“Carmen carried the freedom, bravery”

Wang Fan (aka Michelle Wang) has produced and directed Beijing Carmen, a romance drama set in a dancing environment inspired by Carmen of Prosper Mérimée’s novel, which has been seen at our festival. This is a film that breathes passion, character and freedom. Features of the protagonist also glimpsed in her director. Some critics called her ‘the next Ang Lee’. She blushes but knows that she is in a crucial moment of his career. A pressure that during the festival has managed to stay away but awaiting at her return to China. As we have known, we are sure she will get it.

We talked a little bit about the film after the viewing (beware, it may contain spoilers):

Hi, Fan, and thanks to attend us. First of all, we are curious about your choice! Why did you chose to make a film about Carmen and why in Beijing?

I was a documentary filmmaker and I did a documentary about modern dance in New York. When I read Carmen from Merimée I was very young, and this character really touched me and she has been in my mind for a long long time, so when I had the chance to make my first feature, when I was writing the script, she just came out, suddenly, by herself.

But could I do a Chinese version of Carmen? Because everyone knows the classical Carmen from the novel, the Opera and films… I think Carmen carried the freedom, bravery… a kind of independence. These things are universal, it’s international. That point is really good for a film, and also Carmen is really good character. But it’s not easy to do this subject in China. She is so different from Chinese culture, so I decided to tell the story with dancing elements because this is something I am very familiar with. I have been doing films for ten years, in different countries, with international crews, so I thought ‘OK, I can do this story and I may put in some familiar elements’. This kind of format, this kind of film, we didn’t do that before in China, so I wanted to do that.

We enjoyed your movie a lot and loved all the dancing parts. All actors in the movie are professional dancers?

Actually just two of them are professional dancers, the other actors they can dance, but they are not professionals. The real reason for you to think they are all professional dancers is because when I did the audition for dancers, I had many professional dancers but I didn’t pick them up, because when making the dance part, we do the choreography for camera not for stage. If you are a good dancer you are good for stage, so you can dance from the very beginning to the end. But for camera is different; they need to act, they have to be actors, they have to be relaxed, they have to show passion, they have to act very naturally, they have to had personality. So I pick non professional dancers up. They are not good looking, in perspective of dancing, but they are very real and they look different to each other, they are not standard dancers. These dancers I think are good for filming, good for camera, so this is what I wanted. I don’t wanted professional dancers showing beautiful bodies with empty hearts, I wanted strong emotions.

How did you find the leading actress, Rui Li?

Rui Li is not a professional dancer, she is not professional actress. I found her in a remote village.

Why there?

Because I found out that it was very hard to make Carmen believable in China, because this women is a gypsy very wild, very brave, so if I find a woman from Han nation —as I am— it won’t look like Carmen, so I thought I should find a woman in another places who look very wild and sexy. So I went to different minority places in China. I spent almost two years, writing the script, so I went to different places searching for the girl who was good enough to play Carmen. I found one, not Rui Li. Was an actress bigger than her, more sexy and very good looking, so I picked she up, I wrote the script according to her, and she came to Beijing and we talked about the script for two years. And then, one month before shooting, she got pregnant… So at this point she had to take the decision to get married or have a part in my film. It was a really difficult decision to make, but finally she quit. That was so damaging for the film. My investors said ‘Oh Michelle, how are you going to find a girl who can dance, who can act, in just one month?’.

Did you find this girl in just one month?

Only in one month. And no one, except me, wanted her to be in the film. That’s because she doesn’t look like Carmen herself, in person. She is really short, really small, not sexy nor good looking… so my colleagues said she was not the right one… But I just felt there was something inside her that told me she was Carmen. I don’t know why… when I met her she was wearing a white t-shirt and a very short short, like a girl, and she came to us feeling really nervous and I found something in her. So I asked everyone in the room to leave, to be only us. She was very nervous, and when I asked which was her real reason to do this film, she suddenly changed, then stared at me and said ‘I want to leave from here, please, I want to leave from here…’ And that was something that made me think ‘ok, she has something, she has passion, she is very brave, very honest, very open’, so she was different from the tradition, or appearance, so I took her to Beijing and let her stay in a hotel just downstairs from my home. I let her read the script, so one week later she came to my office and said ‘I think I have fallen in love with Carmen’, so I asked her why, and she said ‘I think this woman is really unique’, and a week later she told me that Carmen is a good woman, not a bad one: ‘She is just very real, she just follows her heart.’ And one week later she told me ‘I think I am Carmen’. So she got it, she just got it. Then I called my colleagues and told them we were ready to shoot!

