The co-directors of Fox’s first Chinese-language production Hot Summer Days talk about making a studio film and the challenges posed by the weather.

Hong Kong screenwriter Tony Chan and photographer Wing Shya co-directed romantic comedy Hot Summer Days, the first Chinese-language production from Fox International Productions, which co-produced with broadcaster Star and China’s Huayi Brothers. Interweaving several storylines and set during a sweltering summer in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing, the $3m film has been a huge hit in mainland China grossing $17.6m (RMB120m).
Born in Hong Kong, Chan studied in the US and has previously directed one film, Combination Platter, which won best screenplay at Sundance in 1993. Shya, who made his directing debut on Hot Summer Days, is a well-known graphic designer and fashion photographer who regularly collaborates with Wong Kar-wai.

How did you meet and come up with the idea for Hot Summer Days?

Chan: Three years ago we worked on the set of [Alexi Tan’s] Blood Brothers in Shanghai, started hanging out and realised that we wanted to make the same kind of films. We both said romantic comedy is a genre we could handle and we wanted to do a modern-day story. And it was really cold in Shanghai, so we thought about doing a movie set during a really hot summer. That was the genesis for all our other ideas.

As you’re both new directors, how did you get a US studio involved in your first film?

Shya: We certainly didn’t plan it that way. We didn’t know any investors when we were writing it and needed stars and special effects so we knew it wouldn’t be cheap.
When we were almost done writing, someone gave us a call and said an executive was coming in from Los Angeles to meet with local directors. It turned out to be Sanford [Panitch – president of Fox International Productions]. After that it was quite straightforward – we pitched them the story, they loved it and said if we could get two of our dream cast they would invest in the film. Fortunately we know some of the local stars personally. We also needed a China partner, so we brought the script to Cannes, met with Huayi and were in pre-production by June. It was really fast for a studio film.
I think they also liked the combination of me and Wing, and the fact that I grew up in the West so I wrote and translated the script in a way that they could relate to.

What was the biggest challenge while making the film?

Shya: To make sure it looked like a hot summer day even when it was cloudy and drizzling. Sometimes we could wait for the weather, but they were keeping an eye on the budget as we’re new directors, and we had so many actors to juggle – we only had each pair of actors for a week to ten days. So we had to be creative with the lighting and the shooting angles and fix some things in post.

Did it feel like you were making a studio film?

Chan: Half and half. There was a lot more paperwork than normal Hong Kong films but on the creative side they gave us a lot of freedom. They didn’t give me script notes, although obviously we had to send footage every day to LA.
Shya: At one point they asked if we could make it funnier and we said don’t worry we’re planning to shoot the funny stuff at the end!
Chan: We also had Huayi giving us their opinion because they know what works in China which is the film’s biggest market. Mainland audiences might not understand a joke that works in Hong Kong. But basically we dictated the tempo because we got the funding – it wasn’t like somebody else hooked us up with the studio. We didn’t have a producer when we met Fox so we brought Fruit Chan in to oversee production. But they may have been a little bit scared because we’re new and the film is different – not like a Feng Xiaogang comedy or a typical Hong Kong film.

Will you direct another film together?

Chan: We have a few projects we’re talking to Fox about – one is a romantic comedy and one is a period martial arts film, but with a different style and a different point-of-view.