"I thought, hmm, it sounds kind of crazy, but I have to make this film!"
Sky Wang is a Chinese-American writer/director. Born in China and having lived in the UK, Canada, and the USA, Sky grew up appreciating people and stories of all types and origins. Graduated from Columbia College Chicago with a film degree, and during the time of his studies, Sky directed numerous shorts and received many festival accolades. With one foot in the American film industry, Sky also pursues projects in the Greater China region, where he directed his first Chinese feature film in 2017 - "Lost in Apocalypse" - a horror film about zombies, which recently won big at Festigious.
So how did this director, who used to make dramatic short films, decided to write and direct a horror zombie feature film?
Apparently, he took a class in college labeled “Zombies in Popular Culture” ("I had a lot of fun there!"). About a decade later, after having a few drinks with a friend in Las Vegas, it happened ("I thought, hmm, it sounds kind of crazy, but I’d kick myself if I don’t take up this obviously full-circle-karma project").
We asked Sky to join us for an interview, and got attacked by zombies!
Sky, your 2018 is off to a great start! You just won Best Actor, Best Ensemble, Best First Time Director, Best Editing, Best Sound Design and Best Horror at Festigious, and also recently won the Award of Merit - Special Mention for Lost In Apocalypse at the Accolade Competition. Congratulations! How do you feel about the film's success so far, and what is your distribution plan for it?
2018 is off to a good start indeed. It’s super humbling to have this kind of recognition on the film. We were definitely not expecting to have won all these categories, but at the same time, it feels good to have others pay attention to the things we are proud of, particularly the single categories. We don’t know what the future holds yet, but we will continue to see how the film performs with other festivals, including at Screamfest later this year, which will have our LA premiere. Beyond that, anything is possible.
Lost in Apocalypse is one of the most exciting films we've seen here at Festigious. How did you come up with the idea for the film? Although it is obviously fiction... was this inspired by any true events in your life? Did you have to conduct any particular research before approaching this screenplay?
No, the film came about in a very random, yet fated way. The film was based on a pre-existing comic book of the same name. I was approached to direct the film while I was on vacation in Las Vegas, the producer Iris Liu sent me some materiel to look over, and I was immediately fascinated with the project. Though I didn’t know anything about the comic, it seemed like we were only going to be inspired by its “spirit” rather than actual material, and I thought that doing a “Zombie” movie in China intertwined with local culture could be really interesting. Although there wasn’t much to go on, but with a good treatment already in place, I accepted the project, and went to China to work on the film the very next day.
Lost in Apocalypse - Trailer
Every film production presents challenges... but this one, that is so complex to produce - probably presented many!! What was the biggest challenge for you during this production as a director?
Well, I’ll just say this: When I was approached to write and direct for the film, there was only a month left in pre-production before shooting was set to take place; I had never worked in China before, neither had I ever done a Chinese film; and this was my first feature film…so the list kind of goes on there. And yes, there were many challenges, given the circumstances. But I looked at all this as just “one big challenge”, which was “Can this be done?”. Because all the signs were leading to “no, this is crazy”. In some weird way, I really enjoyed knowing that, and trying to make this work. Nothing ever comes around in a perfect condition, I believe the key is just to follow your gut, get up your feet, and get it done.
Jack (Martin Yang), Rich (Mingyi Yang) and Helen (E'Naan Zhang) all delivered great performances throughout. How did you make this magic happen?
I’m very glad that you think that, and I certainly believe they all did a fantastic job as well, though I don’t credit myself very much in making the magic happen. As actors, they all came from vastly different backgrounds. Jack (Martin Yang) wasn’t even considered a professional actor when we cast him, he was working on our production as an assistant to the casting director. I had auditioned many other actors for this role, but the right guy was standing next to me all along. I think the “Best Actor” award is going to be such a confidence and career booster for him to go forward. We also had a 5 day rehearsal period for all the main actors before we started shooting, which was really rare for a production on this kind of budget. But I think it helped us tremendously getting the actors familiarize with their roles and each other. Chemistry is key when casting your actors, and I’m very happy to say that they just all clicked and created this wonderful mosaic.
