INTERVIEW: KAI WONG
KAI WONG shares his latest feature film project, “BIBLE OF ROMANCE”, thoughts on Masculinity and on life as an independent Actor-Producer after Hollywood.
We caught up with actor and producer KAI WONG between the Cannes Film Festival 2012 and the Locarno Film Festival 2012 in Switzerland to check up on the hottest project in Asian cinema.
KAI WONG's project “BIBLE OF ROMANCE” was hand-picked out of thousands of entries. It is one of a select few Greater China projects chosen by the independent film festival circuit, and presented at the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum (HAF) 2011 jointly with ACE. He is also currently working on "JOHN HEIR" and "PIPA GIRLS".
On starting his career by being chosen to join Merchant Ivory at its Manhattan headquarters:
"[Merchant] told me to write this long essay on the person who most influenced my life. This was before hiring me right out of graduation. Right after September 11. And just not long before New York began to forget the terrible burning smell in the City. I wrote a piece about an imaginary painting in a Louvre-like museum which I visited when a city was burning. Kinda like an imaginary “Da Vinci” code, where I discovered a secret painting that came to life.
The climax of the piece was..... instead of discovering [smiles] the rapture of Mona Lisa's ambiguous smile, I found the secret shining eyes of a mysterious figure, eyes that came to life in the painting. The essay ended with the revelation that those eyes contained the mysterious name, which is the secret code to Eternity and Love.
Even though Merchant-Ivory already had a “three-headed team” of Ruth Prawala, Ismail Merchant and James Ivory, he felt he needed me in the office right away.
So he added me to his triuvirate of Jewish/Moslem/Christian production office. He liked my piece and all my work. He immediately trusted me with the biggest tasks, then hired me on the spot, without even seeing my demo. I went on to help him and his team produce Le Divorce, with Naomi Watts, Kate Hudson and Glenn Close, The White Countess with Ralph Fiennes and the late Natasha Richardson, and a string of his last movies... pre-production of City of Your Final Destination....we were thinking of putting Brad Pitt and Tina Turner before we decided on Charlotte Gainsbourg. Not long after, he sadly passed away, closing a glorious chapter in Hollywood history.”
On “BIBLE OF ROMANCE: THE FINAL CHAPTER”, latest feature film project, selected in Hong Kong, and on the line-up at Cannes:
""I'm producing, writing and developing this feature film.
It's a movie that's impossible to put into words as it's mostly visual cinema. I can only say this. It's eclectically influenced by... Romeo + Juliet, E.T., Breathless, Chris Marker, some aspects of 1970s American classic soft porn and [coughs] Evangelical Christian screenings. All rolled into one. The move is spellbinding and will break your heart and is unforgettable.
Those are all good films that make people remember their first romance with cinema, and feel the first Spring air of love. Cinema is fast vanishing as Entertainment. We had moved from the Nickelodeon to the silent pictures to the talkies to panoramic to digital and cinema as we know it is disappearing leisure technology. “Bible Of Romance” will be our glorious conclusion. It'll be a summary of that collective cinema experience.
I can't say more that that. All the rest is confidential and secret. 'Cos I've had countless indies and studios play with my treatments. I've had many ideas ripped off already, and I can't afford any more infringement of copyright issues or creative loss and bleeding.
Visually, “Bible of Romance” is lush, romantic, art house glamorous, gorgeous costumes and sets, but faster paced, and appeals to the U.S. markets especially the emerging markets, in China, Greater China, East Asian and India....think “Slumdog Millionaire” impact.
And yes, it is about religion. Or should I say about religions. And about the truth. But of course not the type of religion you read about using to justify bombings or terrorist attacks daily in the newspapers. It's about real religion. Just like every real family includes a mother, a real religion includes love. All religions are ways of expressing and finding love, which is at its very core, and its life. I'm spelling love here with capital L, O, V, E. That's what “Bible of Romance” is, at its core.
I've had lots of interest from Latin America and territories throughout Greater China. Thank you for letting me have the chance to do my little advertizing here.
On working with legendary Hollywood producer Ismail Merchant:
“It's very dynamic team that Ismail refers to as his family. His partner, his lifelong friends, his family, his nephews, his nieces and his old and new friends in Hollywood. That's why he cooks for everyone like one big family.
