Just four weeks after its opening in China last December, Big Shot's Funeral had already broken the country's box office records for a home-grown film. Feng Xiaogang isn't exactly a household name in the US, but he's an enormously popular director in China, where he's helmed several comedies, TV series and commercials as well as the award-winning drama, Sigh.
In Funeral, Donald Sutherland plays Don Tyler, a Hollywood director who plans, of all things, a mega-budget remake of Bertolucci's The Last Emperor. Once in China, though, he falls terribly ill. His last request: A full-blown "comedy funeral," Chinese-style, right in the heart of the Forbidden City. His producer, played by Paul Mazursky, knows a marketing opportunity when he sees one.
When Sutherland came through Berlin to promote the movie, and in particular, Feng Xiaogang, Nina Rehfeld snapped up the chance to pose a few questions.
How did the project come about?
To begin with, I'd seen a movie called Sigh which Feng Xiaogang directed with his wife. You wouldn't recognize it from this movie. It's a terrifying movie about love and marriage and infidelity and the loss of love and betrayal and it's so... true. And so touching and so sad. It was shocking to both my wife and myself. We couldn't speak afterwards. It stimulated so many thoughts, so much reflection.
And then I saw another movie of his called Be There or Be Square that he shot in Los Angeles, once again with his wife, and Gareth Wigan of Sony. He's been a friend of mine for forty years at least. He phoned and said, "Would you like to go to China and make a film?" And then he said, "It's for Feng Xiaogang," and I said, "Oh! Ok. Yeah."
That was the second time for you to be in China, right?
Yeah. I was in China in 1986.
How had it changed?
Radically. Certain sections of it are unrecognizable. For a lot of reasons. There was a certain uniformity in '86 and certainly a chance for people to survive. You would have starvation because of certain agricultural conditions but not this vast gulf that you have now between the rich and the poor, between the haves and the have-nots. But they will find some way to regulate that. They have to. Otherwise, there's going to be some kind of revolution. And if it's going to be a peaceful revolution, then it has to be quick and it has to be very precise.
But the country I saw both times is filled with people of such extraordinary spirit and joy and intellect and wit. They're a sublime people. I love them. I just love them. I'd love to be with them. You know, I spent my youth wishing that I were either Jewish or Irish, and now, I wish I was Chinese.
Why? I don't know, I'm a blue-eyed Scotsman, what can I say?
Why does that bug you?
It didn't bug me. It just felt kind of like maybe my creative powers were dimmed because my eyes were blue -- with all due respect to your blue eyes. [laughs]
When you were reading the screenplay, at what point did you decide you had to make the movie?
Way before I read it. Truly. It didn't make much difference to me. I knew that I would play a director, that they didn't have a copy of the script. I remember when Fellini wanted Marcello Mastroianni to do Dolce Vita. He couldn't get a script to Mastroianni and Mastroianni's agent said, [Italian accent] "Listen, you don't have a script, we don't do it."
And Fellini said, "The script is coming over this afternoon." And this guy came with this huge... I mean, it must have been maybe five feet by seven feet package. And Mastroianni says, "What's this?" and the guy says, "I think it's a script." He brings the thing in and it's a drawing. You have the water and on top of the water, nude except for a black felt fedora, is Mastroianni sitting in the lotus position. And hanging down in the water, way, way, way down deep in the water, is Mastroianni's sexual organ, and at the very bottom of it, swimming around it, are three mermaids.
Mastroianni picked up the phone and said, "Federico, I will do the film." It was kind of like that. Gareth said, "It's this man," and I had the opportunity to make a film with a director who's unknown in the west and who will be sometime in the next ten years a hugely respected director in the western world. So it was a joy. I was happy to have a part in it. When it was this part, fine. We just sat down and did it.
Your choices of films to work on seem to be based not on whether the film will be a financial success or whether you might win an Oscar, but rather, "Will I have fun? Will it be interesting?"
Yes, sure. You know, you've got a very short life to live and you want to live it as happily and as positively and with as much vigor as you possibly can, so that's how you do it. I hope that's how you do it; that's the way I'm trying to do it.
You were talking about wanting to be somebody else. Is that a motivation for going into acting?
No, no, no. I didn't want to be somebody else. I wanted to be some other nationality. I mean, the Irish are wonderful poets. And they have a huge, exquisite sense of humor. And the Jewish people had a family. My sister converted to Judaism. They had a family. There's an underlying humor that goes through them. You know, in Canada, we have a humor, too, but it's... You don't feel immediately a brother to another Canadian.
My Jewish friends feel a complicity with each other. So, too, my Irish friends. Maybe it's a complicity of embarrassment sometimes, but it's nonetheless a complicity. And they feel a part of one piece. And I never did feel a part of one piece. And certainly, to be a part of Feng Xiaogang's family -- the family of filmmaking, because it really is a family -- those people, because most of them don't have cars, when you make a film in China, they move everybody into a hotel near the location. Everybody, the crew, the actors, everybody. Into the same hotel. Then in the morning, they all get on the same bus and go to the job. They do the work there -- they work seven days a week. They don't have a day off. They work dreadful hours. They work on an incredibly low budget. And they laugh all the time. And they yell a lot. But they yell like... well, they yell like they yell in the film. It's great. It's really invigorating.
Interesting that you should mention various cultures, the Irish culture, the Jewish culture. Could you imagine acting in a language you don't know, say, Mandarin or German?
No, I don't think so. I could do an impersonation, but I don't think I could be truthful enough to satisfy myself. I did one role in French, but it was a very short role. You know, my wife is French, and we speak French at home. I speak it pretty badly and the guy I was playing spoke it pretty badly. He was supposed to speak it pretty badly, and luckily, they cast me, who spoke it pretty badly. It was ok, but there wasn't a lot of fluidity in it. I wasn't happy with it.