A boy and his new friend hunt their village's last sparrow for a reward to save his sick Grandma during Communist China's Great Leap Forward (1958-1961).
Hi Luke & Wenting, thanks for talking to TNC, Empty Skies is part of the American Pavillion selection what does it mean to be bringing your film to Cannes?
Wenting: Ever since I was a kid, I knew about Cannes because of the film festival. It's very special and exciting for me to attend as a filmmaker with my own film.
Luke: It all still feels like a dream. We were nominated for a Student Academy Award first, being in the top 8 out of over 1500. Then when I heard we'd been invited to Cannes at the American Pavillon I was blown away. It all feels so surreal when you consider how small our film is and all the struggles we had just got the thing made. Bringing the film to Cannes is really encouraging. The film was a tough journey facing political censorship, budget issues, and a little bit of international espionage. To get it to such a prestigious international audience feels like a victory for free speech and the legacy of the Chinese people.
As this is your debut film are there any additional nerves ahead of the festival or are you just taking it all in your stride?
Wenting: Empty Skies has been showing film festivals since the beginning of this year. Last year, we were nominated for the Student Academy Awards which is quite an honour for us. We've won two audience awards so far and we're very happy with the reactions we received from the audience in the previous screenings.
Luke: I'm an outgoing person by nature but I can be a bit shy when it comes to talking about my own work and success and promoting my own things. I want to make the best of this amazing opportunity and really network. I'm always nervous I'll miss out because I'm not prepared or at the right place at the right time. I really hope the festival can help us with future projects, collaborators, and industry connections.
What do you hope to take away from your time at Cannes?
Wenting: I've already read some movie lineups. I'm very excited to watch some of the films that will be showing here. This is also my first time going to a film festival overseas. I look forward to connecting with filmmakers from all around the world and seeing their works as much as I can and develop potential creative collaborations.
Luke: Well most importantly is to get the film to a large audience. We really feel the film has a universal message about authority, friendship, and unintended consequences. If people watching this film begin to question authority I'll consider that a positive move towards Liberty.
That being said, Empty Skies is a finished film. Going to Cannes is as much about promoting something you've finished as it is about getting the next project started. I'd really like to find future collaboration opportunities as I'm looking to get my concepts produced as well as working with other writers to direct their material.
Can you tell me a little bit about Empty Skies, how did this film come about?
Luke: If you knew the film was written and directed by an American boy from Indiana and a Chinese girl you might assume it was Wenting who originally pitched the idea but actually it was the other way around. I gave Wenting a book about a different period in Chinese history but I was reading the introduction where the writer briefly mentions The Great Sparrow campaign where Chinese people were promised rewards for hunting the sparrow to near extinction which instead lead to mass starvations. It seemed like an apt metaphor and I asked Wenting if she'd ever considered making a film about it. At first, she seemed to think that nobody would want to hear this very Chinese story but soon she was behind the idea and we were writing our first draft of the script. Sometimes it takes an outsider to remind you that your culture is interesting and rich with stories.
What was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
Wenting: Growing up in China, I've learned about the Great Leap Forward from history classes and heard stories from my family members. The screenplay is inspired by real events with lots of research.
Luke: Our film is based on true events so that was the inspiration. From 1958-1961 approximately 30 million people starved to death. It is the greatest famine in human history which has mostly been unknown to most viewers for two reasons:
1. The Chinese government's censorship and desire to "save face" to the world.
2. The West's narcism. Rarely do we look outside our own borders to see the suffering of others around the world.
"People assume if it was happening they'd know about it and since they don't know about it then it's not a big deal."
What was the most challenging part of bringing Empty Skies to life?
Wenting: Fighting against censorship and doing fundraising for the film. Both Luke and I are very good at being creative and making the best out of the situation. We never settle and always keep fighting for what’s the best for the film.
Luke: We haven't shared this much but since we're already at Cannes I think it's time. We actually went to China to shoot this film a few years ago. We were 2 days away from shooting and doing the last minute preparations one always does just before a shoot.
