Dragonball (2008)

Posts filed under Dragonball (2008)

Durango. The Crew

Filed in Dragonball (2008), Durango, Mx (2008), Travel, WorkTags:

With Dragonball being my first Hollywood production, I was not entirely prepared for the calibre of the crew. They were quite extraordinary.

The director

James Wong was the director. I watched him carefully. I wanted to see how Hollywood directors interacted with their cast. At TVB, our directors had (past tense because I'm no longer there ;-) very little time to discuss our scenes in detail with us. There was virtually no sharing or exchange of ideas. We simply arrived on set whereupon the director would glance at the set, decide where and how we would move during the scene (what we refer to as "blocking") and then run us through the scene. At TVB, most scenes were 'rehearsed' in mere minutes.

On the Dragonball set, I was surprised to find that rehearsals and interaction between the director and actors were very similar to that at TVB. I think time or rather the significant lack of it had something to do with it. Dragonball's schedule was extremely rushed. Rehearsals were quick, and involved more blocking and less acting which didn't really happen until the cameras were turned on. Furthermore, there appeared to be little discussion between the director and the actors. Most of the discussion that I heard on set seemed to be 'I should do this' and 'I should go there'; i.e., strong recommendations from the cast rather than sincere suggestions and then discussions thereof with the director.

A startling incident occurred to me personally early on in filming, and this incident explained to me to some extent a possible reason for the lack of interaction between the director and the actors. In Hollywood, it is apparently not uncommon for celebrity actors to think of themselves as bigger and better than the directors. They view suggestions as personal criticism and can react violently to such. James was obviously aware of this reality and therefore tread carefully. As his relationship with the actors became more familiar and more stable, as the trust and solidarity between them increased, so did their interaction and James' willingness to give direction.

While preparing for last year's "They’re Playing Our Song (2007)" stage musical, the director Henry and I experimented, shared and exchanged ideas constantly until we found the perfect formula for the play and for my character. I learned much from Henry, and together, we produced a great show, something that was only possible because of our interaction.

James was a remarkable director. Quiet, patient and tolerant, he was aware of the casts' abilities and limitations, and also very aware of what the story itself could offer. If the cast neglected the chance to consult with him or learn from him, then they missed out big time! On more than one occasion, James reminded me of Henry; they share similar admirable qualities. Given the chance, I would definitely make the most of being able to work with such a director.

It is true of course that I only saw some of what happened on-set, and I didn't see anything of what happened off-set. Perhaps James discussed the story with the cast behind closed doors, or over the phone. Perhaps the cast asked him for direction when they encountered difficult scenes within the story. I hope so, because nothing could be so wrong as a talented artist who ignores their director, or believes that they no longer need to improve their craft.

Regardless, I think the movie will be very good.

Other crew members

During my time in Durango, I met and talked with many of the Dragonball crew. While Chinese people tend to be very guarded about their personal lives and distrustful of anyone they haven't known personally for more than a few years, the Dragonball crew had almost no reservations and I learnt quite a lot about them.

Helga, the script supervisor, has a photographic memory. She can remember just about everything she sees, even groceries on the shelves of the local supermarkets! Her memory is vitally important during filming because she endeavors to ensure that personal props and clothing are consistent from one shot to the next.

Colin, the prop master, has a life very similar to my own. He migrated to a foreign country, married a local girl, learnt the local language and now lives and works there. He has a very sharp eye when it comes to sets and props, and a very keen sense of observation. Colin also has a rather interesting history and a large collection of wonderful stories if you have time to listen.

Janet, the lady who attained a degree in music and then proceeded to study sound engineering, the lady who is now a visual effects producer and had the most wonderful smile almost every time I saw her on set.

Valerie, the lady living up the corridor from us in the hotel, who could bake just about anything in her rice cooker and loved to share the chocolate cakes she baked.

Charlene, who has a huge heart, who rescued a young lame dog from the film set and took her home to Canada.

So many incredible people in one place. I've only described a handful.

Some of the local Mexican crew included; Huan (Spanish for John), the big man with a wonderful English accent; Jaime who owns a glass-blowing factory and worked as a stand-in for Chow just for fun; and a young lady who owns two local cake bakeries (pasterias) and worked as an assistant in the movie, again just for fun!

