OLEG STEPCHENKO Red dragon of the Russian Resurrection

One of the upcoming highlights of the Russian Resurrection Film Festival has to be Journey to China: Mystery of the Dragon Seal. Not only does the film provide a sequel to the popular Forbidden Empire (2014), launching wayward explorer Jonathan Green towards even more fantastical adventures, but it also stars a phenomenal international cast, including Jackie Chan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Dance, Jason Flemyng and Rutger Hauer. DAVID O’CONNELL spoke to director Oleg Stepchenko about his latest fantasy epic, and what it was like to work with some of the greatest action stars of the silver screen. The Russian Resurrection Film Festival runs this weekend and next week from October 25-30 at Event Cinemas Innaloo. Check the website for session times.

Obviously you’re very familiar with the fantasy action genre, but was it a change for you to direct a piece that captures the spirit of Wuxia films?

I am very glad you asked this question. It means that you saw my previous film (Viy, or Forbidden Empire as it known internationally). Yes, of course, one cannot stay untouched or unaffected by the atmosphere of Wuxia films when you are working on fantasy action in China.

I hope I was successful in creating a mix of Russian history about the conspiracy theory surrounding Peter the Great and his substitute, the legend of The Man in the Iron Mask, as well as the ancient oriental legend about the Dragon, from whose eyelashes sprouted a tea-plant. This reminded me of the story of Viy by Nickolai Gogol. When we decided to shoot in China, it became clear that we cannot do without Kung Fu. So we invited to the project stunt coordinator, Jun He, who had worked with Jackie Chan and the Jackie Chan Stunt Team for 20 years. The stunts that he created for our film are world class top stunts.

Did the wire and stunt work add a lot of complexity to the shoot?

All of the stunts that you see in the movie are life threatening, so all the actors always used wires, which were firmly attached to their costumes. The whole system worked like clockwork. Some actors could not overcome their fear of heights, so we had to bring them down onto land and shoot the scenes in front of green screens; the actors were able to capture how scared they looked but at least they could clearly say their lines.

Were there any works (either film or novel) that provided inspiration for Journey to China: The Mystery of the Dragon’s Seal (Viy 2)?

​When I was a teenager and lived in the Soviet Union, the first movies that inspired me were Jackie Chan and Bruce Lee movies. I would copy all their moves, and learnt Kung Fu by doing this.

At the same time, I really like films directed by Andrey Tarkovsky. And then, House of Flying Daggers by Yimou Zhang was released. This prompted me to create a sense of Russian perception of the world mixed with Chinese action.​

What was it like to work with Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger?

​I think any director in the world would dream of working with such legends of international cinema, as Jackie and Arnold. At the beginning I was very nervous, but when they came onto the set and started working on their characters, I quickly realised that they had come prepared, rehearsed and knew their lines. After that realisation, it became a pleasure to work with them. I did not need to explain what the movie was all about, I simply needed to explain specific details. They would always egg each other on, joke around, so everything would become more fun and full of energy.

There was this one scene, where I came up to Arnold and asked him to pull harder on the chain, it needs it to be fully stretched. He replied: “I am pulling it hard, it is Jackie who cannot hold on to it.” So I went over to Jackie and jokingly said: “Jackie, you’re not doing a good job with the chain”. He exploded: “Me? Pulling bad?” So both of them, Arnold and Jackie started to pull on the chain with all their might. They were serious when they started to do this, which made it even funnier to watch. Of course, they are both great comedians and that made the shoot more interesting by the day. The mood on set was just fantastic.

What was it like to stage a fight between two of the biggest icons of action stars of the 80s and 90s?

We invited them both to the film, just for that particular scene. At the beginning we thought to ourselves – who could combat Jackie Chan? We thought of many worthy candidates, such as Jason Statham, but we had a clash with his schedule. Even Brad Pitt was happy to work with Jackie, but Jackie said: He is not a fighter!” So we kept searching. Tom Hardy was happy to take up the opportunity to work with Jackie, but our Chinese producers asked: “who is he again?”. We actually sent a request off to Arnold right at the beginning. He did not reply for a long time. It turned out he was away and did not look through his mail. But when he finally read our letter, he agreed straight away and bought his own ticket to Beijing.

Obviously this series (Viy and Viy 2) has been very special effects driven, as you capture the fantasy of folk tales on the border of an encroaching modern world. Has it been difficult to balance the feel of digital effects and practical effects in your work? Do you have a preference?

Nowadays, modern cinematography is so interlocked with computer special effects that even on reading the script it was very clear to me what will be shot in real life and what can be finished digitally. The most difficult job for special effects was developing the dragon character. He needed to be as effective, as philosophical and of the same high quality as he was in the first Viy.

Jonathan Green (Jason Flemyng) has already tackled horror and Kung Fu, what would be the next genre for the adventurous cartographer?

The next adventures of Mr Green will take us to India. There, he will not only face the horrifying zombies who submit to the God of Immortality, but with many other characters of Indian epics. But if you wish, he could visit Australia as well.

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