VIFF 2017 Interview: MAINELAND director Miao Wang
By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/07/17 13:00:18
"MAINELAND is a coming of age film that follows a boy and a girl from China's wealthy elite as they settle into a boarding school in a small town in Maine. They are part of the enormous wave of "parachute students" who are sent alone to a boarding school in a foreign country. The film weaves between verite scenes and lyrical cinematic sequences. While told through personal stories and anchored in the universal theme of growing up as awkward teenagers in high school, the film illuminates many larger timely and relevant contexts such as China slash U.S. relations, education, and immigration." Director Miao Wang on MAINELAND which screens at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?
Yes! I'm looking forward to it, especially the Thursday screening which will have many secondary school students in attendance! I visited Vancouver seven years ago with my first film BEIJING TAXI. It screened at the Vancity Theater. I didn't have too much spare time to explore the city, but do remember just admiring and enjoying not only the beauty of the city with its glittering light, harbor, and mountains, but also the diversity of the people and culture.
Tell me a bit about yourself and your background, and how you got into the whole filmmaking business.
My path to filmmaking has been an indirect one. I came from a family of Chinese scientists, the arts was not considered a serious and viable field of study. I majored in economics in college but spent most of my spare time hanging out with creative and artistic peers. Some time after college I attended the Parsons School of Design in NYC for my MFA in design and technology. It was there I started working on my first short film YELLOW OX MOUNTAIN. I always thought of my thesis project as not just a school project but one that I wanted to take beyond school into the world. I learned a lot about the filmmaking process and the film industry through plunging into my thesis film and taking it seriously as a real project. Soon after, when I started my first feature BEIJING TAXI I was able to absorb some of the lessons learned from the process of working on the short. Making by doing and figuring it out as I go is how I got here.
How did this movie come together from your perspective?
I started by researching the topic of Chinese and American education through the eyes of teenagers that go study abroad which was a hot topic in China since the late 2000s. I knew I wanted to follow the transformative journey originating from China and landing in the U.S., but I didn't know how to broach the point of view or find my characters who are guaranteed to be accepted into a school. By coincidence, a school in Maine requested me to bring my first film to screen at their school. Upon arrival, I saw large groups of Chinese students cluttered around a cafeteria table, in this very remote and rural town in Maine and I knew I found my entry. This film would not have been possible without Fryeburg Academy allowing me full access to follow the admissions director when he went over to China to interview the students, as well as their open arms to let me film at the school. I usually have a very compact team of two during production. Sean Price Williams, the director of photography is a long time collaborator. We worked together on BEIJING TAXI. I fully trust his eyes and intuitions, crucial for documentaries as you often have to move fast on the fly. I usually do the sound recording, which also allows my eyes and ears to survey the scene. As filming takes place over quite a long period of time, at a later stage when Sean is not available, I picked up the camera myself and relied on an assistant to record the sound. Picking up the camera myself also allowed me to film some of the very intimate scenes in the girls dorms. There were a lot of challenges in making a film with teenagers. They're often moody, emotional, insecure, and unpredictable. All of those things make for interesting filming, but also often caused logistical nightmares. Maybe if I thought too much about all of that I would not have dared to start this film!
While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively? How much coffee?
Watching films that push boundaries in the theaters, and listening to music that inspire me keeps me going. I'm driven by the feeling of creating something artful, soulful, and socially relevant, hopefully inspiring people along the way. I drink a lot of green tea in the winter and eat a lot of cold watermelon in the summer. Oh, and I love long chats with friends about films over boozy cocktails!
What was your biggest challenge with this project, and how did you overcome it?
The biggest challenge with this project is dealing with teenagers and being back in high school! I never felt comfortable in high school. I also associate my high school years with alienation and feeling like an outsider. I had spent all these years getting away from that and now suddenly I found myself back in high school and constantly feeling rejected! It is truly hard to wrangle teenagers, and even more so with groups of them in a high school setting. I'm not sure I ever truly overcome the challenge, it was something I was confronted with throughout the entire production, to the very end. I simply did not allow myself to give up. The moment when I finally finished my film and got the notification for the world premiere at SXSW, I felt like I graduated from high school all over again.
If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be?
My favorite moment was convincing Stella and some of her friends to go on a boat ride on the lake. That became one of the central scenes in the film.
For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how that was created.
We filmed using the Canon 5D Mark III for the majority of the film, and a small part in Mark II at the beginning, before the Mark III came out! Even though I work in the field of documentaries and I truly enjoy the process of discoveries of documentary filmmaking, I am a huge cinephile and I'm a sucker for lyrical and poetic cinematography. I met DP extraordinaire Sean Price Williams when I edited a short art film that he shot with a mutual friend. I instantly fell in love with his eye when I was going through his footage and knew right away I wanted to work with him. We have since collaborated on BEIJING TAXI and numerous other short projects. We have a shared visual sensibility so it makes our working process very organic. Often we just glance over at each other and nod to acknowledge a great shot or moment.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences here at VIFF?
Our first screening is presented as a part of the VIFF High School Program. I am very excited to have all the secondary school students in the audience to see their reactions to the film!
Where is this movie going to show next? Any ideas of how you would like to distribute the film?
Maineland will show next at the Dallas VideoFest, New Hampshire Film Festival, and Hawaii International Film Festival. The film is having a slow theatrical rollout in the U.S., and will be followed by VOD and SOD on Amazon next year.
If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?
The former Zeitgeist Theater in NY, but sadly it just closed its doors! It's one of the largest theaters I have sat in to watch a film. Truly enveloping cinema.
Movie theaters are the best place to see a movie, but sometimes they can be distracting! What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?
I generally give them a lot of looks or quietly ask them to stop talking or put away their phone. I find it more distracting when people start screaming at each other.
There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews for inspiration. If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?
Find your allies and don't give up.
And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?
That's a really tough one! There are so many for different reasons! One of my all time favorite is still HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR. Or two years ago I saw an Iranian film at MOMA called THE BRICK & THE MIRROR. But definitely too many to list just one.
This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 28th to October 13th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.viff.org.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte