When Shanghai-based expat Jakob Montrasio first told me he was directing a spaghetti western set in his adopted city, I’m sure I blinked uncomprehendingly. The movie, Shangdown: The Way of the Spur is an east-meets-west kung fu cowboy mashup.
This Bruce with boots (or Clint with a kick) premise for a film seemed strange and intriguing, so I decided to probe a bit further into what the movie was all about. My interview with Jakob is below. But first, how about a more official synopsis (and a trailer):
Guerino, a cowboy from Italy, travels to Shanghai in search of his sister Elisa, who was working as a model in China but mysteriously vanished. In Shanghai, Guerino finds an unlikely ally in Jieikai, a local Chinese, whose girlfriend also mysteriously disappeared while working in the same modeling agency. During their search to uncover the truth, they are dragged into a dark world of criminality, corruption and human smuggling affairs. When things take a bad turn and innocent people start getting killed left and right, Guerino takes the matter into his own hands in order to save his sister before it’s too late… Driven by his thirst for vengeance and his desire for justice, he vows to take down every single link to this chain of smuggling affair following his one and only rule: kick first, ask questions later.
Lost Laowai: Lets start at the beginning — when did the idea to make this film first hit your radar? What was its genesis?
Jakob Montrasio: I have to start way back in 2007. That was when I read a very short news article about a girl from Chongqing who tracked down the murderer of her father – it took her a decade to find him! But she never gave up and eventually brought him to justice. This piece interested me so much that I had my wife dig up all the news she could find about it and translate them for me. Eventually I learned that she also lost her mother and to make it short, the story touched and moved me. So I started to write a script about her, about her vengeance. It’s called Red Decade and currently in the third draft and I am still trying to find financing for it.
Then, in 2009, I met Shangdown‘s lead actor Christian Bachini for the very first time. He and Shangdown‘s action director Richard Chung approached me to be the cinematographer on a short film for them. Unfortunately, I was unable to join the crew at that time – but Christian handed me his showreel. I took it home and watched it some time later, and was blown away by it. His reel was very rough, very low budget and from a technical point of view not very sophisticated, but man, he could move! There were some awesome moves in it and being a fan of martial arts, I immediately thought of shooting something with him. A bit frustrated from not having shot Red Decade yet and with my wife being eight months pregnant and thus unable to travel much, I used the christmas time in 2009 to write another vengeance script – but with Christian as the lead actor in mind.
The first Shangdown script just flew out in less than two weeks, I had many unused ideas from Red Decade left in my head and having a foreigner kick his way through Shanghai opens up so many new possibilities. After reading the first draft, which took Christian quite by surprise, as I hadn’t told him about it, he immediately committed himself to the project. We started to look for locations and to prepare everything in spring 2009 and then started shooting as it got warm enough.
LLW: I read that you had originally intended the film to be more of a comedy with a “buddy cop” feel to it — what changed and why?
JM: When I started writing Shangdown I wanted it all: Comedy, action, martial arts, thriller… When you’re writing you start to remember all those awesome movies that you have seen in the past, and try to let them inspire you as much as possible. The inspiration for the first Shangdown script were from all over the place; from Sergio Leone to Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan to Akira Kurosawa. I personally love films such as Rush Hour, which worked perfectly with a little mashup of martial arts and western buddy cop comedy, or Blues Brothers, which is arguably the best buddy comedy ever made. But I also love westerns such as Unforgiven, or the more recent 3:10 To Yuma, which are really serious and way slower.
We realized very fast that this mashup wouldn’t work in our favor–to build tension up but to have too many buddy comedy style “funny moments”. So Christian, Michael Ziming Ouyang — who also plays a villain in the movie — and I revised the script and eliminated or changed many of the quirky scenes and dialogues, turning them into more violent, more gritty ones. We still have Jiekai though, the supporting role, fantastically played by Daddy Chang, who adds a lot of comedy through his style and dialogue. He was actually a last minute change and we got really lucky getting him on board. The actor who was supposed to play him in the first place had to drop out due to schedule conflicts.
LLW: What was your interest in melding the Spaghetti Western-Kung Fu Action genres? Do you think there are similarities between the two styles?
JM: The Spaghetti Western and the Martial Arts Eastern are, from a plot point of view, actually quite similar. Usually they have a lead actor who ends up fighting someone much bigger than him, out of personal conflict or due to a need for help — or simply for money. There are, of course, differences in the sets, the actual action and some more things. For example, Spaghetti Westerns from Leone have the famous stare-downs, because the actual shooting is quite quick – one shot and the enemy is down; whereas martial arts are exciting through the moves and stunts. We combine those two and mash them up.
The last mashup in this style that I’ve seen was the Sukiyaki Western Django, but there they used guns and shot and shot and shot … I didn’t like that very much. I think using martial arts in a Western that’s shot in the East is much more exciting.
LLW: It’s interesting to me that Leone’s Dollars Trilogy kicked off with a remake of the Japanese film Yojimbo. These films all seem to mix up Asian and European directors, actors and locations; and use principally a North American “Western” concept of cowboys and gunslingers — does this say something about the universality of these themes and how they are accepted and understood across cultures? How do you think that plays out in Shangdown?
