quote Cross-cultural crossroads

I coined the title to refer to films which have a clueless tone due to a clash between producers and writers of different backgrounds. Ronny Yu claimed that his worst English language film is The 51st State (a.k.a. Formula 51) due to the culture clash between several producers who had different backgrounds (i.e. British, U.S. and Canadian). As a result, the movie is a combination of a Guy Ritchie movie, a John Woo film, a Wong Jing flick and a Quentin Tarantino production.



Another problem with what became known in the U.S. as Formula 51 is that a lot of characterization (namely backgrounds of the main cast) was taken out along with some clever subtext about Liverpool once being a port for slaves. The original version was longer than two hours. The only reason why Ronny even got the job is because Samuel L. Jackson is a major fan of Hong Kong cinema. Here are some long-lost production notes from an earlier time on the internet…



Ronny:

“The whole reason I’m doing this film is because of Sam Jackson. He told me that he was wearing a kilt and he wanted me to do it, so I simply said – You got it! A black guy in a kilt. It’s fascinating. It sold me.”



Samuel explains why I contemplated titling this article as Cross-cultural crossdressing:

“I’ve never had to cross-dress in any way, even on stage. I’ve never done it, so it’s a whole new phenomenon for me. I read up a bit on kilts and the costume designer, Kate Carin, and the girls in the costume department gave me a few books on how to wear them and how it’s a whole attitude thing.”



Stel Pavlou (screenwriter) recalls the first time he saw Samuel in the kilt:

“My room in the production office was just across the corridor from Sam’s. He’d just had a fitting for the kilt and he walked into my office. I’d met him before in his everyday street clothes, but at that moment, I was so intimidated. I just thought – Good God! It was the weirdest feeling.”



Andras Hamori (producer):

“It’s a fashion statement as well as an attitude. Someone with brains should come out with a kilt line. I wouldn’t be surprised if Armani do it. Men can be sexy in skirts too!”



Ronny:

“We didn’t pull the kilt out of thin air. Kate Carin did a lot of research. There is a McElroy clan and Kate went into great detail to make sure the tartan was authentic.”



Emily Mortimer:

“Sam is the definition of cool, he could be wearing fairy wings or a tutu and he’d still look cool! When he walks into a room, you’re stunned.”



As a Scotsman, Robert Carlyle was the one member of the team who was qualified to cast a critical eye over the kilt:

“I’d seen some of the costume designer’s sketches, but nothing prepared me for the real thing. He just looks so cool man. He’s really striking in it. It’s a casual style not a dress kilt and worn in a looser form, but he just looks brilliant.”



Ronny explains the gist:

“It’s about attitudes. Every single character has a unique character and attitude. This combination creates conflict, jealousy, hatred and suspicion and that’s what makes the film so dramatic. We have the dynamic duo – the brilliant Sam Jackson, the hugely talented Bobby Carlyle and a great cast supporting them. In its simplest terms, it’s about people who want to get away from their own mistakes and try to reclaim or reposition themselves and do the right thing. I enjoyed exploring this fish out of water syndrome, creates the overall attitude. When all the characters converge in Liverpool, they all bring different energies and agendas. All these elements, all these fish out of water, the different cultures, beliefs and value systems and all these clashes create a fantastic world.”



He alludes to the deleted scenes:

Thirty years ago, McElroy made a mistake and now he wants to rectify it. Dakota is a cold-blooded killer – an assassin for hire, she doesn’t really want to do that, but she has a gambling habit to pay for. Felix is a working-class gangster, he wasn’t born a gangster, he just made a few mistakes. When McElroy, an American arrives in Liverpool, he somehow inspires them both and creates new life for them.”



He talks about soccer being Liverpool’s favourite sport:

“Everybody is crazy about football. Football is almost their life. Wherever you go they talk about it, the kids wear the football jerseys and even grown men wear them. The pride in it is something I’m trying to capture and also the differences between cultures. When McElroy arrives in the city, he’s not going to understand what the big deal is about this football thing. But for Felix, his life is all about football and all he wants throughout the story, is a ticket for the big match. I went to a game here and found it almost tribal – the passion, the excitement and sometimes the hatred. It’s just amazing.”



