Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings Production Designer Sue Chan joined Awards Daily to discuss the design process behind the film’s major set pieces and explain how she paid homage to Chinese culture in her work while also prioritizing character-driven aesthetics.
***Note: This interview contains minor plot spoilers for Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.***
Awards Daily: I’d love to know about the moment you got the call saying you’ve been hired to do Shang-Chi.
Sue Chan: Well, you know, the whole process, believe it or not, was just fun top to bottom. First of all, getting the call to do the interview was terrific. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, this is totally in my wheelhouse as a Chinese-American and as a Kung Fu movie fan. I felt like I had nothing to lose. So, going into the interview, I was surprisingly relaxed. Destin is just a terrific warm, nice guy. I suppose if I had any preconceived notions about what it would be like to interview for Marvel, they were completely dispelled within the first five minutes, and it was just a fun interview. Everything was great. It was about 24 hours or maybe 48 hours of just pins and needles. When I got the call, I thought, ‘Wow, this is amazing. I get to do this super cool movie and I wonder what we’re going to do.’
AD: Speaking of preconceived notions, what was your actual work experience like? Did it match what you thought it was going to be?
SC: You know, I tried to gauge my expectations. I didn’t want to psyche myself out, so it exceeded my expectations, honestly. I had a lot of resources, and I worked with such talented people, not just within my department, but also in the whole crew. All of my collaborators were just terrific. Every moment of it was, weirdly, pure joy even though we got shut down, and we had wildfires and rain, and almost everything a movie could suffer from. Overcoming each hurdle was just a wonderful success story in and of itself. We all had such a good time together. It was just incredible.
AD: There are several set pieces from Shang-Chi that I want to talk to you about. Let’s start at the beginning and everything that happens in San Francisco. Can you introduce us to that world and delve into the bus where the first significant action sequence takes place?
SC: Sure. The very first thing we ever scouted was San Francisco, long before we went out to Australia. We all took a trip to San Francisco, and I knew exactly where to go because I’d lived in San Francisco. My parents live in the Bay Area, and I knew that we should go straight to Clement Street. There’s this sort of cliched idea about Chinatown, but Clement Street is the old Chinatown of San Francisco, and it was much more of an unexpected look at a Chinese community. So, I said, ‘That’s where we should go, where our characters should live, and where their shop should be.’
Then there was the whole question of where does this bus go? I lived in San Francisco for about five years, and I constantly took the 1 California bus, which is the bus in our movie. It’s the bus that goes from one end of San Francisco to the other, and so in my mind, I’d always thought that’s the bus route.
We knew that we were going to have to do this big bus stunt, we didn’t know exactly how it would manifest, but we knew we were going to need four buses shipped to Australia. They would get hacked apart and sort of MacGyvered into our bus interior for filming in Australia for all of the interior bus shots. We knew that we would do most of the exterior bus shots on location in San Francisco. There were a lot of moving parts for that stunt. The exterior scenes in San Francisco took four buses that we had to take apart. There was interior stuff in Australia that took two other buses. So, I think it was six buses total. Then there was the fact that COVID happened, and none of us who were in Australia could then go back and do the second unit work in San Francisco. So, a whole different unit ended up shooting the exterior bus work in San Francisco. It was this knitting together of visual effects. There is a point in the movie in which the bus makes a hard right turn and crashes into this construction site. We shot that crash in Australia, so we had to build the intersection out in this empty parking lot. Visual effects had to knit that together with a plain shot of the real location in San Francisco. If you’ve seen the movie, you know the fight ends up on the exterior of the bus and that all happens on a very technical rig that gimbals the bus and turns it and twists it. That was so complicated, and gratifying to see it all put together so wonderfully in the final edit.
AD: Let’s move to the family compound, the set changes and shifts as we move back and forth in time.
SC: Yes, that was a wonderful set as well, because going into the movie, it had three manifestations. It had the bachelor manifestation, which started when Wenwu first gained the ten rings, and that’s about 1000 years where he’s building his organization. Then there is the married phase where he meets Li in the magical forest, brings her back, and starts a family there. Finally, there’s the third phase, which is the widower phase after Li’s death. So, we have very distinct color schemes and looks, and feelings for each one. We wanted the home to represent what was going on in Wenwu’s life. [Cinematographer] Bill Pope achieved that beautifully in his lighting and how he told the story of the set, and how all the actors and Destin use the set.
We did shoot it in chronological order. We had to change it three times to set it up for ancient times. And then, once those scenes were shot, the crew went away and shot other things. We quickly turned it into the married manifestation, which was the most drastic change because it was colorful and full of flowers. We had the beautiful carved wall and roof was painted green, and all this stuff had to happen to it to bring life into it, which embodies the family. After the death of Wenwu’s wife, Li, we had to take out all the color and turn it into this desolate shell of what it was.
By the time we finish the movie, there is a fourth manifestation in the end credits when Xialing takes over the compound. We brought her aesthetic from the nightclub into the compound because this is now her home, and she’s making it her own.
AD: How did you envision the nightclub’s aesthetic and what work went into accomplishing it?
