Sony Pictures Animation’s Wish Dragon is now out on Netflix. The animated Chinese adventure stars Jimmy Wong as Din, “a working-class college student with big dreams but small means.” After he finds a magical dragon (played by John Cho) that can grant wishes, he goes on an adventure through Shanghai as he looks to reconnect with his childhood friend Lina.
ComingSoon Editor-in-Chief Tyler Treese spoke with director Chris Appelhans about living in China for three years, how the idea for Wish Dragon came to be, and Jackie Chan’s involvement.
Tyler Treese: I really enjoyed watching Wish Dragon. In reading about it, I found out that a trip you took to China helped inspire the film. What really stirred up in your imagination during that trip? What led to this?
Chris Appelhans: Yeah, it’s actually a really strangely personal movie for a kid who grew up in the middle of nowhere in Idaho. I made friends in college and made my first trip over to China with one of my college buddies who grew up there. I met his cousin who was like, basically we were just basically the same person born on opposite sides of the world. Just kind of like platonic soulmates, his name’s Michael. So I was about 24 at that time, and we had this friendship that went on for the next 10 years or so, where we would talk about his life and all the challenges. I went back and forth to China a couple of times, and during that journey, at some point, I was like, “Dude, your life sometimes it seems like a Dickens novel or like a fairy tale, like Aladdin or something.” Because there are all these issues of class and family and notions of success in China as a country was completely transforming overnight.
So I was talking about that. He said, well, you know, Aladdin is a Chinese story. Originally it’s like a folk tale from way, way back in the day. As soon as he said that this light bulb went off. So I thought, oh, I wonder if we could make a movie that sort of recreate what happened to me, which was through the story of my friend through a personal journey. I got to learn about this country and culture. That was really amazing. So I basically made a movie for my friends. Then back in February, it was the worst part was I couldn’t be there, but at least when it came out in theaters in China, he was able to go and watch it.
He sent me this email that was really lovely and said, “Yeah, I went to see your movie. I liked it. I stayed and watched all the credits. And then I went the next day and I watched it again and I stayed and watched. And then I went to see it every day for the next 13 days. And every time I sit in the theater and I cry a little bit. It just makes me feel like our friendship is really important.” So anyway, it was like the perfect full circle ending to a movie that’s so personal. So yeah, that’s a weird story, but I guess that’s how these things get made sometimes.
That’s incredible. You obviously have an outsider perspective, but it was very important to make sure it was authentic. Living in China, you worked with a Chinese production company. Can you talk about just assembling the team and how you were able to deliver such an authentic look at Chinese culture despite not being Chinese yourself? That really impressed me.
Oh, thank you. I was so relieved that when it came out in China, that the response was really great and that authenticity was really well received. I pretty much made a very simple choice, which was no matter what I do this will have to be kind of a fusion movie. It’s going to have Western influence. It’s going to have an outsider’s point of view on some level, but I felt like if I worked with a Chinese studio and a Chinese crew and Chinese talent all around that we would essentially kind of meet in some common ground, which is a new thing that we get to make these films and make art across cultural boundaries now. I think it’s a great way to actually connect cultures and kind of, kind of get at what’s what commonalities are, what we all share.
So the choice I faced immediately was when I came up with the idea, I had a lot of interest from the big studios here in America, which would have offered budgets that were four or five times bigger than what we had. But I met the studio in China and I met their team and they were young sort of born in the 90s generation. Chinese talent and they were so smart. They were so into the idea. They also had a ton of really thoughtful notes about like, “but here’s what you have wrong,” and “here’s why this doesn’t really feel right,” and “here’s what this dynamic would be like with this kid and his mom, not what you think it is.” So as soon as I got that feedback, I’m like, “Oh, I got to make the movie with these people because we’re trying to kind of tell a story together.” And in many ways, it’s a story of their generation. So I can just sort of be a vessel, kind of be a megaphone to help shoot that out over the world. So yeah, I think it all came down to that choice to forego a bigger budget Western option and just build a studio in China and make it there and live there for three years.
This was actually your directorial feature debut here. Were there any surprising challenges that popped up? I mean, especially working and living in a different country. It’s a lot to take on just in general doing your first directorial gig and then like all this co-production was done as well.
Yeah. I think that the biggest challenge and just where I came from Dreamworks and Disney and places like that. I just saw in my head a movie that was like one of those on every level. Story and comedy and design and lighting and color and camera, and those are $100 million dollar movies, but I just didn’t know better. I was just very naive. So I’m like, “We’re just gonna do that, but with a third of the money.” So I think that that was a challenge just out of my own naivete, I think.
On the other hand, I think it speaks to the power of animation as something that really inspires people and that this crew came together. A lot of whom were from big studios. A lot of who were like fresh talent that had never even worked on a feature before, and they all brought 110% every day because they cared about it. They weren’t there because they [were] promised some cushy job. They weren’t there because there was free ice cream for lunch. They were there because they cared about the movie and cared about making it.
