I had the chance to speak to Matthias Hoene (Cockneys vs. Zombies) about his new film Enter the Warriors Gate. Check out the trailer here. He discusses what it was like working with cultural diverse cast, what it was like to work with Dave Bautista and how today’s political climate can take away from films today that just want to be fun light-hearted action comedies.
Thanks again Mr. Hoene for speaking with me.
Ronnie: Hi, Matthias, how are you?
Matthias Hoene: Ronnie! Scifi Monkeys! How are you?
Ronnie: Good, I’m doing good. Thanks for speaking with me, I appreciate it.
Matthias: My pleasure, it’s all good.
Ronnie: We have a short amount of time here, so I just wanted to jump into it. So you have a new movie coming out, Enter the Warrior’s Gate, which looks really good, by the way. I just wanted to know, how did that fall into your lap? It was written by Luc Besson, so did he call you up one day and say, “Hey, I want you to do this”?
Matthias: *laughing* No, you know what happened was that after my first movie, Cockneys vs Zombies, really to me I call it a cockney adventure with zombies, or an action adventure with zombies. I was developing a few other projects, one of them a science fiction project called Capsule that was on the blacklist in L.A. a couple of years ago and I set up this box and I thought it was my next movie, but then I realized studios work at their own schedule.
So in the meantime, Luc was looking for a European filmmaker who could do comedy, action, and visual effects. He saw comedy and action in Cockneys vs Zombies. I’ve also done commercials before and I’ve done a lot of CGI based commercials so he saw the visual effects in that, basically. And I remember at the Berlin Film Festival and his movies were winning all the awards and I got a mail from my agent that said “There’s this project I want you to look at” and I opened the email and opened the script and I was “Oh wow, wait a sec…Luc Besson who worked with Kamen, the writer of the Karate Kid, Fifth Element, and Taken, Luc Besson is already a legendary producer – I was already really excited. In the back of my mind I had always wanted to do a martial arts movie. When I grew up I had a yellow belt in ninjitsu, which is not very good, but I was definitely into 80s and 90s ninja movies on VHS, and we would dress up and run around the woods pretending to be ninjas. I thought it would be so much fun to find a new way of doing a sort of modern martial arts movie, but then I also stopped really pursuing any pictures or ideas in that direction, because I thought the only Western producer who could do that credibly would be Quentin Tarantino or Luc Besson. So when I got the script from Luc I was all “Okay! Brilliant! This is my chance now to make my own martial arts adventure.”
Ronnie: Right on! That’s awesome. It leads me to my next question, which is while both were very comedic movies, Enter the Warrior’s Gate is definitely very different compared to Cockneys vs Zombies, especially with being partially a martial arts film. Did you find any new challenges doing this movie that you hadn’t overcome before or met before?
Matthias: Yes, I think that what kind of unites the two movies is, in terms of tone, what’s really difficult to control in an action comedy or a horror comedy is that the comedy doesn’t overtake the drama or the scares and the action scenes, and the balance sort of feels effortless, that one element isn’t overpowering the other. And controlling that tone is really the difficult part of, or one of the difficult parts of directing a movie like that. To me if feels like, even though they are very different films, I feel the tone in each is sort of funny, with heartfelt and warm things in both movies that unite all the characters, and it’s a basic sort of warm storytelling. When it comes to challenges, of course, Warrior’s Gate is a much bigger movie and it enabled me to create lots of big, amazing sets and design all the costumes for the warriors and all the fantasy characters from a fantasy Asia. It sort of helped me, or let me have a bigger canvas also in terms of getting more coverage, or better coverage for sure. Having a bit more time to work with the actors. At the same time when you have the big scale, it doesn’t really matter in many ways, because all that matters is that I focus on the two or three characters that are in the foreground in the scene, and their relationship, and their emotions, and what they do with each other and their performances. You don’t really – you have a bigger canvas behind, with more extras and more other things, but it’s still about those two or three people; the main characters and their relationships – that doesn’t really change. In some ways it’s a little bit easier on Warrior’s Gate, because Cockneys felt like a big ensemble cast, which makes every scene quite complicated to cover, whereas if you have just two or three people, to me the action is more straightforward in many ways.
That said, of course, I also was very aware that co-production with China is a complicated things. We’re all trying at one time to crack the way of making it work and making Asia and the West, and kind of enabling us to work together to make movies that work across the world, and I think when I started Warrior’s Gate I asked around and said “What other director would have gone into China with a Chinese co-production agreement and come back with a good movie?” There was literally no one. There was not a single person they could point at and say “They succeeded in making a good film in a co-production agreement or in a co-production environment, and it’s very scary because there was literally no role model I could point to and I wasn’t sure why that was. And I think I decided to go and make this film anyway because I kind of felt, first of all, I was a big fan of Asian movies with the feel of Hong Kong action cinema, the 90s hero, films like House of the Flying Badgers, Curse of the Golden Flower, the one after, and I proceeded to cherish the opportunity to kind of go out there as a German who was born in Singapore, who lives in London, with a French crew, an American writer, and a huge Chinese crew to work together and I felt like, you know, it’s a lot of fun to do that sort of thing and someone better try to do it. So why not be me?
I think one of the difficulties when you do a film like this is that the language barrier is quite strong and also the difficulties of bringing together a cast from the West and Chinese who don’t speak English, or does it need to be subtitled, and it needs to appeal to the mainland Chinese audiences – they tend to like mainland Chinese actors who often really don’t speak English very well, and so to balance out all of these different elements was incredibly difficult and in terms of work was very difficult because you don’t have much choice of talent to work with who have all these skills. With that said, when you understand all of this and understand how it works, there is an amazlingly talented pool of crew in China who are used to making huge movies in the way that we don’t anymore, you know, with hundreds and hundreds of extras and beautiful armor and period costumes and – we forged 300 swords out of steel.
