Interview Johnnie To

When and why did you decide to create Milkyway Image?

In 1996, I started to have the idea of setting up my own production company. And this company should mainly produce original and innovative movies. Hence, I set up “Milkyway Image” in 1996.

The first movies produced by Milkyway Image were not very successfull at the box office. Were you earning or losing money with them?

As a production company, although the box office results somehow reveals the performance of Milkyway Image, and this year we do have some pressure; however, as we are not the owener of a movie, we only have to burden the matter related to the proficiency of shooting , the box office wouldn’t affect the operation of our company directly. But of course, if the box office result is bad, the workload and movie budget of the company would be affected.

You produced a lot of genre movies at this period, with some special signature for each movie. Was it the main goal of the studio?

Other than the commercial considerations, or emphasis on entertainment, I believe that the content or the theme of a movie is very important. Sometimes the movie maybe a gangster movie, we still think highly of its spirit, the message bringing out by the movie. I pay much attention to this, even for producing a comedy or ghost movie, there should be a theme.

You are working with the same team at Milkway Image for years. Is it important for you to know your collaborators?

Collaborating with different people would certainly broaden my horizon, however personally, while I choose the cadre members, the actors, the script writers and the whole working crew, the first criteria is they should understand my habits and thoughts. For those who have worked for me, they would understand, and I do not need to waste time on explaining or due with communication problems. I prefer to work with people I known best. Of course, while selecting my crew, I also consider their enthusiasm towards the movie and their proficiency on their own duty. I would choose an actor instead of a star.

Aren't you afraid to repeat yourself by working always with the same people?

Would it be? It remains a question to me. When I begin to shoot a movie, I started with the theme of the movie. That’s why there were “The Mission”, “PTU”, “A Hero Never dies” and “The longest night”. It was my feeling that it’s the time to produce such a movie. And I believed that my decision already included the consideration of how many similar movies were produced in Hong Kong, or would this movie be similar to other movies. However, this won’t hinder much on my decision on shooting the movie or not. The most important point which I insist on: the idea I have today, is it the thing I interested most? If yes, I’ll go for it. This is me, Johnnie To’s desire towards movie. Of course I would take into consideration that there are movies to be produced for the boss, for common audiences. However, for the question of similarity, I would leave it for the audience and other people to judge. Personally, I don’t want to repeat.

Could you tell us about the three movies directed by Patrick Yau? Did he direct them alone or were you helping him?

Patrick Yau was my assistant director at that time. I also like to give chances to fresh directors to develop their career. In “The Odd one dies”, I asked him to be the director, and of course, as it’s the first movie he directed, he met a lot of difficulties. Since the story and the style of the movie was originated form me, he had to transform my idea into his style, that would be difficult and theoretically it’s not a proper way. I was predominant during the production. I made all the decision and he worked them out. That was the first trial.

After that, I decided to give him the second chance. However, in “The longest nite”, the situation was the same. He couldn’t catch the style and idea of the movie accurately, hence the role of decision maker back to me. I had to deploy the crew and told the actors how to perform. He became a execute director only on site. After these 2 movies, he also found himself not experienced enough to direct a movie. He then left Mikyway and begun to shoot TV series in mainland. I certainly hope that one day, he would back to our company and shoot movie with us, but it remains to his own decision.

We heard that you begun to shoot several Milkyway movies without a complete script, and that's why the script is signed by "creative team" in those movies' credits, as plenty of people worked on it during the production. Is it true?

In fact I prefer not to have a very concrete script before I started to shoot a movie. The reason is until the moment I shoot, I still want to introduce some new ideas. Maybe it’s true that I didn’t thing thoroughly in advance, or I couldn’t come to a final decision. However, I love this production environment. I don’t want the script to limit my instant creativity. I don’t prefer everything to be written in the script, I like to feel the essence during the shooting of the movie. This may sounds weird. The script writer and I would discuss the script together; many other people could also flow out their ideas during the shoot. The script writer would combine them into the final script. Therefore, there are many people involved in the script writing. Hence the term ‘creative team’ often appears in my movies.

You never produced any sequel until Running out of Time 2. Why did you decide to produce this movie?