As a film director, what is important for you when hiring department heads? (Cinematographer, Editor, etc...) In other words, what are you looking for, in a team member? Do you have long time collaborators that you've worked with on your previous films?
This is an excellent question. I always look for “true artists” in a sense. In my experience, department heads are tricky to nail right. Because on one hand, you want people with experience and a good execution track record, but more often than not, these people get jaded by the industry, and they run out of “creative juice” quickly. I think it’s very important that you surround yourself with key creatives that truly want to be here for the right reasons, which is to create something new to ignite emotional responses. All that being said, certain creative members on this film were pre-selected by my producer, and given that I was new to working in China, I was very excited to work with local teams. I was, however, able to bring a couple of my long time collaborators onto the project from the US for post-production. Composer Jason Gertel and Sound Designer Aaron Bartscht were my college buddies from day one, and they had both worked on my previous short films; I had also worked with Editor Frederick J. Chen on a different project before. These guys were my recruits on this film, and I had a lot of faith in them, not just because I know them well, but they definitely belong to the aforementioned “true artists” rank. It’s wonderful to see them getting recognized for their respective work on the film also.
What do you wish you knew before approaching the project?
All the hardships I was going to endure. Nah, just kidding. I do wish I had time to familiarize with the source material a bit more. Though like I said, we were never going to adapt it faithfully, if there were more time for me to prepare, I would have liked to study the original comic, and perhaps integrate more into the film.
Before this, you wrote and directed short films: You Bet and Final Revision. How do you choose the stories you wish to tell? Can you tell a bit about your creative writing process?
Both Final Revision and You Bet were short films I did in college, I think I just wrote what interested me at the time, they weren’t part of my “career strategy” so to speak, not on a conscious level anyway. I’ve always thought that movies are wonders of the world, it’s a particular human way of leaving mark in the universe. So whenever I approach a project, I always think about if this is what I want to leave behind, not as a personal legacy, but rather in the sense of it mattering to others. At the same time, it needs to be fun to do and watch. That can be interpreted in different ways I guess, but I always know it when I do it.
Rolling back to the beginning - you were born in China, and lived in the UK, Canada, and the US. Quite the cultural ride... How did you decide to become a filmmaker, and in what way, do you feel this unique upbringing influenced/ shaped your art?
Oh most definitely. And yes, my upbringing is quite an interesting ride. It all kind of happened naturally, and I guess I wouldn’t know any other ways in comparison to my own. To some degree, I always knew I wanted to be a filmmaker, but it definitely wasn’t till later that I realized what I could contribute to the art may have something to do with my own culture and experience. As the world gets smaller, it needs people to build bridges and fill in gaps. Perhaps, that’s where I can help.
After you enrolled in Columbia College (Chicago) - what were some of your first steps into the industry?
Although my alma mater is wonderful in helping its students find job opportunities after graduation, I didn’t take advantage of that very much, and that’s of my own doing of course. I was however very lucky to have come to know many other filmmakers when I attended festivals for my previous short films, and also from other gigs that I did while in school. A lot of other work kept me busy, including doing many AD work. I got to know the producer of this film through those experiences, and it led me here.
Many young writer-directors are trying to make it into Hollywood, what would be your advice for them?
I don’t know if what I can offer has any value, as I myself am one of those people. But based on my own experience, I’d say that what’s asked of you later is always going to be more than you know. So don’t turn down any opportunity to learn and grow, even it it’s just something small, it might help you in the long run.
Can you tell us a bit about how you got your representation with CAA, which is one of the most top boutique, prestigious agencies in Hollywood?
Well, that came from doing this film. As post-production was wrapping up, we held many small screenings for industry folks in China, to gather opinion. CAA is one of the few talent agencies from Hollywood that also has a presence in China, and they were amongst the attendees of these screenings. Apparently, they liked what I did with it, and sat down with me the next day, the rest is history. I was of course very aware of their prestigiousness in the in