"Con Air" director Simon West on China, changing careers and challenging odds
Updated 18:44, 12-Apr-2019
Liu Chen
03:54

Simon West, a Hollywood-based British film director and producer, will release his first Chinese-language movie “Sky Fire” later this year.

Known for such blockbusters as “Con Air” and "The Expendables 2", is West confident that a Western director can make a Chinese movie suitable for the local market? How did he cope with the subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle cultural differences?

West sat down for an exclusive interview with CGTN ahead of the opening ceremony of the 9th Beijing International Film Festival, where he's joining the jury panel of Tiantan Award.

He tackled concerns about his first Chinese-language film and shared tips about filmmaking based on his experience going from a news video editor to a movie director.

What makes a good movie?

The seven members of the jury panel of Tiantan Award, the main competition of the Beijing International Film Festival, come from different countries and regions this year. They're bringing to the table different aesthetics, various standards, and very personal perspectives about what a good movie really means.

West has his own definition. “If a movie takes me out of my technical head – of how it is made – and I just want to know what's going happen next… I'm just believing the characters, then that's a good movie,” he told CGTN.

Every spectator wants to get lost in the film they sat down to watch – and West, as a film festival judge, expects the same. He expressed hope that the 15 shortlisted movies would let him forget his role as a judge, and instead help him remember what it's like to be an audience member.

CGTN Photo

CGTN Photo

Coming to China to make a movie

West's “Sky Fire” is currently in post-production after shooting wrapped up in October last year. A high-concept drama which tells a human story in the aftermath of a volcano eruption, has been in the making for over five years.

When a Chinese producer first approached West with the script, the British director knew he was up against a challenge. The idea was initiated by a Chinese production and featured strong Chinese characters. Language barriers and cultural differences made for a rollercoaster of a ride.

“I really like challenges,” West said, noting this is a mammoth task he was willing to undertake.

“It is a spectacular story. It is a big action adventure, but what attracted me is the emotional call.”

West said that in the face of a disaster of such magnitude, human relationships may seem small, but that's the beating heart of the film.

“I hope the Chinese audience will accept it,” West noted, adding that he made great efforts to understand the Chinese culture.

And if a British director at the helm of a Chinese picture is not cross-cultural enough – over 500 people from 17 countries have worked on the project.

West also expressed his support to foreign filmmakers interested in China's film industry, advising them to visit the country and do their thing.

“If you want to make a film about China and tell a Chinese story, you have to come here, and you have to work with Chinese people,” West suggested.

He believes overseas filmmakers should immerse themselves in the Chinese environment and not hesitate to be adventurous.

Got a film dream? Jump in head first

The Beijing International Film Festival is offering opportunities to youngsters who want to have a foothold in the film industry, with related screening projects and master classes.

West also shared his career experience with CGTN, saying he “had to work from the very bottom to bring the tea, and then all the way up.” He made the transition to a freelancing film director after five years working at the BBC as a film editor.

CGTN Photo

CGTN Photo

“So I guess you shouldn't expect to go in via the top. And you learn so much from the bottom.”

He also stressed that technology has brought so much change over the years. 

“These days, it is so much easier as you can make a film on your phone and edit on your laptop,” said West. "It is so easy; I don't find any excuses for not going shooting with friends.”

West repeated his advice that “If you've got this dream, you have to jump in with both feet.”

(Video: Zhu Danni and Ai Yan)