Friday, October 24, 2014

A Conversation (of sorts) with Salon Films

It's always great when people visit my blog, it's nice to know that I am not the only one interested in this kind of stuff, and it's even better when people leave comments about a location or a memory of a particular place or time. It really adds quite a bit of anecdotal information that would otherwise be lost. I place a lot of importance on these kind of 'verbal histories' and feel that they should be shared. Anyway, sometimes the best information comes from those who have been involved, directly or indirectly, with the films on this blog and a few months back I was fortunate enough to be visited (in the virtual sense) by a chap called Neil MacDonald, a former location manager at Salon Films, who left a lot of very detailed and interesting information about some of the productions he was involved with during the 1980's.

The comments Neil left were so good that to let them disappear into the ether over time seemed to be a bit of a crime, so I have consolidated them all into this one post and preserved them here for eternity (or at least until the EMC from a nuclear explosion fries everyone's electronics circuits and sends us all back to the middle ages).


Now, anybody who has seen a HK-set film (i.e. those films and shows that make up the majority of content on this blog) over the past few decades may be aware of Salon Films. This may be because Salon were directly involved in the filming, or perhaps were hired to liaise for the purpose of obtaining permits, but also might have been because Salon - thanks to its founder T.C Wang - had (still have?) some sort of exclusivity deal with Panavision in the Far East. This meant that anyone using Panavision equipment in Hong Kong had to pay a fee to Salon. A nifty bit of business if you ask me and I wonder if this is the origin of the word "Wangle"...;-)

T.C ( as he was known to his friends) set the company up in 1959 and Charles, his son, took over in the early 70's and they seem to have had a hand in production of almost everything in that time as well as a variety of offices. Charles Wang died in 2007 and the company is now run by Fred, his brother. Here is their website: http://www.salonmedia.com/

Anyway, Neil worked for the company in the 1980's and seemed to have been involved on a lot of stuff that has passed through this place of late, so lets have a look at what he had to say about it all. I should state that the dialogue began after I had been appealing for information on the army base scenes from Bloodsport.
Hi. I was location manager for Salon Films on a number of shows and worked production on a number of films/tv shows, including Bloodsport, Kickboxer, Double Impact, Around the World in 80 Days, Noble House, Shadow of China, Ghosts Can't Die, China Cry etc. I also production managed the final Cracker show starring Robbie Coltrane shot on location in HK, and produced the HK segments of Night Watch, starring Pierce Brosnan. When I get a chance to look through your images I'll do what I can to identify the locations - but can tell you straight away the Bloodsport images were shot at Fort Stanley. Cheers!
The Cracker episode Neil refers to was called "White Ghost" and I do remember watching it back in the UK when it was first aired. I remember the story being a bit lame, but watching the HK locations was good.
I was born in HK and joined the RHKP in 1983 after I left school in the UK. Did one three year tour and because I spoke Cantonese and had police contacts, was introduced to Charlie Wang by a mutual friend. My first film experience was as an extra on Tai Pan shot in Shenzhen and Macau; I was then put to work as a PA on Harry's Hong Kong (David Soul and David Hemmings) - if you've seen the Aaron Spelling produced pilot (the show was never picked up) you'll see Charlie Wang as the doctor in the mortuary and mine is the body under the sheet!

Bloodsport was shot entirely on location in HK, with all the Kumite interior work shot in a studio in Clearwater Bay - but there was a larger budget second time round for Kickboxer and we filmed a lot in Thailand...[for Bloodsport] we filmed quite a bit at Stanley Barracks (as it was known then) and it was the location for all the early scenes of Van Damme training, military training etc. It was also the location of Frank's school and the colonial building where you see the boards being broken and the servant standing by with the towel was the Officers Mess.

The mid 80's through the early 1990's was a golden age for the overseas production, shot on location in HK, but securing locations became more and more difficult. When I produced the Cracker episode for Granada TV my life was made a misery by what appeared to the British crew a complete inability to find suitable locations; the truth of it was, though, that people were completely indifferent to a British crew filming for a British TV series and there were no big actors to help 'open' doors. Still, fun times. Noble House was, of course, shot on location in HK. And much fun that was too.
The studios referred to above are the Clearwater Bay Studios in Tsueng Kwan O that are currently operated by Sil Metropole.
[Regarding Harry's Hong Kong where Neil was roped in to play a corpse at the morgue]...No movement under the mortuary sheet, but I did flop my arm out so it could be checked for distinguishing marks. That was a fun shoot - but trying to drag Hemmings and Soul out of the bars down Lockhart Road for night scenes and tracking shots was nigh on impossible - both liked a drink, not to mention a pair of Asian breasts thrust in their face.

Charlie [Wang] worked for GIS [Govt Information Services] in the early days and was co-credited as the cameraman on a GIS documentary in the 60's, entitled Sea Festivals of Hong Kong. I stopped working for Salon in the early 90's.

Perhaps my most enjoyable experience was Shadow of China, starring John Lone. It was a full 6 month schedule (including pre-production) and was produced by couple of guys responsible for the Wenders film, Paris, Texas. It was also directed by Mitsuo Yanagimachi who had developed a fantastic reputation in Japan as an artistic yet commercial director and there were some fantastic technicians and production crew on the project including future Oscar winners (Sandy Powell, costumes). You'll find on YouTube a few scenes from the film including one for the end credits in which my old Jaguar MK2 car stars! It was a shame the film came to nought but I enjoyed the experience tremendously and was a far more palatable project than Double Impact, on which there were more egos than artists... but that's another story.
Link for end credits for Shadow of China: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jUBdgG4QjkQ
Shadow of China had its difficulties; we'd already started shooting when Tiananmen Square kicked off and there was serious discussion about the plug being pulled. Sammi Davis loathed John Lone and at one point (when we were filming night scenes at Flagstaff House, now the Tea Museum) refused to kiss him in the romantic scenes; we built a massive set (Henry's office) on the top floor and at the extreme end of the Ocean terminal carpark which was all but obliterated by Typhoon Brenda, necessitating a rebuild; and the shoot came to a halt halfway through when the production company ran out of money, though the distributors eventually stumped up some more - but it was a reasonably harmonious shoot with a great crew and I was pleased with some of the locations I was able to find and secure.

