EXCLUSIVE: The acquisitions titles at Toronto’s first weekend was largely prestige films. The festival film with real breakout mainstream potential didn’t premiere until yesterday, and buyers are now figuring out what to do with a throwback martial arts movie built around the iconic Bruce Lee, with worldwide rights available. Birth Of The Dragon uses a still-disputed private brawl between martial arts masters Bruce Lee (Philip Ng) and Wong Jack Man (Yu Xia) in 1964 as the fuel for a San Francisco-set coming-of-age story involving a rough and tumble young white man [Billy Magnussen doing his best Steve McQueen] who matches the feuding fighting legends in the brawl as he pursues a Romeo and Juliet romance with a young Chinese immigrant [JingJing Qu] under the control of the Chinese mob. This mashup of fact and fable was financed by China-based Kylin Pictures, produced by Groundswell’s Michael London and Janice Williams, and written by Christopher Wilkinson and Steven J. Rivele. It is the sophomore directing effort of George Nolfi, the Adjustment Bureau writer-director whose past scripts include Ocean’s Twelve and The Bourne Ultimatum. Here, Nolfi explains why the outcome of the brawl isn’t as important as how it influenced the legend Bruce Lee became, and how Chinese funding could be a salvation for movie heroes not suited up in spandex.
DEADLINE: You have made a movie about an Asian icon, financed by a Chinese company, on a martial arts legend still relevant in Asia. Is this Chinese infiltration into Hollywood movies a good thing?
NOLFI: I got involved just as Kylin Pictures said they wanted to buy it outright. From a filmmaker’s standpoint and from a future business standpoint, I got to be a very interested observer in a financing company being willing to make a movie that is both about something in a real sense, and not about a brand. Bruce Lee is well known, but that’s not a brand project and it’s in a genre Hollywood hasn’t made movies in for years. When was the last major Kung-Fu movie?
DEADLINE: 45 years ago?
NOLFI: Exactly. So I’m watching this and thinking that if, in the next 10 years of our business, there are Chinese companies willing to support movies like this, made in the Hollywood format and style, with a Hollywood director given creative controls, that’s very good for our business. You enter with a certain degree of cautious optimism but the result has been everything I’d hoped for. When you do business with a foreign company, with a different language, you have learn their customs. But they let me make exactly the movie I wanted to, with zero interference. If this is the future of movies for the next five, 10 years than you can just say unequivocally that this is a godsend to Hollywood because it’s very hard for studios to make movies that aren’t sequels or branded material now. I was very excited to see that Sully was doing well this weekend. There’s a movie that’s about something real, based on a real figure. By all accounts from the reception at Telluride, it was a crowd-pleaser. It’s clearly going to be successful movie.
DEADLINE: Tom Hanks has managed to carve out a career without going the superhero route.
NOLFI: There aren’t very many people like that. Leo, there’s Matt Damon, there’s Tom Hanks. Superhero movies are good for the business up to a point, but when they’re all branded superheroes up to the exclusion of….you know…Sully is a kind of superhero, Bruce Lee is a kind of superhero. If they’re all Marvel and DC superheroes….
DEADLINE: Desmond Doss in Mel Gibson’s movie Hacksaw Ridge, a WWII hero who never picks up a gun.
NOLFI: I think most readers of Deadline are silently hoping for Hollywood to be able, whether with outside financing and studio distribution, or studio financing, to see a return to where a portion of their movies are taking shots on a quality film and seeing if an audience will find it. I just hope that the breadth of moviemaking is supported by whatever happens in the industry in the next 5-10 years. Because it does seem like it’s become narrower and narrower in the last decade.
DEADLINE: You have been a writer on big studio films. I always hear things are terrible for writers. The strike happened, it felt like a punitive period followed where studios played hardball with writer quotes, and that was institutionalized following the 2008 crash. How are things now for writers?
NOLFI: It’s really hard for me to generalize about the making a living aspect of it because you only have your own experience. My assessment from conversations with my many friends and the time I spent at the guild is that the middle has dropped out. You have studios looking for the next new writer’s guild minimum quote level writer, or they’re looking for somebody with credits on major films to be the last writer in to push things across the finish line. And that’s kind of it, plus the people transitioning from the first category to the second.
DEADLINE: How has that impacted quality? Summer was criticized for so many derivative sequels, and films like Deadpool thrived because they are different.
