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The Making of Palpitations of Dust

Ann Huang is a creative story teller and a filmmaker based in Southern California.

After writing several successful poems, Huang wrote and directed her first film, "Palpitations of Dust".

In this experimental short, the lives of three friends become complicated when facing choices of love, friendship, need and reciprocity. Everything is hung on a thin string-- from desire to love, to dream, to face life's disarrays, and then to settle on an unexpected destiny.

In the following interview, Huang shares her experience with the making of Palpitations of Dust, reveals the challenging and exciting moments of the process, and how she recruited the cast and crew in a "no-budget" project.

Ann, you have a very interesting, multi-cultural background. Tell us about your early days. When did you start writing and what sparked your interest in it?

I was born and raised in Mainland China. I grew up in a physician's family with three generations living under the same roof in a house that lacked a proper sewage system and water heater. My passion for words dates back to my childhood. One of my essays, I Saw Your Back, won numerous awards in the Children's Palace and was later published on the school board.

When I was fourteen, my parents took me out of China during the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. They were the scholar recipients for a medical exchange program in Mexico City. There, I adopted Spanish as my second language along with the country’s inexhaustible culture.

My childhood memories have, in many ways, instilled in me the source of inspiration for work. I will never forget my days of learning two new languages simultaneously in a class filled with Mexican classmates, memorizing my first 300 Chinese poems from Tang’ Dynasty, taking Tai Chi classes with my grandfather, and listening to the Chinese Civil War songs my maternal grandma used to sing me while lying half-paralyzed on her bed where she remained for nearly a decade during the last part of her life.

Can you share a bit about your creation process? Where do your ideas come from? How many drafts do you usually create for each poem? Do you have any mentors that provide feedback?

I believe in automatic writing, which was suggested by the surrealist movement that followed Dadaism. It can be seen as mysterious to others, but for me, it was a unique yet never-repeating process. Imagine you had a trance experience, almost like you were living in an Indian cave, and you were to write down words that were dictated to you. I don’t need many drafts except for some fine-tuning revisions, maybe three or four times after I have grasped the essence of a poem.

I have two mentors, Ralph Angel and Leslie Ullman, whom I work with closely. The workflow with them has been intuitive and uncomplicated. Ralph gave me advice on assembling a poetry collection when I gathered over 50 poems at one time. Leslie helps me with manuscript edits. I was fortunate to have known them both during my Master of Fine Arts program at Vermont College of Fine Arts where I graduated in Poetry and Literary Translation. I am constantly in debt to them for all the good work we’ve put together. I know them on a close personal level which, in turn, provides me with insurmountable trust for our daily communications.

Palpitations of Dust - Teaser

How did you get into film directing? Was it something you always wanted to try? What makes you passionate about storytelling?

While I was working on my chapbook’s audio book, the idea of creating visuals to challenge and compliment my poems sprung up. I wanted to see a more concrete version of my poems’ adaptation. (The images were not intended to echo the poems, but rather to challenge the audience’s understanding of the underlying meaning of the poems.)

I have always been passionate about storytelling. I am fascinated by the transformation of a story’s protagonist. I’m enthralled by the idea that the story itself could lead a character to change their personality, or even her destiny. This is very powerful. I especially like to make films with unexpected turns and twists.

On my book signing night for my chapbook Love Rhythms at Laguna Art Museum, I met my photographer, Eric Stoner. We became friends and he mentioned the house where he worked. He thought it would be a great location for shooting our first poetry film.

That’s when I thought I could actually create more out of my pure lyrical poems through the process of filmmaking. That way, the once one-dimensional placeholder for my poems could transcend into multidimensional imagery with visuals and sonic impressions that accentuate the flavor of each poem’s essence. We thought it could be a huge breakthrough for showcasing the depth of the poems as well. They would no longer be constricted to the paper. They would come alive, just like they are in their creator’s mind.

Huang on the red carpet

You recently won an Honorable Mention for Experimental Film at the LA Film Awards for Palpitations of Dust- Bravo! How did you recruit your cast and crew and how did you fund the project? Did you hold many rehearsals before shooting?

I feel very fortunate that our debut film received so much attention in the film festival circuit. The experience is heart-warming and encouraging. I met with Eric (male lead) during my book signing night and we became friends and talked incessantly about my poem film ideas. Dean (DP) was brought on by Eric. Tatiana (female lead) is my friend and colleague.

As soon I showed them my storyboard, they were all very excited about the project. Through Eric, we scouted the shoot location and confirmed the days for principal photography. We had a great film location. The owners of the house have hundreds and hundreds of paintings and hand-painted works of art. It’s a collector’s house. We were a very small crew and were all invited to preview the house and loved it. We did some sample shoots and planned the scene takes. Before shooting, I prepped Eric and Tatiana on their wardrobes and showed them the mise-en-scene for each scene. That was it. We didn’t have time for rehearsals and shot the whole movie in one and a half days, which is how long the owners of the house permitted us to film there.

The film was a ‘no-budget’ project. I spent around six thousand dollars out of my own pocket. I did not have to pay for the location and paid a small amount to my cast and crew, so that was very helpful. Everyone believed in the project and was happy to contribute. We were happy to have produced our very first poem film.

We loved the stunning drone shots in the film! How did you communicate your cinematic vision when working with the cast and crew in this production? Did you use any visual/musical references?

The drone shots on the freeway (Pacific Coast Highway) were very difficult to shoot. I was with Dean who had the drone follow the car Eric was driving. Tatiana was on the phone telling us they were coming out from an intersection. It was a very busy section of the freeway and we were shooting on a weekend. We had to let them drive out a couple of times to get a shot without any tailgating cars. It took us a few takes to get that scene right.

The drone shots at the house were easier to capture. We narrowed down the scenes of Tati and Eric showing up next to the pool, coming out of the house, and fading out from the house’s bird’s eye view.

I had private sessions with each of my crew members. I would read the poems aloud to them, go over the potential scenes in connection to each poem, and relate the wardrobe and/or production materials to prep them for the storytelling process. The most advantageous part of making a poem film is that I can freely talk with my cast and crew during filming since we don’t use any of the diegetic acoustics. It’s like making a silent film. We focused on the visuals and revisited th