Michael Wehrhahn & Mark Gus Scott discuss how they got involved with the project and the various challenges of working on a production of this scale.
The Monkey King arrives in North America soon; can you tell us how you got involved in the project?
Michael: Yeah, I’ve been going to Hong Kong for many years and basically I was pitching a bunch of projects and happened to be there around 2006 pitching a movie for Jet Li. We were sitting at a table with a buddy of mine who introduced me to a gentleman who was trying to start up The Monkey King. He had showed me the packaging and the posters and who they wanted to star in the film. I knew of The Monkey King but I wasn’t that interested because we were trying to pitch a movie for Jet at that point. A couple of months later they had called me and said they were in talks with Donnie Yen… that got me interested.*laughs*
So I flew out to Hong Kong and I sat down with them and during that time they signed Donnie to the production. A week later Chow Yun-Fat ended up coming on board too. So basically that’s how I got involved; it went pretty quick, however filming of the movie took a very long time because of all the special effects. I guess it was about 2 years we spent just preparing for the special effects, the CG orders and getting everybody together which is a long time for special effects. As you know, this movie has about 98% greenscreen so that’s a pretty big task to move forward on.
The Hong Kong team couldn’t really use their resources from China because they didn’t just have the CG people available; there are a lot of computers to do all that so we hired somebody in Hollywood and put a team together. We had over 3000 CG orders from all over the world which was a big endeavour to handle, almost as big as Alice in Wonderland.
So that’s a little bit about how The Monkey King started and the direction we went in and here it is about 6 years later and we’ve now got two films which is very confusing to the public to a certain extent. We’ve got an English version called The Legend Begins and we made that for the US market so they can understand the story and the culture because they don’t know The Monkey King. If you go to Asia then everybody knows The Monkey King; I mean the kids study it in school, there are statues everywhere, I mean The Monkey King is like bigger than Superman in the US.
So what we had to do was, we had to create a film for each market and obviously we got the Chinese release and we have the authentic story, the origin of how The Monkey King became. Then what we did for the US version is we built book-ends around that feature with a monk and two children explaining the story kind of like the movie Princess Bride.
So there are two versions; the US version is called The Legend Begins and the Chinese version is called Havoc in Heaven’s Palace. It was necessary and the studios wanted us to do that to get any sort of distribution here and it was a big thing to do it in English. *laughs*
This is the first part of a trilogy; have you started working on Part 2?
Michael: Pre-production has started; actually we’re just out of development and into pre-production, however it’s going to take a little bit of time because there’s as many special effects in that as there are in this one.
It’s going to be a little bit more developed; the first Monkey King when it was shot had a lot of special effects to be done. On set if we didn’t have time to finish a scene we’d say “let’s just do it CGI”. So what wound up happening on Part 1 is The Monkey King himself had to have every scene in the film have a CGI tale added to his costume. That’s 100% of the movie! So it was a great endeavour but we got it complete obviously but we’re a little bit more prepared for Part 2 so hopefully we won’t take that long. I’m estimating that we’ll probably have it wrapped up within the next two years.
Is there a North American release date?
Gus: Yes it’s going to be between February 15th and 18th 2015.
How would you say the filmmaking process differs between Hong Kong and Hollywood?
Michael: There are some differences; it’s a basic script from Hong Kong with a basic story. You’ve got your Hong Kong rigging and your wirework and your fantastic photography on that. However how Global Star, our company comes into all this is our special effects teams are all out of Hollywood so we have a core group that we deal with. The difference is you’ve got a little bit of East and a little bit of West putting it all together. It makes a global film that way and as I said we’re trying to branch into both markets.
I think that’s what a lot of Holly wood is trying to do today. They’re trying to make film that’s not just for one market; they’re trying to get it out to the world now.
Yeah, there are several movies recently that have different scenes for alternate markets for wider appeal.
Michael: Exactly! You’ve got double the profitability when you look at more than one market. In one market you make $40 million and get your profit back, now you’re doubling that in two markets.
