Why Cathy Yan's 'Dead Pigs' Took 3 Years to Fly

Courtesy of MUBI; Stephanie Diani
The filmmaker delves into the long journey to get her film festival darling to audiences around the world, years after it helped her land DC's 'Birds of Prey' movie.

Cathy Yan’s directorial debut, Dead Pigs, has finally been released on MUBI despite wrapping production four years ago and the filmmaker releasing her second film, Birds of Prey, last February. The quirky dark comedy connects a half-dozen characters in Shanghai through a familial land dispute and an unexplained spike in pig deaths. After the film’s award-winning premiere at Sundance in 2018, Yan encountered the same distribution hurdles that countless foreign-language indies have also faced involving subtitles and marketability.

Fortunately, the film’s Sundance performance led to industry screenings, which helped Yan secure her next job as the director of Warner Bros. and DC Films’ Birds of Prey. With a major studio film now on her resume, Yan was confident that Pigs would eventually find a home, especially once Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite won Best Picture at the 92nd Academy Awards.

“I really held on to what director Bong said about getting over this ‘one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.’ So I hope that foreign language films are a bigger part of the industry now — and not just a trend,” Yan tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There was all this really positive feedback on [Dead Pigs] itself, but I think there was just a lot of hesitancy, frankly, around the foreign language of it all. So I didn’t think too much of it, frankly, just because I was caught up in the whole Birds of Prey thing, but I held on to hope that the movie would eventually make it out there in the world.”

As devastating as the past year has been for the film industry, Yan believes that there’s a silver lining in terms of measuring the success of a film.

“We have a business model that quite literally creates a waterfall off of theatrical opening weekend numbers. The modern day blockbuster especially falls prey to this and all the talk and trading around it,” Yan explains. “But something interesting happened this year because of the pandemic. With simultaneous online releases, the opening weekend has lost its power and even blockbusters have had to move towards more of an indie or television model built off of word of mouth and reviews. Quality wins in the long run.”

In a recent conversation with THR, Yan also discusses the inspiration behind Dead Pigs’ unique narrative, Rian Johnson’s longtime support of the film and how Zazie Beetz ended up with a small role at the last minute.

So Dead Pigs premiered at Sundance in 2018 and won an award for ensemble acting. Did some discussions take place right away towards getting it distributed?

Yeah, we did have discussions, but nothing really came out of it. We had a really capable sales team in CAA, but nothing really happened.

Baffling. What was the consensus at the time?

Well, we got a lot of, “We love this film. It’s really interesting. It’s bold.” So there was all this really positive feedback on the film itself, but I think there was just a lot of hesitancy, frankly, around the foreign language of it all. I would also guess that it had to do with the fact that I was a first-time filmmaker and had nothing else to my name. All of these companies are thinking about the marketability of any movie that they acquire, and the film didn’t really have many notable stars in the West as well. So I think that it was just the combination of that. But we got a lot of, “It’s a foreign language film, and we don’t know how it will do box office-wise.”

And then, in April 2018, it was reported that you were directing Birds of Prey. At the time, did you feel confident that a big studio movie would help Pigs find a home eventually?

I think so, yeah. Dead Pigs is so deeply personal and important to me, and I also felt very much like there was a lot of really, really great work in it from the actors to the craft. From the music that Andrew Orkin composed to the cinematography of Federico Cesca, it’s a bunch of people, a lot of friends. And we really put it together in this very indie way, pulling a lot of favors. No one was really doing it for the money, that’s for sure. (Laughs.) We were doing it because we believed in the film, and at the time, even just getting to Sundance felt, like, “Wow! Oh my God! This is huge!” And we didn’t expect much more from it. But I definitely felt that I really wanted to get this movie out there. So I didn’t think too much of it, frankly, just because I was caught up in the whole Birds of Prey thing, but I held on to hope that the movie would eventually make it out there in the world.

