How to Make the Jump from Lighting Tech to Sundance Director
Cedric Cheung-Lau spent eight years putting together his first feature. In that time, he perfected lighting skills, met his crew, and learned to direct from a litany of filmmakers...all as a chief lighting tech.
In those eight years, Cheung-Lau worked on A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, Love After Love, Christine, and Patti Cake$. He learned on set. His now completed directorial debut, The Mountains Are A Dream That Call to Me, which he shot with 9 key crew members for 19 days on a trek in Nepal, is a transcendent cinematic experience that premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.
Cheung-Lau sat down with No Film School at Sundance to talk about his style, the tools he brought up the Annapurna Mountains, what to keep (and what to avoid_ when coming from a below-the-line role, and whether he would recommend a path to others.
"As a kid, I always dreamed about directing."
NFS: You’ve been the chief lighting technician on many great films. Was directing always a path that you were going to pursue in addition to the craft of lighting?
Cedric Cheung-Lau: Yes. Absolutely. As a kid, I always dreamed about directing. But I also really wanted to work on films and be a part of the filmmaking process. That's really it—I love films. Whether it's working on my friend's films or working on student films, I learn so much anytime I'm on set. I interact with such wonderful people, I just feel fortunate that I've been able to work on so many films, and be a part of that process, and be creative. But yes, in the back of my mind, there was always a desire to direct. I was fortunate and lucky enough to be able to direct this film. I hope there are more and I always get to keep working on films.
NFS: The form of storytelling in the film is very unique. How would you describe your style, and did your work as lighting tech inform it?
Cheung-Lau: I can't necessarily take any specific things I've learned from working on these films, but I think we're always we're absorbing and learning. I've learned a lot of amazing things from watching all the directors that I've worked with over the years. I learned a lot from watching them do their thing.
As we all know, not every film is for everybody, and there's a lot of different styles and ideas on how to film. They all convey different emotions. They're all wonderful. They're all difficult to make, but there's heart in there.
It's helpful to come from a below-the-line place because I understand how sets work. I think it can also be harmful in a way because when I'm writing and trying to think about how to make the film you're writing for the budget you think you can get. That's not necessarily helpful. That being said, it also allows you to know what is possible on a tight budget. Coming from lighting, I thought a lot about how to expose what I wanted to shoot at night. We're fortunate that the technology is at a place where it's very possible to make the film the way we wanted with a very small footprint on the mountain. We wanted to be respectful of the people and the space.
"It's helpful to come from a below-the-line place because I understand how sets work."
NFS: There is great use of lighting throughout the film. We’re bathed in sunset, sunrise, twilight.
Cheung-Lau: We knew we had to carefully time a lot of the exterior shots. The DP Jake Magee and the producer Alexandra Byer went on two scouts together. Both of them did the trek once without a scout, not as a test, just to see the space and what I was trying to do. The second time we did it with a more formal scout, where we were like, "These are the places we want to shoot." We were just taking a lot of notes on exactly when the sun was setting in different places and then gauging how much time we had to get away with things.
NFS: What was your relationship with this place, this particular trek?
Cheung-Lau: At the time of filming, that was the 8th time I'd been on the trek, so I'd done it a number of times. The first time I just did it in a normal time frame which takes roughly 6 to 7 days, or something up to 10 days depending on the pace you want to do it. Then, I think the second time I took about the length of filming that we took. I did a lot of writing on it. That trek means a lot to me. Whenever I go back to Nepal, people would be like, "Oh, you've only done that trek?" I was like, "I know. I know there's so much more." But this trek really meant something to me. In a way, it tells a beautiful story just in the nature of the trail, the way it unfolds. In many ways, it’s an easy film for me to make because I was just trying to film the story of that trail, and the mountains the way the people did who designed that trail.
I think people forget that trails are designed by people. That tells a really beautiful story in a way that you sometimes just around the corner and suddenly the sound of the river comes rushing up the hill. It reveals this other massive set. It's filmmaking language 101 when you just walk the trail and look around. It's an incredible space.
"You don't have Wi-Fi at the end of the night, or hot showers. You don't have the things that you're accustomed to at the end of a long day of work."
NFS: Speaking of this space, shots are composed in a very intentional way around the space in the film. For example, you pan around the mountains. Or you watch woman hiker crossing diagonally in a very long take. Did you have certain rules for how each everything would be framed?
