A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Director Rob Cohen (xXx, The Fast and the Furious) long wanted to make a movie set in China. When he saw the script for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, this August's installment of the franchise, he jumped at the chance. ARCHAEOLOGY's Samir S. Patel spoke with Cohen about cultural accuracy, resurrecting the Qin Dynasty terracotta army, and why his undead Chinese emperor is way badder than Imhotep.
This film doesn't have a mummy in it, per se, does it?
Not of the traditional Egyptian variety, but as we know, many cultures became very fixated on the return of life and the desire to return to life in the same form as you left it. This [film] is based around, by the stroke of imagination, the terracotta army of Xi'an. The closest to a mummy we have is Jet Li, the persona of an emperor who was encased in clay and baked to death as a punishment for all the evil he has done.
Why move the franchise away from Egypt, and what was attractive about China?
This all happened before I became part of the movie, but I think the reasoning is "been there, done that." The question is, with these franchises, can they move, can they live, beyond the original setting? When I got the first form of the script, the idea that intrigued me was China. I don't do sequels to my own movies, let alone to other people's movies, but in my mind I had been preparing a movie about China for a long time, ever since I made Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and the television series Vanishing Sun. I also have practiced Buddhism for the last 20 years. I have a home in Bali. I'm always in Asia and Indonesia. This part of the world has really has a deep emotional resonance for me. So when the script took place there, I was all ears. And I moved it much further to a culturally accurate and archaeologically sound basis once I got control of the script.
Did you have any experience with Chinese history or archaeology?
My degree from Harvard was in anthropology, and these fields have been a major intellectual interest of mine for a long, long time. The history of China is something I read about constantly and felt that I was familiar with. Then I started to zero in on this particular time period of the brief Qin Dynasty era.
What about that period drew you to it?
Although we're not allowed to say this is based on Qin Shihuangdi, the first Qin emperor, let us say that he set an archetype that played out many times in China--civil war leading to a very strong man with tremendous goals of conquest and social organization. This is an interesting period because whenever anything is being done for the first time its more interesting than when it is done again.
Is this your first film with archaeological content to it?
[Laughs] I have never done a movie about archaeologists before. I have used my anthropological training in many, many films to look at subcultures in America, but for archaeology, the actual science of material clues to the past, this is the first time.
What makes doing this kind of film different from doing xXx or The Fast and the Furious?
This is a much more intense cultural observation. A chariot or a wall or a bed or an armor stand or a tomb, these are all very specific things that have a grandeur, partly because they're from the deep past. These cultures were more organized and more grand. There's a scale that things were done on, and a domination of a certain idea over the entire culture that I don't think is any longer possible in the Western world.
Have you visited the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors?
We got a tour by some of the state archaeologists. We talked to them, we went to their private dining room, which had the best meal. I'm telling you--it's a good thing to be an archaeologist in China.
What was the meal like?
It was 25 courses for lunch. And I said, "Is this for us?" They said, "No, we do this everyday." [Laughs] It was so nice, all these beautiful young girls in uniforms. You sit down and it starts to come. One dish was more beautiful and delicious than the last. This archaeology, yeah, it's the road not taken for me.
A lunch like that sounds like the exception rather than the rule.
Well, we did some other state functions and it seems the Chinese way. As a Chinese friend of mine said, "When Chinese people do better, they don't buy a bigger car, they don't buy a bigger house, they just get better food." Which is a nice cultural insight I think.
Was there anything at the museum you found surprising?
When you see the pits that the public normally doesn't go to, you realize how absolutely destroyed this tomb was. It had been set on fire after the Qin Dynasty collapsed in rage toward this family and group of leaders. The huge log ceiling collapsed and the degree of decimation was something I had not understood. I had this feeling archaeologists went in with picks and brushes and slowly revealed one whole warrior after another. When you see the state that they were in, the reassembling of those 800 or 900 warriors is quite an archaeological feat. They're six feet tall and they weigh about 300 pounds and the amount of sherds that could come from one of those is so infinite. The patience to put the puzzle back together is really amazing. Then they allowed us to go down on the floor of the pit to look at some of the warriors that have been reassembled but not finished and you just see how painstaking the process is.
How did you approach re-creating the tomb?
