Pekingman shoot: Living proof that China co-production still exists

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Shanghai-based producer Natacha Devillers, currently in lockdown as the city battles Covid, recently shared her experiences of shooting the China-France co-production she wrapped last month, docu-fiction Pekingman: The Last Secrets Of Humankind, directed by France’s Jacques Malaterre.

Co-produced by France Television and Chinese broadcaster CCTV, the feature-length production filmed from February 14 to March 22 in the midst of Chinese New Year, the Beijing Winter Olympics and a never-ending pandemic. While this was by no means an easy feat, it does prove that China co-production is still possible and the country is not as hermetically sealed off as it can sometimes appear. 

Malaterre, who works with leading palaeontologist Yves Coppens, is an expert in films about prehistory and human evolution, with credits including A Species Odyssey (2003), which still holds the record of highest-rating TV film in France. His new work covers 800,000 years of Chinese pre-history through eight separate stories, a cast of around 100 actors who have been trained to move like early humans and a whole lot of prosthetics. 

Devillers explains that the project had already been delayed for two years when she boarded as executive producer last year. She got the co-production contracts signed over the summer, started scouting locations and by October had got Malaterre into China. Some heads of department were also supposed to travel to China but were put off by the country’s three-week long quarantine requirement. 

“The Chinese side did everything they could to get the director in, would have helped with other crew, and supported us all along the way,” says Devillers. “Casting started while the director was still in quarantine, then he later auditioned 300-400 people and narrowed it down to about a hundred. I’d pre-scouted the whole of China and when he got out we went around and ticked off what he wanted.” 

The shoot went to three provinces – Hainan, Zhejiang and Hebei – finally dropping a schedule on an ice lake in Jilin, as Devillers could see the current Covid outbreak looming. Instead the lake was built in a studio near Hengdian, a major production base in Zhejiang province. She notes that Hainan is also booming as a production base in China during the pandemic: “It has good weather, new infrastructure and because it’s an island is easier to control in terms of Covid management.” 

Devillers adds that the Pekingman shoot had a doctor on set at all times and conducted more than 1,200 Covid tests: “We had a great production coordinator and production manager who kept us on top of every location. We could only have 50 people on set maximum [n.b. this is considered a small crew in China], so you just comply and stay safe and operate in a closed loop as much as possible.”  

Currently in post-production in Paris, the film was being introduced to buyers at this week’s MipTV (April 4-6) by French sales agent Federation. Devillers is now working on another co-production that she hopes will shoot in China next year. “China’s not closed to everything so it’s just a question of finding the projects that can still work for both sides.”