McElroy also carries a golf bag. Ronny explains the significance of Samuel’s character carrying it:

“Golf is Sam’s passion, so when I was approached by Sam to do this movie, the golf bag had already been incorporated into the script. I made use of the golf club as a sort of Chinese weapon for McElroy to swing at people. So there’s a little bit of a traditional Kung Fu touch to it, but philosophically, the golf thing is very interesting. It’s a one man game and you always challenge yourself to be better. You don’t have an opponent and all the time you’re trying to improve yourself. That’s pretty interesting for me.”



Having completed The Phantom Menace, Samuel had got into what he calls a kind of light sabre, private sword fantasy. Replacing the light sabre with a golf club, Jackson utilised a lot of moves he’d seen in his favourite samurai films – The Shogun Assassin along with Lone Wolf and Cub (which are part of a series):

“People who are familiar will know he’s an awesome swordsman. I also showed Ronny a Japanese sword movie called Razor, which is about a 16th century Japanese detective.



Ronny is a great believer in collaboration during the film-making process:

“It’s not like the director knows everything and should control everything. The actor for me is the soul of the whole film. You need them to interpret the words and actions, so I love to open up and invite them to discuss how we’re going to attack a scene, how we see the character and how we can improve the character.”



Ronny also likes to use a video playback system when he’s shooting, as a means of communication with the actors:

“I think it’s fantastic. It’s a way of communicating rather than vaguely trying to describe something. With playback, you can watch it, then explain yourself and ask them to try something different, move this way or that way”.



Meat Loaf, who plays The Lizard, particularly enjoyed working with Ronny, as he gave him carte blanche to play a scene as big as he wanted to. Ronny said:

“When Meat wrapped on the film, he came up to me and said – Ronny, lots of directors will tell me to give it more or give it less, but you have a particular way of telling me.”



Rhys Ifans bore witness to this:

“That big scene, where we’re all assembled at Anfield Stadium, and there’s the big showdown with Mr Meat Loaf himself, it was just great to have all the cast on set and hide!”



Ifans also found Yu’s methods refreshing:

“I haven’t worked with a director like Ronny before. He’s from that Hong Kong action school, which initially can be quite daunting. But there isn’t that nanny state thing you get with some directors, Ronny really does give you a free reign. It was important for us as actors to see how Ronny was shooting and framing it. It’s almost shot in a comic book kind of way and that does affect your narrative, if you have to know where you are in a frame that wide. Watching the playback for the first time, the visuals really were a source of inspiration.”



Emily supports this. She, too, found Ronny far less protective about the playback system than most directors she’s worked with:

“This is an action movie and you forget how much of it is quick cuts, so you have to become very involved in the whole process. You might do a scene and it feels odd, but then you realise that 0.01 seconds of it is going to be on your face and it’s all about the gun. You have to be able to judge when it’s important to ask to do the take again. Ronny is an inspiration. He’s someone who’s really got his priorities right, he knows exactly what’s going to end up being used. He gets excited by everything, but doesn’t get distracted. His vision is brilliant and so is Poon Hang-Sang, our DOP, he’s got real poetry in his soul.”



Andras Hamori:

“When you’re the producer, you think you have a handle on everything, then a director comes along and shows you that you can see something completely differently. Ronny has an almost child-like quality and an incredible vision. When we first sat down with him, he wanted Stel and I to read the script out loud for him so he could savour the lines, then on the read-through with the cast, he was just sitting back enjoying it. When it came to the stunts, he built the whole car chase with all these toy cars.”



Robert Carlyle was impressed by Ronny’s approach and feels he learned a great deal from the director about framing:

“He has very strong ideas about each shot and about what each frame actually means. Your experience as an actor grows in terms of lenses, but the framing’s a different thing. His other thing is attitude. Any film that has very good characters, for them to really work, they have to be three-dimensional and have a particular attitude. He’s instilled that into everybody.”



Ronny’s basic film-making philosophy is to never forget your audience:

“When I make a movie, I always approach it from the point of view of the audience, not as an artist. I like to think I’d love to see this movie too.”