Inside the production office though, business is business. A typical day runs like this......I'd arrive at the office at like, say, 7:30 in the morning and not leave until, like, way in the night. The office never really stops. Neither do the ringing phones, beeping e-mails and constantly activated answering machines...the office has a life of its own even without people in it.......people move in and out of it constantly....and we try to schedule as many execs in as possible....and there are always concurrent "emergencies".
For example, Kate Hudson needs to be called in to correct her valley accent for a re-dubbing, the editor needs to be called in to re-edit certain scenes, Glenn Close's Assistant called and she may want to see certain dailies or rough cuts to make sure it's as agreed. Expensive antiques need to be acquired for the set, we need to plan our domestic and international publicity campaigns and premieres, press premieres, we chart our campaigns on maps, the Academy Awards and invitations - whom to give them out to, add to that financial budgeting, gigabytes of constantly changing schedules on excel worksheets, cast and crew lists for several simultaneous productions. The telephone calls and visitors we vet in are another animal. Hollywood honchos and producers and distributors all over the world call for help, for advice, for negotiation, for changes, for confirmations, to invite us to the White House or festivals, to plead for a 15 minute slot to invite Ismail or James for an interview. It's endless.
But we try to catch up on sleep when L.A. takes dinner break, and then try to fall asleep at home before the next day back in the midtown bustle and grind. We all do this for very very little. Yeah. It's a very notoriously busy as an office...the New York headquarters, unlike the London or Paris offices.
The Irish Catholic lady next to our Midtown office.... I often run into her in the elevator. She frequently chats with me. Kindly. It's kinda like very politely. Perhaps inquisitively. She'd like say to me holding a bagel or coffee in the elevator, like “so YOU are now working for Ishmael?”
And I'd like reply “yes, Ma'am”. And her eyes would like open wide with compassion. And she'd like lighten the mood by telling me jokes. Funny pithy elevator jokes. About how everyone in the building for the past decades couldn't find the loudest office in the building block – and finally realized it was Merchant Ivory Productions of international art house acclaim. Right here in the building. Haha. Then, the elevator doors would close, and we'd say “Bye. Have a nice day.” And rush to my million and one tasks.
On the secret to success at Merchant Ivory:
Water and fire was what made the team work brilliantly. Merchant Ivory intrigues everyone in Hollywood. In America, in Europe and in the world. 'Cos it's like the loudest office with the quietest movies? Maybe? It's certainly the whitest cinema created by the highest percentage of minorities in any film production house. [laughs]
They're movies that win the most number of Oscars on the lowest budgets, launching promising actors and talented actresses who start out when they are mostly unknown, to become the hottest legends and stars of Hollywood staple.. This isn't just your indie indie. I mean I watched Merchant Ivory since I was a kid....and that opened my mind to a whole new world of cinema that wasn't Pretty Woman or Home Alone 2 or Silence of the Lambs. It was classy Hollywood. Merchant Ivory isn't just films or media. It is a cinematic literary movement. So, it was quite a cool job.
Merchant Ivory was already reputed worldwide for its subdued literary art house dramas. They garnered like Oscars after Oscars. Howards End. Remains of the Day. This was even way before Uma Thurman was cleaning plates near the Meatpacking district. Merchant Ivory launched Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins, then Uma Thurman and Kate Hudson. For me, as a trained actor, and a producer, it was a very normal sort of office.
On whether as an East Asian, he feels at home at Merchant Ivory:
In some way, Ismail felt very paternal and fatherly to me, as I was brought up in a very similarly disciplinarian and authoritarian environment. And he was very patriarchal and masculine. He had his scary, worrying days, of course. As an invested producer, if nothing goes as planned, everything goes down the drain. But mostly because of a certain pain when you feel your ambition isn't understood and that everyone around you is useless, as compared to this Hollywood legend, we all were. He wasn't gay or anything. [Chuckles] Except for maybe when he wanted to pose for pictures, and added a sari to create an ethnic effect. He's fiercely proud of the beauty and grand civilization of India, which is mesmerizing.
Despite all the scandals, gossips you hear and read about, they are all untrue. Real life is more boring than you think. I never saw Ismail and James kiss or hold hands or even whisper romantic innuendos. They were very professional partners. Not gay at all like all these psychotic gossips you hear and read about. They were like law firm or banking partners. It was a very loud, butch, dynamic, intense, fast-paced and neurotic New York type of environment. It definitely wasn't sissy, (not that gay and or sissy is anything wrong but I digress), it simply wasn't like what people think art house independent filmmaking is like or should be like. It is highly artistic and professional. Pressure mounts because competition is cut-throat. Art house cinema is essentially an unsubsidized business in America. In sky-high rent riddled Manhattan, it's basically just produce or die trying.
