Mulan, Disney’s latest animated classic turned live action film, premiered at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood on March 9. It was a lavish, star-studded event filled with cast and creative of this inclusive and culturally sensitive film. Producer Jason Reed remembers that night fondly. It was the first opportunity for much of the cast and creative team to reassemble since making Mulan. The air was electric with the buzz of a well received film that looked to sail into box office history a few weeks later.
And then the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the country.
Finally premiering today on Disney Plus, Mulan is a gorgeous epic of female empowerment and family honor. It dips into Chinese culture, art, and martial arts with incredible authenticity and power not seen in standard big budget American films. Even viewed on a home television, the film features lush vistas and a truly epic widescreen feel, largely thanks to director Niki Caro and cinematographer Mandy Walker’s David Lean inspirations. Mulan makes you long to return to the theater to bask in its visual splendor.
Here, producer Jason Reed talks to Awards Daily about making the Disney epic. He talks about the selection of Niki Caro as director and about how a major studio fashions a culturally sensitive film. Finally, he talks about the benefits of seeing the film on Disney Plus during unsettling times and what lies ahead for Mulan.
Awards Daily: Disney has produced several live action films over the past ten years. What was it about Mulan that that piqued your interest as a live action product?
Jason Reed: What I thought was most interesting about Mulan was the opportunity to tell a big, epic movie with the Disney label. I grew up watching the movies of David Lean and Kurosawa. The idea of being able to take a movie that was family accessible and had enough equity in the title to warrant the big screen treatment was really exciting. The second thing that really got me specifically about Mulan was the universal nature of her story. This was written 1,500 years ago in the northern provinces of what is now China, and her story has resonated throughout time.
There have been many versions of the legend made. Most notably in the West is the animated version. I think there’s the power of, in this case, a young woman trying to find her place in a world that doesn’t seem like it’s built for her. Doesn’t seem like there is a natural fit for her. She wants to lead a good life. She wants to lead an honorable life, and most importantly, she wants to honor her family. She wants to protect the people that she loves. That, I think, is just a universal story. It’s very satisfying to watch someone overcome those struggles and find a way to accomplish that goal.
AD: I’m glad you mentioned the films of David Lean and the big widescreen epics that inspired the film. I certainly felt that vastness watching the film even on my home television. When you look at making that kind of widescreen action drama, what was it about Niki Caro as a director that alerted you and Disney to her? There’s nothing quite like this in her resume.
JR: There’s two main reasons. I don’t know if you’ve ever met Niki Caro, but she is a force of nature. She is as focused and indefatigable and passionate as any director I’ve ever met, much less worked with. She has this long history of being able to go into a group of people and do the research, be respectful, be thoughtful, and immerse herself in a group whether it’s the Maori in Whale Rider or the kids in McFarland, USA, or even the laborers in North Country. She finds a way to bring authenticity to her characters and to the world she’s creating that I think really engages with the audience. She finds a way to bring us into this world. Whale Rider‘s a great example. I love the old ladies in the film. You know those ladies. They may be Maori. They may be from thousands of miles away. They may live in a completely different world than you do, but every person around the world watched them and knew exactly who they were. She’s able to find those universal qualities in all of these different people. That was the primary reason. That’s why I’ve always been an advocate of hers and why the studio was so excited about her as well. She’s really an actor’s director, and she could bring that emotional journey to life.
When it came to the scope and scale of the movie, when we talked to her, you just couldn’t help but feel the passion and her excitement for doing it. The way she talked about the movie and her ambition for the movie was inspiring. You knew that she could find a way to do it because she’s the kind of person that just finds a way. When we introduced her to the tools that, as an independent filmmaker, she wouldn’t necessarily have access to, she took to them like a fish to water. It was about finding a new way to tell a story. We also assembled a really great crew of creative department heads around her. Most notably for that element is Mandy Walker who, in my belief, should be shooting every movie ever from this point on. She is also a force of nature.
So, the two of them together did this huge amount of research. Traditional Chinese art, paintings, and drawings. Chinese cinema. The canon of epic movies from world cinema. The Disney storytelling tradition. They brought those elements all together to create this one singular thing. Talking about David Lean, Mandy actually went out and found lenses that were used on Lawrence of Arabia. We actually use some of those lenses on the movie. She was very particular about the lens selection and the kits that we used. She filmed with the Arri 65 camera to get this really great widescreen image. I think it really paid off in the end. So, we’re very fortunate. You have Niki’s vision, and then you have someone like Mandy who could just put it on film. It was really great to watch.
AD: So, when you look at the 2020 version of Mulan, it’s based on both an ancient Chinese legend as well as a late 90s film with a different cultural sensitivity to it. Tell me about some of the steps that you as a production team took to make sure that you were adhering to modern sensibilities with Asian representation on film.
