With rich experience in production, steady working style and many years of accumulation, Hu Xiaofeng has not only witnessed the ups and downs of Chinese film development, but also worked hard for the Chinese film career.
The public seldom knows about Hu Xiaofeng, the top-notch Chinese modern film producer. Like many filmmakers, he is working quietly behind the scenes. But the films he has produced are really classic: The story of Qiu Ju, Lifetimes, Shanghai Triad, Not One Less, The Road Home, Hero, The Banquet, Red Cliff (part 1 and part 2), If You Are the One series, After Shock, 1942, and Personal Tailor. The above all are the works familiar to the audience. He has had deep understanding and cooperation with well-known directors, such as Zhang Yimou, JohnWoo and Feng Xiaogang etc. With rich experience in production, steady working style and many years of accumulation, Hu Xiaofeng has not only witnessed the ups and downs of Chinese film development, but also worked hard for the Chinese film career.
In 2016, produced by Hu Xiaofeng and directed by Feng Xiaogang, the film I Am Not Madame Bovary has absorbed the public’s eyes. At Toronto Film Festival in the early September, with the opportunity of Hu Xiaofeng to promote the film, we had the honor to interview him. Hu Xiaofeng has made a wonderful comment and analysis on the topics of film promotion, the current situation of Chinese film and how to going abroad.
The characteristics and innovation of I Am Not Madame Bovary
CFM: Mr Liu Zhenyun’s original I Am Not Madame Bovary featured many characters and humorous language, but the theme is very deep. In the process of transferring his literary works into film, how to maintain maximum coordination with the original style?
Huxiaofeng: I have seen this novel of Mr. Liu Zhenyun very long time ago and liked it very much. Because of various factors, we have to delay to the present this work until now. When I read the novel, I found Liu Zhenyun’s writing style was very characteristic. For example, at the beginning of the film, the main character Li Xuelian tried to find the lower court Wang Gongdao to build a lot of relationships. She was repeatedly stressing that:” I was your family relative”, and there was a large section of the line. While reading the original novel, you will feel that the language features of the protagonist Li Xuelian is to toss about such thing. In my view, the film mainly relies on the art of painting, so it is not the same as writing and reading. In this regard, we communicated with Mr. Liu Zhenyun, since it did not allow the movie screen to always tell lines around a problem. What it needs is rapid development, so the processing technique will produce some differences with that of the original. But we cannot lose the flavor of the original novel of Liu Zhenyun, so we also retained some of the things that can make the rapid development of the plot. Mr. Liu Zhenyun has written a very rigorous novel, and it is not allowed getting rid of too much content in the film, so basically the most content remained the same with the original one.
CFM: Director Feng Xiaogang is a very successful commercial film director. I Am Not Madame Bovary is more like an art film. As a producer, how do you coordinate the balance between the personality of artists and the box office?
Hu Xiaofeng: Sometimes we always classify films as commercial films or art films. In fact I think good commercial films also have art feature and art films also could be commercial. We do not need to specifically put them in contrast. It is true that I Am Not Madame Bovary is not the kind of typical commercial film. But when we were reading the novel, as well as the script, we all agreed that the story was still a commercial one.
When I make a film, I never consider whether it is a commercial film or a piece of art. Some of the previous works that directed by Feng Xiaogang are also much more commercial, but still with the characteristics of art. I Am Not Madame Bovary does have much more art features. But its own story plots, as well as the kind of absurd style, and the elements of drama, all of these have the commercial nature.
Usually, when I read a script or decide to do a project, I focus more on the story and the characters, rather than the standard of the commercial or the art. I would like to say that the film has a little more commercial element, or some of the script is more artistic. I have cooperated with director Feng Xiaogang on so many films. For instance, 1942, it cannot be said to be a commercial film. But the writer describes the suffering not with pure misery but with humor, and then I think it also has commercial characteristics. I Am Not Madame Bovary is a much more typical example. When we premiered in Toronto, the audience laughed many times. There is laughter and knowing smile. Smile is actually a phenomenon and it is one of the forms for human expression. I Am Not Madame Bovary has its unique sense of humor and absurdity, which is a kind of commercial characteristics, but at the same time it is a very complete and very strict story. The work itself has a balance between commercial and artistic. So, when I made this film I felt very happy, and indeed it was a film that we wanted to make.
CFM: This film will show by circular frame. This innovation has received wide attention of the fans, while also facing enormous challenges and risks. What is your expectation to the audience’s reaction?
