Creating a mood, an emotional atmosphere; this is the immense contribution of a production designer in the film world. The audience, the actors, and the crew are all required to do less belief suspension when the PD cultivates the world envisioned by the director. Dara Zhao is asked to glimpse the vision of her collaborators through their eyes, whether that be a dark one or one of optimism. It’s something she’s known for doing exceedingly well. She has been sought out by Indie filmmakers and massive production companies, as evidenced by her current work on the live-action version of The Little Mermaid. Her role as PD on Shop of Eternal Life skews to a tale much more about the foreboding and menacing topic of mysticism and the afterlife. Regardless of the subject matter, those who collaborate with an exceptional leader in the film community like Dara are eager for the opportunity because they know that her eyes can see their way to replicating the artists’ imaginings.
Many films are about sacrifice but Shop of Eternal Life is an original and cultural take on the specific cost of this. Every culture has its version of Aesop’s Fables, Grimm’s Fairytales, and the like; stories of foibles and redemption. Shop of Eternal Life takes place in the not so distant Twentieth Century and depicts the personal cost of trying to do something to help others. The plot follows a poor man who approaches a pawnshop owner about buying his wedding ring. Explaining that he needs money to pay medical expenses for his sick wife, the man’s offer is countered by a covertly sinister one from the shop’s owner. Rather than a small sum of money for the ring, the pawnshop owner suggests the man sell his soul for more than enough to cover all the hospital bills. When the man returns to the shop many years later, to collect his heart, the events which transpire are both shocking and telling about the potential for danger we all possess. There’s an obvious occult/metaphysical component but this applies aptly to the human character as well.
Shop of Eternal Life culminated in a DGA award for director/producer Yizhou Xu, who in turn praised Zhao for her ability to help realize the world he envisioned. The film which stars Award-Winning actor Jesse Wang (of the film God’s Not Dead and CBS series Code Black) as Chaofeng, Allen Theosky Rowe as Mr. Song, and Gengru Liu as Xiao Dong. Taking place in the 1920s and 1950s with nearly all of the action occuring in a pawnshop, the aging of the characters as well as the advancements in technology is subtly visible. Beyond the aesthetic challenges of manifesting this are the budgetary constraints for a smaller Indie production such as this. Dara remarks, “Yes, the most substantial obstacle for a smaller film is always the financial one. Ha. The freedom you experience is what you balance this against. I’m proud that we created two different decades in such an authentic manner. This was a really interesting environment which offered great potential. I wanted to create a narrow and isolated space; one with an unspecified location which seemed very real, especially with a sense of hopelessness at moments. Even thought this was a period piece, it was more like an allegory; a Faustian story. It was hard to combine these fantasy elements into a realism society environment. I used a lot of metaphors to support the storytelling. We used authentic props and set decorations from China but created what we needed when it didn’t exist.” The results are dramatic. Dara’s dedication and skill resulted in the world of Shop of Eternal Life transporting the looming anxiety of its characters directly into the psyche of the audience. The slow impending sense of doom and the constant comfortability one experiences when watching Shop of Eternal Life is a testament to the expertise of Dara Zhao to fully realize the world the film’s director aspired to display. Viewers don’t want to contemplate budget or lighting, or any other facet of the production process. Dara Zhao makes that concept a part of her equation when working on every production. It’s for this reason that you’ll find her working on productions throughout many different countries for quite some time.
Producer Carina Chavda will tell you that making a film is a result of having talented and skilled professionals as part of your team; making a great film is the product of this AND building relationships throughout your career. Particularly for a producer, steering a film and finding the best people for a particular project means being keenly aware of what they can bring to the process for optimal results. Very Grave Robbers is a 2018 film produced by Chavda which won a host of awards including the Audience Award, Best of Los Angeles, Grand Champion Audience Award, and Best Ensemble cast (48-hour film project). Additionally, this film received a number of nominations at the Austin Comedy Film Festival (2018), and was screened at the prestigious Massachusetts Independent Film Festival. Its success is due in large part to the equal parts expertise and intuition (honed through experience) of Carina.
Keeping an eye out for those she would like to work with has always been part of Carina’s approach. When she was attending the screening of her film I See You, on which she served as producer (with writer-director Manjari Makijany, Academy-Award nominee Aaron Glascock, and BAFTA winning composer Marius De Vries), she met director/writer Joe Boothe. The two exchanged mutual admiration for their films appearing at Cannes that year and expressed the hope of working together. Within a matter of months, a film idea materialized for this occurance and Boothe’s writing partner (and wife) Alexa Alemanni joined. The product of this collaboration, [Very Grave Robbers] is suspenseful, comedic, and exceptional in its dialogue. While the cast is exceptional, it comes as no surprise that the writers are the vehicle which fuels this tale.
