"Nothing could stop me from making this film happen"
Qianzi (Sophie) Gao is an award winning director based in LA. Qianzi's work is known for capturing the intimate emotional changes of the characters in her story. As an Asian female filmmaker based in LA, she hopes to continue address the themes of universal emotion which transcends cultures, borders and religions all across the world.
Qianzi's latest project, One of the Thousands, won Best Drama at Festigious in July 2019. As a film editor, Qianzi recently earned an annual nomination at Festigious, for her work on One More Ride. In the following interview, Qianzi takes us on a journey from her childhood in China, through the production and the many challenges of shooting her film in the desert ("All of our cars got stuck in the sand, but when I finally finished the shoot, I felt that nothing else could stop me from making this film happen").
Qianzi, congratulations again on winning Best Drama for One of the Thousands. Tell us a bit about yourself! What inspired you to become a filmmaker?
Thank you! This is a great honor. I am an award-winning director and editor based in LA. I grew up in a border city in southern China. As a single child, when my parents were busy at work, I adapted to the fun of spending time alone. Through books and movies, I realized the world got bigger and more adventurous in my imagination than the world around me.
By the time I was in high school, I started a drama club and worked with like-minded students to write and rehearse plays so to get rid of the stressful homework. I guess I was never satisfied with sitting at the desk and studying for a high score. I wrote stories rather than an essay for the test and scored very low. I liked to have a strong motivation to learn more. But it never occurred to me to turn this hobby into a career until one day when I talked with my cousin complaining that I didn't know what the purpose was of studying hard and what would life be after school. He told me that only an estimated 20% of the people on this planet were doing what they love for living so why not see that as a goal? I realized that I want to become one of the 20%. At that time, filmmaking seemed to be the only thing that I felt passionate about, so I decided to become a director and create that bigger world I imagined, rather than an audience.
What was the first film project you worked on and what was your role in it?
The first big feature film I worked on was The Great Wall (2016), directed by Yimou Zhang and staring Matt Damon. I served as the bilingual off-set production assistant during the entire principal cinematography.
What are some of your memorable milestones?
1.I enrolled in Beijing Film Academy majoring in Film Producing as the only 4 students who were accepted by BFA from our province. I was also the first student who ever got into BFA from my high school.
2. My first formal work in the industry was bilingual productional assistant on The Great Wall as I mentioned before. I got to work closely with top filmmakers from both local China and Hollywood.
3.My short film Cue Jane has won the Best Short of the Year on the 14th Chinese American Film Festival; Best Narrative Short of 16th Santa Cruz Film Festival, etc.
4. My latest short One of the Thousands has won Grand Award “Best Show” of 52th WorldFest-Houston Film Festival.
5. The short film “One More Ride” that I edited also won Best Editing Award from Festigious Awards!
Having studied at the Beijing Film Academy as well as Loyola Marymount University, would you say that formal training is essential to make a good film, or is it mainly hands-on experience?... or both?
For me making a good film requires not only hands-on experience but also professional knowledge of telling a good story. While constantly working on set allows you to adapt to the workflow faster, it also limits your way of becoming a creator and remains yourself as a worker. Formal training including courses covering the entire process of making films as well as film history and theories establishes your knowledge system and guides you to recognize the value of a good story. I’d say formal training is a must.
Can you share a bit about your creative writing process- How do you normally begin a screenplay and where do you find inspiration?
Hah I like this question. Most of the time, the story begins with a question and a “what if” situation which I randomly come up with for the question.
When I decided to write a story about crossing border issue, I wasn't able to see what kind of characters will unfold this story. However, one day when I was swimming, I suddenly imagined a scene where a mother had to give her baby to an English-speaking border guide who she hated when she could no longer continue the journey. The complex emotion behind this tough decision led me to dig into the characters and question the reason for her to make the decision. This was the very first image of One of the Thousands. Although the film eventually told a completely different story, this scene laid the foundation for my development of the characters and the theme of sacrificing.
