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You may be watching Disney's live-action remake of Mulan for the impressive martial arts scenes, the orchestra rendition of "Reflection," or a taste of childhood nostalgia. But we spent most of the movie distracted by the sweeping sets and filming locations. From the nearly 700-foot-tall sand dunes of the Taklamakan Desert to the rainbow mountains of Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park, the movie hits many of China's geographical highlights. "It's almost like a road movie," says production designer Grant Major. "Mulan travels across the country, and by chance, comes across the most fabulous and iconic Chinese landscapes that we could find."
But not every shot is of actual China. Instead, the cast and crew split filming between China and the chameleon-like landscape of New Zealand, where the South Island's Ahuriri Valley stood in for Mulan's training camp and Poolburn served as a yurt-filled base camp for the Rouran invaders. We sat down with Major—who won an Oscar for art and set direction on another New Zealand–based film, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King—to chat through what it took to find Mulan's sweeping backdrops and which of them you can actually visit, once we can travel safely again. To see the landscapes for yourself, stream Mulan on Disney+ now for $30 with a Disney+ subscription.
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When you were first starting out, trying to find the perfect location, what factors were you having to consider?
Well, originally we were going to film it pretty much exclusively in China, in the very early days. But we [ended up] shooting it in New Zealand as well. New Zealand is very good for that scope, with its very diverse landscapes that can translate pretty easily into a lot of different places in the world.
When it comes to the main scenes, all of those locations were quite well described in the script. The film was meant to take place somewhere around the Tang Dynasty—although not specifically, it was sort of intended to be around that era. Like with the Imperial City, Xi'ian was our model for it, but we were asked to be non-specific, so we weren't really able to say that it was a specific existing city. Instead, it's a sort of a notional city. In that case, [for the Imperial City], we found that China is quite rich with film back lots for different areas of time. They call them back lots, but in practice they're really tourist destinations for the local populace. We chose a studio in Xiangyang in the Hubei Province that's really only about two or three years old that represents the vision of the Tang Dynasty.
The Imperial City was shot on a back lot in Xiangyang, which features a fully recreated Tang Dynasty city.
Another one of the sets you filmed in China was Mulan's hometown. How did you come across those circular buildings?
When I first started the film, production had gone to a producer named Bill Kong to glean from him what critical things a Chinese audience would appreciate within film. He suggested that we use these tulous because they had never really been seen before on cinema. They're not quite from the right time period—granted we're not being specific about the time period, like I said—but there's about 20 or 30 of them and they're all UNESCO World Heritage Sites. There are three in Fujian that date from about the 12th century, when the Hakka people migrated and built these circular buildings as sort of defensive structures as well as communities. I went down to Fujian to find the exact one that we used for filming the outside, and then we built the inside on our back lot [in Auckland]. We wanted to be able to film 360 degrees, so we built out a three-story circular building that's 150 feet across. It's quite large.
Tell me about Mulan's army base. I was so distracted by the mountains in the background that I missed some of the training sequences.
I'd say that half New Zealand's South Island is national park but bordering on those national park areas are some valleys outside the park, so we were able to use a national park as the background while being able to physically build our sets on the flat land below. The Ahuriri Valley served as both our training ground area as well as the battleground, even though the script the battleground is a little distance away. In practice, they were actually only about a mile from each other. I spent days and days in a helicopter scouting for both places. With the training ground, we were looking for somewhere that we could spread ourselves out, so that it could serve as a film set, but also had hills close enough to be seen over the tops of the tents and things like that. Pretty much everything on that set was pre-fabricated and moved on set from Auckland.
With the battleground, [director] Niki [Caro] was quite specific about the geography and the choreography of the battle. So finding something that equated to what she was looking for was was quite difficult. A lot of areas that I had a look at were not accessible because putting a road in to just get there was very expensive. Other areas were not very good for horses. Disney and New Zealand have very strict rules about animal welfare on films. So if it's rocky, we have to clear it all—and we did actually end up clearing a huge quantity of rocks from both these areas so the horses could ride across.
The army base in Mulan was actually filmed in New Zealand’s Ahuriri Valley.
The scene with the wildest set for me was when Mulan meets one-on-one with the witch, Xian Lang, in these sort of thermal, sulfuric pools. Was that based on a real-life location?
We knew needed a very dramatic landscape and we went through a few different machinations for this. It existed as an ice lake at one point. But we wanted something really weird for this confrontation to take place. We really concocted this idea that somewhere in China, there was this big thermal area, a vivid, sort of sulfurous landscape. Now, New Zealand has these thermal areas not unlike Yellowstone Park or Iceland and we went to the White Island, which is off the coast of the Bay of Plenty and is a live active volcano, to shoot [background shots]. But I actually built quite a large set out in the studio [for the actors]. Yes, there are some thermal areas in China, but they're a little different to what's happening in the film. But, you know, who's to say that it hasn't changed over the years. With a little dramatic license, we used that idea to create this extraordinary landscape.