Bill Heater wants to do a short film for the Johnson & Johnson Pavilion at the Beijing Olympics. Of course, they have little money. The rough scenario is see the Warriors then and the Terra Cotta Warriors now. Johnson & Johnson is active in helping to restore and preserve the existing warriors as they are deteriorating with exposure to the environment. If they can’t survive, what chance do we have? As usual, producer panic sets in.
‘Why don’t we shoot in the desert near Los Angeles?’
‘It would be cheaper.’
‘You can’t find that many Chinese wranglers in Hollywood that can ride. The cost of transporting them to the desert would be more than your whole budget and you have to go to China anyway to film the Terra Cotta Warriors. The wardrobe from that period doesn’t exist here and there is four tons of it there since that period has been present in a number of Chinese films. Also, the bad PR that you would get if the word got out would destroy the goodwill of the film itself.’
We have a great time filming in China. The wardrobe is completely authentic and the riders are great as well and we are fortunate to have many riders that have a period look. One of the difficult issues that have to be addressed is the fact that the have to ride without stirrups since the warriors were from the 3rd century BC and stirrups (as we know them) hadn’t been invented yet. The first evidence of stirrups in China appeared around the fourth century AD and in Europe a few centuries later. It was important to be as historically accurate as possible and the various Terra Cotta Warriors themselves gave us a proper template. We also got a local historian to ensure accuracy, but this is all academic anyway.
I was allowed to shoot among the Warriors, a permission that had never been given before. While I was amidst them the infamous Sichwan earthquake happened and everyone in the museum scurried to the exits. The first stupid thought that came to me is that I would be blamed. There was no damage although the tremors were powerful (we were several hundred miles from the epicenter of the quake) and I escaped blame for the tragedy.
A unique component of the project was the aspect ratio, 6:1, of the piece. Framing and focus were an issue and my Chinese assistant cameraman was brilliant in dealing with the unique issues of this ratio, including the use of hyperfocal distance.
In all, the Chinese crew was fabulous and untemperamental. In the States there is a lot of attitude left over from archaic methodology of the early days of film, especially with older crew members. The new digital technology is changing traditional ways dramatically and there have to be changes in work habits that reflect this, but that’s another story (rant?).
While cutting the film, I had several ideas about the music. I’ve had some troubles with composers in the past, so I’ve loved Kubrick’s use of existing music. The story of the soundtrack for 2001 is legendary. After having a complete track composed and recorded, Kubrick went back to the ‘temp track’ he used in the editing process. I also admired Dennis Hopper’s use of popular songs in EASY RIDER, and of course, Simon and Garfunkle in THE GRADUATE.
The music for THE TERRA COTTA WARRIORS film had to be unique and special since it dealt with a Chinese National Treasure and would be seen by the Chinese in their homeland. It had to be Chinese. I had loved the drumbeat intro to THE SEVEN SAMURAI and sent it to a composer to duplicate, but he was intimidated (by copyright infringement) and each attempt was worse than the preceding one. I decided to use the music from the film and when I looked in to the purchase price found that it was in the public domain.
I also found a cello suite by Yo-Yo Ma that suited the film as well. When we searched for the rights, it turned out that he allowed use of the music for an extremely modest fee that only paid for his agent’s commission. So it turns out that the wonderful music was essentially free.
The only snag in the process was a research firm that dictated a shorter length than I had edited, so the film had to chopped a bit. They said that the film had to be a certain length in order to keep the line moving in the venue that the film would be playing. After the Olympics, it was determined that many people got back into line to see the film again, so that notion didn’t work. So much for research. Orson Welles once said that one shouldn’t do too much research in order not to plagiarize or restrain ones own ‘creativity’ (a word I despise).