I interview Andre Morgan, who's partnered with Godfather producer Al Ruddy, at their Beverly Hills office July 29, 2002.
Andre: "I was born in French Morocco. My father served in the American Navy. My mother is English. An only child, I traveled back and forth. We moved, on average, every six months. I went to twelve different grade schools, mainly in England and the States. I learned French and German.
"When it came time to go to university, I needed a scholarship, so I decided to enroll in whatever department gave me the greatest opportunity to gain a scholarship. And that was the Department of Oriental Languages and Literature at the University of Kansas. So I majored in Chinese and got a draft deferment that kept me out of the Vietnam War.
"I've always loved the film industry but I had no particular penchant for the Chinese language."
Luke: "Were you a good student in high school?"
Andre: "I was average. I guess I was usually in the top ten percent of my class."
Luke: "And you were a film buff from what age?"
Andre: "As soon as I began sneaking into theaters, around age ten. In England they had this rating system where you, as a child, could only get in to see certain kinds of movies. We figured out how to get somebody in the theater, run around the back and open the emergency exits and we'd all slip in the back door."
Luke: "What did your parents think of your obsession?"
Andre: "It wasn't an obsession. It was more of a passion. They didn't discourage it. From any parent's point of view in the 1960s, they just hoped their kid would go to school, get a job, be a lawyer or engineer or something respectable, and don't end up getting arrested for doing drugs.
"I left the University of Kansas in my senior year in 1972. I dropped out, with one semester left, to go to Hong Kong to polish my Chinese. I was supposed to be in Hong Kong for one year. Then I planned to return to Kansas to finish my degree.
"Then, when I got the job with [Raymond Chow's film production company Golden Harvest] and got to Hong Kong, it became obvious to me after a few months that I wasn't going back to academia. I was already in the industry I loved."
Luke: "How did you get the job?"
Andre: "The head of the Chinese department at Kansas had been a close friend of Raymond Chow's in the late 1940s. They'd set up Voice of America in Hong Kong together. When I told my professor I wanted to go to Asia, he said he'd make a few phone calls and see if there were any jobs available. Serendipitously, Raymond Chow had formed Golden Harvest five months previous. They made a compact that if I were to come out and spend a year in Hong Kong, working for a local Chinese salary, he'd give me a job as an office boy.
"I met Bruce Lee on my second day in Hong Kong. We were the only two Americans in the company. Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco. He was then fast becoming a superstar in southeast Asia.
"Before I got to Hong Kong, I didn't know Bruce Lee from any other actor. I had vague recollections of having seen him in a couple episodes of The Green Hornet and in one episode of The Streets of San Francisco. But when I arrived, they sat me down and, before I met him, I screened Bruce's first two movies, Fists of Fury and The Big Boss."
Luke: "Were you starstruck?"
Andre: "No. You can't really be in this business and be starstruck. The magic of the industry is watching the impact that the talent has on the public. I remember the first time I met Steve McQueen, I was starstruck. It's like anything else. Once you get to know the people, they tend to lose their aura.
"I stayed in Hong Kong until 1985 [when British prime minister Margaret Thatcher decided to give it back to the Chinese]. I started as an office boy and by the time I left, I was running the largest division in the largest film company in Asia. We had offices in London and Los Angeles. We had a huge theater system to distribute our English-language and Chinese pictures.
"In 1972, we were at a point in Hong Kong cinema where there were no rules. We were making up the rules as we went along. Nobody in America at this time really knew what kung fu was. There had been one Billy Jack movie and a bad TV series called Kung Fu. Once we introduced the Bruce Lee films, and got over the initial market resistance, it was a trip to watch the number of kung fu fans grow. Over time, it's been fun for me to watch it spawn new generations and new genres."
Luke: "Do you have a personal attachment to kung fu?"
Andre: "No. I've never studied kung fu. I've never had any interest in studying kung fu. But I recognize and appreciate it as an important skill set for young action stars. I've worked with some of the top action stars in the world like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan, you realize the tremendous amount of skill, coordination and study required."
Luke: "Hong Kong was ruled by the British."
