‘Monkey King’ rules in Prague

GOOD MORNING: All the world’s a stage — as I’ve observed over 55 years of covering the biz. I’ve seen the action from the giant stages of Hollywood studios to England and Pinewood and Elstree to Italy and the historical boards of Cinecitta. But this was a first: The stages at the Barrandov Studios in Prague. I arrived at a stage so huge it was divided in two. Both sections were being photographed for the two-part mini “The Monkey King” for Robert Halmi and Hallmark Entertainment to air in February on NBC. At the end of one half of the stage was the tallest blue screen I’ve seen. In front, Russell Wong was flying; he’s “The Monkey King.” In the other half of the stage, the mini’s leads, Thomas Gibson, Bai Ling and characters including Big Demon, Spectacles Demon, Nine Inch Nail Demon, Pointy Head Demon, Confucius, Jade Emperor, Shu, Wu and Pigsy were awaiting their calls to action in a set duplicating a mountain pass. On another set of stages at Barrandov, a giant Jade City awaited filming. Its size was reminiscent of the giant set Samuel Bronston had built in Spain for “The Fall of the Roman Empire.” Ah, all the world is indeed a stage! … Later, Gibson was to tangle with a tiger in a mountain set built in a former airplane factory just outside Prague. But the tiger is to be completely CGI’d, director Peter MacDonald told me. As “Gladiator” director Ridley Scott told me, tigers don’t take direction very well … Prague filmmaking was not like this in 1982 when MacDonald and producer Steve Harding were working together in this city on “Yentl” with director-star Barbra Streisand. (MacDonald was camera operator and Harding was assistant director.) The two men have worked together often including “Rambo III” and “Batman” in all phases behind the camera. Their production supervisor is young Michelle Weller of Milk & Honey Films of Prague. She has had experience in Hollywood at WB, and has become an invaluable part of the “King” team at Barrandov, where she did ditto duties on “Dune.” She was to have continued with Robert Halmi on “Dinotopia” at Barrandov, but with the studio’s purchase by Canada’s Kodiak and their anticipated renovation, Halmi needed more stages than available; so he tells me he’s shifted to Pinewood where he’s taking over eight stages and two tanks! In addition he’ll shoot locations in nine countries. Halmi has seen Disney’s “Dinosaur” and he confidently predicts, “Ours will be far superior. We will have interaction between the dinosaurs and humans, riding them, flying them, helping to hatch their eggs, and cohabitating in a new continent.” He will, in addition build a CGI studio for f/x needed for the $70 million six-hour ABC mini to air in the year 2002. Marco Brambilla will direct. And, a la Disney, “Dinotopia” will have a giant marketing program plus an Internet site. Simon Moore (“Gulliver’s Travels”) is scripting. Also in the future is “Voyage of the Bassett,” the first big movie for Odyssey Network, which is part of the Hallmark Entertainment Network, now in 90 countries and in 20 languages with 24-hour programming … Halmi, who has been circling the globe with his projects, now leaves for Vancouver to prep “Snow White” for ABC with Caroline Thompson directing. An offer’s been made to Jenna Malone to star. Halmi says his “Snow White” will be more adult, but there will be the seven dwarfs and evil stepmother. He is also planning to film “Faust” and will ask Peter Yates to direct. Yates helmed Hallmark’s critically praised “Don Quixote” this year. Halmi is also looking to produce original movies in addition to the classics. Halmi is also helping to add to Theatrevision’s library of films for the blind and he has already financed the conversion of his “Arabian Nights” into Theatrevision. Halmi will be a recipient of Retinitis Pigmentosa’s Lifetime Achievement Vision Award, June 17 at the BevHilton.

ACTION, SHMACKTION — the real thrust of “The Monkey King” is romance. That’s what director MacDonald and producer Harding assured me. After seeing a rough cut of assembled footage between Gibson and Bai Ling, it was obvious that’s what they were capturing. In “Anna and the King,” Bai Ling was the beautifully tragic Tuptim, whose waist-long tresses were shaved off for her execution. Now she is once-again crowned with her own hair, and her cut hair further adorns her head as a crown. Her costumes are exotically revealing and she is further glamorized with three-inch long nails (but breaks in them have been extremely painful). She told me Malaysian jungle scenes for “Monkey King” were on the same site as in “Anna” … While most of the cast spends hours in special makeup for their roles, Gibson wears none and is ready to work, he says, in 10 minutes. His costume look very much like “Indiana Jones’ ” — minus the hat, that is. Gibson told me one of the factors attracting him to this role was its “Indiana”-like charisma. Gibson, on screen in “The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas,” also had the weekend off “Monkey King” to appear with his feature “Stardom” in Cannes. In August he returns to his series, “Dharma and Greg.” He also appeared in Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.” He told me Kubrick had him standing by in England three weeks awaiting to shoot the three-minute scene — but Gibson didn’t complain. He said Kubrick was generous in allowing him to observe everything. Despite this rare lesson in directing, Gibson assured me he has no intention of directing — ever!

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