Johnny Ma’s Grand Canal (大运河) docks with the explosiveness of raw personal storytelling. The tale of the tragic events of a boat captain who must collect a debt as remembered by his ten year old son, the short film manages to be many things: a diary, a hard-hitting fictional narrative, a quasi-documentary, a deconstruction of cinematic form. What’s hard to nail is a description of the film’s impact, which for this writer hovered between the adrenaline of seeing a filmmaker on top of his craft and the unsettling emotions that the viewers are left to explore.
Made at Columbia University, Grand Canal screens as part of CAAMFest 2014’s A Modern Family short film showcase. Johnny’s previous film The Genius from Quintino (O Genio de Quintino) aired in our first season of Film School Shorts, so it was an extra pleasure to catch up with Johnny and talk about the joys of casting, the praise Grand Canal has received and what to do when you’re trying to film the uncontrollable.
Hi Johnny, how have you been?
Really good. Glad to be climbing out of a one month writing binge inside my “cave” to hang out in sunny San Francisco. It’s awesome out here!
You’ve described Grand Canal as a “Greek tragedy told in a Chinese pop song.” Tell us about the film.
Grand Canal was shot in the winter of 2013 in the water canal town of Gao You (six hours from Shanghai), and it was made as my thesis film at Columbia University. The story is about a Chinese boat captain trying to collect a debt from a dangerous local mob boss in order to keep his fleet of boats.
Even from the beginning of development, I always wanted the final film to have a timeless quality, as if the same story could’ve happened in any generation or culture. Rather than a short film, it should feel like a sweeping novel or Greek tragedy that transcends the running time of 20 minutes. The story is firmly wrapped around one particular 90’s Chinese pop song to help focus the emotional journey for the audience. The goal with this framework is to make the story hopefully bigger than any screen it’s playing on. I want the audience to literally want to jump into this world and be in it.
Grand Canal adds another international setting to your filmography. What were some the challenges and benefits of filming in China and how did it differ from your O Genio de Quintino shoot in Brazil?
The Brazil experience will always stay with me throughout my entire career because of what we endured and accomplished together with my best friends and collaborators. In the darkest of times of trying to make Grand Canal in China, I always found comfort in knowing that we experienced all of these difficulties before in Brazil and in much harsher conditions, and so I just had to relax and let things take their natural course. For example, I was really stressed out about casting in Brazil and whether or not the right person would eventually come around; it took us three weeks to eventually find Ricardo who became the main protagonist in O Genio. In China, it took two whole months before I finally met Mei [Song Shun]. But I was never once stressed about the casting because I knew if I was patient, someone like him would eventually come around just like it did once before in Brazil. And when I finally did meet Mei, it was the same feeling I had when meeting Ricardo in Brazil. I knew this was it.
In hindsight, things should’ve been much more difficult in China as we had much bigger ambitions. But having the Brazil experience helped to put me in the right mindset and focus my energies on the right things. Rather than being stressed about things that I had no way of controlling, I just let things happen and then tried to make the best of the situation.
Your lead Mei Song Shun is phenomenal. How did you cast him and the rest of the actors?
I mentioned before about the similar “feeling” when I met the lead actor of Mei in Grand Canal and Ricardo in O Genio. That “feeling” actually came from a much more practical, visceral reaction to both of their unique hairstyles. Ricardo had this insane wild man hair that drew my eyes to him as soon as I spotted him.
Mei also had this really interesting hairstyle that drew me straight to him amongst a dining table of 15 people. I saw it as soon as I walked into the room. He had this ponytail that made him look like a battled warrior hero from the ancient Dynasty days. It was like he should have been born 1000 years ago, and being born in the modern day has displaced him from his natural place in time. The idea of a character that is looking for his rightful place in the world has always fascinated me, and being born a thousand years too late is just the most tragic thing because that kind of character will never be able to find his true “home”. I loved that we can see it right away from the way Mei wears his hair and, in a subtle way, his pony tail said everything I wanted to say with my film.
Do you have any unique ways of working with your cast? Any methods?
I usually look for real people that embody the same qualities of characters in the original script, and we let their real life and story color what we want to explore. Both Ricardo from O Genio and Mei from Grand Canal are not actors, but real people who are literally living the life that the film was depicting.
I learned from my experience in Brazil that rather than trying to encourage the main character to “act” as I did with Ricardo, that perhaps it was much more useful to just spend time with Mei to get him comfortable with the filmmaking process so that all he is really doing is reacting as himself in any given situation.