Hu Xiaofeng: It is very challenging, realistically speaking. It appeared circle and square frame in the whole film. I haven’t thought of that when I first read the script. Now the mainstream of society is trying to make the information more abundant. So big is rich, and small is concentrated. We discussed this issue with the photographer and director in the process of selecting the scene. At the very beginning, the director was bolder to put forward the idea.
Our original selection is the original pattern of the North in the novel. We had been to Chengde several times, and felt that the style and composition of rural North had some distance with what the film wanted. What impressive to me was that one day we went to Chengde and at the same day we returned and took the plane to the South. It was a strong contrast when we arrived the South, and we got a new feeling there. From the terrain, topography, climate and vegetation, in all aspects of view the South was very beautiful. The director presented that the whole story contained special characteristics of China. If the film could be designed into a picture in a circular composition inside the picturesque scenery, it will be more in line with the film’s temperament, including photography, stories and Chinese style. I have repeatedly discussed with the director. Circle composition is in fact only a form. The most important is to have a good combination of content. The southern landscape with a circle composition, the picture is very much like the Chinese painting. The square represents a feeling of rule, in fact implies that it is between the rule and the round world.
It is the final result that we were thinking and discussion in theory. We also did the test carefully, since no matter how we need to look at the final picture. I told the photography guide that we needed to test the film. In fact, we spent about one million on the test. I said that we not only needed to test the scene that meet the circular screen, but also those were not consistent with the composition of the circular screen. Because a film doesn’t mean picturesque scenery, it is also a story. And we need to choose the scene according to the story. We made a video of almost eight minutes then went back to Beijing. When I reviewed it, I still felt it was a little bit challenging to the audience. Then I gradually shot the film and cut the film. Until the final synthesis, I had seen so many times. In particular, we also invited some of the relevant personnel to watch. All of us could feel that this composition had no barriers. I also asked the feeling of the audience who had watched the film. Maybe at the very beginning and with the first sight of circular scene, the audience would think that there were only few shots in circular scenes. After that, along with the development of the story and the characters, the audience would forget the circle and go deep into the human heart to see the relationship between the characters and the story. In the end of the film, they would open the circular frame. I think this circle and square picture does not have a particularly big obstacle for the audience to enjoy the film. It is very good.
CFM: I Am Not Madame Bovary released its world premiere at the Toronto film festival. Do you have any plan for its overseas promotion and distribution?
Hu Xiaofeng: My job is to make the production well. We also plan to sell off the distribution at Toronto Film Festival. Now we are confident for the film’s distribution. All of us are working hard to promote it, including sales promotion. Everybody wants to be good in distribution, and wants to gain more in the overseas market. Realistically speaking, Chinese film is not the mainstream in the world. The overseas release is very difficult. From Zhang Yimou to Jiang Wen, all of them are directors with international influence. They always have some new idea in their works so they can obtain the recognition of overseas markets. I also hope that our film can be a great breakthrough in the overseas market. It is a good thing for Chinese Film Market.
Chinese film needs to have its own features for going abroad
CFM: Going abroad is the current domestic hot topic in the Chinese Film industry. We can see that Chinese film has attracted much more attention in the overseas markets. In the past, Chinese film on Film Festival is usually very artistic. Now, Chinese Film Market has undergone tremendous changes. Do you think Chinese commercial film is ready to enter the international market?
Hu Xiaofeng: It is still a long way for Chinese film to go abroad. We might have this confidence or the desire for that. No problem, it deserves the effort. But all these efforts are in the process of exploration. How can the Chinese film really gained a foothold in the world? Our previous films had been working hard for that, and now the films are still trying to. I think it is important to identify the position of our own. In regards of the technology, we cannot compete with them. We can only compete the content by telling Chinese stories. Directors like Zhang Yimou have made very famous Chinese film in the world to gain popularity. Most of their works are art films, which really have great impact.
Each nation, each country has its own cultural background. We have such a deep background and good resource in China. The key is that whether or not we can tell a good story. May be due to the age, I personally has focus more on the content. For the form, we now have funds, with good content, we can ask foreign technical team to provide the best technology, to work for us. So, I always feel that the technology is not the most important thing. The most important is that whether we have our own content. If we want to go to the world, we need to have our own things.
CFM: Feng Xiaogang director of the 1942 is a very typical case. Compared to the domestic market, it received much more recognition from the foreign markets. What is your view on the difference between the domestic and foreign markets? What is your standard for a good film?
