Derek Yee’s latest movie is made with extras
At a time when most movie producers seem to trust only celebrities to pull in box-office bucks, Hong Kong director Derek Yee has made a big-budget movie with, and about, a relatively unknown cast.
I Am Somebody is the story of “extras”, or grassroots performers who struggle to find a foothold in the entertainment industry.
The 58-year-old veteran director — who’s behind several hits, such as Triple Tap and Protege — wrote on his SinaWeibo account, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, that inspiration for the movie came to him in August 2012. He was in Hengdian in East China’s Zhejiang province, where the country’s largest film shooting lot is located.
“It’s a weird town ... My instinct told me it should be recorded,” he says.
He says he was also fascinated by the viewof the movie town, where skyscrapers and ancient architecture coexist. Some Western media describe it as “China’s Hollywood”.
Every day, Hengdian witnesses hundreds of extras— most of whom are goodlooking, young and diligent, and dream of rising to stardom — playing war corpses, maids and other background roles. They are mostly without screen names and lines in movies, and earn an average daily wage of around 30 yuan ($5) to hang out on set for hours.
Yee decided to make a movie about these people, who are labeled “hengpiao”, or Hengdian drifters, referring to people who take long journeys from their hometowns to seek opportunity.
According the labor union of Hengdian Film Studio, more than 2,000 background actors and actresses have been listed, though industry insiders say the actual much bigger.
After interviewing nearly 300 extras, Yee, who wrote and directed the film, found a clear thread.
“Sometimes I really think I could be a features journalist, as my habit to prepare a new movie is to interview a lot of relevant people to get close to reality,” saysYee, who previously spent eight years researching drug-smuggling for Protege.
He extracted the most dramatic stories from the interviews and turned them into the plot.
Yee, who has been in the industry for 40 years, then foundfor the firsttimethathe had a newjob— teaching acting skills to his cast members.
“Most of the young actors have limited education. Some even failed to finish their primary school,” says Yee.
One scene called for an argument between several actors, but they turned it into a real fight.
The other big challenge was to persuade investors. It was difficult to find a major film studio to show interest in a project with many scenes featuring bombing, gun battles and ancient life, without a single A-list actor or actress to play the lead roles. I Am Somebody has stories of a palace conspiracy, World War II and other themes.
Chinese kung fu star Jackie Chan had reportedly tried to persuade Yee to give up on the idea of self-financing the movie, but the director finally managed to do so.
“It will be definitely a blockbuster. No worries,” Yu Dong, CEO of Bona Film Group, the movie’s distributor, recently told reporters at a media event.
Yee jokes that he would have no choice but to “sell the rest of his life” to major film studios, if his latest movie suffers a big box-office loss.
I Am Somebody will be released on July 3.