Fall 2013

Her Lucky Star

As the first American woman to direct a Chinese production in China, Dennie Gordon had to cross the cultural barrier. Now she’s a director in demand 6,000 miles from home.


Director Dennie Gordon

In 2005, Dennie Gordon picked up a job in Shanghai directing a Hewlett-Packard commercial. At the time Gordon, who had directed everything from episodic TV (The Practice, Sports Night) to features (Joe Dirt, New York Minute) to a syndicated travel series (Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous) couldn’t have known that her already diverse career was about to take an exotic turn.

When her son began studying in China, and visits became more frequent, Gordon found herself making new contacts in the bustling Beijing filmmaking community. She began developing relationships there, including one with billionaire producer Song Ge, and before long the prospect of directing a movie—a Chinese remake of her 2003 romantic comedy What a Girl Wants—became a reality. Eventually those meetings segued into a different discussion: Why not make an original, glossy, action-packed, multi-city romantic caper film?

That film, My Lucky Star, starring Ziyi Zhang (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) would make Gordon the first American woman to direct a Chinese-language movie for China’s domestic market. In the United States, films from China typically call up images of martial arts epics or quietly paced human dramas. But from the very beginning, what Gordon hoped to do was infuse My Lucky Star with her usual style of filmmaking: lots of humor, fast-paced storytelling and exuberant camera moves. “I do a lot of push-ins,” says Gordon. “It’s just a physical, always moving camera. I’m not the kind of director who likes to do the medium, the wide, and the over-the-shoulder shots. I always shoot my cut.”

The groundbreaking experience in China wasn’t always what she expected. On the first day of filming, her entire set—a barge floating near Hong Kong harbor—was destroyed by a roaring typhoon, which led to 10 days being trimmed from the 56-day shooting schedule. Also, three weeks into filming, one of the Chinese producers told Gordon that her crew was baffled by her Hollywood-style filmmaking.

If Gordon couldn’t control Mother Nature or the budget, she at least knew the best way to address the culture gap. She took her dailies to her son, a film editor fluent in Mandarin Chinese, who was working as her assistant, and asked him to cut a three-minute trailer of her best footage set to what Gordon calls “Ocean’s Eleven, spy-tastic, retro-jazzy” music. She then had him show it to anyone and everyone—from the dolly grip to the caterer. “He walked around with his iPad and would ask, ‘Do you want to see what we’re doing?’” says Gordon. “Boom! Suddenly they were like, ‘Oh! I get it.’ It was transformational; a picture is worth a thousand words.”

FOREIGN AFFAIRS: Gordon, working with Ziyi Zhang, not only had the usual challenges of directing on My Lucky Star in China, she also had to cross the language and cultural barrier.

Gordon’s cast, which included Chinese pop star Leehom Wang, needed no extra convincing. Though Gordon had both English and Chinese versions of the script with her at all times, she capitalized on the fact that Zhang and American-born Wang could both speak fluent English. “Between the three of us we formed a linguistic trio,” recalls Gordon. “They’d come to me and speak back and forth in Mandarin, then they’d say to me in English, ‘It’s funnier this way because what it means is…’” She also worked hard to create the kind of on-set atmosphere she had on her previous films where cast members know that any and all dialogue ideas are welcome. “I like [my actors] to improvise a lot,” something uncommon in the world of Chinese filmmaking. “I don’t want to be stuck not being able to have off-the-cuff dialogue.”

As it happened, her leading lady, also a producer on the film, had always dreamed of starring in a brightly colored, lighthearted project that showed off her comic gifts, physicality and American-style sass. “Nothing had been done like this genre [in China] where you would take a romantic comedy but bring in exotic locations and really fun action set pieces in the way we would in a Hollywood comedy like Romancing the Stone,’” says Gordon. “Ziyi always said, ‘Please create a movie for me that Anne Hathaway may star in. We don’t make those here in China.’”

