China… I’m really here, this isn’t some delusion, some bit of gravy or undigested pork curdled around a strawberry margarita spiked with hashish… This is the real thing. China.
First off, coming to China as a westerner for the first time there are many beliefs that I had beaten into my head by the Asian Film Industry and the U.S. media. The picture painted has always been a violent, oppressive and militaristic regime like world that no sane free thinking person would care to take part of. Now, Hong Kong and Shanghai have a different feeling about them due to their long bouts of Westernism. But Beijing, well Beijing is that center of the monster… This is where students were overrun by tanks, where protests are met with bullets, tear gas and death.
Those images, the thoughts of the Triads and the feeling that you’re in a world without any free thought… Well, it doesn’t necessarily sound like a good place to visit.
I’ve fallen head over heels in love with China.
The second I got out the airport and in the car headed for my hotel, and I could watch the driving habits of the average Chinese road warrior, I realized… These people drive with all the courtesy and timidness of the average San Antonio, Texas driver. (Translation -Crazy Rage Road)
Things are changing here. I hooked up a ExPat (Ex Patriate) here in Beijing, and he decided to show me the China he loves. Now I’ve heard a lot of advice about Beijing circa 3 years ago. Apparently, a lot has changed in that time. For example, code name: Saint Jack took me to this place called BAR STREET in Beijing. Essentially this is like 6th Street in Austin… An endless row of bars, clubs and the like. You see tons of young Chinese men and women. Mostly the twenties to thirties ages. The sidewalks in front of these bars and restaurants are covered in seating areas where you can people watch as you enjoy your fine Chinese beers (along with exotic imports like Budweiser, Schlitz and Coors). Saint Jack and I decide to take up table space in front of an establishment called PUBLIC SPACE, I’m told it is owned by Henry (Henry doesn’t apparently have a last name that anyone knows, like Madonna, Cher and others, he has transcended the need for a last name). Now Henry is a man that can get just about anything done in Beijing. He is, for lack of a better word… Henry is THE MAN! Saint Jack ordered some exotic cocktail with untold opiates I’m sure, and when this beautiful Chinese lady wearing a Tiger Beer dress said to me, "You want good Chinese beer, this good Chinese beer," I just stared into those almond eyes and nodded my head. When rayon wearing beer queen returned, I said "Zoo Zeus" and she smiled and said something back at me. Which I smiled at. Ahhh, already a native. Ahem.
Now, there was police presence, I watched as the guys in brown shirts with white gloves holding their ‘billy clubs’ walked through the market, but I also noticed that their presence didn’t raise the attention of anyone else. People just ate, drank, conversed and didn’t get uptight. On the otherhand, in Austin, Texas at an outdoor club, when a uniformed officer walks by, there is an increased level of tension. I mention this, only because I was expecting reactions, when I saw none. I commented upon this to my friend Saint Jack, and he laughed at my silly Westerner perceptions. I mean, to my eyes, there was a total relaxed environment here. People laughing, drinking, freely walking from one place to another. All without fear or darting eyes and the like.
I figured this type of scene would be ‘underground’, but it is right here on top of things. Channel 4 from England was filming the crowds, they shot me, but thankfully just kept on moving. So you British readers, keep a sharp eye on the Channel 4 show on Beijing or China, you might see me in one of two clubs. And with them was… HENRY.
Everybody seemed to know Henry, I was… um… Presented to Henry, and small talked for a bit, but his attention was upon Channel 4, so we let him get back to it. Later we went to another of Henry’s clubs called NINETY-NINE. A completely hip place. Very cool, lush, plush and a rush. Many complements on my shoes there. Saint Jack was meeting up with a Mongolian Princess there and we were just going to be stopping in for a bit. I had a Golden Delight, we shared the table with a bloke from Liverpool that teaches English in Korea, he’d just returned from Mongolia… Which everyone at the table told me I must go to. It is 100% free politically, and is apparently reverting back, to a degree, to the times of High Adventure… if you get my meaning. The horse clans of old. After the fall of the Soviet Union, it became a free zone, and the original culture came back. It is allegedly beautiful and untamed. I was told to imagine a time free preservation for the American Indians… where you could see 1700’s era Commanche. The mind is agog at such thoughts. I was also told of an amazing club in Mongolia in an airplane hanger with Gigantic signs warning DANGER everywhere… The Danger Club. This sounds like quite the hangout.
Lastly we wound up at St Margaret’s of the Seven Sisters of the Sacred Trust. Very cool Mongolian hangout with amazing funky Eighties music, pool tables and good beer. Decorated with images of Janis Joplin as BON JOVI, AEROSMITH and SURVIVOR belted out. I learned to toast in Mongolian… "Toh Toy!" Say it like a Klingon and you’ll be native Mongolian in no time.
