Commentary: Two Wayne Wang films are better than one

Theatrical for 'Prayers,' YouTube for 'Princess'

Wayne Wang: It's routine to talk to filmmakers about their movies, but it's unusual to find a director who has two new films coming out within a few weeks of each other.

That, however, is exactly what I discovered Friday when I spoke to Wayne Wang, whose work over the years has included acclaimed art house fare like "Chan is Missing" and mainstream Hollywood films like the 2002 Jennifer Lopez romantic comedy "Maid in Manhattan." Wang's now in the unique position of having two pictures entering the marketplace.

His award winning drama "A Thousand Years of Good Prayers" opens via Magnolia Pictures Sept. 19 in New York and Sept. 26 in L.A. and San Francisco before rolling out nationally. A few weeks later his drama "The Princess of Nebraska" will have its world premiere through Magnolia on the Internet as a free download on YouTube's new "YouTube Screening Room" channel for premium movie content.

Both films mark a return for Wang to the style of personal intimate filmmaking that established him as a leading independent filmmaker in the '80s with pictures like "Chan," "Dim Sum: A Little Bit of Heart" and "Eat a Bowl of Tea." Both "Prayers" and "Princess" are based on short stories in a prize wining collection by Yiyun Li. When Wang and I spoke I'd just enjoyed an early look at "Prayers," which won four prizes at the 2007 San Sebastian Film Festival, including a Golden Shell for Best Film for Wang and a Silver Shell for Best Actor for Henry O.

In "Prayers" O plays Mr. Shi, a retired widower who travels to the U.S. from Beijing to visit his only daughter, Yilan (Faye Yu), who's going through a divorce. Mr. Shi hopes to help Yilan rebuild her life, but finds this is in direct conflict with her desire to move on.

Moving on is also a theme of "Princess," whose story revolves around a young Chinese woman who goes from Nebraska to San Francisco to get an abortion and intends to "start a new page" tomorrow. She soon finds that turning a new page doesn't necessarily mean turning your back on the past.

"I've been promoting these two films," Wang told me. "They came out at Telluride last year. Since then I've been to Toronto, to San Sebastian, to all these festivals trying to get these two films out and trying to talk about them as two films that should be seen together. When I read the collection of short stories I was obsessed with both of them because one is about an older woman who grew up during the Cultural Revolution and was very much affected by it and is running away from her past, so to speak, and the other is about a young woman who grew up during this economic boom of China and really doesn't have a past and, in a way, is sort of looking for her past."

Asked how "Prayers" came about, Wang told me that originally he'd been trying to put together an entirely different project, which ran into problems. "So I started becoming interested in Yiyun Li's collection of short stories and I started adapting that screenplay," he said. "I turned to the same Japanese investors who were interested in working with me -- (Tokyo-based) Entertainment FARM -- and I said, 'Would you be interested in doing 'Thousand Years?' They read the script and really got excited and decided to do it."

Initially, he added, "it was going to be a co-production between China and them. The co-production money from China is still very tricky. It fell apart at the last minute because there were some censorship issues. They didn't like the dialogue line from Mr. Shi saying 'Communism is not bad. It just fell into the wrong hands.' There are lines like that that are really interesting so I didn't want to deal with that issue. So I just said, 'Forget it. Let me move on.' I didn't have half of the financing and at the last minute we had to piece together European financing from Germany and Italy. It was pretty scary at one point. We were already in pre-production and ready to shoot and half our money slipped away. But out of all of this, everything worked out in the end."

Production began in the fall of 2006 and finished in the spring of '07. "I shot it in Spokane because the story required a mid-sized middle-American city and Spokane kind of fit that bill," he explained. "There was a really interesting film company out there called North by Northwest. The owner of the company (Rich Cowan) actually is a director, himself, and made some very personal films. He got very interested in this project and said, 'I'll help you make it at a really reasonable cost.'"

When I asked Wang how he approaches directing, he replied, "There's a part of me that really admires somebody like Sidney Lumet, (who's known for) a craftsman's type of working and keeping on schedule and doing things really practically. But there's a part of me that's very organic and trying to come from something that's deeper with the actors. And especially with these two actors who really knew their characters very well, most of the time was (spent) telling them, 'Don't try so hard. Just let the character be.'"