As with many great films, Very Grave Robbers is much more about human nature and its shortcomings than simply the events that unfold throughout the story. Andrew and Peter are burglars by trade. They break into a house but are surprised when they are interrupted by many people arriving during mid-heist. The group is an extended family which is returning from the funeral of their grandmother. Assessing the best way to make an exit unnoticed, the two thieves decide to borrow some clothes from the closet and blend in with the mourners. As they attempt to make a casual departure, Andrew comforts a comely family member and feels a connection. Both he and Peter begin to imbibe copious amount of alcohol and end up falling asleep in the same residence they were attempting to burgle. Later that day they begin to regret their actions and embark on a path that does not end well for them.
Very Grave Robbers screened at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival to an exuberant audience. Chavda attended the showing and admits to being stunned by the audiences overwhelmingly positive reaction. She relates, “You always try to make the best film possible. At some point, you are so deep inside the process that you just naturally lose some perspective. Our production schedule was extremely limited and I was taking care of the numerous obstacles that every producer has to overcome. When our DP injured his hand before the shoot, I had to figure something out. When we needed to juggle multiple shoots, I had to make sure everything was seamless and smooth. When you are immersed in that, you sometimes forget just how amazing the work of those around you and the film itself actually is. I have to thank that crowd at the Massachusetts Independent Film Festival for shaking me back into reality. It was great to be there with them and see their excitement.” Chavda’s fellow filmmakers showed her some appreciation, seasoned with a bit of humor, taking a cardboard cut-out of her along to the Los Angeles premier of Very Grave Robbers when her schedule prohibited her attendance. Even if only there in spirit, LA praised Chavda and the film similarly.
Creating and completing a film is in itself something of a miracle. The amount of work done by a varied group of artists and skilled professionals is layers deep; similar to an iceberg in the fact that most of these are not evident to the public. Director Florina Titz had poured everything she had into the film Caihong City but found the project stalled with some challenging postproduction obstacles. Titz reached out to Ye Zhu to channel the post efforts and create a new workflow to deliver the film to its final form. A multimedia production specialist with a wide skill set, Ye’s knowledge of the different production teams which coordinate behind the scenes allowed her to breathe new life into the film during the final stages. The director’s trust proved well placed as Caihong City appeared as on Official Selection at important events across the world from LA’s Valley Film Festival to the Paris Play Film Festival, Romania’s 12 Months Film Festival, and many others. Awarded the Best Trailer Awards at the Philip K Dick Film Festival in NYC, even the most brief glimpse into this film communicated that it was something truly unique.
Caihong City is a truly daring work of cinema. Filmed in over thirty locations in and around New York City’s five boroughs, this production features an international cast and a language created specifically for the story. This dystopian science fiction tale is set in a futuristic world where dying genius Liu Junjie (Zhao Lewis Liu) forms an unlikely alliance with crazed vagabond Serioja (Marian Adochitei) and depressed prostitute Lavinia (Lana Moscaliuc) to complete a super task to survive. The storyline and the footage was exceptional but the production came to a halt due to a number of postproduction obstacles. The most significant of these was a clear vision for the integration of a software interface that would transform modern NYC into Furui and Caihong City. Inseparable was a work flow that would allow multiple artists to share data, visual concepts, and delivery strategies. The ideas were available but it was Ms. Zhu who would help manifest them into reality. The greatest impediment to this was the fact that the film’s international cast and crew were now dispersed throughout the globe. She designed and coordinated an interwoven and overlapping series of tasks within a tight schedule involving all aspects of postproduction. Ye’s motivation, communication, and tenacity are prime assets which drove the production to completion.
Proving that her role is as much about creative vision as practical coordination. Ye not only enabled Caihong City to become finalized but even helped reimagine it to some degree. After organizing a WIP screening with a mixed crowd of sci-fi lovers, filmmakers, and potential investors for the film, she used the responses of these individuals to convince the filmmakers that a re-edit was called for. The cinematography and visual style was transfixing but the main characters had not been fully developed. Ye reveals, “After presenting the results to our post production team and going through the entire film scene by scene with the director and editor to discuss possible solutions, we decided to re-edit the film. During this process, we focused on building the three main characters by cutting out less significant characters and plotlines. We adjusted the pacing of the film by deliberately leaving long beautiful scenes in the film in between critical intense moments to create some breathing room for viewers. More emphasis was put on VFX to further explore ways of using the look and functions of the map to solidify the plot. The re-edit of the film integrated more logic and structure into the previously heavily instinct and emotion driven cut to reach a perfect balance that’s transformative to the final film. It’s like putting a puzzle together. You need to know what are the missing pieces for everyone involved in order to move on to the next stage and try to figure out the best approach to get things done efficiently.”
Beyond its remarkable aesthetics and adventurous use of linguistics, Caihong City continues the lineage proven by films like Crazy Rich Asians and Black Panther in proving that Hollywood and the entire world is ready to view a diverse cast. The impediments of previous generations of film have given way to the creativity of productions like Caihong City which prove that it is in fact a brave new world for film.
International Entertainment, and the Talents that Leave us Buzzing….