SxSW 2017 Interview: MAINELAND director Miao Wang
By Jason Whyte
Posted 03/10/17 04:32:20
"MAINELAND is a coming of age film that follows a boy and a girl from China's wealthy elite as they settle into a boarding school in a small town in Maine. They are part of the enormous wave of "parachute students" who are sent alone to a boarding school in a foreign country. The film weaves between verite scenes and lyrical cinematic sequences. While told through personal stories and anchored in the universal theme of growing up as awkward teenagers in high school, the film illuminates many larger timely and relevant contexts such as China-slash-U.S. relations, education, and immigration." Miao Wang on MAINELAND which screens at the 2017 South By Southwest Conference.
I hear you are back at SxSW this year! Tell me about what you have had here in the past, and your favorite aspects of the city.
I brought my first feature-doc BEIJING TAXI to SXSW seven years ago, also in competition. I love the vibrancy of Austin. Even though half of my meals from my first visit involved sipping on a gigantic milkshake for breakfast/lunch while I watched a movie at the Alamo theaters, I look forward to tasting the different BBQ spots!
I remember BEIJING TAXI and didn't get to meet you back then! Curious how you got your start as a filmmaker?
I started working on my first short film YELLOW OX MOUNTAIN when I attended the Parsons School of Design in NYC for my MFA. I always thought of my thesis project as not just a school project but one that I wanted to take beyond school into the world beyond. I learned a lot about the filmmaking process and the film industry through plunging into my thesis film and taking it seriously as a real project. Soon after, when I started my first feature BEIJING TAXI I was able to absorb some of the lessons learned from the process of working on the short. Making by doing and figuring it out as I go is how I got here.
So how did MAINELAND come together for you?
I started BEIJING TAXI, my first feature, with the intention of making a trilogy on China. I wanted each film in the trilogy to look at China's rise in a time of constant change, and its interconnectedness with the West. I was born and raised in China but came to age in the U.S. I embrace both my Chinese upbringing and Western education. I wanted to bring my unique insider and outsider perspective to capture the contemporary lives of the Chinese and their place in the globalized world. I spent three months in China after BEIJING TAXI's world premiere at SXSW working on a job. While I was there everywhere I turned; every parent and every student talked about studying abroad and their dissatisfaction with the Chinese education. I spent a few months speaking with different students to get a sense of their dreams and desires. But with so many kids wanting to study abroad, and no way of finding out in advance whether or not they will ever make it to the U.S. was a logistical challenge. I was determined to film the entire journey of transformation from before they leave China, to after they spend a couple of years in the U.S. That fall, I was invited to screen BEIJING TAXI at a boarding school in Maine. I landed in Portland expecting the school to be nearby, only to find myself bumping along on the school bus for an hour and a half. The screening took place inside a large auditorium, ushered by a couple of Chinese students. Two teachers invited me to join them for dinner. It was there I found out that the school's admissions officer travels to China twice a year to recruit Chinese students. As I departed, I told the teachers and I will probably be back here soon and often.
What keeps you going while making a movie? What drives you?
Watching films that push boundaries in the theaters, and listening to music that inspire me keeps me going. I am driven by the feeling of creating something artful, soulful, and socially relevant, hopefully inspiring people along the way. I drink a lot of green tea in the winter and eat a lot of cold watermelon in the summer.
With this trilogy idea, what was your biggest challenge with this project, and the moment that was the most rewarding to you?
The biggest challenge with this project is dealing with teenagers and being back in high school! I never felt comfortable in high school. I also associate my high school years with alienation and feeling like an outsider. I had spent all these years getting away from that and now suddenly I found myself back in high school and constantly feeling rejected! It is truly hard to wrangle teenagers, and even more so with groups of them in a high school setting. The most rewarding moment is at the last stages of the editing and postproduction process when I finally see everything come together, that moment when you know you have a film on your hands.
I would love to know about the the visual design of the movie; what camera did you film with and so forth about the visual design!
We filmed using the Canon 5D Mark III for the majority of the film, and a small part in Mark II at the beginning, before the Mark III came out! Even though I work in the field of documentaries and I truly enjoy the process of discoveries of documentary filmmaking, I am a huge cinephile and I am a sucker for lyrical and poetic cinematography. I met DOP extraordinaire Sean Price Williams when I edited a short art film that he shot with a mutual friend. I instantly fell in love with his eye when I was going through his footage and knew right away I wanted to work with him. We have since collaborated on BEIJING TAXI and numerous other short projects. We have a shared visual sensibility so it makes our working process very organic. Often we just glance over at each other and nod to acknowledge a great shot or moment.
What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie here in Austin?
Unveiling the film I have toiled away on for close to six years as a world premiere at SXSW is very exciting. What more is there to say?
After the film screens at SxSW, where is the film going to show next?
We plan to continue on the festival circuit, then move forward with theatrical, educational, and online distribution.
If you could show your movie in any theater outside of Austin, where would you screen it and why?
I would love to screen the film at the old movie theaters across cities and small towns in the U.S. I toured with BEIJING TAXI on a limited theatrical run and loved discovering the little art house theaters.
What would you say to someone who was being disruptive or talking during one of your screenings, or in general?
I generally give them a lot of looks or quietly ask them to stop talking or put away their phone. I find it more distracting when people start screaming at each other.
We have a lot of readers on our site looking to make movies or get into the industry somehow. What is the ONE THING you would say to someone who is wanting to get into the filmmaking business?
Find your allies and don't give up.
And finally, what is the greatest movie you have ever seen at a film festival?
That's a really tough one! There are so many for different reasons! One of my all time favorite is still HIROSHIMA MON AMOUR. Or two years ago I saw an Iranian film at MOMA, THE BRICK AND THE MIRROR. But definitely too many to list just one!
DATE/TIMES MAINELAND IS SCREENING AT SxSW:
Mar 11, 2017 1:45pm Alamo Ritz 1
Mar 12, 2017 6:30pm Alamo Lamar A
Mar 15, 2017 4:45pm Alamo Lamar A
Be sure to visit MAINELAND online at mainelandfilm.com!
We hope you enjoyed this SxSW filmmaker interview as part of our coverage of SxSW 2017. To see the entire series click on the Live Report sidebar on your right. We will have interviews posted all throughout the festival so be sure to visit us often for more coverage!
This is one of the many films screening at the 2017 SXSW Conference in Austin, Texas taking place March 10-18. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to www.sxsw.com/film or use the SxSW GO App for Android and iOS.
Jason Whyte, efilmcritic.com
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte