"For me, writing a script is basically using words to record the images in your head"
Catharine Lin is a Los Angeles based filmmaker, originally from China. Her latest short film, Twenty Years After, recently won BIG at Festigious, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor (Randall Taylor), Best Actress (Mardy Ma) and Best Original Story.
Twenty Years After received the highest rating from the jury, and was described as "a perfectly executed short film. It said everything it needed to in the smallest of ways", by lead judge Lisa Roumain. No wonder it was recently selected to screen at the 2018 Cannes (Short Film Corner).
So how does a short indie film with minimalistic dialogues, stands out and leaves such deep impression on the audience? And how long did it take Catharine to finish writing the first draft (faster than you think!).
We asked Catharine to join us for an interview, and met a clever story teller who is passionate about telling important stories in her unique way.
Catharine, first of all, congratulations again for winning not only Best Picture but also Best Original Story, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Actor. Wonderful job!! Let's roll back to the beginning. You're originally from China - where in China did you grow up? Do you come from a creative family? What made you passionate about storytelling?
I grew up in Hangzhou. It’s the ancient capital of Nan Song Dynasty, that has many historical and romantic spots, it's also where Alibaba located. Both my parents are teachers: my mom is a literature and film lover, and my dad enjoys photography. They used to take me to theaters when I was little, I remember we watched many classic films, like "Raise the Red Lantern" and "Story of Qiu Ju" directed by Zhang Yimou, but I always fell asleep in the middle because they were too deep for me at that time.
Like every child, I loved hearing stories. My parents told me that I would beg them repeating the same story over and over again, almost drove them crazy. There was one time I called a radio kid program and told a story on air. Maybe that was the very first time for me as a storyteller.
I also used to perform during lunch break with my friends in front of other kids in elementary school. Me and another girl would always discuss our stories on our way back home, spent hours to develop them and do rehearsal after school. They were all silly stories, totally made up, just for fun. I enjoyed seeing my classmates laugh out when we acted. Looking back, that’s probably when I started enjoying storytelling.
I fell in love with film after I signed up a film introduction class in university. I suddenly realized I could actually study film from so many perspectives as an art, and I watched tons of films during those four years. I guess that’s when I became passionate about film, I would write down ideas for films that I wanted to see or do in the future.
You hold a Masters in Linguistics, which is very unique! Can you share how you became interested in researching languages? Do you feel studying linguistics helped you use language better in storytelling and communicate it to your audience?
I probably have a bit talent in languages. I learnt how to speak Korean by first analyzing some Korean names I know, from their pronunciations and writings, there are certain patterns that help you see the connections between each syllable and character unit, and based on that you can easily have more deduction about other Korean characters and syllables till you master the whole pronunciation and written system- that’s something I did in high school in class for killing time. Now I can also speak Japanese and have learnt French, Germany and Russian for short periods.
I majored in teaching Chinese as a second language in university, and it’s simply because I though that would get me to teach around the world in future and communicate with all different kinds of people. But while I prepare my paper for the master, I start to see language from a more philosophy level, and my interest became to focus on intention and how people express it through languages.
Linguistics definitely helps me think differently. Wiegenstein used to say “language is the boundary of our mind”, the languages we use have each of their limitations, no exactly equal word or expression exits in two languages, but film can break this kind of boundary and help us connected over the barrier of languages.
For me, any language or film or other arts are down to the same thing, a way of express. And it all starts with coding our thoughts/mind into different forms, either a sentence or a vision, to let other people understand. Film to me is also a language, a universal and advanced kind, has multiple dimensions, can include numerous info by one single frame, present moments beyond words description, and arise empathy from the audience. I’ll say it’s closer than languages to mind to mind communication.
I always prefer less dialogue in my film. Instead, I create the scenario and let the scene tell itself. That’s the real power of film and the classy way to use this language to communicate.
With Bille August on set
How did you get into filmmaking? When did you start writing screenplays?
After my graduation, I worked as a teacher for a while. Then I accidentally got a job - a Chinese production company needed someone who could communicate in English with their international collaborators. So everything I learnt about this industry is from the projects I did for that company, and I got involved in every single stage of film production, from development to distribution.
I didn't write screenplays until I came to USA. When I worked as creative executive in that company, I read a lot of scripts and give notes on them, sometimes I would write a synopsis and make decks but never a full screenplay.
