Taking her hospitalized friend’s place on a bike tour to the Yellow River, a high school graduate travels to faraway Gannan and races the clock to share pictures of the journey.
Hi Alexis thank you for talking to TNC, how are you handling the lockdown?
I can’t complain. I ordinarily work at home, and my currently paying clients are largely able to function in current conditions, so not only am I able to still be employed, but my day to day life really hasn’t changed that much. I still sit at home and write or plan projects much of the week. I just don’t go anywhere at the end of the day like I used to.
As a filmmaker is this experience providing you with some creative inspiration?
Funnily enough it is. I’m working (slowly) on a short series that’s a bit of an experiment. It’s not “about” the current situation, yet it will be entirely about the current situation, as I think the best art usually is. However, it’s going to be a silly little science-fiction romp that will consist largely of voiceover and art, which are things my collaborators can all do from home.
Your short film Carry My Heart to the Yellow River has been selected for the 15th ÉCU Film Festival in Paris, what has it meant to you to be part of this unique film festival for independent filmmakers?
It’s meant a lot to me. The ÉCU’s Paris base makes this our French premiere, but it’s also wonderful to have this Chinese story directed by an American be embraced by a European audience.
Carry My Heart to the Yellow River has had an amazing festival run so far, did you image your film would get this type of response?
I really didn’t. This is my third film on the festival circuit, and while the last one did progressively better than the previous one, I wasn’t expecting this project to have quite as much acceptance. Then again, I didn’t know what to expect. I choose projects based on what appeals to me, and while I always hope that will resonate with an audience, you never know until you reach out. I’m incredibly pleased that this story is finding the audience that it is.
What was it about Kenjin Xiong story that interested you as a director?
As a filmmaker and a writer, I’m always interested in working on something that’s very different from what I did before. My first festival film was a gritty desert survival feature, and my second festival film was a “Twilight Zone-esque” science fiction exploration. Both were somewhat emotionally austere films, and I was already looking for a project that would be more of an emotional exploration when producer Wang Zunzheng introduced me to Kenjin’s absolute jem of a story. Based on his own experiences (albeit with a gender-swapped protagonist), the story had a tremendous amount of heart. It’s a bit of a coming of age story as the main character comes to grips with her friend’s illness, and it’s a travel story as she struggles to accomplish an extremely physical journey in a place that’s totally new to her, but it’s also a very internal story that speaks to Chinese culture and a philosophical approach to life in a non-trivial way. In particular, I found the protagonist’s journey illustrative of a core Confucian concept, of the value and importance of doing the right thing, even in the face of probable failure. Audiences need know nothing about China to absorb the story, but I think they’ll learn a lot that they won’t be conscious of, which is always something I love about filmmaking.
Did you have any apprehensions about filming on location in China’s Gannan region?
None at all (outside of the logistics of shooting on location). I’ve been traveling to China for many years, and the initial apprehension I felt on traveling to a country I knew little about, and with such historical associations as it has, melted away in the first couple of trips when I discovered that the people I met and worked with had the same kinds of lives, concerns, and struggles as colleagues of mine around the world. Certainly there are various political issues that I feel strongly about that must be communicated gingerly when one works there, but the Gannan region of Gansu province was a very quiet, out of the way place. Also, I knew the reason we were doing a story there was because our producer, a devout Buddhist, has many personal ties to the region, has traveled there before, and was principally interested in telling a story that would reveal the culture there to a more international audience, so it’s not like there were that many unknowns.
In fact, I was astonished by how little supervision we had. I was expecting more pushback, somehow, to veering off of our shooting plan (as I knew we would). However, while we were in constant contact with the local tourism board for the Gannan region, we roamed pretty widely outside of our shooting plan, and never ran into a single obstacle. Permits were not an issue, and there was never at any time any need for police or security as we were shooting in towns, villages, parkland, roadside, wherever. It was kind of a filmmakers paradise, but it also meant it was incumbent on us to stick to strict safety protocols (Bo’s a union guy so he was a constant voice of safety, which I appreciate). I believe strongly in being responsible as a filmmaker, and leaving communities feeling like they would welcome the next filmmaker that comes, rather than being irresponsible and burning bridges unnecessarily. Every crew should leave every location as they found it, or in better condition.
