Dennie Gordon, who has directed U.S. films such as “What a Girl Wants” (2003) and “New York Minute” (2004) and numerous American TV shows, including “Burn Notice” and “30 Rock,” recently helmed her first movie in China, “My Lucky Star.” A romantic comedy with a dash of James Bond-y adventure, it stars Ziyi Zhang of “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” fame and Leehom Wang, a Taiwanese American singer and actor.
In “My Lucky Star,” Zhang plays Sophie, an aspiring cartoonist who wins a trip to Singapore and crosses paths with a dashing secret agent (Wang), entangling herself in his big case involving international arms dealers. Zhang first played the Sophie role in the 2009 film “Sophie’s Revenge,” directed by Eva Jin. The new movie -- which shot in Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and mainland China -- was produced by Bona Film Group.
We caught up with Gordon in Los Angeles recently, where the movie opened Friday -- the same day as it rolled out in mainland China -- to hear about how she survived filming during a hurricane, how Jackie Chan helped out, and why her Kim Jong Il joke got left on the cutting room floor. Following is an edited Q+A:
Q. How did you come to direct a film in China?
I felt stuck, like I needed to make some kind of move. I’ve felt, as many filmmakers do, that [the business] just wasn’t here [in the U.S.] anymore. Someone once said, “You always have to come out of a different foxhole.” I was very inspired by that.
My son, who’s now 24, started studying Chinese in 9th grade. Now he lives in Beijing and works as a filmmaker. So we kind of made it a family project -- we all just started feeling like we knew we’re going to do something in China, and it just so happened that my opportunity came now.
I was trying to do a remake of “What a Girl Wants” and there was a company in China that was interested. There was a guy there who was very keen on doing it, Song Ge, and he would just show up wherever I was shooting something. He was sort of tracking me and we just built this relationship. He had produced “Sophie’s Revenge” with Ziyi -- we call her Z -- and he wanted to do another project with her. And so he put us together. He didn’t get to finish the movie because he changed companies but by then we were a pretty interesting package. …
Finally, we went to Bona and they took good care of us. There was a crazy dinner in Hong Kong where the owner of Bona, Yu Dong, took us to the Shangri-La hotel and asked me if I could be ready to start shooting in a week... and I said absolutely, we’ll be ready in a week. He wrote a check for $8 million. So boom. This was early July 2012.
Q. What was the biggest surprise?
We hit the ground running and started prepping to shoot in Hong Kong. We shot one day and our set was wiped out by a hurricane, the biggest hurricane in Hong Kong in 25 years. This floating village -- where the safe house in the movie is -- it was completely wiped out. We had to hide in the center of our hotel because the glass was being blown all around. And I thought we’d just get the insurance like we do in the West. And they said oh no, we don’t have insurance. So we had to figure out how to make up the difference -- we were down for 10 days and had to rebuild the set. I just started pulling pages out of the script. We shot a very tight little movie.
Q. “My Lucky Star” somehow reminds me of U.S. romantic comedies from the early 2000s. Why is that?
I went over to meet with Z, she had seen all my stuff. She said, “I really want you to develop a movie for me like Anne Hathaway would star in, or like 10 years ago Kate Hudson would star in. ... I want to do a romantic comedy with some adventure. I want to do something different. I want to do a Sophie movie because I love that character but I don’t want to do the old Sophie, I want to take her to a new place.”
So I pitched her -- what if we took you to the land of James Bond or “Romancing the Stone,” a spy-tastic adventure where Sophie has to step up to the plate? And she loved that. So I came back here and started working with a couple writers. … The two that I most closely developed it with here were Beaver Kwei, one of my producers, and Amy Snow.
It feels like a throwback here but it’s revolutionary in China. This mixing romance, comedy, action and travel-adventure, it’s never been done. We are really hoping they dig it. There’s really no Chinese film we could point to and say, oh, it’s kind of like this. So it feels a little retro, a little vintage here, but there it’s not. Also, it’s kind of spoofing in a way. Not like “Austin Powers,” not that broad, but just sending up the genre. They love Bond in China, and they love our television shows. I’ve directed “White Collar,” “Burn Notice” -- these shows are extremely popular in China.
For me, being an improv comedy director, the craziest part was trusting and letting them improv in Mandarin and hoping to god it was funny. … I had to just gauge by their faces and how the crew was laughing and be like, “Oh, I love the performance of this moment, I hope to hell it’s as funny as I imagine it might be.”
Q. How did you deal with the language barrier?
Z speaks English very well. And I admire her so much, because she didn’t speak English when she did “Memoirs of a Geisha.” When she realized she was going to have to come to the States and do press, she dedicated herself to learning English. She’s a student every day. I’ll say something like, “Ooh, that’s so evocative,” and she’ll say, “What does evocative mean?" We’d sit together at the monitors, we did a lot of playback. Leehom speaks fluent English, so between me and my two stars there was tremendous communication.
