"Wings": An Interview with Xiangwu Xie (Producer) and Danni Ma (Cinematographer)
We're excited to feature you at LAFA! Please tell us more about your background, what originally sparked your interest in filmmaking, and how did you both get started?
Danni: In 2016, I saw Mad Max and Fury Road in the theater. I was shocked by the film and the world it shows. I was studying Screen art in Australia back at that time. Even though it is called screen art, it is nothing to do with the film. It was more about the contemporary visual artist and experimental videos. After seeing Mad Max 4, I immediately decided to change my major and career to filmmaking. After I finished my bachelor's degree in fine art, I knew I needed to come to America to keep chasing my filmmaking dreams. So I applied to several film schools in America, got lucky into The Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD), and started since then.
Xiangwu: I was born in China and studied performance art when I was in college. As an actor, I learned how attractive storytelling is. In my sophomore year, I got an opportunity to play the lead role in a student short film by chance. Although it was a rough and low-budget project. The process of filmmaking seduced me from the stage to the film production. That moment led me to apply to SCAD to pursue my filmmaking dream.
You're both based in Atlanta, can you tell us why you chose this area as opposed to LA, where many young filmmakers start their careers?
When we got into SCAD, we could choose which campus to stay in. The main campus located in Savannah always has bigger stages and better equipment. But we noticed Atlanta is a new rising star in filmmaking. A lot of Marvel films and television series are located in Atlanta. So we both chose Atlanta as our campus. Atlanta has a lot of opportunities to work with actual film industry filmmakers. Learning from the real film set and filmmakers in the industry is essential.
What is your involvement with the Asian group of filmmakers you're collaborating with, and what are your hopes and goals to achieve together?
Danni: When COVID happened, many people stopped college and returned home. There were fewer and fewer film students who were still keeping their academics. But they still need to shoot their homework, and film sets need crews. During that time, I had a lot of opportunities to work with other Asian filmmakers and we have always maintained a very good relationship.
Xiangwu: I'm always glad I went to SCAD. SCAD Alumni are warm and friendly. We have a Chinese filmmaker group where we always post crew and casting calls. I met some alumni in that group, and they led me to enter the Asian group here. Danni and I always check Facebook groups and desire to collaborate with new friends. The big difference between Asian filmmakers in Atlanta and LA is that LA's filmmakers desire to tell the story of their own culture. I wish we could meet more Asian filmmakers who share our desire, then tell our own stories together.
Let's talk about the making of Wings, which won Best Student Film at LAFA. It's such an impressive piece. Why did you decide to bring this story to life?
No matter which country, the most important thing in education is communication. In the developing process, we shared our childhood experiences and found out that no one's childhood is perfect. All of us are trying to perfect ourselves step by step. Some parent always wants to control your life. They give themselves so much pressure on responsibility. I would like to involve in a story that resonates with everyone worldwide.
For Xiangwu Xie, the producer: please tell us about some of your responsibilities in producing the film, from pre-production to post-production.
Danni, Jane (the director), and I are classmates in SCAD. We worked together on various projects in the past three years. Before the idea was even born, we decided to make a film together. The director Jane, also the writer, finished the drafts, and all of us would discuss the structure and details in the story. Then, we watched the story until it finished.
Then, I started casting talents, found and scouted locations, then locked the shoot. We enjoy exchanging our thoughts about the story and editing, and Jane is the person who makes the final decision.
What were some of the challenges you were presented with and how did you deal with them?
It was hard to produce a film during the COVID period. We must follow all the COVID rules and keep everyone safe. So, we finished this short with a minimal crew. Each person must wear several hats. I’m the producer and DIT on set, and one of the PAs were also doing the line producer’s job.
Although we strained our spirits to ensure everyone stayed warm, one of the twin boys still caught a cold because we were shooting a summer scene in the spring. It was sensitive when he coughed on the last shooting day. Director and I moved his shots back to a couple of hours and let him finish a quick Covid test first. Finally, thank God, he got the negative result, and we also completed the shoot on time.
Is this your first collaboration with cinematographer Danni Ma? In your opinion, what makes a good collaboration?
We had collaborated several times before this film. I think the most important thing is to trust each other. Danni is a talented cinematographer and a Steadicam operator who is good at designing camera movements. Initially, we were worried about whether we could finish such a lot of movement on time cause the moving shot always takes more time on set. But Danni said she could finish it. And she used her professionalism to make that happen.
What were some of the visual references for the look of the film?
There is no film for visual references. But I was watching ‘I WAS STILL THERE WHEN YOU LEFT ME,’ and I’d say even though it is a different story, I got influences from that short film.
The cinematography of the film is quite spectacular. We would love to hear about your creative process, how do you choose the camera positions and lighting? What influences your compositional decisions?
