So imagine you’re in a movie pitch meeting, and someone lays out the following scenario: An adventure tale, takes place in a fantastical version of ancient China embroiled in a war between monsters and man. The bumbling mayor of a rural village swallows the fertilized egg of the Monster Queen, becoming pregnant, and births the radish-like monster Dauphin, named Wuba, by vomiting. Then he goes on a martial arts and musical quest to protect the baby from being cooked by spiteful monster-haters.
Whaddaya think — green light? Well, someone signed off on it, and last year it became highest-grossing film in Chinese history.
On its way to setting records in China, Monster Hunt beat Hollywood heavyweights like Furious 7. This is, in large part, due to the deft directorial hand of Raman Hui, the Hong Kong-born animator whose experience in the weird worlds of animated DreamWorks franchises like Shrek and Kung Fu Panda allowed him to make his first leap to live action with the genre-bending Monster Hunt.
With the Chinese blockbuster currently playing in select North American theaters, I caught up with Hui to talk about worldbuilding, Chinese audiences, and the Hollywood blackout that may or may not have made Monster Hunt so successful.
Did you have any cinematic influences for Monster Hunt?
I didn’t think of a particular movie to say, “Let’s do it like that.” I had a lot of influences from DreamWorks’ animated movies because I came from DreamWorks. So when I was making Monster Hunt, even though [DreamWorks Animation CEO] Jeffrey Katzenberg wasn’t involved, there were times where I was like, “If Jeffrey saw that, what would he say?” I’d imagine him saying, “Make sure it’s good,” or, “We might need to work on it a little bit more.” So sometimes I looked at it as if Jeffrey was giving me notes.
Other influences were from a lot of American movies. Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, all those movie masters influence me.
Was creating the unique world of Monster Hunt like creating the worlds in your animated movies at DreamWorks?
Yes, because I’m so used to creating worlds. We created an entire fairytale fantasy world in Shrek, the whole underground world of insects for Antz, and Kung Fu Panda had China with no people, just animals. So I guess I’m more familiar with creating different, new worlds. It’s actually a lot of fun.
But Monster Hunt’s producer, Bill Kong, was really tough. It was different in DreamWorks because in DreamWorks everyone knew we’re creating this world and thinks about stuff we would need in the movie. With Bill it was tough because he would keep asking me questions about the world of Monster Hunt that’s not even in the movie. You have to know everything about this world. So in a way he forced me to think of all this stuff, and why. I wish I had time to write a book about this world because there would be a lot of details that you don’t even see.
What was the design process of the monsters like? They’re intentionally designed to be cartoonish but they don’t act like cartoons.
When we were designing the monsters for this movie the main thing is we didn’t want them to just be scary monsters that just scream and kill people. We want them to be able to act. So in a way it’s like casting the monsters that can play our characters. So during that process we went from very realistic monsters to something that you can feel connected to when you see them in motion.
Also, we wanted something different than a lot of other Chinese monster movies because a lot of Chinese monster movies have human actors with special makeup on them. So we ended up somewhere not totally cartoony because they still feel like they are real; they are integrated into that real world.
Was the process the same with Wuba? He’s a character that needs to be a monster, but a lovable monster.
It’s the same process. We did a few different designs of him. There was one where he even appeared more like a balloon, but he looked a little too fat and not so huggable. We didn’t intentionally make him look like a radish. That was an accident. One of the flying monsters in the movie looks like a helicopter, and it looked kind of like a plant, but at the same time it was a monster. So we applied that same design idea to Wuba and added grass on top of his head. Then one day I went food shopping and I saw a fat radish and I said, “My gosh, it looks like Wuba!” We eventually worked that in after we realized he should look like a radish.
How does it feel that your movie has become more successful in China than Hollywood movies?
I think I’m very, very lucky. Before the movie came out we were very skeptical. We didn’t know if people would think it was too different than a lot of movies that had been showing. Or what if the audience didn’t get it? I said if we didn’t lose money, then we would be very lucky. We didn’t expect it to be a huge hit like this. Even today it still feels like a dream. Having such a big success is giving me some pressure to work on the second movie. How am I going to top that?
Why do you think Chinese audiences embraced Monster Hunt?
I’ve heard that people, young people, who have seen it, first they might have watched it with their friends, and then they might go see it again with their nieces and nephews, then the word spreads and the younger kids might go see it with their parents. Then their parents might take the grandparents to see it.
So it became something that if you haven’t seen it, you should go. All your friends around you have seen it and they talk about it.
I was curious about the blackout of Hollywood movies in China. Do you think something like that is good for getting Chinese movies seen in China, and then bridging the gap to America?
It helps to encourage local, domestic movies. But even this year was a surprise to everyone. When we put the movie out in the summer, we didn’t expect summer to be a good time because all the good ones come out in the spring. Traditionally, that’s the best time to release a domestic movie because of the Spring Festival [Chinese New Year]. But we couldn’t release at that time. October was a possibility, and we couldn’t wait another year for the Spring Festival, so we decided to do it in the summer.
If you look at last summer in July, the biggest domestic movie brought in 600 million [yuan]. This summer became a breakthrough. Now everyone’s talking about releasing their movies in the summer.
At the same time, there’s also a change this year in China. If you look at the top 10 movies of 2015, the majority of them are domestic movies. So even when there’s no blackout domestic movies are having more strength now. Something happened this year where people wanted to see more domestic movies.