NOLFI: Let me answer this in a roundabout way. Because I had a real stark experience coming out the other side of The Adjustment Bureau. I wrote a draft before the strike and because I owned it, I rewrote it during the strike. But I had worked pretty consistently as a writer from 2004 to 2007 on The Sentinel, Oceans Twelve, Bourne Ultimatum. I was on set for all three of those movies. When I would say to my agents, tell me what writing jobs are out there, in 2003, there were all kinds of projects like the ones I did. Cool ideas studio executives said they liked and wanted to get a star and a start date. Then I come out the other side of Bourne Ultimatum, and I bring this Adjustment Bureau script to Matt Damon. He says, I’m interested and we end up getting the money and I go make that in 2009, and that’s two years of my life. After, I say to my agents, let’s see what assignments are out there. I just want to write on a script now and pay my bills. The stark difference between 2003 and 2011 was mind-boggling.
NOLFI: There used to be a hundred open projects that were based on a cool book or partial manuscript, or a lot of things like Sully, or Hunt For Red October or Lethal Weapon, things with great characters but not rooted in a huge international brands. And by 2011, a huge, huge number of the slots where they were hiring writers were sequels, remakes, superhero movies, giant books. So many fewer were movies that just had that cool spec script we bought, or that newspaper article somebody found. Now, it has become amazing to see something like a film on Sully Sullenberger, or telling the story of the Navy SEALs that killed Osama bin Laden. So many fewer of those. From the snapshot in 2003 to the snapshot in 2011, from an individual fresh new movie point of view, the bottom had dropped out of Hollywood.
I don’t blame any big studio or their corporate bosses for saying, Hey we need to earn 15% or whatever because we’re a public company and we need to make a return. They are reacting to a world marketplace that seems to be demanding this. My hope is, and I think it’s actually incumbent on filmmakers and writers and producers, is to figure out what that new model is, and I hope and think that Dragon fits into that. Which is to say, something that has an individualistic quality, something that is not just driven by marketing and brand concerns. Something that can capture a worldwide audience at a price point that isn’t too risky for major studios to get involved.
DEADLINE: Your movie doesn’t have big stars, but we certainly know the legend of Bruce Lee, and your narrator and the bridge between Lee and Wong Jack Man is a composite of young Steve McQueen. Anyone who tied a white belt across the waist of those white pajamas remembers Lee’s great ’70s karate movies. You have those touchstones audiences seem to want, but this somehow feels fresh, and familiar.
NOLFI: I think about that, a lot. I know a lot of the people that run studios and they’re very intelligent and if you said to them, Hey is your desire here to regurgitate? The answer would be no. But they are in an extraordinarily competitive world with big stakes and other factors. I got my first paycheck as a writer in ’96. There was no vibrant Internet then. People’s eyeballs were not pulled to YouTube and every movie and TV show that is now available to them, along with the latest short video somebody made. The competition for people’s leisure hours has increased a thousand fold. It’s very hard in that environment to make something that can have an all-out reaction of, I’m going to go out this weekend and pay for a babysitter. I’m as desperate as anyone in Hollywood to find that new model that gets past this. I suspect Sully is a perfect example of it, any Coen Brothers or Soderbergh or Paul Greengrass movie would be. They’re trying to be about something, trying desperately not to be a regurgitation.
DEADLINE: Ever took karate?
NOLFI: In third grade, but not in a serious way. I don’t want to dwell on my age, but let’s just say that Jean Claude Van Damme and those other guys came later. It’s cliché but, Bruce Lee movies stuck in my head as a kid, like Star Wars and others, in giving you a sense of what was possible in cinema.
DEADLINE: How did you become the director of this when your first film, Adjustment Bureau, was one you crafted for yourself on the page?
NOLFI: Michael London and I were working on another project, and he mentioned this script coming in by Rivele and Wilkinson, and asked could I look at it and tell him what I thought. Somewhere between page 12 and 15, I dashed off an email saying this is incredible. Thanks for letting me read it. I want to direct it.
DEADLINE: What specifically in those pages would prompt a reaction that strong?
