Zhang Jizhong plans $300 mil adaptation of folk tale

BEIJING — Top Chinese TV producer Zhang Jizhong has signed up best-selling author Neil Gaiman to write a script for a $300 million adaptation of the ancient Chinese folk tale “Journey to the West.”

Getting Gaiman (“Coraline”) on board adds real heft to Zhang’s bid to make what he hopes will be the first true crossover Sino-Western epic.

The “Stardust” and “The Graveyard” novelist and his “Sandman” series won many awards. He is the first author to win both the Newbery and the Carnegie awards for the same work.

James Cameron will advise on script matters and technology issues, such as 3D, Zhang said at a briefing in Beijing, and among the helmers they are considering is Guillermo del Toro, who is a close friend of Gaiman.

“He has shown a lot of interest but he wants to see the treatment first. Obviously the more celebrated the director, the busier they are,” Zhang said.

Since he started working on the project, Zhang has been keen to make it an epic on a Hollywood scale. The plan is three films initially, each with a budget of at least $100 million.

“My wish would be that half of the funding comes from China, and half of the funding comes from Hollywood, but I know most of the money will come from China since now it is so easy to get funding here.

“Huayi Brothers are willing to take part, and China Film Group, but this is all in the future, for now we need to go through certain procedures to get there,” said Zhang.

“Journey” is a rollicking 500-year-old story by Wu Cheng’en, detailing the events that befall the Monkey King, armed with a magic staff, as he journeys with a monk, a pig spirit and a fish spirit to India to retrieve Buddha’s scrolls in an effort to find enlightenment.

The movie will be shot in English using a mixture of Western and Chinese thesps, though the production will be in China to take advantage of cheaper production costs here. Coin would come from local Chinese backers, and there would also be lots of intangible benefits in the shape of support from local governments in China.

“One million dollars is worth twice that if you shoot here,” said Zhang.

“I’m looking forward to the treatment, but as James Cameron told me, I need to be patient. I work in TV usually, so I’m used to things happening quickly. I need to focus on the script and make sure it’s a good story,” said Zhang.

Gaiman has just come back from a trip to Yunnan province with Zhang to look at areas that might inspire the scribe, and he has travelled extensively in China personally.

Earlier experiments with other writers foundered, but Zhang was impressed by Gaiman’s interest in, or even obsession with, the “Journey” story.

A couple of years back Britpop legend Damon Albarn made an opera based on “Journey to the West,” and Zhang has made a mammoth TV series of “Journey.”

The story is hugely popular in China, both as a book and in numerous TV and screen incarnations — a TV version by the helmer Yang Jie topped all ratings in China back in 1986.

A Japanese version of the show, “Monkey,” which was shot in Northeastern China with Japanese thesps, then subsequently dubbed into English, was a monster hit in the late 1970s when it was broadcast in Blighty and Oz, and still enjoys cult status among 30-somethings and above, including Gaiman, who has been obsessed with “Journey” since the Japanese show.

The Chinese are fiercely protective of “Journey” and you often hear people say that Westerners don’t get it. Gaiman doesn’t mind.

“There is nothing inherently Greek about ‘The Odyssey.’ These are big stories that work with people. There are 2,000 pages filled with adventures. The delight and the challenge is to write a story that for 1.4 billion people is in their DNA,” he said.

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