How did you come up with Elena's character?
The theme of “One of the Thousands” is about faith. The two characters with opposite beliefs are forced to help each other to reach the other side of the border. For the lead role "Elena", I knew from the beginning that she is a seemingly vulnerable but determined woman who is fearless for what she decides to do. Elena's forbearance and kindness come from her belief in God. When she knew she could no longer continue and would not be saved by God's miracle, she decided to pass on her faith to encourage Javier to move on.
Why was it important for you to explore this story? Particularly, the religious aspect: Lena and Javier present an interesting conflict- she believes in God, he doesn't. Also, what message were you hoping to convey to the audience?
One of the Thousands is a border film which not only reflects the current issue but also evaluates the power of faith.
I am often curious about what faith can do to a person when he/she is in a desperate situation. Will the result of people believing in themselves differ from whoever believing in god? I feel there is no absolute right or wrong believes. What matter is if your faith gives you the courage to make the subjectively right decision.
Can you tell us a bit about your collaboration with Xinying Gu and Micahel Price, the producers? How did you guys meet and what were some of their responsibilities as producers?
Michael Price is a great producer who has solid experience shooting in a natural environment. He mainly took in charge of locations and equipment related communication and reservation. Since he is a native speaking guy, it was easier for him to negotiate for the permission of shooting in the desert parks and getting a discount on the rental equipment.
Xinying Gu is a very close friend of mine who has worked with me on different projects. Being a well-experienced producer, she was in charge of budgeting and accommodations for our crew and cast. She picked up and drop-off all the extras that we found in a nearby town for my last scene. She was incredibly responsible and helpful.
What was your casting process like?
The casting process for the role "Elena" was incredibly hard. The audition scene included the opening part when she felt lost in the middle of the chasing as well as the scene when she holds the water in hand but decides to save it for Javier. Most of the South American actresses who auditioned for the role were either too young or concerned about their appearance too much. But it's a role about surviving in the desert! It was a bit of random luck that we found Frania one week before the shoot when I was on the edge of going insane. Frania was real and vulnerable. Her performance was very believable. I was so excited that I told her she got the role right away.
How did you go about finding the locations for the shoot?
I drove to nearly all the desert parks around the great LA area within two weeks. Compared to other locations, the vast deserted landscapes, the accommodations around the locations and the distance from LA to the Anza-Borego Desert Park made it the most ideal one. We had problems getting the permit, but after we managed to prove that the scale of the crew was not crazily large and we didn’t have any action scene that requires the use of weapon props, we were finally approved to shoot there three days before the schedule.
Did you encounter any challenges on set during production?
YES. I’d say the primary production is the most challenging and satisfying part, for this film particularly. Since we shot the film in a desert park, the crew and cast had to work in the blazing hot environment for hours in the middle of nowhere. We managed to overcome so many issues on set that were beyond imagination, for example carrying heavy equipment while climbing onto the top of the hill just to get the best shot, calling the motel owner to rescue us at 9 pm when all our cars got stuck in the sand, etc.
But when I finally finished the shoot, there was a moment of feeling nothing else could stop me from making this film happen. It was truly satisfying.
What was the most meaningful moment for you in the entire process?
The entire shoot in the desert park was one of my favorite experiences. Despite the difficult shooting conditions, my crew and cast managed to complete the shooting in time. I felt very fortunate realizing that they had faith in me and this story and tried their best to help me achieve my vision. I am glad that the film has some remarkable achievements, thanks to my cast and crew.
What are you currently working on?
I am working on a thriller and a coming-of-age story, both of which are feature film ideas with very unique female characters. I am in talks with a big production company on the development of the thriller. As for the coming-of-age story, since the story sheds light on the self-identification of teenage girls and touches transgender issues at the same time, it's expected to be made as an indie movie targeting for some A-list film festivals. I can't wait to bring them onto the big screen.