Lately I’ve been dusting off my old photographs of Shanghai to show a man who plans to play an American in a film about Shanghai in 1941. Last week John Cusack arrived in Shanghai with his mate/producer/handler, Nick Gillie. On Wed arvo I met with John and Nick and their mate Benny at the Old China Hand Bookshop on Shaoxing Road. They’d just gotten off the plane from LA, so I didn’t expect much from this initial encounter except an eyeful of grogginess. Nick had written me the previous week after a colleague from NYU, Amy Goldman (who’d been contacted by another colleague of ours etc) told him that I had some expertise in Old Shanghai. I agreed to meet with them and give them some background on the city during its “heyday.”
Amy was just the person to introduce me to these fellas. Her whole family reeks of Hollywood. Her dad Bill’s a famous screenwriter—ever heard of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”? and her brother-in-law Todd Field made "In the Bedroom." Her father had even worked with John Cusack on a Pacino film, "City Hall." She and I arrived there a bit early and spent some time chatting over tea. We were practically the only two in the place. I was a bit nervous and didn’t know what to expect, whether this Hollywood Star would be mobbed by an entourage or surrounded by his Chinese handlers and as Amy said, I'd have my "five minutes of star time." In any case, they'd invited me, and they were here to check out the town and learn its history.
Yet when they arrived, there were only four people, Nick, John, Benny, and a Chinese agent named Anna. Other than Tess Johnston, who arrived a bit later to introduce them to her books, I was their only contact that arvo. We had the whole afternoon at our disposal, and I was happy to give them as much of my time as they needed. After all, I too have a stake in seeing a successful and "authentic" Hollywood portrayal of Old Shanghai.
We sat down at a big round table. Surrounded by Deke Erh’s books (or what’s left of them that haven’t been plundered) we got down to it. (Deke Erh, or Er Dongqiang, is the Old China Hand Bookshop owner and Shanghai photographer, and he and Tess have put together many a fine book of photographs and info on the city's colonial architecture.)
As the espressos hit our veins, I opened my Macbook and ran through my various powerpoints and photobanks as Nick and John shot me question after question. As we hit our third hour, another espresso gave me the staying power to keep up with their barrage of inquiries about Old Shanghai and pre-Liberation China.
John was here to research his role. He plays an American who ventures to Shanghai in 1941 to investigate the death of a friend. He naturally becomes involved, Tintin-like, in a viper’s nest of underground politics. Just the kind of thing I've been researching all these years--maybe those Tintin books influenced me more than I imagined. We talked a lot about the influence of opium on the city and how every power broker was involved in some way or other. We also discussed what Shanghai was like under a precarious combination of Western and Japanese colonial rule. I was genuinely impressed with the depth of his questions—obviously he’d done some prior research in preparing for his role.
On Friday night, an agent from William Morris called to invite me out to dinner with Nick and John. After imbibing a bottle or so of fine wine at the Coconut Paradise with my colleagues from NYU, I cabbed it over to the Grand Hyatt, and met them at the Grill on the 56th floor.
I was expecting a big group, but once again was pleasantly surprised. We were joined by Grace Chen, Managing Director of William Morris Asia, and John Aryananda or “Big John,” a jolly fella from Indonesia who runs some clubs and hotels here. Later, we were graced by the presence of Mian Mian, author of the runaway best-seller Candy (or was that Wei Hui? I can never keep those two apart), who appeared with a new bowl-cut looking vaguely Hamelesque. As Mian Mian played the role of Shanghai socialite and name-dropper, Big John and I put on our historians’ hats.
Nick and John looked pretty beat. They’d been here two days and hadn’t stopped moving about town since they hit the runway in Pudong. Big John and I got into a deep discussion about China’s long and vast history, and its typically masculine pattern of vigorous expansion and sudden shrinkage as the dynasties waxed and waned moonlike and northern barbarians swept in to plunder, pillage, and declare their own dynasties. Nick and John—Hollywood John--just sat back and took it in. John especially—he was obviously in absorption mode and still processing all the millions of databytes that Shanghai had to offer.
After the late dinner at the Grill, we hopped in an armour-plated vehicle (well, slight exaggeration) and made our way through the tunnel to the Puxi side, emerging on Waitan. Our next destination was 3 on the Bund, where we popped into New Heights for a drink (John and Nick stuck to H2O the whole night) and met some friends of Mian Mian. We then strolled into Jean Georges, the elite restaurant below. This was the second time I’d walked into that restaurant with a Hollywood star—the first was two years ago when my wife did some translation work for Wolverine aka Hugh Jackman, who was here to plug his film X-Men 3 along with director Brett Rattner (but that’s another story for another occasion).
Our final destination was Bar Rouge at 18 on the Bund. I hadn’t been there for three years, and it hadn’t changed much. Same old humdrum view of the Bund and Pudong (yawn), same crowd of Hans-und-Franz Europeans and Chinese “sea turtles” pretending that they own Shanghai. Big John had booked the VIP room at the edge of the deck, which afforded John a bit of protection from the crowds of people who thronged about the Hollywood Star like moths to a bugzapper.
Just kidding. Actually, people were pretty cool about having Hollywood around and didn’t make a big fuss. This is Shanghai after all, not some two-bit Podunk village.
Not much else to report about that night except that I did meet some nice people, including the lovely miss Sandy, marketing director for that tall building that’s rising on the Pudong side above the Grand Hyatt. And at some point, veteran Shanghai DJ Chris Lee showed up and we all started getting nostalgic about the good old days of D.D’s and Y.Y.
I’m pretty sure that Nick and John and Benny are on their way back to the States as I write. Unfortunately it looks like they won’t be filming here as the production has run predictably into the Great Wall of censorship. Instead they’ve chosen London and Bangkok, primarily for their uncanny resemblance to 1930s Shanghai. Best of luck with your film, mates, welcome back to our fair city anytime, and meanwhile don’t forget to write!