'Long Day's Journey into Night': Bi Gan on Teaching Yourself to Make a Film
Build a strong foundation of knowledge...so you don't have to listen to what others tell you.
Watching Long Day's Journey into Night, you would never guess it's the work of a 29-year-old filmmaker who's made only one other feature. Its carefully measured, nuanced frames easily evoke comparisons to Wong Kar Wai and feel more like the meditations of a man who's lived an entire lifetime of haunting experience. But that's just the type of filmmaker Bi Gan has always wanted to be.
From the very beginning, he knew what kind of films he wanted to make, and in sticking to his guns (even throughout varying degrees of success), this vision has allowed him to create the type of work that had critics raving at Cannes, TIFF, and most recently, the New York Film Festival. Director Bi never went to film school, instead, he carefully studied the work of others and created a community of his own.
"If you have a strong enough and solid enough foundation, you don't need other people's suggestions."
Long Day's Journey into Night benefits from a combination of the hypnotic inspirations of Bi's past and the technological innovations present to him in youth. It's a Mandarin language noir about a man who travels back to his hometown to find a long lost love of his past. As he recalls the summer he spent with her 20 years ago, the audience is forced to piece together abrupt changes in time as well as if what they're seeing is a dream or reality.
What most people will be talking about after seeing the film, however, is its absolutely jaw-dropping hour and a half long one take which hits midway through its story. As the title card finally appears, the audience is prompted to put on a pair of 3D glasses and follow the film's protagonist into a whole new world.
I sat down with Bi Gan to discuss what it is about his style that has made him so successful at such a young age, teaching yourself how to make films by watching the work of others, and why it's important to always keep your vision in check.
No Film School: You're 29-years-old. For most American filmmakers, reaching the type of success that you've reached at such a young age, is rarely heard of. Could you take us through how you were able to make your first feature, Kaili Blues?
Bi Gan: Before that, I want to say that I'm just like everybody else. I think that most filmmakers start their first film maybe around 28 or 29, before they reach 30. So I do see myself as a filmmaker just like anybody else. In terms of the first film, Kaili Blues, I didn't really have any ambitions or motivations to make it. I wasn't thinking about any film festivals, institutions, companies, or organizations that I was going to make the film for.
I basically just found money and investment from my friends, my professors, and my teachers. Then when I had enough money, I really just wanted to put it to good use and make my first film. So in a way, it was very physiological. It's almost like a need that I needed to fulfill because I wanted to make it happen at this age.
NFS: You didn't go to film school. How did you learn to make films? What was your learning process like?
Bi: I didn't go to the academies per se, but I did take classes. There’s almost like this community college type of arrangement in China. During this particular period in time, I had access to a lot of films, by going to the library and to the archive. I also had opportunities to listen to filmmakers come into this particular school to talk about films and how they make films and just film-related workshops and seminars. I think that process itself is very much self-taught.
The way that I can teach myself is to somehow put myself in that kind of environment. I found online forums with people who are just like me and we would talk about making films. We would watch a lot of bootleg DVDs I downloaded online and we then came back to discuss them. Those are pretty much the resources that I had at the time and somehow they’ve informed me as a filmmaker. They were limited resources, but still, it's enough. Also doing short films, before the feature films, helps as well.
"Watching these films and observing those things, the key things, they became part of my repertoire, they became part of my frame of reference."
NFS: When you're watching other movies, what were some key things that you were looking at? How do you watch movies to learn as a filmmaker?
Bi: I watched many, many things and in them, all the things that you are supposed to observe as a filmmaker. It could be mise en scene, it could be performances of the actors or the way that they actually put together shots and edit films...I watch these films repeatedly in such a way that I can almost internalize the things I have watched and observed. I am not a good notetaker, I don't take notes. I'm very, very bad as a student, therefore I'm not trying to put together certain formulas and memorize them and try to apply them into my filmmaking.
It's very much that through the process of watching these films and observing those things, the key things, they became part of my repertoire, they became part of my frame of reference. When I'm making films, somehow I have that wealth of frame of reference that I can draw from very organically and very naturally. It's just a matter of enriching your own frame of reference as a filmmaker and when you need it, you can then call them out and you can somehow utilize them at will.
Here is something that I want to bring up. Having limitations also means that you have a problem that you can resolve. But you need to have that kind of drive, that kind of passion and that kind of need and desire to make a film first because you can always make films, even with your cell phone, your smartphone, your GoPro, whatever it is that's already available out there. What’s most important is the desire you have as a filmmaker to make films.
NFS: It seems like with this film in particular, Long Day's Journey into Night, you were given a free range of tools. How did the absence of limitations help you in this case?
Bi: Because of the resources and the support I had for the second film, I think it was actually quite the opposite. For my first film, I was freer as a filmmaker because it was a private, personal piece. It's almost like going to karaoke to sing a song for myself, by myself. Then for this particular production, of course, you have this team of people from the film industry, and as a private individual filmmaker, I needed to then go through the process of communicating, negotiating and trying to reach a certain compromise with them. So it's a constant, I won't say the word struggle, but it's definitely a constant communication, negotiation, and compromise that I need to do in order to find that balance between myself as a filmmaker and the industry itself.
"It's the result of me not giving in easily on the things that I thought were very important to my filmmaking."
NFS: How did you find that balance? How were you able to bring that private feeling to such a larger scale project?
Bi: I don't think I did a very good job. That's why we are over budget and we shot for such a long time, longer than they expected. I think that the end result is something that I wanted, something that I envisioned. But it's because of how well I have negotiated, communicated, and reached that compromise. It's the result of me not giving in easily on the things that I thought were very important to my filmmaking. It’s this struggle and the act of defiance in trying to make this happen for myself to the quality that I find satisfactory.
NFS: If you had one golden piece of advice for aspiring filmmakers, what would it be?
Bi: The time is now. It is the best time to make films. You need to do your homework and if you have a strong enough and solid enough foundation, you don't need other people's suggestions.