From Chen Kaige, the acclaimed director of the Palme d’Or winning Farewell My Concubine (1993, cinematography by Changwei Gu) comes A Monk Comes Down the Mountain, a martial-arts caper about a young monk who embarks on an adventurous journey after being kicked out of his monastery.
Here, we interview A Monk Comes Down the Mountain‘s award-winning Australian cinematographer Geoffrey Simpson ACS (Shine, Oscar and Lucinda) about his work on the film.
Interview by Dick Marks OAM.
AC – What were your major challenges on this film?
GS – Every day was a challenge. But one of the immediate challenges was communication. The film’s director, Chen Kaige, speaks English very well after studying in the United States, however misunderstandings during tent meetings happened quite a lot. Communication is a slippery eel that is often hard to catch, so I was consistently referring to Feihong Chen, the director’s nephew and first assistant director, for clarification.
We had translators for all departments, which helped, but often it was just the two of us. The Kaige’s tent briefings generally started with his deep baritone voice saying “Geoffrey, Geoffrey; Let me tell you what I want to do.” Then off we went.
AC – Were you working to a storyboard or a script, and did you have a clear knowledge of what was in the director’s mind when you turned up each day?
GS – We were working from the director’s shot list, which he hand wrote each night before. They would be emailed by Melody Wu Yue, one of our wonderful translators and production staff, at around 2 or 3am each morning. Sometimes they were handed to us when we arrived to set.
The script was being re-written extensively during this process. Dialogue was being re-written and sometimes scenes from the original script changed completely. This was becoming the ‘new script’ and also what editorial were working with also. I did know what was on Kaige’s mind due to the “Geoffrey, Geoffrey; let me tell you…” scenarios.
In combination with the daily shot list, we established some communication. But this was China! I know what the director likes now and I know what I can get away with when I am given the freedom to compose and light shots. Sometimes he was very clear, but most of the time the director was letting me set up shots, even lay a track if I thought it would help. Feihong would relay a message from the tent; “Kaige loves it,” or “Kaige suggests a little wider.” I think perhaps I was being manipulated by a master filmmaker into giving him exactly what he wanted. What ever his method, I loved the process.
AC – What about the action scenes?
GS – The action work, the fighting stuff, was different. It was mostly made up on the spot! Our stunt co-ordinator and action director, Dee Dee Ku, is very experienced with over two hundred films to his credit. He did The Matrix Reloaded (2003) and The Matrix Revolutions (2003). Dee Dee and Kaige had ideas based on the script pages that came out, but often ideas were thrown back and forth. Dee Dee would have an idea and Kaige would adapt it and change it. The fighting was very much made up in the moment. Kaige had his ideas, not only of the shots, but how he wanted to cut it. His shot list was all in cuts.
This goes back to communication. Some of the frustrations we had with the process initially. Kaige would have his shot list and he’d shoot dialogue for a two-shot, then do the next piece of dialogue in a close-up of one of the actors, then go back to the two-shot we already did, and so on. He doesn’t overlap. We kept revisiting set-ups.
He had a really clear idea of exactly where he wanted cuts to go. He’s a fifth generation, old-school Chinese film director. He’s a master filmmaker, there’s no question about it.
There was nothing in the way of storyboards, though I did some for myself sometimes. There’s a big chunk of computer generated imagery in the film, some very complicated stuff. We had a sinking boat segment, for example, and I did storyboards to determine where the crane could go, how the boat sunk and where the actors would safely go. That had to be worked out quite carefully, which I did with our visual effects supervisor, Andy Brown from Animal Logic, who did great pre-visualisation for everyone. But then, like a lot of things, you get on set and it all changes; so you do what works and you do it as best you can.
AC – You mentioned the director’s tent a couple of times? It sounds like it is the centre of the universe for everyone on this film.
GS – Yes, ‘The Tent!’ For our first two months it was winter. Winter in a Beijing Studio with no heating. It did have air conditioning, which was noisy, so the sound department insisted that it be turned off the whole time. It was freezing. We were all in North Face gear with five layers, while the actors froze in their wardrobe and rugged up between takes.