NOLFI: Three things. There was some text up front that said this fight had taken place in 1964, that it was one of the most storied fights in all of martial arts history, that it took place in front of a dozen witnesses, no two of whom had the same account of the fight. I thought that was awesome; something that disputed with strong opinions on all sides, means there’s inherent drama. The second thing is the clear sketching of two masters who had very different understandings of what Kung-Fu was.
DEADLINE: And differing philosophies about whether it should be shared with Caucasians?
NOLFI: Right. You had a scene that introduced Wong Jack Man as a Buddhist monk at the Shaolin Temple, which is a fictionalization of who he is. He was a northern Shaolin trained master but he wasn’t a Buddhist monk. Bruce Lee was introduced, making a 16mm film, and it was such a fun and unexpected portrayal of him, not the flow-like-water Buddhist-influenced philosopher martial artist. He was only 24. I liked the notion of Bruce Lee, different than I had seen him before. Still in a very favorable light but not the fully matured Bruce Lee with a clear desire to break the glass ceiling, become a star, and bring Kung Fu to the wider Western world with a belief that it should be shared with white people and not just be kept in China. Here, he had a self-confidence bordering on cockiness that I found really endearing and hysterical. It was obvious this guy was going to go through the transformation from what he was in that first 16mm scene to the end of this movie and something closer to the Bruce Lee that I knew. It was obvious that Wong Jack Man was a total traditionalist, and what I read in those first 15 pages made it clear that it would be antithetical to him to have Kung-Fu taught to white people. He was going to go through a transformation, also. So there were two men, both total masters of this deep important core aspect of Chinese culture, Kung-Fu, with totally different views on it. Who are going to clash in this epic fight that happened in real life that I didn’t know anything about and that everybody disputed. Both men were going to grow from that. It just had all the elements of a great movie.
DEADLINE: To say yes at page 15 without even knowing who won that fight? And what if the writers had introduced a serial killer with a hockey mask on page 20?
NOLFI: I knew the work of the writers. They had done Nixon, Ali, and they are the gold standard for writing about historical figures, even though this is a much more mythologized version of a historical figure than Ali or Nixon. I had confidence in Michael London. But if these writers can get me this invested in two characters, about to take off into a fictionalized journey from this historical underpinning, yeah, I was in.
DEADLINE: What about the narrator played by Billy Magnusson, who is clearly a composite of a young Steve McQueen, the actor who trained with Lee later on in life?
NOLFI: That was an invention of the writers. Because I come from writing, it seemed to me to be a very smart decision. The depiction of one fight is hard to make into a satisfying feature film in 2016. The audience needs more plot and more character development. The reality is, Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man did not know each other for a long period before the fight and they weren’t heavily involved with each other after the fight. From a narrative standpoint, you needed eyes on the story that would allow you to have a run up to the fight and…I don’t want to spoil what happens after the fight..but you needed that to get to our third act.
DEADLINE: A third act that invokes the spirit of the fights in those Bruce Lee movies?
NOLFI: Yes, and when I got to that part of the script, I was joyous. But to get there you needed Steve McKee’s eyes on the story. He’s like the narrator in The Great Gatsby. Which is to say, while he has his own story, the largest part of the audience is coming to see what Gatsby’s doing. Here, the audience is coming to see how Bruce Lee evolves, and who is this guy fighting him? But you have to have a narrator who captures your interest on some level. It becomes this triangle of men. They created a character who was naïve, an American Midwestern guy whose own family life had not put him in a position to become a fully formed man. To be able to watch this white guy become a fully formed man, with Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man becoming these surrogate father figures to him, even though they were about the same age…I thought that was very unusual in Hollywood filmmaking. And given the conflict in the U.S. now over immigration, I think it’s important to remind ourselves that people who are not born in America — Bruce Lee was but he was raised in Chinese culture and his family was Chinese — they really enrich our country.
DEADLINE: So your second thought after committing on page 15 had to be, how the heck do I find Bruce Lee?
