"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.
The cast and crew of Cue Jane
How did you get cinematographer Caleb Tou on board and how did you communicate your vision with him?
My producer and I posted online looking for a cinematographer and we received nearly a hundred resumes from applicants whose works all look very similar. I was lucky enough to find Caleb right before I reluctantly ready to go with an okay DP. Unlike other cinematographers who simply show off their skills and "music video" type of movements, Caleb pays closer attention to the characters and capture their emotions with the right composition. We had a brief Skype meeting and decided to work together. He was humble, patient and understanding, and that's what I need for a character-driven project with so many little intimate moments.
We didn't have a problem communicating with each other. I shared my scene analysis and its function with him every time before the shoot. We went to location scout together and rehearsed the main camera movement in the location just to get a feeling of the space. I am very grateful for the effort he put to achieve my vision for the film.
What was the most challenging part of the production?
We shot the film in Los Angeles so most of the difficulties during the production was solved by reachable backup resources. Even the traffic jam scene which seemly difficult to achieve in the script turned out to be no trouble when we found the perfect parking lot to cheat the shots. The most challenging part was to shoot the scene in the audition room. The structure of the room was not ideal, so we had to come up with new shots design on set. We were left no choice but decided to go with the regular coverage as we were short on time. I talked with Alisa because I knew this scene would depend mainly on her. She did an amazing job delivering the performance after fully emotionally involved in the scene. It turned out we don’t need any fancy shot design but a handheld long shot to capture that moment. Later, when I edited this scene, I was more pleasantly surprised to find that I didn’t have to show the casting directors’ faces at all as the scene was more about Jane. That was how this current appearance of the scene became.
The film has a somewhat optimistic ending. What was your main message to the audience?
The film ends on Jane watching her father building a sandcastle with a little girl on the beach. It also serves as a flashback of Jane’s childhood, which her father cherishes the most and may eventually fade away from his memory. Jane is so busy at making a breakthrough that she fails to recognize her importance of being in her father's life. It's time for her to be there for her father.
The ending does not indicate her quitting on an acting career but more as a break in the flow of her busy life. I wish the audience who is going with a similar phase can find their exit to take a break and reevaluate the original beauty of their lives before starting on the right track again.
Cue Jane - Trailer
You've won many awards for your work, including Best Editing for One More Ride and Best Indie Short for Cocoon at the Los Angeles Film Awards. In your opinion, what is the best advice to follow in order to create a meaningful independent film?
With the development of high-tech devices, everyone can become a filmmaker with their smartphone. However, whether you are making a film that focuses more on personal expression or delivering a message that reflects our social problems, you must remember how you want your story to be like on the screen.
As a creator, in the three stages of writing, production, and editing, you need to confirm from time to time if the vision is on the right track. Imagine you are the audience, does the film work for you or emotionally connect with you? What else can you do to improve it? Keep in mind that the audience’s feeling plays an important role in the completion of the film.
Tell us about your upcoming projects. What are you currently working on.
I am working on a thriller and a coming-of-age story, both of which are feature film ideas with very unique female characters. I am in talks with a big production company on the development of the thriller. As for the coming-of-age story, since the story sheds light on the self-identification of teenage girls and touches transgender issues at the same time, it's expected to be made as an indie movie targeting for some A-list film festivals. I can't wait to bring them onto the big screen.
Is there anything you wish to add, or someone you wish to thank?
I couldn’t have done any of my works without the love and support from my parents, my friends and my cast & crew. Thank you all!
Where can our followers see more of your work?
The films are still under festival participation circle at this moment and are not available online. I will release them on my Vimeo channel hopefully at the end of this year and welcome all the audience come enjoy it.