Hu Xiaofeng: In fact, we have the economic consideration when we make the films. Because film is a product, we need to consider the problem of money. In practice, I focus much more on whether the film is a good one. Although the producers have to consider the issue of money, but I still hope that the film is really a good one. So I always take the film itself as an important factor to consider. Zhang Yimou is the one who start to do over in our generation. When we look back at the films of that time, the audience’s standard is changing. They might not be the champions of the box office, but they must be good films. I think this is very important for me.
In my mind, a good film, first of all should be a good story, with good characters, and then have the emotion and feelings. According to the current fashion, it is to have a “dream”. Rather than to find a few handsome actors, and not even to think of the content itself, just making a fast food to the audience. I think director Feng’s creation in these recent years has also changed a lot. He focuses much more on the inside feeling from the heart. The change may also has a relationship with his age. With the time going by, we want to say more and hope that we can make some works with feelings and contents, which are what we want to leave to the world.
CFM: At present, a lot of overseas film companies and industry funds are very interested in Chinese Film Market. In your opinion, what is the trend of future cooperation between Chinese film and overseas cooperation? What is the key to the success of cooperation with overseas companies?
Hu Xiaofeng: Based on so many years production experience, I think Chinese film must take what we have as the core. I don’t mean that we should be arrogant, but that we have to come up with our own stories. The cooperation with foreign companies should pay more attention on their technology, and some of their advanced concepts. The most fundamental effort is our own story.
Many large foreign commercial films released recently. In fact the structure of the commercial story with big investment is very simple. The mainstream outlook of the world is also very clear. So I hope that if we have a good story, although the technology is not good enough, and we should learn the outlook from the West, but the story is ours. How to tell the story to the audience all over the world and make them understood? Sometimes, we need some help from overseas partners, such as technology support.
We had made a lot of films in the past, such as the 1942, The Assembly and so on. We had worked together with the United States and many Asian countries, step by step. But I still think that we cannot shot a western film, not because we cannot do it, but we really could not do well at it. I still intend to have our own content; we just learn from the perspective and ideas from overseas, and some cooperation of technical aspects with them. In the end, it should be our own film.
Chinese film needs to return to the calm and objective market
CFM: You’ve been worked with top directors in Chinese film industry, and had rich experience to make films with big investments and scenes. The big picture with giant investment is reducing in Chinese film market in recent years. In your opinion, what is the reason behind that?
Hu Xiaofeng: The scale of investment of Chinese film is developing. Since film is commodity property, it is sure that we should concern the return of investment. I have communicated with a lot of companies, and found that they are not sure about the film’s revenue. Although I had made a lot of films, I never commented on the box office or forecasted the box office. I focus on shooting the film, which is what we need to do. The box office is usually affected by too many factors, and no one can make sure that the film could be profitable. Once the film is released, entering the market, it depends on the reputation of the audience. The movie ticket is going to be sold one by one. And even the wind and rain will affect the box office. In recent years, there are lots of big investments in Chinese film market, but few are profitable. Some of the unprofessional investors will put lots of money into the film. They should also consider their own situation, because it is usually lack of resources when they come into the market at the very beginning. They should pay lots of money to get resources. They will suffer losses with this pattern.
I always think that the market is actually has its own rules, so does the film industry. The rules are including actors, production costs, and so on. It could not be fooled. Some professional companies make the investment with much more cautious, because now it is difficult to touch the audience’s psychology. Even shooting some projects with small investment, they also do some test to see whether the audience welcomes the type of film. Correspondingly, the relatively large investment will decrease. Without a good theme and good aim, the investors are sure to be more cautious. That is why there are more projects with small investment nowadays.
Now the American films we can see in our domestic market are all big films. Actually there are much more small pictures in the overseas market. We cannot reach them because there are indicators, so they cannot enter the domestic markets. In fact, the films made by independent producers in United States are also very good. If we have the opportunity, we are willing to see more. Many foreign films with excellent theme, and the real investment are not so expensive as well. They took only 1000-2000 dollars, or even millions of dollars. Those films are also very good.
I think is very normal that the number of domestic large investment films is decreasing. Chinese film market must slowly return to a calm, objective, practical and realistic market. In fact, it is the same with the economic development of China. There will definitely be a rational stage stride forward singing militant songs, but the future will become natural and striving for economic market. Now our film market is no longer a planned economy, saying that you have to shoot certain number in a year, but go with the economic benefits. If the film is always losing money, the investment will sure be less. I think Chinese film market is still in a stage of development. For example, if Chinese films making reached to the scale of 1000 films in a year, I think the market and cinemas are becoming saturated at that point, and at the stage of balance. There will not be so much development, for instance largely increased from 200 to 300 or 400 in nowadays. There will be no rapid development anymore. In fact, the film is also an industry with its own market rules.
