A monster movie set on China’s Great Wall

“This is a movie about Chinese history and culture … Yes, it is a monster movie, but I believed I could still express myself through it.  It is a fascinating story with interesting themes and emotions.” Zhang Yimou

Directed by one of the most breathtaking visual stylists of our time, Zhang Yimou (Raise the Red Lantern, Hero, House of Flying Daggers), the action-fantasy The Great Wall marks his first English-language production and the largest film ever shot entirely in China.

The Great Wall

Matt Damon (The Martian, The Bourne franchise) leads humanity’s greatest fight for survival in The Great Wall, from Legendary and Universal Pictures. When a mercenary warrior (Damon) is imprisoned within The Great Wall, he discovers the mystery behind one of the greatest wonders of our world. As wave after wave of marauding beasts, intent on devouring the world, besiege the massive structure, his quest for fortune turns into a journey toward heroism as he joins a huge army of elite warriors to confront this unimaginable and seemingly unstoppable force.

Damon describes the story as “historical fantasy.  It’s similar to the way Game of Thrones feels like it takes place in the Middle Ages.  Even though we know there weren’t White Walkers or dragons.  Likewise, ours is not quite The Great Wall that exists today.

In The Great Wall, Damon stars as William Garin, a battle-scarred mercenary and master archer taken captive by a secret army of elite warriors known as The Nameless Order.  In a vast military outpost called the Fortress City, they fight to protect humanity from supernatural forces upon one of the greatest defensive structures ever built: The Great Wall.  On his journey, Garin is joined by Pedro Pascal (Netflix’s Narcos, HBO’s Game of Thrones) as his sword-wielding sidekick, Pero Tovar, a tough, wise-cracking Spaniard who has become a brother-in-arms to William; and Willem Dafoe (Platoon, Shadow of the Vampire, The Grand Budapest Hotel) as Ballard, a shadowy prisoner inside the fortress who plans his escape from his longtime captors while hoping to pilfer their greatest weapon during his getaway.

Set in an alternate vision of ancient China (circa 1100 A.D., during the Song Dynasty), the story imagines that The Wall was built to defend against a mythical Chinese creature called the Tao Tei (historical spelling, “Taotie”), a malignant species and gargoyle-like figure from Chinese mythology that rises every 60 years from the heart of the Jade Mountain to attack in vast, swarming armies and feed on humankind.

“I remember being told when I was young that the magnificent Great Wall of China was the only manmade object one could see from space,” says producer and Legendary CEO Thomas Tull.  “True or not, I never forgot that, and when I set out to create a company known for its monster movies, I wanted to make one that combined my love of the genre set against this magnificent structure.

“I always wondered what was so important and compelling to have a country build a structure that big, that incredible,” Tull continues.  “At Legendary, we like monsters, so my geeky brain went to work on the idea of a country building this wall to keep monsters out.”

The thrilling adventure comes from an original screenplay by the writing duo Carlo Bernard & Doug Miro (Prince of Persia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton, The Bourne Legacy).  It is based on a story by Max Brooks (World War Z) and Edward Zwick & Marshall Herskovitz (The Last Samurai, Love & Other Drugs).

MAX BROOKS (Story by) is the best-selling author of several novels, graphic novels and comic books.  His most notable novel, “World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War” (2006), is an original depiction of global war between mankind and zombies.

Born in Winnetka, Illinois, EDWARD ZWICK (Story by) Zwick began his feature-film career directing About Last Night and went on to direct the Academy Award-winning films Glory and Legends of the Fall,  as well as Courage Under Fire, The Siege, The Last Samurai, Blood Diamond, Defiance, Love & Other Drugs and Pawn Sacrifice.

MARSHALL HERSKOVITZ (Story by) is a writer, producer and director who has won numerous awards for his work in television and film.

CARLO BERNARD & DOUG MIRO (Screenplay by) have previously partnered on four screenplays, including John Dahl’s WWII adventure The Great Raid (2005); the ghostly thriller The Uninvited (2009); and a pair of Jerry Bruckheimer epics—Mike Newell’s sword-and-sandals spectacle Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010) and Jon Turteltaub’s Medieval adventure The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (2010). They most recently co-created the new Netflix series Narcos.

TONY GILROY (Screenplay by) made his -film directorial debut with Michael Clayton. A veteran screenwriter, Gilroy also spent seven years working on the first three Bourne films—The Bourne Identity, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum.  In 2012, Gilroy co-wrote and directed the fourth installment of the series, The Bourne Legacy.  He also wrote the screenplays for Dolores Claiborne, The Devil’s Advocate, and Armageddon. 