Ronnie: In the West, we just use CGI now.
Matthias: Exactly…exactly. That makes it sort of an adventure. At the same time, I think it’s so difficult to make a film like this, where, you know, at the moment in the press in the West a lot of people are saying, “Well, wait a second, this is just a film about a white guy who saves the Chinese princess and it’s not what we should be doing today.” and I’m a little bit surprised about that because we put so much heart into the characters, and into the film itself and when you watch them I’ve always felt kind it was just a warm fuzzy 90’s throwback adventure with a lot of smiles and not a lot of, I guess, political stance. It’s quite a complicated subject at the moment, those kind of crossover films. One thing I noticed, all the press in China, all they ever talked about was Mark Chao and Ni Ni, and none of the other actors in the film, and all the press in the West only talked about Dave Bautista. And even when they say what happens, it’s a bit cliche, no one ever mentions the amazing actors we had in the cast from China, Mark Chao, Ni Ni, Francis Ng, Kara Hui, you know if they were pushed a little bit more by everyone in the West and people would be aware of them more and we could make films that featured more diverse cast, more evenly, and I hope that a film like this, and Ghost in the Shell, and the Great Wall, the audiences across the world get to know a few different actors around the world, that in doing so slowly Western filmmakers will be able to cast more evenly, more different actors from all around the world, and hopefully the process continues because I’ve seen it happen with India where, especially in London, in England, where people were very excited about making films with India together as an exciting, different market with lots of talent. After a few years, people just gave up. I think it just doesn’t happen anymore. It’s a shame for art when that happens. I think it’s good that people try to be inspired by different cultures. It mixes them up a little bit and makes them try things across boundaries, especially when the world is putting up walls and Brexiting and doing things like that. Anyway, that’s my message for this film, that we can all keep doing art across borders and no one’s perfect and the more you do it and the more supported – the easier it will get.
Ronnie: Speaking of basically across borders and you mentioned the cast a lot when you were speaking, you have a pretty stellar cast for Enter the Warrior’s Gate, which I wanted to know, like you said you have Marc Chao and Ni Ni, and Dave Bautista, of course, Sienna Gillory, and Uriah Shelton. What was it like working with such an international array of talent, I guess I could say.
Matthias: You know it’s really inspiring because on one hand we had Uriah, who is a newcomer, super young, but he when he walked in he had such charm and attitude I knew he was completely perfect for the role. And then, as I had already cast him in my head he mentioned, “Oh, by the way, did you know I had a black belt in Taekwondo?” And I was like, wow, no, I didn’t know that. I found out that he was better than his stunt double. In all the fights he did all the fights himself and he was a great inspiration for all of us.
Of course, Dave Bautista, he came on board just two weeks before Guardians of the Galaxy was released. I remember Skyping with him and he was, he had this deep voice and he said “Look, Matthias, I really like this role because it’s funny – you know I’m a funny guy, don’t you? In other productions I just get to roar and growl and shout at people, they don’t really understand who I am. I want to show everyone that I can do comedy.” And of course I spoke to him and he is such a lovely, easygoing, charming, nice guy and he has a real sense of timing and a real sense of comedy and a sort of sparkle in his eyes and I was very happy that he agreed to do the role. And also he was really great on set and that’s important.
Of course, Marc Chao was a very good person to work with because he had both experience with high-brow art house movies in China as well as some some action pieces, so he was completely pro about how his character would go but also doing the action in a very focused and cool way, so without being – he’s not one of the best known action stars from China yet, but he will be. I think I was lucky to get him involved. And the same with Ni Ni, of course, she’s just a beautiful porcelain doll. What I really loved about her was that her style of acting is very raw and real and I remember I’m not quite sure why that was. I remember one day on set she spoke down and said, “Matthias, I’m not a real actress. I have no skill, all I can do is feel real emotions on set.” And I was like “Yes, Ni Ni! That’s what we call acting! That’s exactly why I cast you and that’s exactly why you’re great.” She was sort of – there can be a sort of TV style of acting that’s very sort of more mechanical and she was not like that, she was very raw and very real and very good on set. That was very interesting and why I loved her on set.
Francis Ng was a crazy, whacky, Hong Kong dude who every time we walked on set we would – I wasn’t quite sure what he was gonna do, but it was always good. And then Kara Hui, of course, is – she has an equivalent of, I think she won like one or two Academy Awards – Hong Kong Academy Awards three or four years running. She’s an amazingly well-known Hong Kong actress and she agreed to do a small cameo in the film, which was great. She has such a good, fierce energy on set and she’s, of course, a very highly established actress that we also should know more of in the West. She could have made us all laugh.
Ronnie: Hopefully soon we do get to – I’m personally a fan of Marc Chao and it was great to see him in your film. So, I do want to wish you the best of luck on Enter the Warrior’s Gate. I have actually seen the film and I really did really love it myself. I just wanted to let you know that and I want to thank you very much for talking with me. Thank you so much and I look forward to what else you might have coming out soon.
Matthias: Thank you, Ronnie. Oh good. Good luck with the site and I’m actually on it at the moment and all looks good. I’m reading the antics about the Metabaron books by Jodorowsky which I’m actually pretty excited about (and I totally cannot understand anything he says here.)
Ronnie: And I have your trailer up there too.
Matthias: Okay…great! Thanks, Ronnie, and all the best.