Adventure Heads East: The O’Connells’ Triumphant Return
Though director Rob Cohen’s resume includes blockbuster actioners such as xXx and The Fast and the Furious, many moviegoers do not know that the filmmaker is a student of anthropology who has long been intrigued by—as well as sometimes a resident of—Asia. When approached to helm an epic adventure that would take The Mummy series in a Far-Eastern direction, Cohen realized he could finally join two of his deepest passions: grand-scale filmmaking and China.
The director explains his lifelong interest in the country in a foreword to the moviebook companion piece for The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor. He provides, “I have a deep love of Chinese culture and a complete fascination with the sweep and tumult of its 5,000-year history. Since high school, when my mother began painting Chinese watercolors as a hobby, China had occupied my imagination and reading time. I was intrigued by various dynasties, most especially the Tang and the Ming with their early explorers discovering Indonesia, India, Africa and the giant ‘treasure ships’ that may have circumvented the world long before Magellan, and might have reached the Americas long before Columbus.”
As he read the screenplay for a new Mummy film—penned by Alfred Gough & Miles Millar—Cohen was impressed by both the script’s humor and epic adventure outlined for the O’Connells. He had looked to the Far East several times for source material and believed this project would dovetail well with his curiosity of and studies about China. Cohen explains, “I’m a history buff, and I had read an enormous amount on Chinese history even before I came into this. I have loved the culture since I directed Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and a miniseries about two Chinese brothers immigrating to the United States, called Vanishing Son.”
It was fortunate for all involved that the producers behind the juggernaut hits that launched it all—1999’s The Mummy and 2001’s The Mummy Returns—wanted to head in a new direction for the series and had commissioned Gough & Millar to shake up the franchise. They felt they had exhausted the possibilities in an Egyptian setting and were looking for a filmmaker who could take the trouble-seeking O’Connells out of Africa and expand their adventures to the continent of Asia. Of the audience’s continued interest in the films that share the O’Connells’ escapades, producer Stephen Sommers reflects, “I think the reason they were so successful is that they are romantic adventures set in exotic worlds. People just love that.”
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor marks the third time James Jacks and Sean Daniel have produced a Mummy film. For this chapter, they would be joined by Bob Ducsay and Stephen Sommers as producers. All four men had begun their collaboration by creating the first two in the series, with Sommers directing and Ducsay serving as editor on both and executive producer on The Mummy Returns.
“It took us years before we had an epiphany of using the Terracotta Warriors in China,” remembers producer Ducsay. “We realized this might be a great catalyst for a new adventure with characters the audience had grown to love in the first two stories.”
The team discovered in Cohen a filmmaker with the experience necessary to create a film on the scale they imagined. “Thankfully, Rob wanted to make the picture, because he was an absolutely perfect fit,” Ducsay sums. “He has the skill set to mount a gigantic production on two continents, is fantastic with action and actors and has a great sense of humor. These are all essential ingredients in the DNA of a Mummy movie”
“The idea that the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’an were, in fact, the mummies, really appealed to me,” says Cohen. “It was all about exploring the true history of China during two periods, 200 B.C. and 1946, in an unusual way and having a lot of fun with it. It was an opportunity to use all the goodwill of The Mummy and the wonderful characters that Steve Sommers set up. All the great elements are there, but I wanted to take it in a whole new direction, away from Egypt and into Asia. It’s a brand-new adventure for our heroes; spectacular, colorful and completely Asian.”
About his interest in returning to the series, producer Sean Daniel admits that his obsession with this genre as a child continues to bring him back for more. “When I was a kid, I used to go to every Boris Karloff version [of a mummy film] I could find and the many other mummy movies that followed,” he recalls. “I cut pictures of the mummy out of the Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine and stuck them on the wall. When I went to Universal, I immediately started to talk to them about making a mummy movie, as they are a personal love of mine.”
Adds producer Jacks: “We’ve been part of the O’Connell family for almost a decade now. To help see their adventures continue and Rick and Evy begin to pass the mantle on to their son, Alex, makes us all feel proud. I admit, it’s like seeing one of your own children grow up.”
With director Cohen on board to inject an Asian influence into the series, the returning producers from the first two chapters and Gough & Millar’s revamped screenplay, it was time to cast a shape-shifting emperor and a family of fighting O’Connells. Not to mention the thousands of man hours necessary to design gun battles and high-speed chases, creating the worlds of 200 BC and 1946 would prove quite a challenge.