Samuel was pleasantly surprised by the warmth and character of Liverpool:

“It’s very beautiful, architecturally; mainly because of all the money that was here at a particular time, when it was a big shipbuilding capital and the people built huge edifices to their wealth. The people here have the best attitudes. Everyone’s very friendly, people talk to you out of nowhere and that adds to the feeling of this film, about the guy who’s a fish out of water.”



Robert:

The 51st State marked a return to Liverpool after working on several projects about seven years ago. It’s like home for me. I come from Glasgow and they’re similar cities. Most people from Glasgow have some Irish background as do most Liverpudlians. Both cities have been born and brought up on the rivers, we share a lot of industrial qualities like shipbuilding and we share a sense of humour too. I think both the the Glaswegians and Liverpudlians have that remarkable survival quality.”



Rhys Ifans has fond memories of Liverpool from his formative years:

“I’m from North Wales, so essentially Liverpool’s the capital city of North Wales! Liverpool’s where all the kids would come shoplifting and partying at Christmas. I’ve got a very warm relationship with Liverpool and it’s great being back here. Everyone seems so positive and grateful that a film of this size is being made in Liverpool. Certainly from seeing the rushes, this film gives Liverpool the grandeur it deserves and it’s only 35mm that can do that. I’ve worked in LA and there can be a tendency for people to be a bit blasé about the fact that a film’s being made, whereas in Liverpool and in England generally, everyone from the cast and crew is very excited and the energy levels are different. Liverpool’s a harbour town, and from the very beginning, has always been a real melting pot of culture. There’s always been a strong Caribbean community here and since the industrial revolution, Irish, Welsh and Scots descended on Liverpool, so it’s like the invisible capital of Celtica! That generates this unique sense of humour and unique way of looking at life. It’s quite a hard place, but it’s surrounded in a lot of light and the light is its people.”



Ricky Tomlinson is fiercely proud of the the place and delighted at the decision to shoot there:

“We’ve had some dreadful times in Liverpool and I don’t want to get political, but when she was Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher did to Liverpool what the Luftwaffe couldn’t during the Second World War. She destroyed the docks and the industry, but the people bounced back because they’re resilient. One thing I love about this movie, is that they’re using an amazing amount of local labour. I’m always on my soapbox about Liverpool, but so often people leave the city and go away and say how wonderful it is, well that’s fine, but they should come back once in a while and give a little back to the community.”



As a Canadian/U.K. co-production, with an American and a Scotsman heading the cast, alongside a Welshman, two Londoners, a pure-bred Liverpudlian, a H.K. director who lives in Sydney and a Hungarian-Canadian producer who lives in Hollywood, it could be said that the production was a boardroom meeting of culturesThe majority of the cast have work on a variety of international productions, taking them from behemoth-budgeted blockbusters to micro-budget art house films. Emily compares working in the U.K. with the U.S. as simply as she can:

“When you eat lunch on one of these big U.S. production, you walk into this tent and think I should have worn a hat. It’s like being at someone’s wedding. It’s amazing. Lobsters and goodness knows what, whilst in England it’s chilli con carne and a packet of crisps. In Hollywood, you’re wheeled on and off set, so you often don’t see anyone to really talk to from morning to night. That’s why I guess it’s important to have a nice trailer because that’s where you spend most of your day. When you shoot here in the U.K., we all sit around in the cold corridors, smoking fags and drinking tea and talking to each other. I think there’s something to be said for talking to each other.”



The Brits were all very excited at the prospect of working with such as legend as Sam L.J., Emily said:

“He just has this presence. There was one really funny moment when we were doing this scene in a lift. My gun was against his neck and we were just staring at each other, both being very cool, giving these one-liners. Ronny shouted Cut! and Sam kept on staring. He’s a professional starer, it’s brilliant. Because he was staring at me, I thought I’d keep staring at him. Our noses were an inch from each other, and I was thinking I couldn’t keep it up for much longer. Just at that moment something really weird happened with my nose and these two huge balloons of snot came out of both nostrils. He won the duel in more ways than one and that incident summed up why he’s cool and I’m not!”



