Interview de Godfrey Ho
How did you get to work in Hong Kong film industry?
Actually, I started my career when I was Wow, I hardly remember it (laughs) when I was 20 something. I worked in Shaw Brothers as a continuity person.
You entered through a selection exam?
No, I was recommended by somebody. He was a DP [director of photography] for Shaw Brothers. When he knew I was quite interested by filmmaking, he said Godfrey, you want to know more about filmmaking? You want to learn? Yes, of course Good, which post do you want to be? Ooh, well, camera is good but if you work as an assistant you can only become a DP and technical stuff are not my expertise so why not director? Ok, if you want to be a director, you have to start as continuity All right, cool!. So I joined Shaw Brothers and started working as a continuity for action director Chang Cheh. It lasted around one year and then I was promoted assistant director. After that, John Woo also joined the team as assistant director. I worked as the first assistant director and he was the second one. So we knew each other quite well at this moment.
You only worked with Chang Cheh when you were at Shaw Brother? Not any other directors?
Only Chang Cheh. At that time, he was a very famous action director, very well known and he was working almost every day. He normally directed 4 movies a year. He was a hard working person but he didnt work all day, only starting from the afternoon. He couldnt sleep early at night, he was a late sleeper. So, he couldnt get up early in the morning. But everybody had to be on set starting from 9 O clock. We waited for the director until 1 O clock, then he shot (laughs). We were free in the morning session, most of the stuntmen were gambling and I spent my time to watch dubbing, editing or visit some other studios to watch other directors working. There were more than 10 big studios at that time! It was huge! I was lucky to be there.
Did you have good working relation with Chang Cheh?
He had a good personality Actually, I found out at that time, the director was really like a king in the studio. Everybody had to serve him, smoking cigar, shouting, losing its temper easily. I still remember there was a movie we had location in Korea. After the wrap party, I drank some kind of wine and got a little drunk. Then, I went to his room, entered and started shouting at him! (laughs). Late morning, he came to me Hey, Godfrey, you know you were drunk last night Oh, really? And you shout at me speaking English. Chang Cheh was not good at English but his wife knew it and she did it the translation. You know you are the first assistant director? And you were so impolite! (laughs). Since that, he became a bit harsh with me. Before, he never lost temper with me. After that incident, he didnt respect me anymore. But I had to endure it because I wanted to do movies and learn more. It was a kind of master/student relationship like Jackie Chan. You know you are a small potato and you have to endure it. Not like now. Now, even me as the father of my son, I would get an answer like Hey father, you should not treat me like that, you should respect me. Before, we had to obey no matter what.
Especially as he was one of the biggest director of his time!
Yes and its also why I wanted to become a director. I thought, one day, I could be like that (laughs). But, in fact, being a director now is not like before, especially when you work independently. You must take care of everything as you are the leader of the team. If you move slowly, everybody will move slowly. If you move fast, everybody will move fast. Because we have to shoot according to rundown. If you are too late, the budget will be over. Thats what I teach my students You want to be a good director? First you must learn to control your rundown, to control your budget. You are not born to be Wong Kar Wai, Tsui Hark, that kind of big director who can spend their money wherever they like. Its a bad habit of Hong Kong movie system. Its not like in Hollywood. In Hollywood, if you go over your budget, there will be a controller who will fire the director and get somebody to replace him. Because this guy represents the bank. In Hong Kong, we get the money directly from the producer, in cash, not from the bank, they never lend money to films (laughs).
There is a story about Chang Cheh making John Woo cry on the set of Blood Brothers. Can you confirm us?