So we start shooting, but she hadn’t had any experience in acting so it was really hard for her that first week of shooting. Everyone had a hard time, and I almost died, because in front of the monitor I thought she couldn’t get the point, eyes, rhythm or acting, how to act with precision, how to say her lines… The first week was really really hard. I thought my investors wanted to kill me, because if she could not carry on with the character, we could not make the film. All the film is for her, so we just insisted in trusting her for one week more. The next week —second week of shooting— she started to get the feeling, little by little, it was very dangerous to have her because we were taking a huge risk, she was not experienced, not an actress…

Of course you saw something, because we felt that in the film. She is not an stereotypical ‘pretty girl’, but she has something in her moves, the way she dances, her passion, she has fire… For example, when in the movie strips her skirt for dancing she is really powerful.

You got it, you got it. You know, in Montreal Film Festival, the film was in the official selection, it was our world premiere. The cinema was full, and in that moment everyone in the room went ‘Wow!’. And when she hits him with the bottle everyone goes ‘Oh!’, and when she uses the knife on that on girl everyone was ‘Uhhhh’…

She really transmits all of her emotions and passion. On the other side, we were surprised with the leading actor Cary Woodworth.

When I got the idea about the character, I started casting. So casting for a director means people, schedule, money, business… many elements. For me, as I am the producer, I am still doing financing, and was not easy getting money from the beginning. We only got money enough one month before shooting. So before I got the money I couldn’t compromise with any actor. I had some choices at that time, but once I got money I contacted them but we obviously missed the schedule, they had other projects. Cary is the one whose schedule was good for me, but he was in New York, he was not in Beijing. So I waited for him to come back, because he was doing some commercial, and then he joined the project only four days before we started shooting. I think he did well considering the short time he had to get into the character. He did a really huge effort because he never had played a choreographer, and also it’s not easy for him because he had to speak in Mandarin Chinese. That took many takes to get the scenes done, so he loses spontaneity.

We enjoyed the movie, loved the dancing scenes and the powerful music. All music is original?

Yes, we composed all the music for the film. This is why people thinks this film means something, because we didn’t have a large budget and, usually, small budget films use music from other projects. But we made each piece of the music, so all is connected to the story, it builds up the character… You can hear the words ‘Ye-men’, ‘Carmen’… All the music elements are folk music combined with words and we put it together and changed the rhythm.

By the way, we also liked the way you shot the sex scenes.

Oh, you liked it… Which one did you prefer?

The first one. It’s really subtle, very sensual, but powerful… Was it hard shooting those scenes?

Doing that part, for me, I don’t think it was a technical matter. It’s just feeling. I was a dancer before I became a director, so I think I am good at body language. For me it’s easy to explain what I want from the actress. We shoot different takes, different material, but I think it’s enough as it is in the film.

Did you have to deal with censorship in China?

Well, what’s interesting for me is that censor exists in China, that’s true. So everyone knows about that and directors stop by themselves —‘Oh, I can’t do that!’—, so they just censor themselves. I never do that. I thought ‘OK, I’ve found this girl, this character’, I just wanted to tell a story about her, as much as I can, keep her as original as I could. I just wanted to do that… So I didn’t thought of censorship. I just keep doing that as a professional producer, do my financing work, crew set up, locations, directing and acting work, postproduction, distribution… I just looked at it as a project, that’s all. ‘This project needs this kind of money, this kind of people, this technical’, so I never thought about that as a nation or a political issue. I am very pure, very focused on projects, because that’s a way I can carry this projects so far, because I won’t stop by myself. I just do it.

So you didn’t have any problem involving censorship?