Ifans:

“Sam Jackson is a really generous actor. I wasn’t let down once. I hope he feels the same about me. Because he had so much to do with setting up the film originally, he wasn’t just flying over here to do a Brit flick, he was very much part of his own baby. I couldn’t get over how cool he was. If I was that cool, I’d spend all day sleeping. He’s also mad about golf. He plays it constantly, even if he hasn’t got a club in his hand, there’s an invisible one that comes out between takes. It’s great to see a man possessed by such a God damn awful awful sport!”



Robert:

“I appreciate it, but I must say it’s not exactly my sport. Sam’s an absolute maniac for the game.”


As a celebrated Hong Kong action director, Ronny drew on a wealth of experience to plan the stunts and action scenes. Starting with a blueprint, he worked with a storyboard artist first off and then brought in the cameraman and stunt team. He said:

“We would either improve from the blueprint, or sometimes we’d have to compromise.”



Jim Dowdall (stunt supervisor) takes up the story from when he and his team came on board:

“Ronny knows what he wants, which is satisfying, because you can work with some directors who know as much about stunts as I do about rocket research.”


Stel Pavlou witnessed the notorious car stunt with the Jaguar:

“They jumped a Jag thirty feet off the dock onto a moving barge. There were eight cameras rolling. Ronny was very superstitious about the whole thing and lit incense and said a prayer before the stunt. It was 11.00 a.m. and we were all stood on the dockside and Kiante, Sam’s stunt double, just floored the Jag and launched it. The hood lifted up, so he couldn’t really see where he was going. If he’d have deviated a foot either way, he would have careered straight into the River Mersey – frogmen were ready and waiting as a safety measure. I’ve no idea how he managed to keep control, but he did and a huge round of applause went up. :clap: It was amazing, absolutely amazing.”



Jim Dowdall explains the planning and strategy that went into this truly spectacular stunt:

“You can imagine, we went through all sorts of conversations about how we were going to do it. Originally the barge was going to be loaded with a huge pile of scrap cars and we were going to do it at a lower level of tide. Because there were about five pages of dialogue on the barge, Ronny needed the barge to be flat, which put us all into a spin because it had to be at a much higher tide. Once we’d worked out the tide tables, we calculated how far we could jump the Jag safely, which on the day was 35 feet. The car was driven with a standard engine, with a special type of ramping at the bottom end, which meant that the front lifted off but the back didn’t it’s what we call a collapsing kicker. So, the car flew through the air and landed on all four wheels, rather than going off the jetty, nosediving and probably breaking in half, which it would have done otherwise. Kiante, Sam’s stunt double, had all this gear in the car with him, so if he went in the water, he had breathing gear and we also had divers in the river. But for someone who’s used to California, going into the Mersey in the middle of winter, as you can imagine, Kiante did not want to get wet.”



The car chase through the streets of Liverpool was quite a challenge. With McElroy and Felix in the car and McElroy at the wheel, being American, his immediate instinct was to drive on the right hand side of the road. The essence of the stunt was to have all the traffic coming towards him. The Jaguar is supposed to be Felix’s pride and joy. The elements were there to create pandemonium, which was great fun to plan for Dowdall:

“They are faced with a bus and a truck coming towards them. McElroy shaves his way down the middle. We had an extremely good stunt-rigging crew with us from a company called Bickers, who we use a lot. They towed Sam and Bobby in the Jaguar on an A-frame and we’d taken out the engine and gearbox to make the car much lighter. The authorities in Liverpool could only allow us to shut off the roads for two Sundays, so when we got into it, it was bang, bang, bang, particularly as it was dark by 4.30 p.m. But it all came together quite nicely.”



Andras Hamori (producer) explains the significance of the car chase:

“It’s not just an ordinary car chase, it’s a car chase against the traffic and against everyone else and that’s what McElroy’s character is all about. He’s been going against the traffic from the beginning of the movie, or maybe even for the last thirty years of his life”.


Jim Dowdall was also required to handle fight arrangements and was particularly pleased to be working with an actor of Samuel’s calibre:

“Sam’s done so many of these action pictures and he’s particularly satisfying to work with. He’s got an extremely good memory, so you tell him once and he’s got the arrangement immediately. On our very first day, we had Sam knocking skinheads down a flight of stairs and pushing people over piles of furniture and crashing into them. He made my job so much easier. Over the years, I’ve worked with actors who have two left hands, two left feet, who can’t think and chew gum at the same time. Working with Sam was a good start to the film that day.”



