“Do you think many nerds of color will enjoy this film?”
The Meg’s director Jon Turtletaub asked me as he was told the outlet this was for during the press junket. I told him many nerds of color appreciate good films that they could also see themselves in. The Meg, which stars a diverse cast of international stars, including Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Winston Chow, Cliff Curtis, DJ Kennedy, Masi Oka, Ruby Rose, Rainn Wilson, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, and Shuya Sophia Cai, would qualify as something fans of color would enjoy.
The Meg is a deep-sea action film about a prehistoric 75-foot-long shark, known as the Megalodon aka The Meg, that was accidentally released from the deep sea by an American-Chinese expedition led by Dr. Zhang (Chao), his daughter Suyin (Li), and his team. After part of his team are stranded in the deep ocean with the Meg attacking them, Zhang sends former deep-sea rescue diver Jonas Taylor (Statham) to save them. Little did they know, they must now stop the Meg from further destruction.
This marks the first time Turtletaub will work with a Chinese studio to create this world.
“It works out great because there were beaches in China we really wanted to shoot. There is a character to the Chinese beaches of how densely populated the water could get that we could use,” the director said. “What is great about a Chinese partner is access to a Chinese audience. On a pure practical level. That’s a massive audience, you want to not to just have access to, but to do your best work for. A Chinese partner can guide you to make sure your film is translating well and speaks to that audience to the audience better than the audience you know.”
The growing Chinese box office has grown from $863 million in 2000 to almost $8 billion today with China adding around 25 theater screens per day. It’s no wonder Warner Bros. teamed up with China-based Gravity Pictures to produce this $150 million production and showcasing an international cast. Like many films, Turtletaub could have just featured a primary cast of white men among Chinese actors in the background, but he felt there should be no excuse for an international film not to have a cast that reflected it.
“This was a no excuses movie,” Turtletaub explained, “The entire film takes place in international waters. You don’t have any excuse not to have an international cast.”
Turtletaub wanted to be sure to reflect all the different cultures in the film, especially working with Chinese and Kiwi actors. Most of the film was filmed in New Zealand and China, which allowed for most of the cast and crew to be native New Zealanders and Chinese, respectively. There was even a scene in Thailand, where Turtletaub made sure Thai actors were hired in the speaking roles. “You could get away with a lot more back in the old days. Now, we’ve matured. We have the resources to hire Thai actors to play Thai characters to get things right.”
He later revealed, “If you get people from different cultures and have them act the same way, you now defeated the purpose of getting these different cultures. The key is to lean into their culture and then you end up with this collage of cultures that become accessible to everyone.”
Not many directors and creatives think like Turtletaub in terms of diversity and inclusion, Turtletaub wants to make it clear that he understands Hollywood’s perception for inclusion, but also the truth behind the studios.
“I think Hollywood wants to (change),” said Turtletaub. “It was always a battle of truth and perception of truth. It’s very hard to fare with what truths are. We tend to gravitate to our own perceptions and think they are truths. We think that mindset is always complicated.”
He admits money is what drives a lot of business in Hollywood. He suggests fans who want to see change to financially support films that encourage change and inclusion.
“We have to understand it’s up to us globally to look at,” said Turtletaub. “It’s not just in front of the camera thing. It’s very much behind the camera thing.”
Turtletaub credits Marvel’s Black Panther as a positive change for the industry in showcasing diversity and inclusion. He also is excited to see how Crazy Rich Asians, which opens the week after The Meg, is going to do for Asians. He said candidly, “But let me tell you, if nobody goes to see Crazy Rich Asians, that’s the end of Crazy Rich Asians.”
We had an honest conversation about representation and inclusion in films and he agreed that these changes need to happen, but he is honest about how studios work. “Ethnic groups are stuck because they shouldn’t have to like a movie because their ethnicity is in it, they should like them because it’s good. But, if they don’t go, they are going to stop making them also. Everybody is stuck in this dilemma and we’re all trying to figure it out.”
Turtletaub wants to be part of that change and opened up about Hollywood’s whitewashing and trans-washing. “You have close to 100 years of Hollywood whitewashing things,” Turtletaub said. “If you tried to make up for all 100 years in one summer’s releases, you’re going to blow it and everyone will hate you. So you have to focus on today forward and making sure you are bringing your best self to your creative work. But, you are also looking at your own flaws and prejudices. There is no one pure and non-susceptible to their own private prejudices. We all know we are. We don’t like being called out on them. Some of us are more comfortable sharing than others. So, you got to learn that self-awareness.”
When I brought up some of the historical cases of whitewashing e.g. Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He was quick to shut it down, “I can’t believe that was okay then. That was (wrong).”
He does hope that The Meg will showcase greater cultural awareness among American and Chinese audiences as well as show that science is “fucking cool.”
An example Turtletaub provided in the film was finding dead sharks with their fins cut off to show the illegal practice of shark finning, which has been banned due to sharks becoming endangered. “The Chinese government agrees. We gotta stop people from eating the soup. People don’t know it’s illegal.”
He hopes that the audience will take in more from The Meg than just being a really cool shark movie. Turtletaub shared, “The truth is, movies are going to teach us more about each other and music and television than any news broadcast or book report. Most of us are not going to travel to each other’s countries, but through movies we get to go. I don’t mean Americans seeing Americans movies with some Chinese people stuck in there, I mean when Americans see Chinese films. That’s only going to happen when the Chinese, like we’re doing, start making movies with American sensibilities in mind. Now, we are really looking at what arts are doing what armies could never do.”
The Meg opens in theaters this week.