Every day through the end of the Sundance Film Festival, including weekends, indieWIRE will be publishing two interviews with Sundance ’06 competition filmmakers. Sixty filmmakers were given the opportunity to participate in an e-mail interview, and each was sent the same questions.
Chinese filmmaker Yuan Zhang directed “Little Red Flowers,” screening in the World Cinema Competition: Dramatic section. In the film, a four-year-old boy struggles with institutional order when he enters school for the first time. Sundance described the film as a “poignant reflection on comformity.” Zhang has received awards at numerous international film festivals for his previous work, including “Seventeen Years,” “East Palace West Palace” and “Beijing Bastards.”
Please tell us about yourself. Where were you born? How did you learn about filmmaking?
My name is Yuan Zhang. I was born in 1963 in Jiangsu, China, where I grew up until 1985, when I got admitted to [the] Beijing Film Academy. Since graduating from the cinematography department in 1989, I have been a professional filmmaker directing and producing documentary and feature films. I have lived in Beijing since 1989.
What were the circumstances that led you to become a filmmaker? What other creative outlets do you explore?
Photography and painting were what I loved and what got me into the Beijing Film Academy where my career in filmmaking got started. I directed one stage play based on my film “East Palace West Palace.” I’m also the director of over 100 music videos.
How have you financed your films?
My first feature film, “Mama,” is also the first Chinese independent film [made] since 1949. It was financed by my business friends, as were many of my other films. “Mama” was shot in 1989 when the idea of independent filmmaking was unheard of because all films made in China back then were made by state-owned studios. Private individuals making films was something hard to imagine in China at the time. I had never heard of the expression “independent films” until somebody described “Mama” as an “independent film” at a European film festival.
Where did the initial idea for your film come from?
I’ve been preparing for this film for six years. Wang Shuo, the most popular novelist in China, gave me a copy of his novel before I started editing my film “Seventeen Years,” and I read it for the first time in Italy in 1999 while I was in post production. In the middle of reading the book, I was watching a cartoon called “The Little Flying Elephant” with my daughter Yuanyuan. And I noticed that she had tears in her eyes as she watched the baby elephant clinging to its mother. I realized that, no matter how young children might be (my daughter was not yet two years old), they have a complete soul, a full set of emotions.
I also marveled at Wang Shuo’s ability to remember so much about the past. I’m trying to do the same, because my memories of [my] own past are fragmented and incomplete. So to make a film from Wang Shuo’s novel is also an effort to recapture, to rediscover my own childhood.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making the movie?
The biggest hurdle for Chinese filmmakers is that they can’t just make any film they’d like if they want their film to see the light of the day [in] their home country. There are too many rules, spoken or otherwise, that are like land mines. When you exercise self-censorship, tiptoeing across the fields, you end up in a place you don’t want to be. And of course your project may still get blown up when you step on one of those mines.
Tell us about the moment you found out that you were accepted into Sundance.
I was really thrilled because Sundance is synonymous with independence and independent filmmaking, a spirit that I cherish more than anything.
What do you hope to get out of the festival?
I’d love to meet with American filmmakers who are interested in working with Chinese filmmakers and in exploring co-production possibilities.
What is your definition of “independent film”?
Films that are unique and [come from] the heart.
If you were given $10 million to be used for moviemaking, how would you spend it?
I’d spend the money on the development of scripts which I think [are] very important.
What are one or two of your New Year’s resolutions?
Get the two films I’m working on made.