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CinemaTalk: Peng Tao at the Beijing Apple Store

This is the third of three interviews produced from the “Meet the Filmmakers” series held in Feburary 2010 at the Apple Store in Sanlitun, Beijing. The series, co-presented by the Apple Store and dGenerate Films, is an ongoing series to showcase China’s newest filmmakers powered by digital technology.

Peng Tao at the Sanlitun Apple Store, Beijing

Peng Tao is the award-winning director of Little Moth (2007) and a graduate of the Art Department of Beijing Film Academy, where he received the Outstanding Short Film Award and first prize at the 1st JINZI Awards. Peng Tao’s second feature, Floating in Memory (2009), is supported by the prestigious Sundance Institute Feature Film Program and the Hubert Bals Fund, and screened in the VPRO Tiger Awards Competition at the 2009 International Film Festival Rotterdam.

The video of Peng’s interview is in three parts, with an English transcript following each video. Video of Part One is below. Click through to view both videos and the full transcript. Interview conducted by Jane Zheng. Videography by Michael Cheng. English transcription and subtitles by Yuqian Yan and Isabella Tianzi Cai.

Note: English subtitles for each video can be accessed by clicking on the CC button in the pop-up menu on the bottom right corner of the player.


JZ: I know you graduated from the Beijing Film Academy. The literature department, right?

PT: Yes.

JZ: Most students from the literature department become scriptwriter. How did you become a director from a scriptwriter? It’s quite a big change. Can you tell us about this process?

PT: I think everyone can become a director because being a director is to express your thoughts and understanding of life. Beijing Film Academy provided me opportunities to study all kinds of basic professional knowledge. You don’t have to stick to your major. We all have different ideas about the future. After I finished my script, I felt that only I could best present the thoughts I wanted to express. So I decided to direct it myself. Other people might not like my script.

JZ: Did you show it to other people or is it just your assumption?

PT: Not this one, but it did happen before. They thought it was not good enough.

JZ: Scriptwriter and director are two different roles. You’ve done both. So what do you think the biggest difference is between these two roles?

PT: I think script is the blueprint of a film. It’s you need a plan to build a house. Everything is based on this plan. The role of a scriptwriter is to draw the blueprint, whereas the director’s responsibility is to build the actual house, to realize it with images.

JZ: To organize the workers to build the house.

PT: Right. The president of Beijing Film Academy once said that a director is like a supervisor. He/she has other people do technical work for him/her. A director just needs to supervise their work and make final check.

JZ: Another opinion is that a director is not good at everything; he/she only knows a little bit of everything. His/her most important role is to organize people with expertise to finish the film. What do you think about this?

PT: I kind of agree. Nowadays, people with all sorts of occupations make films, such as poets, writers, and dancers, not just students graduated from Film Academy.

JZ: I think many in our audience today want to be a director in spite of their varied background.

PT: I believe everyone can be a director because they all have their own understanding and feeling of life.

JZ: Thank you for encouraging us. We just saw the 2-minute trailer. Perhaps many people still don’t know what the film is about. I know that your second film is called Floating in Memory. Can you tell us more about your two films and your recent project?

PT: Both of my two films, Little Moth and Floating in Memory, reflect the current situation in Chinese society and the life condition of ordinary people and what they are thinking. They are not about urban subjects, but semi-urban, semi-rural subjects.

JZ: Where was it filmed?

PT: In Yuan’an County in Hubei province.

JZ: Why did you choose that place?

PT: Because it suits the characters in my script. It’s a small remote county that matches the script. So I picked that place.

JZ: My question is why you didn’t choose a city that is closer to our life? What made you decide to present the life of people who are so far away from us?

PT: I was born in city and grew up in city. I’ve never lived in the countryside. Many people asked me the same question why I didn’t depict city life but chose countryside or small counties. China is such a huge country. I don’t think big cities like Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou are representative of the entire country. Second and third-tier cities, small counties and countryside are more representative of China. Moreover, among the 1.4 billion Chinese populations, the majority are still peasants. More than 1 billion are peasants, only 20 or 30 million people live in cities. But there are only very few contemporary Chinese films reflect the life of peasants. I think that these are the best place to show the reality and social change of contemporary China.

JZ: As you told me before, the subject matter of your two films is a bit dark. Have you ever received any criticism? For quite a long time, people have been criticizing Chinese directors for using dark or marginalized side of China to appeal to oversea film festivals. What made you choose this subject matter for your film? I know your film has won many awards abroad. Please tell us what you think.

PT: I think China is experiencing dramatic changes right now. This change is different from that in the 80s or 90s since its economical development and international status are incomparable to then. You can feel a difference every day. In the past, you could easily win awards as long as you made a different voice from the government. Now it’s totally different. You can’t get attention simply by making a different voice or throwing out a marginalized subject. Now there are lots of independent Chinese films, not everyone can get recognition. I think the most important thing is that your film should reflect true human emotions, life condition and also hope. As long as a film is innovative and has its unique style, subject and perspective, it can be accepted both in and outside China.