NOLFI: That was exactly the thing that scared the hell out of me. Some of my closer friends and advisors in the business looked at me going, who’s going to play Bruce Lee? They said, are you sure you want to go down this path? What if you can’t find somebody? By now, I’m like a dog with a bone, though. So it became this six-month-plus long search. I made a decision early that it was important to me to make a movie that felt authentic to serious martial arts fans and to martial artists themselves. I wanted even the highest level of Kung-Fu experts to be able to look at the fights and be impressed. And say, that’s Bruce Lee, using Wing Chun, which is by most accounts what he used during this fight, while Wong Jack Man used northern Shaolin. And then there’s some evolution that happens in the fight. I wanted to get that level of specificity in the martial arts, so we needed someone who was an actual martial artist. We asked for martial arts tapes from anybody who was interested in playing the part. I did look at some pure actors. Some were quite well known, certainly in Asia, but were not actual martial artists. Given the amount of screen time in this movie where Bruce Lee is fighting and the complexity of that fighting, and the epic-ness of the two big fight scenes, I just felt like I couldn’t do it with doubles. I wanted to be able to shoot Bruce Lee in wide shots if I needed them, where you could see his legs. Faking punches is one thing but faking kicks is a whole other thing.
DEADLINE: How did you find Philip Ng?
NOLFI: I narrowed it down first on martial arts ability, and then had actors read scenes. I made Phil do 10 minutes of scenes and then looked for months longer because he’s not a known Asian star. He’s definitely known in Hong Kong, but he’s not a giant name. He was a stuntman. His father has a martial arts studio in Chicago, so he’s been doing this since he was 3 years old and then he moved to Hong Kong. He was born there, and he returned to become a martial arts stuntman and worked his way up to where he was starting to act. He’s known in Hong Kong, somewhat in China, but less so in the wider world. But Phil captured a sort of confidence and exuberance and humor and cockiness that I thought you needed from Bruce Lee. I have eternal thanks to Kylin for backing my decision. I could imagine other financiers saying, no, we have to have somebody who has this box office level in Chinese film. The producer side of my brain understands the need for a so-called movie star. But I’m not the producer of this film and the director side of me believes the movie is what sells and what the audience is going to talk about. And Phil was going to allow us to make the best movie. You’ve seen it and so you see how he embodies Bruce Lee in a way that no one else I’ve seen has.
DEADLINE: When Lee died, all these movies got made with lookalikes with variations on the spelling of his name. But nobody since has replicated what he brought to the screen.
NOLFI: If you think of who became a true international martial arts superstar after Bruce Lee, it’s Jackie Chan and Jet Li. They’re both amazing martial artists, but quite different. Jackie Chan has the humor that overtakes almost everything else and Jet Li is this serious, incredible, beautiful martial artist to watch but he doesn’t have that twinkle in his eye which allows you to really play on that humor that Bruce Lee had. Phil has that. I think Phil is going to be a superstar. He was in every single frame, every time Bruce Lee is on screen fighting, that’s all him. I’d say, let your double do this wide shot and he’d say, no, I’m doing it. I said, Phil, you’re doing martial arts in a wide shot, going up a bunch of stairs, and if you fall and smash your chin, I’m going to go down for it. He said, I’ll be fine. He was just insistent, he was going to do every frame.
DEADLINE: That is a Jackie Chan trademark. Did you send him off to study film of Lee to get his mannerisms down?
NOLFI: I didn’t have to. Bruce Lee is his idol. I would venture to say that Phil did zero studying of Bruce Lee because he had already done it for the first 30 years of his life. I think Phil would say that he found our collaboration to be very much towards broadening his acting skills. I was definitely hard on him, if I wasn’t getting what I wanted. I told him upfront, just like you’re going to make me do the martial arts over when you say some blow isn’t right, if the dialogue could be better, we’re going again and again until we get it. Unlike the martial arts, you’re not going to get hurt from it, but you might do it 25 times. And there were a few scenes that took many. He was the most game actor you could imagine.
DEADLINE: Yu Xia plays Wong Jack Man. Is he also a martial artist?
NOLFI: He’s not, but he’s quite an athletic guy, and I could tell he was a truly great actor even when working in another language in the tape I watched. He has this placid confidence, a wisdom in his face and his mannerisms, that was perfect for Wong Jack Man. So he exuded the part and I thought I had a fighting chance with a Bruce Lee who could do every single frame of fighting. Then it became about the magic of cinema techniques to make Xia Yu look the way we needed. I think we’ve succeeded. In test screenings, we asked which guy was the real artist and which wasn’t. It was about 50/50. My editor has a friend who’s a big martial artist who has seen every martial arts film in existence. We asked him and he said, “Ummm, I think Wong Jack Man is the real one.” I said, OK, we’ve succeeded.