If you ask around, people will have different answers to “What is the most beautiful thing in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings?” The mainstream-level representation. Or the success during the pandemic. Maybe the costumes. The action. Tony Leung, specifically his eyes. In this case, the spotlight is on the production design helmed by Sue Chan of Shirley, The Half of It and Colossal fame along with her team.
JumpCut Online’s Nguyen Le got to sit down with Chan to talk about some of the designs in the film, effusing certain sets with culturally authentic touches, and how Vietnam was supposed to have a starring role as Ta Lo (a pox on COVID-19!).
You can also check out Nguyen’s four-star review of Marvel Studios’ first adventure with an Asian superhero right here as well, one he said is “a blockbuster full of grace and values.”
Let’s start with the hardest question: Have you seen the film? Have you seen your work on the big screen?
Yes! I saw it for the first time at the premiere, actually. I was not involved in the additional photography because I was working on another film, so I would have seen a cut of it prior to the premiere. So, at the premiere was the first time I saw it, and I was highly distracted by just thinking about, “Oh, when we were doing this, this is how I expect it to turn out!” There were lots of things that were distracting me, I didn’t know the order that they finally cut the movie. And I kept waiting for certain sets to turn up, because, of course, what we shot — the script that we finished with — was not necessary the “final” final. I had a hard time kind of watching it the first time we screened it, but then I went and saw it with the full audience on opening night in Hollywood, at the Chinese Theatre, which was really, really fun, and I was much more able to appreciate the work at that point. Of course, I was very happy! I couldn’t be happier with how it turned out.
What was your favorite set to design?
It’s funny, everybody asked me that question. And the fact that I enjoyed every single set, I mean, honestly, they were all fun. When you work in the art department, you work as a big team. Even though I’m conceptualising all of it, I have lots of artists who work either specifically on one set, or they work on several sets. And there were some of my art directors. There’s many, many, many people involved. So I feel like I’m always working on all of it simultaneously. It’s not like a linear thing where I finish this set, and then you do this, and then do this…
What I take away from it is, the general feeling I had the whole time I was working on it was good, because, you know, there was always something going on. I think, we had five, maybe seven stages all going at once. And so my day would begin by catching up with my artists and my set designers, my art directors, and going through each thing, and then walking to each of the stages and checking in with my decorator. It was sort of one big set to me, even though when you see the movie, it’s a bunch of different sets. They’re all related to one another. We try to have certain things that really carry through to all the sets, you know, and as much as possible. I can’t really answer that question, I love all of them!
No worries, “all of them” is an answer! What were your inspirations for the more mythical places like Ta Lo and the Bamboo Spring? Also, the Bamboo Spring reminded me of my late grandmother who used to quilt sceneries in her free time. It took my breath away when I first saw it.
I’m glad you enjoyed that. Well, you know, when we started out the process, I started looking at very traditional Chinese art, of course. We wanted the combination of monumental landscapes in Chinese art, as well as real monumental landscapes. We looked at a lot of the scenery in Vietnam, in southern China.
Wait, Vietnam?! Yeah!
Yeah! There is a lot of Vietnamese inspiration there. Because Vietnam has beautiful, beautiful scenery. At one point before the pandemic hit, we have been seriously considering using Vietnamese areas as the world surrounding Ta Lo. Because you know, Ta Lo is a mythical place, it could be anywhere. Beautiful waterways and mountains and forests. And, you know, really where the Chinese-Vietnamese border is in the southern part of China, southwestern part. There’s just a lot of beautiful stuff. And there are beautiful islands off the coast of China in the southern part that we were also super inspired by!
There are these big red trees that you see throughout Ta Lo, they are kapok trees. We love the idea of the kapok tree being a sort of centerpiece for Ta Lo because of the colours and the shape of it. And so we looked at regions that had kapok trees, and how those regions would feel as part of our landscape. And then, like I said, when we went and scale the Chinese monumental landscapes — you know, Chinese painters, there’s always a lot of mist, connecting things. And the mountains, they’re almost like characters in and of themselves, or there’s the ancient old man, something like that. We really wanted all the landscapes and all the places to feel like if you just take a piece of it that could be a painting by itself, but Ta Lo is all those things all at once.
And then, of course, the architecture is sort of a combination of Song and Tang dynasties, sort of mashed together. You know, the movie is not specific about when Ta Lo was created, we just know it’s ancient ancient. So we just decided to go back about 1000 years, because that’s when Wenwu comes to power. We thought, “We’ll just do a little parallel thing there.” But it could have been that Ta Lo is even older and they have had renovations! (laughs) I mean, they’re connected to the real world. They could have been influenced by the cultural styles at the time.
I really appreciate you for thinking of Vietnam!
Vietnam is beautiful. As it turns out, the visual effects department created all of the landscapes around Ta Lo, but I think the plan had been, at least initially, to take a crew there and shoot 360s around certain areas. We even had a scout go out there and scout all through Vietnam with a local location person. I have beautiful footage of the areas around there. Really, just amazing stuff.