The unit crew set up Kaige’s tent from day one. Two monitors, with a permanent video split crew member recording everything for playback, five electric heaters and green felt over a temporary wooden floor on top of the dirt floor. Like India, many Chinese studios have dirt floors. There is a table with notes and several chairs. Kaige gets many visitors to the set; investors, politicians, local government people, other actors, a cinematographer from his last film and so on. It’s the control centre for our fearless leader.
It is also where after every take there is a viewing session and discussion. Every take. Before the drama started there was a meeting with the actors in the tent. We shot the rehearsal, back to the tent. We shoot take one, back to the tent. Take two, back to the tent.
Kaige is an actor and has played roles in several of his own films. The tent discussions were fascinating to witness. He is a charming man with a good sense of humour. He talked about the actors’ characters with such passion. He stands up, his face changes, uses his hands for gesture; he acts a moment with such conviction everyone is moved. They nodded in agreement, he made them laugh, he really pushed them. I asked him about the amount of control he exerts on the actors, “Everybody knows I am very tough on actors” he said to me.
We had a stellar cast with some of the top actors from mainland China and Taiwan, who perhaps don’t need that much help. I looked at the good takes again each night with digital intermediate technician (DIT) Chris Reig, on a good monitor. The actors work is nothing short of stunning. Kaige’s system works!
AC – What was the most difficult set-up for you to achieve?
GS – Kaige said right from the start that he wanted to see a fight sequence that went on and on, like maybe the whole fight was one shot which lasted thirty seconds. We still do Hong Kong school Kung Fu, very fast cutting work as well. The big fight, however, in one move was often the goal. This meant massive choreography, big crane moves, huge and complex wire rigs, very complicated for the stunt guys. What happened with these sorts of set-ups was that Dee Dee and his outstanding stunt team would work out roughly what the shot is and what they wanted to do.
He then started working with his stunt team; all these fit, young guys each with their particular skill. Some were better at jumping, some better at somersaults, some better at kicking. Whatever it was, he got the best guys to do the work. They were all on wires; they flew through the air, punch, kick, they fight. Huge choreography with wires everywhere, people pulling bell ropes that lift people up into the air and Andy Brown going bonkers with all the wires going across people’s faces, “How many wires in this shot will I have to remove?” But then, lo and behold, once they’ve worked it all out, they’ve got the ropes the right length, they’ve worked out all the moves and I’d been practicing on the remote head with a crane flying around. Then they bring in the actors, who were doing a lot of their own stunts. Not always. If it was super-complicated or dangerous or they might smash their heads, Dee Dee would use his stunt team.
I’ve got to say, the actors pulled off some amazing stuff. Having said that, we did have had a couple of accidents and one of our lead actors actually smashed his head on a hardwood table doing a flip. His forehead was completely covered in blood. He jumped back up and said, “Do you want me to do another one?” You know, blood all over the place! “No mate. We don’t want another one. You’re dripping blood. You need a bandage and a bit of a sit down.” So what we did in that case, we let the scar form and he came back three days later. We incorporated the wound into the action. They’re incredible! That actor is a really wonderful guy, Wah Yen from Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle (2004). He’s in his sixties and still flying around doing a somersault before kicking people. Fantastic!
Some of those set-ups were challenging and amazing and it might have taken two hours to rig it all and rehearse it. Then we go like the clappers. We did one terrific scene a few weeks ago, fifteen takes. The only take that worked was the very last one where everything clicked.
AC – Tell us how you would approach coverage?
GS – We set up the drama with a wide-shot and some really great close-ups, great emotionally and great for storytelling. The reverse wide-shot was a key shot in one of the major scenes for the entire movie, four actors and an amazing emotional moment. Originally four shots, Kaige played it all in one wide shot. Again and again we tried to get it right, timing of the choreographed events, four performances to work. We finally got it all. In the tent I asked about some close-up moments, just options. I plead. It fell on deaf ears. It was a really bold move by Kaige. Later that night Chris Reig and I look at it again on his monitor. Powerful as hell, a couple of tweaks for blood effects and it will be theatrical and extraordinary. It was a true Chen Kaige shot and he was right.
AC – Are you shooting multi-cam on any of these action sequences?