I felt at home, perhaps it was because I was also very used to screaming and shouting from classmates throughout my adolescence during theater rehearsals. I spent years with really crazy classmates trying to be the next Brecht, next Artaud, next Shakespeare, all rehearsing for Lear, Macbeth, Hamlet, The Good Women of Sze Chuan, Hedda Gabbler, etc.. at the same time. So, no, noise doesn't bother me as it's a sign of vital energy. So Merchant Ivory felt like home.”
On why Anthony Hopkins went to sue James Ivory:
Hmm. Do you think I can answer that without being sued? I really do not possess the wherewithal to hire an attorney for defense right now. My BIBLE OF ROMANCE FUNDS 1, LLC is still open to investment for those running away from a grossly devalued greenback. [Laughs]
Seriously? Money....nah....maybe anger?.....Or revenge?.....A grave sense of injustice?... Or a plea?
You gotta remember this. Good actors ARE dramatic... I mean in real life...and not just on stage....or on film...even if only on stage, sometimes it carries over......actors are a breed not that much into money....unlike say a banker....that's why actors get into the acting profession in the first place. Well, actors need to prove that the drama they feel is so big and that they share is so important because it's right. Everything else around it that supposedly serves as justification or excuse is just fuzzy. I feel therefore I am – that's an actor. I argue therefore I am – that's a lawyer. I have mountains of cash, therefore I am – that's a banker, fer ya. Thou shalt not confuse the three.
People enter into lawsuits for a variety of reasons but mostly to prove that they're right when there's a dispute. Lawyers are costly and you can end up losing good cash after bad. Or an arm or a leg. Or if you're not lucky, then both. And as actors spend their entire lives, often starving, working at finding the emotional truths to their characters, sometimes when they get it right, they go slightly haywire or a little carried away and need to announce it to the whole world. There's nothing more dramatic than litigation and trial. As an actor myself, I totally feel for Anthony. The pain is real.
Everyone knows Merchant Ivory is unadulterated art house and art house doesn't pay well. Especially during the recession. It's not a sci-fi thriller like “Bible of Romance”. It doesn't target teenage audiences like “Bible of Romance”. It doesn't have much ancillary rights to liquidate unlike “Bible of Romance.” It does not have a long tail of revenue streams like “Bible of Romance”.
We did not cross-promote Merchant Ivory theatrical runs. Neither with McDonald's nor Coca-Cola. Not even KFC. We had premieres but they were for the literati and lifelong art house fans, ladies and gentlemen in mink coats in line in Manhattan, the dowagers and dames and blueblood supporters of New York City who arrived in limousines to our premieres and diplomats from London and Paris, Japan, China, and of course India. Our goal wasn't to Walmart-ize cinema to extract cash, but to create great cinema, and great cinema is not just what's on screen. Great cinema is also a great social event.
On whether Anthony Hopkins should have engaged in legal struggle with James Ivory:
I am not in a position to comment.But. I believe actors are better off suing studios cos those are banks.
When Sean Penn taught me a directing class, he told us that the first thing we should learn is: how to rob from studios, get a lot of cash and just make any movie you like, and that's cinema. He's probably being facetious but I believe he's also right. Disclaimer....this is just a general comment and any reference to Sir Anthony Hopkins is merely coincidental and unintentional.
I mean didn't your dad and your mom ever quarrel and fight for money all the time? But still stayed married and had great sex? Well, maybe sometimes they divorce.... but in general, couples do have make-up sex and that's how we came into this world. Litigating for residuals - that's just the not-so-pretty but real part of life and of Hollywood but the essential part of making babies called “movies”, I'm afraid.
But to be fair to Sir Anthony Hopkins. Everyone - stars, producing team, crew, all feel worked very hard on projects as intense as those we had [at Merchant Ivory]. And when people work very hard, sometimes they tend to feel shortchanged as a cog in a machine. I think even major stars are not spared that feeling.
