With a Fantasporto Grand Prize win fresh under its belt, director Wen Ren's Last Sunrise may be facing a somewhat unexpected bright future. Deservedly so, because Ren's first is a promising film indeed. I was lucky enough to ask him a couple of questions about Last Sunrise, so if you're wondering how hard it was to pitch a Sci-Fi film in China, how he got by on a limited budget and what he would love to do next, be sure to keep on reading.
Niels Matthijs: For the longest time, it felt as if China had no interest at all in making Sci-Fi films. How hard was it to get your proposal for Last Sunrise approved (and funded)?
Wen Ren: Well, I went to China 4 years ago with the dream of making a Chinese Sci-Fi. When I arrived, they said it was the perfect time because it was the beginning of the "Chinese Sci-Fi Era". Now, 4 years later, it seems there was truth in those words. Many projects fell through, but pitching "Last Sunrise" went surprisingly smooth. I met with the head of Youku one night and immediately got the green light. We then only had a few months of preproduction before we started shooting. Films like mine and "Wandering Earth" will certainly be the first of many to come out of China throughout 2019. For the longest time, China had no interest in Sci-Fi, but with the recent successes, I'd bet you couldn't stop them from making more. I only hope that we can see a whole range of genre films, serving both hard and soft Sci-Fi fans.
I noticed you identify as Chinese/American. How helpful was your American background when creating this Sci-Fi story and why do you think it took so long for China to take an interest in Sci-Fi?
I am Chinese American, which basically means I don't fit in anywhere, always an outsider. It's kind of great because you have a unique vantage point to observe and experience the world. This global perspective I believe has been hugely advantageous, especially in the genre of Sci-Fi.
It seems almost impossible to talk about Last Sunrise without mentioning The Wandering Earth. Do you think Gwo's film might eclipse (- hah! -) Last Sunrise or do you feel it might result in free publicity for your film?
You're right. It's hard to find a single article about my film without some mention of Wandering Earth. It's almost silly to say they eclipsed us when they are actually 150x bigger than us. In fact, I almost wished we could just transit by without being noticed, but clearly that didn't happen. First of all, I liked Wandering Earth! It's the perfect film to kick off, "the Era of Chinese Sci-Fi," with its superior VFX and expansive world building based on Liu Cixin's novel. But it's sort of a double edged sword for us. We received free publicity, but we were also accused of being a copycat, when we actually finished our film mid 2018. I'm hoping one day people can judge our film independently.
Many indie films nowadays seem to almost abuse "genre". They start off as horror or Sci-Fi, but only as an excuse to fuel the drama later on. Last Sunrise seemed to spread its genre influences more evenly. Was that something you paid specific attention to while writing the film?
I actually think the hardest part of making genre films today is to both respect the genre — deliver the goods, but also find paths to surprises and originality. This is a difficult balancing act because different audience members can only take so much before feeling abused or cheated, as you said. This is a fun challenge to me, and I'll probably spend the rest of my career experimenting with different ways to mash genres in an effort to create something unique.
There are some big things hinted at in Last Sunrise, but never fully explored. It made me think of Cloverfield, which built a franchise by highlighting a different angle of a big, cataclysmic event per film. Is that something you'd be interested in exploring or don't you feel like returning to the Last Sunrise setting?
There are some viewers who believe that the scientific basis of the film isn't grounded. As a Sci-Fi buff, I get annoyed when films over-explain things I already know. I believe the people who really care about the science will understand subtle mentions, and those who don't, won't care to understand it anyway. Take for example The Kardashev Scale's three types of civilization and our insatiable appetite for energy. I suppose we could have gone into detail with some scientist explaining why the disappearance of our Sun would create problems with hydroelectricity (water would freeze because 1 year in the temperature would reach -73F), wind (moving air is caused by differences in air pressure, which would cease without variation in temperature), solar (well...because there's no sun), fossil fuels (because they will have run out), etc. But I chose to give the audience pieces of information and a world for them to independently explore, and perhaps challenge. I have heard producers pitching a possible series or sequel, but I'm ready to move on. I've got four screenplays that I'm passionate about making!
Even though you hid it really well, Last Sunrise is very much a low budget film. What was the hardest part about working with such limited resources? At the same time, a small budget is often a prime trigger for creative solutions, whereas deep pockets often lead to laziness and predictability. Do you ever worry about that?
I've been making low budget / no budget films since I was 13, so I learned very early on that you need to be smart, resourceful, and multifaceted in different disciples. As the director, I had to do many things outside of my job to assure quality, and that shouldn't be a surprise. Although it may just be an excuse, I do believe that certain creative limitations can produce creative solutions. These limitations of money, time, and even censorship, can become your weapons if you allow them to. Although I certain would prefer more money and time on the next one!
What was the thing you really wanted in but had to drop because of the budget? Which scene, shot or narrative was cut simply because the money wasn't there?
