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Hollywood Spotlight [Reviews] - Shanghai Noon [Production Notes]

 

The Wild West meets the Far East in a battle for honor, royalty and a trunk full of gold when acrobatic Chinese Imperial Guard Chon Wang (JACKIE CHAN) comes to America to rescue beautiful Princess Pei Pei (LUCY LIU) who has been kidnapped from The Forbidden City.


With the help of a partner he doesn’t trust (OWEN WILSON), a wife he didn’t expect (BRANDON MERRILL), a horse with a personality all its own and martial arts moves no one can believe, Chon finds himself facing the meanest gunslingers in the West, in Touchstone Pictures’/Spyglass Entertainment’s comedy/action/adventure, "Shanghai Noon."

Touchstone Pictures and Spyglass Entertainment present A Birnbaum/Barber Production in association with A Jackie Chan Films Limited Production, "Shanghai Noon." Directed by Tom Dey, the screenplay is written by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar. Producers are Roger Birnbaum, Gary Barber and Jonathan Glickman. Executive producers are Jackie Chan, Willie Chan and Solon So. The film is distributed by Buena Vista Pictures Distribution.

When the lovely Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) is kidnapped from China, the Emperor dispatches three of his most fierce and noble Imperial Guards to deliver the ransom in gold to her kidnappers in America’s Wild West. Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) isn’t among the chosen. However, he manages to tag along anyway by offering to carry the luggage for his uncle, the Interpreter.

Heading through the Nevada desert by train, the Imperial entourage is hijacked by a motley crew of would-be train robbers calling themselves the Roy O’Bannon gang. Its eponymous leader spends more time self-promoting than pulling the heist. Some quick martial arts moves by Chon mean the thieves lose the loot, but they also leave Chon alone in the desert.

In the meantime, because of the bungled train robbery, Roy (Owen Wilson) has been abandoned by his former partners in crime and buried up to his neck in the desert sand. He’s to be a feast for a flock of ravenous vultures, a gathering of which is already sampling the banquet.

Trekking through the wilderness, Chon serendipitously comes across the helpless Roy who begs to be extricated from his dire situation. Chon obliges by providing a set of chopsticks and suggests Roy dig himself out - no hands!

Chong continues his journey and takes on a party of Crow warriors to save a small Native American boy and finds himself a hero with the boy’s Sioux tribe. Fringe benefits include a peace pipe smoke-up, a horse with some bizarre habits and a beautiful wife named Falling Leaves. When Chon sets off again to rescue the princess, all but the peace pipe come with him.

An unexpected run-in with Roy in a saloon lands the two in jail. But, hearing that Chon’s mission involves not only a beautiful princess but also a trunk of gold coins, Roy becomes his new best friend. Chon engineers a brilliant jail break and the unlikely partners head to Carson City where they face brawls, bordellos, treachery and plenty of what Roy calls "crazy, girlie, kick-fightin’" as East meets West in a battle for honor, royalty and a fortune in gold.


ABOUT THE PRODUCTION

"Shanghai Noon" marks the auspicious feature film directorial debut of Tom Dey (pronounced "Dye"). After establishing a successful career as a director of television commercials, Dey accepted the offer to helm Touchstone Pictures’/Spyglass Entertainment’s comedy/action/adventure, "Shanghai Noon." "I was attracted to the script because of the scope of the picture as well as the originality of the story," the young director says. "From the first page of the screenplay it was visually very exciting with great possibilities for the characters."

For Dey, "Shanghai Noon" was an opportunity to create multiple worlds for the audience, including The Forbidden City in China, a Native American village, a Chinese railroad camp, a Western town, and an old steam engine train, among others. "It is unusual to be able to combine all these different elements into one film," the director says. "The fact that the Old West was a place where cultures collided was another thing that attracted me to ‘Shanghai Noon.’"

* * *

Principal photography on "Shanghai Noon" began on location in the Calgary, Alberta area. After months of preparation and scouting, the production settled on several areas near the foothills of the Canadian Rockies including the famed Badlands area near Drumheller. The required locations included a Sioux Indian village and was shot on the banks of the Bow River on the Morley reservation; a small western town named Saddlerock, and a Catholic mission. The Drumheller area doubled very convincingly for the Nevada desert. Hundreds of extras were auditioned and hired to play Native Americans, Chinese railroad workers, townsfolk and gunslingers.

Director Dey set out with a very focused concept of what he intended to achieve with this film. "Visually, it was very important to me to paint as large a canvas as possible, as well as give the film a realistic look," he says. "Westerns are built on landscapes, and I tried to take advantage of the dramatic vistas Alberta has to offer. For interiors, my director of photography Dan Mindel and I talked a lot about keeping a very naturalistic look. This is not the norm for a comedy, but I felt that a story as unbelievable as ours needed to be grounded in as real a setting as possible. The anamorphic (widescreen) format also gives the picture a big movie feel reminiscent of classic Westerns."

