Time Travel: Two Continents Over Two Millennia
The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor filmed over a five-month period in North America and Asia. Montreal, Canada, and Beijing and Shanghai in China served as host cities as the production built worlds that crossed 2,200 years.
Shooting in Montreal
With a powerful sequence set in the Shanghai Museum, principal photography kicked off at Mel’s Cite du Cinema in Montreal. Rick and Evy O’Connell have been convinced to take the Eye of Shangri-la back to China, but with grave consequences…
The scenes were shot on a magnificent set imagined by production designer Nigel Phelps. Of course, there would be an intricate stunt pivotal to the scene, and the designer would need to coordinate around it. Explains Phelps, “We had to design a way into the space for Alex and Lin to arrive without being seen. That was a hard set to design because we had to incorporate all of that, and the chariot [driven by the Dragon Emperor Mummy] had yet to be designed. So, we were pulling and stretching and reshaping everything to accommodate.”
Production next moved outside to shoot on the stupa (gateway to Shangri-la) courtyard set, constructed next to the linking set of the Gateway, an enormous section of mountains that represented the Himalayas and sheltered a hidden gateway to the mysterious pool of eternal life in Shangri-la. The courtyard was dressed with fake snow, created by SFX supervisor Bruce Steinheimer’s team. “Rob was very specific on the snow he wanted,” explains Steinheimer. “We used 160 tons of magnesium sulfate for the ground snow.”
The fall weather in Montreal is very unpredictable, and, one night, a huge storm hit the set and washed away all the snow. In a bit of its own magic, the set dressing team was called in during the early hours to repair the damage; when the crew arrived at 7:00 a.m., there was no sign that anything damaging had happened.
Again, designs from the script would be adjusted once Phelps, DP Duggan and Cohen had regarded the model sets and discussed the best way to shoot the action. In scenes with the stupa as backdrop, the O’Connells, Jonathan and Lin confront the Emperor Mummy, and a rip-roaring gunfight, followed by help from some Yeti, ensues.
Action unit director VIC ARMSTRONG orchestrated a complex sequence on the Gateway set, but he needed to allow for hero Yeti and mountains of snow to be strategically placed in later. In the scene, the O’Connells have been pinned down by General Yang’s army, but they are rescued by ferocious saviors. “Yang gets kicked out onto the rope bridge, and a big avalanche is formed,” recounts Armstrong, “which is actually caused deliberately by one of our heroes to wipe out his army. The avalanche rages through and collapses the bridge.”
Having successfully avoided most of the bad weather, the production moved out to the ADF stage about 40 minutes from Mel’s. There, Phelps’s team created one of the most awe-inspiring sets from the film: the mausoleum. During excavations, Alex has discovered the tomb of the Emperor. Entering the crypt, he stumbles into an incredible mausoleum filled with thousands of Terracotta Warriors. As he makes his way through the ranks, he and his companions find themselves in a series of deadly booby traps.
“When I did the research into the real Terracotta Warriors, I saw that they were all in ranks of four,” recalls Phelps. “Another surprise was that I had imagined they were little people, but, in fact, they were about six feet tall, and every one is different. The set decorator, ANNE KULJIAN, was remarkable with the detail for the soldiers. We made 20 different heads that you could interchange.”
It was up to the team to re-create weapons stolen hundreds of years ago by tomb looters. “We bought one kind of soldier and horse in China, and then we mass produced them in a workshop in Montreal,” explains Kuljian. “I had all the weapons, armor and other items needed—like the horses’ bridles and mausoleum ornaments made in China by a team headed by propmaster KIM WAI CHUNG, and then shipped to Montreal.”
Returning to Mel’s, the production moved into the mysterious world of the Foundation Chamber: the setting for the brutal hand-to-hand battle between the Emperor and Rick O’Connell. This was the first scene to be shot with Jet Li.
“In the script, there is emphasis on the core of the Great Wall,” Phelps recalls. “The notion was that during the construction of the Great Wall, enemies were buried alive in the foundations. It contained a temple at the center, and the ceiling of the foundation room reflects a subterranean world that held all their bodies and souls. That forms the core of the Foundation Army that rises to attack the Terracotta Army.”
From the brutality of the fight, the production moved to the tranquility of the Shangri-la cave. This served as the backdrop for the touching reunion of Zi Yuan and the daughter from whom she’s been separated for two millennia. “Rob nailed it…how he wanted the different facets of our reaction after 2,000 years of separation,” recalls Yeoh. “It was pure joy at seeing my child again. On the flip side, for Lin, it was the outpouring of grief. All those years away of sorrow and fending for herself. She handled it so beautifully.”
The cave shimmered with candlelight that illuminated the magnificent sleeping Buddha that lay along the length of it. The alcoves were filled with beautifully carved statues and a stunning pagoda that stood at the entry. The team’s goal was a simple one: make Shangri-la feel as large, open, lush and magical as possible.
On October 15, production completed filming in Montreal and prepared for an even bigger adventure: shooting in China.