Who are some of your favorite film directors, and what do you find inspiring about their work?
There are so many! Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Coen Brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jiang Wen, Lee Chang-dong, Miyazaki etc...
Kubrick is a truly master because he can make every genre into a classic piece, and I think a great director should be able to pull out like that. They are mostly auteur, meaning they write/direct and sometimes also produce the their films, which is very difficult but gives you the full control of your original content. I wish someday I can be an auteur too. And though they all share very different personal style, there’re two things I can feel from their films that I naturally like most: poetic and rhythm. I was actually thrilled to read your lead judge's (Lisa Roumain) review, describing me “poetic” too. That’s a top compliment for me!
Twenty Years After
You studied at the New York Film Academy. Do you feel the training you received there has helped you in your career so far?
I enrolled the one year filmmaking conservatory program, it’s a very intensive program since you need to learn all of about filmmaking in only one year, from writing, directing, producing, cinematography, sound, editing, VFX etc. and we have workshops and various projects of shooting in and out of class, which gives you hands-on experience on each position as a crew member as well. In our first semester, we shot projects weekly basis, so very often I was shooting one and thinking about next at the same time. Without this kind of training, I would never know how to make a film. It taught me everything from zero, just as the company taught me everything about industry. Now I can combine my producing and directing experience, which build a good foundation and leads me to my auteur goal.
When did you move to Los Angeles, and how do you like it?
After “The Chinese Widow” wrapped, I came to LA to begin my filmmaking study at NYFA. 2018 is my third year here. LA is the city you should come if you want to study film. So many things out there every night, in every corner. You can always find creative minds to share project and work on together. I enjoy those kind of communications. I also love to attend screenings with Q&A, meeting the creators and listen to their stories behind the scenes, it's always very inspiring. Especially during this season, I get to meet many of my favorite directors, including Sophia Coppola and Joe Wright..
The story of Twenty Years After presents a beautiful concept. How did you come up with it? Can you share a bit about your creative writing process?
I think I finished the first draft in half hour. For me, writing a script is basically using words to record the images in your head. Once you see the scenes, the recording process can be very fast. I did have several drafts later about the ending though, the first version was a bit darker, some other endings were given up due to the budget, and the final version is the one you get to see now. It’s a simple open ending with hope.
Twenty Years After - Trailer
Was this story in any way inspired by reality?
It’s all based on one particular scene I saw in real life: one morning, an old man was wandering around, in front of a fancy office building that I passed by everyday to school. He was not very well dressed, grey hair, dragging a small luggage. He seemed scared to go inside but the way he looked up the building felt like there was someone he wanted to visit.
It all happened in a second. But for some reason, this image stayed in my head and the whole film is more like a background story I imagined for that old man.
How did you meet the producing partner, Zoe Pelloux?
I realized I needed someone to help me with all the paper works, as well as casting, location scouting, budget etc. Also when I started to shoot, I needed to concentrate on the directing so it would be best to have someone come on board as a producer. I met her on a networking event held by our school, and she was in a producing program which was perfect.
How did you scout the locations?
The location scouting was the main thing that bothered me after I finished writing. I wasn't sure if I could find all the ideal locations I needed. LA filming has a location scouting tool, from there I found my office building. It’s in downtown and there happens to be a wired construction area next to it, which later became the prison gate by clever framing.
Other downtown part was found by Google Maps and me in feet. I was inspired so much by walking down the streets and just looking around. The yellow square was a big surprise when I jumped out at the metro station. The moment I saw it, I immediately decided it would be in my film. It was an added location to our original plan, we had to work around out budget and schedule again and I was happy it finally worked out. People are impressed by that scene.
The park is another difficult one, because I was looking for a lake. I searched every single park with lake in LA and spent a day to visit all of them. Balboa was the last one we went to, and it was already like 9pm, we could barely see anything. But Balboa park is like a special energy spot, once I went in, I felt something different and the lake is big! I went to the park the other day at day time with my DP, and I knew everything I needed was in that park. The poster picture was also taken there.
The cinematographer, Dhruv Lapsia, did a great job! Can you tell us about the collaboration with him?
I first found his reel online. I was searching for DP who's good at capturing characters, and I felt it from his reel. Then the other day I went for screenings and one of the shorts that I really liked was also shot by him!
