Expat Extras: Behind the Scenes On and Off the Set of Dragon Blade
In a country at the center of the universe, one film cost more to make than any other in its history. Coming to theaters on February 19, two Dongguan expats, out for the time of their lives, find themselves following a mad general (and the good guys, too).
Before it’s all over, things might get a little—pause for effect—crazy. For American David Kundelius and Brazilian Dave Fireman it meant one thing, a summer scheduled for teaching English would never take place.
Instead, a chance encounter with a movie agent led into the Gobi Desert for onscreen action with Hollywood stars Jackie Chan, John Cusack and Adrien Brody for China’s biggest ever budgeted film.
Dragon Blade pairs Jackie Chan as Huo An, a commander in the western regions of the Han Dynasty, with John Cusack’s Lucius, a general fleeing east to protect the heir to the Roman Empire.
The two form an unlikely alliance and, together with regional tribes, face off against Adrien Brody’s evil Tiberius, another general vying for control of the Roman Empire at the death of the child heir.
If this particular period of history sounds unfamiliar, it’s because, aside from finding some Roman artifacts along the Silk Road, no evidence exists that it ever happened.
Even so, the film offers a tantalizing premise of Jackie Chan versus the Roman Empire, which would have action buffs and history anoraks salivating in excitement.
The film was shot in the desert near Dunhuang in Gansu Province; a part of China where politics can be as volatile as the sandstorms. Despite this, the region has been officially designated for filmmaking.
“When the plane landed, one of the line producers was waiting for us. He was this Chinese guy in a cowboy hat,” laughed Kundelius, mistaking him for an illicit taxi driver. “I didn’t trust him.” After spending the night, the next day started on a bus to the set at 5:30 in the morning.
When they arrived they were taken to get their costumes. Kundelius recalls being surprised, “We thought we were going to be fitted with tailor made armor. It turned out there was just a big pile of clothes that we put on and took off each day.”
“You could just never get comfortable in them, no matter what,” added Fireman. The uniforms turned out to be just the beginning of what would, at times, be a challenging experience.
The Day to Day
The routine was similar daily. Leave the hotel at 5:30 a.m.; shoot until 7 p.m.; arrive back at the hotel around 10 or 11. Days off were a rarity. In 45 days, they had to work eight straight days once, and seven straight twice.
On set rules only made the days seem longer. Their breakfasts consisted of steamed buns porridge and one hard-boiled egg, which lead to surreal scenes of men protesting for more eggs. The hotel provided towels, but charged if they were dirty, which was a particularly cruel catch-22 due to heavy movie make-up.
It is not surprising then that with an overworked crew working in tough conditions that there were some injuries on set.
“One guy was stabbed with a fake sword and had to get four stitches. Another guy tripped on a shield and split his lip. He got six stitches,” recalled Fireman. “One horse broke loose and ran right through the set. A make up girl was coming out of her tent and she was hit by the horse. An ambulance took her away to the hospital,” added Kundelius.
Dissention, however, was pointless. “Whenever one of the extras complained, the producer would just say, ‘You go Guangzhou! No money!’” laughed Kundelius. Meant to impart a feeling expendability, it quickly became a running joke.
While those on set had little sympathy for the extras, they were still a lot friendlier than some of the locals. One night they were confronted by a drunken man. “The guy came up to us and said that Osama Bin Laden was good because he killed Americans,” said Kundelius. A large and rambunctious American nicknamed Mississippi took offense, and argued back.
“A group of about thirty locals amassed and we managed to get Mississippi back to the hotel before a fight broke out.” Two days later, feeling ostracized and embarrassed after this and earlier interactions with the crew, Mississippi left the set.
One of the Chinese extras was not so fortunate. David recalled a fight in their hotel, “One day we were relaxing in the corridor outside our rooms when two guys came up the stairs. They grabbed one of the extras by the throat. Then four more guys came. The next thing it was, boom! They dragged the extra into the corner and started to punch and kick him.”
It was said that the extra had taken one of the local women back to his hotel room, which had upset the local men. The truth was unclear. “When we came near, one of the guys turned round and started to beat his chest and say that he was Kazakh.
We started yelling out our window for the police while the hotel staff was not having any part of it. Later, they said to the police that any of the cameras that would have caught the fight did not work,” added David. For the rest of the filming, Kundelius and Fireman were careful to keep to themselves.
Working as an extra on a movie was a shock to the system for foreigners in a country where they are used to preferential treatment. Around the set, they were viewed as an extra, not a foreigner.
David recalled two incidents in particular, “Our bus broke down one day on the way back from set. A second bus for the make-up crew came. It was 90 percent empty, but they refused to let us on the bus. Once at dinner I asked for some more pork and the guy said, “No.” I turned round and his Chinese buddy, who was already eating, held his plate up for more and the guy gave it to him.”
For Kundelius it was a new experience, “It was the first time in China that I felt any sort of racism.”
Hanging with Uncle Jakie
With all that happening during filming, the extras could easily have become downhearted and even started to turn on each other. Most of them, however, became a band of soldiers, both in the film and off the set.
Kundelius and Fireman were in the minority, most of the extras were Russian, but they didn’t find it difficult to fit in. “It was definitely a brotherhood. When you have to live and share a room with somebody for so many days and go through so many intense moments. You definitely get close,” said Fireman.
When the stars of the movie were on set, however, all their problems they were having seemed to be a million miles away. Jackie Chan was treated like a hero around the set. After filming, Kundelius could see why, “Second day on set I go to get a drink of water. Stood right next to me is Jackie Chan making sure the water is OK. And he asked me to help him move a table. I was walking with him another day and he was picking up the trash that he found along the way. That’s why they call him Uncle Jackie on set. He makes sure everything is taken care of, from the highest to lowest.”
Dave was as impressed with Adrien Brody. He admitted he was not too familiar with the actor apart from his Oscar winning performance in The Pianist, but what he saw on set changed how he felt about acting. “Every time he opened his mouth you felt every word. I was having goose bumps. The guy is amazing.”
After they had finished filming, the producers asked the extras to stay on for another film they were shooting, Skiptrace starring Jackie Chan again, this time alongside Johnny Knoxville, in a buddy action film that sounds suspiciously like it could have been the plot to Rush Hour 4. “We wanted to do it, but we were all still exhausted from this movie,” explained Fireman.
While they are both open to do something like this again at some point in the future, for now they plan to continue with their lives in Dongguan. David wants to continue working with meteorites, fossils and jewelry, and Fireman has enrolled for a university course on gemstones.
When asked if they would recommend what the experience to others, however, they do not hesitate. “I would recommend it. Absolutely,” said Fireman. Kundelius is even more direct, “Do it!”