Imagine being pitched the opportunity to direct a computer graphic-laden 3D fantasy/adventure movie replete with vindictive mermaids, combating crustaceans and marauding sharks on one of the world’s largest sound stages. Oh, and throw in a Bond girl and a production budget of US$150 million.
Three years ago, filmmaker and former Edmontonian Michael French, 60, jumped at the chance to helm such a project, a venture called Empires of the Deep, billed as the largest 3D outing ever made. Not in the U.S. or Europe, but in the People’s Republic of China.
“It was a dream come true,” said French, who shot the movie on a sound stage roughly the size of three football fields outside Beijing. “The experience was so unbelievable, especially with such a big budget tied to it.”
It doesn’t matter to French that Empires, still in post-production, probably won’t be released in North America, even with an English script and Quantum of Solace star Olga Kurylenko in the lead. A devoted Asian audience base closely following behind-the-scenes developments will very likely result in a profit for the bankrolling China Film Group company.
Likewise, it didn’t matter to Chinese film executives that French, who cut his directorial teeth on sports documentaries and made-for-TV comedy programs, had never before directed a major action flick. Or that he’s not even remotely fluent in any Chinese dialect. But French did have experience in the Chinese film industry, which dated back 25 years.
In 1986, he landed a gig, directing Heart of a Dragon, a documentary that captured wheelchair athlete Rick Hansen‘s exploits on the Great Wall of China. He recalled the cultural differences there were minor compared to a political system completely foreign to him.
“I found out very quickly about how restrictive it was,” said French. “The tension was real. We needed permission for absolutely everything. If you are from the west and want something done in China, where there are always political issues, get ready to wait.”
In 2006, when French received original backing from Paramount Pictures to film a dramatic remake of Heart of a Dragon with Continuum star Victor Webster cast as Hansen, he still had to jump through hoops with Chinese authorities in every facet of the production, from securing location permits to approving wardrobe.
“Everything was kind of impossible,” says French.”We were getting further behind in the process. The Chinese delegation said the story was too political, and they didn’t like the script. After being in meetings at studios in Beijing three or four times already, I was almost ready to give up.”
Trying to divert his mind from his sagging fortunes during a fruitless meeting, he was captivated by a movie poster on the wall. When authorities told him the artwork was for a forthcoming movie by Bingjian Zhang, one of the country’s biggest filmmakers, French’s interest was piqued and he arranged for a meeting. After the two talked shop, they quickly became friends. When filming eventually began on Heart of a Dragon, French hired Zhang as his assistant director, while Zhang in turn provided him with his crew.
“All my political problems in China were solved by meeting this guy, who managed to get everything we needed, including permission to shoot on the Great Wall,” says French. “It’s enormously difficult there to get the right person to help you.” Two years later, the film, shot for CDN $8 million, packed houses across China, even earning a special Official Selection citation from the Shanghai International Film Festival, a rarity for a project directed by an outsider. The movie is available on DVD in Canada this month.
If French feels indebted to Zhang for getting the Hansen drama completed, he particularly credits Edmonton for opening doors to his career. Working in the library at radio station CFRN (now The Team 1260) while taking business and arts courses at the University of Alberta during the 1970s enabled him to try out other pursuits. It wasn’t long before he was writing news copy and trying his hand behind the camera on mobile shoots. Eventually, he headed stateside to film a documentary on Rolling Stone magazine, direct a full-length ski film called Powder Heads, and work at Comedy Central on shows with such upstarts as Jim Carrey and Judd Apatow.
“I was lucky to have worked at the music library in CFRN radio,” says French. “It’s where I learned how to work on the seat of my pants. It was all so simple and innocent enough back then. As time goes on, you get more scarred, but you just keep at it, because there’s no other way to get things done.”
For French’s next project, he’ll be working as a producer for an on-location movie in Mongolia, though he won’t give out the details yet. But he still relishes the experience of working on Empires of the Deep, where the underwater fight scenes were a challenge for the actors. As the actors were chased by 800 sharks, French remembers them being unsure how to react. “Even Olga Kurylenko, as talented as she was, tried to figure out how to deal with fish kings.”