How do you translate your first indie feature into directing a superhero blockbuster? According to 'Dead Pigs' director, Cathy Yan, you have to direct from the gut.
Cathy Yan's debut feature, Dead Pigs, is a kaleidoscopic, satirical film about the modernization of China. It premiered earlier this year at the Sundance Film Festival in the International Drama section and won a special jury award for Ensemble Acting. And quite the ensemble story it is, converging a pig farmer, a salon owner, a busboy, an expat architect, and a rich girl against the backdrop of a rapidly-modernizing Shanghai where dead pigs mysteriously appear floating in the riverways.
Yan will become the first Asian-American to direct a superhero flick from the DC Universe, as it was recently announced that she will direct Birds of Prey, the girl gang comic series adaptation with Suicide Squad's Harley Quinn character front and center. “Half the pitch was seeing her film,” said Margot Robbie, the face of Harley Quinn and now producer of Birds of Prey, in a press conference. “You can’t pull off a film in China for as little money as she had, and make it look so incredible, and still care about the characters more than anything, right? I mean, she just nailed it."
We first sat down with Yan at Sundance to talk about the making of Dead Pigs, which is currently on the festival circuit, playing this week at Seattle International Film Festival and CAAMfest. Yan breaks down what when into making the film, from starting as a journalist at The Wall Street Journal, working on a film set in China, and finding just the right house to convey the epic (yet absurd) tone of the film.
NFS: I know you were a reporter for The Wall Street Journal and had covered several stories in China. Can you give us a little background on that and the genesis of Dead Pigs?
Cathy Yan: I'm from China originally but I grew up in the United States. I just found China to be the most fascinating place to be a reporter. There's just so much going on, all these like kooky, kitschy, crazy stories that sound unbelievable but are in fact true, including the [dead] pigs. I had been a reporter for a few years and they sent me to Beijing to cover for the Journal. After that, I went back to film school and that's when I read about these [thousands of ] dead pigs that were showing up in the river. I think I came at it from a journalistic angle at first. But then I wanted to get behind the headline: Okay, so this happened and that's crazy, gruesome and bizarre, but what is the human story behind this? That's how it came about.
NFS: I spent a little bit of time in China in the 1990s.
Yan: Oh really?
NFS: I lived in the Philippines at the time, and I did a couple trips over there. It’s been pretty incredible to watch the changing look of China over the last decade. Obviously, there’s so much in Dead Pigs that speaks to the modernization and change going on. Was that something you wanted to be at the forefront of the film?
Yan: Definitely. You were there in the 1990s, so you really saw that it's changed so much since then. It's changed even more since the 80s. In my lifetime, I've seen this huge growth. And in a weird way, because I was just dropping in and out, I saw it more. I wasn't living it, but I was seeing it in one-year increments or two-year increments sometimes. That was a huge theme of the film, modernization and change, and what happens when it pushes people to extremes (or sometimes pushes them away from each other) and what brings people back together.
NFS: How did this fit in your choice to tell the story with this unique tone you created? It’s part satirical, part humorous, part sweeping drama. In one moment we’re watching a ridiculous commercial for a Chinese development of La Sagrada Familia, and the next we’re feeling for a character who is dealing with life struggles.
Yan: It was definitely a tightrope. I think the best way to describe it is whatever I found to be funny or amusing. My closest friends are like, "This movie is your sense of humor." It is me. So I think it came naturally, in a way. In terms of references, like Paul Thomas Anderson and Robert Altman, I mean a lot of these American indies that have a little bit of that similar tone where it's a little dark but it's also funny and dramatic at the same time. But I think mostly it was just whatever I thought was amusing.
I guess what was conscious was the decision to do something that was different than a lot of the other art houses and independent films coming out of China. Our executive producer, Zhangke Jia, has done some really dark stuff, but I think a lot of his stuff, his earlier stuff like The World had a lot of that satirical, kooky elements to it. Another thing that inspired it frankly was just China itself. You were there in the 90s. A lot of this stuff is just there for the taking. It really is just like that. So playing it at face value was part of it. Like what you mentioned about the residents, the copycats about it, I mean, that's a phenomenon in China. They're making copycat buildings of all these Western architectures. I want to give myself more credit but I can't. I think there's a tone to China too that's really both ambitious and kitschy and earnest that I wanted to try to capture. So playing around with just what is real and what's not and the various genres in filmmaking.
