"This movie has allowed me to grow up with my daughter"
Kate Bohan is an Chinese-American writer and director. After writing and directing “Kayla’s World", an award-winning short film based on her daughter's life, she decided to turn the story into a feature length drama. It took her two years to write a screenplay she was happy with, and after ignoring all the nay-sayers who told her to quit, she made it ("This film is a miracle for me. Last year, I could not imagine how I would have the courage to do all the things I have done to get this movie made").
KAYLA tells the story of a seven year old girl who is forced to find balance between Chinese culture and Western culture, life and death, losing and gaining. Kayla has a happy family – her mother comes from China, her father from the United States. While she is visiting China with her mother, Kayla struggles with the Mandarin language, but always stands up for herself and others, which gives her unexpected trouble with other children in the country. Even worse, her father dies unexpectedly, which changes Kayla's life completely. Her dreams and hopes are mercilessly taken away. She now has to grow up quickly to take care of her sick mother, and Kayla learns how to deal with poor and grueling situations while missing her father deeply. Nevertheless, she still inspires the people around her with love and singing and always finds courage, even when she feels lost.
Last month, "Kayla" won 6 (!) awards at Festigious, including Best Picture and Best Child Actress (Kate's daughter, Kayla Bohan). We asked Kate to join us for an interview, and met an inspiring artist and a proud mother ("Kayla respected me very much on set, she even called me 'director'").
Kate, we're excited to interview you! Please tell us more about your background, how did you become interested in filmmaking?
I was born in China, and I grew up in both Japan and China. I went to college in Beijing and majored in broadcasting. Afterwards I was a reporter and news anchor. I became interested in film making in 2015 when my daughter, Kayla, was 5 years old.
Congratulations on creating such a touching debut feature! Before you wrote the feature, you did a short film called "Kayla's World", which went on to win many awards. What lead you to do it in a long-form?
I love movies and my daughter motivates me. She was the one who got me thinking, “Maybe I could make a movie about her”. I wanted to preserve memories. I had never made a movie before. In 2016, I made the short film and it was very successful. It won a couple of awards in New York and in other cities. With all this success and attention, I was very encouraged. I felt prompted to tell the whole story in the form of a feature film.
When did you begin writing the screenplay? Did you have any mentors giving your advice about scenes, character development, structure, etc?
After writing the short, it took about two and a half years (and many revisions) to complete the feature. While I was preparing to start filming, in March of 2017, I would often discuss details and modifications of the script with my main creative team. At the same time I also sought opinions from many film experts, which led me to change the script time and time again. With their guidance I finally reached a script I was happy with, that captured the essence, core strength and eternal persistence of my message. I will always be thankful to them.
Kayla is partly based on true events and the bi-cultural experience of your life. As a filmmaker, do you feel sharing your personal experiences provides a sense of resolution to you?
About 60% of the film is based on real life events, many elements in the film are the embodiment of my life. Kayla tells the story of a seven-year-old girl who loses her father, she has to find balance between life and death, failure and gain, all while facing two very different cultures in life. My husband is from the United States, I am from China, so I have a deep understanding of both cultures. Of course I had to adjust some of the real life content to suit the film, while at the same time taking into account the perspective and image of both the Chinese and American cultures.
Kayla's performance is exceptional in this film. She's so talented! When did she begin to act, and what steps do you take as a parent to help to navigate her career?
When Kayla was four years old, I found that she has great performance talent. She often asked me, “Mom, can you send to the stage to perform because I want to be in movies?!” Before we started filming, she studied one month with a performance teacher learning her lines, she had to overcome many Chinese language difficulties and barriers. In the movie, Kayla, her mother, and Chinese grandparents have some conversations in Chinese. She also had to learn improvised Chinese songs, which shows how this little actor has made considerable efforts to learn a non-native language for her role. Her performance is very convincing, especially the scene were she says good-bye to her father at the airport; she suddenly breaks out crying, which shows incredible maturity and emotional intelligence. These talents are vert admirable among child actors. Her role has been very well received by many film critics, and she has been chosen as Best Child Actor by several judges at International Film Festivals. I am very proud of her.
Working with any child actor can be demanding, let alone when it's your own daughter. How did you manage the mother-daughter / director- actor dynamics?
I am very touched by this question. In this movie, I did not only have child actors, but animal actors as well. It was difficult for me because both are not very easy to control! The making of this film for me was like having 1000 jobs at the same time. But, even though I also had to take care of my daughter on set, I was very surprised by her performance; she acted like a little adult! She respected me very much on set, she even called me “director.” This movie has allowed me to grow up with my daughter, and we have become more connected. In addition to leaving the audience with a heart-warming message, this film is also a real gift for Kayla and myself.
What do you hope the audience takes away from Kayla?
I feel that right now Chinese American movies are on the rise, and Kayla fits well within this trend. I feel that people are looking for a warm and influential film, Kayla is THAT film, especially for those wanting to see a multi-ethnic and diverse movie. This allows viewers to see the world through the eyes of a little girl who is having a hard time in a strange country, experiencing hardship and loss and through it all is still able to show the world that love will always be there – that it will never leave! It will change people's thoughts on how they view the world and show them that if they have a dream, if they just keep going that dream will eventually come true, If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.
You shot the movie partly in California, and partly in China. What were the biggest challenges in creating this film? How long did it take to make it, from start to finish?
