"Filming in China has moved upmarket"
“I came to China in 1990 to study film and fell in love with the place,” says Michael McDermott of Gung Ho Films. “It was the end of the communist era when everything was still owned by the state, now there’s Starbucks on every corner and every aspect of Chinese life has been westernized.”
Gung Ho Films was set up in 2000 and rapidly became the leading production services provider in mainland China and Hong Kong, working on TV productions, commercials, and major Hollywood films. “We are one of the only ones in China providing such high end production service for such a variety of clients,” explains McDermott, “advertising agencies, production companies, television networks or film; if it is high end and needs to be filmed in China or Hong Kong then we can help.”
With credits including Spike Jonze’s acclaimed feature film Her, Al Gore’s ground breaking documentary An Inconvenient Truth and Louis CK’s comedy performances among countless others, Gung Ho has built up a solid reputation for unrivalled knowledge of the vast county's geography as well as unmatched insight into the local way of life. Michael’s understanding of Chinese, American and European cultures means that besides “relating easily to foreigners’ needs”, the well-travelled company founder knows instantly what is required in terms of location.
“The Chinese landscape is incredibly varied which comes as a surprise to many, you can find everything from a thoroughly modern metropolis to deserts.” More importantly, McDermott takes on the role of what can only be described as mediator between foreigners and the local community. This does not mean “educating like a teacher”, he eloquently explains, “but taking on more the role of a cultural attaché, telling people how not to come across as aggressive and how to get the most out of local crews”.
Clients coming from the US and Europe want to get the most out of their experience and McDermott ensures their expectation from the place (whether it is Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong or elsewhere) is realistic and in line with can be offered. “This is not Paris or London and people work differently here, my job is to make sure their local experience is productive and memorable.”
There are various reasons why people choose to film in China. Spike Jonze for example, fell in love with Shanghai as a location to tell his story. “There are parts of Shanghai that look like a futuristic LA which fitted the film perfectly,” McDermott says. “There are also many big brands which have a great interest in showing the world that the company is involved in China and the same applies to many TV shows we cater for who are keen to show an association with this vast economy.”
But the magnificent experience of filming in China is not the cheap affair it was years ago. “The whole country has moved upmarket” explains McDermott, “it is no longer a set-up for low cost brands trying to save money but rather one for high end luxury brands.”
McDermott’s own film background comes from studying at the Beijing Film Academy and coming from a family active in the entertainment industry. Through this he acquired a sound sense of the high production standards that professional companies expect.
“When we set up the company” says McDermott, “I knew what I wanted Gung Ho to get to the level that Hollywood is accustomed to, I surrounded myself with an astounding team of people and made a high end production standard a priority.”
Besides the sleek operation, McDermott attributes Gung Ho’s success to timing: “When we were building up the company the Chinese economy started to explode, attracting a growing number of European and US companies. We were there at the crucial time when China was opening up to business, to greet foreigners wanting to film here.”
Productions standard used to be very low as China itself was so poor. McDermott and his team successfully raised the bar and were able to attract world renowned directors, advertising agencies and top photographers as a result.
“We worked on An Inconvenient Truth” says McDermott with much justified pride, “we were thrilled when it won the Oscar. It is very different from the Louis CK project that was new territory for us as we had never worked on a comedy before. We ended up contributing a great deal including a live comedy night at the Beijing Opera Theatre which turned out to be a magical experience.”
Having worked with people such as photographers Mary McCartney and Steven Klein, director Tony Kaye (American History X), and creative agencies BBDO and BBH demonstrates that the company has something to offer the West.
“Their work defines the gold standard in overseas production” says director Ed Nammour, while the BBC’s Charlotte Faux thanks Gung Ho for “how easy you have made it all for us”, Dave Kasey of DDB believes Gung Ho and “the entire team they have assembled, right down to the bungee cord stuntman deserve a standing ovation”, while creative officer Tony Durket thanks the team for “embracing our concept and bringing it to life”, adding that “everything from locations to crew to shoot was first class”. Reading these words it is evidently clear that McDermott’s vision of a China-based company, delivering high end Hollywood production standard, has come to life.