We had a local entrepreneur, Shirley Han, who was a friend of the producer and who was what I refer to as our “cultural liaison” because of her great knowledge of the local buddhist culture and locations where we were shooting, but she was there in a purely unofficial capacity. We also had contacts from the local tourism board who periodically accompanied us, but they were primarily engaged with helping us find even more amazing locations that were well off the beaten track. One tourism board representative led us to the incredible mountain range that is our character’s first view on the bike trip, which was near a small community where he grew up.
One of the reasons for the easy cooperation is that the Gannan tourism board is trying to stir up interest in the area for adventure travellers, and they’re well aware that nobody outside of China (and even some inside of China) know they exist. Their hope was that by seeing what kind of amazing vistas there are, they can make tourism more of their industry, so as to avoid needing to rely on more environmentally destructive industries as the area’s population emerges into the 21st century. On the other hand, the infrastructure upgrades happening throughout the region are inescapably changing village life, and this movie is also, by sheer coincidence, a record of the Gannan of 2018. It was interesting hearing about the tradeoffs being actively discussed about opening the region up to tourism.
Be aware, though. Nobody in Gannan drinks coffee, it’s very much a tea and milk-tea drinking region, so if you don’t bring your own, you’re out of luck.
Can you tell me a little bit about Carry My Heart to the Yellow River, how did this film come about?
I first started traveling to China as a guest lecturer because of my background as an artist, consultant, and writer about postproduction and colour grading, on behalf of a tech entrepreneur in Shenzhen who’s the business partner of a colleague of mine in the industry. On repeated trips I came to know more people in the Beijing film industry, and after a few years of diving into learning more about Chinese culture, history, and contemporary events, I began to develop a project that I’d meant to shoot in China. Three years of development with the help of friend and mentor Tsui Hark taught me an enormous amount about how filming in China works, but ultimately that project didn’t happen. However, immediately after that experience, tech entrepreneur Wang Zunzheng who originally brought me to China revealed his ambition to create a production company with the goal of bringing international and Chinese film workers together in collaboration, and invited me to participate by introducing me to Kenjin’s story.
The cinematography in Carry My Heart to the Yellow River is breathtaking and offers a great sense of beauty and depth, what was the experience like for you working with your cinematographer Bo Hakala?
This is was the third project I’ve worked with Bo on at that time, so we have an easy shorthand in communicating with one another. He’s a photographer’s photographer, and very creative, so I know when I tell him what kind of shot I want and what I need in the background, that he’ll find an amazing frame that will suit my purposes without me needing to micromanage him, which in turn frees me up to spend more time with the actors. He’s also never shy to suggest when he thinks there’s a better shot to be had than what I’m wanting, and over half the time he’s right. But when I push back, he understands why. It’s unusual for him because, since I’m also a postproduction colourist, I have all kinds of opinions that director’s don’t usually have about the image, but that also aids our communication and results in some real efficiencies when I can free him from feeling like he needs to do things on the set that I know can be accomplished more easily in post, and vice versa, when I insist on doing something on set to avoid needing to do too much work in post.
Bo really knows light, understands the necessity of capturing the sun at exactly the correct angle for whichever location we’re at, even if it means rearranging a tight schedule. He’s also got a fantastic eye for how the details within the frame pull together, and he worked very closely with Production Designer Kaylynn Raschke to maximize the visual information in every frame of every scene when we had control over our locations. He’s also very hands-on with lighting and grip, and I really appreciate how his willingness to pitch in helps bind the crew together.
We were lucky to shoot in some of the most breathtaking landscapes on earth, and everyone recognized that it was critical to give the photography the time it needed.
When working on a short film like Carry My Heart to the Yellow River how important is the collaborative nature of filmmaking?
Extremely. Director and Producer Tsui Hark gave me some really fantastic advice, which was to always make sure that when you work on projects that are international and out of your comfort zone, that the key crew positions should be people you have a good relationship with, and I’ve taken that advice to heart. We were moving fast, with more company moves than any other short film I can think of, because we were covering an enormous area in order to shoot Gannan’s best scenery. I knew it was going to be stressful, and that communication would be key, and that having a core of veteran crew would be essential to surviving. I’ve worked with Bo on four other projects, and I’ve worked with Production Designer Kaylynn Raschke (to whom I’m also married) on seven other projects, so we communicate very well and very quickly, and we also know how to deal with one another when we’re stressed, or angry, or whatever because of the chaos that is shooting on location with low budgets. When Bo asked to work with 1st AC Eoin McGuigan, I immediately said yes, because I know how essential the relationship is between an DP/Operator and the Focus Puller, and again we were working fast, and there was no time to “get to know” someone new.