I definitely I think I’ve improved and learned from my own directing experience from one film to the next. There are moments in Grand Canal [where] what you see on the screen is literally as real as it gets, but it was not necessarily originally written that way. For example, when Mei cries at the wedding it was only written in the script as, “Mei looks across the room at his wife and ponders what he would do next”. But on the day of filming, it was one of the last things we shot on the very last day. I knew Mei was already in a bit of a state. So I gave him a beer and whispered in his ear that today was the last day of production and everyone was leaving tomorrow. I didn’t know what it would do except to make him feel more alone, as his character should feel at that moment in the story. But as we began setting up the lights, Mei really began to cry and it was such a deep cry that it just broke my and everyone’s heart.
I nudged the cameraman to start filming right away even if the lighting wasn’t ready. I knew because of that moment, the entire film was changing in front of my eyes and took on a deeper and more emotional meaning. I didn’t know what it meant for the film, but I knew it was a special moment that we captured.
Tell us a bit about the film’s wedding, because it’s to my understanding that it’s not entirely fictional.
It’s a 100% real wedding of over 1000 guests. That was the day probably I was most nervous, as there was nothing we could control. I knew there were things we needed for the story and if we didn’t get them, it would be disastrous as there was no way to repeat anything at the real wedding. So with the team we strategized and made a very precise plan and possible backup options to cover any missed story points.
This was such an exciting way to make a film that brought back all of my documentary experience. I knew that certain things would not work out but that there would be some new discoveries. I’ll just talk about the actual marriage ceremony and the exchange of vows. When we shot it, I had no idea what it would be like. All I could do was get our camera guy behind and cover the moment. And in all honesty, it didn’t look like much from where I was sitting in the audience.
But when I saw the footage, I was just blown away by the pure emotion that was captured on the newlywed’s faces. The original script began in a completely different way, but when I saw the footage of the marriage vows, I knew I had the beginning of the film and that forced me to also look at the entire structure of the film in a different way.
This is clearly a highly personal film. Can you talk a bit about your personal life and how that account is mirrored in the film?
I’ll keep the ending twist a secret. But I would just like to say the film is personal to everyone that was involved, and not just myself as you might think from first viewing the film. The final film consists of elements of my life, Mei’s life and all of the people that were involved. It’s an ode to the collection of stories, songs, and people I’ve experienced during the time living and making the film at Gao You.
The film has does have both elements of fiction of reality, and I experimented blurring the lines of narrative and documentary. It is my hope that rather than waste their time trying to figure out what’s real and not real in the facts, the viewer would see all of it as just a story. I love Herzog’s idea about facts and truth, and that real truth is not necessarily fact, that there is a poetry of truth that facts will never fully reveal.
And if you felt something after watching the film, it’s because of the story and the emotions depicted in the film are honest and truthful; maybe not in the facts, but definitely in the poetry of trying to get at another kind of truth.
What did you shoot on? Can you talk a bit about the film’s grainy and raw aesthetic?
We shot the film on 16mm. I really wanted to shoot on the format because of the timeless quality it would give to the canal settings and it is absolutely crucial in achieving the 90’s Chinese filmmaking style. I wanted the final film to literally look like a film that was made in the 90’s rather than a film made in 2013 about the 1990’s. 16mm is great for that.
Logistically, it was really difficult getting 16mm in China because film is pretty much dead there. And to actually buy film stock and develop the film in China would even cost five or ten times more than they would in the U.S. So we had to literally smuggle the film stock in from Taiwan through certain connections we knew. And if we were caught and forced to pay the custom fees, we would not have been able to afford any of it. Luckily, the filmmaking gods were on our side.
The film has been selected as one of the ten best shorts at the Toronto International Film Festival. How does it feel having your work recognized on such a large platform? Have there been any practical ramifications from the festival’s honors?
Playing at TIFF is awesome! Toronto is such a wonderful festival and for that one month of the festival, everyone just talked about films in such an intelligent and interesting way. I usually spend my time at TIFF watching other films and getting inspired from them for my own work. For that, festivals have been really great and because of some of the festival honors, our feature project is getting traction and we were able to take our feature project through the Sundance Lab. Grand Canal really serves as the living proof that we can really pull off what we say we want to do in the feature script.