Andre: "Hong Kong has gone through many changes over the past 30 years. In 1972, it was a sleepy colonial backwater port that was primarily a low cost manufacturing center for wigs and computer chips and a transshipment center for raw produce going in and out of China in the days when embargoes were still in effect because of the Vietnam War. That's what you see in [the 1973 film] Enter the Dragon. The big oceangoing fishing junks in Aberdine Harbor. Hong Kong has a skyline but it is not a dynamic skyline. It's a picturesque skyline. In the mid seventies, Hong Kong's became a finance center for the region. In the eighties was the real estate boom and the transition from being a manufacturing center to a service center."
Luke: "I've heard it was the most truly capitalistic country in the world?"
Andre: "By definitions of government involvement, that was true. It is no longer. The Chinese government has made significant changes."
Luke: "Did you feel happy or sad when the sovereignty of Hong Kong changed from Britain to China?"
Andre: "Both. It was sad because it was the end of an era in which I'd grown up. I got to Hong Kong when I was 20 years old. On the other hand, for China and the people of Hong Kong, it was a good thing the British were gone and it had returned to Chinese sovereignty. And if they do a good job of reabsorbing Hong Kong into the bosom of the mainland, it will only facilitate a more peaceful and rapid solution to the China-Taiwan issue."
From the 6/25/01 issue of Variety: "The L.A.-based Ruddy Morgan Organization (RMO), whose principals have long-standing relationships in China, is teaming with two private investor groups to set up a full-service production facility in Shanghai. Their partners are the China-based Intl. Cultural Exchange Audio & Video Publishing House (ICE) and Hong Kong's Belford Group. The new company, to be called the Hweilai Organization, will initially consist of Hweilai Studios and related Hweilai film and TV companies. Idea is to create English-language TV and film product for the U.S. and international marketplaces."
Luke: "How did you come to set up this huge studio in China?"
Andre: "We've been going in and out of China since 1978. We've been waiting for the right opportunity. Meaning, the infrastructure to support the day to day grind of filmmaking. The bureaucracy had arrived at a level of workable understanding with the film and television industry. We also had to gauge the American market to see if there was a renewed interest in things Chinese. You realize after 30 years in the industry that everything has an ebb and flow. And every eight years or so, there's a new cycle and everything Chinese and Asian is hot for a year. Then America loses interest for a while.
"We concluded the timing was right for several reasons. One, China was close to achieving entry into the WTO (World Trade Organization) and they were making a significant bid for the 2008 Olympics. We met local entrepreneurs in China who represented what is the first generation of private sector enterprise in China. We had the opportunity to put the studio together without having to joint-venture it with the old rustbelt state-run organizations."
Luke: "Do you feel comfortable with comparisons to Armand Hammer?"
Andre: "No. I'm not selling pencils and I'm certainly not selling secrets. We have little in common except that he went behind the Iron Curtain in his day and I've been going in and out China for 24 years."
Luke: "Are there rumors that you are a Communist spy?"
Andre: "No, that I am CIA. I just heard that from somebody who's been working for me for nine months in Shanghai. That was the rumor amongst the Australians there.
"Under the Freedom of Information Act, I should probably pull my file. But then again, who cares? You can get obsessed with this stuff or just get on with living your life."
Luke: "Are you married?"
Andre: "For six years. My second marriage. It's my Chinese phase.
"My home was Hong Kong until 1985. Then I re-domiciled to LA. I met my first wife, a Philipino-American, in 1987. We were married for 18 months and then divorced.
"I took John McTiernan to Malaysia to do a location survey for Medicine Man, starring Sean Connery. They needed a rain forest. We were in Kuala Lumpur, where the rain forest is second growth. It's been harvested once. John wanted to go to where we shot Farewell to the King. We charted a flight and flew back down to Borneo where I bumped into my now second wife (Maria) in the coffee shop of the hotel in Kuching. She's pure Chinese."
Luke: "Is she in the entertainment industry?"
Andre: "No. She has a Masters degree in Psychology. She was a director for PR and marketing for a hotel chain in asia called Pan Pacific Hotels."
Luke: "How much are you on the road these days?"
Andre: "Last year I was gone ten months but that was an incredible bizarre year because of 9/11.
"We were on location [in Shanghai, China] shooting [on 9/11] while watching this whole nightmare unfold on CNN, MSNBC and BBC.