Finally I return to my hotel at around 5am. Exhilarated by discovering a Beijing so alive and vital and free, that I couldn’t imagine the nastiness that people had warned me about. I was told that the only thing the Chinese hate more than foreigners are each other when it comes to the police. You see, they kind of expect foreigners to be ill-behaved and into dirty things, but they don’t like it in their people. However, a more relaxed environment is here, though they seem to really come down hard on X usage here… an automatic multi-month clean up clinic sentence happens if a native is caught with it in their system. American High Schools would be empty if the same policy was used there.
Anyway, I’m back in my room with a flashing light telling me that at 8am – aka 3 hours – that a car with a sign saying "A SUPER COOL MAN CHU PRODUCTION" would pick me up to take me up into the mountains to the 58th day of a Hundred and Eleven day shoot on KILL BILL would take place.
So, with no sleep and an intoxicated state of mind and body – take a brief nap – and head out into the mountains. As I climbed into the car, I wondered what this was going to be like. I mean, I was genuinely worried about my ability to even ascend into the temple given that my rehab isn’t complete in terms of my legs, and knowing that there would be no hand rails or anything to hold on to beside my crutches. So as we drove and passed out of the domain of Beijing, and into the outlying communities… as we drove by bicyclist hauling immense bundles of wood, one was hauling a refrigerator on his bicycle… no joke. There were the mules and donkeys hauling equipment… Men in fields with scythes. Fruit stands and Veggie stands. There was a humid mist over the outlying areas that gave everything that slightly over-exposed Soderbergh look… Think of intensely lush greens and soft silk filtered white lighting and you’ve got the world I’m in. The smell in the air was that of pure vegetation… Chlorophyll scent, probably enough to send allergists into shock, but for me… the smell was a delight.
The car began it’s climb… the drive took about an hour and a half. The mountains in question that I was heading up into were lush green covered forested mountains. Villages were on the way, their signs unreadable to my Western ignorant eyes. Life in the villages seemed more in keeping with my Shaw Brothers educated mind. Everything was right except the clothing… But otherwise… This was the China I was expecting more of.
Past the villages, we turned onto some dirt roads, bumpy, dusty and hot. We continued the climb. Tile roofed cobble stoned walls with no buildings lined the roadway. The plant life teeming with birds and what not. I was getting more excited.
Suddenly to my left I see approaching through the windshield an impossibly gigantic mountain of stairs… Ancient Ming Dynasty stairs reaching up into the infinite. Off into the vapor which clung to these mountains like that of SKULL MOUNTAIN. Fear that I would be getting out there shot through my grotesque figure, but we passed that huge stone staircase of a hundred steps climbing the mountainside… though I knew at it’s crest would be the home of Pai Mei.
A bit further, I saw the tale tell signs of film production. Huge equipment trucks, cars, cables, trailers and what not. As we pull in, another car pulls in behind us… I get out of the car, and Uma Thurman passes me headed to the trailer marked "THE BRIDE" she was headed to costume and make-up. I continue forward running into a P.A. I believe named Nick, if memory serves. He too was from Austin, and when he saw my pack of Big Red bubblegum, his drool made apparent his desire for a stick. I had just made a friend for life. Heheh.
I get led to a courtyard to await the folks I would be meeting up with. In the courtyard, an ancient courtyard… the walls covered with an iridescent green moss… Pagoda style roofs… There is a black dog yawning just beyond a doorway. I see a sign saying "BILL" next to a door… Soon, "Murph" arrives and offers to escort me up the "Cruel steps of Pai Mei" to the area where they are shooting. Looking at my crutches they ask… "Are you sure you want to try it." I didn’t come halfway round the world to pussy out. "Sure!"
As they led me from the courtyard, as the stairs came into view, I realized… Maybe I did come halfway round the world to pussy out!
I see a Chinese man with a giant Klieg Light run up the stairs two at a time… "Part Mountain Goat" I think. Sucking in my bottom lip, I continue towards the steps… I put the rubber stopper of the left crutch on the first step… put some weight on it… It slips off the slick green moss. "Who would know if I pussied out. Maybe not reporting on this day would be best!" "Harry, be a fucking man, let your balls drop… It’s only 20 million stairs and a fall to certain doom." "Fear is the mind killer" "A nol na thra, ufs thras be sud, doph hair de inday." "Fuck It"
Behind me were a pair of brave souls that claimed "We won’t let you fall." Obviously they’ve never seen the first season of the Simpsons when Homer tumbled after Bart on the stairs… "Fools, at least I will not die alone"
Images from THE EXORCIST and UNBREAKABLE cross my mind… Concentration fixed. My arms and the placement of each crutch movement deliberate. I WILL CLIMB THESE FUCKING STEPS. The heat and humidity was brutal. Shirts transparent with sweat everywhere. Sweat drops fall from my brow collecting in the interiors of my glasses… "By a waterfall, I’m calling yoou uuu eww uu. It’s a magic melody, mother nature’s remedy…" MUST GET UP THESE STEPS. As I near the top most step of this 75 – 80 degree incline of steps, I realize I’ve licked it.