He is a very sincere person and extremely responsible to his work. He completely supported the story and my vision. We went through the scenes one by one before shooting, I showed him my storyboard and he would do overheads with lighting plans. The film was shot less in 3 days, and we had a big challenge in the park at night. Without being fully prepared, I don’t think it could have been done so fast.
Randall Taylor in Twenty Years After
Randall Taylor won Best Actor for his role, and so did Mardy Ma for her role (Best Actress). They both delivered incredible performances. How did you work with them (especially that one beautiful scene featuring both of them - that we loved so much!) and the rest of the cast to achieve your directorial vision?
After we posted casting info on websites, Randall came for an audition and I could immediately tell he is a pro. The way he walked into the building as James, looking for his son - he was the one. We found all of our cast through audition, except the Chinese woman. It was very difficult to find an elder Chinese actress that can speak authentic Chinese in LA (Mardy actually spoke her hometown dialect upon my request). And one day I clicked out a trailer of someone else’s short film, it was about a Chinese couple facing their only child’s death in US and Mardy was the mother. She caught my eyes the second she appeared with a deep lost pain through her whole body- I know she was the actress I was looking for.
They are all wonderful actors and have been super supportive. During my recall, I had the selected candidates to play in group and figured out the best pair for this family (father, son, daughter and granddaughter). I rehearsed once for the park scene with Mardy and Randall before shooting. I think preparation is always the key, it helps actor warm up the role, but don’t over do it, save the real moments when camera rolls. Basically they’ve understood what I wanted from them in the script and rehearsal already, so on set I just waited for their great takes- it was easy.
The difficulty is directing children. Estella just turned five by the time we casted her. All she needed to do was just being herself and say the lines at the right timing. Basically I only captured the real reaction she gave on set and edited them together.
What was the hardest part of getting this film off the ground?
I’ll say the post production. In fact, we didn't have enough time to cover the whole park scene in production, the lighting set up was difficult, plus moving equipment to the right spot- that park is big… And in the middle of the shooting, the sprinkles were on! Water every where! My crew had to find way to protect our lights…after all, I had less than 3 hours to cover my most important scene! And I only got footage of their two shots in frontal plus from James’ side.
The good thing is we shot it in 4K, which left us a bit space to recreate some close ups. It was a long editing experiment to try all the different ways on those footages. I had three different cuts of this film, especially for the park scene. And this was the third one I reedited based on other two cuts done by my editor, also the closest version to my script. I think editing is a really interesting and torturing part, it can turn upside down of your film from script to a completely different story, it’s a whole new creating process.
What's next for Twenty Year After? Was it acknowledged in additional festivals?
It has received over twenty selections world widely so far, won five best short and director. In April it will be screened in LA again, and Missouri. It has been screened in LA and NY, as well as Europe and India last year.
You previously worked on many international productions such as multi-awarded drama series Empress Ki, with Korean MBC Television, and The Chinese Widow, which was the opening film of the 20th Shanghai International Film Festival. What are your short term and long term career goals? Are you interested in continuing to work on international films and co-productions?
Being an author is my long term goal. And for short term, I hope I can have some fundraising to do concept shooting to pitch my features.
I love to work with people from different nations, diversity is very important to me, even for Twenty Years After I had a small international team. The camera team is from India, Colombia and Brazil, PD from Japan, producer from France, sound team from Holland, Egypt and Iran, composer from Britain etc. Almost every position is from a different country. And I think that’s actually a benefit to balance a team and people are more willing to communicate with each other.
I selected a Chinese character as the stranger, but it could actually be any woman from a any nationality. Since I am Chinese myself, it was easier for me to imagine this role as a Chinese.
And for co-production, the best ones are always story oriented. Empress Ki is about an ancient Korean girl who got exiled to China and fights her way up to become the empress of Yuan Dynasty. So It naturally brings Korea and China together in story, making co-production possible and necessary. Same as The Chinese Widow, since it happens during the WWII after the Doolittle mission, those American pilots forced landing in east coast of China and rescued by local Chinese villagers. The true history background offers big potential for co-productions, and it’s also the first co-production between China and Denmark.
I have some ideas and projects working on right now are perfect for co-productions too. And it doesn’t have to be with China,