INTERVIEW: Allan Miller's Big Wonders; Zhang Yimou, Puccini, and "The Turandot Project"
by DSuzanne Ely
Put together a Puccini opera, an Academy Award-winning documentarian, a Fifth generation Chinese filmmaker and the world’s leading conductor — and the results are all but guaranteed to be epic in scope. This is the case with “The Turandot Project” — a feature length documentary about the unique collaboration of conductor Zubin Mehta, director Zhang Yimou (“Raise The Red Lantern,” “Not One Less”) and their staging of the “Turandot” opera in the ancient Forbidden City in Beijing, China.
Filmmaker Allan Miller chronicles the grand production of Puccini’s “Turandot” opera in Florence, Italy in 1997, and it’s subsequent journey to Beijing. The opera itself is the tragic Chinese story of a princess named Turandot, who will only marry the man able to correctly answer her three riddles. While the unfortunate male suitors who incorrectly answer are executed, a stranger, Calaf, arrives in town and takes on Turandot’s challenge. Miller, who has directed 35 documentaries about music, has won two Academy Awards for his work. His 1996 film, “Small Wonders,” which was also nominated for an Academy Award, was subsequently turned into the feature length, Meryl Streep film, “Music Of The Heart.”
Allan Miller saw the opportunity of a lifetime when he learned that Zubin Mehta and Zhang Yimou were determined to bring “Turandot” to the Forbidden City. Miller takes his camera behind the scenes to bear witness to their joint effort to bring the legendary opera back home — and the duo’s struggle for authenticity in their production. Miller spoke with indieWIRE about the difficulties in filming and editing the mammoth “Turandot” production, communicating with Zhang Yimou only through translators, why opera lends itself so readily to film and the task of bridging cultural divides.
“The Turandot Project” opens in New York August 10th and in Los Angeles August 24th.
indieWIRE: What was the budget for “The Turandot Project”? I read that the “Turandot” opera alone cost $15 million to stage.
“I’m a very strong baseball fan, and eventually you get to know these baseball players, not by the numbers on the back of their shirts, but by the way they walk. And I thought: wouldn’t it be great if people got to know musicians and performers the same way?”
Allan Miller: You’re not going to believe this, but I don’t know. One of the glories of being a director and not the producer is that I don’t ever know as things go on what gets edited and what gets subtracted.
iW: What is your background? How did you come to get involved in documentaries?
Allan Miller:I was trained as a musician; I was a symphony conductor. When I first got married, I needed a job. Channel 13 (WNET in New York, provider for PBS) was just opening and they needed somebody who knew music to help with their music programs. My original task was just to keep them honest. I taught them how to spell Tchaikovsky, and I taught them what quartets were.
As I began to work with them on all of their music programs, I started to see that they weren’t very interesting. That’s because the original approach to music on film and television was dealing mostly with performance. And they figured that they’d put the camera in the best seat in the concert hall and just leave it there. But first of all, the camera has one eye and we have two, and we shift around — we look here, we look there — we look at various places. And they didn’t account for that and it was really quite boring. So I said,