Birth of the Dragon – Interview with Film Director George Nolfi

George Nolfi

Director George Nolfi’s sophomore debut, Birth of the Dragon follows a lesser-known event surrounding a very well-known figure. Birth of the Dragon focuses on a young Bruce Lee’s emergence as a martial arts superstar after his legendary (if secret) showdown with a Shaolin master sent from China to take him down. Nolfi has penned the screenplays for noteworthy box office action movies Oceans Twelve, The Bourne Ultimatum, and The Adjustment Bureau. The film is penned by writing masters Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele whose list of impressive scripts include those for Nixon, Ali, Pawn Sacrifice, Miles Ahead, and more.

The film has just had its world premiere on September 13 at the Toronto International Film Festival and even with all the hype, George was nice enough to answer a few questions about his new film, writing, and filmmaking altogether.



There seems to be a constant through a majority of the projects you've worked on, so I have to start off by asking: why isn't Matt Damon in this movie? 
Haha – Matt does look very young for his age but it’s probably a stretch for him to play a 24-year-old.
You've written some highly entertaining action thrillers and capers, what attracted you to directing this?
Birth of the Dragon is a kung fu fable. It’s a contemporary take on the kind of humor filled, action-crammed classic Kung Fu films of the 70s. It is focused on the legendary, and still hotly disputed, fight between Bruce Lee and Wong Jack Man. The writers wonderfully mythologized the fight itself but also the few months leading up to it and an incredibly fun fictionalized account of the day after the fight.
How are you hoping this Bruce Lee film stands above those that have come before it?
There is no such thing as “standing above” Enter the Dragon or The Way of the Dragon or Fist of Fury. The films that Bruce Lee made are indelible and they brought kung fu to the wider world. I rewatched his classic films before making this movie and, you know what, they may have even been better than when I first saw them as a kid. But putting aside Bruce’s films I would say this: we haven’t had a full-on kung-fu film made for a mainstream worldwide audience in way too long. Birth of the Dragon fills that gap. But I think does it with a tone and a visual approach that is fresh.  Audience responses to the question “how would you describe this film” blurted out “Kung Fu is back!” That is one of my favorite moments of my career because that is exactly the spirit I was hoping to capture.
What's the thought process when casting such an iconic role?
Abject fear. I don’t know if that is a thought process, but that was what was going through my mind. I mean, how in the world do you find someone to play one of the great icons in human history? He was one of the greatest martial artists who ever lived. He brought kung fu to the west. He was an incredibly charismatic mega movie star And on and on. So I’m thinking how do I find someone with that incredible charisma, who can act in the dramatic scenes, is fluent in English, so fluent that he has comic timing and can sell one liners...oh, and he has to be a world class martial artist – because there is a lot of Bruce Lee fighting in this movie and I wanted my actor to do every single frame of it. Oh and one more thing – he has to look something like Bruce Lee, both in terms of his face and his body. I lived with that abject fear until I met Phil Ng. Phil is just going to blow everyone away in this film. He is phenomenal. And so is the rest of the principle cast. Chinese superstar, Xia Yu, plays Wong Jack Man. Billy Magnussen plays Steve McKee a fictional character who, as a student of Bruce Lee first, then Wong Jack Man later, is the key to the fight actually happening. Qu JinJing plays a woman who Steve McKee falls in love with who is trapped by Chinatown’s triad crime organization. And Jin Xing, another Chinese superstar who some call the “Oprah of China” plays the triad’s boss, Auntie Blossom.
What's most important when telling a story about real people and events that actually occurred? Especially this person and this event?
That really depends on the tone of the film. If you’re making a historical drama then trying your best to get as many details right as you can while still servicing a dramatic narrative so you don’t leave your audience snoring is a key concern. But this is a fictionalized, mythologized fable. Everything in the storytelling puts you in that space from the music to the way it’s shot, to the humor etc. So for Birth of the Dragon, I think what’s most important is to tell a story that makes the audience want to cheer while honoring kung fu and the two men who had that legendary, still shrouded in mystery, fight. One thing to remember is this movie takes place in 1964. That was years before Bruce became famous around the world. He had not even done Green Hornet yet, much less his classic films. Both Bruce and Wong were young men in their early 20s. So on top of the film mythologizing both men, it is mythologizing them at a time when there is very little historical record as to “who they were” in the day to day, moment to moment way that a narrative film depicts.
You've got the perfect cast, you've got a stellar script penned by proven writers, and your production is all set. What do you bring as the director to guide this picture to success?
You make a lot of choices. You guide the selection of all the key people who are going to make the film (other than the producer and writers who brought the project to you). So you find the great craftsmen and artists of the crew: the DP, Production Designer , Costume designer, editor. You select actors. You pick locations. Then you shape performances through working with your actors and the look and feel of the film through working with your crew. The list goes on and on. In terms of hours, at least when I do it, it’s regularly upwards of a hundred hours a week for the last month of prep, production, and much of post production.
What's the difference, if any, to directing your own written work as opposed to someone else's?
Not much to be honest. When I directed Adjustment Bureau or episodes of my television show, Allegiance, I was perfectly willing to throw out things I’d written or change them based on the conditions that present themselves to you when it’s time to actually roll camera.
Did you learn anything during this production that you'll keep in mind for future ones? Things that made the process easier, or mistakes to avoid?
Shooting massive fights, almost entirely without wires, where your star does every single frame of his own fighting...takes time. I was really against the gun in building our two really epic fights.
I understand you completed your Ph.D. but sold your first spec script before reaching that point. Was writing a hobby taken on while pursuing another career path or was your real passion always in writing and directing?
I completed all my course work, exams, and master’s thesis, and was just beginning my Ph.D. dissertation research when I sold my first script. I loved the left brained political science work I was doing, but I was also fascinated by the right brained creative process. There is a certain dovetailing of the two in that political science is extremely concerned with how emotions shape political views. And of course, there is little in human discourse more effective at creating emotion than a good film.
What inspires you? What keeps you going, being able to do what you do each day?
All the great work done by others. It shows me how much is possible in this phenomenal art form.
What's your favorite film, and what does that say about you?
I honestly don’t have a favorite, or even a top ten. Maybe I have a top 100. I’d put everything from The Awful Truth to Rear Window, to Enter the Dragon, to The Godfather, to The Matrix on that list.
You've got an unlimited budget and resources, what's the dream project you want to tackle?’
The sequel to Birth of the Dragon. I have it in my head already. It’s completely different from this film...and yet is a continuation of this story. I can’t wait to go film it.
What's next for you? a secret.

Birth of the Dragon will be showing at the Toronto International Film Festival on September 15th and 16th.