Atop it all I breath a huge sigh. I MADE IT. Ok cool, where’s Pai Mei and Elle Driver? Where’s Gordon Liu and Darryl Hannah? Let me at em. Suddenly I hear Quentin’s distinctive laugh… but not from my area… but up above… way up above… like waaaaaay up above.
I look and see two more flights of stairs, like the one I just kicked ass. OH DEAR GOD.
I can do it. If they could build that fucking wall in this country, I can climb these stairs. I get some water. Steel my courage. I will get up those steps. I will!
These were much easier. I had made the others, I will make these. Fear was replaced with determination and confidence. Chinese film workers were placing bets upon the death of the large redheaded ball man… I don’t know this, but if I were them, I would have been doing that.
Once again, I find myself at the last step. I take it. And I take a few steps upon the now level ground and I look down at the beautiful Pagodas I went by, the pond of beautiful green water, the bridge hump backed over it. The view was exquisite, and the look at the steps I had just conquered… intimidating.
I am in China in the Temple of the White Lotus Clan to see a very old man that some worship as a god and others fear as a devil… Pai Mei. I quickly gather my bearings. I see Quentin talking with Daryl Hannah in her Elle Driver training under Pai Mei garb. Raggedy loose clothing drenched in blood… for her eye has recently been plucked clean out, and bloody rags cover the socket. Still, through the blood and the loose clothing you can see quite clearly the exquisite beauty that is Daryl Christine Hannah. I’ll never forget discovering her at the Fox Theater in Austin, Texas when I was 10 years old as I watched BLADE RUNNER alone. I fell madly in love with her Pris and hated Harrison Ford for killing her. She was exquisite innocence combined with the skills of a killer… Talk about your beauty and the beast… She’s both. Quentin is set to do another take inside the home of Pai Mei, sees me, waves… and heads in to direct the scene with Daryl and Pai Mei.
Lawrence Bender comes over and we sit down. This Chinese man… stocky strong and determined looking lets out a scream in Chinese that I assume means "Quiet on Set" but sounded like a war cry to me. This war cry is picked up… up and down the mountain by other assistants. It is quite something to hear. All human noise is gone… Suddenly you are struck by the sounds of this forest covered mountain… The cicadas and birds… A second guttural cry lets out, which I have to assume means, "ROLLING" and then I see through the door to this multi-thousand year old temple home, I see Pai Mei.
My heart skips multiple beats. HOLY GOD… Pai Mei! I can’t believe it. There he is. Gordon Liu… I begin to have the most intense smile you can imagine. He’s belting out Mandarin at Hannah’s Elle in a scene not in the script. Because the script is out, I will not ruin this new scene, but I will tell you this… Elle is a treacherous little bitch, I’ll tell ya that much.
I got to watch Pai Mei vomit on multiple takes and frankly… that ruled. Watching Gordon play the character, embody the KNB make up… PERFECTION. He is exactly what you would imagine he looked like… the pronounced exaggerated white eyebrows, the plumb of white hair bound up upon the crest of the backside of his skull in a ponytail that cascades down the backside of his neck. The thin white beard and tiny moustache. That evil look, captured perfectly. He is perfect. Exactly right in those white robes. I watch the scene from my odd angle, and am delighted. Daryl is playing Elle like the sanctimonious shrew that she came across in the script as being. A bitter pill of zero sweetness.
Upon cut, I hear Quentin go… "Alriiight Alriight, really great, lets get Gordon cleaned up and go again." Gordon had lots of cleanup to go through between takes, and Quentin explodes out of the room and comes over to chat. Lawrence Bender and I had already been talking for a bit, he was shocked at the places I’d discovered the night before and we were both discussing about the cool alternative youth hangouts of Beijing, along with a Rave that took place on the Great Wall of China that he had attended. Great stories.
