The Beijing-based producer talks about Zhang Yimou’s upcoming Heroes Of Nanking, starring Christian Bale, which FilmNation is handling internationally.

Zhang Yimou’s Heroes Of Nanking, which wrapped this month, marks a huge step forward in the Chinese film industry’s international ambitions. Starring Christian Bale, the $100m film is set in 1937 during the Japanese occupation of Nanjing and is around 60% in Mandarin and 40% in English.  

Scripted by Heng Liu from Yan Geling’s novel, it tells the story of an American priest who takes refuge in a church with 13 prostitutes and a group of innocent schoolgirls during the fighting between Chinese and Japanese soldiers.

Zhang Weiping is producing with David Linde, Deng Chaoying, Bill Kong and Leo Shiyoung as executive producers. FilmNation Entertainment is handling international sales outside the US, China and a few major Asian territories.

The film has a budget of $100m – how did you finance it?

We’ve been preparing this film for four years and from the very beginning the aim was for this to be an international project with an appropriately sized budget. The finance is all from China – from our production company, Beijing New Pictures Film Co, and a loan from China Minsheng Bank.

Did you pre-sell to any territories?

We were completely financed so didn’t pre-sell any territories because we didn’t need to.

Apart from casting Christian Bale, what other elements will help this film to travel?

This is Zhang Yimou’s first international large-scale production and the biggest budget film in Chinese cinema history. It’s also a really international collaboration with cast and crew from the US, UK, Australia, Japan, Italy and Korea.

But of course the story is also very important – it’s the biggest selling point for many films – and the story of this film is incredibly moving. That’s the reason why Christian Bale signed up in the first place.

Had Bale been back to China since starring in Empire Of The Sun? Or did he visit China before you started shooting?

No, he just signed and came. He was only 12 years old when he did Empire Of The Sun and had never been back to China since. But he’s extremely careful about the kind of scripts he chooses – he’s very picky in that sense. So from the time we gave him the script to the time he agreed to sign it took about five months.

How did you find working with him?

He’s a first class actor. Most of the time we work with Asian actors who will usually just do one take for a particular scene, but Christian gave Zhang Yimou three takes for each scene. Each time he acted a different way based on his understanding of the script, so he gave the director three options to choose which was the best fit.

He also did all the risky scenes himself. We actually found him two body doubles – one from America and the other from Turkey. But after working with them for a few days, he realised their performance was not up to par, so he decided to do everything himself. He’s just won an Oscar and is really the hottest A-list star. So we were very touched and have a lot of respect for what he’s done for the film.

You’re releasing the film in China on Dec 16 – do you plan to release it in the US at the same time?

Yes and we’re in the process of selecting a US distributor.

Many people have tried to make films for both the US and China before and failed to hit both markets. Where do you think they went wrong?

It all goes back to the story. If you want to make a movie that appeals to Western audiences, you have to find a story they can relate to. So if you have a story that is based only on China-focused events, they won’t understand and you won’t get them to respond. You have to find a story that is relevant to Chinese audiences but is also universal.

Do you think the Chinese film industry is healthy and will continue to grow?

Of course there are lots of things that we need to improve both in filming and production and in the industry itself – there’s a lot for Chinese people to learn. If you compare our industry with Hollywood, then there’s a big gap, so there’s a lot of room to improvement. But the Chinese film industry is growing and refining itself and I believe it’s on the right track.