As Tull developed the idea with The Great Wall’s story and screenplay writers, he discussed the idea of a European soldier of fortune wandering Asia in the Middle Ages who comes upon a magnificent structure that covers the entire horizon.  When the mercenary approaches, he is told that the guardians are preparing for the attack.

“During the course of developing the screenplay, Western writers actually discovered the Chinese legend of a monster called the Taotie [historical spelling],” adds producer Peter Loehr, who has spent the last 25 years of his career working in China.  “The Taotie is actually quite well known in China.

“There’s a fantasy book called the ‘Shan-hai Jing,’ which dates back 2,500 years,” Loehr continues.  “In the book, they set out different types of monsters, goblins and demons, and the Tao Tei (our spelling) is one of them.  The Tao Tei, in the fantastical ‘Shan-hai Jing,’ as well as historical records, are portrayed as gluttonous.  They eat incessantly, so much so that when there’s nothing left to eat, they eat their own bodies.”

Producer Charles Roven, who is known for his indelible print on blockbusters from The Dark Knight trilogy (alongside Legendary), Suicide Squad and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice to the much-anticipated upcoming Wonder Woman and Justice League, was brought onto the production by producers Tull and Jon Jashni.  He walks us through his initial involvement in the film: “Alex Gartner and I were invited into the project by Thomas and Jon; thereafter, we were part of the original story development.”

Roven reflects on his intrigue at the premise of The Great Wall: “At the time period of our story, the Chinese were among the greatest societies…creating things the West had never seen.  The gunpowder they’d invented motivates the mercenaries in our story, who are Western savages initially only out for themselves.  When they come across this secret society that is trying to preserve humanity, it makes them reevaluate everything.”

Producer Jashni explains that the production team long aimed to acknowledge and honor both a bygone historical period and a long-ago era of filmmaking—one in which the sets were built to scale.  “These structures were built, both then and now, to incite awe and respect,” he notes.  “We knew we wanted to depict the inner workings of The Wall as practical.  One might think of it as going inside a clock.  It seems to do something fairly simple from the outside, but what allows it to appear so simple is rather complex.  The audience might rightly assume that The Wall is merely capable of defending—by virtue of its height and its impenetrability—that which is protected behind it.  We wanted to surprise them by also having The Wall be able to ‘fight back’ in clever and unexpected ways.”

Zhang Yimou_64530

Zhang Yimou

“When we began this process, Legendary wanted to make a movie that was truly an East-West collaboration,” states Tull, who opened his Far East production base, Legendary East, in Beijing in 2012 and garnered success not long after with the Chinese release of Pacific Rim in 2013.  “A movie that was not just a local story, but one with global appeal as well.  We found the perfect director in Zhang Yimou, one of the best in the world.  What a privilege to be able to have him direct this.”

In fact, Zhang Yimou is one of the planet’s most celebrated filmmakers.  Among his two dozen feature credits, he directed the first Chinese production to earn a Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award® nomination, Ju Dou (1990), with two more nominations for Raise the Red Lantern (1991) and Hero (2002).

Among many career triumphs, he won global accolades for his magnificent staging of the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympiad, a feat that fan and fellow filmmaker Steven Spielberg called “the grandest spectacle of the New Millennium from this creative genius.”  That accomplishment landed Zhang as runner-up for Time magazine’s 2008 Person of the Year.

“When I started learning about Chinese cinema 25 years ago, Zhang Yimou’s early work stood out to me,” offers Loehr, who speaks fluent Mandarin.  “His early work evolved into these great martial arts epics like Hero and House of Flying Daggers.  And who could forget the Olympics when you’re talking about that body of work?”

As Legendary considered filmmakers for this huge production, it required the ability to straddle two cultures, to tell a very Chinese story in a way that an international audience would love.  Loehr points out: “Zhang Yimou seemed like the natural choice because he had done that in his films.  He did it with the Olympics as well.  Here, he took something that was inherently Chinese and made something truly amazing.”

Roven agrees with his fellow producer, raving: “The Great Wall has all the visual splendor and spectacle of an extravagant film, and it is shot amazingly by one of the most iconic filmmakers working today.  His visuals are stunning, the colors that he uses are incredible, and the shots that he designs—whether they’re regular 24 frames or slow-motion—are art.”

The filmmaker also appreciated that Zhang Yimou embraced the throughline of cultural collaboration that permeated the story.  “Watching Yimou, with his cinematic vision, translate the script into a unique way of creating spectacle is an unforgettable memory.  He was quite interested in blending the cinema styles of Western tent-poles with Chinese filmmaking,” notes Roven.  “Here was material that was completely conducive to it, and we were thrilled that he wanted to join the production.”

