How a Bruce Lee Origin Tale Is Taking Flight With Chinese Money and Abundant Diplomacy

bruce lee
Moviestore Collection/REX Shutterstock

Despite clouds and the threat of rain, San Francisco spreads gloriously before director George Nolfi and the cast and crew of “Birth of the Dragon.” From their perch high atop Twin Peaks, they are shooting the climactic shot of the “kung fu fable” — their Steve McQueen-ish hero riding his motorcycle off to a new life.

When the sun shoots suddenly through the gloom, Nolfi shouts for another take: “Get the motorcycle down here! There’s light on the city!” And, indeed, just as doubles for Billy Magnussen and his girlfriend (played by Jingjing Qu) roar past, sunlight splashes across the panorama and the golden dome of City Hall behind them.

“That was great, right?” the usually more reserved director Nolfi calls across the hillside. “That was bad ass!”

The makers of “Birth of the Dragon” have much to celebrate, beyond Mother Nature’s gift. Their origin tale on the emergence of Bruce Lee as martial arts superstar and cross-cultural role model is nearing the end of its 45-day shoot. They stand ready to capitalize on one of the few figures who could resonate with audiences from Dallas to Hangzhou – promising a shot at box office magic in the two biggest film-viewing nations in the world. And, unusually, the Chinese-American co-production obtained its entire $31 million production budget from a single Chinese company, Kylin Pictures, a rarity in a business in which risk and reward are normally sliced in myriad ways.

The fact that “Birth of the Dragon” arrived at this juncture — with principal photography wrapping in Vancouver this week with Hong Kong-born Philip Ng playing Lee — is a tribute to the tenacity and determination of its producers on both sides of the Pacific. It’s also a case study in the cultural acuity required in still fledgling Sino-American entertainment collaborations.

For director Nolfi that meant traveling to China at the 11th hour, on the eve of shooting, to drink copious baijiu toasts with his producers and other hosts, to dine on live scorpions and to submit to a (literal) throw-down from a martial arts master. For producer Michael London, of Groundswell Productions, it meant making an emergency trip to China over the Christmas holiday, when the Chinese funding spigot  threatened to run dry.

“You have a Chinese company funding a movie about one of the great icons of the global film industry and making the first film actually about this icon that will be seen in China and it is being produced by an American company. Now, how cool is that? That is really cross-pollination,” said Andre Morgan, the producer behind the 1973 documentary “Bruce Lee: The Man and the Legend” and longtime China hand.

“Birth of the Dragon” springs from the true story of Bruce Lee’s 1965 showdown with Wong Jack Man, another martial arts master. It is set against the backdrop of San Francisco’s Chinatown and under the shadow of the Hong Kong organized crime triads. Magnussen plays Steve McKee, the audience’s emissary to this emerging world, caught between the two martial arts masters.

The project gained steam with a script from Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele, the team behind two previous winning stories about major historical figures, “Nixon” and “Ali” and then the signing of Nolfi (who helmed the Emily Blunt, Matt Damon-starrer “The Adjustment Bureau”) to direct.

Director George Nolfi
Courtesy of Groundswell Productions

London and the other producers (Groundswell’s Janice Williams, Wilkinson and Rivele, with Groundswell’s Kelly Mullen executive producing) intended to have a mostly Chinese and Chinese-American cast and to shoot in the Middle Kingdom, so it made sense to look for a Chinese financial backer.

The power of the Asian market and financing has been clear to Western filmmakers for years, but myriad deals (investment in Jeff Berg’s Resolution agency, a Legendary Pictures buy-in by Huayi Brothers, for example) have fallen apart before they became final.

The biggest Asian companies did not step forward but Kylin, headed by CEO James Pang and previous funder of 50% of the Pierce Brosnan vehicle, “The Moon and The Sun,” expressed interest. Kylin’s U.S. representative, Leo Shi Young, said the company saw an opportunity in the Lee origin tale to create the kind of breakthrough long desired in China but seldom achieved: a Chinese-themed film that would attract a U.S. and international audience.

“The motivation, the push, is to go to the international, into the U.S. and European market, because China’s domestic film market, alone, is crowded,” said Shi Young. “We want to make good films and the filmmaking standard [in China] is not always high.”

The $31 million commitment, solely from the company, was unusual for such trans-Pacific partnerships that typically have multiple funding sources. It initially was received as both a blessing and a concern by the U.S. partners.