JR: I would start off by saying we made sure that the audiences that we wanted to be respectful to were represented both in front of and behind the camera. Not just one person, but a group of people so that there is support for that voice and that point of view. I think it was really important for us to have an all ethnically Chinese cast. I think it was important to include as many Chinese and Asian creative team members as we could. I think it was also very important to have as many female creative team leaders as we could possibly get on the movie. We could choose the best of the best. It was an added bonus in many of those circumstances that they were also women or also Asian.
For instance, Niki Caro is one of the best directors working. She’s not one of the best female directors working; she’s one of the best directors working. After this movie, she is going to be in that very select, very rarefied air of huge event movie directors. I think that’s very important.
From a practical standpoint, what it requires is a huge amount of listening and a huge amount of research. All of our department heads became experts in their field by just digging deep into the research. We had a lot of consultants. We had a lot of scholars that we were working with. We had a lot of people on speed dial to answer questions. We had the world’s foremost expert on Tang Dynasty military maneuvers and practices who actually was involved in helping Niki design some of the action sequences.
We built this incredibly expansive team of advisors that we took advantage of all the way through the process. I think it was a tribute to Niki and to all the creative heads that they were willing to sit down and really pay attention to the various groups and how we could be respectful to them. Ultimately, they imbued these characters and these situations with even more meaning than they might otherwise have.
AD: When I was watching it with my kids who are older and do have fond memories of the original Disney film, they asked, “Where’s Mushu?” And I told them Mushu has been gracefully represented by the phoenix.
JR: Everybody loves Mushu, and he lives on the next button over on Disney Plus. People can watch Mushu anytime they want. I love Mushu, but this is a different movie. We were telling a different story. Even aside from the sort of cultural sensitivities, Mushu wouldn’t fit in the movie that we were making. Nor would break-into-song music. A lot of people miss that, which they can also see on Disney Plus with a click of a button. So, to me that was one of the exciting elements of taking this project on. We took something that was beloved by so many different audiences and made sure that we were sensitive and respectful to their point of view. It was a great deal of responsibility. I know that Niki and everyone took it very, very seriously and really wanted to make sure that we deliver.
AD: To me it’s one of the few live action adaptations of recent years that I think truly breaks apart from its source inspiration. This film definitely has a sense of being its own piece. It has a different story to tell. It’s a similar story, but it has different theming and a different sensibility, a different tone, and both work.
JR: There’s just a lot to explore. You can pitch the plot of both movies, and they’re basically the same. But you’re right, they’re very different stories. They’re very different characters, and the relationships are different. Some of that is going in more depth. Some of it is because I think there are things you can do in animation that you can’t do in live action or aren’t as effective in live action. There was a lot of room to explore and do something different. I’ve always been a big fan of the Disney brand and what it can do in providing high quality family entertainment. Sometimes that requires pushing what people’s perception of the brand is. To do a big epic action adventure movie where we prioritize making it look beautiful and where we wanted to make it rich and where we wanted to make it authentic and genuine and truly emotional in as many ways as we could, that was the great challenge and the great fun of the movie.
AD: Take me back to early March and the premiere at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles pre-COVID. Tell me what was going through your mind that night during the premiere?
JR: The premiere was just such a fantastic night to have everybody together. It had been a while since we’d been in the same place. To have everybody together was great. That was a night that was just about the movie, and that was really great. We were coming into it with really positive responses from screening audiences, test audiences, and early reviewers who had seen the movie. We were getting this really positive feedback, so everybody was really excited. We were feeling this momentum. We were just feeling great.
We were thinking about some challenges because of the pandemic, but it hadn’t really yet come into focus for the general public in America. To come out of the premiere with all of that momentum and energy and then weeks later to have to push the release, it was really disappointing. It felt abrupt. But obviously in the face of a public health crisis with people who are losing their livelihoods and people who were losing family members and loved ones, the release of a movie kind of pales in comparison. I would hate for our movie to have in any way endangered anyone or contributed to the spread of the disease.
Now going forward, I’m just happy that we’re going to get it out finally. I’ve been super excited about people seeing it. I think this hybrid release is going to be really interesting. I think we’re going to get it to as many people as we possibly can. Hopefully, it provides a little bit of respite from otherwise unsettling times.
AD: So last question for you. There has been conversation about a sequel. Is that still on the books? Or is that TBD at this point?
JR: Well, I also work in television. As a show runner that I was working with once told me… I was talking about how I wanted to save a plot point for an episode two and not put it in the pilot. He tells me, ‘There is no episode two. There is only the pilot.’ So, right now I’m focused exclusively on the first movie. I think there are a lot of opportunities. There are a lot of great stories to tell. There are a lot of great themes to explore. It would be great if we got a chance to do that, but right now I’m focused on this movie.
Mulan is now streaming on Disney Plus for users with Premier Access.