Because Wang's budget didn't allow for flying in actors from L.A. or New York to play smaller roles in "Prayers," he pointed out, "I was casting people in Spokane. There are not a lot of professional actors there so I ended up telling the casting person, who was very smart, to bring in a lot of non-professional actors -- people who could just kind of be themselves and be interesting like (one woman in the film) who was a forensic scientist that couldn't get a job in Spokane because there weren't enough dead bodies. She came in and she was so funny and so interesting we just added her character into the piece and let her be herself. The manager of the building (where Yilan lives in the film), the first time when we went to scout the place he told us that he worked for the CIA for 11 or 12 years. He was very cooperative and very funny and had a great sense of humor, which I ended up using (to create) a scene with him."

Looking back at production and its challenges, he recalled, "It took me a while to get these actors to settle down into that kind of more authentic and organic (style) of acting. I shot everything in sequence and then by the time I got to the (father and daughter's) big argument scene, all of a sudden they were like TV melodrama actors. I just couldn't get them to relax and 'to be,' so to speak. That was very difficult. I was in a position to call everything to a halt and just say, 'Stop. I'm not going to shoot this, This is not working.' We shot other things and then came back to it. By that time, they were settled down enough that they were able to get back into the scene in a more real way."

Another challenge was working with actors with different acting styles. Wang pointed to Vida Ghahremani, who plays an Iranian woman Mr. Shi meets in a park. They manage to communicate with each other through their use of broken English and gestures. "Vida is always improvising and telling jokes and being that way even on camera," he said, "and just throwing Henry completely off. In the beginning, I thought, 'Oh, God, this is not going to work.' And then I had to relax and just let them be, also, because some of the confusion is actually good for the scene. Just letting Vida go off a little bit was good. I had to figure out a way to cover the scene so I could cut it out if it didn't go where I wanted it to go.

"Production-wise I was lucky because I wanted to shoot the film in sequence. I wanted to be able to change things when I could. So I had pretty good control over it, but sometimes that threw the crew completely off because I would come in in the morning and go, 'I'm not going to shoot anything that's being listed today. I thought of three other things I want to do.' And the crew would just kind of go crazy. I did more and more of that actually toward the latter part of the shoot because we had a very tight schedule. It was like a 23 day schedule and I had to get everything in."

Shooting in sequence, he observed, "was helping me really see the movie and feel the movie as it went along so I could make the changes I needed to. Normally, in a Hollywood situation you have all these actors (with) all their different schedules and you have to keep to that. For example, you get a good actor to come in for just two weeks and you have to shoot him now. That puts a crink in the schedule. Or you have a location where you only get it for a certain number of days and then all your scenes related to that location have to be shot out of sequence. What I did was design something that really allowed me to shoot in sequence. I rented this apartment. We designed the apartment and I kept (it) during the entire shoot so I could shoot, go out and shoot some other things and then come back to the apartment and still be in sequence."

Wang's "Princess" is a totally different type of movie and was shot digitally, which fits perfectly with the innovative concept of playing it on the Internet where people can download it for free. "Princess" has an Internet-type look and its pace is much quicker than "Prayers," all of which should resonate well with YouTube's young demographic.

"It was a great idea from (marketing executive) Ray Price of Magnolia who said, 'We want to try to put these two films on some kind of parallel platform, but 'Princess' is too difficult to put into another theatrical release at the same time,'" Wang noted. "So he had this idea, 'Why don't we approach YouTube and put it online (for) this new thing they're setting up called the Screening Room? That way, one would be online and one would be in theatrical release.'

"The way 'Princess' is shot is like something that would be shown on the Internet because (it uses) a lot of close-ups, it's shot all hand-held (and) it's shot with a lot of different kinds of digital media. For example, there's some cell phone shots in it because the main character always uses a cell phone to sort of document herself and find her own identity through it. So all of that really plays into and fits that format. I'm very intrigued and happy with this way of presenting it."

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