Way back in the early-1990’s, I came across a story I knew I had to make into a movie: the Opium Wars, fought in the mid-19th century so England could sell illegal drugs in China. Basically, Britain started out with a trade deficit problem: a huge appetite for Chinese goods, such as tea, silk, and porcelain, but little that China wanted to buy in return. So Europeans taught the Chinese to smoke opium, and eventually cornered the narcotics market, which nicely corrected their trade imbalance. When China’s Qing Dynasty rulers tried to stop the flow of opium, England went to war to keep the seas free for drug cartels.
This story has all the elements of a classic epic film: historical backdrop, large-scale battles, and colorful characters, but with an interesting twist. In this War on Drugs, the drug lords and kingpins were Europeans. Conversely, the heroes are mostly Chinese, such as Commissioner Lin Zexu, who confiscated and destroyed British opium, as well as anti-drug Chinese street gangs. This totally turns on its head our conventional images of good guys and bad guys. I saw it as a counterweight to films such as TAI-PAN, which depict 19th-century British drug barons as swashbuckling adventurers. In historical fact, the Taipans were the narco-terrorists of their day.
Well, it’s now been almost twenty years since I had this idea, and I’ve never been able to get any major Western production company interested. A Chinese movie called THE OPIUM WAR, directed by Xie Jin, was released in 1997, but I’m still trying to get a similar project going on this side of the Pacific. Lately, I’ve started to think I should do it as a stage play.
How about you? Do you have any pet projects that you’ve been trying to make for years or even decades without success, but continue to haunt you?
JEROME: I’ve always wanted to do my very own Space Opera with Giant Robots, unsurprisingly drawing a lot of influence from anime. Not sure when that’s gonna happen after PACIFIC RIM.
But I guess I could always make the giant robots stick figures… regular-sized stick figures.
ALFREDO: There’s this one guy at the soup kitchen – we call him “Happy Feet” – because he’s always dancing and singing as he comes through the line: usually eighties pop or old school hip hop – “Jam on it, jam on it…” He always tells us he’s not on drugs, has a house in the Oakland hills and a prosperous Subaru dealership. Then, after eating three or four meals, he pedals away on his beaten up old ten speed. I’m still working up the courage to ask him if I could tag along with a camera to see what 24 hours in the life of Happy Feet is like. That’s my pet documentary.
ROGER: Wow, David, that sounds like an awesome pet project. Just your description above was a huge history lesson for me. I always thought the Opium Wars was a shameful thing for Asia, not it’s heroic liberation.
As for pet projects – I’ve always wanted to be a part of a travel-based, exploration show. But now that I have kids, the reality of being totally away from home at least 6+ months per year makes the likelihood of such a path rather unlikely. Unless, of course, I can partner up with Disney and do a family-based travel show that requires my entire family of 5 to be a part of it. Ohhh…now that would be cool! I’m making some phone calls right now…
IRIS: The first script that I wrote is still kind of my baby that I would love to see made some day. I won a screenplay competition with it and then also as a result, got an agent. At one point, it was optioned with Wayne Wang attached to direct. But the production company went belly up before it got to development and I’ve been trying to find another home for it. I still have people fall in love with it now and then, but because most of the cast is Asian, it’s highly uncommercial (or so I hear). It also may be 20 years too late for it because it has a DEAD POET’S SOCIETY or GOOD WILL HUNTING kind of vibe to it, which is the kind of movie they don’t make anymore.
PHILIP: I don’t know if there’s one thing that continues to haunt me in this way. But definitely there’s a file full of ideas that I think would be interesting. Usually I’ll read something or hear a story and it’ll inspire an idea.
One example is the Stephen King novella THE LANGOLIERS (which was made into a very bad ABC TV movie 20 years ago)–it’s about a group of about a dozen people on a redeye flight who realize they’re the last people on earth. They have to figure out what happened to everyone else and “fix” things while a supernatural threat comes after them. It’s a great supernatural thriller and reading it I thought it’d be even more interesting if the flight was not a domestic one but an international one from Asia to the U.S. The dozen survivors on the flight could be a mix of people of different nationalities–from America, Asia, Australia, Europe–and since the story is about a group of strangers who have to learn to come together to solve the problem, thought it’d be interesting to add the cultural barrier so there’s another obstacle the characters would need to confront in order to work together.
EMMIE: I’d like to be able to draw and paint well. After graduating from college, I wanted to create children’s picture books, so I drew nonstop. I was a beginner and was trying to improve as quickly as possible. Within a few years, I had developed severe tendinitis, and couldn’t hold a paintbrush, pen, fork or anything without feeling horrible pain. I stopped drawing and went to a computer school to learn Illustrator and other programs. I disliked computer/vector art, but at the time it seemed to be my only option, since using a Wacom tablet allowed me to create shapes without putting too much pressure on my wrist (or maybe I used my left hand? I can’t remember). Today I still work in Illustrator, but I often loathe the cartoony look of what I do. I long to be able to draw like my favorite artists, with watercolors, pencils, textures and skill.
That said, my wrist is better now and I can start taking drawing & painting classes again. I’ll admit, though, that I haven’t put time into it yet. I focus mainly on my small business, new interests (am studying music), health and regular life stuff. I take full responsibility for not being the visual artist that I’d like to be, but it doesn’t stop me from admiring a piece of art and wishing that I were as technically skilled.
The Opium Wars sound intriguing; I’d love to see your play and/or movie about the topic.
QUENTIN: THE OPIUM WAR was made by Jin Xie in 1997. It was concluded to be a Chinese propaganda film. My friend, Yang Xie, the filmmaker son of the Jin Xie, enlisted my help to re-sell the movie in 2000. Sadly, both of them passed away. I lost touch with Yang. I was told he was HIV positive and simply vanished in China in his last years. His dad also passed. The last meal I had with Yang was in Koreatown… he took me out for Korean BBQ in Los Angeles and I ordered a seafood pancake. I had no idea of his HIV status. Sad sad sad!