It’s the first week of November and for those of you already thinking about your personal and professional goals for 2019, Shanghai-based filmmakers Nicholas Z. Scott and Jud Willmont might just be the inspiration you need to set that bar a little bit higher. The pair have recently completed a collection of ten narrative shorts, music videos, a faux movie trailer, and a behind-the-scenes documentary, all aimed at exploring the diversity of culture in China’s most cosmopolitan city (and the conflict that sometimes comes with it).
And they did it in just over a year.
As the two explain, the partially untitled project represents the culmination (so far) of a creative partnership that started half a decade ago following a chance encounter in a local rec league.
“We first started working together about five years ago after we met playing Ultimate Frisbee,” recalls Willmont. “At the time, I was making documentary films and TV commercials, but I wanted to get into narrative fiction. Nick was a writer and really loved the screenplay format, so we teamed up together right away.”
Between 2013 and 2016, Scott and Willmont turned out about one short film every twelve months. In early 2017, however, they sat down to ask themselves what they wanted to focus on for the upcoming calendar year.
“I’d been reading Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss and there was an interesting thought experiment, which was, ‘If you had to, how would you increase productivity tenfold?’” Scott says. “This led to a discussion of whether or not it was possible to shoot ten shorts in a year. We talked about how to make it possible and how we’d have to adjust our approach to filmmaking to make it work.”
With both working full time, however, and the seeming impossibility of navigating the shifting schedules of industry friends, they say it quickly became apparent they would need to drastically minimize their dependency on other people if they were going to get things done. More importantly, perhaps, they also needed to take additional measures to ensure individual projects didn’t spiral out of control.
“For this series, we had to insist that we do all the tech work ourselves,” Willmont states. “On some of the films, I’d literally shoot and Nick would hold the boom. We had to use only natural ambient lighting and keep each film contained to a single location.”
We were just forced to let it go, focus on the story, try to capture something real, and learn to accept the imperfections.
In addition, they limited themselves to one-day shoots, wrote stories to suit locations they knew they could get, and tried to keep script-length to a bare minimum. Applying the restrictions also led them to adopt the rules of the Dogme 95 Manifesto for a subset of five films (out of the ten they made) which they’ve collectively dubbed Dogme 95 Shanghai 19.
“The rules are really about giving yourself permission to not be an artist, to not worry about the aesthetic, and to focus on truth instead of taste,” Scott explains. “Of course, we still worried about the aesthetic, but there were so many moments where the lights weren’t right or where there was background sound and we were just forced to let it go, focus on the story, try to capture something real, and learn to accept the imperfections.”
The end result is a set of films the pair say they hope are more grounded, more intimate, and, ultimately, more authentic. What is more, the approach they forced themselves to take to producing the work taught them some important lessons as filmmakers.
“You don’t need a large budget and the best gear to make an engaging film,” Scott affirms. “If the audience cares about your characters and understands what they’re going through, then that’s enough. Empathy trumps everything.”
If the audience cares about your characters and understands what they’re going through, then that’s enough. Empathy trumps everything.
Of course, despite the overall success of the project, not all went 100% as planned and a few missteps did occur.
“We had one project that didn’t make the cut because we didn’t write all the lines and we thought we could have the actors improvise their way through the dialogue,” Willmont admits. “We tried it, but it didn’t work. The idea was good though, so if we’d actually written all the lines—and still let the actors improvise—it would’ve been much better.”
In the end, it took Scott and Willmont a little more than the twelve months they had original planned for to reach their goal of shooting ten films. Nevertheless, they now have something they have been able to share with both their friends and the rest of the China indie film community and something which they say they hope offers others a look into some of the nuances of what life in Shanghai is like.
If a film lingers in someone’s mind, then you’re doing something right.
“The thing I find most interesting is that each person seems to identify more with one of the films over the others, and every person is different,” Willmont says. “I really like the idea that watching a film is really the starting point for future conversation—that when the work from our side is done, it’s now just the beginning of something bigger.”
“The best feedback I’ve gotten so far is a friend telling me they thought about Dogme 95 Shanghai 19 the next day after the screening,” Scott adds. “If a film lingers in someone’s mind, then you’re doing something right.”
With some of the films already online (check the links below), a cast and crew screening already in the books, and numerous festival submissions already lined up, Scott and Willmont say their next challenge will be turning their attention to the task of getting a feature film produced. As for the journey up to this point, they have some straight forward advice for other filmmakers thinking of going down a similar road.
“At the risk of being cliché, just do it,” Willmont says. “Actually, it reminds me of a story—about fifteen years ago, I was working as an AD in Shanghai on the Flatland set with Dennis Hopper and I asked him if he had any advice for someone like me who wanted to be a filmmaker. He said, simply, ‘Make films.’”
“Yeah, and don’t wait for permission,” Scott concurs. “When we started this, a lot of people rolled their eyes or laughed or told us we were crazy. If we’d listened to any of those people we would’ve never done it. Making films is a lot like falling in love—insanity is baked into the equation. Do it yourself. Be insane. Don’t wait for approval.”
To get in touch or to learn more about their work, go here (Nicholas Z. Scott) or here (Willmountain Films). As for the films, here’s the complete list. Click the links to watch (VPN required if you’re in the PRC):
Dogs of Moganshan: Behind the Scenes
* Indicates Dogme 95 Shanghai 19 film