Quentin comes up and says, "Welcome to China, is your Dad here too?" I flash to 8000 miles away in Austin, Texas as my father screams. "No he couldn’t make it." Quentin responds, "But he’s the man in charge of International Affairs." 8000 miles away in Austin, Father Geek begins openly weeping. "Well, it was him or me!" Quentin says, "Ah, pulled a little executive rank on the ol man did ya?"
We chat a bit about recent cool flicks we’ve seen. I tell him about screenings of SIMON, KING OF THE WITCHES and MITCHELL and TRACKDOWN at the Drafthouse, he responds with bits about each, then asks me if I had seen a film called ROAD GAMES, I had.. Stacy Keach and Jamie Lee Curtis… a film that reminds me a bit of THE FOG as though De Palma had made it. He had screened the film to some of the cast on Video and is really looking for a good 35mm print of it, cuz he’d love to bring it to Austin for the next QT fest… Then right as I’m about to say, "And when would that be?" The man that had screamed out battle howls earlier cues Quentin to go back to making the movie. I figure this man is the 1st AD for the Chinese section of shooting. His name is Zhang Jin Zhan. I am told that the fortnight, both he and Quentin declared eternal allegiance and love to each other after a wonderful perfect day of shooting. The man reminds me of a John Deere BOBCAT.
I find out from various folks that the rumors about YUKI’S REVENGE being cut out of the film are complete and total lies. Not only have they not been cut, they’ve already been shot. How do you like them apples? Also, I’ve learned that in Japan, the same people that build models of Tokyo for Godzilla to crush are building a miniature of Tokyo for Uma to fly over… Quentin wants it to have that look… that Toho Tokyo look. He is after all making the ‘greatest cult exploitation film of all time" and he knows the devil is in the details. He wants Uma’s arrival to Japan to be like Godzilla landing. I CAN’T WAIT. There will be 3 days of shooting in Japan very soon. Then a couple of weeks off, while they prep for shooting in Los Angeles. Then they move to Barstow and El Paso… ending shooting in Mexico.
As this latest take of Pai Mei and Elle Driver ends, Quentin brings over Daryl Hannah. She’s barefoot, bloody and beautiful. Her lone blue eye staring back at me. Quentin reminds her that I’m the guy that said, "PRIS TO STAR IN KILL BILL," which thankfully kicked off good memories. Daryl and I begin to chat. This is her first day of shooting on KILL BILL. Up to this point she’s been training with Master Yuen Wo Ping (btw everyone here just calls him "THE MASTER") and Sonny Chiba. Instantly… "What is training with Sonny Chiba like?" escapes my mouth with a smile attached. I could feel my ears perking forward awaiting to hear what that experience was like.
Daryl is in love with Sonny Chiba I think. The look in her eye was so amazingly misty and filled with fondness that normally when you see that look, it is about one’s child or the person they are about to marry. She tells me that Sonny is one of the most handsome and charismatic men ever, that he takes the training very seriously. She’s learned that every way you hold the sword has a specific meaning… it translates to a statement about what you are about to do. He’s been teaching them all these meanings. Also, apparently they’ve had the chance to kill Sonny an awful lot in training. These are apparently her favorite thing. As Sonny doesn’t just say, "Ok you got me," and then returns to teaching… But he plays out the full death scene and collapse. CAN YOU FUCKING IMAGINE GETTING TO DO THAT? Also when she does something good, Sonny apparently gets misty eyed and lets out a gravelly strongly pronounced near shout of, "ALMOOOOOST GOOOOD!" And her reaction to this is to swoon. To get an "Almost Good" out of Sonny Chiba is akin to a religious experience. She has also told me that she is considering taking Sonny Chiba up on an offer to go to Japan after filming KILL BILL to star as his Blonde Samurai in a film he wants to make. She’s quite jazzed about the idea of getting to do this, because what could be fucking cooler? Because this is her first day, I didn’t feel it was right to ask about working with Quentin… Besides I’d rather observe… that’s just the way I am.
Once again they return to shooting the scene I will not spoil. This time instead of focusing on the action, I take in where I am.
Directly in front of me is a wondrous wood practice man with several holes in his chest and abdomen area. His arms are hinged at the shoulder and he is made of some form of blonde-ish wood with pronounced rings of grain. Pai Mei’s home is ancient and decrepit, the sides cracked, as are the cobblestone courtyard. That iridescent moss is everywhere… Plants are growing in-between the tiles of the roof, weeds, flowers and what not. There is a maze of strong wood poles exactly opposite Pai Mei’s home… undoubtedly this is where training occurs – all Iron Monkey style I bet. Then there is a fence down the trail, where The Bride will practice her 2 inch punch… And further still directly in front of me is an arch way that has stairs that lead to a higher level still of temples.