Gus: I think it goes one step further; with Americans they don’t necessarily understand this. In America there’s 330 million people, so when a movie goes to number 1 here it sells X amount of dollars in revenue generation. In China alone there are 1.3 Billion people; the amount of theatres that a movie like The Monkey King opens in overseas is incredible. The amount of revenue that can be generated in one country that’s 5 times the size of America.
You’ve got to think exponentially; the marketplace isn’t just at home anymore. You make a movie for X amount of dollars and you used to make X return, but that return is exponential now. So when you see films like The Monkey King come out at number 1with $170 million dollars just in Chinese territories alone, that’s incredible!
Look at American movies now; you’ve got Iron Man going overseas and just killing it! Same thing for Transformers and The Monkey King is also in that category.
That’s like The Expendables 3; it made about $38 Million domestically but internationally made over $200 million…
Gus: That’s exactly what I’m saying and you know what? Stallone knows what the Hell he’s doing.
Michael: You’ve got to have East and West still working on it. Our company Global Star; you’ve got to have that co-production unit together so you can target for both markets. Obviously if it’s a Hong Kong film or a film coming from the US, the filmmaking is different. People from the United States on this market, they don’t really understand this so you’ve got to have that co-production put together properly for both markets. Obviously we can make a movie here and when it goes to China, they love it but the reverse? It’s very difficult. So when you have a US based company that’s collaborating with China then you get that world stamp on it.
The release date will coincide with the Chinese New Year
You’ve got a big year ahead in 2015; what do you have coming up?
Gus: February it’s all gonna start! The release date will coincide with the Chinese New Year; the film will be in theatres in America, followed by Video On Demand, HBO, Cinemax, Blu-ray and DVD release. We also have a video game in the works from Kung-fu Factory; for people who don’t know, they’ve done work with Spongebob Squarepants, Comedy Central and things like that. They’re a high calibre, really great manufacturer and we’ll be working together making a Monkey King iOS platform game which will be downloadable right to your iPhone or Android! It’s gonna take the world by storm.
Michael: We also have 6 comic books coming out that will eventually be combined into a graphic novel. There’s also a social network that’s going up online and it’s interesting to see where that’s going to go because there’s a lot of Monkey King Fans out there who have just been evading our Facebook. With the release of this movie in China, we were watching the servers for the website and it got over 3 million hits on its opening weekend. This is such a huge endeavour for a new website that we’d literally just put up; it was mass marketed obviously but it’s quite interesting.
With the studio we’re going to be attending 37 Comic Cons this year, so we’ll be doing all the Wizard Worlds and we’ll be travelling with merchandise like t-shirts, etc.
Gus: Wizard World will also be releasing a new channel on cable systems so we’ll have our own programming which The Monkey King will be a big part of as well. There’s a lot of opportunity for a franchise like this to come to America. Later on we’ll have the English cut done and released in major theatres through AMC it looks like right now. We’re very excited and we have a lot going on; 2015 will be a big year for everybody.
Donnie Yen sat down with us and we discussed bringing the film to America; to have the cooperation of stars of that calibre, willing to do it and not for a payday but to see the movie succeed in America. I’ve never seen such a desire to just really want to make it happen!
Donnie’s great; he’s got such a professional attitude and he’s a guy that really cares. This isn’t a guy with his nose up in the clouds; he’s got his feet firmly on the ground. He’s earned my respect and the man is truly something else!
Michael: he’s one of the most talented actors and he’s just able to adapt; he adapted into The Monkey King within 3 weeks.
The funny thing is when Donnie was initially cast, he was working straight movie, to movie, to movie. Overnight he came from the previous movie he’d been working on to Beijing studios. Within hours he was monkey flipping all over the place. I really though he was The Monkey King. He was prepared and I don’t know how he was able to do that while he was working on a prior film but he was doing research on monkey behaviour. When you’re getting in character as an actor you have to really focus on that character but he focussed on a totally different character and then with his martial arts abilities and his body in tune for what he had to go through… he was on wires for maybe 16 hours each day, not to mention the rest of the day where he’s sitting getting make up put on. I think it was 6 and a half hours of make up every day. The dedication that Donnie put into this was like nothing I’d ever seen before and I’ve nothing but respect for the man
Thanks very much for talking with us and al the best with the film.