Zhang Yimou Looking to Make History with 'The Great Wall'

By Wong, Silvia | Screen International, December 16, 2016 | Go to article overview

Zhang Yimou Looking to Make History with 'The Great Wall'


Wong, Silvia, Screen International


"Imagine defending against monster beasts on the Great Wall. Imagine the Crusaders came to steal gunpowder from the Chinese during the Northern Song dynasty," says Zhang Yimou of the period of history that inspired his latest feature The Great Wall. "It's whimsical and ingenious, beyond imagination and totally out of the box."

At $135m, The Great Wall is billed as the most expensive film ever shot entirely in China. And while the film has been gathering plenty of buzz, its East-West storyline, China-US co-production structure, and the fact it has been shot in English are also under close scrutiny.

"It's impossible for everyone to like the film," says Zhang. "But I hope there's something for each audience, something the Chinese audience finds acceptable and the foreign audience feels comfortable with."

Epic undertaking

Zhang was sent the script by Peter Loehr, CEO of Legendary East, the Beijing-based division of US-based Legendary Entertainment, in which China's Dalian Wanda Group acquired a majority stake earlier this year. Legendary East also has a co-financing deal with China Film Group.

Written by Carlo Bernard, Doug Miro and Tony Gilroy, the script appealed to Zhang, who saw the opportunity to showcase traditional Chinese culture and mount action sequences on the iconic Great Wall for the first time on such a large scale.

As the man behind the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Zhang is no stranger to extravagant, large-scale productions. He also has experience working on a China-US collaboration following his 2011 Second World War historical drama The Flowers Of War, which starred Christian Bale. But The Great Wall is far more challenging, with a crew of more than 1,000 people from more than 30 countries. Zhang's regular cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding is one of the few Chinese key crew members and he only completed half of the film because of his schedule.

Zhang, who does not speak English, hand-picked the US heads of department through interviews and communicated with them, both on and off-set, through translators. Some 70-80 translators were employed, with several assigned to each department.

To speak with his western cast, led by Matt Damon, Pedro Pascal and Willem Dafoe, he relied on experience and instinct.

"I don't understand what they're saying while filming, but I can tell whether their performance is good or not through my eyes," he explains. "Instead of listening to their lines through my ears, I focus on their facial expression and body gestures. It's a special method and it works for me perfectly."

Chinese talent

Zhang is well known for discovering local talent, from Gong Li (Red Sorghum) and Zhang Ziyi (The Road Home) to, more recently, Zhou Dongyu (Under The Hawthorn Tree) and Ni Ni (The Flowers Of War). …

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