This looks exactly what it is supposed to look like, which is what it is. A multi thousand year old temple of disrepair. I love it here. The sounds, the history, the culture. This is grand.
They finish the shot and Gordon is dismissed to head to make up. They’ve finished the film shooting of the scene. Now Quentin and Daryl head back into the home of Pai Mei to record the ‘dub’ audio for the sequence. Quentin dubs Pai Mei himself as does Daryl. It is done in a slight KIWI accent – as many of the dub jobs of Chinese films were handled by Kiwi dubbers. Again… its those little details that get it right. They do two audio takes, both of which I had to suppress giggles to not mess the takes up.
As they wrap up shooting this audio shot, Daryl is wrapped for the day. Every member of the crew applauds her, cheering her name, Quentin screams out, "This is how we wrap in China… I Chinese wrap," and gathers her in a giant bear hug from behind lifting her way up as her legs dangle. Everyone is laughing and Daryl is smiling gigantically despite the bloody eye-socket and the agony she has endured under her cruel tutelage of Pai Mei.
The Chinese crew begins breaking the equipment down and heading down the treacherous Pai Mei steps at impossible velocities. I’m told they are breaking for lunch, but will return. I elect to stay where I am, rather than endure the certain doom of trying the steps too often. As I sat in Pai Mei’s courtyard, I am a bit bemused to see poor Hiromi (Miramax Lady) being eaten alive by Chinese Mosquitoes and Fleas… which don’t dine on redheaded Buddha Leprechauns. Muhahahaha…
After a while, a very upbeat gentleman makes his way towards me, he is a hero you see. His title may be Steadi-cam Operator… That maybe so, but they should change his title to HERO – because this man named Larry McConkey is going to be responsible for the most insane and ambitious action Steadi-cam shot in film history.
As it was described to me… the sequence in question will literally be jaw-droppingly amazing. Now if you have read the script to KILL BILL there is no place really for the following shot to exist. It takes place after Uma’s THE BRIDE has changed into her GAME OF DEATH outfit, but before she reveals herself to O-REN IISHI. I think. It is a 3 and a half minute Steadi-cam shot that follows Uma as she infiltrates the House of Blue Leaves, skirts around the place, leaps over walls and depicts many deaths, combats, a musical number and more. As Larry explained to me, this should have been impossible to do, but due to the amazing kinetic skill of the Chinese film crew, they were able to physically realize Quentin’s insane vision of a tour-de-force Steadi-cam shot that does for the Kung Fu movie, what Paul Thomas Anderson did for Disco. At least it sets out to… Btw – Paul Thomas Anderson apparently visited while they were doing some of the shooting. And contrary to what was heard, they managed to get the shot in a single day of shooting, but with 3 days of rehearsals, I hear. In addition to just following her, there are different types of things going on. At one point she leaps over the wall, which is a paper wall, where she’ll be Shadow Play style slicing and dicing 88’s. Then as she turns a corner, the camera leaps over the wall to follow behind her chopping and what not… Then the camera turns to a close up of one of the 5,6,7,8’s in action, and on and on. Personally… I CAN’T WAIT TO SEE THIS SHOT. Hearing Larry talk about it, he was so excited to have shot it and to have worked out the insane technical aspects of having him in a steadi-cam outfit leap over a wall… along with the different fields of focus going from radical close-ups to wide-shots… there were two remote control focus pullers… A crane team that had to clear part of the set to bring in the crane for his needed lift, and so much more. I can’t wait to see the making of this sequence on some future DVD.
Then I met the U.S. Ambassador’s Wife as she was touring the set, a friend of her’s son recognized me and asked what I was doing there. He went to find sharp weapons to play with.
Soon I learn that the crew won’t be coming back up to where I am, so I have to descend the torturous stairs of Pai Mei. I am in awe by my powers of concentration. I focused out all of the surrounding vertigo effects… focusing only upon… the next stair. When I got through the 72 million slippery steps, I found my arms cramped, my palms soaked in a sweat I’ve never before experienced.. even now as I type this my hands are sore from my Kung-fu Death Grip.
I continue my journey via car to the very most bottom of the stairs that I had first seen from the road. Here I watch Bill’s return to the Bride after getting Pai Mei’s permission for her to train along with his leaving her there. Here’s the scene
When will I see you again?
That’s the title of my favorite soul song of the Seventies.
Nothing. When he tells me you’re done.
When do you think that might be?
That my dearest, all depends on You. Now remember, no backtalk, no Sarcasm. Least not for the first year. You’re going to have to let him Warm up for you. He hates Caucasians, despises Americans, and Has nothing but contempt for women, So in your case, that may take a Little while. Adios.