Elite Conversations – Clifton Ko – Legendary Hong Kong Writer, Director, Producer

When greatness comes along you can recognize it. Usually there is a humble attitude and there is confidence with an aura that radiates consistent track record.  I’m referring to my once in a lifetime meeting with legendary Hong Kong writer, director and producer, Clfton Ko. With the Vancouver Chinese Film Festival (VCFF) right around the corner, the stars are making themselves available through the creator and producer of the event, Christine Song. She had made the precise arrangements for us to meet and discuss Mr. Clifton Ko’s highly successful film career… and how it all started.


I was extremely honoured and was lucky enough to know a wonderful Chinese interpreter by the name of Rosella that was willing to accompany me. It made translations run smooth and interpretations much more rich. The interview concluded with both sides feeling mutually satisfied and me feeling like I had just met film royalty. I shook his hand and thought about not washing it again, in the event that there was some magical DNA waiting to absorb into my novice filmmaking hand. I was cooking later that night and had inadvertently washed them while rinsing vegetables. Nooooo was my first response until I realized I still had his pearls of wisdom on my tape recorder to transcribe. Luckily, we like to share at Hollywood North Magazine and I hope you all get to appreciate it. 


Clifton Ko is a master creator/filmmaker and shows no signs of slowing down. He has 48 credits to his career and has put 40 films in the can. He prefers to make comedy and bring families together in the theater. Willy Wonka might have the chocolate factory but Clifton Ko has vision, he has creation and he also has two daughters. One is a 31 yr. old family physician in the US and the other, 29 is a music composer that travels around the world. Each of them are impacting people and the world in positive ways. Way to go dad!


“Do you have a preference between writing or directing?”

“Directing, because with writing, you put the visual on paper but in directing you are taking the words and turning them into visual. The director also has to consider his shots, reactions and cuts when shooting drama. The director can use sound or the camera to help tell the story. This is the directors job and is more challenging.”


“What is your favourite genre to write and direct?”

“Comedy. I find it challenging and it can be difficult but it’s very rewarding.”


“Korean film seems to be getting better, how are they doing in todays market?”

“Korean film is sometimes so extreme. Their horror stories are very extreme, their love story is also extreme. In China we have a word that means average. We try to promote father and son, family, good energy and harmony.”    


“Your opera Laifa Palace has broken the opera record in Hong Kong. Did it feel as good as winning a CAFF Award?”

“When I was very young and working for Cinema City Company, they would always say, ‘don’t get award, get a bonus.’ The company encourages you to forget about awards and forget about critics. The most important thing is to get the bonus and not the award. Now that I’m older I’m not so one sided. If the product does well at the theatre and wins an award, that would be a wonderful situation. If I can have a large audience at my musicals, my stage plays or my film, I need the audience. It’s more important to a certain extent. An award can also draw focus to allow an audience to look at the world. When I was younger and in my 20’s working for Cinema City, they had an extreme expression they liked to say. If you’re good at nothing, you’re a critic! They don’t make films for critics.  In a way, I was brainwashed by their philosophy for a long time. These days, the audience has evolved and changed. People go to the movies to be inspired and not just entertained, so right now receiving an award is not that important but having an audience is.”     


“Could you see yourself being happy making musical opera for the rest of your career?”

“If I have the energy and am in good health I would want to do both. Every movie needs a director and I believe they are the most important part of a movie, even more than the actors and the script. They have to do all the visual and capture all the elements necessary to make the movie. If you make a theatre play, you can make it on a budget of 10,000.00 but if you want to make a film, even a low budget you will need 200,000.00 so its not easy to do.”  


“If you could go fishing all day with your best friend or go bungee jumping, which would it be?”

“I choose fishing. I think bungee jumping is a bit foolish. You might think it’s exciting but I wouldn’t enjoy it. Fishing with friends or even by yourself is a way to calm yourself down, which I enjoy. With friends, there’s communication and it can be done on a low budget (laughter).”


“Are there any actors in Hong Kong that you have in mind for your next film?”

“No. To me, the story comes first and then the character. The only time an actor came first was in the film, All’s Well Ends Well. For that film we had Stephen Chow and Leslie Cheung. I wrote the story and context to suit them but every other time, the story comes first.” 


“Will you be returning to work as soon as you return home?”

“I will be flying to Hong Kong and then to Northern China in the state of Xinjiang near Mongolia. It is a Muslim state and is developing more in tourism. The government is financing the development of a 1 hr. documentary to promote more tourism that I’ll be putting together.”


“What do you like most about making films about true stories?”

“If the story impacts me then it will impact my work. If it doesn’t then it’s much harder to make it. Whenever you make a film, it is a calculation.  Do you have enough horsing around, enough punch lines, how is the timing/tempo and editing? It’s all based on calculation. As I get older, it’s more about whether the story hits me or not.  

As you age your thinking and beliefs change. At this present time in my career it’s more about hitting the audiences heart but if I’m going to do that it has to hit my heart first.”

“What is the biggest difference between making a film in China versus the US?”