We read everything that we could get our hands on, we talked to all of the people at the site. Nigel Phelps, my production designer; Anne Kuljian, my set decorator; and I did total immersion on Xi'an. I wanted it to be a series of levels until you get to the vista of this army standing in wait for this emperor to arise again. So we built 500 terracotta warriors, exact replicas in every way, of Xi'an, except we had the luxury of putting the weapons in their hands that you never see: crossbows, halberds, pikes, and swords. We did horses and chariots. It was a magnificent scene to bring to reality, and of course it's a major sequence near the opening of the film. I'm very proud that were able to do it physically and not digitally, make it one of those grand discoveries, and hopefully show the audience what it might be like to open up a place like this.
What about the emperor's mausoleum itself? There are lots of rumors about what might be in there.
We did astrological ceilings and mercury [said to run in rivers in the mausoleum] but of course it's The Mummy, not the Discovery Channel. I used the mercury gas to poison one of the characters. I also used a few things that were anachronistic. When I realized that the Chinese had invented the seismograph, I re-created the exact seismograph out of bronze and used it to trigger some of the booby traps. And I used the crossbow machine gun that they had developed.
Those are real but all came later...
Yeah, those all came later but I thought, "These things were too cool." We took the facts and we let our imaginations play with them. So any archaeologists looking for absolute re-creation will say, "These people didn't do their research." But I'm making a fantasy, which frees me to some degree from verisimilitude and historical accuracy. Ninety percent of it is historically accurate to my knowledge, but the 10 percent is where you play fast and loose. It's a movie. You've got to make it entertaining.
Are you worried about people nitpicking the accuracy?
The Chinese press got a look at what we are doing and one of them pointed out that the astrolabe in one scene came 500 years later and blah, blah. I said, "Listen, I love Chinese culture so much, I tried to put it all in there." They are exact re-creations of the first astrolabe and seismograph. Even though I know they came later, why not have them in a film so people all over the world can see these things in use, as opposed to in a museum? My theory is as long as each thing was handled accurately in itself, the fact that they're inaccurately shuffled into one time period is just imagination.
Did you work with advisors to increase the accuracy? Where did you find them?
In Beijing, mostly. Our Chinese art director, Yi Zhen Zhou, was an expert on just this dynasty. In China, art directors are pretty much experts on one period and get hired to do films about that period. Yi is an expert on this period, so he and his team understood what I wanted. We evolved a specific look that was accurate to Yi's understanding of period. We built everything, and if it was made out of bronze, we made it out of bronze. We didn't make it out of pot metal. And it has that look. Every weapon that was bronze with a chromed edge, is bronze with a chromed edge. The whole Chinese art department under Nigel had the money to do things they never could before because this was the most highly funded movie ever made in China. They took it to the max and delivered the quality and detail that could only come from love and a desire to make their culture magnificent.
These objects were all based on specific artifacts?
Yes. They were based on particular weapons, dragon-headed crossbows, and other artifacts in museums. We definitely did our homework there.
What other advisors did you bring in?
We also had Li Xiajie of Fudan University, who was my military advisor and told me how armies were arranged on the battlefield, because the movie climaxes in an epic battle between the terracotta warriors and the O'Connells [the film's heroic family] and their army of the spirits of people who had died building the Great Wall and were buried underneath it. [Snickers] It was important to me that the terracotta army looked like historians' understanding of who was in the front ranks, and where the emperor, generals, pikemen, and halberd guys were. And we had many linguists to advise the Chinese cast--Jet Li, Michelle Yeoh, Isabella Yeong, and others--on language that would feel period correct. I'm no expert in Mandarin, but I think the equivalent would be Shakespearean English. There was more time spent on arguing over how a given line would be said than any other thing. And there's a throne room scene where Michelle Yeoh is presented to Jet Li, the emperor, and she is rumored to have the secret to eternal life, the big quest of the emperor. This was the quest of the real Qin emperor too, and it probably killed him. He died in his mid-40s and was a pretty vigorous man, but was probably drinking compounds of arsenic and mercury and other immortality concoctions. We were advised about the organization of the throne room, where eunuchs, art and culture people, military people, and concubines would be in the hierarchy--the formal organization of the court. I tried in every way to respond to those. They also told us about how they bowed, and the customs of being around the emperor--not looking in his eyes, not ever presenting your back. I did whatever I could do for cultural accuracy in the context of this wild fantasy.
