away from the experience going forward? 
 
ZY:  So, first of all, they are all wonderful and very talented people.  I actually interviewed all of them before we made our selection.  They were recommended by the producers, and I went and met each one of them and I selected them.  They were all so willing to come on board an international project.  They are great learners; they want to learn and they want to collaborate. So that is one of the greatest reasons; I’ll get to work with all these people.
 
And working with an international crew is actually great, because you get to see different perspectives.  Because as a Chinese director, I’ve always made movies in a Chinese way; so suddenly you have people coming from different perspectives and different ways, and they look at the character, they look at story differently, and they give me new ideas.  
 
A director is not omnipotent; you don’t know everything, and it’s great to have people giving you ideas from a perspective that you have never considered before.  So there is such a great learning experience for me, as well as learning how to collaborate.  
 
That is actually a real art; being able to listen, to stop and listen to other people, understand their perspective and then explain your perspective to them.  That is a true learning experience for me; I learned how to collaborate, and also to simplify, to come to a point where we all agree and understand.  
 
When you do something too complicated, you tend to just overexplain yourself to the point where nobody understands each other, but to be able to find that simplicity and the beauty and the simplicity that everyone understands - that is a really unique talent and skill that I was encouraged to develop.
 
LMD:  After your more ambitious productions, you seem to like to make smaller, more personal films like UNDER THE HAWTHORNE TREE or COMING HOME.  Will the film after THE GREAT WALL be a smaller one, as well?
 
ZY:  Well, anything I do next compared to The Great Wall is going to be smaller, so that is true. But yes, right after my interviews I am going to go back to China, and next month on the 18th, I am going to start shooting my next movie.  And even though it has action in it, it is not as big as The Great Wall, and it’s very much of a character piece.  Even though it is also a period piece, it is a character piece.  It is one of those things with a lot of character development, a lot of inner turmoil, and it’s one of those things that I specialise, too.  So it is something that I want to explore that I’m going to do next.
 
In terms of making movies in the future, especially in terms of co-productions, I would say that it has gotta have a really, really good script.  A script that can be appreciated by both cultures and understood by both cultures.
 
LMD:  Is there a title for the film?
 
ZY:  We haven’t finalised it.  We’re still looking at all the options.
 
LMD:  There are so many young stars in THE GREAT WALL who I enjoy, like Jing Tian, Lu Han and Wang Junkai.  You have introduced the international public to so many young, wonderful stars, what do you look for with your discoveries?
 
ZY:  First of all, any actors, they’ve got to match the character.  We’ve got to select the actor based on the character.  And then, I look for people who were very smart and intelligent and have good performances.  
 
One of the greatest things as a well-known director is to introduce young actors to the rest of the world.  I think it is a duty of an established director to introduce new faces, young faces to the audience.
 
 
This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional content, including exclusive photos of Director Zhang, Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian and Wang Junkai  there.
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ActionAndy LauChinaEddie PengJing TianLu HanMatt DamonMonstersPedro PascalThe Great WallWang JunkaiZhang Yimou

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