Interview Alexi Tan

How came the idea of the movie? Was it brought by John Woo, or was it your idea?

It was actually my idea to do the film, but it was inspired by a conversation with him. What happened was that I met him three years ago, and they wanted to produce my first film, and we were looking for material. And this wasn't the first one. We had a couple of things going, much like any young filmmaker, and things don't happen. And you don't know what you gonna do next. At the same time, John was preparing to go to Beijing to prepare Red Cliff. And I was searching for material to do for my first feature. Terrence Chang said "you are in China, you should do a mandarin language film", and since I speak mandarin, it would be quite a good thing. I had a dialog with John, and he told me his story about Bullet in the Head. How he drew from his childhood, people in that movie are people he grew up with in Hong Kong.It was just a casual dialog, he told me about the experiences he had doing Bullet In the Head. It was not the biggest hit when it cames out. So it was not easy for him. So you have this great master telling you he was having a difficult time making this film, which is now a classic. It really touched me, and I left this dialog feeling really inspired. And I rewatched Bullet in the Head again. And I just felt that the characters he had in the film are people most of us have already experienced once in our life. Grewing us with them, or making friends with them. I thought it was a good foundation for a feature film.

And then I always wanted to do a film about Shanghai in the 30's, because my grand mother was a very well known opera singer in the 30's and she told me about this period, so it has always been in my head. And when I first went to Shanghai, it was first because we were Shanghainese, then I wanted to know more about this place. So I combined both. I approached John, and Terrence Chang my producer, and told them that we could use the characters of Bullet in the Head as an inspiration for a film set in the 30's. And then the last element was my love for Sergio Leone's films. For me the 30's were like the Wild wild west, with gangsters, prostitutes, you can have a gunfight in the middle of the street. As a young director, watching all these great movies, you want put them together in one film.

Is it difficult to make a balance between paying a tribute to Bullet in the Head and still being original?

I think it's a very difficult thing, because when you have not done a feature film yet, sometimes you are just so eager to get behind the camera. So to be conscious about this is actually even more difficult. I think the best thing to do is to follow your own creative instinct. When the film was not yet seen by many people, especially in the China press, they thought it would be the second coming of John Woo, because they have not seen a John Woo movie for a long time. Especially not an asian one!

But as you have seen, this is nothing like a John Woo movie. So to answer your question, John had his own upbring, I had my own, so I try to trust my own instinct. Even though we had the foundation of something like Bullet in the Head, I don't tell people that's a remake, because it's not, we don't have the vietnam war. The characters were originated from that dialog with John but when we were writing, and making the characters grow, we were not referencing to the film at all. And the other thing was the 30's. There have been so many films about this period. So how do you do something that is original? So I did not want to watch any modern film about the 30's. I only actually watched movies that were shot in the 30's. I told my creative team, "let's push the boundaries". We have these books, you have the whole art deco influence in the 30's. We have these researches, we have these films. And you have to be sort of accurate, but then at the same time, for me films are all about fantasy too. And I was not telling a real person's life or anything like that. So we had this sort of freedom. So I told them to use their creativity. So I think with all those things, I believe we had our own look.

But the audience were hoping for another John Woo film, and I cannot give them that! Because John does it the best. The moment I talked to Daniel Wu, he said, "the moment we have two guns here, it's going to be big troubles!". Even though so many people have done that. But we are talking about the film John is actually producing, so perhaps some people were a bit disappointed because they did not see two guns and birds flying. But John encouraged me to find my own things.

Alexi Tan - by Laurent Koffel

On the first hand, we could consider you are lucky to be produced by John, with a big budget, big names. But on the other hand, that's a lot of pressure, and expectations too. Did you feel this weight on your shoulder?

This question is coming at a very good time, because it's been months since the film came out. I will answer you very honestly. A lot of people ask me "how did this happen?". Such a big budget for a first film, with all these stars, and John Woo etc... I think a smaller film is still better for a first film. A young director is not aware of all the problems coming with a big budget. This interview would take too long if I tell you about them! The bigger the film, the more factors there are going to be. Of course, I don't regret it, it was an amazing experience. I definately learned from it. But I do think as a first time filmmaker, a more controlable smaller film is better. In fact I'm creeving to do a smaller film after doing such a big film, which is very ironic. Because I think most filmmakers just dream of making a big production. But I think there is no rush for that, you can wait. And seing John, with the pressure he is having for Red Cliff, even solidifies what I'm saying.

But you are right about the expectations. When we were shooting it, I didn't think about it. But once the film was announced, the medias, etc... then you really feel it.

Were you influenced also by the Chang Cheh film, Blood Brothers? The characters are quite similar, and Bullet in the Head is somehow a remake of this film. Liu Ye has a moustache at the end also, just like Ti Lung in the Chang Cheh film. So is there a relation?

I loved that film. But it was not intentional. Actually I forgot about that. But if it's an hommage, and people see it this way, I'm very ok with that. Because even the title of the film, Blood Brothers, was not intentionally taken from that film. I prefer the chinese name of this film, "The Gate to Heaven". But when the film got announced, the english press called it "Heaven's Gate", which is like the Michael Cimino film. And my producer thought it was a bad omen. We all know the history of that film. So we chose Blood Brothers instead.

You said you were also influenced by Sergio Leone. The music reminded me of Sergio Morricone from time to time. Did you ask it to the music composer?

You hit it right on the mark. I loved Morricone's music. I read something in Leone's biography. Him and Morricone would pre-compose the music before they even shot the film. Then Leone would let the actors listen to the music. So that they would be inspired by the mood they were trying to create. So I really wanted to do this as well. So we did the same thing. Chang Chen, Daniel, Liu Ye, they all got the mp3 of all the music, and they tried to get into it. Especially Chang Chen's character, because we already had the theme of Mark's character.

I was worried too that people would tell me "how can you rip off Morricone's music". But my composer also loves Morricone, it's a fact. So perhaps it's a tribute or something like this. But why stop ourselves? This is the right thing. Even John, when the film was being edited, told me: "we should have some Morricone's music". So people were in the right frame, it was the right direction for us.

You had a big budget, big names for your film. What about the next want? What do you want?

I actually just finished writing my second film. It's a film called "Perfect kiss" and it's a much smaller film, set in mordern day. It's much more personal. Blood Brothers was influenced by films, or filmmakers I loved growing up. It's almost like fullfilling a boyhood fantasy. I think i can safely say having not done the film, having directed one film, the way you see things as a director is very different.

So now for myself, I would really like to do a personal film, that's why I finish writing. Of course, the one thing I do take from Blood Brothers, I would choose the casting of those actors. Because I love the whole idea of working with a family of actors. I think it's a grewing process, I have directed them, I know their weaknesses, their strengths, so I would be great to do a project with them.

Alexi Tan - by Laurent Koffel
  • May 2008