Mike Medavoy: The Shanghai Connection

Mike Medavoy was in Shanghai to collect an Outstanding Achievement Award at the Shanghai International Film Festival 2012 and used the occasion to announce his plan to make another movie based in Shanghai.

by Ashley Greenwood (originally published September 2012)


Mike Medavoy,MedavoyAt this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival, Mike Medavoy, the veteran movie producer behind some of the world’s biggest movies for nearly half a century, picked up a well deserved ‘Outstanding Achievement’ award.

Mike Medavoy has been involved with over 300 feature films during his long career, seven of which won Best Picture Oscars. His resume, suffice to say, is astonishing and he has won numerous other awards and accolades.

Medavoy was born in Shanghai in 1941 to Russian Jewish émigrés. His father was a garage mechanic while his mother had a dress shop for Chinese actresses. He seems to have a certain fondness for the city that provided his Jewish family with shelter in the chaos of war. His production, ‘Shanghai’, the 2010 thriller starring John Cusack, Gong Li and Chow Yun-fat, was, with its wartime love story, a good representation of Shanghai in the 1940s.

Now Mr Medavoy is developing another film set in Shanghai. At this year’s Shanghai International Film Festival, Medavoy announced he will join forces with The Shanghai Film Group to make a film set in WWII era China. The film is an adaptation of “The Cursed Piano”, a novel by Shanghai author Bei La. It is a tragic love story about Jewish people who came to shelter in Shanghai during WWII.

It will be “a huge, sweeping love story with a surprise ending, a kind of homage to David Lean, with a flavour of some classic movies, such as Casablanca and Brief Encounter”, said Medavoy.

The story has everything required to become a classic Hollywood-style epic, explained Medavoy during the Shanghai International Film Festival. Spanning 40 turbulent years, it is essentially a tragic love story akin to Titanic, which has the potential to “transcend races, or national boundaries” he said. Medavoy wants to make the movie (to be renamed “A Jewish Piano”) into an epic in the style of Doctor Zhivago. The screenplay is set to be written by Nicholas Meyer who worked with Medavoy on ‘Time and Again’.


“I have a certain amount of fear about producing something that will live up to everybody’s expectations, but sometimes fear produces the best work.”

– Mike Medavoy at Shanghai Festival


black swanMike Medavoy has been involved with the development of some classic war movies, including Apocalypse Now (1976), Platoon (1986) and The Thin Red Line (1998), which now appear in text books and are taught as examples in film schools around the world. He is also very capable of making a touching love story. Philadelphia and Sleepless in Seattle are regarded as landmark classics which will be watched for generations.

Mike Medavoy is currently chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures, which he co-founded in 1995. At Phoenix, Mr Medavoy has helped to produce such Oscar nominated films as The People vs. Larry Flint, and more recently Shutter Island and Black Swan (for which Natalie Portman won the Best Actress Oscar).

With half a century of experience in the movie industry, his latest production has all the expertise and ingredients needed to become another classic story of Shanghai.


mike medavoy receiving awardYou were born in Shanghai in 1941 and lived here until you were seven years old. What lasting memories do you have of the city during those years?
Mike Medavoy: That was obviously a long time ago, but old photographs of Shanghai from that time do bring back memories – the cinemas, my school, temple. I also remember that my Aunt sang Happy Birthday to me over the local English-language radio station.


You and your father attended the first Shanghai Film Festival together. How was the experience of returning to Shanghai, and how has the festival changed since then? What was the highlight of this year’s festival for you?
Mike Medavoy: The festival has gotten bigger and better since the last time I attended. The people have always been extraordinarily kind and nice. I was deeply grateful to receive the award at this year’s festival, and I gather that my speech touched a chord with the audience, which makes me happy. And most important, bringing my parents here and taking them to Cannes for my lifetime achievement award are absolutely highlights of my life.


The silence of the lambs You are working with the Shanghai Film Group on adapting Bei La’s novel ‘The Cursed Piano’. On a personal level, what does telling this story mean to you?
Mike Medavoy: The movie we are attempting to make will be a huge, sweeping love story with a surprise ending, a kind of homage to David Lean, with a flavour of some classic movies, such as Casablanca and Brief Encounter. Having reached this point in my career, I’m excited to revisit, through entirely invented stories, the locations of my youth. Shanghai’s history in sheltering the Jews during the Second World War is of course a history that intersects with my own life and I am excited to be able to make this moving history better known to a wider audience.


Last year’s Chinese movie ‘The Flowers of War’ by Zhang Yimou had high expectations here in China to win The Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, but in the end it failed to even make the list of nominations. What was your opinion about this movie?
Mike Medavoy: I’m afraid I only saw part of the movie. To start with it felt very long. I really like Zhang Yimou’s work. I think he is a real film master, but this is probably why it did not get the attention it should have, and of course you need a great marketing genius and investment on the part of a distributor, and quite frankly that was not in here.


shanghai movieChina has many talented directors and actors, but a lack of strong producers and studios hinder the progress of its movie industry. What do you think will take Chinese productions to the next level?
Mike Medavoy: Great movies are often an accident of having the right people at the right time: Professional producers and marketing and distribution are essential. Also, too many factors and hands on films spoil them. China is quickly learning what they need to do, but they like everyone else need to do movies for their own market and some for world export. It’s about making good, commercial movies that return the investment and of course piracy makes it difficult for all of those who make them for copyright reasons, Chinese as well as others.


If there was going to be a Chinese re-make of one of your movies, which one would you be most curious to see?
Mike Medavoy: I hate remakes unless the film was terrible the first time and the idea is a good one but was poorly executed initially.

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