Did any of their advice surprise you or force you to change the production?
Over the last 20 years I've done so much research on China and Chinese history. I think the booby-trapped nature of that tomb really lit me up and made me go to town. I was very interested in the relationship between the emperor and the military and how sophisticated the military technology had become, including the seismograph, which was not for earthquakes, but to tell you which direction an army was marching from. If anything I added based on their input. I wanted to show how the Great Wall of China was built, so we talked to experts on that. In the desert we re-created the construction of the Great Wall, hopefully accurately. It was cool that where I chose the location, the remnants of the Qin Dynasty tamped earth wall were still there, and I built the new Great Wall next to the original, original 3,000-year-old wall and ramparts. They were decayed, but you could still see the mud-brick layout and how the earth had been pounded. We show those pounders in the film, how they used huge granite stones connected to ropes. It was one of my favorite sequences simply because history, real archaeological history, and movie magic were side by side.
Did you have to take precautions using that space near an archaeological monument?
They're very casual about it--it's just out there. We clearly weren't going to touch it or do anything to damage it. We weren't that near it, but there's so much of it that I don't think they look at it that way. But we also re-created that wall in full scale--50 feet high. You know the Percy Bysshe Shelley poem, "Ozymandias"? That was one of my guiding spirits, the idea of a man building monuments to himself that wind up as rubble. The quest for immortality is just one of those poignant aspects of human nature that is almost universal. It's touching in a way that all of humanity is so aware of its mortality, and how the quest for immortality is such a huge emotional drive.
I was thinking of Ozymandias when I read that you built some kind of colossus of the emperor in the desert.
Ozymandias made me want to do the monument. I just like the idea of them unearthing this colossus and hoping the tomb was buried underneath it. And I liked the opening image of the emperor's colossus buried up to its eyeballs in the sand. It shows the desire of these cultures to last forever. But the Qin Dynasty lasted 11. But the colossus was a fantasy of mine from Shelley's poem.
There's a long tradition of mummy movies--why do you think filmmakers keep coming back to the subject?
I think it's the charisma of the idea of the undead and how they are cursed because they can't be successful denying mortality. I think we ascribe powers to the undead--if something has transcended death, it can't be normal. And whenever something unsettling has power, it makes a great villain. Movies are made by great villains, not by the heroes. A movie like this depends on how bad the bad guy is, so the good guys can rise to the occasion.
How bad is this guy?
He's pretty f***ing bad. In the opening 10 minutes, Jet Li kills three assassins then he leads an army of conquest that burns half of China, enslaves all his enemies to build the Great Wall, and brands and beheads people. This is all in the first five or six minutes. Then he has his best friend ripped apart by horses and stabs Michelle Yeoh in the gut. Now that's before he even becomes a mummy. [Laughs] Then he becomes a mummy and it gets worse!
He sounds far worse than the guy from the first two movies.
He's way badder than Imhotep. His body count is in the hundreds of thousands before he even turns into a mummy! Then he comes back as a horribly burnt guy who creates havoc wherever he goes. The only thing that stands between him and world domination is the O'Connells, so he spends most of his time trying to kill them--unsuccessfully, because they're a wily group. He's like a fascist and that's part of the Chinese Legalism of the period. Adolph Hitler would have been right at home with the ideas. In Legalism, the people exist for the sole benefit of the state. The people were so terrified. If you did not report a crime, even if it was committed by one of your family, you were as guilty as if you had done it. So the emperor was free to have a million-man army because he didn't need a big police force, which allowed him to go conquer. The unification of the written language and monetary system came out of that. But it was terrifying to have so much power invested in one man's whims. All of this was fascinating to me because it is so easily translatable to today.
So we are actually talking about Qin Shihuangdi as the villain.
Of course. The Chinese film commission read the script many times. Part of their input was, "We love that you're making a fantasy, make sure it's a fantasy." This emperor has a very weird position in the Chinese firmament because for most of the time since his death, he was a villain. But then Mao, at the end of his life, saw his legacy in concert with this guy. Both rose out of civil wars, became monolithic rulers, unified the country, and organized the society. Mao didn't see those parallels as necessarily negative so I think the emperor got a resurrection. And he had another one in 1974 when that Chinese farmer dug a well [and found the terracotta army]. It was a combination of Mao and the rediscovery of something so grand that changed his reputation. But he was still a pretty nasty piece of work.
