Getting the Script Right for Red Cliff


We're bringing you some more insight from the official press kit fro John Woo's Red Cliff today. In this segment, the difficulties and process of getting the script written. They also talk about maintaining historical accuracy and basing the film on the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms at the same time. Check it out:
Getting the script right for this movie was a monumental task. Though the story actually took place in 208 AD, it did not become popular until the novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms, written by Luo Guanzhong, was published in the 13th century.

In the novel, a lot of facts were distorted for dramatic effect. For instance, in the novel the character of Kong Ming, the military advisor of the Zu Kingdom, was lionized to mythical proportions. He was described as a mature gentleman with magical powers, which he used to alter the weather and “borrow the Eastern wind,” enabling the Allies to win the Battle of Red Cliff. But in reality he was only 27 years old when the battle was fought. He was a farmer and scholar who had just been recruited by his Lord, Liu Bei, as a strategist. He merely used his knowledge of nature and astrology to predict changes in the weather. The real hero of this battle, Viceroy Zhou Yu of the Wu Kingdom, was described in the novel as a narrow-minded person who tried to kill Kong Ming and was so jealous of Kong Ming’s talents that he eventually died.

Director John Woo wanted to stick close to history and based most of the script on the historical book Chronicles of the Three Kingdoms, as well as other historical studies; but at the same time, he also extracted certain entertaining elements from the novel, so as not to alienate its fans. For example, the brilliant scene of Kong Ming’s “borrowing of the enemy’s arrows with the straw boats” was taken from the novel. It was a delicate balance indeed.

The film is intended not just for an Asian audience, but for an international one. The novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms is widely read, even nowadays, not only in Chinese speaking territories such as China, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, but also in other Asian countries such as Japan and Korea. It has spawned numerous comic books and mangas in these territories and has also prompted the Japanese game publisher Koei to publish more than a dozen very successful (both strategy and action) videogames with the title "Romance of the Three Kingdoms."

When one is making a movie about the Three Kingdoms, one has to include generals like Zhao Yun, Zhang Fei and especially Guan Yu, who is now worshipped as a god in many Asian countries. But for the western audience, there seem to be too many characters with names that sound very similar. One US studio executive once suggested combining several generals on the Allies’ side into one person. That would be like combining Roosevelt, Churchill and de Galle into one person when making a movie about WWII.

Owing to the large number of characters, as well as the numerous famous incidents that led to the Battle of Red Cliff, the script came in very long. It is hard to imagine a western audience sitting through a four hour movie with Chinese subtitles. The solution was to split the movie into two parts for the Asian market and release it as one trimmed down “John Woo action film” for the international audience.

Third, this story is so well known in Asia that every person who is familiar with the story has his or her own take on it. The same goes with writers - perhaps more with writers than anyone else. From July 2004 to early 2007, John Woo worked with several top Chinese writers, but none of them could produce a script to his satisfaction. Eventually Woo wrote it himself, first with Khan Chan to map out a structure, then with Kuo Cheng to flesh out the characters and the individual scenes.
The power hungry Prime Minister-turned-General Cao Cao seeks permission from the Han dynasty Emperor to organize a southward-bound mission designed to crush two troublesome warlords that stand in his way, Liu Bei and Sun Quan. As the expedition gets under way, Cao Cao's troops rain destruction on Liu Bei's army, forcing the latter to retreat. Liu Bei's military strategist Zhuge Liang knows that their only hope for survival is to form an alliance with rival warlord Sun Quan, and reaches out to Sun Quan's trusted advisor, war hero Zhou Yu. Vastly outnumbered by Cao Cao's fast approaching, brutal army, the rebel warlords band together to mount a heroic campaign unrivalled in history that changes the face of China forever.

Red Cliff is directed by John Woo and stars Tony Leung, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Zhang Fengyi, Chang Chen, and Shido Nakamura.

The movie is being released in a limited run this coming Friday, November 20th.

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