TIME: 2046 debuted at the Cannes Film Festival in May, but I've heard that you've made changes since then. How much has the film been altered?
Wong: It hasn't changed much. We just switched the sequence of certain scenes, and took out a few other scenes to compensate, because we are in a rush to catch the deadline of Cannes, so that version the sound and also the music is not perfect. We improved it, and also the special effects of the film. All this CG works hadn't been complete during Cannes. We put all the things that were supposed to be in the film back in their right place. Part of the delay is because I am working with CGI for the first time in my career. This is something beyond my control, and there are a lot of factors which are unpredictable.
TIME: What was it like watching the film for the first time at Cannes?
Wong: It is really a trip. We just finished the first reel of the film, one hour before we got on the plane. I didn't get any chance to watch the film as a whole in the cinema before that. We got to Paris the next morning. That night, I get to the cinema, and actually this is my first time to watch the film on a big screen, in front of the public. It's exciting because every moment you don't know what mistake will happen.
TIME: Why did the editing go down to the wire?
Wong: The structure was constantly changing. We can't be sure. Some of the scenes are supposed to be there, but at the last moment we look at the material we have, and it's not done yet. It's not perfect yet. So we have to take that scene out, and then we have to change the structure again, because you have to then delete not only one scene, but many scenes. We started this film at the same time as In the Mood for Love. And at first, these two films were two separate projects. But at the time it was extremely difficult for me [to keep them separate] because it was like falling in love with two women at the same time. So I tried to find a kind of connection between these two projects. So one day while shooting In the Mood, we were shooting in a hotel room, and the memories triggered something, so I thought why don't we call it 2046?
TIME: Is 2046 a continuation of In the Mood for Love?
Wong: A lot of people think that 2046 is like a sequel of In the Mood, but I don't think so. For me it's more like Mood is a chapter in 2046. It's like 2046 is a big symphony, and Mood is one of its movements.
TIME: How did the many changes in 2046 evolve? At first we were hearing the movie was going to have a futuristic feel, to be set in the year 2046, with robots and everything else, but that seems to have been dropped from the original version. What happened?
Wong: The whole thing, the reason we want the idea to make the film, comes from the promise the Chinese government gave to the Hong Kong people, of 50 years of no change. I think that would be very interesting, because 2046 is the last year of that promise. And I think, this is interesting, is there anything similar that is so unchanged in life? It has different layers this number can apply to a lot of things in life. In terms of a love story, normally when we fall in love with someone we're concerned with our promise. Will they change? Will I change? How can we make this moment last forever? I think this is a very interesting idea, to create a film based on that number, on that promise. So we start with that. Because of that number, I thought we could set the film in 2046, 50 years in the future, so naturally we start thinking about a futuristic story, sci-fi stuff. But I didn't want a realistic version of the future. What we are trying to achieve is like a manga, something like the imagination of a person in 1966 thinking about the future.
TIME: You had a much larger cast than usual, with a very large crew as well. How do you keep them all together and working for such a long, five-year production period?
Wong: To keep people working for a long time is very hard, to keep the spirit and the focus is extremely hard. We know that we were trying to do something that is very ambitious because we have a big cast, and so everyone is trying to deliver their best. To work together for five years is extremely hard, so you need the belief that we're really doing something. Even the cast needs to believe in something. Of course during the five years, some people will lose their faith and they have to leave, and some people will join in. We were supposed to be shooting the Eros project in Shanghai during the SARS period. At that time because we can't leave Hong Kong, we have to shoot in Eros in the city, and some of our crew members were coming from Taiwan. Their wives just went crazy, because they couldn't accept their husbands working on such a dangerous film, in such a dangerous city. But they still came.
TIME: Given your fairly iconoclastic working methods and long shoots, how do you convince people to sign onto your projects, especially newcomers? How do you get them to believe in you?
Wong: There's always a myth thing that we don't have a script or that everything is improvised. But that's not true. Most of the actors, when they join the production, they know their story. They don't know their whole story, but they know their chapter. Like Zhang Ziyi, because she knows she's going to play a ballroom dancer in the 60s, and she doesn't have any idea what that is. She's coming from a totally different background. I have to give her a lot of homework. I have to give her all of these films from the period, so she can understand the gestures, the actions. And also I give her all the costumes, because she has to get those manners down. So she simply took all the costumes back to the hotel, and wore them everyday until she was comfortable in them.
TIME: Were you happy with Zhang's performance?
Wong: Very much. Before 2046, everyone thinks about Zhang mostly through Crouching Tiger or Hero, because she's very good with action work. But I think she's more than that. She's a very very good actress, very sensitive. Very hard working.
TIME: What about Gong Li? How did she prepare for her role?