Other people I remember fondly include Martin the official still photographer who took great photos of the movie and arranged excellent hotel accommodation for me in his hometown Mazatlan after the movie; Dan Fraga the storyboard artist who has numerous Chinese tattoos; Luís the Mexico publicist for the movie who talked to me frequently, knows everything there is to know about John Wayne, and helped arrange local transportation for a one-day sight-seeing trip when my wife came to visit; Lalu who was Chow's makeup artist with his own interesting history; and our drivers and bodyguard who became our friends.

If you were to ask me to identify the single most valuable thing gained from my trip to Durango, I'd have to say that it was the opportunity to meet and work with so many extraordinary and wonderful people.

Durango. The Work

Filed in Dragonball (2008), Durango, Mx (2008), Travel, WorkTags:

In January, having just left TVB after 20 years of acting there, I found myself working with Mr Chow Yun Fat 發哥 as his personal dialect coach, flying business class to a small city called Durango located in Mexico where we lived and worked for just over two months working on the Fox production Dragonball. It was quite an experience but not much fun (acceptable, given that this was a working trip rather than a pleasure trip).

Most people, at least here in Hong Kong, have the impression that working for a Hollywood film production company is fun, or at least much more pleasurable than working for a Hong Kong film production company. The perception is that the work is not hectic or rushed, the working hours are shorter (and that hotel standard food will be provided). The perception is wrong.

We worked twelve-hour days, at least four days a week, usually five. If not for the protection provided by Mrs Chow's carefully considered contract, we would have been working fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week as many of the crew and leading actors were. Twelve hours is tough. You have just enough time to get up in the morning, do a little exercise, have breakfast and rush off to the filming location. At work, only the actors and top crew members had chairs so I spent a lot of the twelve hours standing, or sitting on the floor when I needed to rest. Studio smoke relentlessly filled the studio. When you return exhausted to the hotel, you have just enough time to have dinner, check your email and go to bed. Continue this for several days, and then several weeks and the work becomes barely tolerable. During the last few weeks of filming, most of the crew were desperate to return to their homes.

My work involved working with 發哥 to help him get his pronunciation as clear and intelligible as possible. We did most of the ground work in Hong Kong and in Durango before filming began which was fortunate, because during filming, there was little time or energy left to do any extra revision work. During filming, my work required me to listen very carefully with my headphones to everything he said, making sure he didn't drop any words and helping him to improve his pronunciation when necessary.

I am intimately aware of the challenges that 發哥 faces. For twenty years, I have acted in Cantonese at TVB and in local Hong Kong movies. When the dialog is a learned language, especially one learned as an adult, it requires much more effort and concentration to memorise and speak when acting, so much so that the acting usually suffers. It took five to eight years for me to become familiar and comfortable enough with the language to be able to allocate less of my attention to the dialog and more to the acting. It's not an easy task.

發哥 is no slacker. By the time we began filming, his dialog pronunciation was excellent; not perfect but excellent none-the-less. Even so, my work on location was not easy. It required intense concentration to listen to every syllable of his dialog, note the areas that needed improvement, analyse which areas were within his immediate grasp or absolutely needed improvement and use the most efficient method possible to communicate the needed changes to him, all within seconds of completion of each shot. It was challenging and tiring but we did a pretty good job.

發哥's work ethics are admirable. His dedication to his work is truly remarkable.

Within hours of confirmation of his role in the movie, he began examining and developing his character, and he spent considerable time working on his dialog. From confirmation of his role until weeks into filming, he barely slept as he considered all of the options for his character, an experience I shared last year when preparing for "They’re Playing Our Song (2007)". He worked so hard and slept so little that he became ill just a couple of weeks into filming. But even sickness barely slowed him down. He rested for two days and went straight back to work, getting daily antibiotic injections until he was fully recovered, and regular vitamin supplement injections until filming was complete.

發哥 greets and respects everyone on set. He talks about the days he began acting at TVB, how the crew in those early days were few in number, and how as a result he helped out with every aspect of filming from carrying props to setting up lights to cooking supper 宵夜 in the studios late at night. He constantly reminds us that movies would not be possible without the crew, and that it is those people who make the stars look great on screen.

