'Formosa' was time of living dangerously



For many independent filmmakers it's a good trade off to work with low budgets if they can make issue-driven movies that matter to them.

A case in point is producer-director Adam Kane's political thriller "Formosa Betrayed" starring James Van Der Beek, which premiered at the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival. It opens via Screen Media Films in key cities Feb. 26 and expands through mid-April.

"We felt this was very much in the same vein as films like 'The Killing Fields' and 'The Year of Living Dangerously' -- political films I had a deep admiration for as I was growing up," Kane said.

His goal has always been to present important issues on screen while entertaining people at the same time. "Formosa" revolves around an FBI agent's investigation of the murder in Chicago of a Taiwanese-American professor, whose killers flee to safety in Taiwan.

The film is inspired by real events in the late '70s and early '80s: "There were several murders on American soil that the FBI was involved with that ended up involving the Taiwanese government."

Before making his feature directorial debut with "Formosa," Kane directed TV ("Heroes") and commercials (Calvin Klein) and was a film and TV cinematographer ("Resurrecting the Champ," "Grey's Anatomy").

Kane got involved with "Formosa" through David Cluck, a friend who was a producer on the project with lead producer Will Tiao. The film's screenplay by Charlie Stratton, Yann Samuell, Brian Askew and Nathaniel Goodman is from a story by Tiao and Katie Swain.

Tiao, a longtime advocate of Taiwanese rights, worked in Washington for many years under both the Clinton and Bush administrations on behalf of the Taiwanese independence movement, seeking a way for Taiwan to find its own identity and independence from China.

When Tiao left Washington he felt Taiwanese independence was an issue well suited for a film that could impact countries and cultures worldwide.

"When we grow up in the U.S. we learn a lot about what happened in Nazi Germany during World War II," Kane explained. "So when we see a movie like 'Schindler's List' and we see the train heading toward Auschwitz, we in the audience give a collective gasp because we know what that means."

But with Taiwan and its history with China, he pointed out, many people don't know what happened when Chang Kai-shek was driven out of China at the end of World War II by Mao Zedong and "what happened as a result of Chang's dictatorship on Taiwan."

Through "Formosa" Kane hopes to set the record straight: "People don't really understand how many people suffered and died as a result of his iron fist. Most of us who grew up in Southern California end up feeling Chang Kai-shek was probably a pretty good guy and that he helped liberate Taiwan. And the events historically would be otherwise."

Despite that educational goal, he emphasized, he wanted to make sure "Formosa" didn't become a civics lesson.

"Movies to be interesting need to entertain as well as educate in this platform of political thrillers -- otherwise, you end up with a documentary and we didn't want to make a documentary."

Kane became involved with "Formosa" during the writers strike when he was laid off while producing and directing the series "Pushing Daisies." Another director had parted ways with "Formosa" and Kane jumped on board. He awoke Christmas morning 2007 having finally figured out how to fix the story. Kane's writers were non-union so they were able to re-write.

"And that was the viewpoint from a Taiwanese man (Tiao) to show the audience what it was like to be in Taiwan from a native's perspective in the same way that in 'The Killing Fields' the perspective of Sam Waterson was adjusted through the prism of Haing Ngor's character."

Their shooting schedule allowed for eight days in Chicago and 23 days in Bangkok in the spring of '08. Filming in Taiwan was a non-starter because there's no film infrastructure and the country doesn't look like it did in the early '80s when the movie takes place.

Moreover, with this story, "if we shot in Taiwan there might be some political backlash and we might get shut down."

Among Kane's biggest challenges were prepping the film on two continents at the same time with a 12-hour time difference between locations and casting the key role of the young FBI agent.

"We didn't find James Van Der Beek until very late in the process -- about four days before we started shooting," he recalled. "We realized James is exactly who we wrote in the script. He really was the fish out of water we were looking for."

Holding out so long to cast the role was their time of living dangerously.

"Will Tiao had raised $5.3 million for production from private investments and we didn't have a studio to run to in case we went over budget."

Kane and his team had to decide "whether we should push the start date or roll the dice."

In the end, they got lucky.