Another challenge of getting distribution, even after I was hired for Birds, was that Dead Pigs was now seen as “old.” It was no longer the shiny new object straight from a film festival. The industry, as you know, loves chasing the new with an almost fanatical focus on how a film first performs. We have a business model that quite literally creates a waterfall off of theatrical opening weekend numbers. The modern day blockbuster especially falls prey to this and all the talk and trading around it. But something interesting happened this year because of the pandemic. With simultaneous online releases, the opening weekend has lost its power and even blockbusters have had to move towards more of an indie or television model built off of word of mouth and reviews. One of the few pleasures of the pandemic for me has been to slow down and rewatch old favorites, or catch films I’ve heard about but never got around to, or invest in great television that I didn’t have the time to start. Nothing I’ve watched has felt irrelevant or dated in the least bit. With libraries at our fingertips, I think most of us are gravitating towards the timeless work that speaks to us, the stories that always feel bold, profound and interesting. Quality wins in the long run. It’s very clear we need to move towards a more sustainable world. We need a more sustainable industry as well — not just in how we approach the success of our films but also the sustainability of careers, especially the careers of women and people of color. Maybe this will also help get movies back in the hands of creatives. And maybe, in a weird way, releasing Dead Pigs three years after Sundance and a year after my "blockbuster" is also a step in that direction.

I know how reductive this question is, but do you think things would have been different had Pigs come along in a post-Parasite world?

(Laughs.) I do. Parasite is a revelation to me. I love the movie so much. I remember finishing it for the first time, and I was so emotional because it did feel like, to me, that people were talking about a movie that I could see in my mind’s eye. I’d been following Bong Joon-ho’s career for a long time, as well, and Parasite was suddenly talked about in the conversation in a way that even his previous films — and most foreign language films — had not been. When it actually went on to win best picture — and not best foreign language film, but best picture, breaking that barrier — it was super emotional for me and probably for a lot of filmmakers of different backgrounds. It just meant a lot for anyone who’s non-American, not fully American or anyone who’s ever been relegated to that foreign language pile. The way that Parasite plays around with genre and tone was also something. That was really exciting to see, and it was just as exciting to see that other people were excited about it. It’s also really hard to put Dead Pigs into a box, and it didn’t fit the mold of a traditional and quieter arthouse film either. And that was deliberate. I mean, it just isn’t my style. But because of that, it was difficult to find the appropriate distributor and the appropriate home for it.

Thematically, both films have a lot in common. They’d probably make for a great double feature.

Thank you. That would be terrifying because I would not want that comparison right off the bat. (Laughs.) I really held on to what director Bong said about getting over this “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” The world is also becoming more and more connected. We’re all at home right now and we’re trying to find things that speak to us. And a lot of that, for me, happens to be in a foreign language — and not always a foreign language that I understand. So I hope that foreign language films are a bigger part of the industry now — and not just a trend.

Was there ever a point where you considered releasing the movie yourself on Vimeo or another comparable service? I assume your financiers would’ve put the kibosh on the idea.

I don’t remember specifically speaking about that, but I definitely feel like part of it was my own schedule on Birds of Prey, too. I was so focused on that, and I wanted to make sure I gave a release of Dead Pigs my all. So it kind of just stalled for a little bit because I was focused on Birds, and so after Birds came out, we were able to revisit it again. In many ways, working with MUBI and distributing on a global online platform made much more sense after 2020.

Rian Johnson put out a very nice tweet about the movie recently. Did you have a DGA screening a couple years ago or something along those lines?

He saw it at Palm Springs [International Film Festival], and he was actually on the jury that awarded it. So he had seen it a while ago. I love Rian. He is a good friend, and he’s just been nothing but supportive. CAA had also screened it to some industry people. It sort of became this weird secret, in a way, where industry people could get a hold of it because there was an online screener that we made available. And obviously, that screener helped me get my Birds of Prey job. So it was this weird thing where, in public, no one could find it, but everyone else was just watching it off of a Vimeo link that I had. (Laughs.)