Sam Neill was in HK to see his girlfriend Noriko Watanabe who was the makeup artist and agreed to shoot a short scene - I think at the FCC [actually it was at HKU] - playing a journalist. And I can't remember what role Simon [Yam] played, but that we shot his scenes at a house often used in local and overseas productions on Castle Peak Road, the name of which I also forget. But truth be told, I've not seen the film - I've not been able to lay my hands on a copy and only know about the end credits (and the 'dance scene', which we shot at a Kaifong headquarters on Nathan road at the junction of Observatory road) because of the YouTube links.

As for Tai Pan, very little was shot in Macau. They were mainly exterior harbour shots around Coloane. A little side story here - Charlie Wang brought back to Hong Kong one of the original fishing junks from the movie, God alone knows why, and I arranged for it to be kept at a marine police mooring in Sai Kung. But the boat was rotted through and during heavy rains actually sank at the mooring. Charlie was frantic with worry, not knowing what to do, but the Royal Navy agreed to recover the vessel (they inflated ballast bags in the hull to raise her) so they could tow her into international waters to use as target practice. Which they did. I think CW made very charitable donations to welfare associations of both the RHKP and RN for having inconvenienced them...
As for the Panavision agency, I'm pretty sure it was TC Wang (Charlie and Fred's dad), a photographer, who secured that - a great business move.

A friend of mine, 'Uncle' John McCallum, shot a lot of glass plates with junks etc. of the bay at Zhuhai from a hill on the promontory. He was a lovely guy, English, who did a lot of work for Charlie Wang, mainly because he was cheap! He came back to the UK and worked as a DP on a reasonably successful TV series called Peak Practice in Derbyshire, but I haven't heard from him in a while. You won't recognise me but I was an extra on Taipan as well - I can be seen in a crowd scene as one of the settlers on the beach, replete with sideburns and 19th century hat. A lot of standing around, waiting for something to happen. It was all a bit of fun really, not part of the job description, no, but as most shows had a 'law enforcement' element, producers/casting directors often thought it was appropriate to cast me for the small parts. But I did actually work on Noble House as an extra, not on production, together with a guy named Jonathan Wattis, who went on to open a gallery called Wattis Fine Arts on Hollywood Road.
Some memories of Roy Chiao...
I worked a couple of times with Roy Chaio (for example, see Bamboo in Winter, a 16mm film we shot with money from, I believe, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association - Roy was a committed Christian) and he was a great guy. Very generous, kind and considerate and great with the crew. A gentleman. [Bamboo in Winter] was blown up to 35mm but never made it to cinemas in HK - Stateside and video only, I believe. Roy did the work for nothing - admittedly it was a short shoot -16 days rings a bell. Filmed mostly around the hills of Tai Po and the Lam Tsuen valley - it made sense, as I was location manager and living in Lam Tsuen at the time!!
Finally a few mentions of what nearly became of Yellowthread Street series 2...
I worked around three weeks on the second series as a Production Manager before it was canned. We had production offices in, I think, Lancashire road, just off Waterloo road in Kowloon Tong. We had the scripts for each of the first 6 episodes and I was working with Gavin Bocquet, the production designer, trying to find suitable locations. It was disappointing to have the series cancelled but then we hadn't really got very far with it in any case...
So there you have it, you heard it all here first. Neil was also kind enough to leave a lot of interesting and entertaining comments on some of the various locations posts I have done for films such as Double Impact and Noble House etc, so feel free to go and have an explore. Many thanks to Neil for coming to the site and spending what must have been a significant amount of time recalling and writing and answering my nerdy questions :-)

5 comments:

  1. Hi Phil,

    Since they diverted the route 671 last earlier this month it goes through Wing Hing Street every morning. I believe I saw Salon Films still has an office in the original location. Current version of Street View made it difficult to see it as the building shown is covered by scaffolding and nets. But if you take a screen capture of the entrance and blow it up, you could still see a big sign facing the door say Salon Films (HK) Ltd. There seemed to be another line under Salon Films but I was unable to identify it. I'll see if I could take a snap shot the next time I pass it by.

    Thanks & Best Regards,
    T

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    1. Hi Thomas, yes, a look at their website confirms that Wing Hing St is still used by them as their "Multimedia Centre". Is this is the same office Neil was talking about when they filmed Bloodsport?
      Cheers
      Phil

      Funnily enough though there is no mention of the Devon Road site on the webpage. I may have to go and grab a snap of the name plaque outside just to check.

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    2. Salon Films main office is now in Kowloon City. The office in Causeway Bay is now Salon Media Lab.

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    3. I notice the Kowloon Tong office has now been vacated (as of about 6 months ago). I think the plaque has disappeared too...pity I never got to take a picture :-(

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  2. on an interesting, related matter, I am also currently reading Martin Booth's excellent "Dragon Syndicates" about the history and development of Chinese Triads. Neil is mentioned in the book when Booth details an incident whilst filming the Cracker episode "White Ghost". Apparently, Neil was kidnapped by a group of Triads who thought he was a rich foreign director, and tried to extort money from him (in the guise of a $4000 round of drinks). After realising he wasn't who they thought he was, poor old Neil was 'relieved of some items of clothing' and the production crew were told his legs would be broken if they didn't pay a ransom for him. Poor Neil!

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