VIFF 2016 Interview: OLD STONE director Johnny Ma

By Jason Whyte
Posted 10/03/16 04:01:16

"This is a Chinese social noir thriller that much can a good person take before turning bad?" Director Johnny Ma on OLD STONE which screens at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival.

I am thrilled to welcome you to VIFF this year. Is this your first VIFF experience and will you be in Vancouver to attend your screenings?

This will be my first VIFF, even though I spent five years of university here at the University of British Columbia. I will be in attendance at the screening along with family and friends!

Tell me a bit about yourself and more about your growing up here!

I was born in Shanghai, China and immigrated to Toronto at the age of 10. I then came to Vancouver for the end of high school at University Hill and then went on for a bachelor of commerce at UBC. After careers in mergers & acquisitions and textile fashion, I went into documentary producing as well as commercial production.

In 2010 I enrolled in directing and screenwriting at Columbia University in New York, and in 2013 my short film GRAND CANAL premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival and went on to win the grand prize for shorts at Whistler Film Festival as well as being nominated for a CSA Short Film award. In 2014, I became a fellow at the Sundance Institute Screenwriting & Directing Lab. OLD STONE is my first feature film and it premiered at the 2016 Berlinale International Film Festival.

Great background! So how did you put your first feature, OLD STONE, together?

I was in China working on another project and we were facing a lot of barriers in finding actors and getting financing. And out of the frustration of that, I wrote OLD STONE as a release. Also with the story I was able to pitch it as a crime thriller which made the investors more interested and we were able to lock down the micro-budget which we were seeking.

Different than the other project which was set in Beijing, OLD STONE could be shot in a smaller city with a smaller budget. And we ended up choosing my producers' home town where we were able to have access to more support from the local community. In the end, from the start of writing of the script to the premiere in Berlinale it was about one year and one month, which is super fast by feature film standards!

While you are working on a movie, what keeps you going? What drives you, creatively?

Before I ever put the pen down on the paper on the script, I let the story live inside me for at least a few months, testing it every day to see if it is a worth-while story to tell. Because I know that the moment I put it down on the page, I will be dedicating my next few years on this journey and I will be involving all my friend and family's time and money for it, and all my collaborators. They trust me when I say that this is an important and good story, and I must believe it myself first.

So once we begin, there is never going back. And to me that's the only way to make a film, without fear and always courageous and risk-taking.

So with all of that, what was the biggest challenge of getting your first film together?

It was my first feature film! So I was also going through all the growing pain of just trying to understand the process and where I am during it. On a short film, it was always a sprint to the finish line, but there is much more time when it comes to a feature. It is a marathon and it's about pacing yourself.

There are many days that we were going into the day without knowing who the actors are for the day as well as locations, and that is super scary when you are someone like me who plans and plans! But I also learned through the process of letting yourself go and trusting the process, and most importantly trusting your own instincts. And that was a big triumph, and definitely made me feel more at ease at the help of a beast that is the feature film.

If you had to pick a single favourite moment out of the entire production, what would it be? The moment where you thought you had something?

As the director, I'm always looking for a sponteaneous and honest moment. My model has always been that if it feels truthful and real, then that's a moment to be captured on camera. There was one evening where we were filming a dance sequence where the main character walks through the local dance square drunk. In the script it was only just a few lines of action but when we arrived, the atmosphere just took over and lifted all of us. And as the camera was setting up the productor, actor and I just started dancing along with the crowd of people exercising. It was really a moment of connection between us, and it definitely was a much needed moment of levitation in the middle of the shoot to keep all of us strong and moving forward.

For the aspiring filmmakers who read our site, I would love to know about the technical side of the film and how you created the visual design of OLD STONE.

We shot on two cameras, the Sony F55 and the Sony F7. The F7 was a smaller camera which we could use the inside car interior but also to put on a small stabilizing rig that the cinematographer himself could operate. Also the Sony F55 has an extremely high ISO night sensitivity compared to its other competitors. This was cruical for us because we had a limited budget for lighting for the evening scenes, and the camera definitely allowed us to do things with limited lighting resources.

What are you looking forward to the most about showing your movie to audiences at VIFF?

I'm looking forward to the interaction with the VIFF audience. We had a tremendous audience at TIFF and I heard great things about the Vancouver audience as well. And I am extremely excited to learn more about the audiences' taste and opinions on our film as well as other great films of the year.

Where is this movie going to show next?

We are VERY lucky and have already secured distribution with the highly respected Zeitgeist Films in the US and FilmsWeLike in Canada. After a few selected festival screenings to garner word-of-mouth, we will be opening in theaters in New York and then Toronto on December 9th. We hope to show the film to as many people from as many backgrounds and communities as we can. In the end, this is not just a China story, this is a story about what drives humans and it is absolutely a Universal story.

If you could show your movie in any theater in the world, which one would you choose and why?

I hope to show this film in Mainland China very soon, to hear what the Chinese audience also thinks of this film.

What would you say or do to someone who is talking, texting or being overall disruptive during a screening of your film?

It depends! If the audience is reacting from the film then I would love it. But of course as any filmmaker we are very sensitive to anyone using their cell phones or leaving during the middle of our film especially. Of course, I know sometimes you can't help to use the washroom or have to take a call in the middle of a screening. But it still hurts. After all, when it is your own film, it's like your own baby that you have brought into the world and you want it to have an appreciative audience.

There are many aspiring filmmakers reading us for our articles and reviews on If you could offer a nugget of advice to them on how to get their start, what would you say to them?

Stop talking about it and just go and do it. If you don't have the money then make it for no money. These days there is no excuse for anyone intersted in filmmaking not to try it at least once. And don't be afraid to pay for your own film; it's an investment in yourself. After all, how can you expect anyone else to trust you wit their money when you can not do that first with your own.

And finally, what is the best movie you have ever seen at a film festival, and why?

THE ACT OF KILLING, hands down. I saw it at a press & industry screening at TIFF a few years ago, and the P&I screenings are usually a terrible audience. People walking in and out, and leaving after ten minutes of the film if they are not interested in it. But after this film, I watched all of these very usually very cynical critics and buyers all come out of the theater completely shocked. Every one of us had to find a corner of the theater to just calm down and reflect on what we had just witnessed. The film is just that shocking.

This is one of the many films screening at the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival taking place in beautiful Vancouver from September 29th to October 14th. For more information on this film screening times, point your browser to or use the VIFF app for Android and iOS.

Jason Whyte,
Twitter: @jasonwhyte / Facebook: jasonwhyte / Instagram: jason.whyte

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