Wong: She played a gambler, so she went to Macau by herself to watch and prepare. She wouldn't take a production assistant with her. It was Macau undercover. She is very serious. She is very smart. She needs to have a lot of preparation.
TIME: Do all your actors need that level of preparation?
Wong: No. Like Faye Wong, she doesn't need to do that because we've worked before, and she always tries to make herself very relaxed.
TIME: 2046 features a lot of actors who are new to you, like Li and Zhang. Is it difficult to accustom them to your working methods?
Wong: The script actually develops with the characters. If you want to make a film with an actor or actress, there must be something that attracts you. I'm trying to exploit it, the quality that they might not even be aware of themselves. Normally, I don't ask people to act certain persons. It's just be you. Like Gong Li when I'm making Eros with her, I have kind of a picture what if she's a gambler, or a hustler, it would be very interesting. It's something inside her that you find.
TIME: So the character and the actor co-exist in your mind?
Wong: Yes. There is no acting in it. It's like seamless, because they have that quality, at least according to my observation.
TIME: Your job is to bring that out?
TIME: How do you relate your films to each other? What does 2046 have in common with the others?
Wong: I think Days of Being Wild, In the Mood and 2046 all fit in one continuous story. It would be a very interesting to put Days and Mood together with 2046 and let it become a complete story. If we think Days is a chapter of 2046, and Mood is a chapter of 2046, then 2046 is the complete story.
TIME: Does that help explain why 2046 took so long to complete, if it really is the final section of the a story you've been working on for almost 15 years? If Cannes hadn't been last May, would you still be working on it?
Wong: The thing is, when you say stop, and it's the end of the film, it doesn't mean it's the end really. Sometimes it means you are running out of money or running out of time. Like Days was supposed to be two parts. And Mood, the story should be a little longer, they [Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung] should have more encounters, though they never come together. There was an epilogue in my original idea. But you have to stop at that moment. But that doesn't mean you can't put these things back into another film. In a broader sense it's like a transection of different characters. Days, Mood and 2046 are like a trilogy, and this is the last chapter. At a certain point, it might take me years, I might come back to this period again. Now it's almost done. Maybe 10 years later, or much later, I think, well, we can have another chapter, or it can belong to someone else.
TIME: Does the act of dealing with those limitations, of time or money, help shape what the film ends up looking like?
Wong: Absolutely. To be a director is always to deal with the limitations, restrictions. Productions, creative, financial, there's so many restrictions and limitations. And sometimes the way you make the film is to cope with these problems. So a lot of people think your film is very stylized, you have a different way to make this film, you have your signatures, but much of it is due to your response to these limitations. The way we make films is to solve all of the problems. The thing is it's very hard to find a balance, because you find a way to solve the problem, and at the same time you want to keep as much of your original intention as possible.
TIME: If you had your preference, would you ever stop making this film?
Wong: For me to make films should be like a circus, we should just go from one town to the other, always on the road, and you stop when you think you should stop. To me, if there's no Cannes, no other reasons, you can make 2046 for another year. So that's why I think we have to present the film now. I agreed to send the film to France even though it was not completed yet. But I think it is a good thing to do because it means we have a deadline. I need a deadline. But I have my hesitation too. I have questions about these things [whether he should really keep working on the film]. Am I doing too much? Is it worth it? You are putting yourself in a prison. You are imprisoned by this situation. Actors can have a break, you can do another film, and come back. It's very hard. At the end you just want to get away from it as soon as possible. A few weeks ago, we finished the final mix, we spent a lot of time doing the sound, and at the end, the film is done. And I looked at the film and I realized that you have to say goodbye to this project, and you feel very very... You know it's not easy, and you know it's not a normal practice to make a film for five years. And I'm not sure we'll be able or willing to do that again in the future. This is a very special film. It is the hardest to let go. But you have to let go. And that's it. And move onto something else.
TIME: Were you disappointed to miss out on the Palme d'Or at Cannes?
Wong: No. For me, the reason to appear in Cannes is to have a deadline. That's the purpose. And to win an award in a festival is purely something that you can't control. It's up to timing, and the makeup of the jury.
TIME: Do you consider your films romantic?
Wong: For me, romanticism means you follow your heart more than your mind. If that's the case, the films are 75% romantic. The other 25% is the realities, the problem solving, and luck. I cannot describe in detail in the films which moment is like that [the nonromantic proportion], but overall it's 25%.
TIME: What about you? Are you romantic?
Wong: [Laughing] I'm 60% romantic.
TIME: Where do you see yourself in regards to other directors, Western and Asian? What can you take away from them?
Wong: I'm always curious about how directors make their films, because I didn't go to film school and I don't have any technical training. The way that I make films is the only way I know. So I'm curious sometimes how the other directors make their films. When I was very young, we watched a lot of films from different directors, and each of them give you a window, showing you how a film can be made in this way. So by the time you face all of these problems, you know you can solve by this alternative, or the other alternative.
