In January, having just left TVB after 20 years of acting there, I found myself working with Mr Chow Yun Fat 發哥 as his personal dialect coach, flying business class to a small city called Durango located in Mexico where we lived and worked for just over two months working on the Fox production Dragonball. It was quite an experience but not much fun (acceptable, given that this was a working trip rather than a pleasure trip).
Most people, at least here in Hong Kong, have the impression that working for a Hollywood film production company is fun, or at least much more pleasurable than working for a Hong Kong film production company. The perception is that the work is not hectic or rushed, the working hours are shorter (and that hotel standard food will be provided). The perception is wrong.
We worked twelve-hour days, at least four days a week, usually five. If not for the protection provided by Mrs Chow's carefully considered contract, we would have been working fourteen-hour days, six or seven days a week as many of the crew and leading actors were. Twelve hours is tough. You have just enough time to get up in the morning, do a little exercise, have breakfast and rush off to the filming location. At work, only the actors and top crew members had chairs so I spent a lot of the twelve hours standing, or sitting on the floor when I needed to rest. Studio smoke relentlessly filled the studio. When you return exhausted to the hotel, you have just enough time to have dinner, check your email and go to bed. Continue this for several days, and then several weeks and the work becomes barely tolerable. During the last few weeks of filming, most of the crew were desperate to return to their homes.
My work involved working with 發哥 to help him get his pronunciation as clear and intelligible as possible. We did most of the ground work in Hong Kong and in Durango before filming began which was fortunate, because during filming, there was little time or energy left to do any extra revision work. During filming, my work required me to listen very carefully with my headphones to everything he said, making sure he didn't drop any words and helping him to improve his pronunciation when necessary.
I am intimately aware of the challenges that 發哥 faces. For twenty years, I have acted in Cantonese at TVB and in local Hong Kong movies. When the dialog is a learned language, especially one learned as an adult, it requires much more effort and concentration to memorise and speak when acting, so much so that the acting usually suffers. It took five to eight years for me to become familiar and comfortable enough with the language to be able to allocate less of my attention to the dialog and more to the acting. It's not an easy task.
發哥 is no slacker. By the time we began filming, his dialog pronunciation was excellent; not perfect but excellent none-the-less. Even so, my work on location was not easy. It required intense concentration to listen to every syllable of his dialog, note the areas that needed improvement, analyse which areas were within his immediate grasp or absolutely needed improvement and use the most efficient method possible to communicate the needed changes to him, all within seconds of completion of each shot. It was challenging and tiring but we did a pretty good job.
發哥's work ethics are admirable. His dedication to his work is truly remarkable.
Within hours of confirmation of his role in the movie, he began examining and developing his character, and he spent considerable time working on his dialog. From confirmation of his role until weeks into filming, he barely slept as he considered all of the options for his character, an experience I shared last year when preparing for "They’re Playing Our Song (2007)". He worked so hard and slept so little that he became ill just a couple of weeks into filming. But even sickness barely slowed him down. He rested for two days and went straight back to work, getting daily antibiotic injections until he was fully recovered, and regular vitamin supplement injections until filming was complete.
發哥 greets and respects everyone on set. He talks about the days he began acting at TVB, how the crew in those early days were few in number, and how as a result he helped out with every aspect of filming from carrying props to setting up lights to cooking supper 宵夜 in the studios late at night. He constantly reminds us that movies would not be possible without the crew, and that it is those people who make the stars look great on screen.
發哥's other great love is photography. He had his camera with him in Mexico but his dedication to the movie precluded him from using the camera for most of our time there. While I came back with almost 3000 photographs, he came back with less than fifty. (Note. Very few of my photographs are related to the movie or its locations and they will not see the light of day until after the release of the movie; wouldn't want to spoil the movie for you ;-)
Equally impressive and important as 發哥 is Mrs Chow, commonly referred to as 發嫂. Mrs Chow works incessantly to make sure that 發哥 gets the best work available, and is protected physically, commercially and legally before, during and after filming. She's a virtual diesel train, working in the office and on set, working the same hours as we do and often more. It is said that in the management offices of Hollywood, Mrs Chow is more famous (perhaps infamous) than 發哥 because she's the one they deal with, and she's fearless and tireless.
Together, Mr and Mrs Chow form a truly formidable duo.