While you based the story on 2013’s Huangpu River incident involving dead pigs, what led you to establish a six degrees of separation approach to the narrative?

Well, it seems especially prescient now to underline and understand how connected we all are. But I really took inspiration from the whole concept because it wasn’t like all of the pigs came out of one factory or one farm and all got dumped together like some big conspiracy. It was actually a collection of small pig farmers, all quite desperate, who didn’t realize that their pigs were dying and that their livelihood was going out the window. So they didn’t really have many other options, and frankly, there was probably a level of, “Well, if I dump them in the river, I can kind of hide the evidence,” not realizing that bloated bodies rise to the surface. So I found that to be really fascinating, that as an individual, you can do something on your own, thinking that you’re the only one doing it, and then have it accumulate into this much, much bigger thing. So that was the inspiration, partially anyway, for why it felt right to weave this cast of characters and show the ways that we are all interconnected, and the cause and effect of all of us and our actions. What we do does have a direct impact on someone else, and of course, that has played out in all our heads over and over again, throughout the last year, as we’ve all contact-traced. (Laughs.)

I know you were born in China before moving to the States, but are you fluent in the language? In other words, did you need a script translator/supervisor throughout production?

Yes, I am fluent, but I’m definitely not as comfortable with it as I am with English. So I had two amazing bilingual producers, who are both based in China. One of them went on to help produce The Farewell, actually. But they just really understood the script. So we became very close, and they would help me with the translations. I actually wrote the script in English because that’s just how my brain works, and then we worked together on the translation. But on top of that, there was another element of translation in that at least half of the Chinese that you hear in the movie is actually Shanghainese. So Candy (Vivian Wu) and her brother (Haoyu Yang) both speak in the Shanghainese dialect because China is a country full of dialects, and I really wanted to get that right. You could almost not understand each other if you’re just across the river from someone else. So there’s a very specific dialect in that part of the country, and on top of that, there are various dialects to indicate social-economic ranking. So I really wanted to try to get that right because language and the use of it directly affects behavior and the way that characters are formed. It has all of those things. So there was a level of translation that happened even for my actors because they would take the Chinese script and then turn that into Shanghainese dialect on set on the day. I’ve never been very precious with my dialogue, so I actually thought it was very freeing for everyone to know that I wasn’t going to get upset if they messed up a word. It was much more about the intent and the emotions behind a scene, as opposed to sticking to a script.

In terms of the actors’ line readings, did the inflection that you originally heard in English carry over rather seamlessly?

Yeah, a lot of that is super universal, actually. I trusted the actors to do their own translation since they spoke the dialect. I can understand Shanghainese, but I’m absolutely horrid at speaking it. So it was a really interesting exercise in what is universal and what can be sort of picked up, even if you don’t quite understand every single word. On top of that, we actually did post-production in New York, and we actually edited in my living room. But I really wanted a non-Chinese editor [Alex Kopit] because I believe that the best cinema transcends language and subtitles. I thought it would be interesting to have a very Western perspective on this very Chinese story, and I just told my editor to edit as if it were an opera. You don’t necessarily understand every word, but you understand what’s going on and you’re really just focused on the performance of the characters. So that’s how he cut. Of course, I was around if anything was really not working language-wise or dialogue-wise, but the approach was to really focus on the emotions of the scene.

So what’s the story behind Zazie Beetz’s character’s company? Are there services that actually hire stand-ins or proxies for events?