Production designer Peter Hampton tells what intrigued him about the script. "I thought it was a very interesting project from a design perspective because there is a touch of China, there are cowboys and American Indians, and the purpose for the characters’ mission. There was a wide range of things for me to do. The movie is set around 1890, and in order to keep a film historically accurate you have to almost smell the atmosphere of the period. You have to have it a bit mucky."

Costume designer Joseph Porro explains his excitement about taking on "Shanghai Noon." "Dressing the Chinese Royal Court was the real lure for me because it’s an opportunity that rarely comes up. I went to China and got every resource and book that I could find. I met with collectors and I looked in museums. It really is a serious costume picture and that made it more appealing for me.

"There was so much creativity. I got to do Chinese costumes, western wear, the brothel scene and the Native American clothes as well. There were all these different cultures together. The challenge was making it as authentic as possible."

Porro explains the detail necessary to ensure the authenticity. "All the Chinese clothing, including the Imperial Guard outfits, was made for the movie-there were no rentals. For one day in the Imperial court, it took us two months to prep. All of Lucy Liu’s clothes were hand stitched, and it took about six weeks to make her dresses."

"Shanghai Noon" began to come to fruition during the shooting of the Jackie Chan hit "Rush Hour," when producers Roger Birnbaum and Jonathan Glickman were talking with Jackie about ideas for other projects they could do together. "Jackie started telling us this story that eventually became "Shanghai Noon," and we knew it was great," says producer Birnbaum. "So much of that first pitch is still in this picture, from the Indian scenes to the barroom brawl to the scenes back in China to the finale. Then we hired writers, and the script evolved from there. This is probably the first time I’ve been involved in something that went from being an idea to being a shooting production in such a short time."

Producer Birnbaum was instantly attracted to the project. "The idea of Jackie Chan in the Old West just rang a bell for me; Jackie turning all of the Western icons upside down. I thought it was a great idea. I could visualize him the minute he told me the idea, and I liked the concept of pairing Jackie with an American actor. I adore Jackie and think he has a lot of great qualities. He is a remarkable physical comedian and I just kept trying to imagine a Buster Keaton type of comedy set in the Old West. I saw the passion in his eyes when he told me the story, so we developed it."

Star Jackie Chan was indeed passionate about the story, but getting his idea to the screen was a lengthy process. However, until Spyglass Entertainment came along, no one seemed to recognize Jackie’s vision. "I think they were afraid that if I did this film outside Hong Kong, they wouldn’t be able to control the budget or the schedule," Chan smiles. "But after I did ‘Rush Hour,’ I met Spyglass producer Roger Birnbaum and told him about my idea for a Western. I gave him a rough idea of the story, and he loved it."

When producer Birnbaum expressed interest in Jackie’s story, it was a dream come true for the international star. "The screenwriters Alfred Gough and Miles Millar were a tremendous help in bringing my story to the screen," Chan says. "I had written a draft in Hong Kong, but it was totally Asian. The American writers made it into a true Western. I have to admit, I knew very little about the West and Native Americans."

While Jackie may say he doesn’t know much about writing Westerns, his love of the western movie genre developed early in his life. "Being a cowboy and living the cowboy life was always my dream. I love cowboys. When I was a very little boy, I dressed up and had my picture taken as a cowboy. I think that the way they look is so interesting, and after making this movie I now understand why they wore boots and chaps, the hats and the bandanas. Every day on the set I found my dreams of being a cowboy coming true."

Asked what worldwide audiences love about Jackie, producer Birnbaum enthuses, "I think they respond to his humor and his vulnerability. They respond to his humanity. He can be very funny and extremely physical, but there’s always a sense when you look into his eyes that there is a really good man in there. It’s a gift he has that is undeniable, and audiences just feel it from the moment he appears on screen. He’s genuinely a warm and giving man, and it shows on screen."

Chan’s filmmaking skills do not go unnoticed by Birnbaum either. "Because he is a filmmaker in his own right, he is a tremendous professional. He does whatever is needed-he choreographs the action sequences, he lends his expertise with graciousness to, in our particular case, a first-time director, and he does it all with a lot of grace so that it really comes as a gift. He just works and works and works. He loves to work."

Actor Owen Wilson was drawn to his character (Roy O’Bannon) because "he’s kind of an outlaw, and he has this idea of outlaws that a little kid might have of a rock star-that it’s an easy way to get girls and money. He has a romantic ideal about what it is to be an outlaw, and that’s what attracts him. As it turns out, he’s not a very good outlaw. His focus is really on hanging out at the bordellos and being a big shot and I thought that was kind of a funny character."

Wilson goes on to explain the dynamics between his character and Jackie’s. "The thing that interested me about the story was that it seemed like the classic kind of buddy movie. In the beginning Jackie and I try to kill each other, but then we develop a mutual annoying respect. The East meets West aspect is pretty funny. Jackie’s character is much more the traditional western type--kind of stoic and noble, while Roy is more concerned with the effect the sun has on his skin."

