First Cut, Last Cut
Shanghai Film Festival Submission
Alas, after 18 months of being told more often than not that either “you cannot do that” or “maybe you will have some problem” by most everyone with whom I discussed the project, our film LaoBans was submitted to the 15th Shanghai Film Festival 2012 – thanks to the generous help of Harry Zhang Hang, the vice president of one of my PhD classes this past second term.
This evening, with Harry’s help, I expressed mailed a DVD copy of our film to SFF.
I want to thank the hundreds of people from several countries who participated, helping make LaoBans a meaningful learning experience. I hope those students who worked on the project had the chance to improve their organizing skills and critical thinking abilities while having fun.
Frankly, after principal photography was completed in June, the students originally involved did not show much interest in continuing the project. Jimmy and Aragon finally (5 months later) produced a first cut in late December. However, afterwards, they apparently decided to discontinue to work with me on any additional editing, for I have not heard from them since I responded to an email request by Aragon for advice.
Thus, completion of the project appears to be here and now with submission to the 15th Shanghai Film Festival due by March 31st. In its present form, our film does not meet SFF requirements to be considered for an award. Nevertheless, our original goal was submission, so one may consider the project to be completed as of today.
I will wait to see what results from the SFF submission. We have until early September to decide whether to submit to Sundance. At present, it is apparent that the current first cut is not of competitive quality. Still, one never knows what may come of a submission.
I note that there is an interesting movie posted at http://www.sundance.org/ about Mainland Chinese girls not wanted by their birth parents who were adopted by American families. Apparently, 90% of some 80,000 Chinese children adopted by Americans are girls. You can see more about the movie at…
Finally, this next week marks the sixth anniversary of my tour here in China. My first three years here was consummated with publication of my book by Wuhan University Press Beijing. The three years since here in Shanghai has diversified my understanding of China's past, present, and future -- being somewhat ironic given that my traveling throughout China was accomplished during the first three years of researching and writing the book.
Although we cannot predict if there is any future for LaoBans, we may say here and now that a student-teacher independent film project “can” be done in China if there is the will and dedication to do so. Well done, LaoBans…
On the night before New Years Eve, Aragon and Jimmy along with the Princess join me for dinner at Daning. After a mixed menu of spaghetti, pizza, rice, and salads with beer and tea, we retreated to my room at Le Hu for a viewing of the first cut of LaoBans: The Film.
Jimmy and Aragon have recently begun editing their 60 days of principle photography. Frankly, at the end of their 46 minute first attempt, I was surprised.
Since Aragon and I dreamed up this project on September 9th, 2010, our student-teacher group has operated on a low-budget (under 20,000 RMB) movie-making collage, piecing together equipment, talent, and production capacities. Everyone also had to contend with conflicts presented by school and work schedules.
By March, Aragon had transformed into the backbone of our effort. Recently, Jimmy has kicked in, leading post-production with principle editing responsibilities to include integration of soundtrack and narration.
I had since backed off driving this unique clique of SHU candidates from the completion of our storyboard last January 15th. Many and Kane have been elemental to administration during pre-production and principle photography; their together, breakup, together-again love saga also helped maintain a degree of levity among us all. SuperBear (aka Open) provided 1st unit camera expertise, walk-on talent as the wiseguy chasing the Black Mafia laoban as a boy selling blackmarket cigarettes, all while offering a supplementary voice on directing and production issues.
Having now viewed the first cut, it may be said that…
We are fortunate to have Alaska and Michael as our two stars. Vera with Cathy and Jimmy generate a quirky family feeling. Detlef along with Ms. Moto and Maki as well as other foreign nationals give our crew a sense of international import. Tony plus a cast of American and Chinese character actors perform in ways that are emblematic of our sketch-artist-like approach to making this film…
Meaning that we did not take our selves so seriously as to allow production issues to intercede with having fun. How and why did we accomplish that, you may ask?
Simple… we know that LaoBans is a first. We are the first… an American teacher with a Chinese student ensemble producing an independent film here in China. Enough said…
So onward and outward we go… Principle members of the project will view the first cut, provide feedback, and then J and A will go back into the editing room to begin polishing their sculptured, digitized bits of sound and pictures.