I was not intended to be the director of Running out of time 2. At first I hoped there would be another person to shoot the movie. The reason for the existence of this movie was I found that the story had much potential and possibilities. After shooting 1, I believed that there could be a different deduction and excitement for 2, and this type of movie was what I like. However, maybe another director was bounded by the influence of 1, he couldn’t get the way out for 2, and therefore eventually I took back the role of director. I did wish to have someone else to shoot 2, to produce another version of Running out of time, that was what I really want to see. Eventually, because of some technical and interpersonal relationship problems, I had to become the director of Running out of time 2.

We can hear the famous song "The Internationale" in Running out of time 2. Why did you choose this song, and why the french version?

Communism was originated from French’s Marxism, this was an idea from France. However, to me it’s only a dream, something unreal, though the idea itself was nice. Cosmopolitism , no wars between mankind, sharing of properties, all these ideas are nice, but extremely difficult to achieve, so they could only remain to a dream. I put that into the movie was because I wanted to show it’s just only a saying that never come true.

Ekin Cheng is playing a smiling character in this movie, far from the usual cool heroes he was playing before. Richie Ren and Nick Cheung also had very unusual characters to play in Breaking News. Do you like to pbreak the image of actors?

To me, an actor is someone who acts, they shouldn’t be specified as a comedy or tragic actor; or defined as good or bad guy. If you were an actor, you should try your best to deduct the character in a movie. This is my view towards actors. Of course there are some people who are successful in acting a particular type of characters, they then not dare or no need to change, since the audience just want to watch something they like rather than changes. Personally, I still consider actor’s responsibility is to act out the character in a movie, but not themselves.

Historically, movie soundtracks are not very important in Hong Kong movies. But you seem to choose the music very carefully for each of your movie.

While shooting, most of the time I already has the background music in my mind. I seldom think of the background music after a scene was shot. For some movies, I even have the music before the scene, to me, music is very important in my movies. I hope music could enrich my ideas in the movie.

You have a very precise idea of the music you want for your movie. You asked for instance for a theme similar to Midnight express for the Longest Nite, and to use the japanese song Sukiyaki for Hero Never Dies. How do music composers deal with those demands? Can they express their creativity easily with you?

Just as you’ve mentioned, music in The longest nite was very similar to “Midnight express”, it’s because of that kind of music that drove me to shoot the movies. We had been trying to get away from this habit or formula, but I couldn’t be satisfied whenever the music was changed. The composer suggested other options to me again and again, and eventually I still pick one with similar style. Because the whole idea and mood of The longest nite was originated from the music, if the music doesn’t exist, the movie will gone with it. I admit that music plays a very important role; it’s just like the spirit of my movies. For “Sukiyaki”, similarly, I shot the movie because of this music. It’s the motivation behind the movie and I do want the mood of the music could be expressed in the movie.

I believed that composers who worked with me did have a hard time, because I insist to take the leading role for choosing the music pieces. It’s not a matter of how we can get into a compromise; it’s a fact that he has to stick to my decision.

Milkyway begun to produce more commercial movies after that, like Needing You or Love on a Diet. Why this change?

As I’ve mentioned, Milkyway is a production company, if we have to show others a nice “report card”, we must accept to include commercial movies in our productions, in order to raise the box office result. This is the way to support us shooting movies in our own style. If we only focus on stylish movies that usually can’t make a good repay, consequently the investor would be worrying about losing money. Therefore we have to strike a balance between commercial and artistic/stylish movies. To me it’s not something difficult to accept, because the fact is you need much money to shoot a movie, and the investor wanted to guarantee their investment is right. The reason for Milkyway to shoot commercial movies is we want to produce more personal movies.

After this first period of genre movies and this second period of commercial movies, you seem to be producing more original movies like Running on Karma and Throwdown, where the message becomes as important as the style. Is it the third period in Milkyway's life?

I always begin a movie when the inspiration comes. The reason why Running on Karma, Breaking News or Throwdown would exist is just because I suddenly had the idea that “I have to produce a movie like this!” The idea of shooting these kind of movies doesn’t really means the direction Milkyway should go in the future, what I really hope is that Milkyway could keep producing movies that fascinate the audience. In other words is to raise their interest but at the same time presenting our own messages. In Running on karma, we talked about retribution of cause and effect; in Throwdown we presented an encouraging world. What I think Milkyway should do in the future is to produce movies that with a message behind but at the same time keep the audience engaged.


All our thanks to Johnnie To and to Shan Ding for his kind help!

  • October 2004