"I don't think of this as a road movie," filmmaker Wong Kar Wai told New Yorkers last night, during a conversation about his new movie, "My Blueberry Nights," which was partially filmed in Lower Manhattan. "The original idea was to have the film just be about Norah and her relationship with the owners of this restaurant," Wong Kar Wai revealed. "But it was too expensive to shoot just in New York and the characters began to expand across the country."
The film follows a year in the life of Elizabeth, played by Norah Jones, as she suffers from a bad breakup and travels from New York across the country seeking closure and understanding. Rachel Weisz, David Strathairn, Natalie Portman and Jude Law round out the cast of characters she encounters along her journey. On his first time working with American actors Wong spoke highly: "I was surprised because I thought there would be a big difference. But I see a lot of Tony (Leung) in Jude Law and a lot of Gong Li in Rachel Weisz."
A large crowd crammed into the Apple Store Soho theater last night to catch a glimpse of enigmatic filmmaker, during the special conversation presented by indieWIRE. "Blueberry Nights," his first English language film, will open on Friday. Wong, who has risen to international acclaim with films such as "Chungking Express" and "In the Mood for Love," was in full form, donning his famous black sunglasses and happily answering the questions from moderator Dennis Lim and the audience.
"My Blueberry Nights" opened last year's Cannes Film Festival to mixed to negative reviews, but the cut to be released Friday is reportedly quite different than the one shown at the festival, the running time cut down by over twenty minutes. But, the audience at the Apple Store seemed generally excited about the clips that were shown, prompting hope that the theatrical release version could be far superior to the Cannes screening.
When asked how his method of working changed when he came to America he replied: "I needed a lot of help with the script, I really had to work to understand Norah's journey and also work hard to understand America." Although he shot "Happy Together," a film which earned him the best director prize at Cannes, in Argentina, he doesn't feel that film was about Argentines or the main character's relationship to that country.
"A big difference between making films in America verses Hong Kong is the amount of paperwork and unions involved," admitted the director. "I had to keep being reminded that everyone had to have a scheduled lunch break. In Hong Kong we don't have issues like that. But I believe when you work in another country you have to respect its rules."
Aside from shooting in another country, the other big change with "My Blueberry Nights" is the absence of Wong Kar Wai's long term cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Doyle helped define his style working with him steadily from his first hit "Days of Being Wild" up to "2046." Veteran cinematographer Darius Khondji ("The City of Lost Children," "Se7en") took the reins. And Wong Kar Wai spoke highly of Khondji, but admitted feeling the loss of a long-term comrade: "It's quite different than working with Chris, because our communication was without words. Darius has a huge respect for Chris Doyle's work and he kept asking me how Chris would shoot a certain scene. I always replied that it doesn't matter the way Chris would shoot, because I wanted it to come from him. But both men are very sensitive to film and both are very involved."
When an audience member asked why so many of his films are set around restaurants and food shops the director laughed. "As a writer I spent most of my time in coffee shops, so I can tell you the best coffee shops in Hong Kong. I like them because they're very intimate places. Bars I like too because it's a place where people go to meet strangers. Bars give you a good sense of community."
But when asked to elaborate on the themes of his films Wong remained quiet, admitting that he follows the Matisse quote that "artists should cut out their tongues" for fear of not letting their work be self-explanatory. But he did summarize the following concerning "Blueberry Nights": "I've noticed that American cuisine is full of sweets. I don't like deserts myself, but I feel like the theme of the film is finding the bitterness under the sweet. But it's also about that moment in our lives when we have to let go, when something just isn't working and it's time to go."
In other insights on his work, Wong told the audience that he has found the master print of "Ashes of Time," his early-nineties, post-modern, Wuxia epic. He announced that instead of doing a re-release of the film, he is going to incorporate some of the unseen footage for a complete recut.