Bonsai Girl – Final Verdict

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Well, I was handed a DVD copy of the film by a very nervous director … telling me, “it is what it is” … “maybe they won’t accept it into Cannes” … “but at least the shooting was a learning experience” etc etc, basically all the thing’s I had said during the shoot and right after it. But I had not seen the film, I had not edited it and composed the music and watched the film a 100 times, like the director. After watching the film, I don’t agree with his view – I think the film “is what it is and it’s great”. I think they will accept it into Cannes, if not then they’re just a bunch of stuck up French snobs who think Luc Besson is better than Trauffaut.

I think the film was more than a learning experience, it actually turned out to be a good film, a film the director and everyone else who worked on it can be very proud of. I mention Truffaut because the film verges on sentimentality, but in a good way, in a truthful and real way. Both Truffaut and Spielberg would be proud.

So after everything, after all the fuck up’s and all the misunderstandings and all the blood, sweat and tears. Something great came out of it, the one thing that mattered … not the learning experience, not the contacts gained or lost, but the actual film itself. Yes, it’s very good.

Who can take credit for it? The Director most certainly and then the cameraman, yes – the difficult spaced out cameraman, because the images and the cinematography is amazing. The script was always a problem (he copied it from Kes), but the solutions by our director and his editor are great and the film is much better than the original script – that’s how it’s always suppose to be anyway.

Before the first day of shooting the director asked me, “why do you want to make this movie?” … I took a moment to think about it and then answered, “The script is shit, but I want to make the movie because I believe in you, no matter what, you will make it good”.

Then I went into AD (Assistant Director) mode and screamed abuse at the crew for a week or so … and lost focus of myself as The Producer. I’m glad The Director didn’t lose focus of himself as a director, so here we have it … it’s A GREAT MOVIE!

Shame that the director can’t take criticism. This movie will never be seen by anybody because he can’t handle some idiots on IMDB giving reviews … If you want to be a director then you have to be able to take the shit … the shit and the piss from everybody. If not, then go and have an MBA and become a restaurant critic … You HAVE TO be able to stand criticisms.

It’s a beautiful movie and should be seen … It should be seen by everybody!


Bonsai Girl – The Absent Set Designer

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Ariel is the one in black, posing for the camera.

“Ariel, like the little mermaid from Disney” she giggles as she introduces herself to people. Yeah, that’s her English name. She’s the set designer, she’s never worked on a movie before, but she is studying design at a fancy design school in Beijing, “because I love clothes and nice cars – you know BMW is my favorite” she giggles again. “I will work for you, yes for free, because I also love movies, but I can not be there all the time because of my school” …

Not being there all of the time, meant exactly that. I think she turned up on the first day and then I’m not sure we saw her again? But this week I got an SMS from her. Here’s the text messages:

Ariel: I have receipts, you told me the movie would pay them?

Me: Yes, how much?

Ariel: 3000rmb

Me: What? It can not be 3000rmb!!!

Ariel: Let me check again

Ariel: Yes, it is 3000rmb! You pay?

Me: No I will not pay 3000rmb, It can not be 3000rmb!

Ariel: Maybe you don’t know everything, maybe I had meeting about movie when you don’t know I had meeting.

Me: I know everything! I know when you were working on the movie, I know when you were in school!

Ariel: Can the receipts be from last year?

Me: NO! They can only be from the day’s you were working on the movie!!!

Ariel: So you will not pay my receipts from last year?

Me: No I will not pay. Only when you worked on the movie!

I haven’t gotten any more sms’s or requests about paying all her receipts (from beginning of time), but I must admit, she’s got some nerve asking me to pay her bills dating back a year before she actually met us and was hired for the film. But I guess you can always try.

Bonsai Girl – The Migrant Actresses

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Picture: The three actresses, from left: The asylum escapee, the motherly one, the hooker.  The pimp is between them and our set designer holding the script.

We had been told that if we needed actors they were to be found every morning at the front gate of Beijing Film Studios.

Migrant workers who aspire to become the next Gong Li or Jackie Chan gather every day at the main gate and wait for producers or directors to walk by, cast them and make them famous. So, after searching without success for an actress to play The Bonsai Girl’s mother, we resorted to the front gate of The Beijing Film Studio. We needed a woman, around 40-50 years old and preferably a passable actress, but, mostly just a cheap actress.

We arrived around 9.00am, seeing mostly young men standing around, one of them came up to us and asked what we were looking for (like a proper pimp). As soon as people noticed that we were having an actual discussion about our needs and that we were in fact looking for actors, we were surrounded by hopefuls and a bit of a mob mentality ensued.