"...soon after, it got demolished. And so it was this weird ode to that place."
NFS: How did you communicate the visual strategy that you had in mind to achieve this your DP? The film is very wide. It's very colorful. Can speak to that?
Yan: We knew for a while that we wanted to shoot anamorphic and then we actually went wider than the wide that is typical. Because the context of China and the locations and the environment of these characters were really, really important. We wanted to make sure that we were shooting a lot in these wides and you could really feel it. And also there's something very epic about the film and the characters. That made it very obvious what the look of it would be.
And in terms of the colors, I think there were two reasons: one, it just exists. If you go to China, they use a lot of neon, the signs are really bright and colorful. So that was very automatic. But then at the same time, I think tonally, it helped create this world that was slightly heightened from reality. The general tone of the film is still grounded but there's something a little heightened and colorful and dramatic.
NFS: At one point, people break out into song.
Yan: Exactly, so it was like, how do we ease people into this?
NFS: What your production was like? I’m sure there are a lot of No Film School readers wondering about how production is done in China.
Yan: It was definitely tough. What we were trying to do, I think, hasn't been done before, which was create a co-production without it actually officially being a co-production. Our investors were all Chinese. But I think just given my sensibilities and where I'm from, I really wanted to bring a lot of that western elements to it as well. And so everyone that I was looking for in collaborators ended up being multi-lingual and bi-cultural or worldly in a way. My two lead producers are Chinese but both of them have spent time outside of China, have perfect English. Most of the department heads and collaborators also had that as well. My costume designer is from LA but moved to China. My DP, he's Argentinean, Chilean and went to NYU. In a weird way, even though it was technically a Chinese film, it was much more global than that.
"What we were trying to do, I think, hasn't been done before, which was create a co-production without it actually officially being a co-production."
NFS: Were there any special challenges to the actual production? Finding locations out there? What's the industry kind of like out there that you've worked within?
Yan: It's different. I mean, culturally, it's very different. Even the role of the first assistant director is different there. So some crew roles were slightly off and we had to be very particular about who we brought in and which way we wanted to go. Basically, we made sure that everyone on set had experience with Western crews or commercials. Commercials in China tend to be a little more westernized. And so that wasn't much of a problem.
Of course, you still have to adapt. Right? You're still shooting there, and there's still a lot of things that locals can do better. You want that local knowledge for sure. There were a lot of challenges on the film because it's not that big of a budget but I think it's quite ambitious. We had a lot of locations and the hardest location was certainly Candy's house.
"Your first feature has to come from your heart and your gut rather than something that you are strategizing..."
NFS: Was Candy’s house, this last holdout surrounded by demolition and skyscrapers in the distance, someplace you were able to find with the other houses around it? Or did you have to add that?
Yan: We got very lucky. Very, very lucky. We didn't have the money to CGI it properly, even if we wanted to. So we really had to find the house. That was the first and biggest priority for us. So that part of Shanghai actually used to be this huge village and it had been getting demolished to make way for the new financial center of Shanghai. So the area was actively being turned into high rises. There were acres and acres and just a huge amount of land. And they were already in the middle of demolishing it, there were a few houses left that were sort of eye candy, hold out houses. But then the house that we found wasn't. It was actually already abandoned and there were no windows, there was no door. So it was just kind of a miracle All we did was we built a pigeon coup and we put up some walls and the missing ceiling. Everything you see of the house we shot in the house on location. Soon after, it got demolished. And so it was this weird ode to that place.
On one of our last days filming there, this old couple came by. It turns out they used to be the owners of the house. So it was this strange thing where you were sort of living through this history and it was this weird commentary about what was happening as it was happening.
NFS: Do you have any advice for filmmakers?
Yan: I would say, tell the story that you have to tell and not the one that people tell you to tell. Your first feature has to come from your heart and your gut rather than something that you are strategizing and thinking maybe this is a good thing because it seems like a hot topic. No, it's got to be personal because that's the only thing that's going to get you across the finish line. You’ll make something that's different and interesting.