No, no, no, Chang Cheh never shout at John Woo. John Woo worked for Chang Cheh as an assistant director only for one year. After that, he left to direct his own movies for an independent company. As a matter of fact, John Woo seldom worked as an assistant director. He mostly took care of editing, he was not on set. Because hes a kind of person who seldom talk. A kind of shy person. He was smoking French cigarettes at that time and was nicknamed French guy because of that. But he respected Chang Cheh and he learned things from him, the slow motion effect, this kind of style. He admired Chang Cheh, thats why even when he got a name for himself he said I learned that from Chang Cheh. Not the technique but the creativity. Me, I only learned the technical aspects from Chang Cheh. He never taught us directly, we learned it through experience on the sets. Because, as an assistant director, I had to organise all the shots. We had to watch the rushes every day after working. So it was both a hard and good experience. It was non stop, you had to work every day, no holiday But that was a good way to force me to learn about filmmaking. So, thats why, a little bit after John Woo left, I organised with an editor [Kwok Ting Hung] and another guy who worked for Chang Cheh, and who was graduated from a France film school actually, a company. And he said lets shoot in France. It was a kind of gimmick because, this way, it would look like a high budget movie. At that period of time, it was hard to see foreign countries, that kind of scenery, unlike now you can see everything. He wanted to be the director and that was fine with me. And once in Paris, he didnt know how to direct! On set, he didnt know how to do the shots. So I took the place instead. Especially as I was also a producer on this movie. I had asked my father to lend me money. The budget was not much, I think it was 400 000 HK$ for the whole movie. So I said if you cannot do it, let me do it. So I started to direct and he was Wow, Godfrey, how come you are so fast? Its because I have experience, working all the time at Shaw Brothers. Because as the first assistant director, on set, you had to do everything for the director. He would say, this shot is like this, and me ok, I arrange it. Dealing with the extras, everything and then its ready, roll camera, action! and then cut!. And then I prepare again for the next shot.
You were the one who was in charge of execution, all the practical aspects.
Yes, thats right. And I learned in such a way. And thats how I did Paris Killer. I didnt know anything about distribution at that time and once the film was finished, one of my partner, Kwok Ting Hung, he knew distributors from Taiwan and other places in Asia. But we didnt know how to sell for abroad. Thats how I got to meet Joseph Lai. I proposed him to distribute the movie, at that period of time he was working as a distributor, and the movie made money. And afterwards, Ocean Shores bought the movie for video distribution. And at that period of time, we didnt know what was video! But this boss, the one of Ocean Shores, was really smart, he knew video would be a big stream in the future. It was I buy the worldwide video right of your movie. How much? 5.000 HK$? Ok. We were very happy about it at that time but after we regretted so much (laughs). Thats how Ocean Shores made a lot of money. But no complain, because he knew how to make distribution. At that period of time, most of the independent companies, and even people like Lau Kar Leung, Samo Hung, they knew how to make movies but they didnt know about distribution. Actually, only distributors make money. The directors and others, they just work for the richest.
So it was around this time you met Joseph Lai. Was it around the same time IFD was created?
IFD was created later. I sold the worldwide rights of the movie to Joseph Lai and after that I still carried on my career as a director, doing other movies. Until about 5, 6 or 7 years later on, movies really slowed down at that period of time. No more movies to be made. So I joined Joseph Lais company to learn distribution. And then, I advised him why not produce some kind of movies with foreigners in them?. To get all the foreign people here you are from the US? You want to have fun? Come! Youre from France? Great, join in!. Wherever they come from but no Chinese. And then we make them ninjas or anything. We produce something like 5 to 6 of this kind of movies a year. Because its a combination. It made a lot of money because it was very popular on the market. The people of the film markets were like how come you have foreign people in your movies? Its so good for our audiences, to have some of our own people in those Chinese movies. Its some kind of a gimmick, it works. After that, even Jackie Chan used foreign people in his movies to be the bad guys people like Richard Norton. Because how can you put a foreign people in a Chinese movie story? Before, its only a priest (laughs).
Or a police officer.
Right. Afterwards, a lot of Cantonese movies had gweilos in there. And I also organised a dubbing team in Hong Kong to dub the movies. To train the people to dub. Because at that time, the number of people to dub was not sufficient for the studio. So I had to find some kind of back up. I would go to Chunking Mansion You are a traveller? You want to make money for a couple of days? How much? One hour, I give you fifty bucks But I dont know how