發哥's other great love is photography. He had his camera with him in Mexico but his dedication to the movie precluded him from using the camera for most of our time there. While I came back with almost 3000 photographs, he came back with less than fifty. (Note. Very few of my photographs are related to the movie or its locations and they will not see the light of day until after the release of the movie; wouldn't want to spoil the movie for you ;-)

Equally impressive and important as 發哥 is Mrs Chow, commonly referred to as 發嫂. Mrs Chow works incessantly to make sure that 發哥 gets the best work available, and is protected physically, commercially and legally before, during and after filming. She's a virtual diesel train, working in the office and on set, working the same hours as we do and often more. It is said that in the management offices of Hollywood, Mrs Chow is more famous (perhaps infamous) than 發哥 because she's the one they deal with, and she's fearless and tireless.

Together, Mr and Mrs Chow form a truly formidable duo.

The Untold Story

Filed in Dragonball (2008), Durango, Mx (2008), Entertainment Ind., General, Life, Travel, WorkTags: , , , ,

A little over a year ago, I ran into 發哥 and was subsequently given a photograph of myself taken by this amazing man. It was in fact a chance encounter. 發哥 had not planned it, nor had I, but the encounter happened, and just as he was about to leave, it suddenly occurred to 發哥 to ask me if I'd teach English. If it was anyone else, I'd have immediately replied no, but this was 發哥 and I instead answered yes.

Perhaps it was pre-destined that 發哥 would not be able to contact me multiple times in his earnest attempt to deliver the photo to me. Perhaps this repeated failure to locate me kept me on his mind, so much so that when he needed an English coach to help him with his dubbing work on the new The Children of Huang Shi movie, he thought of me and tried to contact me yet once again. For the first time in 4 months, I was able to answer the phone and we spoke.

I had never heard of the dialect coach vocation, and yet, I had now become one. I was uniquely qualified. Twenty years of acting in a second language gave me unique insight into the challenges faced by someone like 發哥 working in Hollywood. Twenty years of acting gave me great understanding of the work of an actor, and twenty years of rarely speaking English while watching Hollywood-produced television and movies had eradicated all but a pinch of my Australian accent. Being fluent in Cantonese was also going to be invaluable, more so in the interpersonal relationship than in the act of teaching itself because 發哥's conversational English is quite good.

At the end of May, I began working with 發哥; almost on a daily basis; in preparation for the movie dubbing. When we arrived at the dubbing studio for the first day of dubbing, the director didn't recognise me and asked who I was. 發哥's assistant replied that I was his dialog coach, and that I was Australian. Whoa! The director's face sagged almost all the way to the floor. He was incredulous and concerned. Who would want an Australian dialect coach??? He was not happy, but his entire demeanour changed over the next few hours of dubbing and by lunch time, he was very pleased. 發哥's work was impressive and dubbing was proceeding smoothly.

It was coincidentally at this very same time that I was contemplating going to London to audition for the Musical Theatre degree at the University of London, but it was also a time when my singing voice was completely shut down as a consequence of overuse in the "They’re Playing Our Song (2007)" musical. Other factors beyond my control also conspired to stop me going to London, and so it was that I remained in Hong Kong and began working with 發哥 instead.

After dubbing had been completed, 發哥 requested that we work together weekly, and our long term working relationship began.

November came, and I was asked by TVB to renew my contract which was due to expire in January of 2008. For two years, I had contemplated my future and the only future I could see if I remained at TVB was that of a saddened unfulfilled elderly Caucasian actor still performing the bread crumb roles that occasionally fell my way. Over the previous months, 發哥 had repeatedly hinted that he would like me to work with him on location in his future Hollywood projects. Nothing was guaranteed, but it was a possibility none the less.

Twenty-one years ago, I took a gamble and bought a one-way air ticket to Hong Kong to follow my dreams. My life has been incredible. I met and married my wonderful wife. I have an incredible loving family, both human and canine, and I have made some wonderful friends over the years. I've had an unimaginable acting career with TVB and am recognised and thought well of by numerous people both in Hong Kong and overseas. I have no regrets, only gratitude. Now however, I felt that it time to once again buy a one-way ticket, this time away from TVB to destinations unknown, and I therefore submitted to TVB a letter of intent not to renew my contract.