85% of this film was shot in Los Angeles, the rest in China. In total, the film took about a year and a half to complete. This film is a miracle for me, but it wasn’t easy. Last year, I could not imagine how I would have the courage to do all the things I have done to get this movie made. I had to keep moving past all the nay-sayers. I received a lot of rejection from other filmmakers. People told me to quit and I said, “NO!” – I could not do that. This is my first film as a professional filmmaker and something I can be very proud of. Through many film festivals it has received a lot of positive reviews and awards, for example we won Best Picture, Best Narrative Feature, Best Original Story and Best First Time Screenwriter from your Festival, Best Director from the NY Film Awards, Best Drama Screenplay from the Los Angeles Film Awards, and many more. I feel very honored by this.
After I completed the film, I wrote down this sentence, “The most important thing you can do is never give up; if you persist, and work very hard, you can achieve anything.”
What was your favorite scene to direct, and why?
Some of my favorite parts are simply in the dialogue between Kayla and her father. During these intimate moments we not only see a deep fatherly love, but also a father’s endless expectations for his daughter’s future. The narrative is very timely, and more importantly shows how he supports his child’s wishes to pursue her own dreams, and opposed to his own or anyone else’s. His behavior is what ultimately makes this little girl strong, brave and kind, and she carries his advice and wisdom with her long after she loses him.
Another part I really enjoyed was when Kayla and her mother are running along the Great Wall of China. Her mother is explaining the history behind this hand-made miracle. Since, I myself, am from China I felt a deep connection with this scene. Every time I see the film, it brings back fond memories and I start to miss China.
Tell us about your experience working with the incredible cinematographer, Cai Yi. How did you work together to achieve your vision? Did you use any visual references?
A good movie is inseparable from the efforts and communication of all of the creative staff, and good cooperation between the director and the cinematographer is key to the success of any film. In the first six minutes of Kayla, the audience is provided with clear information about the core elements of the film through beautiful lenses and inspiring camera work. This, along with great music, natural dialogue and good performances pull the audience into the story. This was all possible because I had a brilliant partner. Cinematographer Cai Yi graduated from the University of Bristol with a major in film production. His short films have won him and Academy Award. He not only creates beautiful pictures, but also displays the director's intentions perfectly on the screen. He understood my vision, while at the same time understanding the professional demands of our partners. We always cooperated very well during the early and late stages of filming, and each contributed professionally to this great endeavor. I owe a lot of the creative achievements in this film to him. He is a unique and outstanding cinematographer who used his wisdom to inject beautiful pictures into this movie. It was my pleasure to work with him, and he taught me how to discover the endless potential of the film. I gratefully thank him, his efforts made the film ultimately successful!
Music is a pretty big deal in this film. When did composer Cece Wen come on board, and how did you go about recording the songs? We assume they were written before you shot the film, right?
After getting the final edited version, we started to create the whole movie, which can show the synchronization of music and picture. CC Wen's insight into art, and the pursuit and persistence of music plays just as important a role in the production as the director. She is a very talented, very spiritual, Hollywood composer. She was on board from the start, she composed the music for the short, as well as all of Kayla’s original compositions. She has the skills to know how to place the correct music when the picture changes, allowing the music to follow the change. The most touching is the father’s death when sad little Kayla is at the funeral. Here CC created a very pure scene, where the musical charm of the soul encompassed the true feelings of the little girl. The notes are full of sadness and tragic sensibility. At the same time, the audience can understand the deep feelings the little girl shared with her father. It is very moving. Whenever I see this scene, I get very emotional and overwhelmed with the impulse to cry. It is the music that injects the soul into a film. Her work brought valuable artistic value to the film. She is what I consider a music master.
Where do you see yourself in ten years? Will you continue to write and direct, or would you like to focus on other things?
In 10 years I hope to become a better version of myself and more of a hard worker. I want to continue writing and making movies. I want to continuously learn. You cannot achieve happiness from material possessions, or how much money and treasures you have; happiness can only be achieved by doing what you love and doing it well.
Are you currently developing new projects? And what about Kayla?
Yes, because Kayla has been getting so much attention, I have had some offers to work on other films. I don’t worry about how big or small the project is. These are the things that are important to me – that it is right for me, that it is positive, that I can handle it and that I have a good team to work with.
Now that my daughter has had the experience with her first film, she is ready to start on another. We just want to be sure to pick the right project, one that is good for her. This would happen during her breaks from school, because school will always come first.
Kayla - Trailer
Is there anything you wish to add or anyone you wish to thank?
Sometimes after I see a film at the theater, I watch the audience as they hurry away. I stay to see the credits roll, because there are so many people who work very hard together to make a film possible. No matter the film, there is always a talented team behind it who have dedicated sleepless nights and endless efforts.
I wish to thank all of my Chinese and American team members for all of their support, as well as the investors who stood patiently behind me. I also want to thank the team at Reason Studios for all the work they did on the movie. Special thanks to my co-producers Sherry Yan, Ye Wang, Jun, Yunong Xia and Pier Chen. It was everyone’s efforts combined that made Kayla the best film it could possibly be.
This is a film dedicated to all those who work hard for their dreams – these are the people in world who are worth cherishing. I want to leave you all with my motto -- “Believe you might be that light for someone else.”