Andrew Lau: Making an air accident into a visual roller coaster

By Zhang Rui
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, October 16, 2019
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Director Andrew Lau poses for a selfie with his "The Captain" cast and crew and guests and media members on a Sichuan airline flight for a special mid-air premiere  - the "highest premiere" ever - on Sept. 20, 2019. [Photo courtesy of Micro Entertainment]

As the tentpole production "The Captain" swept the Chinese film market since the Oct. 1 National Day, its director elaborated to on how he transformed true events into a thrilling visual ride.

The film is a cinematic portrayal of a miraculous emergency landing made by a Chinese pilot, Liu Chuanjian, who served as captain of Sichuan Airlines flight 3U8633 on the fateful day.

The incident occurred on May 14, 2018, after the right-side cockpit window of a Sichuan Airlines-operated Airbus A319 plane shattered in mid-flight over Chengdu, capital of southwest China's Sichuan province, at an altitude of 32,000 feet.

"I was in Hong Kong that day and this was a big event," director Andrew Lau told "The internet and social media made the news travel fast and we kept a close watch on how it unfolded. Actually, I travelled a lot by Sichuan Airlines to Chengdu making films, so that made it more personal."

In that incident, part of the co-pilot's body was sucked out of the plane due to the sudden decompression and he was saved only by his seat belt. The plane lost most of its automated controls.

Pilot Liu managed to regain control and manually slowed the plane, enabling him to make a successful landing in Chengdu, with all the 119 passengers safe and sound. 

After the incident, many people told Lau that the story behind the incident could be developed into a fine film, however, he hesitated as many film companies had begun to work on it since then. 

Actor Zhang Hanyu and his character's real-life pilot prototype Liu Chuanjian pose for photos in front of the simulation modules during the film production in an undated photo. [Photo courtesy of Zhang Hanyu]

In August last year, Lau received a call from Yu Dong, chairman of Bona Film Group, explaining he got the film rights of the story and he wanted him to direct.

"I had never made such a film before, and I loved the challenges," Lau said, who had directed many classic films such as "Infernal Affairs". He decided to shoot the film and started to organize a creative team and work on a script. He also collected remembrances from all those involved in the flight incident.

Lau said he learned a lot from the civil aviation sector, such as executives, pilots, stewards and engineers during the creative process as he and his team traveled to airports in Chengdu, Chongqing and Lhasa. The film crew also got a lot of support from the civil aviation staff, who hoped the film could reveal and reflect the efforts of people working on safety in the industry and also their daily lives.

At the same time, actors were trained for three months to enhance their civil aviation knowledge while they also practiced what they learned in simulation modules. Pilot Liu is played by Chinese actor Zhang Hanyu, with other notable cockpit and cabin staff roles played by Oho Ou, Du Jiang, Yuan Quan, Crystal Zhang and Li Qin. 

Lau said that after the training, the leading actors could really be able to fly real planes, while he also shared that the actors suffered a lot especially when exposed to a huge wind many times in simulations of real experience for shooting. 

To make perfect interpretation of each character, Lau asked the actors to talk to real-life prototypes of their roles to get deeper understanding and knowledge of their personal lives and their work. 

An unprecedent simulated plane was used in film production for "The Captain." [Photo courtesy of Bona Film Group]

His team had also sought help in building a plane for the shooting from the special effect team of American drama "Sully," the true story of American pilot Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger who became a hero after landing his badly-damaged plane on the Hudson River in order to save the flight's passengers and crew from harm. 

But they found that even the Hollywood team didn't make the whole plane -- they made a replica of part of a plane and completed work with CGI in post-production.

In order to make the shooting of the "The Captain" close to the real experience, Chinese film studios agreed with Lau and lavished money on making a complete 1:1 replica of the A319 airplane, divided into three sections each weighing 20 tons. The simulation was an engineering miracle created by Chinese engineers in film history, overcoming lots of technical challenges.

The box office gross of "The Captain" reached 2.47 billion yuan ($349.2 million) by Monday, and its total gross continues to grow day by day and has yet to lose momentum. 

Lau offered an advice after making the film: "Don't get angry easily when your flight is delayed. They do have a certain reason and they are trying to ensure a safe and comfortable trip."

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