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Spotlight: An interview with TinNgai Chan ("Mary Mary Quite Contrary")

Originally from Guangzhou, China, your background is in engineering. How did you become interested in filmmaking and visual storytelling, and in what way(s) did your engineering background help you in your filmmaking career so far? Sometimes you really need to do something you’re not interested so you can figure out the things you are interested in. At least that’s the case for me. I spent all the time not going to engineering classes listening to music and watching movies, and end up wanting to making them. I still want to make music, but for practicality, I decided to try filmmaking. And I love it. What was the first piece of gear you owned? The first gear that related to, at least my conscious of filmmaking, it’s a Blackmagic Cinema Camera, the brick with s16 size sensor. I got it used at the time, looking bad, it’s really a good camera in a way that allows me to make all the mistakes and still give me a decent images. But growing up in a digital eras, my Nokia Phones can already take videos — I really need to dig those up. You recently graduated with an MFA in Film Production at Loyola Marymount University - in your opinion, what are the advantages of enrolling in a filmmaking program and what were some of the highlights of the program for you? For me, enrolling a filmmaking program really gave me a time and space to “play filmmaker”, not in anyway to diminishing the experience. But only in film school you have the freedom to try things, not afraid of making mistakes, not concerning too much about budget, politics, distribution, festivals run, etc… And that’s really important, in an ideal world, that’s how you’d make a film, thinking only about the film, and film school can offer you at least a reference point of what that can be. And the highlights would always be a group of people making a film, having fun, and with really just the passion for the cinema and nothing else, and later watching the film together, disappointed but at the same time, proud. It’s much rarer when you go out to “the real world”. What were some of your first steps into the film industry, after graduating? Nothing fancy, mostly if not all, compromise from my personality to the reality — building website and printing business cards, sending out emails to everyone that don’t dislike me, going to all these filmmakers’ events — but you do this so you can make film, and that’s what matters.

Let's chat about your excellent directorial debut, Mary Mary Quite Contrary. The story focuses on a distraught psychiatrist who tries to help her patient who had locked himself in the bathroom - quite a unique concept! How did you come up with this idea and why did you want to tell this story? The thing about filmmaking is that has more limitations than any other art forms, and I’d like to at least at this moment of the career, consider them before I write the script — don’t build a boat in you basement, isn’t that the saying? So knowing my budget and shooting days, and past experience of shooting outdoors, I came up with some rules first. One location, indoors, no time jump. And wanting to really work on my skills of writing dialogue, I want to write something that mostly it’s just two people talking.Well, that doesn’t leave me much of choice when I’m also interested in twisted people. Tell us about your collaboration with producer Jeanine Fisher - was she also involved in the creative process, and how did you divide the responsibilities between the two of you? Jeanine is amazing. We worked together a couple times before and I know that’s who I want to produce, and also be an assistant director for my film. A really good producer, in my mind is that who you can trust enough to be self-indulgent, as you know they’ll try their best to find solutions and until that they won’t push back. Without that trust, you don’t have much room to be creative really. We’ve talked a lot about location, logistics, crewing, and direction and script. And not just Jeanine, also my camera operator Matthew Emery, gaffer Murat Acikel, production designer Rui Niu, composer David Yuhico — We all have conversations that more than our roles entitle, as just artists, which really help the film and makes the process more fun.

You have extensive experience as a cinematographer, with movies such as The Green Motel, Devil's Hallow, and the acclaimed short, Pâté, and you also shot Mary Mary Quite Contrary yourself. Was it tricky to direct and shoot at the same time and how did you prepare for the shoot? The only way makes me to be able to direct and shoot at the same time is heavy preproduction included a preshoot. We went to location a week prior with all the gear and did blocking, framing and lighting shot by shot. So in the actual shoot days my gaffer Murat Acikel and Cam opt Matthew Emery knew fairly well what we want so I can focus on directing. How did you cast Chad Morgon, Alaya Lee Walton, Levi Holiman, and Mikael Mattson, and what was it like to work with this ensemble? Can you talk a little bit about the rehearsal process and how did you work with the actors to bring your vision to life and achieve such compelling performances? They are amazing. I didn’t do the traditional cast call and cold read but instead asking for self-tapes and jump right in to grab a coffee. I want to know them in a more personal level early on and tweak the script according to the cast. Then we did a lot of table reads especially with Chad and Levi. So we have the opportunities to really explore the characters.

Were there any unforeseen challenges on set? What was the most difficult scene to shoot and why? The shoot went relatively “uneventful” which is a bless. The toughest scene to shoot is the kitchen fight scene when all four characters come together. It’s exponentially hard to direct any scene with more than two characters moving, especially when you want a nice wide shot that have them all. The challenge is to keep their movement natural but the same time pleasing to the camera, and the performance to be in synced like a clock. Of course I can’t ask more what my cast delivered. What was your process with composer David Yuhico, who scored the film? Did you have any musical references for him? I’ve always wanted to do music, arguably more than film. So I have upmost admiration to any musicians and it’s such a pleasure to work with David. We went a lot of back and forward for the tonality of the music and I’m so thankful that David put up with me and delivered such amazing work. The major musical reference is of Jonny Greenwood.

It must have been a little tricky to complete the film in 2020 - this year was specifically much more difficult in terms of film production. How did the global pandemic affect your work? Well. We’re only doing postproduction for the film in 2020. So the pandemic actually force me to focus on the film because nothing else can be done! But we definitely missed going to a screen room or mixing room to collaborate in person. What did you take away from this film and what are you most proud of about this project? Writing is the most important part of filmmaking. Anything that I thought I could’ve done better is stemmed from writing. But at the same time, you have to keep shooting to improve your writing by the same logic. You never really know what’s wrong until you make it. And the most proud of this project is that I can say I tried my best, it’s not perfect but I doubt that I could’ve done any better knowing what I knew. I will however, on the next project thanks to this one.

What message were you hoping to convey with this film, and how do you feel about the film's success in festivals so far? I’m a big believer that films, at least the ones that I want to make, can’t be about “messages”. Whether I achieved that is a different matter but when I make it I just want to tell a story, as simple as that. As for festivals, well at this point, is mainly about opening doors to meet more of fellow filmmakers, to talk about films and make more films together ! Where do you see yourself in 10 years from now and will you be focusing on directing? I’m happy as long as I will be telling stories, whether as a cinematographer, a director, a writer or painter or musician. It really doesn’t matter, in a 10 years scale, what I do as long as it's not boring. Can you tell us about your upcoming projects- what are you planning for 2021? I’ve shot some narrative shorts so far and am very excited especially about - Dawn (Alan C. Beard), Before Night Shift (Po Wei Su), Salt (Ze Gu). We’re also shooting some very compelling feature documentaries and I’m most looking forward to Desert Angel (Vincent DeLuca).


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