Such is the pavement of storytelling… motoring an editorial process to a destination with synchronize peaks and valleys while straightening and narrowing characters and scenes to fill in story arc gaps littered about the storyline-like potholes along our roadway tale of life.
Wrapped Then Whacked – Missing Sundance Deadline
The deadline for submitting our student-teacher film project for consideration at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival is September 2nd. Although we stared preproduction of Lobans last September 9th, we have now missed the deadline.
The cause of our failure?
Production was not completed until June instead of April, causing us to lose two months of post-production. Enough said…
Granted, our timeline since conception was aggressive. Moreover, the complexities of production for our two third-year film students-directors were perhaps underestimated and most definitely unforgiving when plans failed to materialize as a result of delays in filming.
However, after viewing Jimmy’s first cut attempts as well as given Aragon’s summer absence due to an internship in Nanjing, the decision here to not shotgun a substandard piece of work just to meet a deadline makes sense in two regards...
Issues of opportunity as well as quality of product govern here…
Of two primary concerns leading to failing to meet our deadline, most important is how a low-budget, independent student-teacher film project achieves optimal production values. Losses in production output to include cancelled talent and locations caused us to alter the storyline – several times. Inserting the role of a narrator became the resulting primary change .
Once into post-production, technical issues overwhelmed Jimmy. He was basically crippled due to computer issues. To his credit, he did produce the studio recording session for the narration tracks.
As with the 2010 New Year holiday period of six weeks, the two months of summer resulted with Aragon, the co-director, being absent. Accordingly, there was no central mass of energy pushing the team to achieve stated objectives.
Most determinative, though, is the quality issue. The rough cut that Jimmy completed in late July (and upon my viewing) indicates another 3-6 months of editing, soundtrack, and narration work is required. No doubt about it…
That said, let us see what the fall term brings us.
The Director's Chair
– The Moral of the Story –
Planning, Planning, Planning
The principal photography (or filming) of LaoBans is a wrap as of this Wednesday evening, June 8th, completed in Xin tan di with Second Director Jimmy shooting the scene of our young black-mafia boss (as a boy) being saved by Grandma (then a young girl selling rice meals on the street). A cameo appearance was made by my youngest Chinese sister, Joy, with her mother Lucy as the assistant to this young and upcoming actress.
Although seven weeks delayed from close of our original 90 day shooting schedule, April 15th, my co-director (Aragon) and Jimmy got the job done. That said, I am reminded of a saying favored in real estate investment:
“Location, Location, Location”
With movie-making, my two third-year film school students gained a more profound appreciation of a like-kind motto: “planning, planning, planning.” Yes, we had focused our four months of pre-production on planning... the script, a hybrid (PPT) storyboard design, as well as screen-testing some 85 acting candidates during two casting calls.
The surprise came with my informing Aragon that he was in charge of the 90 day production. He had done well with my presence, initiative, and financing during pre-production. I was curious to see how he would do on his own... time for the test.
Here one is reminded of a quote by Robert Burns: "the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray." No doubt about it... four months of momentum quickly dissipated between New Year's six-week holiday and final exams of the second term. As a result, selected locations were lost, actors and staff cancelled commitments, and the crew simply found itself running out of time.
Translated in terms of process? Quality and quantity relative to production values suffered significant losses. If Aragon and Jimmy found themselves in a studio situation, their boss would be looking at hundreds if not millions of dollars in losses, and our two heroes would be facing the probability of being fired, literally thrown off the set – which is how I was feeling by April with little film “in the can” and not a whole lot of accountability to explain the losses.
What was the source of the problem: planning or execution? Perhaps both... Regardless, to adjust, we had to alter the storyline.
Since the inception of this student-teacher movie project on September 9th, several commentators (at different stages of the project) queried who would narrate the film. My response? There is no narration. Now, with less scenes, actors, and locations than “planned” as well as being flat out of time, if we were to meet the September 2nddeadline for submission to Sundance Film Festival, inserting a narrator appeared to be our silver bullet.