Like Ronny, Samuel hints at the deleted scenes:

“In the first version, McElroy had a wife and a kid. There was this whole slavery subtext. There was Felix, this very interesting anti-American character and Dakota who was also caught up in The Lizard’s web. The thing that interested me the most was this black guy wearing a kilt. What could that be about?! It always intrigued me, just to see what the dynamic was, what it does to a person and the kind of balls it takes to go out into the world that way. It’s great to watch the relationship between McElroy and Felix change without having that corny buddy bonding fight that guys always have in movies, where both of them end up bleeding, out of breath, they look at each other and suddenly they’re friends. These guys just come to an agreement because both of them want a particular thing. They come together out of need. It’s been great doing the action stuff, driving really fast through the streets of Liverpool, beating guys up, the shoot-out is going to be really great, but the characters in this film and their interactions are also going to be as fulfilling to an audience as the action they see.”



Robert talks about his own character – Felix:

“He’s been involved in petty crime of sorts for many years, but he’s always resisted getting into big time crime for the sake of his home comforts. The most important thing for this guy is Liverpool Football Club – they’re his life and he’d do anything to see a game basically. When the audience first meets him, all he’s really about is seeing Liverpool play Manchester United at football. Where I come from in Glasgow, football is the lifeblood of the city, in the same way as it is in Liverpool, so it’s very easy for me to understand. One of my favourite moments is between Felix and McElroy when they’re on the barge in the middle of the River Mersey. That’s the moment when they get together and realise they’re kind of stuck with each other for a while. I think it’s a pretty funny sequence. But Felix also talks about his past, so it’s an interesting juxtaposition. It was beautifully written and nicely done. Sam also played golf on the barge, so that was pretty bizarre too.”


Emily talks about her own character – Dakota:

“She’s an assassin, who’s addicted to gambling, rides motorbikes, was born in Liverpool but thinks she’s American. Describing her as complex would be an understatement! This film is full of huge personalities, people who just kind of leap off the page within seconds by announcing themselves in the loudest and most flamboyant way. Dakota doesn’t do that. She holds back, and that’s a lot to do with the fact that she doesn’t really know who she is and she’s spent her life trying to get away from her roots. She’s a working-class girl from Liverpool, who was probably fascinated by America and watching movies avidly. She decided that this is her fixation as far as ambition is concerned and she’s addicted to excitement. She’s terrified of losing control, but is also completely fascinated by it, as are most gamblers.”



Emily hints at the obscure original version:

“Dakota originally met Felix back in Liverpool, probably when she was in her late teens. He’s a real scally, someone who has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on and another finger in every pie. He knows every shady character in town. He and Dakota have this great passion. She’s deeply fascinated and intrigued by his world, almost to the extent that she’s Frankenstein’s monster. She’s almost his creation, but she goes that extra mile. I think she’s incredibly motivated and ambitious. I can imagine them spending a lot of their life with him watching the football on telly and her going out, having to gamble in order to make some money or shoot someone, in order to get enough cash to get him to take her out to a nice restaurant. She sets her heart on America and there’s a reference to it in the script, where she obviously makes him go with her in the beginning to try out a life together. He can’t handle it – he misses Liverpool Football Club too much and goes home to live with his mum.



Emily hints at the screenwriter’s attempt to create his own Pulp Fiction in terms of characters who are surprisingly interlinked:

“Dakota gets involved with this guy – The Lizard. She has to work for him in order to pay off gambling debts. Theirs is an interesting relationship, because although she’s officially in his power, she never behaves like she’s is, yet she’s trapped. She’s trapped by herself as well as her situation. Last night I fell off a 30ft church spire and tonight I’m hanging off a 70ft car park! It’s bizarre. I get home and I’m asked what I’ve been doing today and usually it’s kickboxing, riding a 500cc motorbike or firing an enormous sniper. These are all skills I had no experience of until I started this film. Every day there’s something extraordinary going on, which is cool. I’ve never done anything like this before. It’s definitely a challenge for me, I tend to find myself being a nice, sweet girl and this role is the complete opposite to that.”



