The Flowers of War – Zhang Yimou & Christian Bale Q&A

Q: What drew you to this period of China`s history?
ZY: This period of history is very common in China. Everyone knows this period of history. But to me, it`s really not the history itself; it could be any war, anywhere in the world. To me, it`s more the story. When I read Yan Geling`s book, I was more intrigued by the personal side of the story, from a 13 year-old girl`s perspective. Rather than it being a big epic history tale. So for my movie, the history is just the backdrop. It happens to be a really great story, happening in that period of history.

Q: Christian, had you always wanted to be in a Chinese movie?
CB: I`m not in a position yet I think there are only one or two actors that are where I can say ‘I want to be in a Chinese movie. Make it happen!` I`m not in that kind of position. I was just fortunate enough that Yimou came to me with it. What I was looking for, and always am looking for, are new experiences. Certainly this was that. I love the idea of more crossovers in international filmmaking. There are so many wonderful directors, in so many countries, it`s a shame to limit yourself to America or Britain. Yimou is one of the finest storytellers around, so that`s how that kind of happened.

Q: What drew you to casting Christian Bale?
ZY: Because Christian is the best, and of course, I had to cast him! For me, I really needed an actor that gave me the confidence to work on this as a collaborator. The language he didn`t know. But Christian was able to help me polish the script. So really the script, from the beginning to the end, has changed a lot. And I couldn`t do any of that without Christian. So it was a great collaboration.

Q: Could you expand on that, Christian?
CB: There was already a character there, and Yimou felt that it was important to represent the westerners who had been there in Nanking, and established this safety zone. Obviously, the difference with the character of John Miller is that he`s more of a drifter. He`s not there intending to do that. He`s a refugee from the dust bowl, who is finding himself there, and pursing excess with this vengeance of raucousness and clown-like behaviour, which is later revealed is covering something up, as all loud people do. We actually cut away an awful lot of dialogue. There was much more dialogue in the original script, and we ended up paring it down. And Yimou allowed me to give him many options for the character, so he could pick and choose in the edit room.

Q: Was there much improvised on set?
CB: There was. It was a very, very pure form of collaboration. Often what happens is people start collaborating, which means sitting in a room talking about it too much. And really most of the time, that`s happening too much. The best way to communicate any idea is to actually just show somebody what the idea is. And so, yeah, I found our communication was just as adequate if not far more articulate than many of the English-speaking directors I`ve worked with.

Q: George, the little boy in the film, says “Life is a gift. And it`s not ours to throw away. Do you see that as a key theme in the film?
ZY: Absolutely. This kind of theme you can see throughout the whole movie; the fact that life is sacred, precious and you can`t throw it away. That`s why there is a group of people, the prostitutes, who want to protect a more vulnerable group the children. That`s why the whole theme is sacrifice, love and giving up your own life for others.

Q: Do you think your own character has thrown his life away?
CB: He had something that meant something to him, he lost it, and so life has become a meaningless pursuit of excess. But in all honesty, you need that sometimes. It`s not a waste of time. He needs it. He needs to go through that, before he comes to find himself in this situation where he can regain a sense of construction in his life again. We all go through those phases, those times when you`re wallowing and apparently destroying yourself. Sometimes you need to do that.

Q: Did your background on Empire of the Sun help at all?
CB: It didn`t help. It was intriguing. Returning a couple of decades later was interesting. But that had been the bubble of an American production within China. And this was a Chinese production, so it was a whole new experience.

Q: How do you compare Steven Spielberg to Zhang Yimou?
CB: I don`t like to compare directors! But they`re both two of the finest around. The wonderful thing about directors is that they don`t ever work together, so they don`t know how other people work. They all work  very, very differently.

Q: How was it to work with Paul Schneider, the only other Westerner in the film?
CB: It was very funny. Paul`s an excellent actor, and Yimou and I had talked about ‘Did we want another western character at some point?` Somebody who could be an easy exit for John, somebody who could remind him of who he was. And then Paul arrived. There was the script, and then he quickly realised that we weren`t doing any of the words on that script page whatsoever! There was a lot of improvisation of that scene. We just knew the gist of what needed to be said, and just did it. But by that time, it was unusual for me. I`d got so used to not having such a direct conversation with anybody. It was weird for me, Paul suddenly being out there as well, and the conversation being so easy! I think he kept on talking to me and I kept on staring back at him, without saying a whole lot!

Q: And how did you find getting on with all the girls?
CB: Absolutely, yeah. They were very welcoming, both: the ladies and the choir girls. The ladies were all consummate actresses, really excellent. It was very funny, making those scenes. And the young girls were fantastic at crying I was really worried about them when I first arrived because they didn`t stop. They didn`t stop crying! I don`t know about you, for me it takes a lot before I cry, and then when I do, I`m like ‘Ah, man! I`m spent. I`m done.` You know what I mean? Like any scene I had, where it was emotional, it was two takes at the most and after that I was dry, there was nothing going on. These girls could do it at the drop of a hat. I wish I had that talent. It was amazing. They had the absolute realism that kids have be able to cry and then stop it. So I`d be walking by, going, ‘These girls are going to get ill. I`m not really comfortable with this!` I wanted to give them all a hug. And then Yimou would walk past, and they`d be crying, in character, and then he`d walk off and they`d look up at me and laugh. I was like ‘They`re professionals!`

Q: How was directing these fabulous children on set?
ZY: It was a three year process to select all the young girls, to make this movie. So first of all, I had to select the girls who eager to perform. And then the biggest challenge was to find the girls locally, from Nanking. They had to speak Nanking dialect authentically. After a lot of lessons, including teaching them how to sing, each one of them was really, really good. And they know they`re in a movie but they`re not affected by the history itself. They`re more focused on every single scene. And, yes, the thing they were really good at was to cry! They could cry instantly. You`d think all of them were really actresses they`re geniuses!

Q: How do you prepare for a role like this?
CB: With this one, we created this backstory of a refugee from the dustbowl; how did he come to have these talents as a mortician? There are certain things where my personal interests lead me to do research that, in all honesty, may not be entirely necessary for the character. But you never know. There would be thingsâ€