MONSTER HUNT's Raman Hui On Live Actors Vs The Gingerbread Man And How Shrek Helped Him Make China's Biggest Box Office Hit

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MONSTER HUNT's Raman Hui On Live Actors Vs The Gingerbread Man And How Shrek Helped Him Make China's Biggest Box Office Hit
Having worked on the Antz and Shrek for his DreamWorks alma mater, director Raman Hui knows a thing about monster hits. Still, Hui could not have been prepared to make China's biggest box office hit of all time with Monster Hunt. Hui spoke to me about the challenges and joys of directing live action with some of Asia's biggest stars and reveals his surprise at the existence of a shorter US edit.

The Lady Miz Diva:  What did your experience at DreamWorks working on the Shrek films teach you about crafting a family film?

Raman Hui: 
I really learned so much from my time with DreamWorks.  At the very beginning, when I worked on Antz, and Shrek; when I was the supervising animator, and then starting in Shrek 2, I got more involved with the storyboarding.  With storyboarding, I learned more about how to play out a scene, or how to show the audience what the story is about.  And then I got lucky that I was the co-director of Shrek the Third, and then with that I witnessed so much creative process that happened at DreamWorks.  After that, I made two short films called Kung Fu Panda: Secrets of the Furious Five and then also a Puss in Boots short.  When I was making both films, I made like I was making a DreamWorks movie in my mind; meaning that I went through all the storyboarding process that I would actually make with an animated movie before I shot the movie.

LMD:  MONSTER HUNT features some legendary actors like Jiang Wu, Elaine Jin, Sandra Ng and Eric Tsang, and well-known stars like Yan Ni and Tang Wei.  How did you get such a great cast, and what was it like for you, directing actors in live action for the first time, working with them?

Besides the preproduction part which I mentioned earlier - storyboarding and playing out how the movie should be played - other than that, the live-action part was very different.  I remember at the very beginning when they asked me how long do you think it will take to shoot the scene?  I looked at two pages of script and I thought, 'Okay, if this was for animation, it might take us about three months to finish,' so I said, "How about two weeks?"  For me, already, it was a big discount from three months, right?  And then they looked at me like, "What?"  If you asked me today, I would tell you, "That should take half a day."

LMD:  Also, Hong Kong films are known for their shooting speed.

Yeah, they've gotta be fast, because otherwise, it would literally be three months of principal shooting.  If I had to spend two weeks to shoot one scene like that, it would take me over a year to shoot this movie.  So, I've been learning and I'm so lucky because Bill Kong, who is the producer of the movie, he knows so many good people and then he got all these great people to help me; the great cinematographer, Anthony Pun, he's amazing.

Then for Sandra and Tang Wei, Bill is also great at casting people.  He has all these connections and then he also has the sense of who would be a good match for the character in the script.  And then Sandra, I've known Sandra for years.  I don't know if you know Peter Chan?

LMD:  Yes, the filmmaker, Sandra's husband {Peter Ho-Sun Chan}.

Yes.  We went to kindergarten together!  It's a small world, yes? {Laughs}  So, I knew Sandra, but we never worked together and when she found out that I was doing this movie, she was like, "Yeah, sure," she was absolutely amazing.  And Eric Tsang is amazing.

LMD:  Were they very open to your direction?

  They were very open.  Bai Baihe and Jing Boran, our leads, they were not very used to my style of directing because I came from an animation background, but they started to understand what I wanted, and then in the end, I would give a note, and one would say, "I don't understand," and they would look at each other and then the other one would say, "I'll translate it for you. What he means is walk faster." {Laughs} In the end, they totally knew what I wanted when I would say something, but they would still make fun of me.

When Tang Wei came, she was having so much fun working on this movie.  She said she hasn't been in a comedy for a long time and this was something that was more playful for her to play this role.  Her character's major role was that she loves playing mahjong right?  So even when she was waiting for the shoot, she was like, "Let me play mahjong was somebody else."  Bill Kong was visiting and she was like, "Bill, come, play mahjong with me."  And she was really bad at it! {Laughs} It was really fun watching her going, "What should I do with this tile?"