I decided to go with a warm tone and bright light very early in the pre-production. It is a sad and heavy story; we want every audience member to feel what Nancy feels. I don't want to point out at the film's beginning that it is a sad story. So the visual of this film is a warm family feeling. It can be a children's film with some coming out of age at the end.
To achieve that, I set up the low-contrast lighting for most of the film and tried to reach Nancy's eye level as much as possible. She is a kid, and she sees things differently than we do. I want to show that to the audience.
What was the most challenging scene to shoot, and why?
The last scene, when Nacny buries the bird, was the most critical and challenging scene for me. There is a tree in the house we rented for shooting and it was perfectly facing west. I want to shoot that vital scene during the golden hour with the sunset as the background. I knew it was the key if we could finish that scene during the golden hours. But also, as an ultra-low-budget film set, we only had one afternoon to shoot it. If we miss it, the ending will not be as powerful now.
Lilli Rose Rittner, who plays the lead role of Nancy, did a wonderful job! Let's talk about working with young actors. What were the challenges, and what was it like to work with her and the two children who play her classmates (Jake Holliman and Aiden Holliman)?
While doing the audition, we noticed Lilli was not like the typical kid we imagined. She is acting like an adult. Even if she is not like an adult, she is trying to. The sense of uncoordinated Lilli is unique, and we even change some of the scripts to fit Lilli’s personality. Some kids don’t know what acting is. If they think they know, it will look fake. To pursue the best result, we changed the script so Lilli could be herself and didn’t need to ‘Act’ too much. We didn’t give her too much direction during the shoot, and she showed us her.
Jake and Aiden are good kids. They are polite, kind, and intelligent. Once you tell them what you want, they will give you 100%.
It was a great experience working with them together.
Already in the first scene, we discover Nancy's goal: to get a pet as soon as possible in order to participate in a competition at school. She wants a dog, but after her mother refuses, settles for a bird. The connection created between the girl and Predacons (the name she gave the bird) is adorable! In a short time and with very few monologues by the girl, you managed to convey a lot of emotions. Tell us about the process of building the girl's character and the whole story.
From pre-production, we wanted to write a personal yet universal story about a child. So our director, who is also the story's writer, wrote the story based on what she would have done if she had been Nancy's age. Audiences think that Nancy's story is every one of them. She wanted a pet, and I'm sure everyone felt the same as her when they were kids.
After the audition and we decided to let Lilli play the role of Nancy. We put some of Lilli's personality into Nancy, and the result is now the finished film. We feel that Lilli brought a new spark and life to the character of Nancy.
At some point, Nancy makes a mistake, and her parents accuse her of being irresponsible. Although it is a short story, it is very easy to connect with the girl and feel her pain, especially because she feels that everyone is against her. How do you think parents should react in such situations?
For a kid like Nancy’s age, her mom thinks she doesn’t need to explain too much about everything because she can’t understand. Why can’t she have a pet? What is the meaning of taking care of a bird? Her mom didn’t tell her at all. Nancy’s father also needs to teach her what death is. What is responsibility? He just brought the bird back. Children are smarter and more reckless than we think. We should have conversations with them all the time. Maybe this can fundamentally stop the tragedy from happening.
It's a story about emotional maturation, which happens to anyone who experiences difficulty. What message did you want to convey to the viewers?
Death is awalys the first lesson about life for kid. For me it was my grandmother’s death. It's cruel but inevitable.If parents could have done a better job when the tragedy occurred, the child would not have had a second hit of reality. Growing from a child to an adult is not an easy thing, parents should helps and guide children.
If you had a movie-making superpower, what would it be and why?
Danni: I’d like the super memory, so I don’t need to keep asking what the next shot is.
Xiangwu Xie: Ability to foresee the future. The night before every shooting, I always worried about possible accidents on the set. I even couldn’t fall asleep every time.
What would you like people to know about you and your work, that perhaps they don't already know?
Danni: I shot a feature film in 2022, and it will release on DVD at the end of 2023. You will find it in the Walmart store.
Xiangwu: I'm running a production studio (Unreal Imagine) as a producer in LA. We offer Chinese and English full-service for commercial, short, sizzle reel, and music video production. Also, we have 6000 sqft space that has different set up (hospital, bedroom, office, white cyc). You are welcome to search "Unreal Imagine" on Google maps and visit us anytime.
What's next for Wings, and what's next for both of you?
We both moved to LA and started to work with LA filmmakers!
Where can our readers follow more of your work?
Danni : My instagram is @gray_all
My vimeo is https://vimeo.com/user75777488
Xiangwu Xie: My instagram is @xiangwu_xie
My website is https://xangunosiren.wixsite.com/xiangwu