'The Great Wall' Star Matt Damon on Whitewashing Accusations, 'Avatar' Comparisons, and Making a 'Grand Creature Feature for the World'

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Ethan Alter
·Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
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Matt Damon in 'The Great Wall' (Universal Pictures)
Matt Damon in The Great Wall. (Universal Pictures)

Boasting a huge international cast, complex special effects, and a budget of Marvel movie proportions, the Chinese-American co-production The Great Wall represents the most ambitious attempt yet to create a truly global blockbuster. Set in ancient China, the story pits the nation’s imperial army against a horde of monsters, with only the titular wall standing between them. Some of the cast and legendary Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou were in Manhattan on Saturday for a New York Comic Con panel, where they unveiled the latest trailer in front of an eager crowd in Madison Square Garden.

When the film’s star, Matt Damon — who plays a mercenary who’s reluctantly pulled into the battle — got his first look at some of the imagery Yimou had planned for the period spectacle, there was only one movie that came to mind: James Cameron’s Avatar, which became a worldwide sensation in 2009.

“When I saw the storyboards, it reminded me of when Jim Cameron talked to me about Avatar years ago,” Damon told Yahoo Movies backstage at the event. “It was a whole world that blew my mind, and I thought, ‘I have to do this.’ I wasn’t able to do Avatar because of my schedule, but I could do The Great Wall. And I didn’t want to miss out.”

Damon will be the most familiar face to Western audiences, but The Great Wall — which opens in theaters on Feb. 17, 2017 —is also populated by some of China’s most high-profile stars, including Andy Lau, Jing Tian, and Wang Junkai, a pop singing sensation making his feature film debut. (When he was introduced during the NYCC panel, Wang’s cheering section hit a higher pitch than the applause that greeted Damon.) Tian, Wang, Yimou, and Game of Thrones star Pedro Pascal — who plays Damon’s sidekick — joined the actor backstage to discuss making what Damon calls “a grand creature feature for the world.” [Note: Yimou and Wang spoke through an interpreter.]

Watch the new trailer below:

Yahoo Movies: On the film’s fusion of Western and Eastern narrative techniques:
Zhang Yimou:
We use some Eastern philosophy and storytelling, as well as some Western [narrative styles]. It’s an ancient Chinese story, so we use a lot of that culture and technology for the background. The monster is an ancient Chinese monster, and the gunpowder that [Damon’s character] has come to China to steal is part of history as well. And there are different colors for the flags and armor in the film that we spent a lot of time exploring. We have five different colors in this movie, and it’s really exciting to think about an army of five different colors fighting a huge army of monsters.

Matt Damon: Because it’s this giant co-production, it tries to be narratively sensitive to everybody. It’s unapologetically trying to be this big creature feature, but it’s told through the eyes of Zhang Yimou. So you get his voice, which is obviously influenced by who he is and where he’s from. No one else could have done this.

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On the cross-cultural collaboration:
Wang Junkai:
I was very nervous to be [making my debut] in this film, but everyone was so kind and supportive. It was really wonderful to be able to meet Matt; he’s like a big brother to me.

Jing Tian: I loved playing my character, who is this female general in the army. It was so unique to play that kind of role. And I was so happy to be able to work with Matt. Chinese audiences love him very much. The Martian was very successful and also the Jason Bourne movies.

Pedro Pascal: I didn’t see any of the imagery [that Matt saw] until I got to China. That was how easy it was to convince me to do this movie! I’d always wanted to work with Zhang Yimou, so he didn’t have to show me anything. I already loved his [early films] and the way he expanded his aesthetic with Hero and House of Flying Daggers.

Yimou: Arthouse movies [like Raise the Red Lantern] are all about the characters. With blockbusters, you’ve got to have monsters and make it [exciting] for young viewers. There’s a Chinese saying: “When you draw a dragon, you draw the eye, and that’s when you put the whole dragon together.” If you pick unique moments to showcase characters, you’ll be able to cover all the characters in such a complex movie.

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On pre-release accusations of whitewashing:
Yimou: That won’t happen in this movie. Part of the story is about a Western mercenary coming to China to steal gunpowder, and then gets pulled into this fight with the monsters. But it’s really about two different types of heroes: the Chinese hero and the Western hero. They come together to fight the monster.

Pascal: Once people see the movie, they’ll see it’s ultimately a Zhang Yimou movie. There are some huge Chinese stars in The Great Wall and also some new incredible talent being introduced to the world.

Damon: It’s a serious accusation, and we take it seriously. When I think of whitewashing, I think of Chuck Connors playing Geronimo [in the 1962 western Geronimo], but there are obviously more nuanced versions of that, and I would never want to be a party to them. I do think that people undermine their own credibility when they attack something based on a teaser. Not even a full trailer, a 45-second teaser. In retrospect, I think it looked like this was a movie about building the Great Wall, and [some of the reaction was], “What is Matt Damon doing on the Great Wall?” And I’m like, “Fighting monsters!” If people want to attack the movie for that, they should at least see it. If they still feel that way, I would be shocked, but I would also listen to that criticism with a whole heart.

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On playing tourist in China:
Pascal:
We went into temples in the middle of downtown Beijing that had been there for thousands of years. They’d be like, “That handprint has been there since the early Ming dynasty.” It was very humbling, fulfilling and awe-inspiring.

Damon: In America, we wear our Americanism like a badge because we’re proud of our country. So it was interesting living in China for half a year and realizing that it’s a 5,000-year-old culture. They were like, “Hey, young fella.” [Laughs] We were shooting in a desert in the north, and on one of our days off, Pedro and I got up at 4 in the morning to ride camels up thousand-foot sand dunes and see these Buddha statues at sunrise. We got there, and the sun hadn’t come up, but there were already 10,000 people waiting! We thought we were going to be the only ones.

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On what they hope audiences will take away from The Great Wall:
Yimou:
First, that they’re going to love the action, visuals, and stars. After that, I hope both Asian and Western audiences understand the spirit of China, that they’ll sacrifice themselves for peace. I hope this spirit will movie people and [generate] more trust — that East and West can learn to trust and love each other.

Tian: For me, the movie is about people never giving up and standing together against the enemy.

Damon: The monsters are these beasts of greed, and they come in a wave that this army has to [fight back]. So it’s about sacrifice and being part of a community that battles back this wave of greed that attacks humanity. There’s a metaphor that’s relatable to the times we’re living in.