Especially for actors. If you decided to accept a certain job with less, and were promised certain meaty roles and starring credits. And then producers and studio execs forgot you, and treated you as disposable, now that burns. Then, if that promise didn't come true, and someone just wrote you a fraction of that promise in check, as though they just bought all the rights over, and ended a love affair, it can burn like acid again. And that burning can hurt. That has happened to me all the time. I am sure most actors have been burnt before. And when there's too much burning, you may not want to start a war, but you have to fight back for your rights. Your dignity. When an actor is famous respected like Anthony, then I think we tend to enter into the litigation phase.
But that doesn't mean someone who has been burnt before can't love again. It just means that it's doubly difficult, and with more burnings, it becomes more impossible, but then, I digress. Into my latest project “BIBLE OF ROMANCE”
On Masculinity as East Asian male representation in Hollywood:
"Gender has no race.
Racists and fascists use racial politics gender races, ethnicities and entire civilizations to promote their own skewed ideological agenda. China, Japan and India are not the 'feminine' other; neither is the Anglo-American hierarchy, offshoot of European colonialism a completely 'masculine' culture. You will see white supremacists often mocking the Jewish-American man as being 'feminine', being too 'nerdy', and these all stem from racist stereotypes of a racist American culture that places emphasis on being erudite, religious and holy. There is nothing feminine about a group's culture, religion, ethnicity and civilization. Racists and supremacists like to blur and confuse things into a faux morality, and to instigate mob psychology, witch-hunts and lynchings. Instead of objectivity, evidence, fairness, reflection and judgment.
Masculinity is the phallus; Feminity is the black hole. Everything else is just obfuscation.
Everything else typical of American masculinity - WWF, football, womanizing, making billion bucks from an investment bank, big cars, big houses, private jets, space travel, colonizing Mars. Haha. Those are just illusions.
I think when cavemen look at us and our modern notions of masculinity, they will roll over and laugh till they fart non-stop.”
"Masculinity is the phallus;
Femininity is the black hole.
Everything else is mere
- Kai Wong
"Masculinity is the phallus; Feminity is the black hole. Everything else is just obfuscation.
On Independent Cinema and Asian Cinema:
"Let's face it. Effects-wise, editing, film technology-wise, Hollywood's at the top of the game, and that's great. But creatively, it's been pretty much dead for a long long time.
I think Asia is different. Its technology is still inferior due to hundreds of years of poverty, but this is changing. In terms of creativity, I believe Chinese, Korean and Japanese and other Asian civilizations may not be “creative” in the Western sense of the word, but like the finest sakes or Chinese wines, there's superbly top grade stuff there in and from Asia. Undiscovered. Secret recipes that's been locked up for thousands of years secretly, that would be delicious to try. And I'm convinced American and international audiences would love it. And become addicted to it.
Coming from Dartmouth, with a predominantly East Coast school or West Coast indie type of filmmaking tradition – I mean, my film professors were NYU grads, USC grads, Ang Lee, etc. - old Hollywood cinema and Independent Cinema were like some sort of Holy Grail.
We didn't revere Spielberg in our college Film department, but Martin Scorsese, Claude Berri, Henri Langlois, Jean-Luc Godard and auteur filmmakers like those were ingrained into us as sacrosanct and intellectually prestigious. Even our film festivals were targeted towards more gritty New York independent film-making. We had neither “E.T”. nor “Gremlins” for our college film festivals. Those were for mid-term breaks or post-finals movie marathons in the dorms. But not for cinema. In our Film Society and for our cinema theater, we had serious independent films.
On Contemporary Independent Cinema and Asian Cinema in America:
However, I must say we did not have much contemporary independent cinema. It's like almost impossible to distribute independent cinema in the United States, especially outside of New York City or the Tri-state area. The American movie market, as everyone knows, is controlled by the major studios and chain cineplexes. They're the Walmarts, in ways both good and bad, selling basically what's mind food.
Just like Walmart doesn't sell artisanal or house-made novelty food items, American audiences don't get to buy independent cinema. The only very rare independent cinema you find in America is inside the biggest metro areas - independent European cinema in college and public libraries. Outside of New York, even in LA? My guess is: it's pretty impossible. Perhaps youtube and facebook, as well as more international travel is changing all that.
The other type of independent cinema that you can find in America is Hong Kong or Asian cinema, and sometimes Bollywood. They're mostly in ethnic enclaves or in Chinatowns. But audiences in America don't have a mainstream taste for this, unless they are adventuring or very hungry. Haha.
[Breaks into a charming guffaw.]