My Lucky Star, the story of Sophie (Zhang), a shy cartoonist who also works at a travel agency and ends up in Singapore on a life-altering adventure, was shot in Singapore, Beijing, Hong Kong and Macau. It was during the filming of one of their first complicated action sequences, in which Sophie and a dashing, Bond-like super-spy (Wang) make a getaway by parachuting from the top of a 55-story hotel, that Gordon began to lose faith in her stunt team. “Part of it was the language barrier and part of it was the skill set,” says Gordon, who facilitated the solution by having Zhang invite her good friend Jackie Chan to the set. “The next day, [Chan’s] team and all of their equipment were at my disposal. It was amazing; we could have never afforded that team. We have about six major stunt set pieces in the film that are all crazy-great and that team was with me every step of the way.”

There were other obstacles. When Gordon says Cuban-born cinematographer Armando Salas was “my only close English speaking ally in terms of daily production,” she means more than having a partner-in-arms when it came to how she wanted shots to be framed and composed. Together they had to set the tone of the set. “Working with a great AD you learn a thing or two,” says Gordon, “so I just channeled all the great ADs I’ve ever worked with.”

In a way Gordon’s background made her perfect for the job. Her four-year stint as a globe-hopping director on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous taught her how to be unfazed by a strange city. Though she received her master’s degree in theater directing at Yale, she made her transition into the world of film and television with A Hard Rain, a short film starring John Mahoney that did well on the film festival circuit and impressed David E. Kelley so much he hired Gordon to direct an episode of Picket Fences. After 18 years, she has directed every sort of commercial and episodic show, from Ally McBeal to 30 Rock to Hell on Wheels. (In 2000, she won the DGA Award for Outstanding Directorial Achievement in Musical/Variety for the episode of the HBO series Tracey Takes On…) Her itinerant status has given her a deep understanding of how to get a group of strangers to warm up to you. “[Movie making] is a very serious business in China,” says Gordon. To lighten the mood, she’d snap a crew member’s photo with her iPhone and e-mail it to him or her, or bring in a truckload of beer when production wrapped in a city. “Some of the guys didn’t speak a word of English, so I had to find my own way of having fun with them that crossed all language barriers,” says Gordon who always made a point to end every day by shaking each crew member’s hand and thanking them in Chinese.

Often, though, Gordon found that a snag that might be easily solved in America required an entirely different approach in China. As she explains, “In the U.S. if you have a department that is weak—say, props—after noticing this you’d go to the head of the department and, in the nicest possible way, you’d say, ‘Do you need more help? Can we give you more people?’” In the production's early days, when she was still new at Chinese professional etiquette, Gordon remembers her son chiding her for her candor. “He’d say, ‘Boy, mom, that person walked away with a pretty sour look on their face. Could you have handled that a little more delicately?’ As a woman and an American, I had to figure out how to make requests in a way that would help them save face.” Gordon eventually learned to put her Chinese translator in charge of delivering notes. “In Asia, it’s more important to circle around the problem like a series of covered wagons and protect the defect rather than fix the problem. I had to try to find very delicate ways to basically say, ‘What the fuck?’” 

Where she drew the line, however, involved the first rough cut of My Lucky Star, which was assembled by a well-known Hong Kong editor. “It didn’t have my style, my flavor, my comedy; it seemed to just keep missing the point,” says Gordon. With the assistance of the DGA, she took advantage of a clause in her contract that allowed her to do a director’s cut, which she did with the editor of her choice. “There was tremendous resistance to this, and I never knew if I’d prevail. But it made every difference in the result of the movie.”

Back in 2004, when her Olson twins comedy, New York Minute, was a disappointment at the box office, Gordon found herself an exile in the land of film directing. She regrouped by throwing herself into commercials and episodic TV. My Lucky Star, which was released in Asia in mid-September on 4,000 screens (with a limited release in the U.S.), has made her in demand again as a feature director, albeit in a country more than 6,000 miles away. This fall she’ll head to Shanghai to direct her next Chinese film, a workplace comedy called Go Lala Go! “Hopefully it’s inspiring,” says Gordon, who has three additional Chinese projects in development. “We can't get too comfortable in our positions; we always have to look where trends are moving and then stretch ourselves.”

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