The Promise
Chen Kaige’s The Promise. Photo: Warner Independent Pictures.

Soundstages are more reliable than Mother Nature.
We traveled everywhere to make The Promise. It started on a Beijing soundstage. Then we went to the East Coast of China. Then Tibet. But it was hard to shoot there. It would rain heavily, like it does here in Seattle. And because of the high altitudes, there was concern for the health of our film crew. Eventually, we went to Mongolia and built a new set there. I think in total, we spent two months just traveling to different locations. A lot of money was being wasted.

Trust your own judgment concerning a film’s running time.
The Chinese version of The Promise runs 18 minutes longer than the U.S. version. I was told by people related to the film that for a North American audience, I should make the story simpler. (laughter) I quite like the shorter one, but still think the Chinese version is better.

Take chances with multinational actors and languages.
The Promise features cast members from Japan , Hong Kong and Korea. On the set, people were speaking in five different languages—Mandarin, Chinese, Cantonese, Japanese and Korean.

When selecting your music, go for emotions, not “genre” sounds.
I worked very closely with [German composer] Klaus Badelt on the film’s soundtrack. He knew very little about Chinese culture when we started, but was very curious. He asked, “You don’t want me to write Chinese music, right?” I told him, ‘No. Just write something from your own heart.’

Life and death themes always make for potent drama.
There’s a character in The Promise named Snow Wolf. He’s not necessarily a bad person, but he’s afraid of death. We’re all afraid of death. He puts on a cloak that protects him from death. I think that fear is often more powerful than love. If you live in fear, there’s nothing much you can do, right?

Shoot in the snow!
Parts of The Promise are set in the Land of Snow, where people are pure, honest and enjoy freedom. I personally like snow a lot. I remember watching it from my window, during winters in Beijing. Snow can also cover up something ugly, and hide what we dislike.