“Revenge of the Green Dragons” stars Justin Chon, Kevin Wu, Harry Shum, Jr., Shuya Chang, Jin Auyeung, Eugenia Yuan, Geoff Pierson, Billy Magnussen and Ray Liotta, reuniting him with Martin Scorsese for the first time in nearly 25 years since “Goodfellas.”
Film Synopsis: The film follows two immigrant brothers Sonny (Justin Chon) and Steven (Kevin Wu) who survive the impoverished despair of New York in the 1980s by joining Chinatown gang “The Green Dragons”. The brothers quickly rise up the ranks, drawing the unwanted attention of hard-boiled city cops. After an ill- fated love affair pits Sonny against his own brother, he sets out for revenge on the very gang who made him who he is. From acclaimed Director Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo, and legendary Executive Producer Martin Scorsese comes a brilliant mix between a Hong Kong action film and a New York City crime thriller, portraying the never-before-told true story of “The Green Dragons”.
The A24 release hit theaters today and we had the opportunity to speak with the film’s directors Andrew Lau and Andrew Loo exclusively. Read what they told us below.
What inspired you to make this movie?
First of all, it is based on an article that came out in the 1980s from The New Yorker, and just reading the original material, it was so densely packed with colorful characters and sort of larger than life events – things that these people did to people within the community. It is fascinating to read but at the same time Andrew Lau has certainly done his share of gang movies so there really needed to be something else that I think got all of us on board rather than just making just a repeat of things that have been done before from the Hong Kong perspective. So what was interesting about this was it was also a way to tell an American story about a part of the community – the Asians here, that had come to America and the reasons why. And also, the result of the journey for a lot of Asians. Mostly, you hear the standard tale of you keep your nose clean, you work hard, and all will be fine at the end of the day but that necessarily wasn’t the case from the Asians who came over at that time. So that was an interesting aspect of the film was the ability to get in there and make those kinds of comments.
What sort of research was put into making this movie?
Well, we met with the remaining gang members who were still around in terms of the authenticity of the lifestyle that we portrayed in the film. I met the real Sunny who went into witness protection, who sought us out and I sat down with him in California. We spoke for a couple of hours. I spent a good deal of time with Fred Dannen who was the original investigative reporter on the piece. He had thousands of pages of police files or transcripts. We did a lot of research on the Snakehead Mama. I spent a good chunk of time with detective Mike McGuiness who was the law enforcement head of things. We tried to find a balance of creating a fictional piece of cinema that people could watch in an entertaining way for 90 minutes and tried to balance that with what we hope is a truthful portrayal of what it meant to be a Green Dragon at that time period.
When asked about some of the challenges in making the film, co-director Andrew Lau told us that the first challenge was budgeting. As he puts it, they were an independent film and therefore budgeting correctly was a major concern. He then said that casting was the second challenge because there aren’t a lot of Asian actors around to choose from, and finding the perfect cast was difficult to do. When talking about casting the younger versions of the two main characters, Lau told us, “And the two little guys, Steven and Sonny, we were casting for around half a year.” The last struggle Lau described was that finding a good location to film at was a challenge. They wanted to film in New York because it had the appearance of the 1990s that they were looking for, but at the same time it is very expensive to film in New York. At the end of the day though, Lau tells us, they kept those feelings of wanting New York as the location and that is why they kept it there.
And you said that casting was a big focus for you. Talk about how the dynamic was within the cast towards the movie because it is such a hard hitting, emotional movie. How did the cast react to the story being told?
Our working style is very collaborative. It is one of the fundamental differences between filming in a community and industry such as Hong Kong verses here. Here it is about efficiency and division of labor and the units. All the functions are divided very specifically between what the structure is and in Hong Kong it is much more integrated so camera lighting and grip, they all sort of work together , the directors, the AD, the cast, they all sort of work together. On this shoot we wanted to bring a little bit of that family style in the way that we approached our filming and it just organically spilled over to the cast got along as well as the crew. Everyone was working hard and it was very intense shoot because of the material but everyone got along exceptionally well. I think it is safe to say that some of the cast members have met their best friends ever on the shoot. They hang out and it was a real bonding experience I would say.