JM: I think the typical David versus Goliath concept appeals to the audience, and Akira Kurosawas films are pretty much quoted in every western, whether on purpose or not. I wonder where he got his inspiration from. It doesn’t matter where you are, what culture you’re in, if you see someone fighting or tricking out someone bigger than himself, it’s exciting.
My personal favorite Kurosawa film is The Seven Samurai, which was also remade into the Western The Magnificent Seven, and the topic of it is simply honor. The honorable samurai take on a huge enemy knowing that they wont make it, but try anyway, to help the poor village people. It’s fun to see that! Tragic in the end, but fun! John Woo’s Hong Kong films have the very same topic, but he transfered it into the cops of the southern metropolis. In a way, he’s referencing The Seven Samurai at the end of Hard Boiled, when Chow Yun-Fat saves the baby from the exploding hospital.
Also, 2010 and 2011, with stuff like Cowboys & Aliens from Iron Man director Jon Favreau, are years of the cowboy comeback. Even videogames sell cowboys well; look at Red Dead Redemption, pretty much the best game of the year. Cowboys are really “in” again and martial arts will always be.
LLW: Shangdown was entirely filmed in Shanghai, correct? How was filming in the city? What was the biggest challenge filming there?
JM: We have one scene in the movie that was actually shot on a tea mountain in Ningbo. But all the rest is in Shanghai. We shot all the major scenes in May and June 2009, so the heat was one of the biggest challenges. Christian was wearing the heavy cowboy outfit, which had three layers of clothes and heavy leather cowboy boots; he and the stunt guys drank a lot of water, let me tell you that. Another issue that is typical for any kind of video and film production was the locations. We scouted a lot, especially to find perfect places for the martial arts scenes. We were so unhappy with the look of a certain martial arts scene and martial artist that we actually reshot it entirely somewhere else with someone else.
Also, I never wanted to shoot the beautiful side of Shanghai, and even though we have one shot near the bund — you can see it in the trailer — we always looked for locations that show the real Shanghai. And we have a fantastic chase scene that runs through a slum area and then along the Suzhou river. Our director of photography Steffen Reimann did a great job there. But it took quite some time to find all those locations. Shooting on HD and with a small crew we didn’t run into any problems with authorities, except once when we shot near the train station, but luckily it all went pretty smooth and well. Shooting in Shanghai is always rewarding and even after shooting there corporate videos, advertising, tv-shows and other stuff for over 5 years now I don’t get bored by it.
LLW: Speaking of not getting bored — with Christian Bachini doing all his own stunts in the film, were there any close-calls or hard falls in the filming?
JM: Christian decided to shoot the movie even though he had an knee injury. He flew to Italy right after we wrapped shooting and had it operated on, which resulted in a six month-rehab for him. During the shoot he hurt himself maybe three times, but never really seriously. The most dangerous stuff we shot was probably the car chase stunt, where he was on the roof of a VW Santana, and the stunt where he jumps onto a moving van. One of the stunt teams we worked with — for one day only — was much harder, because they actually tried to charge us during shooting extra, for simple stuff like falling on the ground, on top of their normal charge. That was more frustrating than anything! We had to change the choreography around them on the spot, which was really annoying.
LLW: What were some of the most rewarding aspects of working on this film?
JM: Like I said, learning on the job is always very regarding. Every time you finish shooting and you pack your camera and whatnot, you have this great feeling of having something accomplished that day. And then you go back home and check the footage and it looks great. It’s such a nice feeling. After shooting a scene for a couple of days, and then seeing it edited and running smoothly… it’s beautiful.
Shooting a movie is so much work, and the rewards are that much bigger. You have the scripting phase, where you can go batshit crazy — on paper at least — then you have the preproduction phase, where you imagine where to shoot what scene, you start to build the movie in your head. We went to various places in Shanghai to get Christians costume together, and seeing him in full cowboy gear for the first time was a blast, too! The actual shooting consists of so many arts, so many people: You have the director of photography, who frames the image, the actors, the location. It was very rewarding to work with the great team that we had. Oh, and how great it felt when Jon T. Benn confirmed! He is the villain in our movie and was the villain in Bruce Lee’s The Way Of The Dragon! He has this presence… You’ll see it.
LLW: The film is set for release this spring, correct? Where will people be able to view it? Do you have distribution of some sort lined up? Will you be making it available online at all?
JM: That’s right, I can’t nail down a date just yet, we still have a little reshoot scheduled, and some more CGI stuff to composite and color correction work as well as editing to do, but I would say end of March, beginning of April, around that time we should hopefully premiere. We’re looking into distribution but we’ll probably go the normal route, submitting it to film festivals first and trying to get picked up there. I don’t have any plans for online distribution, but if we find a distributor who wants to do that, then I’m open for anything.
Bio: Jakob Montrasio
Jakob Montrasio was born in Freiburg, Germany. Jakob started making short stop-motion films with his father’s camcorder and a pile of Lego. His life-long love affair with film lead him in 2003 to pursue it as a career. Shortly after visiting the Festival de Cannes in 2005, Jakob moved to the “New York of the East”, Shanghai, China, and started to shoot. In the past five years, Jakob has not only worked for high profile clients such as Porsche, Dell and Microsoft, but also managed to open his own production company, write three feature film scripts, work on the big budget production John Rabe in the visual effect crew, and shoot his first feature film – Shangdown: The Way of the Spur. He currently lives in Shanghai with his wife and daughter Emily.