JZ: A film that reveals true feelings is a good film.

PT: Right. The fundamental concern is people.

JZ: Let’s talk about your new film.

PT: I’m now preparing for my new film. If everything goes well, I’ll start in October. It’s about the life of old people.


JZ: Since you don’t want to tell us more about your new film, we’ll just wait and see. You used HD camera to make your first two films. We know that Apple products make it possible for individuals to make films. What do you think of the role of digital technology in filmmaking?

PT: I think film is now in the digital era. The emergence of DV camera accelerated the development of independent films both in and outside China. It makes filmmaking more accessible. As I said before, everyone can be a director. But before digital camera, this is almost impossible. Traditional film technology requires a big film crew. You need a cameraman and also someone to develop the film and make copies. Digital technology makes things much easier. Postproduction is simplified. Editing can even be finished within a couple of days.

JZ: All you need is a computer.

PT: Right. It’s also very easy to reedit the film. When I just graduated from school, I used 35mm film, and the process was very complicated …

JZ: It sounds quite far away although it was actually just several years ago. This technique is still in use?

PT: It’s different now. In school they taught us old technique in order to make us familiar with the whole process. Now even film is digitalized and edited on computer. Then you edit the film based on the digital version.

JZ: So the process is simplified and the cost is reduced.

PT: Right.

JZ: One man and one camera can make a film. These are all the benefits brought by digital technology. As a filmmaker, what challenge do you have to face with the fast developing technology?

PT: I think so. Now filmmakers are everywhere especially independent filmmakers since you can finish a film at a very low cost. But it’s not necessarily a good film. More accessibility actually means higher requirement for the directors. You have to find a clear way to express your feeling and understand of life. Everyone can be a director, but not everyone can make an artwork.

JZ: Right. Although as you said that the development of new technology helps to lower down the cost, but making a film still need lots of money. Without financial support, you still can’t realize your dream of being a director. I know that director Peng is financed by Sundance and Rotterdam Film Festival. Can you share with us how you got support from them? We know that some European countries have funding for independent filmmakers.

PT: Yes. I did get some funding for my previous film. But I don’t know much in detail since I’m not the producer. My responsibility was to write the script. It was my producer who took care of the financing.

JZ: Litter Moth went to lots of film festivals and won many awards. Can you share with us your feeling for the success of your first film?

PT: Of course I was quite happy. I studied at Film Academy for a long time and I was eager to see if I could actually make a film. You can’t be a real filmmaker without making a film. Many people claim that they are filmmakers after graduate from Film Academy, but they don’t have a work to prove that. So little Moth is a testimony for me. It proves that what I learned from school is useful.

JZ: But if you have a very high starting point, will you … For example, Did you expect your second film to go to any film festival?

PT: My second film also went to some film festivals. The threshold of filmmaking can sometimes strangle new ideas in the cradle. Without digital technology, when the investors look at your script, their concern is that if the film is worth millions or even ten million of investment. Of course he’s concerned about profit. For example, my first film is an art house film rather than commercial. If no one wants to finance the film since it won’t make any money, the audience would never get a chance to see it. But in the digital era, you can finish the film with far less money.

JZ: I just came up with another question. Film foundations encourage and help independent filmmakers through providing financial support. It played an important role in producing your first film. But as you said, they are also concerned with profit, the market and audience. I guess it might have brought you some troubles. After all film is made for audience. You’ll have to think about the market. If you can’t find any funding, you’ll have to look for investors. Is there any change in the past several years?

PT: There are certainly changes. If your film doesn’t have a good box office, no one will further support your career as a director. I can’t give a definite answer to your question. It involves the struggle of the director. Sometimes I prefer to film this way, but the investors want to make it more commercial, adding some movie stars or change the script into a comedy. The audiences like that. People are tired from work. They are looking for laughter at cinema not serious stories. So it depends on the director’s choice. Chinese audiences mostly just watch blockbusters. Not so many people care about low budget films. But the oversea market is more diversified. They not only have blockbuster commercial films but also alternative films for intellectuals or certain group of audience. They have specific audience for different kinds of films. But in China, there’s no diversity.

JZ: I don’t know if the audience will agree with me. I think when we give the audience multiple choices; we’ll gradually cultivate specific interest of our audience. It’s just a matter of time and extent. I always believe that a good film, even a non-commercial one, can be well received among its audience. A low budget film can still get attention as long as it resonates with the audience.

PT: Right.


JZ: Does anyone have any questions for Director Peng about filmmaking, about financing, about Apple products? Any kind of questions.