(Laughs.) Yeah, it is a real thing. I spent some time in China as an expat, essentially, even though that’s a weird thing to call myself after going back to the country that I was born in. But I had spent some time there as a reporter, and so I was part of that expat community. We’re so used to the classic American dream story about an immigrant coming to America for opportunities, not knowing the language, and sacrificing so much. And what I was seeing in China was the opposite of that, where a lot of Westerners, Americans — people who have no connection to China whatsoever and probably didn’t really attempt to learn the language — move halfway around the world to basically start a life there for the opportunities and pursue the American dream/Chinese dream. So that was always super fascinating to me, and on top of that, there were these peripheral cottage industries that service those expats in a way. (Laughs.) So I actually did have friends who were recruited for such things. I had friends who worked at predominantly Chinese companies, and they would be asked to sit in on meetings that they were not at all a part of, just to have that white face in the room. So there was this very interesting fascination with the West and Western culture, and whiteness, really, in China. I think that’s gone away a little bit more in recent years. I think China has gotten a lot more patriotic, but I wanted to explore that. It’s just such a bizarre phenomenon. (Laughs.)

Are clown messengers a popular service as well?

(Laughs.) That I might have just made up, but it felt right. It felt sadder, in a way, to have a clown deliver that message.

Did you have a pigeon wrangler of sorts on set?

We did. We did have to do that. The pigeons came about because I was doing research on the phenomenon of nail houses in China. Candy’s house is a nail house, and back in university, actually, I had written my thesis on this phenomenon and one of the earliest versions of it was this nail house in Chongqing, which is in western China. And Candy is somewhat inspired by the landlord of that house, Wu Ping. So I was doing some research about it, and my mother had a Chinese friend who worked for some developers and his job was much like Sean’s (David Rysdahl) eventual job. It was to help facilitate and encourage these negotiations to get these people out of their houses, and he told my mother that he had a really hard time with this one tenant because they refused to leave these homing pigeons that she raised. So they had a whole contract written up with the value of each of these pigeons.

Did you build Candy Wang’s house from the ground up?

I didn’t, actually. The house was there, but it was actually quite decrepit by the time we got there. The location itself existed as was, and we didn’t have any money for VFX. It used to be a village and they were just demolishing all of it. Now I think it’s become a very fancy high-rise development or a new financial center. It’s mostly businesses in that area of Shanghai, and so I started scouting for that house two years before we shot it because I knew it was so deeply important. And every time I would go to that location, it would become increasingly more deserted and more like a battlefield. There was just a sadness about it. Oftentimes, people would leave a lot of their stuff that you would find, like stuffed animals, clothing and children’s toys, in the rubble, which was very disturbing. We also had to find a house that existed, but didn’t have a lot around it so that it could create that environment. So it was a little hard to find, and then finally we found the house. I don’t think there were any doors or windows at that point, and it was originally yellow, so we painted it blue. We added the pigeon coop, and then we shot everything on location. All of the interior rooms are actual rooms that we production designed. When we resurrected the house from the dead and were shooting there, this older couple came by one day and were looking at my monitor. So I asked them who they were and what was up, and they said that they actually used to own the house. They had heard from their neighbors or their friends that this film shoot was happening there. So they came to take a look and it actually got really emotional for them. And then, once we left, the whole house got demolished again.

Compared to Birds of Prey, is it relieving to be able to talk about this movie without the pressure of knowing that every statement will be overanalyzed and turned into an article or twelve?

(Laughs.) Yes, I would say so. I really just enjoy talking about the craft of things. Not that it only has to be about that, but I really like that. To be promoting your first feature after your second feature has been out in the world — and four years after you made that first feature — is a weird and strange position to be in. So all of this has been a really interesting experience, but I really appreciate getting to just talk about the craft of it, and not getting too worried that it’s going to get picked up by some gossip outlet. (Laughs.)

Is Hippo Honey Brick toast as delightful as it appears?

(Laughs.) It’s pretty good, yeah. It’s quite fluffy and honey buttered. By the way, that cafe is a real place. I originally wanted to set it in Starbucks because they have this obsession with Starbucks the way that they have obsessions with various Western entities. So Starbucks was definitely that. It was very aspirational. So for the longest time, my mind was just like, “We need to shoot in Starbucks. This is a big detail in the story and Wang Zhen would obviously bring his father to Starbucks to show off.” It just fit his character, but we couldn’t get the rights to Starbucks. No one wanted us to shoot there, and it’s a whole thing because they’re super corporate. And so finally, I was like, “Fine, okay, let’s look for some other coffee shops,” and we found Zoo Coffee and Zoo Cafe. So I think I made up hippo honey brick toast, but only barely. (Laughs.) 