SC: That was a lot of fun. Destin and I met very early about that, and we knew that it would be sort of a fight club, but not like a dangerous, scary fight club, but rather something fun and cool. [The club] was our opportunity to make a strong statement about Xialing’s character. If you look very closely at the street art that peppers the back wall there, it’s feminist in its leanings. There are these tough-girl, but beautiful and very culturally explicit Asian tropes that we tried to bring into all of the street art, [making it] fun, in-your-face, and modern.
In her office, there are skulls, but there are flowers, and there are strong colors and fun things like that. We liked the idea that we would use shipping containers. It makes sense that this group of scrappy entrepreneurs might use them to create their fight club. So that was the basic idea. We liked the idea of having this pathway that they walk down before they see the main event, in the middle of this peep show, where you have all these smaller fights going on. The main stage is an octagon. Of course, the octagon has a strong cultural significance for Asians, with the number eight. There’s a lot of enfolded themes in all the sets.
AD: With Ta Lo, we see the outdoor setting and that sense of community. Then Shang-Chi goes inside the temple and sees all of the pictures and family history as his aunt, Ying Nan, is giving him a tour. How did you approach those two separate entities within Ta Lo and thematically bring them together?
SC: Right, we always wanted to have this strong sense of connection to our ancestors. In the temple, the anchor of the village, you see the drawings and mementos of the village members who came before, including Shang- Chi and Xialing’s mother. We wanted this vast wall of history, and that’s what we brought into the temple, so the temple, rather than being religious it’s more of a filial temple. It is open on four sides. There are no doors; the village is a very porous place where everybody has an assigned task in every building. There’s a pottery shed, a cooking shed, a schoolroom, and then there are buildings where people live. We dressed every one of them because we wanted it to feel authentic and well used. There’s a sense that there are many centers to the village depending on what each villager was doing.
AD: You mentioned symbolism within the production design. Can you tell me more about that?
SC: We always had a solid five elements foundation for the village. In Chinese cosmology, the five elements have always been about balance in Chinese culture. The five elements—Wood, Water, Fire, Metal, and Earth, are supposed to be constantly balanced and working towards one another so that life is balanced, so, we started with that as the materials we would use within the village. We tried to keep that evident and balanced but very much in the background. Dragon scales became our sixth element, or maybe the stand-in for Metal. Dragon scale is the strongest material available to villagers; that’s why all of their weapons were made that way. We always wanted to stress this idea of balance in Li’s life in the village. In contrast, Wenwu is much more about metal and fire and things of that sort. So, we were interested to see how that would manifest in the film. And how those things collide.
AD: The village is paying homage to ancestry and ancient Chinese culture. Then you have Shang-Chi who brings a modern energy and aesthetic. How did you balance taking these influences and modernizing them while also paying homage?
SC: That’s an excellent question. I suppose that we focused on that energy and balance more on that side of Shang-Chi’s life. I mean, I feel like as a character, he’s finding himself in the story. Is he his father’s son, his mother’s son or is he a combination of both? We went strong for this is his mother’s side, and this is his father’s side. Then, hopefully, when he comes to the village, it all merges. Then he carries that on into the rest of his life.
AD: Do you have any other favorite sets from Shang-Chi?
SC: Oh, you know, we had so many sets on that film, but some of the smaller sets, which weren’t the flashy ones, were some of my favorites. The San Francisco apartment that Awkwafina’s character lives in is a great manifestation of every Asian person’s apartment in the diaspora. There were so many little details in that scene that I’m happy got on the screen, whether it was the shoe racks; the piles of odd collectibles; the hot water thermos; the rice maker; what they were eating, the fish tank—and all of those things were authentic and made me happy.
Then there’s a gambling den where Wenwu goes and seeks revenge upon the folks who killed his wife. That is one of my favorite sets as well because I think it is one of these moody, wonderfully straightforward sets and the stunt that is in there where Wenwu comes in. You see an almost complete wonder, you know, his coming in, seeking his revenge, and the person he hurts going into the mirror. It was a fun set to choreograph and work with stunts and special effects to get that all done. That was influenced by Hong Kong gangster movies. There are so many great Asian genres of film. I grew up watching the Jackie Chan comedy-action movies and Wushu movies, but there’s this whole Hong Kong gangster movie genre that we got to trickle into our movie, which I was really happy about.
AD: You have Where the Crawdads Sing coming up. Can you tease anything about the production design?
SC: Crawdads was so different from Shang-Chi. They are different kinds of stories set in different corners of the world, but equally as deep. There was a lot to mine, and it was a lot of fun working with the group involved in telling a very different story. But you know, ultimately, for the production designer, it’s all about trying to bring the characters into our sets and having our sets be additional characters in the story. When that film comes out, hopefully, I will have succeeded, as well as I feel like we succeeded on Shang-Chi.
AD: It’s an interesting point that you bring up about your designs being an extra character. Suppose we were to apply that to Shang-Chi? What role does your production design play in the story?
SC: Wow. Well, I suppose every set was in dialogue with the story. It represents some part of the character, or tells the character to do something, or be something, or go somewhere. The set should draw some action from the character. That’s part of the whole conversation whenever I work with a director. What are the foundational story points, how do the sets support them, where do you want your characters to go, and how do we advance that cause? Each set in Shang-Chi, I hope, did that and helped to tell the story. As with any film, that’s the goal.