“My reps across the board said, ‘We know you love this project but there have been lot of projects with Chinese financing and you have to assume it will fall apart,’ ” Nolfi recalled. But the director was originally a student of political philosophy and international relations at Princeton and then Oxford, before turning to screenwriting. “Dragon” suited his internationalist sensibilities.

“It’s a film about how those people come into conflict but ultimately make the world better because of their interaction,” Nolfi said, at the end of a day of shooting in San Francisco. “I don’t think there is a more important theme to address in a world that is in the kind of persistent cultural conflict that we are in.”

Nolfi was in final preparations to begin shooting in November when his Kylin partners insisted he come to China to meet luminaries and tour sites important in the development of Kung Fu. Such a junket initially seemed a distraction. “I was very apprehensive about taking a trip two weeks before I shot,” Nolfi said.

But Kylin agreed to give him additional prep days and Nolfi agreed to the tour. His hosts felt it was important that their director see firsthand the birthplaces of tai chi and shaolin, among the disciplines Lee combined to create his own unique fighting style. A contingent of eight or more also joined him in the Shunde district in the southern city of Foshan, where the young Bruce Lee spent much of his youth, after his birth in San Francisco.

At his first stop, in the city of Hangzhou, Nolfi got a demonstration from a tai chi luminary, Master Wang, who promptly put the filmmaker on the ground, in one deft move. “There’s nothing like getting knocked down by a 73-year-old man in front of 30 cameras,” Nolfi said.

Nolfi quickly embraced the tour and the chance to get a better sense of the culture that spawned two of his leading characters, Lee and his rival, Wong Jack Man. The filmmaker met Communist Party officials, local politicians and the press, in droves. In a nation where film publicity is driven, not by paid television ads, but by free media and social media, the American was followed by a horde of journalists. His Kylin hosts alone took more than 6,000 photos.

And each stop included expansive banquets and multiple toasts of potent baijiu liquor. Nolfi tried to make the most of the opportunity. At one stop, he met a bureaucrat who oversees Yuntai Mountain Park. Many Chinese will recognize the nature reserve as sitting on the border of the homes of two competing martial arts traditions.

Nolfi determined that the veritable Mount Olympus was symbolically the perfect locale for an opening scene that features a confrontation between two masters. So, already six potent drinks into an endless lunch, he rose to formally ask the administrator who oversees the park for his blessing to film there. The bureaucrat rose to propose yet another toast. Nolfi accepted. “I haven’t had to drink like that in a long time,” Nolfi said. He expects to be shooting in Yuntai in March.

The filmmaker understood that he had to make his financiers comfortable with his cultural sensitivity. “Kung Fu is maybe the most famous element of Chinese culture to travel the rest of the world,” he said. “They care about how some Western guy is going to portray it.” Nolfi passed the test, said Kylin’s Shi Young. “It turned out to be a very fruitful trip,” said Shi Young. “He understands now, I believe, much better.”

The director’s road trip sealed his relationship with his Kylin. He began filming in Vancouver just days later. But business across the International Date Line can hit unexpected bumps, even after a deal is sealed.

In December, with the Chinese economy stalling and the value of the yuan dropping, the “Dragon” producers became convinced that the Chinese government clamped down on currency conversions to dollars. Why? Because they experienced a sudden and ill-timed interruption in the flow of funds from Kylin, midway through the shoot.

Kylin had asked that London fly to China for a ceremonial press conference, just four days before Christmas. London agreed to go, but wanted assurances that the flow of dollars would resume. Happily, by the time he landed after an 13-hour flight, the money had transferred. The producer could keep paying his cast and crew. “The money showed up,” London said, “because Kylin was able to use its resources and connections to work around the government mandate.”

Now, “The Birth of the Dragon” is cruising toward a wrap. Hong Kong-born, Chicago-raised Philip Ng is amazing the crew with his fighting skills, as the pre-legend Lee. The ebullient Magnussen (Kato Kaelin in the upcoming “The People v. O.J. Simpson”) hugs visitors to the set and occasionally shouts with glee, “We’re making a Kung Fu movie!”

And Nolfi feels he has been given a gift to act as a cross cultural ambassador.

“And it is my sincerest hope that the Chinese American people and our government get closer and closer together, because you cannot solve the world’s problems without them getting together,” says the one-time diplomacy student.

But the film director knows that, to score a real victory, he needs more than just goodwill. “I don’t want to make just an action movie or just a Kung Fu movie,” Nolfi said. “I want to make a film with something to say, but also a movie that is fun and a little fanciful.”