So I think it was both the challenge of sort of shooting so high with, with so little and at the same time, incredibly rewarding to see how much, how far you can get with passion and good faith in animation because it’s such a, just a remarkable group of people who are drawn to it. We’re all a little bit crazy and we’re all kind of doing it because we love it. So that I think that was the biggest challenge. And then culturally I think the big challenge was a balance of authenticity. We didn’t want to make a movie that was just for the Chinese market because part of the appeal to the story was this sort of a postcard, a kind of an introduction to modern Chinese life and culture through this animated lens for a Western audience.
So we wanted on one level for it to be accessible at another level authentic. I think we were always balancing that it’s like opening a fusion restaurant and trying to decide how spicy do we make this before people just before only like people from Sichuan can actually eat the food. So I don’t know that there’s a right or wrong answer. I think we’re in a new phase of making movies where a lot of films will get made that span cultures and they should hit all kinds of different balances between incredibly local and incredibly sort of universal, I guess.
I saw that Jackie Chan was a producer and I know he voiced Long in the Mandarin dub. How did he come onto the project? Did he have any involvement creatively?
Yes, he, he was fantastic. I think the biggest thing that Jackie provided was on the Chinese side, not just his name, but we had one meeting with him and it was a bit of a hail mary cause he’s so big there and he can do anything he wants. Everybody wants him to do movies all the time. So we sat down and we just pulled all our artwork out and we pitched him the story for like 25 minutes. It was a bit of a risk to just dive in and speak from the heart, but we gave him this whole pitch and there was a pause at the end. And then he said, “Oh, you guys are trying to make a good movie. It’s really hard to make a good movie, but if you want to make a good movie, that’s what I want to make. I want to make good movies too.”
There was this sort of instant acknowledgment. He could see all the work that gone into the writing [and] into the development. He knew that this wasn’t just a shallow, poorly thought-out superficial thing. That validation of like, here’s a guy who started making movies in Hong Kong in the 80s when there was no money in it. He did it because he loved movies and he wanted to make them, and he’s made so many that he knows how hard it is to make good ones. So to have a kind of godfather figure like that say, I think you’re making a good movie and I’m going to support you. And I’m going to bring in not only my talent but some investors and people to help get this across the finish line is invaluable the biggest piece of the puzzle on our China side. He’s such a decent person and a genuine lover of film that you kind of got the best of both worlds. You got star talent, and you also got essentially a partner who just supported the vision of the movie and, and all the resources it took to make it actually good.
I love that the film also has such a talented, all-Asian cast for the voice actors. Jimmy Wong, John Chu, and Constance Wu, all the main characters are really amazing. Can you talk about how it felt to see all these characters you wrote fully voiced and getting to see them on screen?
Yes. It’s a little, I get a little emotional. We have a little clip where we edited. I don’t know if you remember in the movie, there’s a sequence where they go back to Din’s neighborhood and there’s like 15 neighbors all shouting over each other and he’s getting grilled by his mom. And he’s, it’s a, it’s a very hopefully authentic kind of experience of a communal neighborhood in Shanghai. And we cut alongside that finished animation. We cut video of just of the recording booth, and so you see Jimmy in his tank top and then Constance in her sweatpants and then John looking handsome. Then there’s Philip Wang from Wong Fu Productions, like one of the great Asian American film pioneers, and there’s all these other Asian American actors, just these faces popping up and it makes me so happy.
They were all so talented. They were also dedicated. They all went above and beyond. They all ask incredibly smart questions. They elevated everything that we gave them. And so it was just a real, it was just a real validating moment to see all those faces and realize that I think maybe for the first time that an animated film really represents an authentic portrait of a Chinese family, a certain moment in history and, and thanks to all of them, I think they brought an inherent understanding of those dynamics that I barely had to even talk about. It was just they’ve lived it. So, yeah, it was one of my favorite things about the movie.
The film has such a great message of family and the values that we should aspire to have. Even though it’s such a film focused on China, it’s a globally relatable film. Can you just speak to what that means to shine that spotlight, especially in a time where we’re seeing so much division, and it’s just a great reminder that no matter what culture you’re in, you we’re all striving for the same things. Can you just talk about those core themes?
Yeah. I mean, you said it better than I can. I mean, I’m so glad that that comes through. I think it’s the, it is the essential, the essential epiphany I had as a person who then decided to try and make a movie inspired by that, was that a friendship and an insight into somebody that I knew on the other side of the world made me think about my life every day. Like my choices, my opportunities, my values, my, the way my community was or wasn’t structured, and how all that led to good and bad things. And I thought, well, if that happened to me, why can’t it happen [to others]? It completely turned to China from a country that’s just a monolithic kind of thing you read about in the news to literally a billion human beings, just like me going through life, trying to figure stuff out. Feeling lost, feeling, happy, feeling hopeful, and that the attempt to sort of connect people and let them see how much we share, which is 99.9% of everything. I think it’s one of the sneaky things that art can do. Art and music can do that as our guards are down a little bit. We tried to make the movie as welcoming, as entertaining and funny and a wonderful place to be so that you could enjoy it. Hopefully, it would sneak up on you, both the message and just the general sense of shared humanity that, that hopefully, we all have. So, yeah, it makes me very happy to hear that that that comes through at least for you.