Q&A: Dayyan Eng
EmptyMultihyphenate American writer-director Dayyan Eng's bilingual black comedy "Inseparable" is the first feature financed by a Chinese backer to star a marquis Hollywood actor. Kevin Spacey's arrival in Guangzhou in January drew plenty of attention. But Eng was still better-known locally, having now lived more of his itinerant life in Beijing than any place else. "Though I think of myself as a world citizen, I'm considered a local here," says Eng, speaking to THR's Jonathan Landreth in Beijing. It was in the capital that his 2005 romantic comedy "Waiting Alone," won the best first feature and best actor awards at the Beijing Film Festival. Its fans are legion and many still stop Eng on the street. Before that, his 2001 short, "Bus 44," drew honorable mentions at Venice and Sundance.
The Hollywood Reporter: You've just finished something new and big and different. How do you feel?
Dayyan Eng: The collaboration and the experience was so much fun it exceeded my expectations. We had a great cast and crew that all were so creative. It was the smoothest shoot I've ever had. When I start putting together a movie, apart from getting talented people, I look for good people to create a special feel. Life's too short, you know? We had a group of people who wanted to do their best to show everybody that we can make quality films right here in China.
THR: How was shooting in Guangzhou?
Eng: Logistics were a major pain in the butt. They're not used to having modern day pictures on the scale of our film show up. They have period pieces or TV series on the outskirts, but not in Guangzhou City. We didn't know which offices to go talk to half the time because they don't know who you're supposed to talk to about permits or roadblocks or whatever. As the shoot went on, we got more cooperation after the local news started picking up on us and the tabloid photographers showed up. Once that started happening, there was a move to accommodate us.
THR:Were Kevin Spacey and co-star Daniel Wu recognized by onlookers?
Eng: Guangzhou is pretty Canto-centric, so Daniel, being a Hong Kong movie star, was pretty recognizable. On the whole, 'laobaixing' (regular Chinese) were curious, but the most attention we got came after I gave the local press interviews about the local economic benefits of moviemaking.
THR: Why set the story there in the first place?
Eng: A few reasons. One, because I've done Beijing so many times. Two, because Guangzhou has the contrast. I like the architecture. The older '20s building and then a new central business district. I wanted a nondescript southern city for Daniel and co-star Beibei Gong, who are both southerners. It felt better than trying to force Daniel to speak in a Beijing accent. It's interesting for audiences to see a different part of China, including domestic moviegoers. I mean, how many times do we get to see Shanghai and Beijing and maybe Chongqing? Guangzhou hasn't been done in a while. But the number one reason for me is that it's nice and warm and there was no way I was going to shoot in the cold again.
THR: What was Spacey like in China?
Eng: He was as professional as I assumed he would be but I didn't think he'd be so quick to adapt to the environment in Guangzhou and the way crew works out here. The first day, we took him out to the bars and clubs to have some fun and afterwards he started finding places we didn't even know existed.
THR: Were there clashes?
Eng: I noticed the first few days he was trying to figure out the working style and methods, but by day three, everybody had gelled and was good to go. He seemed surprised by how fast we were moving. We were shooting very quickly and getting a lot of work done. In the States, you decide you want a tracking shot and the Teamsters take their time setting up since they get paid overtime. But here, within three minutes you've got a track set up and the shot's ready to go. For an actor, it's great, because there's not so much waiting around. There were a few times Kevin was half way to the trailer and got called back because we were ready to work.
THR: How long did you take to shoot the film?
Eng: Shooting days, not including off days, 54 days.
THR: Did you work strictly from your script or was there improv on the set?
Eng: I let the actors view the lines in the script and hear what I have to say about certain lines' delivery, but at the same time, I don't get anal about it. If they want to play a bit or shift line order around, that's O.K. We stuck pretty close to the script but what you realize with comedies, once you see the performers, especially with good actors, you realize the film is a lot funnier than you thought.
THR: There's a plot twist. Was it always there?
Eng: Yeah, pretty much from the first draft. I do a lot of rewrites, but this one was there from the beginning. It's just the first draft that takes me two years. I become low-output guy.
THR: Why five years between 'Waiting Alone' and this one?
Eng: After 'Waiting Alone' I was signed by ICM and spent a lot of time in L.A. doing the whole meet-and-greet thing. There were projects they were bringing me -- most of them horror scripts -- and I was, like, 'What makes you think I do horror? I've never done horror. Just 'cause I'm from Asia?' You know, that whole thing. Then I started doing my own projects after I realized that the projects I wanted to do were just taking too long in L.A. The ones that were greenlit, I just couldn't do because I wasn't excited about 'em. So, I came back to China.