Makes for a good villain.
A great villain. Who could be better than smart, charismatic, and totally evil?
Did you go back to older mummy movies or some of the recent variations for inspiration?
I've seen them, but I don't really like to make movies that way. I like to do research and get the vibe. Sometimes that research is me out on the streets at night with the street racers to create The Fast and the Furious, and sometimes it is hanging out with the X-Games guys in the desert riding dirt bikes. And then I create xXx. For this movie, it was really about the history. Let us say that Stephen Sommers [director of the first two pictures] didn't pay as much respect and honor to Egypt as I believe we have here to China. There's a balance between playing fast and loose with a culture for entertainment and giving no credence at all to what the culture was about. Here I think you'll feel what the culture was about. Yes, we're doing things that are totally fantastic, but it's not unconnected to the historical truth.
Were you more inspired by the mummy mythos or Asian traditions of ghosts and spirits?
It was much more from the Asian tradition. He's not interested in reclaiming love. There's this whole thing of Shangri-La and the pool of eternal life and yadda-yadda, but I think these emperors were 100 percent driven by power and establishing dynasties. His whole quest is to be immortal to continue his totalitarian vision. I think that is the real drive for the emperors, to establish their clans for thousands of years. Some made it a long time, but nobody made it forever. China's history is so complex and operatic--that's what I like about it, it's all like opera.
So is the hero Rick O'Connell still something of a treasure hunter?
When we find him now, he and his wife, now played by Maria Bello, are retired and living a boring life in London. They're called by the foreign office to return an artifact to Shanghai, which takes them to the Shanghai museum, where their son, Alex, has housed the recent discovery of the tomb of the dragon emperor. And the artifact is the key to awakening the emperor. The real bent of the story now is the father and son and how their relationship is reformed as equals. In this movie, the son is an archaeologist. The parents come in because of their ability to handle danger and their love of antiquities.
So now one of the main characters is a museum-affiliated archaeologist?
Alex has dropped out of Harvard because he found this journal of an archaeologist that disappeared. He gets financing, from sources he hasn't questioned deeply enough, to use the journal to find the tomb. So he's a young archaeologist, and of course this sets up the future if the movie is a big hit. I just had triplets, so I need it. The father, son, and mother would then go on to further adventures in archaeology. We have a very nice re-creation of an archaeological workroom in the Shanghai museum. We did that with as much accuracy as I could remember from my time at Harvard.
So you did that off of memory?
We also had archaeologists in Montreal giving us pointers on how the tables would be set up and what the instruments would be in 1946. Lots of picks, files, and brushes. But it was all done with great love because it really is the road not taken for me.
Any regret with the road you chose instead?
We all want to be there at the moment of a great discovery. But I guess that 99.9 percent is not the great discovery but all the drudgery leading to it.
If you're lucky.
Yeah. It's such a longshot.
I understand you have a yeti too.
When I did Dragonheart, that was the first time any body created a CG character. I learned then that it's helpful to go to nature--there's a lot of evolutionarily cleverness. The snow leopard was my home creature. What if the yeti evolved from that? They would have the same beauty, so instead of building the yeti as apes, I started out with giant, bipedal snow leopards. You'll see it in their fur and the modeling. And then I started to go off. How big? 1,000 pounds, 9 feet tall, claws that are like crampons, big feet like snow shoes, blue eyes that have sentience. And they're fun, like big frat boys that show up and kick ass. It was the snow leopard, such a beautiful creature. And they live up there. They're Himalayan.
Are you worried or excited about coming out on the heels of the new Indiana Jones movie?
It doesn't come out on the heels--they're in the end of May and we're August 1st. Whatever is good for Indiana Jones is good for me, because there's lots of room in this summer for two big, rollicking, anthropological heroes. The love people have for good movies, which I'm sure Steven [Spielberg] has made, in the adventure-fantasy genre is infectious. The worst thing that could happen for The Mummy is for Indiana Jones not to do well. As many times in my career, Steven and I are in the summer together, and I've held my own every time. I expect to here as well.