Man who built a bridge to Asian talent

Terence Chang talks about his partnership with Woo

Terence Chang, John Woo’s longtime producing partner and closest ally in making the transition to Hollywood, dates his friendship with the Hong Kong helmer as far back as 1978.

“I went back home to Hong Kong after film school at NYU to work for Golden Harvest, and John was a big comedy director,” he recalls. “Our first project together fell through, and it was 10 years later when I was at Film Workshop and John was a contract director that we did ‘The Killer.’?”

Chang helped the film land high-profile spots at the Sundance, Cannes and Toronto film festivals, partnering with Woo to form Milestone Pictures, where the director made “Once a Thief” and “Hard Boiled.”

While Chang had lived in America for a decade, understood the culture and had made many contacts, the transition to Hollywood for Woo “was a big challenge,” he reports. “John’s language skills weren’t good enough for him to direct big American films, and it took a while for him to learn. So I went to Hollywood with him and helped him navigate the studios and adapt to a whole new environment.”

Despite the obstacles in Woo’s path, his reputation for expertly handling elaborately choreographed stunts and over-the-top action sequences made him a top choice to helm the biggest action pics in town.

“John loved the Bond films, and we met (producer) Cubby Broccoli about doing ‘GoldenEye,’ although they eventually went with Martin Campbell,” Chang says. “And we talked to Tom Cruise about a project called ‘The Devil’s Soldier’ by Caleb Carr, a true story about an American soldier of fortune in the Chinese civil war that was eerily similar to Tom’s ‘The Last Samurai.’ That didn’t happen, but Tom came back to us for ‘MI2.’?”

Woo wasn’t the only one to benefit from Chang’s guidance. The producer played an instrumental role in shepherding Asian talent during the ’80s and ’90s, helping launch the Hollywood careers of Brandon Lee, Michelle Yeoh, Chow Yun-fat (whom he also managed) and writer Lilian Lee (“Farewell, My Concubine”).

“Hollywood was very open to foreign talent back then,” Chang says. “The role Michelle played in ‘Tomorrow Never Dies’ was actually written for a man, but the Broccolis were so impressed with her that they agreed to change it,” he reveals. Similarly, Chow’s role in “The Replacement Killers” had been written for a Caucasian, “and we changed that too.”

“But times have changed in Hollywood,” notes Chang. “John doesn’t want to do action films anymore. We get offered a ton of them, but he passes on everything. He won’t do another ‘MI2,’ as he’s already done it. The only way he can do dramas and so on is to move back to China, which is the market he’s focused on now.”

Chang also now divides his time between Hollywood and Asia. “I still want to do Holly-wood films, but with a strong Asian element,” he sums up. “Half my time is making Chinese films, and it’s a huge market.”