Once the director was welcomed onto the team, Roven found him to be a unique collaborator, one whose thoughtful insights and fascinating inspirations brought life to The Great Wall’s story.  “Yimou contributed an enormous amount to what became the final vision of the movie,” says Roven.  “A few examples are the fog battle, as well as opening the film up with the climactic sequence away from The Wall.  It has been a great collaboration with Yimou and a thrilling experience working with our ‘East-meets-West’ crew.”


“The Great Wall is in the lyrics of our National Anthem, so it symbolizes the same thing in the heart of all Chinese, which is our people, our country and our history,” reflects Zhang Yimou.  “We use it to express many things spiritual.  To all of us in China, The Great Wall is a symbol of China’s national spirit.  It resonates in every Chinese person, as a symbol of our traditions and our flesh-and-blood.”

The filmmaker believes that applies to this story as well.  “In the movie, The Great Wall symbolizes the safeguard of peace and national spirit,” he continues.  “I thought the screenplay was a special story, especially when you look at The Wall from a different angle.  The Wall was built to protect our homeland from invaders.  From this perspective, it makes little difference whether the enemy is people or monsters.”

For Zhang Yimou, to mount this undertaking would be to celebrate enormous pride.  “This is a movie about Chinese history and culture shot entirely on location in China,” he reflects.  “What attracted me most was the Chinese cultural elements.  Yes, it is a monster movie, but I believed I could still express myself through it.  It is a fascinating story with interesting themes and emotions.”

He elaborates on producer Loehr’s summary of the film’s antagonists: “For the monster Taotie, we did a great deal of research, including ‘Shan-hai Jing,’ the classic Chinese text and compilation of ancient myths, which is China’s oldest fantasy novel,” states Zhang.  “They were born because of human greed.  They eat massively.  We Chinese still use the word and terms to this day.  In traditional culture, ‘Taotie’ is a big eater.  So, it’s linked with great banquets and feasts in China.  Taotie has a cognitive position in Chinese culture.  Taotie exist because of humanity’s greed, so they are man’s worst enemy.  It’s the greediness of humanity that produced Tao Tei, and it now recoils on humans.”

According to Chinese mythology, fear of the monster led its image to be cast often on ancient and ritual bronze vessels, daggers and weapons.  Along with Taown, Hun Dun and Qiong Qi, it is one of the Four Fiends, prominent Chinese demons representing evil virtues.  So intimately are the Taotie imbedded into the culture, they have even been found on Chinese currency.

“To begin with, it has lots of mysteries,” he continues.  “What’s the story about the monsters?  How did they come into being?  What are their weaknesses?  How many years have humans fought against them?  What kinds of feelings and connections have been built among these warriors during the fight?  How do they survive, or do they die in the end?  There were many things to tell.  It is totally different from all other monster movies.”

Zhang Yimou appreciated the focus on such a cultural touchstone.  “What mattered most was the script,” he says.  “The script was written by Americans, and I provided suggestions from a Chinese perspective.  They welcomed and liked my ideas.  It was revised and polished, trying to make it acceptable and likable to both Westerners and Chinese.  That was the hardest job.”

“Every genre has its limitations, and that certainly applies to monster movies,” Zhang observes.  “You have to establish a set of rules. Taotie is an ancient monster that comes from our imagination.  The rest of this story stands on solid ground, based on actual history.  We didn’t want our characters to have supernatural powers.  In that case, there would be no limits.  So, what we did was to set strict and basic, but very real, limitations.  We placed ourselves in a realistic world, and we created an honest story.  We designed everything within those limits, such as the actions, the weapons.  Because The Great Wall is a very real object, a cornerstone that was built one brick at a time.  We approached the layers of our story in the same way.”

Tull, whose years-ago idea for a monster movie set on China’s Great Wall came to fruition and brought together two diverse cultures, concludes: “The Great Wall is something so iconic to China.  Now, we have a great big, intelligent and fun monster movie set on The Wall.  With the scope of everything that Zhang Yimou brought to the table, the colors, the scale, the weapons, the monsters it has so much eye candy.  I can’t wait until people get to see the movie.”

Zhang Yimou feels that The Great Wall has become an epic fantasy event that evokes the inspiration he felt when visiting China’s signature landmark as a teenager in 1967.  He ends: “The first time I saw The Great Wall was during China’s Cultural Revolution when I was 17.  I found it to be truly unbelievable.  In making this film, our balance was to integrate these Chinese elements and story concepts into a blockbuster.  Now, our film is the very first one made about The Wall in China with such a huge budget and grand scale.”