GS – Some. But the two shots that I’ve just described, and we’ve done quite a lot of them, are one-take wonders. On the other side of the coin we also did quick cut coverage as well, where we ran two cameras and then B-unit came in with Dee Dee and Kaige, and I wasn’t even there. They’d follow a lighting pattern on what we’ve done and they’d do inserts of guys crashing onto the ground or close-ups of hits on faces or whatever is required. B-camera, Alex Shui, and Dee Dee were doing a chunk of fighting for the end of the film while we were off doing a battle scene with the biggest explosions since the opening of Apocalypse Now (1979)… a complete blast, if you will excuse the pun.
Kaige loves Peking Opera; his smash hit film Farewell My Concubine (1993) was all about the life of two opera singers, set against the Japanese invasion and later the cultural revolution, an extraordinary time in recent Chinese history. A completely mad time. He is very theatrical and does not shy away from big statements. The explosion’s we shot were way over the top; but poetic, beautiful and wonderfully theatrical.
AC – Did you find that the workplace health and safety angle over there is slightly different to the workplace health and safety in Australia, or in the United States?
GS – Yes, there’s a huge difference between what we’ve come to accept as normal safety considerations elsewhere. One of the first things our key grip, Jay Monroe from New Zealand, did was push for safety in a lot of areas. Rigging for example; in the studio we had 20K lamps rigged from tree branches and ropes and pulleys, completely Mickey Mouse and really dangerous. There was very little control, so we introduced proper rigging techniques.
With the fighting work we’ve had two actors get hurt. One of the stunt guys got a wire caught on his hand and it ripped off the top inch or so off his finger. We are doing dangerous stuff. An interesting observation here; of the three guys hurt, where the pain level for all would have been extremely high, not one whimper was uttered, nothing, no moan, dead silence. Stunt guys are meant to be tough, but actors expressive! Wah Yen wanted to have another go!
AC – Would you have achieved the same end result if it were shot in Australia or United States?
GS – I think we would have, yes. I think we just have safety inbuilt now. One of the scaffolding rigs I’ve seen here was about 48 feet high, no outriggers, and you look at it and you think, “Now that would never pass in Australia,” but then you look at it closely and you think, well… they have a guy rope tied back to that tree, they’ve attached a second 10 metre scaffolding onto the 48 foot one and they’ve got a bit of Box Truss joining those two together so, you know, they have their own ways of doing things.
AC – Would you say that working the way you are in China is more spontaneous and it allows the film to kind of grow more organically as you’re shooting it?
GS – Yeah, I think that’s right. Not so much the drama because a lot of the pre-visualisation is in Kaige’s head and he has a clear idea how he wants to cut it. But certainly the fight choreography is organic and it does change and develop through the actual process of doing it. The lack of pre-planning really goes against the grain for the Australian crew. We are used to getting stuff sorted during pre-production and for Andy Brown and I coming onto set with no clear idea of how to solve a problem, to do a shot, is frustrating to say the least.
AC – But it would also make it more exciting for you, wouldn’t it?
GS – Oh, it’s fantastic. Every day was exciting. Every day was different. You mentioned about challenges. I’m not joking: every day was a challenge. Time was going so fast; we just couldn’t believe that we were on shoot day one hundred and forty whatever. You look back and think of the places we’ve been, the set-ups we’ve done. I mean in one week we’ve been in a cave, we’ve been doing fight stuff, we’ve been floating on a crane sixteen meters over a lotus field with giant leaves. Every day is fantastic and it’s a massive adventure, an amazing experience.
I love making films. I love the technological challenges we face each day and I love the collaboration and working with other people to solve them. For me the greatest bonus working in this industry is the people we meet along the way, so many great human beings to get to know. Many pass like ships in the night and other great clichés, but some we manage to hold onto for life. Others we meet up with again years later on another film, we pick up where we left off and the jokes and memories come flooding back.
Cinematographers are lucky people.
Geoffrey Simpson ACS is an Australian cinematographer. He has received critical praise for his work on films including ‘Shine’, ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ and ‘Romulus, My Father’. Simpson also received the ACS Milli Award for Cinematographer of the Year in 1985, for Donald Crombie’s ‘Playing Bettie Bow’.
Dick Marks OAM is a former-editor of Australian Cinematographer Magazine.