However, I feel that waiting or hoping for festival honors is really dangerous because after going around the festivals for a while, you realize that there is so many other reasons why a film gets into a festival and wins an award that sometimes have nothing to do with the quality of the film. And so I really hate the idea that because of festival honors, one filmmaker gets to make his feature and another doesn’t because he did not get as many honors. This is utterly ridiculous. It’s always nice to get honors, but as long as we are clear that it should have nothing with our desire and motivation for the next project.
The ending is unique to say the least. Was the third-act fully realized during pre-production, or was it something that came about during the production or post?
The ending twist or reveal is something I always wanted to explore in a film before. And unconsciously without telling anyone on set or the actors, I made backup plans during shooting to make it possible to explore this option in the post-process without crew and the actors’ knowledge. Everyone on set was making a film with a different storyline than the one that is in the final product. It was only after the editor put together the rough cut of the original film that I had enough confidence to suggest looking at possibility of a different way of framing the entire film.
What filmmakers have influenced you?
I always loved filmmakers that are the pure storytellers, guys like Abbas Kiarostami and Werner Herzog. They tell stories in such simple but always unique methods in each of their stories.
I admire Abbas Kiarostami for the way he is able to tell a small story but with such large spiritual and worldly meanings, and Werner Herzog for the energy and the scope of the dreams of each of his characters.
For Grand Canal, I also watched a lot of 90’s Chinese filmmakers such as Jia Zhang Ke and Jiang Wen. I immigrated to Canada in 1992 and basically missed out on an entire generation of exciting Chinese filmmaking. I even made a conscious choice to shoot Grand Canal aesthetically as an homage to 90’s Chinese films. It was my way of exploring a completely blanked out period of my own upbringing as a Chinese person.
You made this film at Columbia University. How did any of your instructors or mentors influence the film? Would you have been able to make the same film without attending Columbia University?
Columbia has some of the most amazing mentors: some are very nurturing and others can be extremely tough. All of it is a workshop to continue challenging you and pushing you to take new risks in your exploration.
I remember a professor made a harsh critique about O Genio that was absolutely true, but it was still hard to swallow. But rather then wallowing on it, it lit the fire for me to prove him wrong on my next film. And he was the first person I showed the rough cut of Grand Canal to. And it sure felt extra good when he turned around after watching the film and said, “That was good.”
I was making very different kinds of films before Columbia, and technically I don’t think film school really gave me anything I didn’t know or couldn’t have learned from just making more films. More than anything, the Columbia experience really challenged me to explore the question of who I am as a storyteller and figuring out my voice. And I do really feel that with Grand Canal, I am finally starting to successfully communicate who I am and share what is going on in my heart and in my head. And more than anything technical, that is to me the hardest and the most important thing we can do as a storyteller.
What do you say to the people that argue you don’t need a film degree to make films?
I think this statement is becoming more and more true. The industry is changing so fast, and slowly [a] film degree does not have the same value as it once had. I definitely don’t think you need a film degree to make a film. Anyone with a DSLR and a desire to tell a story can do it now. But a good film… hmm, that might take a little more work and luck, and film school helps put you in a place where you are at least not alone in that exploration, and they do know something, and can at least help point you to the right direction. But the road you will always have to walk yourself.
I don’t know how my journey as a filmmaker would be different if I didn’t go to Columbia. I only know the road I traveled. So I guess all I can say is that I’m happy with where I am now, and I feel like I’m moving in the right direction, and the film degree certainly helped with that.
What is your advice to prospective film students trying to pick a school?
I think everyone’s experience in choosing the film school and also their experience in it will be different. And as any storyteller with his/her own unique voice, you also have to figure out your own criteria in making this important decision. And it might just be as simple as a visceral feeling that this is the right place for you, as I felt when I first saw Mei and Ricardo’s hairstyles. I will always trust those basic instincts much more than rational logic.
What’s next for Johnny Ma?
Well, I’m done now as a student filmmaker, and in July I’m off to China again to start making my feature about marriages and pollution. I feel I’m ready for the challenge now to take that next step because of my experience of film school and making Grand Canal. I know it won’t be a easy journey, but that’s also the fun of it.
Johnny Ma is a NY/LA/Beijing based filmmaker. He is currently in development on his first feature length narrative project Ten Thousand Happiness.
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Grand Canal screens as part of CAAMFest 2014’s A Modern Family short film showcase on March 18, 2014 @ 9:00 pm.