You’ve been in China for more than ten years now making films. Before you arrived here, did you already have an interest in Asian cinema?
Yeah, I did. One of the filmmakers that formed my interest in filmmaking was Edward Yang. He was a close friend of Hou Hsiao Hsien and they frequently cross-bred and cross-pollinated ideas. Of course, Hou Hsiao Hsien had the greater success, but Yang’s movies were about youth and very fun and something very genuine. That influenced me a lot. There were also filmmakers like Hirokazu Koreeda, or films like [Yimou Zhang’s] The Road Home or [Kaige Chen’s] Farewell My Concubine. I fed off these films.
Earlier this year, box office numbers in China reached an all-time high and even eclipsed US totals for first time ever. While in itself that might not be surprising, what is surprising–to an outsider, at least–is that it hit that high, not on the back of The Hobbit or The Hunger Games, but on the back of Chinese films which most foreigners have likely never heard of. What’s changed?
China added more film screens last year than existed in the entire country when I arrived here. It used to be one a week and now it’s one a day and it’s in these previously unserved towns where people never really had the opportunity to watch a film in a proper theater before.
They’re not doing Red Cliff anymore. They used to think they were going to get Americans and Europeans to watch these films and they’d close in two nights. It was disastrous.
What impact do you think that has had on the types of films being made in China?
Well, I think China has realized that for the really big films, they’re not doing Red Cliff anymore. They used to think they were going to get Americans and Europeans to watch these films and they’d close in two nights. It was disastrous. Solution? Build more movies theaters in China and who cares about the rest of the world.
Has more cinemas translated into better films though?
When I first arrived in China, everything was either a re-hash of a well-known story or a remake of other movies from the West and they were never going to be as good. That’s changing and some notable voices are starting to emerge. For example, in 2010, The Piano in a Factory was one of the best movies that year from any country. It had good solid story-telling and it didn’t feel like it was copying anything or referring back to any classics.
But, has Chinese cinema and storytelling really turned a corner?
It’s just getting around it now and that’s why it’s exciting. I’ve talked to a lot of young people about film. They know what’s going on in the Chinese mindset and I think there are some films that even though they were bad quality they hit the tone of the times. They’re starting to find their own voice.
As a foreigner in China you occupy the point of view of an outsider. Do you think it’s possible for you to make a significant contribution to film here?
I definitely hope to. I look for real things when I look for stories. I have a pretty good feeling about China and I’m inspired by so many of the people I meet here.
I have a lot of hope for the youth. They’re very international. They know what they want.
Are there any particular stories or themes you’re interested in?
I’m very interested in Chinese youth. A generation here is like five years. The kids are so different from each other and there’s so much energy and change happening. I have a lot of hope for the youth. They’re very international. They know what they want. They have very diverse dreams and aspirations for different and individual things. But, they’re also facing a lot of barriers between themselves and what they’re interested in doing and that’s where the stories come in.
You’ve written, directed and produced a number of films during your time in China—the latest being Analysis. What was it that opened up filmmaking to you in China? What got you started?
At one point here in Shanghai I was working at the Hollywood Reporter. I was already doing things with the creative community. Then, one day, someone came to me and said, “You’re a writer. If I had a script that was green-lighted would you be able to re-write it?” I said, “Yes.” That got me around film people here.
Is there a ‘film scene’ for foreign or independent filmmakers in Shanghai?
There definitely is. In some ways it’s where a lot of the indie movement is happening in China. There are a lot of films happening here, they’re not all big ones, but it’s definitely an epicenter and there’s a lot going on. I’ve dealt with probably 30 different short films here. Someone always has a script ready to shoot.
There are people trying to make a film with four actors and two locations and they’re looking for funding. But, why? You don’t need it. If you’re going to shoot something you’re going to shoot it now.
Is there any advice you would share with other filmmakers working here?
Well, I once ended up being the producer of a feature film because someone showed me a script and I said, “How much money do you have?” They told me and I said, “That’s not enough… Let’s shoot it.” There are people trying to make a film with four actors and two locations and they’re looking for funding. But, why? You don’t need it. If you’re going to shoot something you’re going to shoot it now.
Your latest film, Analysis, centers on a young girl named Tina who is a mathematical genius trying to cope with the break-up of her family by solving what you describe as ‘the human equation’. Where did the idea originate to do this film?
The idea was to work with something to give it some kick. It had actually started as a ten minute stage play of a conversation between a witty girl and her mentor about science and math and stuff that would make most people’s brains melt. I was trying to bring across hard concepts out of the mouth of an intelligent child as a way to make it understandable, but also as a way to get inside of a beautiful mind.
Where did the inspiration for Tina come from?
My daughter is very much the inspiration for Tina. She has that wit and she always stood up to adults and could play with them on an intellectual level where she could poke them a bit. If you saw it in the wrong way you might think she was a horribly rude person, but if you got her she was a kid with a lot of wit. In the film, I tried to take that character further.
In preparing for the film, how did you approach knowing you were going to have to work with young actors?
Casting is everything. You can’t make a kid do what they can’t do. You’ll only hurt them and frustrate them for trying. But, kids can do more than you think they can. You have limits in how much you can make them work, but if you’ve got a kid who has got the range, you can push them and they’ll deliver.
What was it like trying to find the right actor to play Tina?
The story is about a girl who has just turned twelve and the concepts in it are really hard stuff. The real challenge was it was a ten minute conversation and we had to have a kid deliver it. We had 14 year olds that couldn’t do it. At one point, my producer says to me, “You can’t do this. We’re going to have to get an older kid.”
So, how did you finally manage to cast the role?
There was this one girl who had contacted me. She was eleven. She wasn’t pushed by her parents. She’d seen one of my other films and said she’d love to be in one. I had told her I mostly did Chinese movies, but I’d keep her name around because she seemed like a good kid. When we started working on Analysis, I told my producer and he said, “I don’t believe you. I’ve got to see this kid.” As soon as they met I got a phone call saying, “It’s her.”
Was it important to you to find a Chinese actor to play Tina?
Sure. At one point in the film, when her family life is falling apart, Tina hops on a bike and goes outside of this gated community where she lives and there’s China. She’s half-Chinese, but she’s in this international school environment and her native language is English. So, she’s got this unreal international Shanghai right next to China and I wanted to get that starkness. As this girl was starting to realize what’s going on with her family, she hasn’t even seen half of herself, half of her identity. In part, that’s what the film is really about.
Ultimately, what do you want the audience to take away from the film?
It’s a story about finding your own connections. At the end of the movie, Tina is faced with a decision to make a connection with people and the choice she makes determines the outcome of the film.
Analysis has just completed its tour of festival screenings and you can now watch it online right here (VPN required if you’re on the Chinese mainland).