Cheung-Lau: I think Jake Magee [DP] and I talked a lot before we'd shot the film. He's been a very dear friend. I was very fortunate that he was able to come onboard. We spoke a lot about how we should tackle this. For us, it was always about the space. This all started with the space, the mountains, and trying to tell that story. Jake understood that as well. For us, it was about making sure that people understood that the space is important and that we are inhabiting something important.
Making sure that we were filming it that way was hard. It was a difficult thing to find that language and scope. Some things we tried worked and somethings we tried didn't. It was about experimenting. On the mountain, we tried a lot of different things, which also really helped our editors Lee and Ohm to experiment as well. I think for me it was like a sculpture. We knew where we wanted to land in a very abstract way. We were just chiseling away and trying to sculpt, and find different things, and find our way for the mountain.
NFS: You mentioned the technology. You’re in the Annapurna mountains and you have to carry everything up. What did you bring?
Cheung-Lau: We shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini, which is already a great thing because it's a very small compact body, at least easier to carry up than a larger camera. We had a few zooms and a small lens package. Lighting wise, we ended up only using Quasars and LiteMats which have great output and good color rendition. You can power them off of a battery pack, which is tremendous to be able to do that. We did a lot of wide stuff as well, so it's easier to hide some lights when we needed.
Our gaffer is my dear friend Alex Prokos. He was wonderful...just full of energy and was able to think of things that nobody else could. I mentioned technology, but also it takes the ingenuity of a wonderful guy like Alex to come up with things. When we're on the trail and we're all filmmakers, what's also fun is that we're all just problem solving to make the thing that we want to make.
NFS: How big was your team? How long was your shoot?
Cheung-Lau: We shot for 19 days. We had 9 crew members. Me and Jake the DP, the two producers, Alexandra Byer and Madeleine Askwith, came with us. Then, our 1st AC Cary Dwyer, 2nd AC/Boom/Renaissance Man, Max Bowens. Our production designer, Madeline Sadowski worked magic without being able to bring her massive kit. She did a tremendous job with what was available on the mountain and what little she could bring up to really help visuals. It was incredible to work with a wonderful team.
"We shot on the ARRI Alexa Mini...it's a very small compact body, at least easier to carry up than a larger camera."
There was also an incredible Nepali crew. These were the technicians that I knew could do the job. There was our Nepali production manager who helped facilitate everything. And a large group of porters who carried a lot of stuff up. They were obviously also integral to the process. Incredible energy to just understand what we were doing and help us with whatever we needed doing.
NFS: Did you meet the people on your team from working on other sets?
Cheung-Lau: Yes. All the people that we brought out, I did. They were friends I worked with on sets before. Jake and I met nine years ago, I think. Chris the sound mixer, he's an incredible person that I've worked on a number of jobs. Alexandra Byer, I did a few jobs with. We were all a very, very close group of friends, which was incredible and very fortunate that I was able to do this with them. To have that support is invaluable. What was also interesting was that on this mountain walking up you don't have creature comforts. You don't have Wi-Fi at the end of the night or hot showers. You don't have the things that you're accustomed to at the end of a long day of work.
Putting us all together in this fragile space opened us up in different ways. That made our friendships deeper I think. I doubt if I'll ever experience anything like it again.
"I think I'm learning every second of my life."
NFS: The path you took to work on sets and then direct, is that a path you would recommend to others? What's your advice?
Cheung-Lau: I don't know if I'm in any position to give advice because there's a lot that I still have to learn. I think everybody takes their own path. I don't think there's a right or wrong way to do it. I think we all find our ways forward. We're all trying to figure it out. It worked for me, and I'm very lucky it did in this way. I hope I get to make another film down the line. I think in some ways, it's also about just doing it. There are a million excuses not to make a film, but all those excuses boil down to the one thing: you're not doing it. I know it's easier said than done.
I think we do have a lot of amazing technology now. We all walk around with a camera in our pocket. It's an incredible time to make a film. It's very difficult but we can only start learning if we start making things. This has been an invaluable learning process for me having a unique opportunity to work in the settings that I have. All the directors that I've met along the way have also been invaluable. I learned a lot from them, and I learned a lot from the times when I'm not making films. I think I'm learning every second of my life. I just take the opportunities that I can. I'm fortunate that they landed me here.
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