The making of 'Mao' was riddled with complications

BRUCE BERESFORD’S “Mao’s Last Dancer” is off to a sprightly start at the U.S. B.O. — by Sunday it had cumed close to $1.2 million at 75 venues following its impressive $14 million run in Australia last year — but at one point the helmer worried that the film would never be made.

He and producer Jane Scott, who had already raised the money for the picture, couldn’t find an actor to play the lead role of Li Cunxin, the dancer who defected from China in 1981 to join the Houston Ballet, and on whose autobiography the movie is based.

Finally they discovered Chi Cao, a Chinese dancer with the U.K.’s Birmingham Ballet, offered him the role, and once that hurdle was overcome, the producers took other challenges in their stride.

Some were logistical, such as finding a village to shoot the scenes of Li’s impoverished boyhood in the early ’70’s, where he was discovered by scouts for the Beijing Dance Academy. “Most villages have been modernized,” said Beresford. Then one of his Chinese crewmembers located some old farmhouses that were still standing.

More daunting was the cultural challenge of getting the story to pass muster with Chinese officials — especially since one of the characters is Madame Mao, China’s first lady and a major influence on the country’s cultural life. “They’ve written her out of the history books and were adamant that we not put her in the film,” said Beresford. “But Jane and I felt we couldn’t take her out, so we just went ahead.”

Although no officials were present during the shoot, the crew was almost exclusively Chinese and “they told me I could be sure that someone here is reporting on what we’re doing,” said Beresford. “I kept thinking they’d show up and I’d spend the rest of my life on a pig farm in Manchuria.”

Indeed, one day a group of soldiers did appear at the production office and demanded access to all the files. Beresford and Scott’s Chinese production partner, Geng Ling, instructed the female crewmembers to round up all the laptops and take them into the toilets. “The soldiers were too embarassed to go in there,” said Beresford. “They hung around for a while, then they left.”

There was never a problem with finding resources in China, said Beresford, pointing to the nation’s large film industry and deep crew base. He and d.p. Peter James considered shooting digitally but “getting digital gear into China was too complicated, so we used 35mm film cameras,” he said.

Beresford opted to use digital Red cameras on “Peace, Love, and Misunderstanding,” which he’s now shooting in Upstate New York with Jane Fonda and Catherine Keener. D.p. Andre Fleuren shot second unit on “Dancer.”

“It’s good to be able to do many takes, but the cameras need a lot of attention,” said Beresford. “You wait for them to warm up, you’ve got cables everywhere, and the cameraman spends half his time in a tent checking color balance.”

“Dancer’s” portrayal of Madame Mao precludes any possiblity of its release in China. “But there are bootleg DVDs there,” Beresford said. “Chi Cao told me his father bought 100 copies from a street vendor.”

Signings & Bookings

Innovative Artists has signed producer/UPM Elaine Dysinger (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”), d.p. Scott Galinsky (“CSI: Crime Scene Investigation”) and costume designer Kate Healey (“The Contract”).

Agency has booked editors Maysie Hoy on Tyler Perry’s “Madea’s Big Happy Family,” Larry Bock on NBC’s “Community,” John Valerio on TNT’s “Men of a Certain Age,” Matt Ramsey on ABC’s “Off the Map,” Ned Bastille on Nickelodeon’s “Supah Ninjas,” Michelle Botticelli on MTV’s Bar Karma and Michael Knue on Lifetime’s “Marry Me”

Other IA bookings: d.p.s Joe Pennella on Fox’s “Traffic Light,” Denny Hall on TBS’ “Franklin and Bash,” Walt Fraser on Fox’s “Raising Hope,” Levie Isaacks and John Flinn on CBS’ “CSI: NY,” Zoran Popovic on Julian Richards’ “Shiver,” Denis Maloney on Brian Herzlinger’s “The Prodigal: Movie” and Bengt Jan Jonsson on David Brooks’ “ATM”; production designers Ray Kluga on Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie” and Tony Cowley on an untitled Josh Berman project for Lifetime; and stunt coordinator Jack Gill on David Wain’s “Wanderlust.”

peter.caranicas@variety.com

For earlier Signings & Bookings and to read previous columns, visit Variety.com/Caranicas

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