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"I always give my actors full confidence and attention"

Growing up in south China, Qianzi (Sophie) Gao spent her childhood writing stories and reading movie magazines. After watching Truman Show, she decided to make a film of her own. She enrolled at Beijing Film Academy ("This was one of the best things that happened in my life"), then moved to LA, and started creating one film after another.

Most recently, Qianzi created Cue Jane, a beautiful short drama. In Cue Jane, a middle aged actress, Jane, has been failing to balance her acting career and taking care of her father who has Alzheimer's. One the way to an important audition, she has to overcome unexpected hurdles which also forces her to revaluate her life.

We invited Qianzi to join us for an interview. Here's her story.

Growing up in South China, how did you get into filmmaking?

My parents were often busy at work when I was young, so I adapted myself to the fun of spending time alone. I wrote stories, read movie magazines and followed a TV channel which was the only window to the Hollywood movies for me at that time.

But it never occurred to me to make one until I saw Truman Show. The plot described in the film was so similar to how I imagined the designed world I was living in and it just felt like somebody saw through my mind and made a film out of it. This mixed feeling of shyness and excitement of the secret being discovered entangled me for several days. I was so fascinated by how a movie could reflect the secret hidden in people’s minds and ultimately thought why not just make films myself and bring this feeling to the people through my own stories.

Being one of millions high schoolers who are supposed to study hard for the college enrollment examination in my hometown, I was lucky to realize earlier that there was something I feel passionate to achieve other than a higher score.

Which movies have influenced your work thus far?

I am a big fan of character-driven stories with either an extreme realistic theme or saturated visual style. Realistic films like The Wrestler (Darren Aronofsky), The Promise (Dardenne Brothers) and Tangerine (Sean Baker) have a significant impact on me. And I also like films with extreme visual expression, for example, Enter the Void (Gaspar Noe) and Blade Runner 2049 (Daniel Villeneuve).

You went to school at Beijing Film Academy, how would you conclude your experience there? What were the best takeaways for you?

Enrolling in Beijing Film Academy was one of the best things that happened in my life. It was extremely hard to get in. During my stay in BFA, I had classes taught by renown professors who still work in the industry, which was incredible. I guess my best takeaways are the overall understanding of the Chinese filmmaking system as well as making great friends with people who shared a similar passion for filmmaking.

What makes you passionate about storytelling?

I am a person with lots of imaginations since I was a child. I am sensitive to the people and things around me. If I discover something interesting, instead of writing diaries, I will write down the scenes that I imagined based on what I saw. This habit consolidated my fascination with storytelling.

From Qianzi Gao's latest project, Cue Jane

Let's discuss your latest project, Cue Jane. It's beautifully written. When did you write it, and how did you come up with the concept? Is this inspired by true events?

I wrote it back in 2017. I guess the core emotion came from how I feel through my years staying in LA. As we know LA gathers the most filmmakers in the world and everyone seeks to breakthrough one day. However, sometimes no matter how hard you try, you seem to stay where you are. You find yourself stay up the whole nights editing films or writing stories, but not actually creating anything exciting. You find yourself stuck in the middle from going home and reaching your goals. In order to detach myself from the stress, sometimes I’d imagine that I am an actress playing the role of this stressed little girl, trying to find her feet in this new country. One day I thought what if this actress also has trouble dealing with her personal life? Will she find her answer by playing “me”? From this introspection, I brought to life a middle-aged actress, Jane, who has problem balancing her role as a daughter and an actress.

Even though the original idea of having an aging actress struggling between her career and her responsibility as a daughter comes from personal emotional crisis, as I dig into the relationship between Jane and her father, I expanded the space of adding more topics this film carries such as the suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and the satire on the fake character building that this film industry is tending to have.

I intended to create an awkward accident caused by her negligence of her priority which forces her to stop and take a look at her unbalanced life, as you can see in the film. I hope I pulled that out well. It did happen in real life, the accident, that’s how much I can say.

Did you do any research about Alzheimer's disease before approaching this sensitive screenplay?

I did and I also chatted with friends who have family members with Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s disease tends to have a slow progression. Sometimes you may not even remember it’s there until it acts up all of a sudden. This is also in line with the overall theme of the film. Jane’s father’s illness has always been her problem but since there has been no major issue occur, she’s been procrastinating rather than directly solving it.

The more I understood the experience of the patients and their families with the burden of the disease, the more responsible I felt to bring this topic into my film.

Alisha Seaton in Cue Jane

Alisha Seaton has done a great job as Jane Lee. The character is so complex. How did you work with Alisha to finesse her performance? What was your rehearsal process like?

Alisha is a brilliant actress. I was lucky to discover her for playing “Jane.” We have built a solid trust relationship. As a director, I always give my actors full confidence and attention. Actors can get very sensitive; they want to be encouraged and be appreciated. I would pay attention to the little changes that she brought in her performance and told her how I feel about them. There were times when I am satisfied with the performance, Alisha’d say “now Sophie is smiling. I knew that was a good take.” And I realized oh she is observing me as well!

As for the rehearsal process, I first explain to my actors the emotion status of the previous and subsequent scenes of the scene we are rehearsing for, which helps them to locate their emotions. Before we start shooting, I don’t necessarily let the actors go with the script completely. Instead, I encourage them to try some improv just to feel the atmosphere without having all the attention on reciting the lines. I always want to make sure that the actors are fully aware of their emotional status and then give them the freedom to bring their understanding into the scene.