So, what have you been up to in the ten years since we last spoke in April?

(Laughs.) Trying to keep busy, actually. It’s been a really good time for me creatively. I got lucky in the sense that Birds of Prey just sneaked right on in before everything shut down. And I was, in a sense, finished with the project and able to work on other things. I’ve really been focusing on writing and developing, and it’s really been great. I actually started working with a producing partner who’s a dear friend of mine from university, named Ash Sarohia. He’s been working out in L.A. and the two of us reconnected and started a production company. So we’re just developing a lot of really exciting, exciting work. In television, we have a show that we’re developing with FX and Searchlight Television. We’ve also got a bunch of other things that I can’t talk about yet, but all of it feels really good. I’m actually thankful for this time off because we’re all very susceptible to the grind and the fast-paced nature of our industry and feeling like we always have to be doing something. So it was really nice to just get this break and figure out the types of stories I really want to be telling, the types of people that I want to collaborate with, and just focus my energies on developing our own work from the ground up.

[Writer's Note: In the days since we originally spoke, news broke that Yan would be directing a season-three episode of Succession. Her next film, The Freshening, was also announced, so she's added her thoughts below.]

I couldn’t be more excited about The Freshening. It’s weird and out there, and everyone on the team is not only supportive but encouraging of taking risks. It’s also the first feature that I’m producing alongside my producing partner Ash Sarohia under Rewild. So I feel very lucky as an artist to have that control and responsibility over the story.

By the way, David Rysdahl’s character, Sean, seemed to have a rather intriguing backstory. Did you work most of it out?

All of it, really. I thought it would be interesting to explore the psychology of someone who may have felt like he never really belonged where he is, and wasn’t quite as successful and strong or as popular, powerful and successful as he wanted to be. We all have a little bit of that. And then he goes to a new country, and in a weird way, he is exalted and put on a pedestal, but he’s put on a pedestal for reasons completely out of his control. It was mostly because of the way he looks and what he represents, as opposed to who he is. So I just found that psychology to be really interesting. Frankly, it’s one that I actually can commiserate a lot with, and it just flips everything on its head. There was definitely this desire to subvert the white savior trope that we see a lot in Hollywood movies. What’s the opposite of a white savior? Probably Sean Landry. (Laughs.)

Out of curiosity, did Zazie and David [Rysdahl] meet on the Dead Pigs set?

Actually, they knew each other beforehand. They were already together. We’ve all known each other for many, many years. I actually cast David in my first short film ever in film school — when I had no idea what I was doing — and we stayed good friends. So, yeah, we all came out of that $100-a-day indie short film and film school world of New York. And they subsequently met. Zazie originally came to China just to support him, and I saw her as just a friend and the girlfriend of David. So we were all going to have this crazy time shooting a movie together, and it wasn’t until prep where I wrote the role for her. The role was initially intended for a local Chinese woman, and the more I thought about it, the more I was like, “This is weird, but I think it’ll work.” (Laughs.)

Given how interconnected these characters are, it’s fitting that you’d have a couple connections of your own on set.

Yeah, exactly! There was something about the fact that she wasn’t Chinese that made it even more interesting than if she were Chinese.

I saved my worst question for last, but after Dead Pigs and Birds of Prey, do you have plans to complete your trilogy of movie titles that involve animals and death?

(Laughs.) Oh my God! Wow, that’s weird. Yeah, definitely. I have definite plans to include at least one animal, significantly, in all my movies. So I’m doing okay in that process, and I would really love that.

Dead Pigs is now streaming on MUBI.