The Tallgrass Film Festival is a special time of year for me, full of films and interviews and all these geeks running around with too much booze/food and too little sleep as they indulge in the thing they love. This year I went further in-depth with the films, working on meeting more directors and producers to try to grab a better understanding of the films I saw. One of the most fun films of the festival, Go Back to China, was a much-needed break from the darkness to simply allow us to have a bit of developmental fun with a film. I was able to get in contact with the director, Emily Ting, and she was kind enough to allow me to send a few questions for her to answer!
Clint Westbrook: The tone of Go Back to China is distinct from your first film, Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong. What brought such a stark difference to this film’s script?
Emily Ting: After Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, there was a lot of expectations for me to make another romantic comedy. But I didn’t really want to be making the same movie again. This is a really personal story that I’ve been wanting to tell for a long time, and I just felt that I needed to tell this story first before I could move on to something else. But even though this is a family drama, it still plays a lot like a rom com and follows a lot of the same beats. Only, the love story this time is between a father and daughter.
CW: Speaking of the other film, there’s a distinct visual language in the way you frame your shots and the color palettes you’ve chosen. What helps you decide on the specific looks of your films?
ET: I always select the color palette of the film first before I make any other creative decisions. The color palette determines so many other choices in the film – from cinematography to production design to wardrobe. I let the environment of the film determine the color palette. With Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong, I let the city’s red and green neon lights determine the look of the film. The character Ruby was dressed in red and green in the two parts of the film deliberately. In Go Back to China, I went with a pastel color palette to match the color of Sasha’s toy collection. Also, a lot of the factories in Shenzhen are a pale coral color and I just went with that as a theme. My first film was all shot at night and featured very saturated and vibrant colors. I wanted my second film to look distinctly different and went with a much softer palette and a mostly day time setting.
CW: I know Anna Akana from the film You Get Me and I think she’s just delightfully talented. How did she come to be cast in the film?
ET: Anna is a pretty big YouTuber, but I was not all that familiar with her work initially. At around the time I was writing the script, I was going on a lot of general meetings at digital companies, and her name keeps popping up at every single meeting, presumably because we’re both Asian. I looked her up and went down a rabbit hole watching all her videos. I just found her to be so likeable and watchable, and she really embodied who I envisioned Sasha to be. When it came time to cast the movie, she shot up to the top of my list and we made a straight offer to her.
CW: Why a toy factory? It works well, I was just curious.
ET: This is actually my family’s toy factory. The film is based on my real life experience of going back home to work for the family business, so I was able to feature a lot of the real life locations, the toy factory being the major one!
CW: Richard Ng is a recurring cast member for you, is he going to be an ongoing collaborator or was he just perfect for the role? I think he was by the way.
ET: We were really lucky to have Richard do a cameo for us in the first film, where he played a fortune teller. The only reason we were able to get Richard is because our producer is friends with his daughter. Richard is a veteran actor who’s been in hundreds of movies in Hong Kong, so it was quite a coup for us to get him for that role. And we were able to form a personal relationship after working on Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong together, so when it came time to cast the father character, it just became a no brainer to bring on Richard and I was able to reach out to him directly to offer him the role.
CW: How long did it take to shoot the film? Were there any complications other than the multi-country travel?
ET: We shot for 5 days in Los Angeles, went on hiatus for a month so that I can go prep in Asia, and then shot the rest of the film in Hong Kong and China over 15 days. The biggest challenge in shooting the film was definitely the fact that it took place in so many different cities. We felt like we were really in a groove by the last day of the LA shoot, but to have to halt production to go and prep in another country just sort of zapped all the momentum we had up to that point. It was also really challenging trying to work inside an actual working factory and using real factory workers as background actors. We had to shoot around their production schedule so we couldn’t shoot out all the factory scenes all at once. We had to break them up and go back on the weekends. None of the factory workers have ever been on a film set before, so it took a lot of work to try to teach them how to be background extras. Things like you have to fake talk while on camera or we have to shoot the same scene over and over again were just really difficult for them to understand.
CW: I love film scores and this one was just charming, how did you come to Timo Chen?
ET: Timo has been a friend of mine for some time. He actually scored Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong as well. But I didn’t hire him for that film just because he was my friend. He scored this SXSW film Sunset Stories years ago, and I just really loved the music in that film. I reached out to him when I was looking for a composer for my first film. I gave him only one really vague direction, that I wanted the score to sound ‘sparkly’ and he turned in something so beautiful and that complimented the film so well. I really enjoyed working with him the first time, that there’s no reason not to work with him again on this one.
CW: What’s next for you after finishing the festival circuit with this film?
ET: We are getting ready for our general release in early 2020. I had my twins two weeks after our SXSW premiere, so this whole year, I’ve just been enjoying motherhood mostly. But I’m also writing a couple of new things and pitching on a few director for hire studio projects. Hopefully one of those will pan out in the new year!
And there we have it! Emily’s film was probably the most charming thing I was able to catch at the festival and it’s a sweet story that I can’t wait for you to see! Sounds like it’s going wider in 2020 and I hope you’ll all make time for it when you’re able to, it really is beyond worth your time and will put a smile on your face.
Hoping to have one or two more interviews out before the end of the week, just waiting on e-mail replies so stay tuned!