Lessons from the Kung Fu Panda

As the Kung Fu Panda’s entourage struck the city for its Sydney Film Festival Australian premiere last Monday night, I waited in watchful expectation among the media pack on the red carpet, reciting all the Confucius wisdom I could remember, to mentally prepare myself to ask ‘The Hard Questions’.

The Paramount Pictures PR whispered to me quietly as if a secret aside “this is the Dreamworks CEO, do you have a question?”

And there heading towards me, first in the Kung Fu Panda PR attack, was the Big Cat himself, Jeffery Katzenberg, stalking his media prey like a pro with his svelte Hollywood accent, a perfect suit matching his perfect smile, and an air of importance that made our knees tremble.

“Yes, hello Mr Katzenberg, may I ask – they say in Hollywood that there are only so many stories that just get reinvented over and over again. Is that true or are there original stories out there still be told?”

“Yes, that is a bit of a cliché, there are many great stories to be told”, Mr Katzenberg agreed, “There are aspects that all great stories have in common. In Kung Fu Panda for example we have an ordinary guy doing extraordinary things- but nobody has done that before with a panda.”

BAM- he hit the question right on the head with a precise kung fu chop.

Kung Fu Panda director John Stevenson was second in the link of defence, quietly charming the press while Jack Black assaulted the amassing crowd’s funny bone by leaping onto media barricades with his Kung Fu master moves perfectly down pat.

Trying not to fall to these first-rate distraction techniques, and having not been given an advance preview to the movie by the Sydney Film Festival PR team, I bravely continued in my line of questioning attack, asking the director, “…So - how would YOU review this film?”

“Oh that’s a bit unfair isn’t it?” he slung back.

“Ok, three positives then..?” (I’m a softie at heart).

“It’s funny, full of heart, and good to look at”.

“And how is Kung Fu Panda different from other animations?”

“We’ve made it as a real Kung Fu movie, not a parody. We’re the first to do that”.

As with Jeffery Katzenberg, director John Stevenson’s smooth friendliness was getting my guard down. This was going to be Death by Dreamworks by the end of the night.

“… So, do you have any advice for all the ‘indie’ directors out there?”

“Don’t give up. Where I came from, becoming a film director was the craziest idea. I grew up in a small town called Cookfield. There were cows outside”.

I nodded, welcoming his encouragement for I grew up in a small town called Kokopo – with coconut trees outside.

“And now you’re here!” I said. He smiled. “Yes, now I’m here -at the Sydney Film Festival”.

“Thank you”, I gushed, feeling very warm and fuzzy and happy to realise that I too had made it here, interviewing Hollywood’s top talent at the Sydney Film Festival, with a man in a giant panda costume walking the red carpet behind us and ninjas banging drums to stir up the crowd. It was so Hollywood, but like so many Dreamworks productions, it worked. I was wishing I could see the film.

And the big climax of the night was coming. Jack Black was heading my way and I called out to him- on a mission for Lessons from the Kung Fu Panda for all other independent directors out there. “Jack Black! I’m Wendy Dent – reporting for independent directors…”

And suddenly there was silence. The cacophony of questions stopped as Jack Black and all the media erupting into frenzy around him turned towards me – I’d got his attention. It must have been that magical word “director”.

“Can you tell me, Mr Black, what is it about directors that you really hate, and what do you like in a good director?” He paused, looking me straight in the eye with his undivided attention as if suddenly the rest of the media throng had disappeared into Hollywood Digital Surround Sound.

“I like to collaborate”, he said. “That’s the best thing. I don’t like directors who try to manipulate and intimidate you. Don’t talk down to me. I like to work WITH people”.

And there it was. Well said Mr Black, well said. “Confucius says Collaborate”.

And with that, Jack Black was off in a flash to scale another media barricade for photos with fans. The Kung Fu Panda had indeed impressed.

Confucius says “go see the film”.

Sydney, June 10 2007