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Red Cliff: Interview with Producer Terence Chang

Red Cliff Screens Sunday at SDAFF

Credit: Magnolia Pictures

Above: "Red Cliff"

Here is my interview with producer Terence Chang who has been producing John Woo's films for decades. "Red Cliff" (screening one time only Sunday at 7:00 pm at the San Diego Asian Film Festival) is his first film in Mainland China.

How did it feel to return to Asia to make a film in Mainland China?

Terence Chang: When I came to LA to work I never thought I would go back but about five years ago John was saying, “I have to do this movie, I have to do this movie.” I said you got to be kidding me? You are making so much money in Hollywood, you are so successful, I don’t believe you. But then one day we were having lunch with this Hong Kong producer and John turned to the guy and said, “I really want to do ‘The Three Kingdoms,’ why don’t you produce the movie for me?’ The guy looked at me and kind of said what’s going on with you two? And I got the picture loud and clear. So I went to Beijing for the very first time in my whole life five years ago and started putting this movie together and it wasn’t an easy job.

And just to be clear, although you worked in Hong Kong this is the first time you have produced a film in Mainland China?

Terence Chang: Yes. I have never done a film in China and I don’t know the system, I didn’t know the system, I didn’t know the people. So I really had to start from scratch learning everything and it wasn’t very easy, my Mandarin was not very good back then so it was not easy. It was also a challenge because the subject is so huge and John wanted to do so many battle scenes so the script kept growing and the budget kept growing so I’m still dealing with it now five years after we started.

When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, a lot of filmmakers worried about the impact that would have on the Hong Kong film industry. But Has Hong Kong actually influenced the Mainland Chinese industry and provoked changes there in the way China makes movies?

Terence Chang: Initially all the Chinese directors except for the big three wanted to make more personal films, films that win awards in film festivals. And Hong Kong directors were the only Chinese directors who knew how make commercial films. And Hong Kong movies stars were very popular in China back then. But now after seeing so many successful co-productions between China and Hong Kong, the Mainland directors are learning the ropes and the younger directors all want to make commercial hits instead of films that win awards. So a lot of the Chinese audience they say we like to see Mainland Chinese movie stars and not Hong Kong or Taiwan movie stars. So I think they are learning very fast and very soon they will not need any help from Hong Kong or Taiwan.

There are amazing battles scenes. How did you tackle them? I heard the Chinese army helped.

Terence Chang: We paid the Chinese army to be in the film and without them we would not have been able to do the battle scenes so at any time we were able to have a thousand soldiers with us on the set and we kept them for all those months.

I remember John Woo talking about adapting “The Three Kingdoms” for some time. What captured his imagination about the story?

Terence Chang: I remember him talking about it for almost twenty years. I think he liked certain parts of the story where it dealt with his usual themes of friendship, betrayal, and loyalty and chivalry and that kind of stuff that his gangster films also made use of those themes. So what I think attracted him to “The Three Kingdoms” were the characters, not necessarily the events but the characters. He has stressed that this is not a martial arts film but a historical film with action.

So how was the film received in Asia?

Terence Chang: It did extremely well in China but it did better, best actually in Japan. I think the film did close to $120 million in Japan. In China it was one of the top grossing films of all time when it was released. But subsequently other films surpassed it because the Chinese market is growing so fast. Part One did okay in Korea but Part Two did amazingly well, over three million admissions in Korea.

What are you most proud of about the film?

Terence Chang: I am most proud of the fact that because John wanted to do this film for so long and I just helped him fulfill his dream and make his dream project, that’s what I’m most proud of because no one thought I could pull it off, from before we started shooting through production when a lot of accidents happen, no one though we could pull it off.

You did have to surmount a few problems. Could you comment about Chow Yun Fat leaving the project right as it began?

Terence Chang: He left the project during the first day of shooting. It was very tough on us, extremely tough on us because the part was written for him and was changed according to his notes but I think Tony Leung did a fantastic job. We were very grateful to Tony for coming back to the film for that role and he claimed the role as his own. He’s a fantastic actor and John and I are really grateful to him.

Well I have to confess that although I was looking forward to this being a John Woo-Chow Yun Fat reunion, having Tony Leung in the film is not what I’d call a compromise. He’s great. Do you have any particular scenes that you are particularly proud of because of the work that went into it?

Terence Chang: The scene that left the most impression on me – perhaps because it was the most difficult scene in the shoot – was the naval battle. It took so long and so many steps to accomplish so from first not knowing how to do it to actually shooting it on location on sound stages to building an outdoor tank to dealing with CG, it was a very complicated scene and I liked it very much.

You said you built a tank and did CG, was all that done in China?

Terence Chang: We dug a big pool, but we did shoot part of the scenes on real locations on a lake. And then we shot on a sound stage, we rebuilt part of the boats on a sound stage and shot it there and then we dug a huge pool outdoors and built another couple of ships and then an accident happened and it burned down and we have to move to Shanghai because of the Olympics we couldn’t shoot anything in Beijing so we have to rebuild the pool in Shanghai and then finish the scene. Then there were some elements shot in Northern California, the fire was shot in Northern California and then the composite was done at [the effects house] The Orphanage, up there.

Did you have to have your own armory to create what you needed for these massive battle scenes?

Terence Chang: Yes we did have. But that was not difficult because we have a very talented art department and craftsmen and we had that in China. So it’s not difficult, at least not for me.

What’s next for you?

Terence Chang: Now that John has done a naval battle he’s obsessed with doing aerial battles o it might be World War II movie.

You two have worked a long time together, what contributes to the success of that partnership?

Terence Chang: I think I’m probably the only one around John who’s totally honest with him. If I don’t like something I’ll tell John. When he cut the first movie it was kind of long and I fell asleep and snored not intentionally but then when I told him it was boring I meant it and he accepted it. I always told him the truth unlike a lot of people surrounding him who only told him what he wanted to hear. I guess that’s why.

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