It’s a little under 24 hours before the principal photography of Big Gay Love, the second ultra low budget film that I’m producing this year. Why the heck am I blogging? Perhaps I subscribe to the idea of writing as therapy. In Chinese culture, calligraphy is supposed to be calming. Perhaps for a writer, writing is and should be calming.
This year, I’ve been producing two ultra low budget features, Big Gay Love and Chink. Making movies at this budget is all about passion. The directors get to make whatever they want to make as long as the film isn’t over budget. While budget is a definite limit, imagination is unlimited. And that’s what I love about these projects. They are pure visions with little market concerns.
They are pure films.
I’m drawn toward these films because they are really directors’ vehicles. And as a director, I’ve come to learn that the best producers are those who let the directors grow and shine within the limits they are given.
Directors do make good producers. My ex-boss Peter Chan is both an excellent director and producer. Why? Because directors understand how a film should be made and respect the visions of other directors.
Steven Spielberg is a great director and producer. I had the privilege to be on set with Mr. Spielberg when I was the assistant to Peter on the set of Love Letter. Even though Spielberg was uncredited, he was on set almost every day. As a producer, he never once interfered with the director’s vision. He was just there to hang out and make sure the production go well.
Once Mr. Spielberg was standing beside Peter at the monitor. He said, “Just I was going to say you should try this… you were already doing it.” That was pretty much the only comment I heard from him, director to director.
And as a filmmaker, I’ve learned to be calm from good filmmakers like Chan and Spielberg. Never once did Peter yell on set or at me.
In fact, he spoiled me as an assistant.
“Don’t get me coffee and don’t get me food. Don’t get into these bad habits. When I don’t need you, just go write and do whatever you want to do,” said Peter.
Even though I still ended up working 24 hours 6—7 days a week, I wrote a feature script on the set of Love Letter.
I also realized that it wasn’t too different making a 50K film like Shopping for Fangs from making a 10 million dollar film.
We all have to make compromises as a filmmaker.
On White Frog as a director, there was one day that could have been a disaster. The lights overheated the ceiling and set off the sprinklers. Water poured from the ceiling and flooded the set in a deluge. The AD ran screaming, “Get out! Stay away!”
When I saw the water flooding the set, I was sure that day would be ruined. It was also a 10-page day. Even the fire trucks came. Ironically none of the producers were on the set that day.
I took a deep breath and said to the writer Fabienne Wen who was on the set. “I think we should try to cut the script so we could shoot it out if the set got dried in time.” Fabienne nodded as my teenaged actors were all waiting for me, the director, to crack.
I sat with Fabienne and we started editing the scenes we had to shoot that day. Three hours later, the set miraculously got dried. The AD calmly gathered the actors and we started shooting again. We ended up shooting all the scenes out an hour before we were supposed to wrap. Our producer Ellie Wen later showed up with Sprinkles cup cakes for us.
“You had no idea what happened, Ellie,” I said.
I’m still not sure how I did it. But for sure I felt proud driving home that day.
In retrospect, I must have channeled the calmness of Peter and Mr. Spielberg.
Hong Kong Chinese have a saying, “If the sky falls, pretend it’s a blanket.”
I guess I’ve held onto that philosophy all my life.