Kwan and Payne on cinema
By Stephen Cremin
Thu, 24 May 2012, 14:55 PM (HKT)
Film directors Stanley KWAN 關錦鵬 (pictured) and Alexander PAYNE were asked to present their favourite scenes from world cinema at a Cannes' forum. Kwan chose a clip from OZU Yasujiro 小津安二郎's Tokyo Story 東京物語 (1953); Alexander Payne chose the opening title sequence from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. The two directors talked about their hunger for cinema, frustrations with the slowness of film-making, and product placement.
Please introduce the film-makers you've selected?
Stanley Kwan (SK): Each single Ozu film is very touching to me. He's not just a Japanese director, he's an oriental director. Ozu's films are always universal. Even a Western audience can feel [something]. I keep reminding myself, as a Chinese filmmaker, that what I appreciate in Ozu's film is that "less is more". Certainly, I also note that the art direction and cinematography is always very precise. But for me, the lesson is "less is more".
Alexander Payne (AP): Ozu never made a bad film, he worked in many different genres; in the silent period he made comedies and thrillers. Essentially he's a comedy director, even in his sentimental work in the 1950s. He has a profound bittersweet sense of human comedy. He's an important director not just for Stanley and myself but for many cineastes. Even when shooting The Descendants (2011), I was thinking of Ozu, with shots of the landscape — the moments of rest — between the dramatic scenes. Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West speaks to the thrill of cinema. For Leone, the story is merely an excuse to enter the realm of cinema, to splash around. I chose the opening credit sequence — which is so playful, beautiful and thrilling — because it talks of the thirst for cinema.
Which films made you hungry for cinema?
AP: I've been a film lover like many people here all my life. But the idea of being a director was a distant dream. I'm from an immigrant family where business, law and medicine are the accepted careers. I was watching lots of movies and when I was 20 or 21, I saw KUROSAWA Akira 黒澤明's Seven Samurai 七人の侍 (1954) projected in its newly restored form and I thought I would never climb a mountain so high. But what a beautiful mountain. That was the film that made me want to join film school. But I'd been watching films since I was three-years-old, laughing with Charlie Chaplin.
SK: I was also a filmgoer when I was a kid, but Tokyo Story is the film that moved me so much. I remember that my father was gone when I was only 13. I was jealous of my brothers and sisters [who spent more time with him]. I remember that the first time that I watched Tokyo Story, I almost collapsed. Certainly this was the first time I experienced films' power like that. I have to say that being a film-maker, working with those new wave directors like Ann HUI 許鞍華 and Patrick TAM 譚家明, really left a strong impression on me. And I decided to be a film-maker like them.
Do you feel like craftsmen whose raw materials need time to mature?
AP: It makes me feel pathetic. I want to be making a film right now instead of talking to you, making a film every year. What has slowed me down is the screenplay. A screenplay is the first directing and consuming of a film, it's writing but it's not writing. You're imagining a possible future film. It takes time. That and editing. I'm not fast like Woody ALLEN, Steven SODERBERGH, Michael WINTERBOTTOM, MIIKE Takashi 三池崇史, Johnnie TO 杜琪峰, etc. I want to kill them.
SK: I have the same feeling about the process of working on a script. I have to say that I went through the most happy time, and the most miserable, trying to develop a good script. I think I am a very good observer. I put more concern on all the characters. I love to work with actors and actresses during the research and pre-production stages. When I made my first two films, I worked very hard to make notes for the characters and to communicate with the actresses. But this process only slowed me down further.
What dictates your artistic choices, your drive?
AP: The flash of the little idea that can be a movie. I maybe have one every three years: "Oh! That can be a movie!" That basic concept of a film, that this idea could be a film, that leads you through the years of actually making the film, of seeking the financing... and then talking about it afterwards to audiences if you're lucky to get distribution. If the audience senses a good concept in the film, then they know that they are in good hands with the director. They will forgive a boring section, unfortunate casting decisions, a problematic ending, etc. They're more forgiving.
SK: I'm more focused on characters. A woman or a man may sit next to me in a cafe and all of a sudden some words from their mouths can inspire me for the characters in my next film.
What is your vision of cinema today?
AP: I think it's beautiful that at the very same time in our history that commercial cinema is so expensive — to make and to market such that it is pushing away smaller films — the means of production are more accessible than ever, with $3000 cameras with professional pictures and sound. It's democratisation of the means of production. That means that a lot more shit will be made but also that out there is a Mozart who will pick up a camera and say thank you to Sony and Canon.
Are you concerned about your films ageing?
AP: Filmmakers today are lucky because fashion doesn't change as quickly as it used to. In the 1920-50s, [people dressed differently in] each decade. But since the 1970s, you can just wear a jeans and a T-shirt. Music also changed so much decade to decade until the 1970s when it "froze". Kids today still listen to Led Zepellin, The Beatles, The Who, etc. We're lucky that way. We don't have that same sense of fashion. But hair is a little bit different decade to decade.
How do you feel about product placement?
AP: There's no place for production placement in film. I think it's corrupt, perverse and hideous. Look up David Lynch talking about product placement on YouTube and hear much worse language.
SK: In Mainland China now it's a very terrible situation. It's kind of a trend if one wants to get more money for a film. But fortunately, I keep making small budget films so I don't have this kind of pressure.
AP: I would be a hypocrite if I did't mention that there is product placement for Hawaiian Airlines in The Descendents. We needed to fly back and forth to Los Angeles so we made a deal. There was a scene showing an airplane already in the script. But there were deals made.
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