I just keep going. When we finished the footage, I gave the version to them to check it, and it was so good. They had cut some parts, but I’ve talked to them to find out how to keep the essence. I’ve made some changes, but I think it’s OK.

Being a film from China, it really pushes limits, talking about freedom, sex in women… With that in mind, do you think they understand Carmen in China, her passion, her behavior?

I think understanding is not something so important, because everyone has different understanding. It’s not China or Spain. Everyone has different understanding, but I think whether this film can get Box Office, for ordinary audiences —we are doing distribution now—, then we’ll see how will be received. But we had already three screenings in Beijing, where two thirds of the audience got their tickets from Internet —so they were real audience—, while the other third is experts, scholars, journalists… and according to their feedback —because they wrote on the social media— this film is a topic for them. Some people liked it, some people don’t, but they talked about it, discuss about it, because Carmen is a woman who makes trouble, who is trouble… So I am not afraid of being discussed by others, because I’ve picked up this subject, I knew it was going to happen. It was going to cause some controversy, because not everyone likes Carmen, because most men wanted Carmen to be their lover but not to their wife. How to judge whether a woman is good or not; If you have a standard for wife she is not good, but if you have a standard for lover she is perfect. She is dangerous, she is like fire. If you you want to taste that fire you would be hurted. You will be damaged just like the choreographer; he just lost himself. This is passion. Passion means something dangerous, right? I believe the film can touch young people in China because they can identify somehow.

Have you heard that in Houston and China some critics called you ‘the next Ang Lee’?

(She blushes.)
Well, I’ve made some interviews and yes, in Houston, and China Daily, and the biggest entertainment website Mtime…

Are you working on a new project?

I can not discuss it, but I want to keep my attention to the human being, the original heart of the human being. I want to keep that, put it in my story and, besides, go beyond the limitation of human being, that help us to keep hope. Life is up and down —we definitely will experience something not so satisfying—, but I want to show you can keep hope, you can keep going on no matter what happens. I want to say something about that, a universal subject. We will shoot in China, or elsewhere, maybe Spain, or Vic… So I will keep doing an international film, with international crew, for an international market, just like this. Our Director of Photography is from Austria, actors are from New York, so my crew will be always international. I want to make coproduction.

I have been invited as a panelist in a film conference in Hollywood last October as a Chinese young director. We talked about how to do an international film, for international markets, and they told me that now is a good time for strong female characters. This kind of films are very popular, but there are no many female directors that could do that. When they watched Beijing Carmen they came to me and said ‘Michelle, you can do that!’.

Why are you also called Michelle?

I have used Michelle for more than 10 years. All of my foreign friends call me Michelle, but now that I have been doing the promotion for Beijing Carmen my colleagues told me I should use Fan instead of Michelle.

Just one last question, then. Have you enjoyed Vic and the Festival?

Oh, I loved here. The biggest attraction of Vic for me, is the combination of Art and Religion. I heard this place had a religious route and culture, so it was very attractive for me. I really enjoyed my time here, and I have a experience of that. We went to the church and a nan just came to me, suddenly, and we get so close to each other, and she kissed me and said ‘God bless you all’… That is very nice. And also the Festival here. It’s not just a regular festival, is something where everyone joins in, and take part in it. That made me feel that people from Vic respected us, and they really pay attention to us. I really felt touched and it’s really my pleasure to come to the Festival, and I hope to come back again… And I also want to say thanks to Quim and Domingo, because we met in Hong Kong and they told me to come to Vic. And I also hope that this Asian Film Festival became a door to communicate Spanish and Chinese film market.

It’s been a pleasure, we really enjoyed your film. As you know, the open-air screening was windy but we didn’t want to leave because we all wanted to see the film ending. It doesn’t look like a low budget film, really. The production is perfect. Congratulations!

Oh, I am so happy to hear that, because this is my first film. You guys gave me the kind of energy I need to let me do my next film. You know, this moment, is one of the moments in Vic that make me feel I am so lucky to be here. This is the first time that I talk about feelings here, so I really enjoy this moment and I’m really glad to have met all of you.