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Why Simon West Is Making Movies in China (EXCLUSIVE)

British director Simon West (“Lara Croft: Tomb Raider,” “Con Air,” “The Expendables 2”) is set to dive further into the Middle Kingdom at the helm of his second Chinese action-adventure blockbuster. The Wanda-backed “The Legend Hunters,” hits theaters next summer. West was brought onto the project by veteran producer Eryong, who had approached him about a project in China 12 years ago that later fell through.

“Legend Hunters” follows West’s first foray into the country, the upcoming volcano disaster flick “Skyfire.” He is currently in early stage discussions about two or three other potential Chinese projects that range from sci-fi to period pieces to his specialty, action-adventure, and says he’s in the midst of “negotiating the rights to some very big Chinese IP.” He spoke to Variety about the differences between working in Hollywood and China and his thoughts on the future of co-productions.

Why are you directing so many films abroad?

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It’s just coincidence, really. I did “Skyfire” and I didn’t necessarily think I’d be going on to another one, but of course one thing leads to another. I think there’s going to be a much bigger connection now between me and China because once you’ve been here, worked here and met people, you feel comfortable with them and start dialoguing. Before you know it, you’re doing a lot of stuff here. China is a huge market now; you can have something that’s pretty successful in the States, but it’ll do twice as well here. The energy is redirecting towards China in the film business.”

Do you still believe in traditional US-China co-productions?

There’s a danger that if you come over with too many people, you get this weird mismatch that’s happened in the past. You don’t do either side well: It’s not a Hollywood production and it’s not a Chinese production. If you’re just making an American film and you want China as a location, that’s one thing, but if you want a true co-production that works in China, I think you need a lot of the Chinese talent on it to give it the cultural realism. There’s a lot of subtle cultural differences, and China is all about subtlety.

What are they? What do Chinese audiences want that’s different from American ones?

It’s quickly becoming the same as what world audiences want – they’re not that different, but you have to get those little differences right. It’s to do with how people interact: how a parent talks to a child, how a romantic couple talks, what they would or wouldn’t do. Etiquette, sense of humor. You can really lose people if you make a couple of stupid mistakes.

In the past, I think Chinese films haven’t been so rigid about logic and plot. Westerners are obsessed with how every plot hole has to be plugged in the story, which often can make films a bit boring actually, because they become so mathematically correct that you can lose some of the emotion and excitement, the rawness. From what I’ve seen, Chinese films go much more for the emotion — “do I like these people and is it fun” — rather than “does every single thing make sense,” the way we [in the West] look at a film.

What’s different about filmmaking in the U.S. compared to China?

In over 100 years of filmmaking, Hollywood has got the organizational part of it down to a science. It’s like building cars, this very mechanical system that they’ve pared it down to, almost like a computer program. This is a good and bad thing. You get formulaic films just churned out in Hollywood that are very efficiently made, that look sort of okay but they don’t really touch you. [Then] you get films where, with a bit more prep and organization, the artist making them would have had more freedom and space to tell a story well instead of trying to solve practical problems all the time. [I find] the predictable framework makes the artistic side really easy, because you get security from it: I know how many days I’ve got, how much money I can spend, how long the days have to be. It actually makes you feel more secure rather than being hemmed in.

There are obviously great filmmakers in China, but if it’s going to be an industry like Hollywood is, it needs to get its production formula in place. I think it can come from the top down. The old studio system…is sort of like adult supervision. Sometimes it can be oppressive, or interferes with the creative in some ways, but it also stops filmmakers from getting in trouble before it’s too late.

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