How was it working with Ray Liotta?
A lot of these actors that are so well known, that have a reputation that proceeds them. I heard that Ray might be a little challenging to manage, and we had an off day a week before Ray was scheduled to work and I get this call and he says, ‘Hey it’s Ray!’ and we start to talk about all his lines and all the works bit by bit and it was great. I knew right then that I was going to have zero problems with Ray and he was such a professional. He came just really excited to be a part of it. He was supportive, he was down for anything that we asked him to do and at the end I was a real fan – I became a huge fan of Ray just with his passion of getting involved in the show.
When asked about their favorite moments of the film, co-director Andrew Lau said that one of his favorite scenes was the ending scenes with Sonny and Snakehead Mama. He said that he really enjoyed the scenes that talked about the reality of the American Dream and how it can actually be argued about how good it is, whether it is a good dream or a bad dream.
And talking about the American Dream, what was some of the commentary that you were trying to put out about the American Dream?
In terms of the stories for Asian immigrants in America that have made it to the mainstream, whether it’s print or photography or movies, I think it’s been very limited. I think the larger population of America has just seen a very select group of stories that isn’t representative of what a lot of Asians have experienced when coming to America. This was really brought to my attention when we hung out with Marty in Toronto and Marty came up and said, “Look, I come to the film, what a crazy world.” He said, “I was born in Flushing and spent time in Flushing about the time the movie was happening, so if I didn’t know this was going on, you better believe that a lot of Americans had no idea something like this is going on. A big part of the movie is showing another side of the American experience, an Asian experience, but an American experience.
The film was set in the 1980’s. There is a transition from the American dream then and American dream today? How do you feel about that?
I think the Asian immigrant dynamic is different today than it was 25 years ago. Mostly because China has slowly become the world’s largest economy. the economic opportunity one has today is probably better if you stay in China than come to America. So that’s the biggest difference.
Many scenes were particularly gruesome, what was the point of this vivid imagery?
It was important to be truthful to the way the gangs existed and the way they behaved. One of the things our research brought out was that the Green Dragons and gangs like them were incredibly violent, our research found. This was coming from the detectives working in Harlem, and little Italy. Trying to make realism to what and how the gangs behaved and how they treated each other. Clearly we had scenes that are incredibly uncomfortable to watch, but we often will cut off the actual action, and focus on the reaction of a character. What is the impact of the violence on someone there, participating in the moment? I don’t think we were exploitative or shocking for shock-value, it’s just realism and shows how these gangs behave.
Some people didn’t know gang violence was happening. Do the gangs still have this control?
It’s changed. From what we know, the evolution of the economy over the 30 years has definitely influenced the gang’s activity. Remember, the film was in New York prior to the major clean up during the 80’s in part of Mayor Ed Koch’s effort. Using a political platform to clean up the city.
Is there a message the viewer might take from this movie?
I think it’s pretty well touched on in the posters- ‘the American Dream isn’t free’. People coming here thinking that if you work harder, you’ll be better that the end of the day. And that isn’t necessarily the experience of a great number of Asians who’ve come here.
What was it like having stunning executive producers like Martin Scorsese?
Martin was in the middle of shooting ‘Wolf of Wall Street’ at the time, but he was always there, reading the script, sent notes, came out to Toronto and we hung out, but that was kind of indicative of the whole film went in terms of executive producers and financiers – we were really given a wonderful opportunity to have a lot of freedom, to make this film how we wanted to make it. We had tremendous creative freedom to make this film.
This film deals a lot with race and injustice One quote, ‘don’t shoot white people, or the cops get involved’ and the crime against Asians was minimized in a way. A lot of films try to touch on race issues, but “The Revenge of the Green Dragons” is very in-your-face which made it even more effective. What gave you the courage to zone in on that issue?
A lot of it was based on the research. And I spoke great length with Detective Mike McGuiness and I said, “I’m going to ask the questions directly and you can choose not to answer me, but when Green Dragons and gangs like them were running around, committing Asian-on-Asian crime, did you get involved?” And he said, “No, we didn’t give a shit, we didn’t get involved- that was their problem and I’m being perfectly honest with you” and we had every right to include that in the film.