My film professor once said that we should never write to a budget. I think that's BS! We certainly lost a few scenes and had to combine others to fit everything in the 14 day schedule, but I was ready to do these things since I was aware of my budget. I was also only able to plan ahead this way because I wrote it to a certain budget. One unfortunately casualty were some of the world building shots and pieces of VFX that we had to limit.
Soundtracks are probably one of the cheapest options to elevate your film, even so they're very often ignored. I was glad that Last Sunrise made very good use of its music. In what way were you involved in the whole process?
You perfectly summarized that music is the cheapest and most effective weapon to create moods. Hank Lee, our composer, was particularly advanced with syncs, which was an obvious choice for our Sci-Fi. But our film also demanded intimate and emotional elements, a "love theme" which would help push Yang and Mu's relationship forward. So this was another balancing act, making both the electronic and classical music feel holistic.
While watching I was reminded of some other directors and films, but what were your personal influences? Both as a director in general as well as for this film specifically?
Alfonso Cuarón. Specifically "Children of Men". The immersiveness of that film is unmatched, in my opinion. We tried to focus more on creating powerful moments, as opposed to strictly hitting plot objectives. Then there are Asian directors, like Hirokaza Koreeda, with his mastery of subtlety. It's something I'm studying and struggling with as a Western-educated director. Of course I don't think any modern Sci-Fi director, rather director, could refrain from mentioning Stanley Kubrick.
I've been following Chinese cinema quite closely for the past 20 years and from afar it looks like the promised land, where even the smallest of films have producer lists longer than their actual cast lists, without seemingly having to sacrifice artistic control. Is that something you recognize or is the reality a little different?
Like any country, as long as you respect their rules and laws, you can thrive. For example, censorship. I chose to see this as a creative limitation, just like budget and time. And like all limitations, good artists can overcome them through creative means. I would say that in some way, you can have more artistic control because China is very director-centric, whereas Hollywood is very producer-centric. In China, you see so many original and special screenplays being produced, breaking all kinds of records without total reliance on star power and IPs.
Why do you think is it so hard for China to crack the global film market? Unless it's martial arts or arthouse dramas about rural vs urban, tradition vs industrialization and modernization, Chinese films don't seem have much of a chance.
I don't think China is unable to crack it. To a certain extent, I'm just not sure China cared about the global market because their domestic market is already so lucrative and exponentially growing. However, I believe that to sustain such growth, we've hit a point where things might change. For the first time in history, we're seeing Chinese films having limited releases in foreign markets. This is why more of us need to work even harder to popularize genres that would fit these global markets. It's going to be hard, but it's very exciting.
As a director, getting your first film out is tough, but that second film may be even harder to make. Are there already plans for your next film, or are you still too busy handling and promoting Last Sunrise?
Ouch. I think you might be right. I'm absolutely feeling the sophomore slump. I'm mostly alone, doing international marketing and promoting so I'm spending most of my time on things like answering your questions! But yes! I have four screenplays written that I would love to make if someone lets me.
Imagine some wild investor came to you and gave you a blank check, no questions asked, you can make whatever you want. What would be your dream project?
I would punch myself, because I know I'm dreaming! If it's still reality, then I'd attempt to make a narrative film in space. Just to be able to say I'm first to do it.
I'm also introducing a new bit to my interviews. From now on, directors will be given the opportunity to ask a question they've been dying to see answered, which I'll then try to answer to the best of my ability. Since there's so much one-way communication happening between creators and audience, I figured it would be interesting to see what would happen if the tables were turned.
Wen Ren: I would like to ask about your favorite and least favorite part of the film? Also if you got to watch another Chinese Sci-fi, what would you be interested in watching?
Niels Matthijs: I think that, from an audience's perspective, the favorite and least favorite part of Last Sunrise are very much the same. Some people are going to love the fact that many of the Sci-Fi bits and ideas remain distant and off-screen, others will hate that there's a world being created that they're not allowed to experience first-hand. I feel that's probably the most divisive part of the film.
Personally I consider it to be one of my favorite parts of the film, mostly because I've seen this approach fail so many times, it's actually refreshing to see it can work. My least favorite part of the film isn't so much one single thing, but the lack of anything outlandish. In some way, I feel the film might be a little too safe in that everything works very neatly together. I miss a little risk, some crazy, challenging ideas or stylistic choices that would make it really stand out of the crowd. It's nitpicking of course, but that's what kept it from getting an even higher score.
As for what I'd love to see in future Chinese Sci-Fi films ... I think it would be really neat if they could combine the richness and lushness of their historic epics and translate that to space. It would be quite novel and original I think (as Western Sci-Fi is rarely lavish, warm or pleasant) and it would be something China is already familiar with. It would be even better if it keeps them away from CG, which is still not on par, not even in the big productions.