"We decided to shoot the TV series [Flatlander starring Dennis Hopper] in high definition digital video. We created the first entirely digital post production facility in China. Then we set up our own CGI department in China to do the graphics, because the show's look is The Matrix meets Crouching Tiger."
Luke: "Is there a network for this show?"
Andre: "Not yet. We're in negotiation for it right now."
Luke: "That's bold going out there and shooting a show before you sell it."
Andre: "It's certainly out of the box. We've spent close to $40 million in the past year on the studio and the series.
"We decided that the fastest way to train people was to do TV. It was reminiscent of things we'd done in Hong Kong in the early seventies when we made kung fu movies for $100,000 a piece. We set up the studio. We set up the training program. We bought 500 hectares built three soundstages in the first four months of 2001."
Luke: "Did you use slave labor?"
Andre: "No, but we worked three shifts, 24/7, banging them out."
Andre shows me pictures of the work.
Andre: "That stage is 18 meters high, that's five stories. We started shooting on the 15th of July. We'd just finished our first section with Dennis Hopper. We'd shipped him back to the States. I was getting ready to come back to the States.
"Shanghai is twelve hours ahead of New York. Nine AM in New York is Nine PM that same evening in Shanghai. This came down at dinner time, at 8:45 PM our time. First you're getting the news reports on Chinese television. We had many Americans in Shanghai working on the show who were cut off from their loved ones in the US. They could leave China but they couldn't land on the West Coast of the US.
"We decided to keep shooting, that it was better for the Americans to keep them busy working the normal 12-hour days. That way they're only watching CNN in their off hours.
"We were flying, on average, three actors a week to China to be guest stars in the TV series. We couldn't get anybody out of the US for two weeks. We couldn't get any equipment out of the US. We had people stuck in Seoul, Beijing and Hong Kong.
"It disrupted our production for three weeks. In selling the series, it set us back a good six months. After 9/11, the fall TV season was delayed. We'd originally planned to sell the series in December. We're out there selling the series now."
Luke: "Have you lost any projects because of 9/11?"
Andre: "It's a good excuse but if it is a good product, you'll find another way to reconstitute it and get it going. I consider some things delayed but I don't consider any project killed by 9/11."
Luke: "What's Flatlander about?"
Andre: "It takes place in Shanghai in the year 2010. It's the story of Saint Michael versus the Devil. Dennis Hopper plays Saint Michael who's out to catch the Devil. Dennis Hopper is the meanest baddest angel they got. His job is to catch the Devil and round up the Devil's colleagues on earth. We have various villains who are white and black and Asian. The idea is to make it non-race specific, the same we did [the TV series] Martial Law for CBS."
Luke: "Weren't you concerned about hiring Dennis Hopper, whose got a reputation for being psychotic?"
Andre laughs: "Dennis is a sweetheart. If you want to believe everything that is ever put out about any actor or director or producer, you can always find stories that will convince you that they are crazy. My experience in dealing with these guys over the years is that if you come on to them straight, and you don't play games, they'll deal with you honestly. It's only if you start messing around that you'll have trouble. What drives people nuts is people who shine them on.
"Nobody's perfect. We all have temper tantrums from time to time and we all scream and yell and we all melt down. So, if they're having a bad hair day, you ask, 'What triggered their bad hair day?' You cut through and figure out the real problem. If you've been straight with people, they'll usually be straight with you. You will rarely get a truly psychotic actor unless they're having a serious drug or alcohol problem. And that's a different issue, and something you have to watch like a hawk.
"We did two movies with Burt Reynolds and two movies with Tom Selleck. I've heard all the stories about these guys and they were pussycats. But you have to deal with them straight. It doesn't mean you have to go in and suck up to them and kiss their ass.
"The relationship between a producer and an actor has to be a two-way street. You need them to do things for you that go way beyond just giving a good performance - to promote the film, to do interviews. And they are going to want things from you that aren't in their contract. Their agent can't anticipate everything that can come up. If you're reasonable, you're going to find a way to work things out. That's part of being a producer. You've got to keep the family going. Don't sit there and think you're the headmaster and you're going to cane everyone. At the end of the day, you want everyone working together because they are getting your vision on the screen.
