It took from 1881 to 1885 to construct the Canadian Pacific Railway, a Herculean task undertaken by thousands of labourers, including 17,000 Chinese workers, many of whom lost their lives. But it took even longer to get Iron Road - a glossy CBC miniseries about the building of the railroad, airing tomorrow and next Sunday - from script to screen.
Producers Barry Pearson and Anne Tait got the ball rolling in 2000, securing the rights to a 2001 opera of the same name by Chan Ka Nin and Mark Brownell that combined a complicated interracial love story with a saga about the CPR's creation. The resulting $10-million production, starring Sam Neill and Peter O'Toole, took nine years to make it to the small screen.
A product of many partners, Iron Road is also the first project since 1989's Bethune: The Making of a Hero to be made under a China-Canada film co-production treaty . "There's a good reason for that," says Pearson, over the phone from Toronto. "Battling your way through enormous paperwork and in two languages that don't happily co-exist is extremely time-consuming."
He estimates that it took five years simply to shepherd the script through the various funding agencies and grant applications. And if the administrative and organizational hoops appeared endless, the script was also in a constant state of development.
The plot centres on Little Tiger (Sun Li), a Chinese kid who toils at a fireworks company and trades laundry services for English lessons from a washed-up Brit named Relic (O'Toole). Little Tiger dreams of mythical Gold Mountain - and the father who never came back from the promised land of Canada. But Little Tiger also has a secret: Underneath his scruffy clothes and mucky face, he is actually a she. And she winds up falling in love with the railroad boss's son, James (Luke Macfarlane).
The Chinese authorities demanded very little in the way of script changes, says Pearson. Their biggest issue was with the sex scenes, requesting that they be substantially toned down. And both Li and director David Wu had misgivings about the manner in which Little Tiger originally shows James that she is female - insisting there was no way an 18th-century Chinese woman would go skinny-dipping in a lake while thousands of men slept in nearby tents.
But according to Pearson - also a principal writer on the project - all those were easy fixes. "The real elephant in the room was making the gender-bender plot line work," he acknowledges. "It was a long struggle from beginning to end to make it as plausible as possible - but it's hanging on the edge all the time."
For Wu, as well, the central premise was a headache. "I spent so much time trying to find the right actor," he recalls. "It was very clear to me that the whole project depended on who we picked for that role - and we auditioned many, many actors."
For 26-year-old Li, whose earlier films include Fearless , with Jet Li, the role was both a dream and a challenge. "Capturing the inner part of a boy, such as the way he makes eye contact, is a hard thing to express," she explains over the phone from Shanghai. But she shrugs off the more strenuous stunts she performed as the railroad's fearless explosives-setter, crediting her agility to the dancing lessons she has taken since childhood.
Li says she didn't know anything about the history of the railroad before reading the script, but soon became obsessed with finding out more. "I was really shocked at the conditions the workers lived in," she says. "I started to do a lot of research, and read everything I could find."
Wu learned about the railroad as a child, but says he didn't really understand the extent of the sacrifices made until one day during filming, standing on the railway tracks in Kamloops. "I stood there and just thought, 'Wow! How did they do this?' It was the same feeling you get when you walk on the Great Wall of China. Every single mile is built by these workers' bare hands - and we take it all for granted."
Iron Road premieres Sunday Aug. 9 at 8 p.m. on CBC .