It was the first week of December, and I was working with 發哥 in his home. Not more than fifteen minutes into our session, 發哥 informed me that he had accepted a role in the new Dragonball movie, and that we would be leaving for Mexico within the first week of January. I was in complete shock! This was totally unexpected and it was going to take some time to get used to the idea. I knew that 發哥 was considering one or two projects but I had no idea that we would be leaving so soon, and that we would be going away for so long; three months!

The future is not ours to plan, only to prepare for. We were scheduled to leave Hong Kong on January 1 but my contract with TVB was not due to finish until January 6. I could logically leave without consequence because I was not obliged to film any more episodes at TVB. I had fulfilled my contract obligations for the year. However, things could always become sticky if TVB wanted to make a point so it would not be prudent to leave before my contract expired. I wanted to leave with absolutely no strings attached and no concerns. I wanted complete freedom to move on in my life. Who could have guessed that because of continued negotiations with the movie's producers, our date of departure was pushed back to January 9! Perfect timing and none of it was my doing. Some things are meant to be.

So it is that I find myself sitting in a hotel room in Durango Mexico, working for one of the Hong Kong masters of acting, and well and truly taking the first steps of the next stage of my life.

Life: Stage 2 Begins

Filed in Dragonball (2008), Durango, Mx (2008), Life, Travel, TVB (H.K.) 香港無線電視, WorkTags:

Twenty years ago, I was working as an English tutor in the 育成 tutorial centre in Causeway Bay when one day, one of the teachers working with me told me of a poster at her school searching for a Cantonese-speaking Caucasian to act for a TVB series. I called the number she gave me and a Pakistani agent answered the phone. I was very unsure of my chances because at the time, I had absolutely no acting training or experience of any kind save for a few extra roles in high school plays. The agent however was reassuring, and encouraged me to go to the interview. He was reassuring because he could find no one else. I was his only chance.

At the interview with Miss 曾勵珍, I sat frozen in my seat looking at the few lines of English dialog in the script she had handed me. As the minutes of tense silence passed, I told myself that if I didn't take the chance and speak the lines no matter how badly I might say them, I would regret it for the rest of my life. When I finally spoke the lines with a loud reprimanding voice as apparently required by the scene in question, Miss 曾勵珍 who had turned her back to me, jumped in her seat, startled by my sudden outburst. I wasn't good, but again, TVB could find no one else and I was hired to play my first TVB role, a police officer in the series 「大茶園」. That was January 1988, a very long time ago, and a very special moment in my life.

Two years ago, as I had frequently done before, I once again seriously considered my future. Even with eighteen years of loyal service to TVB, I was still seemingly insignificant in their eyes, or at least not significant enough to be given heavier roles. I do not grudge TVB for this because Hong Kong is after all a Chinese region and as such, major Caucasian roles are almost always unnecessary. Regardless, I could not see a happy ending for myself if I walked the safe path and stayed at TVB. I decided to leave. When I informed TVB of my decision, they implored me to stay on, signing a freer one-show no-salary contract instead of the regular monthly-salary contract. I agreed and stayed on, but as time passed, I was time and time again reminded that my value at TVB would always be less than ideal.

The last few years have seen many important events in my life. My wife lost her parents who I was close to. I starred for the first time in a musical stage production "They’re Playing Our Song (2007)" and enjoyed a creative development process which was not possible in all my years at TVB, while at the same time missing out on the long-running Caucasian role in TVB's 「同事三分親」. And I encountered the one and only 周潤發.

In November of 2007, I informed TVB in writing that I would not be renewing my contract. On the 27th of December 2007, I performed for the last time at TVB. The 6th of January 2008 was officially my last day at TVB, almost exactly twenty years after my first day at TVB. On the 8th of January 2008, I was on a Cathay Pacific flight, taking the first steps of the next stage of my life.

As one magazine recently put it, the (TVB) 河國榮 era has come to an end.

At this very moment as I sit typing this in a hotel restaurant in Mexico's Durango, I am no longer a TVB artist. I have begun the next stage in my life and I'm excited at what might ensue.

Coming soon… The Untold Story