"In any large gathering, there are bound to be personality problems and conflicts of interest. So if you can set yourself up as the person who is fair, you can have a successful production."
Andre takes a long drink of coffee.
Andre: "My first cup of the day."
Luke: "How many cups do you normally drink?"
Andre: "It depends. I used to own a coffee plantation. I've had periods where I've drank ten cups of coffee a day. And then I go to China and I don't drink any."
Luke: "What are your other guilty pleasures?"
Andre: "Smoking. You've got me on the first day of me quitting smoking for the fourth time this year. I quit for seven years twice."
Luke: "Which actor drove you to resume?"
Andre: "This is probably a terrible insight into a producer's psyche. I started smoking when I was 14 because it was cool. I went off to Hong Kong when I was 20. Everybody smokes there. Then I quit smoking for four years. I came back to the United States in 1985, and out of boredom, picked up a cigarette. My partner, Al Ruddy, smoked like a chimney. In 1991, we decided we were going to quit smoking. In 1992, I signed us up for a quit-smoking clinic. We'd tried everything - hypnosis, this and that. This quit-smoking class worked even though my wife is a chain-smoker and smokes two packs a day. Al lasted a year-and-a-half. I didn't have another cigarette from June of 1992 until December of 2000.
"I'm sitting in Malaysia, two days before New Year's Eve, having a Margarita. 'Gee, that smells good. Why don't you give me a puff?' I'm thinking, what's the big deal? It tasted so good that I decided I was going to smoke through the New Year and then I'd quit when we left Malaysia for Hong Kong. And I've been smoking ever since.
"I smoke about two packs a day."
Luke: "What are your other guilty pleasures?"
Andre: "Everything. You indulge all your sensory perceptions all the time. It's all part of living. Filmmaking is an extension of life. How can you draw on life if you haven't lived it and experienced it?
"I've been watching this program on the History Channel about the History of Sex in WWII. They had something about Jack Kennedy. He talked about war being hours of boredom interrupted by minutes of abject fear. That's exactly what producing is all about. You sit around for weeks and months while the script is whipped into shape. You wait for the actors and studio execs to read it. You get someone to agree to make the movie. The making of it is the fun part. Then you go into the editing period, probably the single most important period.
"Each ones of those periods requires a different part of your personality to come into play, whether I'm indulging my passion for smoking or good wine or spicy food. When you've got the stress from managing multiple projects, why are you going to put restraints on yourself? I thank God that I never had a serious drug problem."
Luke: "Many producers tell me that their least favorite part is the shoot?"
Andre: "That's because they are not in control. But if you've done your job right, and you have the right director and the right actors, it's fun to watch. Most producers, by definition, are control freaks. You are so used to micro-managing different things it's hard to let go and let the director run with it. My perspective is different from most producers because at Golden Harvest, I was overseeing the production of ten movies a year. You learn to be dispassionate.
"Many producers are frustrated directors. I do not want to direct. Do you know how boring it is to wait on a set all day long to get the one take you think is right while the lighting crew fiddles around? That is a death of a thousand cuts."
Luke: "How did you come to partner up with Al Ruddy?"
Andre: "We've known each other a long time. We teamed up at Golden Harvest to do the Cannonball Run movies.
"When I decided to return to the States in 1984, Al suggested we set up a company together and see what trouble we could get into. We looked at Ruddy-Morgan as a loose fraternal organization of non-dedicated tennis players that evolved into today's company.
"Al is like a big overstuffed teddy bear and one of the kindest people you'll ever meet. He loves this industry. We both came out of a different time and place when it was possible to put things together on your own. We're probably the only guys in town who, if we want to make a movie, and the studios say no, that doesn't mean anything. Studios aren't always right.
"Cannonball Run. That script sat around for two-and-a-half years and everybody said, there's no point in making this movie. By the time we had put Hal Needham and the script together, every studio had passed on it twice. By the time we had put Hal Needham, Roger Moore and Farrah Fawcett together, the studios had passed on it three times. When we added Burt Reynolds to the mix, every studio said they had made a mistake and they wanted to reconsider that they had passed on the project. Our job is to make a sexy package that people want to buy."