 

"I knew that if we could get the right chemistry between the leads this could be a wonderful movie," director Dey says. "I worked very hard to create an atmosphere in which both Jackie [Chan] and Owen [Wilson] could feel free to stray from the written page. They’re like two jazz musicians; Jackie improvises physically and Owen does so verbally. It was my job to nudge them in the right direction, then weed out the bad and keep the good.

"I’m a strong believer in staying open to new ideas and tailoring the characters as shooting progresses," Dey continues. "There are so many details that surface along the way that enrich the story, and so often these cannot be foreseen. One of the biggest surprises was the way in which Jackie and Owen’s friendship grew both off the set and on, and I think this is one of the reasons why the film has a lot of heart. It’s easy to find two people who are polar opposites, but it’s hard to build a relationship between them that is convincing. Ultimately, the most important thing is that you really care about these guys.

"I believe that the film negative picks up the vibes on a set," director Dey states. "In this case it picked up a friendship which could not be fabricated. That’s why I think one of my biggest contributions was creating an atmosphere in which that friendship could develop. Jackie and Owen truly became friends."

Lucy Liu, who plays opposite Jackie as Princess Pei Pei, appreciates Chan’s availability and generosity as an actor. "Jackie is a great example of somebody who takes care of himself and other people too. He is a joy to work with and is almost generous to a fault about making his cast mates look good." Liu remembers going to watch Jackie Chan movies at small Chinese theaters in San Gabriel when she first arrived in Los Angeles from New York. "I’ve always loved his movies. Comedy is a universal language. Everybody wants to laugh and Jackie is a master at physical comedy. I pretty much jumped at the chance to work with him."

Liu was drawn to her character for several reasons. "I’ve always wanted to do a period piece, and this film had such an unusual combination. It combines Imperial China with the Wild American West. Even though Princess Pei Pei is the "damsel in distress," she still has an inner strength and integrity that she maintains throughout the movie." Adds Liu jokingly, "It’s not often you get the chance to play in Imperial princess rescued by Jackie Chan."

"Lucy is a great actor, and she brought a reality check to the movie," director Dey says. "She brought strength to her role, which on the page is not a lot more than a damsel in distress. But she has a lot of presence. She brought weight to the role, which was needed in order to round out the integrity of the film."

* * *

During pre-production, the actors had to undergo training in horseback riding and gunslinging. Owen says, "One of the best parts about working on this movie was being able to tell people that, no, I couldn’t have lunch because I was working on my fast draw, and that my trainer was coming over to teach me gun tricks. I’d spent a small amount of time on horses when I was a kid, but basically I had to start again. I don’t think I look like Roy Rogers, but I look okay."

Xander Berkeley (Sheriff Van Cleef) has a different riding background. "I grew up on a horse farm for a period of time and was tossed rather violently and almost broke my neck when I was about six, so it took me a little while to get back in the saddle. But off and on, during different times growing up, I did. I haven’t stayed with it as much as I wish I had, because it’s just great; I just love riding.

"This whole experience has been like summer camp for grown-up boys," he continues. "I mean, I came here and practiced gun twirling for a week, then I trained with a bullwhip with Alex Green ("The Mask of Zorro"), this great bullwhip guy, and I get to ride horses. So what’s not to like? It’s every boy’s dream come true and I’m getting paid to boot," he finishes with a grin.

Action sequences are, of course, Jackie Chan’s specialty, but horseback riding wasn’t a large part of his repertoire prior to "Shanghai Noon." "I was afraid of horses before ‘Shanghai Noon.’ I would pet them but not ride them because I was always afraid that I would be thrown off the horse. But after about ten days of lessons, I knew that I could control the horse and wanted to find out how to get the horse up on its back legs like ‘The Lone Ranger.’"

While Chan may never get his horse up on its hind legs, animal trainer Claude Chausse manages to get Fido the horse to drink a bottle of whiskey for one scene. In addition, Fido learned to lick faces and sit on his haunches. "He does everything a dog does," animal wrangler John Scott notes proudly. Mr. Scott’s extensive experience in the Western movie genre made him a key resource during the shooting of "Shanghai Noon." According to the producers, John Scott was the first and best choice to provide the horses and western gear needed for the movie. "He knows everything there is to know about horses-he’s the best in the business."

Summing up his experience directing his first major motion picture, and in particular with one of the world’s biggest stars, Dey says, "Jackie was incredibly generous and gracious. He never once refused to try something, even if he knew it probably wasn’t the best thing. He’s a man who has done 45 movies and directed many of them himself and was very generous to a first time director, when he didn’t have to be. I feel very fortunate to have been able to work with such a big star who was so open to my suggestions. He’s extremely hardworking and disciplined.


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