THR: So, you prefer working in China?
Eng: It's not a question of preference, as I've not actually made a film in the U.S. I definitely have much more creative freedom out here. The success of the last movie plus getting this one done means I can do whatever I want. Whereas over there, it'd be under different rules.
THR: How do you quantify the success of 'Waiting Alone'?
Eng: Because it was such a low-budget film, the backers definitely made money. It was also a first for the domestic Chinese audience, with so many young people identifying with the film. For two or three years after the film I was still getting people coming up to me saying, 'Oh my God, I saw that movie 10 times. It changed my life,' and I was like, 'Really?' (...laughs) It's great. As a filmmaker, you love hearing this kind of stuff. It kind of took on a life of its own, so that was cool. It was a different time. There was virtually no distribution in China and now it just keeps getting better and better. Released today, "Waiting Alone" would have done a lot better. Right after that I got a lot of offers to do a sequel, but I wanted to try something different. Nothing connected, so that's why it took me such a long time to get to "Inseparable."
THR: Who were the investors in "Inseparable"?
Eng: Fantawild is their English name. It's sounds like a porn company. They're part of a conglomerate called Hua Qiang, which is one of the biggest amusement park companies in China. They pretty much put in all of the money.
THR: Is it the most expensive film you've made to date?
Eng: Yes, definitely. I've only made two features before this and this one's got the explosions and the car flips.
THR: Why is this film, which is primarily in English, going to be relevant to Chinese moviegoers?
Eng: Well, there's a growing audience, but look at this last year of films. Too many of them were period war films that didn't make money. How many more of these can we watch without everybody nodding off? It's staring to happen. People want to see other things and the issues in "Inseparable" are geared to the prime cinema-going age group.
THR: What filmmakers do you count as influential?
Eng: It goes in phases, but there are a few staple favorites, like the Coen Brothers. The way that Ang Lee seems to be able to make movies anywhere is impressive to me since I grew up, luckily, all over the place in a multicultural environment in so many countries. I can actually see the oneness of humanity. People are the same everywhere. Stories can be told anywhere.
THR: Since you were born to parents of Chinese, Scottish and Persian heritage, how do you describe who you've become after living in Taiwan, Australia, Canada, Macau, China and the U.S.?
Eng: I really don't have a label that fits. For me, it's like that saying, the world is my playground. It kind of feels like that. I thank my parents for showing me the world at such a young age. It gave me the ability to appreciate different cultures and people. You actually end up seeing more of the similarities in people than their differences. I'm American as far as passports go. Taiwan is a childhood memory. I've lived longer than anywhere else in Beijing, so this is home, though I'm not a Chinese citizen. Between seventh and 12th grades I was in four different countries. This made it easier to make friends, not harder, because you don't get attached to people you won't ever see again.
THR: What's next?
Eng: Well, there's 'American Dream,' optioned from a book. I'm not writing the script for that one. I really want to speed up my process so I don't die having only made four movies (..laughs). That would be lame. There are a few projects I'm in talks over. Most are English-language, and a few are either fully U.S.-financed films or co-productions with China. I have some ideas in the drawer to do another local Chinese film, too. There's also a sci-fi film I'm planning to take a while to write on my own.
THR: Might that local pic be the "Waiting Alone" sequel?
Eng: No sequels for me yet, though I always thought it might be funny for me to revisit the cast 10 years later to see what happened to them all. It's almost justifiable because China is so different now, but now it's more just a joke, not a reality.
THR: When will "Inseparable" finish and do you have distribution?
Eng: July or August. We can finish by then. In the U.S., Bill Block of QED International is going to help us. In China, unfortunately, there are only a limited number of distribution players. You're kind of stuck with the lot. It comes down to who you think can do the film justice.
THR: China's film world is still director-centric. Do you think there's room for more involvement from producers?
Eng: There's room for that, but there aren't that many people here who can do it. I don't want to be the guy making my own trailer, but I kind of have to because otherwise it's going to look like crap. It's great for creative freedom, getting final cut and whatnot, but there's the whole release strategy and the poster design, etc. I don't actually want to be doing this stuff. I don't want to be a control freak, but there's still a need to stay involved to protect your product. However, I've noticed lately that there are more and more individuals and companies that are doing pretty slick and professional jobs here in China.