CFM: No matter the audience or the industry, usually take the Hollywood big production as the film industry’s benchmark. How do you think this point of view? Whether the Chinese film industrial production should be in line with the Hollywood? What is the distance between the level of our production and those of the overseas?
Hu Xiaofeng: I think different countries’ film market has its own characteristics. It is not necessary to make it into a pattern of industrialization. Even we want to do it now, it is impossible. What is the industrialization? It is the detailed division of labor and specialization in all kind of industries. In the film industry in the United States, even the simplest prop has its standard and specifications. But I think, this is cannot be achieved by our perspective. The whole industry must develop to a certain stage, and accumulate to a certain extent to achieve that. For example, when we shot Red Cliff, we wanted to get a boat. Director Johnwoo also thought that it could be very simple since there should be some companies abroad can offer the service. I told Wu that there was really no such company in domestic market. We went to the Tianjin shipyard, and they said that even for the drawing we needed to pay one million. For shooting a film, we don’t have money to afford that. We asked them to give us a prop, but manufacturers said that they couldn’t make a false ship. At present, there is no company to give you this kind of large props. They only make real ships or models. There is no such business in domestic market.
Compared with foreign countries, I think the primary distance is the idea. The overseas film industry has developed for so many years. And the foundation of our film is still very weak. We do have good content, but there are some other factors interfering with our development. At present, the whole industry level is certainly could not reach industrialization.
Now I feel that China has begun to improve these industry chains, such as special effects. They learn the ideas and style from the US. Some people use what they learned to set up their own company in Chinese, and build their own technical team. And then they invite professionals in Hollywood to China to guide them for further improvement. So when we shoot some special effects, I also advocate choosing domestic company. Since we have such Chinese companies we need to support them. After all, the industry need to develop step by step.
CFM: You have deep understanding of the difficulty to produce a big picture. A film with huge investment not only needs to go through difficult process, but also faces huge market risk. How do you manage to control the overall situation?
Hu Xiaofeng: In fact, as a producer, first of all we need to have a general judgment on the whole project. After reading the script, watching the scene, then we need to have the perspective on the director’s desire of the film. Base on what I have learned or experienced, I can generally tell how much money is needed for a film now. I could adopt what kind of combination is more reasonable and how much the budget should be. I think the work process and ideas are built in the preparatory process gradually.
To make a film, it can take one hundred million, eighty million or fifty million. The investors may say, I will give you one hundred million, but I don’t like this budget. He likes to determine the budget according to the script. If it takes less than one hundred million, I also don’t need to spend one hundred million. We need to decide it base on the real volume. Once the budget is determined, we need to make sure that we can complete the shooting and production within the budget. In addition, I still adhere to a principle, which is the director cannot determine everything, but we also cannot restrict the director’s creation. I think we need to control the degree, which is the most important responsibility of the producer.
In fact, I have been very lucky to work with the famous directors such as Zhang Yimou, Johnwoo, and Feng Xiaogang. I always think that they are actually good producers as well, so we all cooperate very well. I wouldn’t tell the director that you couldn’t shoot since we have no money. When the experienced director seeing the scene from the beginning, they are aware of the budget in all aspects. I also want to reach that level. Sometimes I have to suggest the director to speed up the progress, because the film’s budget is mainly to seize the cycle. I did not have disagreement with them on the budgets during the cooperation.
I recently did a few young directors’ production, because I think no matter how good he is in the film industry, he must start from the young stage. The director and producer are in the same case. I am also very willing to help young directors with good stories. But I also need to choose. For example, I have worked with Xu Haofeng on The Final Master. Although Xu Haofeng is not young, he is also quite a new director. The action film he directed is always a popular genre. It is also a stepping-stone for our Chinese film to the world, because it tells the story with the body, and foreign audiences are more easily to accept it. I think Xu Haofeng has his own system. There is lot of room for him to develop. His work has strong images in the picture. Xu Haofeng himself comes from a famous family and he has the concept of martial arts, so I think the director can move forward. Now many young directors just do well at the first work and do not know where to go in the second one. But I think that the creation of Xu Haofeng is relatively stable. The box office of The Final Master did not lose money or earn the money. The box office was about thirty million, which is stable. But the reputation is particularly good, and it has won a lot of awards at home and abroad markets.