TIME: Why do you make your films the way you do?
Wong: I'm not that self-analytical. I just do it by instinct, simply by instinct.
TIME: You started off your career as a screenwriter. Is it odd for someone who began their career as a writer to seemingly turn away from scripts altogether?
Wong: I worked as a writer for almost 10 years, and I realized the purpose of the script is as a prescription to make everyone seem to know what they're doing. And the role of the writer is like a psychiatrist to the director. During the productions, the director has a lot of queries. sometimes he has second thought on this idea and he want to make sure this line is perfect. And he needs a psychiatrist to tell him that what he's doing is right. And in my case, I'm my own psychiatrist, which kind of just makes things even worse.
TIME: For a filmmaker whose work is so consumed with desire and its frustration, you seem remarkably hands-off about actually showing sex. Why is that?
Wong: I think to describe a so-called love scene, or intercourse is very boring. There must be a point to your focus. Like in Eros, it's always about this person's perspective. It's about the hand, instead of the actual act. In 2046, the only physical relationship between Tony and the women is the story between him and Zhang Ziyi. The reason we want to have three parts of that story is because the character of Tony is always thinking about his past. And sometimes he has a fantasy about the future, but he's always missing the present. And that's why he wants to change, he wants to have physical contact, very solid relationships with someone else, and that woman is the woman next door, Zhang Ziyi. He wants to change, he wants to have direct contact with someone, another person. So his story with Zhang Ziyi is entirely straightforward, there are no second thoughts. He just wants to believe by instinct. And afterwards, when things don't work out well with Zhang Ziyi, he goes back to talking to himself, and writing. Writing is a way to have a dialogue with yourself. You can never compete with something in the past, in memory. Like some people said, we love what we can't have. In this world, the end becomes the beginning. It's very unfair for anyone around him [Tony] in the present, because they can never compete with his imagination or his memory. We love what we can't have, and we can't have what we love.
TIME: I heard that your cinematographer, Christopher Doyle, once claimed that all of your films were about the impossibility of love. Do you agree?
Wong: No, I don't think so, because if you have it [love] in your memory, it's already possible to me. He [Doyle] thinks that because he's very physical. [Laughs]
TIME: What's your working relationship like with Doyle and with your art director, William Chang?
Wong: It's a very long working relationship, and it makes a lot of things much easier. And actually we don't have to discuss much about the film. We don't need meetings. Sometimes I ever prefer that way because we need some suspense between each other. I have to guess what William is doing. By the time I get to the set, I have to respond to that. So that may be a very good way to inspire each other. Otherwise it would become very boring, like a very long relationship, a marriage, everything becomes very predictable, and you'd know that we are talking about the same thing all the time. We prefer to stay away form each other and have some mystery. Sometimes it's like a competition. They create something hard, and you have to solve it. And I create something hard. I will ask Chris if he can do something better. It's like a challenge. It works very well in our case.
TIME: Can you give an example from the making of 2046?
Wong: We're shooting in a small hotel, everything is very narrow, tight, and I decided to shoot in Cinemascope, which created a huge problem for the lighting and camera man because they don't have a stage or anything to put their light. So Chris has to create something on his feet, and for him, this is the first time he has used this format. Actually he's quite lost, and he has to find a new way to deal with this problem. Of course he complains, and we have mistakes and problems, but this is the way, the challenge, otherwise it will be the same thing. Everyone will sleep, it will be very boring. Especially if it takes five years to make a film.
TIME: How do you communicate with each other?
Wong: I think we speak almost the same language. We know that. And I think we respect each other very well. And I know that, this is the best way to deal with the films.
TIME: Can you ever imagine working with anyone else?
Wong: Sure, possibly. At some point for Chris, he needs some inspiration. He's a sailor, and he has to travel, and for me also, if I have a chance to work with another director of photography, it would be another challenge.
TIME: Now that 2046 is done, and that continuous story has been completed, what will your next project be? How do you start a new project? Do you start with an image?
Wong: Yes, you need to have the image. Sometimes you can start with the look of an actress, or a certain space, or even with a hand. Like Eros, I started the whole image with the single hand.
TIME: Your vision of Hong Kong is so individual, so different from the place we live in. What it's like to be an elegiac artist in a city that is constantly eating its own past?
Wong: It's like you try to keep something. That's why you have a story like 2046. You want to create a place in the world where what we think is nice, we can keep it that way. It's like the Hong Kong that we picture in our films is something from our impressions, from our memories, a certain wonderful moment of our city. And we want to keep that on film.
Interview réalisée par Bryan Walsh publiée le 27 septembre 2004 par Time Magazine.