Next film, next film! Dang you, COVID! How was the learning curve in terms of allowing elements of fantasy and reality to coexist?
Well, and I think this is true of certainly our director Destin, but any director I work with, starts out with core notions about humanity, and what it means to be a human being, and the psychology. If you start out with these characteristics of the characters, which are informed by how we live as humans, then if that is your springboard for all the fantasy part of it, it’s always going to, I think, reach the audience. No matter how far you go, as long as it points back to something about human nature, I suppose, or human relationships, then you can’t screw up!
It will speak to you like, when you’re sitting there in the audience. It’ll speak to you on a very fundamental level. And I think that movie does that. Because, you know, Destin keeps going back and forth between Shang-Chi’s childhood and his relationship to his family, and how each family member has a further relationship with their village, with humanity. It’s sort of a big circle. So I think that when you’re doing fantasy, or science-fiction, or anything like that, you got to start out with that core understanding of human nature.
It all has to go back to the roots.
Yeah, it can’t just be arbitrary. It can’t just be like what I like, or what I think looks cool. We could do all the research in the world, and that would give you a certainly a very nice-looking, well-researched thing, but it won’t sing unless all the filmmakers together are informed by the same idea of what it stems from.
Like when you go to Katy’s house, it would be very hard to do that set not having some Asian person from the diaspora having lived through that with either their parents or their grandparents or their uncle or their aunt, you know? You could execute it, certainly, but I think it feels more authentic because of my experience, of Destin’s experience. And my decorator was wonderful, she did an amazing job! She did great amounts of research, but it’s that extra little something that we’d say, “Oh, here’s some photos from my house, my parents’ house, my grandma’s house” and all that kind of thing. That really just like makes you understand.
And it’s not just about being Chinese, of course! It’s about being anybody who has ancestors from another country or has a deep, rooted family history. You’re just transforming it to the Asian version versus the Jewish or the Italian or whatever.
I’m sure that you have seen other movies that would incorporate Asian elements in them. Do you notice any errors or stereotypes in them that when you get to work on Shang-Chi, you use you tell yourself that “I will blow them away?”
(laughs) You know, I don’t think that I explicitly did do that. I think that all of us who are Asian working on the movie, when we approached it with whatever our background was, rather than saying, “Oh, what not to do…” we just sort of barrel forward with what makes sense. And then we checked in with one another. And, of course, Disney and Marvel, they had a whole team of people who were checking on us. We didn’t really run afoul of many problems. I think that it was mostly like, you know, “This is my truth, and I’m going to convey this.” And I’m fine with somebody questioning that if I don’t have an answer for it, maybe my truth isn’t something that should be conveyed. Maybe it’s too broad, maybe it’s too specific. But no, I didn’t really look to other movies. I really try, in general, not to look to other movies that much. It’s impossible, I think, to be truly original — you know, you’re always influenced by something. But I think it’s nice to be specific, if not utterly original.
As you mentioned earlier, however, having people with the same background as the characters, as the tale, will definitely help.
Yes, 100%. But one thing I also realized: I was born in America. My parents are from Hong Kong and southern China, and I was raised in the northeast of the United States, but I now live in California as well. And California Asians are not the same as Northeastern Asians, right? And I have worked in Canada, Australia, the UK, and Asians all over the world are different. You’re just going to be informed by different things. Again, there are definitely things that fundamentally tie us all together. And that’s what we were trying to pull out in Shang-Chi, you know, that’s what we want to be. What are the things that are somewhat universal? The nuances are going to be, you know, the nuances.
You know, like Shang-Chi’s character is from, you know, doesn’t say where, but somewhere in China, Wenwu’s China, then he spends time in San Francisco. Perhaps there’s more of a California Chinese American kind of thing that informs him. Awkwafina’s character was raised in the Northeast, in New York in Queens, and she’s just gonna have a different reality than Simu who grew up in Canada. We all bring different things. Destin grew up in Hawaii, and he’s gonna have a different kind of reality for his Asian-ness. The writer, David Callaham, I think he grew up in maybe the Bay Area, so he’s a California Asian.
All of my crew, they were all Australian Asians. And the stunt team were from all over — we had Mongolians, we had people from Hong Kong, Canada. It was a real kind of stew of different Asians. We all appreciated some of the same things. I think, by not getting too specific specific but in this kind of melting-pot way, we might have landed on something that other Asians all over the world seem to like.
We did a lot of research, and I had a wonderful team of people. It’s all about communication, executing a thing like this is all about everybody talking about it and being, “Yeah, that’s a good idea. That makes sense. Let’s do it this way.” Fortunately, Marvel movies have the resources to get it right. And I really appreciate them, you know, executing and spending the time and hiring the right talent, doing everything they need to do to do this right. That makes me happy.
Thank you so much for your time again! Stay safe and well. I can’t wait for your next work.
I hope we’ll come across each other again someday soon!