Suddenly Wenting's father called us and said we should come home immediately. Wenting asked what it was and he said he couldn't say on the phone. Wenting rolled her eyes and decided we should get this stuff done first and then go home, Chinese parents are a bit dramatic she assured me. Then her mother called and said to come home immediately that it was an emergency.
As we rushed home I considered it could be only a few things that you wouldn't want to tell someone on the phone. The first was that someone in her family was sick or had died. I was praying that wasn't the case. The second was that small paranoid American part of my brain that said it MIGHT be censorship. But it seemed so impossible. Our film was tiny and it was about something that happened so long ago.
When we arrived home we found out that the heads of national security, police, and censorship bureaus all had a meeting about our film and decided it wouldn't be made (vague threats were made to family members and ourselves). We were shocked because at that time China didn't have a policy for submitting short films for approval (I've since heard they do-I'd like our film to take credit for this new bureaucratic office and the jobs it's brought to the People's Republic). I always thought that if we had any trouble from censorship it would be during filming someone would come over asking questions and then we might get in trouble or be shaken down for a bribe. But the government knew where and when we were filming before we even started. We were staying in a city about 2 hours away from where we were filming but someone had even alerted the village cadre (like a mayor for the Communist Party) in this rural town to be on the lookout for filmmakers.
That was the day our sound guy, one of my best friends, landed from the USA to take part in the film. Part of the censor's stipulations was that we couldn't tell people that the film was being censored. This made me realize the reason why so many Chinese people we've told the story to were more surprised than I was about the film being shut down, the government doesn't allow the fact that these things are censored to get out. People assume if it was happening they'd know about it and since they don't know about it then it's not a big deal. So I hugged my friend at the airport and pretended things were fine while I whispered in his ear that we were being censored and to act normal.
We couldn't keep this from our friends and the people who had worked so hard already in the film but we were afraid someone might be listening in. Being totally over our heads, we drew from our only knowledge we had of these things, our first love: film. We told our crew to leave their phones in the car and we met near the ocean waves where it was too noisy for anyone to hear. It was there we told them the truth. We all left with our heads down and all I could hear was the surf.
After a few attempts to get the film back off the ground, we knew it was dead in the water. We'd already spent half the budget on flight tickets and props/wardrobe. We were packing up to go home when a hostel owner where we had stayed called us to hang out. We were busy about to go on another filmmaking journey in Europe and almost didn't meet with him, after all, we only had his number in case there was an emergency and we needed to reach a crew member whose phone didn't work in China. We decided this hostel owner might want to meet us for something else.
I don't speak Mandarin so Wenting and he spent a lot of time talking. He took us to the roof of a nice club, bought us drinks, and he smoked his cigars. At first, it felt like a party but slowly I saw their faces changed and their voices were harder to hear under the bass thumping in the club. I could tell they were talking about something serious. It was then that Wenting told me the day we checked into the hostel some policemen came to the owner and asked him to spy on us. He refused and said if his customers were criminals they could arrest them but he wouldn't help them spy. The police left angrily and came back the next day with backup and escorted him to the police station. There they slapped a printed out photo of us from street cameras on the table and demanded he tells them if he'd overheard anything.
The day we checked into the hostel I remember the central device that tracks where all the foreigners are staying was broken. The city we were in has more than 4 million inhabitants. We could have stayed at dozens of places. That meant that someone or something had followed us that nearly 2-hour drive from the airport to the hostel to know where we were staying.
It was at this point I realized the time and resources the Communist Party was willing to spend to protect their power. I was honoured. We left the country more determined than ever to make the film.
"People assume if it was happening they'd know about it and since they don't know about it then it's not a big deal."
What have been the important lessons you've taken from making Empty Skies?
Luke: I learned the importance of working with people you trust. If someone you trust is giving you advice or telling you that you shouldn't do something you know it's from the heart. They might not be right but you don't have to worry about their motivations. In this industry that's as good as gold. Too many people are looking out for themselves or doing favours for friends so you need to trust yourself and know when advice is meaningful at the same time, it's an interesting paradox that I'm still learning. Trust is really the most important thing for collaboration and film is one of the most collaborative creative endeavours.
As co-writers & directors what was the experience like working on this film together?