A1: When you are writing a script, do you try to describe the image in your mind or do you write the story first and then visualize it?

PT: My method is to imagine a picture in mind first and then put it into words. I’m always the director of my script, so I don’t have to make my script very articulate. But for a professional scriptwriter, you can’t do it this way. You have to give the director a detailed, complete script. You must make it very clear so that other people can understand. But for me, as long as I can understand my script, it’s fine. I normally just make an outline. Doesn’t have to be very clear. Everything is in my mind. My script is just an outline.

A2: How do you pick actors? Do you find actors first or write the script first?

PT: In my case, I wrote the script first then looked for actors. But sometimes the directors would pick actors first, such as Hollywood. They have s star-based system, which means they the script is tailored to specific starts and then find someone suitable to direct the film. Hollywood always does that. But I just write the script and look for suitable actors.

A2: Did you find the little in Hubei?

PT: Yes.

JZ: We forgot to mention before. All the actors in his film are unprofessional actors.

A2: Is the boy disabled?

PT: No, he isn’t. It’s performed.

A2: Did you teach them how to act?

PT: Right. Unprofessional actors never had professional trainings before. They don’t know how to live in front of the camera. So you need to teach them. Choosing actors is very important. You should pick those who are outgoing and are interested in working with you. If they meet these requirements, you just need to guide them how to live naturally in front of the camera.

A2: Did you find them through local connections, such as friends’ relatives?

PT: Through many ways. Some are introduced by friend, some are found by myself. The male character in Floating in Memory was found in the street. He’s the chief of a local restaurant. He was smoking downstairs he finished cooking. We happened to see him after the meal. I felt that he’s very close to the main character so I asked him if he would like to act. He was very surprised because it’s very rare to meet someone looking for actors in such a small place. He didn’t believe that. But after he found out that it was for real, he quit his job and joined my film crew. The owner of the restaurant was quite angry because he only has one cook.

A2: Is the video we just saw from the film or just footage.

PT: It’s the trailer.

A2: Why is it on 4:3?

PT: Because it’s for TV.

A2: What camera did you use?

PT: Canon XL2.

A2: Did you correct the color?

PT: Not really. Just slightly darkened.

JZ: Did you do color correction yourself?

PT: I found someone to do it. Not too much. Just lower down the saturation.

A2: When you mail your film abroad, do you send DVD?

PT: Right. But for screening, sometimes they need the Master tape.

JZ: So many questions.

A2: Master tape is the Beta?

PT: Yes. Digital Beta.

JZ: As I know, the director just needs to prepare the DVD, but the producer should collect director’s statement, actors’ information, and introduction of the film. You should give a set of document to the film festival. Right?

PT: Yes.

A2: What are the major Film Festivals for Chinese language films that you care the most?

PT: For Chinese language films, there are only Hong Kong Film Festivals … and Taiwan Film Festival, the Golden Horse Award. Others are mainly English.

A2: Do you have to pay application fee for foreign film festivals?

PT: Yes, of course. But sometimes the festival organizer will come to China to pick films. You can give your film to them directly. The application fee is quite expensive. It’s in dollars.

JZ: Can I ask your occupation? Are you a film student?

A2: I’ve already graduated.

JZ: You are also a director?

A2: Yes.

JZ: Do you have your own film?

A2: I haven’t won any award yet.

JZ: Keep on trying. Other questions?

A3: What’s the target audience of your two films, international film festival or domestic audience?

PT: At the beginning, I didn’t think too much about film festivals. I just wanted to express my feeling. I just wanted to film something I really liked. I wanted to make a good script into a film.

A3: If a writer wants to express some feelings, he/she writes a book and shares it with audiences. Do you think your film is closer to Chinese or foreign audience?

PT: It’s difficult to find a boundary in art. It’s hard to say weather it belongs to the US, UK or China. Of course there’s something national. But my film is about people and human emotion. People’s emotion is always connected. Like some good foreign films, you won’t say you can’t understand them because they are acted by foreigners.

A3: I have an example. There’s an Italian film called Beautiful Life. It got lots of attention worldwide and won Best Foreign Film at Oscar. Chinese people like it a lot, but Italian people don’t think it’s an Italian film.

PT: Is there another possibility… Like The Crazy Stone is very popular in China, but Hong Kong people don’t think it’s that funny at all. They don’t quite understand what it tries to say.

A3: I understand what you mean. Jokes are regional. Like Zhou Libo’s very popular in Shanghai but people in Beijing don’t understand him.

PT: Right.

A3: But people’s emotion is the same. If the domestic audience don’t like the film … I don’t mean your film. I haven’t seen it yet. But I don’t agree that Chinese films rarely reflect the life of peasants. There are lots of films that depict the reality of China, but they don’t have enough chances to be shown.

PT: You are right. Not enough screenings.


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