We didn’t set out to do that. It happened along the way. We thought, there’s been a perfect storm of events that allow us to actually make this movie. The Chinese market is now big enough that we can return a big part of the box office on this movie and we can bring in major Chinese partners at significant investments. Before, Chinese investors would say, “Oh, we’ll put in $5 million.” This time our partners are in for 30 percent of this movie. So we thought, “Maybe we can make a real Chinese story and maybe the world is ready for this in a way they weren’t before. Plus Zhang Yimou is amazing, and great actors and talented people want to work with him. Let’s just go for it.”
After the first trailer came out, there was a lot of backlash from people including Constance Wu of “Fresh Off the Boat,” who criticized the movie as “whitewashing” for casting a white actor — Mr. Damon — as the main hero.
The casting of the movie was entirely organic. This is the way the screenplay was written. It’s not like that role was written as a Chinese person. It’s a plot point that this guy has to show up and do these things. He drives the plot.
It’s interesting that so far, we haven’t really seen any of the same discussions of race in this movie in the Chinese media. It seems to be a very specifically American issue.
With this movie, Zhang Yimou and I set out to defy every stereotype that you can think of. All the roles you constantly see Chinese actors in are not in this movie. There is no mafia guy, there is no triad guy, there is no prostitute. There is none of that. And there’s no stupid, phony, fake love story happening at the edge of the movie as the world is about to end.
I think when people see the movie they’ll think, “Wow, this is a big step in the right direction, and this is a true collaboration between actors in both countries and they at least have equal footing.”
What about the movie do you think will appeal to American moviegoers?
It’s a classic adventure story with a great group of heroes. Certainly there’s never been a movie shot on the Great Wall before, especially one in which you’re fending off monsters. Plus it’s a huge action canvas that works to Zhang Yimou’s strengths. Zhang Yimou was in Los Angeles for postproduction, and he played with the 3-D effects for eight months. So there are things you really haven’t seen before, like smoke coming out of the screen. He took things that he would use in a classic Zhang Yimou art film and melded it into a really commercial format in a really interesting way.
Based on this experience, what do you think American studios need to learn from Chinese studios and vice versa?
In general the U.S. system of everybody being super independent and each department head having their own little fiefdom and only presenting finished work versus the Chinese system where everyone wants to ask the director every single little detail — I think there’s probably a middle ground to be found somewhere there.
What about on the more conceptual level?
I think we need to probably start thinking less about China and how to make a good movie that has Chinese elements. When I worked at C.A.A. [Creative Artists Agency], I saw so many scripts, and everyone had a China idea and said, let’s do a remake of this and a remake of that. At the time, “The Great Wall” was the first project I saw that I thought, “Wow, this makes total sense. That’s a good story. I understand that guy, I actually like that guy, and I understand why the people he meets up with are initially very unwelcoming to him and gradually warm to him as he changes and learns more about himself.”
How does the movie stand out from past Hollywood-China co-productions?
We feel like this is one of the first true co-productions. It wasn’t coming to China just for finance or for access to the market. It was a story that organically took place here that organically had mixed actors, and it’s something that U.S. studios and Chinese investors sparked to in the same way and invested in accordingly. It’s basically what a co-production is supposed to be. The Chinese side is supposed to be 30 percent, but on a film of this scale, the Chinese side being 30 percent is unheard-of. So it must mean something. They must have really liked it. They must not think it’s whitewashing or pandering or anything like that. So I guess, for me, being able to attract a filmmaker like Zhang Yimou and being able to attract a significant Chinese investment says something about the D.N.A. of this movie.
An earlier version of this article misquoted Peter Loehr. He said, “I think we need to probably start” — not “stop” — “thinking less about China and how to make a good movie that has Chinese elements.”