"Mao's Last Dancer," the feature film adaptation of Li Cunxin's best-selling autobiography, is directed by Bruce Beresford. The film is being released by the Samuel Goldwyn Company on August 20.
Producer Jane Scott had already met Chinese producer Geng Ling and invited her to join MAO’S LAST DANCER as co-producer (China).
“To shoot in China, I knew we had to have a Chinese co-producer and I really needed to have a co-producer whom I respected and who understood the project. Geng Ling was absolutely the ideal person to work with me on the film. I gave her the screenplay and she read it and loved it. And, I was so fortunate because Geng was able to guide me in the right way to do business in China. She made a lot of things happen that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise including selecting the very best key crew and locations.”
Creating a Chinese cast and crew
A number of significant roles were cast in China as well as hundreds of extras, and young dancers from across the country. A Chinese crew was appointed to work in tandem with the international crew from Australia, Mexico, Europe and elsewhere.
“We really had some of the most experienced people in China working with us. Our Chinese 1st Assistant Director Zhang Jinzhan – known as The General – had worked with such directors as Ang Lee, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige; and, our Chinese casting director Li Hai Bin had worked with Quentin Tarantino among others,” Scott says.
Jane Scott, Bruce Beresford, Geng Ling, Herbert Pinter and Peter James travelled across China in search of locations.
“The village that Li Cunxin came from was a difficult location to find because when we went to where he grew up, we discovered that it had been absorbed by the city of Tsingtao. The little houses had been completely demolished and everyone had been rehoused in apartment blocks. Then we found a very picturesque village about 100 kms or so outside of Beijing in the mountains. And, it too, was more or less abandoned. But, it was exactly what we needed for the film so with a few additions via the art department, it became the set for the home village,” Bruce says.
The art department, headed by Pinter, recreated Li’s childhood home and the village school using traditional Chinese stonework. The village, depicted during the harsh winter covered in snow and during the spring with cherry blossoms blooming, were created by Pinter’s team.
The other major location in China was the Dance Academy in Bejing where Li was sent to study and board as a young boy. A disused dance school was found on the outskirts of Bejing and converted into a mini film studio with sets built for the dance classes, dormitory, theatre and communal dining scenes.
A logistical nightmare
Every morning, hundreds of cast and crew were assembled before dawn for the bus convoy to set.
According to Scott, “The film was enormous in terms of logistics. Shipping people up to a mountain location and finding accommodations for everybody was pretty hard – - coupled with something like 85 trucks, carrying equipment, people’s luggage, etc. And then to run an enormous camp with Chinese food being prepared by Chinese cooks and Western food for the Western crew was huge! Somehow these things are strangely conquered by film crews and film productions, almost on an army-style basis, and amazingly, it’s very possible to do as long as you have the right people to help you make the process work.”
“In Beijing, we had to bring in coach loads of young dancers whom we had to accommodate; they had to have parents with them and guardians and teachers and we had to keep up their dance schedule everyday so that everybody was fit and being properly fed and looked after. The rehearsal period of pre-production was almost as big as the shooting schedule – ferrying everyone in coaches to dance studios that weren’t always close to the hotel, sometimes even hours away. So, we would have 10 or 11 year olds practicing down one street an hour’s drive in one direction and 18 year olds in another direction and then there’d be somebody dancing in a studio we’d find in the basement of the hotel or something mad like that – - it was extraordinary.”
“For the actual filming just outside Beijing, we had the international crew plus the hundreds of Chinese crew and hundreds of extras and actors and all of them had to be at the right place at the right time and go through wardrobe, or be given breakfast and put into the right place. So I’d arrive where we were filming, and outside the studio would be hundreds of ballet shoes drying, or all of the little t-shirts that had been dyed overnight, drying, and it brought home how many people were being moved around and brought to the location – and then of course, you’d step into the theatre at 7:30 AM and find everyone dressed and ready to go.”