“It’s the calculation.  In the US you need to calculate how many hours and days working because budget control is very important. In China, it seems like they are not doing the same calculation.  In China they will keep a crew of 200 people working everyday no matter if there are shots to shoot or not. They will film for 2 months non-stop. Sometimes they have to create something to shoot because the boss is coming. I don’t think it’s a smart way to shoot. When you’re directing you need to jump the scene and the shots. You need to shoot from this angle and then go back this angle. If you do a film cleverly then you need to do a lot of homework.”  


“Do you incorporate story-boarding?”

“Not me but there has been times when I’ve used it to communicate the shot for SFX. 

If you’re doing CGI then you can use it otherwise you need to really communicate. For me, I see storyboarding as a form of communication and not homework.”


“Do you try to use the same people/crew, AD, DP from one film to the next?”

“I try to. Those working relationships are not easy to build every time. I always try to bring my DP, my AD and my Production Manager to every new film. With the communication and working relationships established it makes it much easier for them to understand the order of my shots and what I’m thinking.”


“Much like a family?”

“When you’re on set you won’t use the word, family. On set it is like war everyday. I eat my lunchbox very fast. I’ve become a fast eating person and can finish eating in 10 minutes. I’ve become that way because I’m a movie director. I use the rest of the time to plan my next shots and plan my camera angles. The funny thing is, once I start walking around the set to get my shots figured out I can feel my Cameraman and my DP holding their lunch box and following me around. This part looks like family and it happens every shooting day.”


“What do you like to do to unwind after shooting a film?”

“When I’m done shooting and go back home, Whiskey! When James Bond has a fight he goes back to his room and has a whiskey on ice, it calms you down. To relax I will watch a movie and go to the watch live theatre. That’s my relaxation. When I start a project I will generally pick up 10-20 movies that are similar or inspiring and put them aside until I have spare time to watch them.”


“What types of movies would they be?”

“When I’m shooting comedy I like to watch Charlie Chaplin and Benny Hill, not Mr. Bean. I like Mr. Bean but I like Benny Hill and Charlie Chaplin better. For fiction I like God Father part II and III. When I have time I will watch them repeatedly. I want to know how and why he chose those shots and why they cut here and there. It’s the best movie to date that I’ve seen. The very best though is Charlie Chaplin and then Godfather, all the way.”         


“What would you like your legacy to be?”

“A Comedy director. When I was 25 and made my first film Happy Ghost, I promised myself that, throughout my life I need to make 50 films. I’ve already made 40 and still have 10 to go. I’m 60 and have heard from the famous directors I admire that they made their most important film at 76. Japanese director Akira Kurosawa made his film, Ran at 76. Alfred Hitchcock made Family Plot at 76 and David Lean of Lawrence of Arabia made Passage to India at 76. They all made their best films at 76 and I still have time to fulfill my dream. If I die and my daughters are 60 or 70 in a theatre, they may still have an audience member approach them to say that they really enjoyed their father’s work on TV or films. Then my daughters will know that their father still exists in the world to a certain extent.”    


“What type of advice would you give to young filmmakers?’

“When I was working for Cinema City I spent 3 years as a screenwriter. I was working on my own scripts but also collaborating with other writers and directors. In those 3 years, I did some assistant directing, I even did lighting. I learned about continuity, I even did camera work and cut most of the trailers for a couple of years. I did it for other films as well as ‘the making of’ pieces for TV, which is a 10-minute film to promote the movie. I only got paid for my scriptwriting but I would do every position. At 25 I was on set to direct my first film, Happy Ghost. On the first day the cameras and entire crew arrive on set; I’m not worried or afraid because I already know the inner workings of every position. My boss came on the set and walked up to me to ask if I was the director. When I said yes, he laughed and walked away. My Assistant Director walked up to me to ensure me that I had nothing to worry about and that the crew were all behind me and will support me. I said I’m not scared because I know my job and their job. Before the first 3 years of working with Cinema City I already had 2 years experience in television as assistant director and 2 years as scriptwriter.  That’s 7 years experience so I have lots of confidence in my skills and did not feel intimidated for a moment. In the movie business, it’s not just talk, talk, talk… you have to know all the working parts and the details. I really want to share this experience/story with all new young filmmakers. Don’t worry about the pay or how hard you work. Learn all the positions and then you will have the confidence to handle any situation on set.”  


“Do you have a similar event in Hong Kong that compares to VCFF?”

“We have an Asian film festival but not one that compares to this one. It is all Asian films.”


“Would you mind if I ask one political question? What are your thoughts on the protesting in Hong Kong?”

“I think they’re crazy. To me, they’re destroying Hong Kong. It’s changing and what they are doing to Hong Kong, I don’t agree with it. I’d like to see peace because what’s happening doesn’t make sense. They want to fight to make a political point but there are other ways to discuss and talk about the change. Right now it’s like a civil war. Every day and every night is a civil war. It makes me very sad and I don’t agree with it. It’s too much.”


I admire this man so much. Clifton Ko has the motivation of a freight train. His tenacity and ambition to have completed 40 films is off the charts. He is a legend for good reason and I felt so honoured to have met him. We are indebted for his wisdom.    


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