Orson Wells as Robin Masters in the television series, Magnum P.I., came to mind. The audience never sees this character. For more... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Magnum,_P.I. and on Wells seehttp://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orson_Welles to include his picture...http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Lady_from_Shanghai .
Anyway, in LaoBans, there is the stone. It is rumored to be of great value among those who celebrate the “Modern China” as a symbolic artifact of the country unifying itself from within, among warlords and foreign interests. It is said that this mere piece of stone, removed from the Shanghai docks, a cobblestone in fact, bears the writing: The last stone, from upon the last foot, of the last foreign soldier, on Chinese soil.
Who was that last foreign fighter? A mercenary? It is well known that Chinese emperors and warlords used such foreign experts during and in the preparations of battle.
What is the connection between that last foreign combatant and our story?
These questions played into the decision to shape the role of a narrator, who interjects commentary and witticisms during the course of our movie. That wandering, former now retired member of the US Navy SEALs team that attack the Pakistan compound on May 29th, therein killing Osama Bin Laden for his masterminding the 9/11 attacks on US soil; American Flying Tigers pilot, Phil Simmons, the Great Uncle who fought side-by-side with the Chinese; his airplane mechanic, the Great Grandfather of Dennis on his mother’s side, herself half Chinese: all play into our film’s “half-know/half-guess human contrasts of push-button money and fast-food-love-stories.”
But who to cast for the role of narrating?
ME... Makes sense: as the creator and co-director of LaoBans, I know the dynamics of the storyline. So last Saturday, Aragon and I seized the moment. He and I, alone, from midnight to 4am, worked the rainy streets of Shanghai, shooting at eleven locations.
The plan? What plan – there ain't no plans” – a favorite saying of mine and a long-time friend, Danielle, in Dallas, whose daughter and I were classmates (and an item) during law school.
Aragon going the extra-mile here is commendable. He had worked all day to prepare for and then shoot his final scene at Tony’s office near Mao Club. Needless to say, by dawn on Sunday, we were both exhausted. We had walked from Zapata’s on Hengshan Lu to the Gucci Store off Nanjing Lu. It was raining with a humid yet contrasting chill in the air as we carried our camera, tri-pod, and bag with equipment by our lonesome. Still, I shall remember this effort as one of the finest hours during these past ten months of working together – it was a superlative in the wrapping of production.
All of which brings us to where we began... planning (and the lack thereof). For we had not planned this close to the production phase of LaoBans. Totally impromptu... I had come up with the idea of adjusting by inserting the role of a narrator only a few weeks before.
Perhaps the lesson to be learned here is as much appreciating the importance of developing skill-sets to effectively and efficiently adjust as it is to focus on planning when making a movie...
In so much as movies are often about war and peace, love, money, and society itself as much as of the people who comprise any given endeavor, can we not say that the ability to overcome the challenges so faced are, in a sense, a reflection of one's own resolve?
Based on that standard, honor is due then to Aragon, Jimmy, Many, Alaska, Open, and all the other students as well as our Chinese and foreign friends who helped get to this point, where we may now say that “we are in post-production.”
Thus, at times according to plan and at other points in time so without, we arrive at another milestone of this endeavor: these Chinese university students completed filming of what I believe to be a first in China: the making of a feature length movie by a foreign teacher and a group of students, destined for submission to Sundance Film Festival this September in the USA.
Our shoot at the hostel near Peoples' Square were the dating scenes between Alaska and Michael.
The manager of the hostel was very nice. I called him and introduced our movie project in the evening Aprial 29th. He agreed without hesitation and permitted us to shoot for free.
I left Shanghai on the Aprial 30th, so I got there that day. But I believed that they got a lot of nice scenes.
When I came back, Aragon told me that they had a wonderful day.
Dating Scene in Dennis's Apartment
That was a very full day.
I joined the crew after returning from Xiamen. I was still tired after the 5-day trip, but I knew they need help.
We had some obstacles on that day, but finally we resolved these problems...
1. The makeup and the clothes of our actress, Alaska. Finally we picked a lovely dress.
2. The emotion of love. Alaska couldn't find the emotion that the director required. Finally, she got the idea and finished the scene very well.