My DP, Armando Salas, had shot three previous movies in China. He was born in Cuba, but is also fluent in English. So some of the key people were speaking English. My production designer, the producers were all bilingual. I just kind of fought my way through it. Of course it is the ultimate “Lost in Translation” joke every single day. I’d want to speak to the crew and I’d say something, and the translator would go and talk and talk and talk. He was a very straight-laced guy -- he had a business background but was linguistically brilliant. Yet I just knew that my humor was not coming through. I worried that it was being delivered without my vibe.
About three weeks in, there was a moment where it was like the Titanic was heading into the iceberg. All the production meetings are in Mandarin, Cantonese and English because we’re shooting primarily in Hong Kong with Chinese stars but a Hong Kong crew. I could tell they didn’t really get what I was doing. Basically the vibe I kept getting was, “What is a white chick from Hollywood doing, telling us what to do with our biggest stars. What the [heck]?” I could feel it and I was just having a hard time getting my mojo going with these guys no matter how much beer I bought them.
I had an idea that maybe if I cut together a trailer -- I had heard that the Wachowskis did this on the first “Matrix” -- and so I cut together a trailer about three weeks in and then took that trailer, like three minutes, took it around on my iPad to every single person on the crew. And I said, “I just want you to see the movie we are making together.” And it was like “Boing!” They got it.
Q. What was the worst day on set?
I chose this one location -- where all of this “Dr. No” type stuff happens -- that’s in a sewage treatment plant in Hong Kong. The house of poo. It stank. And after the hurricane it really stank. But I just loved it. It had all these pipes and tubes. There were signs just off camera that said: If you fall down here, you will die in a vat of [excrement]. It was hot and stinky and airless and the crew was ready to kill me and we had all this stunt action that we had to do.
We had this [marginal] Hong Kong stunt team and Z is one of the best female fighters on the planet, but she was very gracious at first with this stunt team. We were down there doing one of the fight scenes the first day and the stunt double got hurt, cut her hand, needed eight stitches, and had to go. Then Z is patiently listening to them and what they want her to do and she’s looking at me and I’m looking at her and just going oh my god. Here we are, it’s the 11th hour, we are shooting and in this space and their harnesses are ineffective, the simple stunt we want to do is not happening, and we know we’re in trouble.
It just so happened that Jackie Chan was visiting that night. He was finishing his “Zodiac” movie and Leehom was giving him a song and he’s old old friends with Z. So Jackie comes on the set and he comes right into our nightmare and he sees what’s going on with these stunt guys and he pulls me aside and says, “What can I do to help you? Are you happy with these guys? And I practically burst into tears, I said, “No, I’m not happy. I’m afraid Z is going to get hurt, someone else is going to get hurt.” And he said, “I’ll take care of it for you.”
And he just gave us his guys. We couldn’t afford his guys; they’re the best guys on the planet. We had his entire team and all their harnesses, so when you see the movie, you see Wu Gang, action stunts -- that’s Jackie’s No. 1 guy. He just really stepped up to the plate. He’s just that extraordinary, that generous.
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Q. Did you have any problems with mainland censors?
I was surprised at some of the sex jokes that I got through the censors! Everyone thought it was so naughty in this one little moment I have where they’re doing a yoga stretch and for a minute Sophie thinks they’re having sex. Everyone was like ooooh! And then we passed.
The only thing they made me cut out was a Kim Jong Il joke. At the end, when they’re selling the arms, in the Dr. No thing -- one of the guys was a Kim Jong Il lookalike. He’s a visual effects supervisor in Hong Kong and he’s such a ringer for Kim Jong Il. It was hilarious. We never stopped laughing. Bona laughed, we all laughed. At test screenings, everyone laughed. The government did not laugh. They made me take it out. But then we found the male star from “Lost in Thailand,” we used him instead. It doesn’t mean anything in America, but it’s a cameo for the Chinese audiences. I was sad, though, to see Kim Jong Il hit the floor.
Q. What did you learn from working in China?
In China, it’s very important to let everyone save face. There were some departments that were habitually falling down on the job and in America, I would have said, “Ok we’re going to change that team, those guys are gone. They can’t keep up with us -- the vehicles are never here, the vehicles are broken down, we’ve got to change that team.” That’s what you do in the West. In the East, everyone feels the pain of that, that face loss by those team members. So better to put more people in to support that team. Not to fire people or point fingers. To make sure that everyone feels respected.
That’s a great thing to bring back. I find that in my work here now, since the Chinese experience, when something’s going wrong here I really do stop and try to think: Where does the problem lie? And then calmly fix it. That’s something the Chinese have taught me. Because harmony is very important to them. Every day -- harmony, harmony.