Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Not until my 3rd year in undergraduate, I thought filmmaking is a type of work I would never have the access to. I love watching films and I’m a person full of imaginative thoughts and vivid dreams. It’s like I love eating Omurice, but I never believe I can make delicious Omurice.
The transition moment then came, when I was in exchange study at Academy of Fine Arts in Praha. My roommate was a producer for a short film and she told me confidently that “You only need five people to make a film.” Their film was good and interesting. That enlightened me. I always know the events I observed or experienced in real life are worth sharing with a wider range of the audiences. I started with shooting a 15-min documentary, then 5-min narrative short, which got me admission to AFI. At that time, we only had 4 crew including me and the cast. Thanks to my roomie in Praha, I’m going on this amazing journey.
Talk about your last work. What are some of the challenges you faced during production?
The production I finished lately is another short. CURE went through a long post process and delivered a year after the shooting. From the beginning to the end, I almost encountered all the problems a production could deal with.
CURE was shot in the June of 2021, located in a movie ranch in Santa Clarita. The movie ranch used to produce Spaghetti films, while our world building is a mix of Diasporic Asian and Cyberpunk. It was a big challenge to pull off the production design, from the concept to the execution. I gave out a large amount of references to my art team, real residential life of 90s Shanghai and Kowloon Wall City. When I pitched my idea to the school, the supervisors always brought up Blade Runner and Ghost in the Shell. But my film focuses more on mundane life than protagonist's mission .
The development was merely a start to our adventure. It was mandatory to shoot within a certain mile-zone around AFI, with a low budget and tight development schedule. We can only afford five shooting days and we had a 20 page script. Unfortunately, it was also a super hot summer. When we were on the first day for interior shooting, the room was 50 degrees high! Even if we’re here, at the center of filmmaking masters and talents, it doesn’t make anything easier. The path to explore an Asian Sci-Fi with naturalistic locations is difficult, not only calling for our creativity, but most importantly, the willpower.
I really appreciated the passion from our most devoted volunteers. Their commitment infiltrates the screen. It also motivates me to present this film as most significant as possible, to share with more audiences, as an evidence of indie Sci-fi products in parallel with the Hollywood system. My main characters aren’t heros working for the high class. They don’t sacrifice people’s lives to gain nobility. Nothing fancy. The goal is to lay out their struggles to merely go through their daily life, an universal emotion identification.
What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?
For the films I wrote and directed, it has always been a treatment to the inner wounds and confusions from my immature days(childhood until now). Through the process of writing and directing, I’m becoming a better person (still learning how to take care of people's emotions though). I used to be very egoistic and considered myself as an insecure victim. I use verbal attacks to hurt people’s feelings when I feel hurt by them. Filmmaking transformed me. I don’t need to protect myself with that toxic methods any more. The god of cinema infuses me with passion and love.
I know out there a lot of people situate themselves in a similar persona. My films talk about my experience and wish to talk with them, and hopefully to reach those who once cannot understand them.
Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?
When I was developing the script for CURE, a seed was planted when both my mentor and I discussed the possible romance between Luk Gam and Wuyi. It was fascinating but has no room to establish itself in a 20-min scenario. So when I get an opportunity to make another one, SALT, that seed gets produced.
My system of approaching a new project can be like this, a question or a possibility that comes around many times. The project development itself is a window to open up my cognition to any once unknown part of human society. Currently, I’m obsessed with the truths and lies about love.
For example, SALT is a romance short, set in the modern 2022, to counter-argue a common statement- “Love can conquer all”. This time the main characters are May(43, she/her) and Bo(22, he/him), I had a lot of first time experience with this project, such as shooting 35mm, intimate scenes with our actress in lingerie only, and a small location in downtown LA. I’m really proud of my crew and cast. Through the production we constantly improve our own language of collaboration. I can't wait to show this film to the public!
Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?
It must be Edward Yang and Jiang Wen. I wanted to include WKW. He’s very much celebrated now. I need a shout out for Edward Yang instead.
Edward and his films taught me to have rigorous research on the cultural backgrounds and characters in detail. When he was preparing for A Brighter Summer Day, he asked his assistant to transcribe a diary from a drillmaster in the 1950s. It was a dull and time-consuming task but very useful when his vision is to review the society in that historic moment epically. Unless he acknowledged how the people eat and sleep, hardly can his film be so authentic and mesmerizing.
Edward Yang is an indie filmmaker. Under an industrial system his approach to make films won’t be accepted. Can a studio scriptwriter spend a month transcribing someone’s diary? I guess even if that script writer wants to, a risk of being fired will catch him. WKW was a studio writer and he devoted so much time to polish his script to the exquisite. He was unfortunately fired. Neither WKW wasn’t wrong to polish the script, nor was the studio to optimize their labor. I guess that is the dilemma, managing the budget of money and time with the quality of the work.
Fundraising can usually be a headache for indie non-studio projects. Yet the capability of being creative can usually help saving the budget. With that being said, Jiang Wen’s films amazed me on the quality it has, with his budget behind. He knows how to utilize all the resources and directorial tools. His dialogue is theatrical but agreeable to the characters. Besides, his dialogue often contains subtexts or psychological motivations. It's been my go-to reference when I need a clue to write dialogues.
How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?
During my productions, I didn’t feel affected much by Covid itself since we strictly followed the health protocols. Yet the aftermath, the recent inflation feels more like a pivotal factor for industry changing-budget, distribution and the market. I recently attended an online conference about funding for independent filmmaking. And the speaker suggests us to embrace online streaming more than theatrical screenings. More audiences will view content on smart devices rather than wide screens. It might eventually change how we filmmakers composite a shot and structure a narrative, more importantly, what type of main character to portrait. Maybe it’ll be more appreciation for non-linear storytelling. The characters we follow on the journey might not be “the one”, but equal individuals.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?
Haha, I don’t consider myself in a position to give advice. As a young filmmaker I’m learning and being aspired as well. I can share some of the things I ask myself to follow/avoid.
If I cannot figure out a plot/emotional beat tonight, go to sleep first.
If I’m not confident about a character/story, talk to a reliable friend.
Never settle for hot money, but being negotiable for a person who can be your reliable fundraiser
Demanding or exploiting my crews. It’s better to take care of each other mentally and physically.
Stress eating, stress smoking.
Rush solutions. Always take a walk or go swimming, let fresh air bring yourself good ideas.
Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?
What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people's taste?
I was touring bicoastally this summer. In Los Angeles, it’s easy to be isolated in your personal bubble. The trip helps me get close to real people. What fascinated me was that people shout out their loneliness and desire for love so straightforwardly. It made me curious how the pandemic has shifted our point of view on intimacy and love. That could be a hint for people’s taste, the desire for connection.
Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
It’s still a secret. Briefly, my major project will still be hyperrealistic, will still be mixed media, blending motion graphics with live action. Yet, I’m also working on an artist visa to have more time in the states. There’ll be some instant/commercial collabs about love and connection coming up. Stay tuned on IG @_ndiefil_na