Black Swan producer dips into his Jewish roots: 1940s Shanghai

shanghai  |  Mike Medavoy walked the red carpet, mingled with Chinese studio executives and attended industry seminars.

But unlike other Hollywood producers pressing the flesh at the nine-day Shanghai International Film Festival, which ends Sunday, June 19, he wasn’t just shopping for projects.

For the producer of “Black Swan” and “Zodiac” — who also worked on films such as “Rocky,” ‘‘Apocalypse Now” and “The Terminator” — the festival was a homecoming of sorts.

Medavoy was born in Shanghai in 1941 to Russian Jewish parents and lived there for six years before moving with his family to Chile and eventually the United States. His grandfather moved to Shanghai to avoid the pogroms of imperial Russia.

And now the veteran producer has found the perfect project to honor his Chinese roots — an adaptation of a Chinese love story set against World War II–era Shanghai, where many European Jews sought refuge from persecution.

Medavoy announced June 13 that he and the Shanghai Film Group will turn Chinese author Bei La’s “The Cursed Piano” into a feature film.

While the film will focus on the love story, and the story of the Shanghai people under Japanese occupation, Medavoy and his partners also will shoot an accompanying six-hour TV miniseries exploring the Jewish experience in Shanghai, based on the Daniella Kuhn story “Tears of the Sparrow.”

Mike Medavoy (right) joins movie executives Wendi Deng Murdoch (left) and Thomas Tull for a June 12 event at the Shanghai International Film Festival. photo/ap/eugene hoshiko

“I feel a great deal of responsibility to get this story told,” said Medavoy, chairman and CEO of Phoenix Pictures.

“My fear, of course, is based on the fact that I have to measure up not only to the standards that these gentlemen have set for the project,” he said, referring to the Shanghai Film Group, “but I also have to measure up to my own standards — and the standards my parents brought to me when they decided to have me born here.”

Medavoy said he hoped to complete the project while his 90-year-old mother is still alive.

He received a vote of confidence from Bei.

“I think he will create something outstanding by pouring in his own emotions and his parents’ emotions,” Bei said.

Sharing vignettes from his family history, Medavoy said his father became a car mechanic in Shanghai at age 12 before shifting to a telephone company. When the Medavoy family moved to Chile, his employment options were limited because he didn’t speak Spanish — but he could fall back on the car repair skills he had picked up in Shanghai.

Medavoy’s Shanghai heritage has cropped up quite a few times since the festival kicked off June 11.

Speaking at a panel discussion on film finance, he described his parents’ emotional return to Shanghai 18 years ago, when they traveled with him to the inaugural Shanghai International Film Festival.

“As soon as … my father started walking out of the Shanghai airport, he started to cry,” Medavoy said.

Medavoy said he asked his father why he was crying, and he responded, “Because this is the place that saved our lives. I don’t think any of us would have existed without the friendship of the Chinese people during the war.”