Wenting: Luke and I started writing the script together from the very beginning. We were together on every step of the development. We both know the script very well when it comes to principal photography. We did intense pre-production and tried to solve directing issues as much as we can beforehand. That way we avoided disagreements during the actual shooting and it helps with moving forward smoothly.
Luke: It was extremely enjoyable and effortless. Wenting and I never fought once on set. We fight more about doing the dishes than we ever did in making the film (we actually got married after the film was finished so dishes are kind of an important topic). I pitched her the idea and we workshopped it together. I was kind of the idea generator, throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall. Wenting was more of the watchdog for bad ideas or things that weren't accurate for the time or culture. After we finished the script in English she then translated it to Mandarin.
Actually shooting in Mandarin was a bit of contention with some of our funders. They thought English would have a more American appeal. I stood behind Wenting that hearing it in Mandarin would help set it in the time in place better. I'm so glad we did. A similar stand had to be made with our music. We chose a more traditional Chinese score and at first received some pushback. The response has been very positive about both of these parts of the film and it's one of those times you learn to go with your gut.
Working on set was very smooth too. I had already kind of memorized all the Mandarin sounds from our script to the point where people on set thought I spoke Mandarin because of the notes I gave actors. Wenting and I were on the same page with our cinematographer on camera moves, placement, and shooting strategy. The entire film is exterior so the time of day was so important for when and where we shot things. I'm a very visual director and very careful about the framing and movement as it relates to storytelling. I tend to already have an edit in my head before shooting. I'll allow the editor to experiment from that once the footage is in but I find the best way to control the flow of visual information is to see the film in your head and try to make that film once you're on set. Wenting, being a cinematographer on other projects, seemed to like this approach and Tinx, Empty Skies cinematographer really enjoyed that collaboration too.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
Wenting: I have a background in painting and Chinese calligraphy. Ever since I was a little kid, I’ve been playing with all kinds of elements to make an image interesting. It was middle school when I received a camera as a gift and never put it down. I taught myself photography and applied all the painting skills I’ve learned to it. Starting with composing single images, I discovered that “film” is a very expressive tool that combines all kinds of art forms: painting, photography, lighting, writing, theatre, music, architecture, etc. Therefore, I started to take an interest in filmmaking in general.
Luke: Yes my father let me and my friends play with his VHS camera when I was about 10 years old. I entered child media competitions, wrote comic book stories my classmates subscribed to, and even directed a feature film just out of high school. As long as I can remember, I've been a storyteller and film is the medium whose grammar and language I love to play with most.
Is there any advice you've been given that's stuck with you?
Luke: My father once told me that you want to surround yourself with people who are better at their job than you are. Put your ego aside and listen to others. You can learn a lot from hearing an actor's crazy idea or listening to an inspiration your cinematographer might have at the 11th hour that requires a rewrite but really does add to the film. It's not because you blindly followed others but because you listened because you had a conversation and the truth in the suggestion comes out even if the suggestion itself wasn't the best. That's when you realize a film is greater than the sum of its talents involved. The interaction of those talents becomes something bigger.
Do you have any advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
Wenting: Believe in yourself and fight for your goal. Don't stop just because other people reject you or say it's impossible.
Luke: Just keep writing. Just keep filming. Listen to others but stay true to your vision. It's a tough balance but it's the only way to grow and stay unique. It's advice I should take more often...
And finally, what do you hope people will take away from Empty Skies?
Wenting: This is the first time for me to make a historical film. From previous screenings, I found how powerful this kind of film can be. Lots of people told me they’ve never heard of this historical event before, and they are glad they learned about it through our film. It’s a good way to remind people of the past and avoid making similar mistakes. The cultures and countries might be different, but the lessons are global.
Luke: A good story that makes you feel something; everything else follows after that. It would be great if people learned about the true events our film is based on and the hardships the Chinese people fought against to survive, but I think there's something more universal anyone can get: the importance of friendship and the dangers of unchecked power. We recently found out that after seeing our film, a mother tells her child a bedtime story about China hunting sparrows and the pain it caused. As far as audience reactions go, it's pretty hard to beat that.