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Interview with Birth of the Dragon Director George Nolfi

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Birth of the Dragon is the dramatic retelling of the legendary fight that took place between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man, propelling Lee to superstardom.

Ahead of its screening at the Toronto International Film Festival, we caught up with director George Nolfi to ask a few questions. See the full interview below.


What motivated you to create a dramatisation rather than a documentary?

Well, I’m a narrative filmmaker, not a documentarian. I read a screenplay that was inspired by true events and I thought it was a fascinating story unto itself. I felt the screenplay could be made into a sort of kung fu fable that had something to say about the value of kung fu to the world and the value of people from different cultural backgrounds interacting with each other and growing as a result of it.

Why do you think Bruce Lee’s legacy is so enduring?

He brought kung fu to the west. In just three movies he became an international superstar as a martial artist / actor and then went on to break a very thick glass ceiling in Hollywood in making Enter the Dragon. He had tremendous charisma as a fighter and as a performer more generally that has probably not been matched since.

Is the fight just a myth? How much creative licence did you employ?

The fight definitely happened. That is historical fact. What happened in the fight is thoroughly disputed from where it happened, to why, to how many witnesses were there, to how long it took, to who “won.” It would be impossible to get to some documentary truth, given the disputes but we do know that Bruce Lee both invented Jeet Koon Do after this fight and became a worldwide film and TV star after the fight. As for how much creative license we took with the action – a great deal. We were trying to make a thrilling narrative film, a contemporary update on the great kung fu movies of the 70s.

What attracted you specifically about the Toronto Film Festival?

It’s the largest festival in the world at this point I think. So many interesting discoveries have come out of TIFF.

A lot of people now may never have seen a Bruce Lee film – what will they get from Birth of the Dragon?

I’ve shown the film to a number of people who have never seen a Bruce Lee film and the response has been basically universal: now I want to go out and learn more about Bruce Lee and see all of his films.

As quite a prolific Hollywood screenwriter, why do you want to move into directing?

I’ve been directing for a while now. I did Adjustment Bureau in 2011 and I directed the pilot and five episodes of a TV series that I created called Allegiance. They are different pleasures, writing and directing, and come with different struggles and obstacles. I like both ways of being creative.

How true will the fight in this stay to the classic Bruce Lee fight scenes we know and love?

There are several fights in the film and each one is stylistically quite different in terms of how they are shot.

Hypothetically if you could pick anyone in the world for Bruce Lee to fight, living or dead, who would it be and why?

A rematch in a film with Chuck Norris.

What’s next after Toronto?

Writing a script for another director, then revising a script I will direct.

So what’s your elevator pitch? You walk into a room, Weinstein is standing there putting his coat on, started for the door, and you say…

Not all superheroes are white guys in tights

Oscar and film awards expert. American Beauty, Grease and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are prominent DVDs on my shelf.

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Best Popular Category Had ‘Stake Driven Through Its Heart’, But Isn’t Dead Says Oscars President

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John Bailey, the president of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (who oversees the Oscars), has spoken candidly about the awards show’s bid to bring in more viewers with a distinct ‘Best Achievement in Popular Film’ award.

You’ll remember it as being the category that suffered a very public and embarrassing controversy in which Academy members openly rejected it earlier in the year, prompting the organisation to ‘temporarily shelve’ their plans until they could conduct a proper review. Speaking at the EnergaCamerimage Film Festival in Bydgoszcz, Poland, Bailey stated that the award had “seemed like a good idea, the board approved it, announced it, but we got a lot of pushback.”

“So the board reconsidered and tabled it – which is not to say that the idea is dead. Even after a stake was driven through its heart, there’s still interest.”

The Academy has a “generous” deal with ABC, who have agreed to fund and air the telecast until 2028. The challenge, in those intervening years, is to somehow save the show from haemorrhaging even more viewers. As Bailey says: “We have another decade, and we’re already starting to deal with the problem. There’s desire to expand the awards to millennials, many of whom do not have TV.”

ABC, who are majority-owned by the Walt Disney Corporation, may take some umbrage with the idea of no longer being the sole home of the Oscars, but one idea that has been repeatedly floating around is to air the telecast on the forthcoming Disney+ streaming service – a more palatable option, perhaps, for younger viewers.

