Everybody knows the Great Wall was built to keep out northern invaders. But what the new Matt Damon vehicle presupposes is... maybe those invaders were literal monsters. This is the peculiar and promising premise of "The Great Wall," a Chinese/American co-production that teams the "Bourne Identity" star with visionary Chinese director Zhang Yimou, of "House of Flying Daggers" and "Hero" fame.
Fronted by an affable American action star and helmed by one of the world's most visionary filmmakers, "The Great Wall" promises to offer the kind of spectacle audiences dream of. Following the film's panel at New York Comic-Con, Yimou, Damon and his co-stars Pedro Pascal, Jing Tian, and Junkai Wang, attended a press conference, where they shared how this dream became a reality.
"The offer came to me out of the blue. I'd been chasing Zhang Yimou for 20 years," Damon said, before claiming himself and his co-star Pascal were "fanboys" of the celebrated helmer. He went on to recount his first meeting with Yimou, where he was shown storyboards. "They unveiled them basically," Damon recalled. "First of all, I knew it was like nothing I'd ever seen, like nothing I'd ever done, and it was bigger than I could have imagined. It was the Great Wall as if it was designed by Leonardo Da Vinci, like the wall came alive! I just looked at it; it just blew me away. And then the final thing he showed me was what the monsters would look like. And it was Zhang Yimou!"
A production this big demanded that Damon move to China for half a year. "Which was an amazing experience. I brought my whole family," he said before nudging Pascal, "[and] I adopted Pedro." Damon noted there were over 100 translators on set to aid in this sprawling co-production. "I mean, it was the biggest movie that I've ever been a part of. It was just massive."
Damon continued, "But despite the fact that we didn't all speak the same language, everybody there had spent their lives making movies. And we had that language in common. And it was really cool to how much we really could speak through the work that we were doing together."
Pascal was quick to concur, saying, "There were so many 'pinch me' moments everyday. Standing next to Matt Damon and the rest of the cast and having Zhang Yimou in an animated way, and yes, speaking in Mandarin which I do not understand, but I understood everything that he was describing to me, and the shot he was setting up, and the energy that he wanted us to infuse it with."
Damon interjected, "He also acts out every single thing!"
"He absolutely does," Pascal agreed, briefly miming with fluid arms how Yimou would direct them through scenes. "It was really very, very surreal. And to also see (Yimou) communicate with his Chinese actors, with his Chinese crew, with his Chinese extras, treating everyone equally, while I didn't understand what he was saying, your experience kind of bends into how it's functioning and how they are communicating with one another and how best to make us understand."
Considering the controversy "The Great Wall" has already faced, the faces of the film were working hard to explain this is not a case of historical whitewashing or White Savior tropes, but rather an ardent collaboration between icons of American and Chinese cinema. With China becoming a major factor in films' overseas box office success, this kind of co-production had been a long time coming. So the success -- or failure -- of "The Great Wall" will be something other studios will keep a keen eye on.
"The amount of work that went into this is just staggering," Damon declared, detailing how a "half mile of green screen" was brought in to shoot around the Great Wall set, and how weeks in advance stunt people were training in acrobatics for an elaborate action sequence led by an all-female squad called the Crane Corp. "It's so beyond anything I've ever seen. I mean the 'Bourne' stuff, we just go and do it. These people were actually preparing."
"Matt's done a lot of movies," Pascal added. "I haven't done a lot of movies, but for him to say this is the biggest set he's ever been on, meant a lot to me."
With a room packed with domestic press, most of the questions were aimed at the American stars. Thankfully, Yimou did have a chance to speak about what drew him to want to take on one of the biggest movies China -- and arguably the world -- has ever seen. Yimou stressed how the co-production allowed him to pull top talent from "all over the world" to bring his vision for "The Great Wall" to life. "The most important thing in filmmaking -- apart from being prepared -- is actually having something unique to say," the esteemed auteur said through a translator. He stressed his passion or "good visuals, good colors, beautiful action," adding, "of course it has to have good representation of Chinese culture." He added that the monsters Damon teased are "based on Chinese folklore," specifically a dragon "so ravenous it eats it's own body, so all that is left is the head!"
Harkening back to Pascal's "pinch me moments," Damon noted of working under Yimou, "We'd talk about them in real time. It was really was like, 'Can you believe we're doing this?!' You'd walk on set, and they were massive. The scale was so big. And at the center of this hurricane was Zhang Yimou. And watching him create on this massive canvas was just -- we couldn't believe we were a part of it, and that we were a couple of the colors that he was painting with. It just felt like a dream."
"The Great Wall" opens Feb. 17.