LMD:  There were times I felt like the live actors could've been cartoon characters.  I understand that when you first had the idea for making a Chinese animated film in 2005, it was meant to be all animation, no actors, until producer Bill Kong asked you to include actors.

Actually, at the beginning, it was more about me asking Bill Kong what was the chance of me coming back to this part of the world and making an animated movie?  It wasn't particularly Monster Hunt, it was just an overall idea, and then Bill said no.  And then a few years later, he asked me, "What about a live-action comedy with some animation?"  Then it happened.

Actually, all the time that I was making the movie, I kind of had to remind myself to make sure that this is a live-action movie; don't make it too animated.  Actually, it was the other people around me like Yee Chung-man, he was one of the producers, and also Bill Kong and Alan Yuen, our writer, sometimes had to remind me {they would say}, "Don't worry about it.  Just think of it like an animated movie, how would you do it? What would you do if it was an animated movie?" "Actually, they would burst into song here." "Well, let's do it!"  I thought that might be too much from the animated world, but they would say, "No, that's it makes it different and special, because you think differently than us."

LMD:  I haven't seen the US version of the film, but watching the Mandarin cut, I could see there were some scenes that would be perfectly fine in China, but would freak out US parents, who might think they were too scary or violent for small kids.  The US cut is also about ten minutes shorter.  What were some of the things you had to rethink and recut? Who did you consult with to make those edits?

Actually, I didn't know they did that.

LMD:  I'm sorry to surprise you.

I heard something like there might be some trimming here and there to be better played for the American audience, but I haven't seen it myself.  I thought I was being sensitive.  I understand.  Maybe the playing with the scissors part?

LMD:  You actually had to film a good part of the live action twice because of Kai Ko's arrest.  Did anything change with the narrative or with Tianyin's character when you re-shot?

It did change a little bit because Kai would play it his way, and then after meeting Jing Boran, I didn't want him to ... I guess there are so many different ways to play it when you work with a live-action actor.  It's totally different than working with the Gingerbread Man.  You just make the Gingerbread do whatever you want him to do. {Laughs}

With actors, you have to find something within them that they feel comfortable with so that they can understand.  'Oh, if Kai played it this way, he'd be more charming, but for Jing Boran, the way that Kai played might not work for Jing Boran.'  Jing Boran might play a different way that he can shine to.  Does that make sense? With Jing Boran, I found something in him, a bit of a naivety and purity that I thought was really charming and I tried to bring that out in his performance.

At the very beginning, actually Jing Boran had a really hard time because we were shooting him mostly for replacement, so we were shooting him mostly by himself, with no other actors.  He had a hard time with no other actors and he's just playing against nobody in front of him; he just had to perform.  But then halfway through the performance, when Bai Baihe started playing with him in the scenes, then he started getting into the character.  And then ten days later, it was like he became Tianyin; he found him.

That is so touching when that happens, it is something that is different than animation, because you won't see that.  In live-action you will see moments that are very touching because the actors perform.  Like Bai Baihe, there was one scene that she did that we had to take out because it wasn't so necessary, but there was one performance that she did where she was talking and then she started crying, and it was just really moving when that happens.

LMD:  What would you like for audiences to take away from MONSTER HUNT and what is coming up next for you?

What I would like the audience to take away is I guess about acceptance.  Right now, the US I think, we can really use more of that.  And actually, speaking for myself, I felt very lucky and blessed because when I went to DreamWorks, they accepted me as one of them. You know what I mean by that, acceptance?  Like in the movie, how Bai Baihe's character, how she hated the monsters and then at the end, she's in love with them, or with this one, particularly.

And then my next thing is I have to make Monster Hunt 2, so the Chinese audience can see it.

opens in US theaters in 2D and 3D on Friday, January 22, 2016

This interview is cross-posted on my own site, The Diva Review. Please enjoy additional exclusive content there.

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AnimationBai BaiheEric TsangFamily FilmJiang WuJing BoranMonster HuntRaman HuiSandra NgTang Wei

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