Tell us about yourself. What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
My name is Richard Yichen Yang, I was born in Beijing and raised in Vancouver, Canada. As a child, I often recited lines from my favorite movies to entertain myself. Yet in hindsight, I guess the reason why I was so drawn to cinema was because the experience of watching a movie had always been a constant factor in my life, especially when everything else was so ever-shifting. My family and I were always moving, from Beijing, to Yunnan, Singapore, Canada and eventually The United States. This resulted in me having to adjust to new schools and environments many many times. However, the transcendental experience of sitting in a black box, not having to worry, and absorbing stories on a big silver screen quickly became the very source of my happiness.
I wanted to become a filmmaker for the influences that cinema has brought to me since a young age, offering a safe space where anything is possible. I wish to do the same for others.
Talk about your last work. What are some of the challenges you faced during production?
We faced countless challenges during the production of Tonight will be Fine, ranging from its writing stage, to the time consuming location scouts, and the exhausting post-production.
However, the most difficult yet personal challenge for me was opening up to my actors when directing on set. In order to bring this story to life, which was written based on my own experience, it meant having to communicate precisely to the actors about my innermost feelings. Despite being well prepared during rehearsals, when the camera rolled, the actors could not deliver what I had in mind on many occasions. Therefore, I chose not to approach my directions through taught techniques, but more so through finding an emotional common ground between me and the performers —— sharing and reliving our darkest fears such as losing a loved one. During this process, I could feel their so-called acting techniques slowly fading away, making room for the real humanity to appear in front of the camera. In the end, the result was exceptional and the process was very emotionally draining.
What makes you want to tell stories? In other words, what are the themes/issues you want to incorporate into your work?
The stories that interest me the most have to deal with characters stuck in time, dreaming about the past while stumbling in the present. The past in this case could be anything that has been lost, ranging from a pet, a loved one, or even a house that he/she had to move out of. I believe this theme is something that all audiences could relate to, the rejection to truly believe that something or someone is gone for good. In real life, such experiences could be everlastingly painful. Therefore I hope to tell my stories through the medium of cinema almost as a healing process, for those who are yet able to see the life that lies in front of them, instead of behind.
Please tell us about your vision and your method of approaching a new project?
When approaching a new project, I always tend to find how the story could in any shape or form connect to my own experiences. I believe every artist is only entitled to tell their own stories.
Therefore I am always happy to turn down projects that I think should be told by someone else who feels more passionate and connected. However, when helming a project that I do feel personally connected to, I always start with clearly defining the characters’ inner world, and pinpointing an expressive form that could best represent their unique perspectives. For example, in Tonight will be Fine, the inner world of the lead character Ma Lu is filled with guilt and fear that are deeply rooted in his upbringing. Therefore, the expressive form of a folk singer, a practitioner of a dying art for niche audiences, makes a great contrast in showcasing this character’s innermost battling conflicts.
Who are your filmmaking influencers? What are the films that were influential for you?
For this particular project, I mainly looked at David Lowery’s A Ghost Story for its
mise-en-scene, and the Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis for its non-traditional story structure. During pre-production, the director of photography Trevor Weng and I also pulled many references from Edward Yang’s filmography, as we tried to capture a powerful yet beautiful sense of stillness in melodrama, which was very prominent in Edward Yang’s Yi Yi. Other than our filmmaking influencers, I was also heavily inspired by the Chinese folk singer Song Dongye, as his lyrics always paint well-rounded images with very few words, a style which our team attempted to translate into a visual medium.
How do you think the industry is changing? How has COVID affected independent filmmaking/creation?
I think these last few years have been difficult for all artists and filmmakers, given all the production restrictions and challenging circumstances. Since Tonight will be Fine was filmed in China, we had to pay close attention to the government restrictions and wear masks at all times. We also had to plan for potential delays and schedule shifts to best adjust to potential mandatory shutdowns. However, I believe the best stories are written during difficult times, if the filmmakers believe that their story must be told, they will always find a way.
What advice would you give to aspiring artists? What are some of the things they must follow/avoid?
I don’t think there is anything an aspiring artist should avoid, since every project at the beginning of one’s creative career is a trial and error process, the key is to always be explorative and courageous. In terms of advice, I think that knowing what to listen and what to ignore is a crucial skill when it comes to filmmaking, especially directing. Since everybody around you will have an opinion and tell you what to do. Therefore, always trust your instincts and learn when to say no.
Do you think films/stories can bring about a change in the world?
Definitely. Films/stories can undoubtedly change and bring positive influences to the world when put in the right hands. Like said previously, cinema has certainly changed my world and made me passionate about telling my stories. Filmmaking is a great platform for people to express their own stories, and these stories are important because they can bridge the gap between cultures, races, etc.
What do you think people like to watch these days? Has the pandemic changed people’s taste?
Not being able to go to the cinema as often as we used to, audiences now rely heavily on
short-form video contents and streaming platforms. However, I believe the relationship between said new media and the traditional cinema experience are codependent. Therefore, I cannot wait to see how cinema will evolve after the pandemic, and having more platforms for not just filmmakers, but all types of content creators to share their work is always appreciated.
Please tell us about your upcoming projects.
The script of Tonight will be Fine was originally a feature-length story that was later adapted into a short film format. I am very thankful for all the recognition that we have gained and I cannot wait to start pitching the feature to development studios! I am currently also working on a
stop-motion animation series that will soon be announced!