Rhys Ifans talks about his own character:

“Iki is, how shall I put it?, a local businessman in Liverpool. He owns a club called The Tent and along with that, he’s got other business interests – a bit of arms dealing here, a bit of drug dealing there. Iki really gets on McElroy’s nerves – he gets on everyone’s nerves, in fact. He’s a very annoying young man. He has a lot of misplaced energy. Iki’s got an executive box at Anfield, where he goes and watches his favourite football team. This is also where he does the majority of his deals. If Liverpool are playing well and there are a few goals, it’s a good time to shoot someone through the head as far as Iki’s concerned.”



Meat Loaf talks about his own character:

“The Lizard’s a fairly normal human being. A conservative, Republican American. He didn’t vote for Bill Clinton, I know that much. He preferred Ronald Reagan’s economic system because he could really make money without the taxes when Reagan was in! He’s a pretty sharp dresser, he’s fairly eccentric and he’s intelligent to the point he’s a lunatic. I see him as an Al Capone for the year 2000. I’m thinking of Robert De Niro doing The Untouchables – street smart, but not necessarily book smart. He almost has a built-in lie detector, so he knows when something’s going on and he has zero morals. I’ve played these bad guys in the last five years. I’ve always tried to give them something inside that’s good or decent and to show they’re just a product of their environment, so to make the audience feel sorry for them even though they’re cutting peoples heads off. But with this guy, I just can’t find anything. I have a very strange, National Lampoon sort of sense of humour, nothing is sacred. Because of that dark, black sense of humour, I can play these things for real.”



The actor formerly known as Michael Lee Aday refers to the person who gave me a reason to research this movie:

“I was telling Ronny Yu the other day, no-one’s ever asked me to be this big in a film before. The director usually tells me to bring it down. Ronny told me I was cooking but he needed to see me boil! So, we did another take, another one and by the third I was getting there. Then he came over and sat by me, looked over and said – You’re boiling! I swear, it was real fun, but it was hard energy-wise to stay at that level, screaming, yelling and being completely out of your mind. It dawned on me that the closest I’d ever come to seeing anyone being that whacked was Joe Pesci in Casino.”



Ricky Tomlinson talking about his own character:

“Durant appealed to me. He’s a gangster, not an ordinary one, but a bit of a character, hence all the jewellery, the leisure suit and everything. He’s also a bit of a sly old dog. It was an opportunity to work with Bobby Carlyle again, who I’ve worked with on more than one occasion and of course to work with the big fella, Sammy L. Jackson. So, I couldn’t really turn it down. I’ve really enjoyed playing Durant. They’ve also shaved my beard off for the role and it makes me look so much younger. There has been one drawback, though. I can’t get served in the local pub – they don’t think I’m eighteen!”



Sean Pertwee talks about his own character – Virgil Kane – while also hinting at the unreleased uncut version:

“When Ronny was first in London casting, I went for this extraordinary chat with him. Originally, they were looking for Kane to be in his fifties, kind of jaded, bitter and twisted. So I was completely delighted when I was offered the opportunity to bring something that they didn’t initially see. He’s jaded, bitter and twisted in a different way now. Kane is a bent cop. He was demoted from the Metropolitan Police in London because he was involved in a drug deal that went bad. He was caught taking a back-hander, so was demoted and transferred to Liverpool. There’s this north/south divide thing and he thinks all Northerners are stupid. Kane hates everybody and everything. He’s the kind of person who’d sit on the toilet and read GQ magazine every morning and he looks in the mirror at himself just that little bit too long! Ronny said that there’s nothing more tragic or desperate than seeing someone who thinks he’s terribly cool. He’s very deep-seatedly insecure, which is ludicrous seeing as he’s villain and a bent cop. Like every single one of the characters in this movie, he wants out.”



I wish that Ronny hadn’t given up on Hollywood. He left because all he was being given was horror projects. Film-wise, there was a major gap between 2008 and 2013 (i.e. with the exception of one episode of a horror TV series). Perhaps he should’ve stuck to doing horror movies because telling a wide range of horror stories allows people to perceive you in different ways that lends itself to crossing to other genres. For example, doing a Sci-Fi horror movie may lead to invitations from producers who are making movies which are just Sci-Fi.

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