The door shot...
Here was the first time that I met Michael. He is an efficient and smart guy. His professional acting and dedication left a deep impression on me.
The hardest part of the day's shoot...
Jamie gives birthday gift to Dennis in his apartment, and then they have sex. This has to be shot on the bed.
Alaska was very shy at first. But
with the guidance
of Michael，she acted this part naturally
Then we went to Peoples' Square to shoot on the last sightseeing bus of the day.
We have met "many" nice friends and teachers. They all have given us help and advice during this process of movie-making. I hope that we will succeed in the end, and I believe that we shall.
Everything is on Track
Thanks to Tony's friend Mr. Chen, who is the owner of an awesome office for shooting, we finally finished the office's boss calling part!
Tony lived in Australia for a while, so he has an Australian accent. He acts as the Shanghai Laoban in our movie; really, he is a sweet guy who found us a good place for this scene. Because of the traffic jam that day, we were half an hour late, but he didn't say anything -- that was relly nice.
The Director's Chair
During the first six months (pre-production) of our student-teacher film project “LaoBans,” two dynamics appeared essential for maximizing both creativity and management: honesty and flexibility.
1. Honesty among colleagues and team members of a student-teacher project is affected by culture and thought process.
Cross-cultural issues are multidimensional here in China. First, one is presented with the Confucian mindset; often, I have found it (Confucian thinking) instills a sense of fear, particularly when it comes to people expressing their thoughts and feelings. As a result, misunderstanding is commonplace.
Second, critical thinking skills are not emphasized in the education system here. Accordingly, decision-making is often reduced to a circular process, whereby the person who speaks first will prevail in terms of opinion and course of action – a Chinese professor made me aware of this dynamic.
Then there is the politics of students working with teachers outside the classroom as well as with other students either senior or junior among their peers. A primary concern here is the social-economic considerations among individual team members. If a student has only enough money to attend school with none to spare for extra-curricular activities, then he or she is handicapped compared to other, more well financed students.
Here at SHU, with the recent policy of enrolling some 50% of the freshmen from other provinces (or OP), aspects to include guanxi and friendships (evening dating and marriage) lead to divisions among students, such as Shanghai versus OP students. They all complain about each other in my classes.
In summary, both (a) why one perceives and treats project-affiliated teachers and students and (b) how students intellectually approach projects thus require a positive, solution-oriented intensity.
With my SHU team for LaoBans, I emphasize thinking through a situation, so that one may offer a solution instead of merely identifying potential problems; this object-oriented focus encourages both critical thinking and a less ego-centric planning mode based on self-awareness of culturally indoctrinated limitations.
2. Flexibility to multitask and reformulate any given mindset or personal disposition becomes one if not the determinative factor for advancing a student-teacher project.
Why? Be it a student party, class presentation, and most certainly making a movie, finding solutions to problems caused by custom or tradition, even industry standards (or lack thereof) is based on one “thinking outside the box” of a given paradigm or current practice.
Too often here in China I hear people dismiss the chance to solve a problem because “there are too many people in China” or ‘it is Chinese custom.” When explaining the idea of critical thinking to one of my classes this first week of the term, a student asked: “Does this mean we can lose our Chinese way of thinking?”
I explained that the Chinese way of thinking (whereby you begin with generalizations and conclude with a finding) is not Chinese; it is deductive reasoning. For essay writing, inductive reasoning may be applied by outlining the answer to a topic question, so that one can understand the key (most important) information by reading the first paragraph ABC-123 is what I call this process of outlining.
Anyway, my point here is that being locked into one mindset, whether due to one’s cultural phobia(s) or training will preclude one from being flexible in thought process. How can one adjust to change and adapt by employing creativity and imagination?
Bottomline: It is said that life is a two-way street. Do not get boxed into a problem caused by one-way thinking.
Also do not think Chinese (nor of any other culture) if you want to solve a problem perhaps caused by that very same cultural condition or situation. Hence the term of art: “Thinking out of the box.”
Hope this article helps or at least fuels your process of learning.
Ps. Today, March 30th, marks my five years in China... A most rewarding period of my life.