The entire rest of the crew was a combination of film workers from Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Beijing, and most didn’t speak English, but we had a fantastic team of translators who really made the whole project work. Over the course of the shoot, we were able to blend our methods of working with theirs, and the result can be seen on screen.
What was the most challenges scene for you to film?
The company moves. We covered hundreds of miles, and between shooting in Shenzhen city, Gansu province, and Sechuan province, we changed locations almost every single day. Any filmmaker will tell you that’s madness, but as tough as it was to be constantly setting up and breaking down, and constantly doubting whether we had done any one location justice, we ended up with a diversity of locations which is really unheard of for a short film, so in retrospect it was worth it.
Looking back what would you say has been the biggest lesson you've taken from making Carry My Heart to the Yellow River?
This project really hammered home the necessity of doing a comprehensive scout prior to any sort of shoot. On other projects, my style of working is typically to travel to the region I want to make a film in prior to writing the script, it’s part of my research, so I usually start out a bit ahead of the game. But this project only had two months of preproduction from me seeing the treatment of the story, to shooting, and with the first drafts of the script coming from someone else, we had to rely on other people to do the scout in my and Bo’s absence, which was not optimal. The lesson learned is, no matter how low the budget or compressed the schedule, prioritize scouting somehow, some way.
Additionally, and this is not necessarily a lesson learned, but one reinforced, and that is you can never, ever, ever do too much research. The only way I was able to make a film that engaged with both contemporary Chinese life and traditional culture in central China was because I’d spent the previous five years reading up on ancient and recent Chinese history, arts, folklore, and contemporary culture. And that’s been simply to scratch the surface, in combination with ongoing conversation with friends and colleagues I’ve made in both China and Singapore (where I’ve visited for work for 9 years now). And even then, I relied heavily on discussions with the translators, discussions with the actors, discussions with the people who accompanied us in Gannan, to learn more about each situation, each location, every day, in order to fully realize the emotional potential and cultural significance of each scene we shot. I literally used every single thing I’d learned on this project, and that’s really true of every project you undertake as a director.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I have. I have a Theatre Arts degree with a Film Emphasis from UC Santa Cruz, and I dove into the film industry immediately upon graduation, finding a career in postproduction that financed my various explorations as an independent filmmaker. I’ve enjoyed being on both sides of the filmmaking process, in preproduction and production as a director, and in postproduction over the years as an editor, effects artist, and colourist. Again, every single thing I’ve learned has made me a better screenwriter and filmmaker, more in control of the process (although never in complete control, because that’s impossible). You can never know too much about the process, and I love how in filmmaking, you’re always learning more.
How much has your style and approach to your films changed since your debut?
That’s a hard question to answer. Stylistically, I don’t know, I hope the movies have gotten better overall. If I had to choose one aspect though, I’ve always made it my business to spend time with actors, because it’s easy to fall in to the trap of thinking that being a Director is a primarily technical job that’s all about moving the camera around. That’s certainly a big part of it, but I’m of the opinion that the single most important thing to the audience is the people they see onscreen, those performances. And the only way to get better at working with actors is to work with more actors, so I feel good that, from project to project, I’ve been able to create better rapport with actors, and increase my tools for working with actors to refine performance.
What has been the best piece of advice you have been given?
Research, research, research.
It’s better to rehearse than to shoot too many takes that you won’t use and which will slow you down in postproduction.
Cultivate creative collaborators you trust.
Do you have any tips or advice to offer filmmakers about to make their first film?
Pay your crew. Even if it’s a fraction of their rates. I understand money is always tight, but the level of professionalism you get when you pay someone anything, as opposed to nothing, is night and day. You will get more respect, you’ll have people working harder and faster, and the results will be onscreen.
What are you currently working on?
A grab bag of stuff. I have a short I shot three years ago that I need to finish, but that got hung up in VFX. I’m developing a tiny little experimental series for fast turnaround. And I’ve got a more professional science fiction series that I’m at the very beginning of developing that’s intended for a streaming service.
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Carry My Heart to the Yellow River?
I hope they take away that friendship is worth sacrifice, and that often the act of trying is more important than the end result of failure or success.