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Bruce Beresford Takes a Crash Course for “Mao’s Last Dancer”

Bruce Beresford Takes a Crash Course for "Mao's Last Dancer"

Bruce Beresford, one of Australia’s most highly revered working directors, has completed over thirty features over the span of his forty year career, including “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Black Robe,” and “Tender Mercies.” His latest, “Mao’s Last Dancer,” which had its world premiere at last year’s Toronto International Film Festival, marks his 32nd feature film, and the first of his that explores the world of dance. Below is an interview with the acclaimed director, where he discusses the challenges of shooting in China, and finding dancers that could act. The film opens in theaters today via Samuel Goldwyn Films/ ATO Pictures.

Born in 1961, Li Cunxin lived with his six brothers and impoverished parents in China’s Shandong Province. His family was destined to be laborers, but when recruiters from Madame Mao’s ballet academy in Beijing swept through his single-room school in search of untapped talent to mold into the future leading lights of the Cultural Revolution, eleven-year-old Li was selected, and committed to a strange new life of stringent training, both artistic and ideological. At first, the experience overwhelmed, but when an audacious teacher introduced him to the works of great international performers (via concealed videotapes, no less), Li (played as a young adult by dancer Chi Cao) realized dance’s true revolutionary potential.

Practicing by candlelight and jumping up stairs with sandbags tied to his ankles to build his strength while his peers slept, Li became the school’s top dancer. Discovered by Ben Stevenson (played by Canada’s Bruce Greenwood), the artistic director of the Houston Ballet and part of the first American cultural delegation to Communist China, Li in turn was one of the first exchange students allowed by Mao’s regime to go to America. After a brief bout with culture shock – Houston’s malls and so-called Chinese restaurants were alien spheres to him – he quickly fell in love with America’s freedom and one of its winsome daughters. When his exchange ended, Li refused to return to China, leading to a dramatic standoff at the consulate that made headlines across the United States. [Synopsis courtesy of the Toronto International Film Festival]

Bruce Beresford on his filmmaking early days in Australia…

I wanted to be a film director from around the age of five. We lived in a country town in Australia, Springwood, and I was allowed to go to the local theater on Saturday afternoons. I started making 8mm films around the age of 12, using various school friends in the acting roles. I shifted to 16mm around the age of 16 and also made a few more shorts that were somewhat more mature. A 1957 film, “The Hunter” – about a kangaroo hunter, made it to a couple of festivals and attracted some good notices. I continued to make films (lousy ones) while a student at Sydney University, then drifted into the professional industry after graduating in 1963.

Beresford on how he originally dismissed the idea of making “Mao’s Last Dancer”…

The film is based on the best selling autobiography of a Chinese ballet dancer, Li Cunxin, who defected to America in 1981. He was then kidnapped by the Chinese and finally released through the intervention of a Houston lawyer and the Vice President, George Bush Sr. At first I dismissed the idea of the story being filmable as I didn’t think a leading man could be found – we would need a Chinese ballet dancer of outstanding ability, good looking, with acting talent, and fluent in both Chinese and English. I didn’t think there would be such a person. However, we found Chi Chao dancing with the Birmingham Royal Ballet – and he fulfilled all the requirements. The producer, Jane Scott, took out an option on Li Cunxin’s book and simply took a huge gamble that the lead could be found.

Beresford on shooting his first dance film…

I insisted from the beginning that we had no alternative but to have real ballet dancers in the acting roles. There is no way of faking the dancing with either doubles or camera tricks. We had the co-operation of the Australian Ballet and the choreographer, Graeme Murphy, went to China, visited a number of cities and found a number of young dancers for the Chinese sequences.

I knew very little about ballet before beginning the film. I did a crash course. I went to a number of ballets in Australia, saw all the ballet movies I could find ( there are only half a dozen) and watched dozens of famous ballet performances on DVD. I realized that the dancing looked best when filmed fairly simply, with the dancers viewed from head to foot.

And on the challenge of shooting the film in China, and in Chinese…

We had to get permission to film in China for some months – a tricky proposition as they were still sensitive about Li Cunxin’s defection and not anxious to see it publicized. They also didn’t want the story to include any references to the disgraced Madame Mao, wife of Chairman Mao. But, with the diplomatic skill of a Chinese co-producer and the determination of the Australian producer (Jane Scott), we got into the country and shot all the Chinese scenes either in Beijing or a rural area around 100 miles out into the countryside.

It was tricky at first for me to direct a number of sequences in Chinese. A language I don’t speak. But as I always knew what the actors were talking about through my English translation, I quickly settled down and convinced myself I could understand every word. A translator stood by my side throughout and rapidly conveyed my directions to the Chinese actors.

A scene from Bruce Beresford’s “Mao’s Last Dancer.” Photo courtesy of Samuel Goldwyn Films/ ATO Pictures.

It is an inspiring true story, not without humor, and with a basically optimistic theme – of individual achievement despite tremendous odds – that I think has appeal in an era where so many films have depressing subject matter.

Beresford on whether he watches other films as inspiration while working…

I never really think of other films when I’m working. I just concentrate on the story I’m telling. I just look at the scene and ask myself what it is trying to convey, then I attempt to convey it as directly as I can. I try harder not to be influenced by other films than to be influenced.

And on what we can expect next…

I have at least six projects in the pipeline. All are very interesting and amazingly varied. It’s a matter of finding the finance – difficult these days. Investors are wary as such a large percentage of the potential audience watches the films free – on the internet or with bootleg copies.

I am directing a film now in New York – “Peace Love and Misunderstanding” a touching comedy/drama with Jane Fonda, Catherine Keener, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Elizabeth Olsen, Nat Wolff and Kyle McLachlan. Once this is edited, around Christmas, I’m returning to Australia to direct the opera “Of Mice and Men” – a great work by the American composer Carlisle Floyd. This will be the Australian premiere.

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