Step 2 — Pre-production: casting – Tony Leung Ka Fai
The key element of The Drummer was to have the real drummers from U Theatre play themselves or a fictional version of themselves in the film, because no one else can play them. The second biggest challenge was to find actors who fit the characters I have written and can bring them to life.
I studied and practiced theatre and am fascinated with morally and emotionally ambiguous characters such as the characters of Arthur Miller, Sam Shepard, Tennessee Williams and David Mamet. Being an admirer of those works is one thing but writing and drawing things from my life into my work and creating characters that demand the viewers’ attention are a different matter.
I have found that there are vivid, strong, morally and emotionally ambiguous people all around me. They’re compelling to watch and their actions, provocative. Such is the character of ‘Kwan’ in The Drummer. He’s a triad boss and the father of the lead character, ‘Sid.’ To me, he’s the most complete animal: full of instincts, violence, egotism, self-loathing and love that he is not ashamed of.
How does a ruthless gangster boss treat his own son who loves and imitates him?
Such a complex role demands a great actor. My first choice for this key role was Tony Leung Ka Fai (Election, The Lover) who has enjoyed an accomplished and rewarding career (five-time Best Actor winner at the Hong Kong Film Awards). I always envisioned him in the role of ‘Kwan.’
Tony Leung Ka Fai, the consummate Hong Kong actor
To get such a great star in his prime to play the role of a father is tricky. On top of it, he had just finished Johnnie To's Election as a wild-out-of-control gangster. With two strikes against me, we contacted him nevertheless.
Tony responded right away. He was most interested in the Zen drumming part of the project. U Theatre's style of drumming is an invention of their own and was the product of many years of evolution, which Tony has been aware of for some time. He's heard of U Theatre and greatly admired them after reading literature on their philosophies and training. We then set a time to meet.
On a February day Tony arrived early for our meeting. My wife/producer, Rosa, and I were surprised to find him waiting for us. “He’s early,” a good sign, we thought.
Tony was, however, not so keen to play another gangster. He felt he hadn’t had enough time to step out of the character from Election to create another persona for a triad boss (he was, of course, being extremely modest). Instead, he wanted to play one of the drummers. He explained how he chooses the projects he does and playing a Zen drummer would be of great interest to him at this point in his career. I also explained that the real Zen drummers play themselves in the film because they are so specific and special. Their characters have been chiseled out from years of living on the mountain. If I created another drummer character for him, I would have Tony Leung in my film but I would still have no one as strong as him to play ‘Kwan.’
Compounding the problem, Tony was involved in a stage production which he had to rehearse extensively and then travel to North America and China for performances. He would not be able to shoot my film for several months even if he’d agreed to do it. Dejected, Rosa decided to use the same trick she used on Sylvia Chang when we went to talk to her about starring in Rice Rhapsody three years prior, and added “I won’t take ‘no’ for answer.” Tony looked stunned for a second and then graciously said he would think about it.
There’s an unspoken rule in the Hong Kong film industry regarding paying for drinks at these meetings. The ‘rule’ is that if an actor/actress is not interested to star in your film, he or she would then insist on paying for the drinks. On the other hand, if they are keen to be in your film, then they’d let the producer or director treat. At this point Tony and Rosa were both fighting for the check. As luck would have it, Tony had left his wallet in his car by accident, so we got to treat him. Another good sign, we thought.
Without definite commitments from the stars, we pushed ahead with pre-production anyway because we couldn’t keep the crew (Production Manager, Production Designer, Costume Designer, etc) waiting and most important, we had to finish filming U Theatre by mid July at the latest, otherwise they would not be available for another eight months. Meanwhile we toyed with the idea of getting another actor to play ‘Kwan.’ However, as with most of the top actors in Hong Kong, availability is always an issue. It would eventually take us over three months to assemble 80% of the main cast.
By that time Tony had finished his stage performances and was about to start a new film in China. Realizing that he was the only one I wanted for the role, I called him again. Everything fell into place very quickly. He agreed to star in The Drummer if we could wait for him to finish his film in China. Knowing that Tony had originally wanted to learn to drum and play a Zen drummer, I designed a scene where he would have the opportunity to do so. In the end it became an emotionally significant scene in the film.
Starting from the basics. First day of drum training
Tony started his drum training and rehearsals with Jaycee before leaving for China. Ms. Liu Ruo-yu, artistic director of U Theatre, came to Hong Kong to train the both of them. Tony arrived an hour and half before his appointment to watch Jaycee learn. He couldn't resist and joined in on the lesson. It was great to witness such commitment and enthusiasm from a seasoned actor.
I devised some rehearsal exercises for Tony and Jaycee to build their complex father-and-son relationship. I was happy to see they were discovering things about themselves, each other and their characters throughout the process.
When Tony put on the costumes of ‘Kwan’ he became the character. He even chose a new hair style for the role. I couldn't be more delighted that such a great star took such initiatives and care in creating his character’s look by personally selecting his wardrobe and accessories. He even brought in his own shoes and clothes that were hard to find in the shops now. We were so glad we waited for him because no one else could have played the part better.
Three “gangsters” taking a break between scenes
In the coming blogs, I will talk about the casting of some of the other lead actors, e.g. Jaycee Chan and Lee Sinje, and their drumming experiences, as well as other aspects of the pre-production such as location scouting and set construction.