However, when it comes to the concept of new categories that aren’t Best Popular, Bailey was considerably more cagey. Asked if we could see awards for motion-capture, stunt-performers, or achievements in casting, the president said: “A number of different crafts would like to be represented and there are ongoing discussions about creating new branches, but right now we’re trying to reduce the size of the board. However, nothing is written in stone.”

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Black Panther Faces Uphill Battle With Academy Voters In Bid For Awards Success

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It’s no secret that Marvel Studios’ head Kevin Feige wants an Oscar. And not just any Oscar, at that. No, much like Walt Disney before him, Feige wants to position one of his features – traditionally not in the wheelhouse of the average Academy voter – and push it (in this case, director Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther) towards a Best Picture win.

With the Academy’s retraction of their proposed ‘Best Popular’ category, Marvel’s movies’ chances looked – in all honest – scuppered, at least for any kind of non-technical nomination. But that hasn’t deterred Disney and Marvel Studios from pushing ahead regardless, and reports are coming in that the standard studio schmoozing, soirees and cocktail gatherings that accompany Best Picture bids have begun in Black Panther’s favour.

That’s not to say, of course, that it’ll be an easy sell. At a voter-screening and Q&A in August – six months after it released in cinemas to the tune of over $1 billion worldwide – 75% of the Academy members in attendance admitted that it was their first time seeing the feature. Despite the fact that the film had connected with general audiences in the way that it had, and become the pop cultural meta-success of the year, the film is so far outside of the Academy’s comfort zone that the picture faces a genuine uphill battle for a shot at a nomination. In a year in which it was the mega-hit to beat, Black Panther has become the underdog.

Coogler, who took the majority of the year off to recuperate after a packed press run and a lengthy production schedule on the superhero flick, recently reappeared in LA social circles at a Hollywood event last month and has begun the rounds in order to help Black Panther’s chances. Star Chadwick Boseman has also been incredibly proactive in campaigning for the film, meeting as many Academy members as possible. Scheduling hasn’t always been in the feature’s favour, however. Michael B. Jordan, the film’s most legitimate shot for an acting nomination, has been in high-demand, and is presently shooting Just Mercy in Atlanta.

When asked about the film in recent months, however, Jordan has eschewed awards talk in favour of focusing on the film’s cultural impact: “One of my highlights was just watching kids react to it and seeing themselves on-screen,” he’s on record saying, “Having people watch the movie four or five times, taking church members, taking boys’ and girls’ clubs — kids that didn’t have the opportunity to actually go to the movie theatre, they were bussing them in to see this film. To be a part of something that big and impactful is really important.”

Superhero films have, traditionally, been ignored entirely by the Academy. Last year’s nomination for Logan, under Best Adapted Screenplay, came as a surprise to many. But perhaps change is coming, and Feige may just get his wish. The nominations for 2019’s Oscars ceremony will be announced on the 22nd January, so there’s less than three months until the big reveal. Meanwhile, Black Panther is out now on 4K, Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital, rated 12A.

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Here Are All 25 Films Officially Submitted For The Best Animated Oscar Race

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The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation responsible for hosting and running the annual Oscars ceremony, has revealed a full list of the twenty-five films submitted for consideration and shortlisting in the Best Animated Feature Film category.

The complete list is, alphabetically, as follows:

  • Ana y Bruno
  • Dr. Seuss’ The Grinch
  • Early Man
  • Fireworks
  • Have a Nice Day
  • Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation
  • Incredibles 2
  • Isle of Dogs
  • The Laws of the Universe – Part 1
  • Liz and the Blue Bird
  • Lu over the Wall
  • MFKZ
  • Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms
  • Mirai
  • The Night Is Short, Walk on Girl
  • On Happiness Road
  • Ralph Breaks the Internet
  • Ruben Brandt, Collector
  • Sgt. Stubby: American Hero
  • Sherlock Gnomes
  • Smallfoot
  • Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse
  • Tall Tales
  • Teen Titans Go! To the Movies
  • Tito and the Birds

Five nominees will be shortlisted from the list, and submitted for final voting on the 22nd of January, 2019. As things stand, the submission list is arguably one of the weakest in modern memory, with Wes Anderson’s stop-motion feature Isle of Dogs and Disney Pixar’s CG animated flick Incredibles 2 the clear front-runners.

The 91st Academy Awards will take place on the 24th of February next year, at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.

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