We could still only see men and tried to be clear that we needed a woman, most of the men said it would be no problem for them to act a woman, it all depended on how much we were willing to pay them. Finally, we explained to them that there’s two kinds of movies made in Europe – it’s the cross gender sexual explorations that they make in Spain and south Europe and then there’s the bleak dark reality that we make in Scandinavia and north Europe … we come from that latter school of European film making. So that explained, the first guy who spoke to us promised us he’d get us what we needed. He told some of the younger guy’s to escort us into the parking lot – “for privacy” – since the auditions were about to begin. He started making phone calls and later we would come to the conclusion that he acted as a sort of a acting coach/pimp, and the self appointed leader of these migrant actors.

Five minutes later we had three “actresses” lined up, all the right age. One was the shy type – a motherly woman who looked the role, another was the slutty – one step away from being a hooker type and did not look the role, the third was a spaced out woman who seemed like she’d just escaped from some asylum and did not seem to fully understand where she was or what she was doing.  Great, we had choices!

We asked if we could make them act a scene from the movie, using our set designer as the little girl and then the three women would act out a scene. “Showing anger and emotion without facial expressions or hand gestures – and no tears” was the advice of the director (from Latvia).

First up was the motherly shy woman, she wasn’t great, very shy, very introverted … but with some direction, she was passable. Next up was the hooker type – over the top, over acting, tears, emotion, anger, shouting … she didn’t get the directions but at least she acted and if we could make ourselves understood then; she also was passable. The asylum escapee had by that time left, wandered off and disappeared.

I told the director that “personally” I liked the hooker, I felt it would be easier for him to tone her down rather than add something to the mother type. (YES, I’m being brutally honest, I liked the hooker type).  I did warn him though that at that particular moment I might have been thinking with something else than my brain.  The director stepped aside for a moment to think things over. Then the hooker type actress came over and asked me who I was, I told her I was the producer. When she had made sure that being a producer meant you made the money decisions she started negotiating … I offered 100 rmb per day, she offered to act for 500rmb per day and at lunch breaks she’d personally make sure I was happy … all included in the 500rmb. Here’s the basic conversation:

Producer: “We can pay you 100rmb per day”

Actress: “I think you will like better, you pay 500rmb a day”

Producer: “No, I won’t like that better”

Actress: “You rich, you make movie, I know you rich, 500 is cheap”

Producer: “It’s a European movie, so we’re not rich”

Actress: “You pay 500, I also make you happy man, make happy time every day”

Producer: “We have sex? you mean you will have sex with me?”

Actress: “Yes! 500 rmb, I act in movie … I give you good happy sex”

Producer: “Hmmm…”

At that moment the director interrupts our conversation and declares that he’s decided to choose the hooker type (well I can now stop with the type thing) … he’s decided to choose the hooker as his actress.

The pimp comes over and ushers the hooker away and the deal is made for 200rmb per day, after some haggling. Haggling that does not include sex. We think we’ve made a deal and people are getting ready to leave, when suddenly the hooker starts shouting and screaming – the pimp runs over to her, slaps her face and rips her CV out of her hands, tearing it into pieces. Shouting at her all the time. The hooker actress then runs away.

The pimp comes over to us and tells us in a regretful tone that the hooker asked for 5000rmb per day, he felt angry at how un-professional she was and that it’s over, we can’t get her. Even if we had 5000rmb per day he would not recommend her because she doesn’t act in a professional manner. The pimp understands low budget “European” film making (He’s a fan of Bergman) and points to the motherly type, “how about her?” we take one look around, there’s no other woman present at that moment and we decide, yes OK. The motherly type actress is hired for 200rmb per day and that’s that.

We would later get a phone call from the hooker type asking for 150rmb per day, so for a few day’s we went back and forth between the two actresses and finally chose the motherly type and paid her the 200rmb. She turned out to be a fine actress and there was no sex involved.

I still wonder what would have happened if we’d hired the “hooker” … I just wonder, as a producer.

Bonsai Girl – Final Day (of my involvement)

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Daisy the assistant producer (my assistant) had gotten us the location of the day through a friend of hers. It was a courtyard café in the hutongs, that her friend owns. Therefore she felt she had added responsibility (in her job) on set… Which was followed by a bigger ego … Then followed by referrals to herself as the producer of the movie. Yes, not the assistant producer. SHE NOW KEPT CALLING HERSELF THE PRODUCER!!! Every single person that was contacted that day through anybody involved in the film would always ask for Daisy the producer. So, it seems that her mutiny had started first thing in the morning.

When I told our runners to go and fetch breakfast McDonald’s for the crew – Daisy was on her way personally to 7-11 buying sandwiches and noodles. Ensuring that most of the crew got a double fix of breakfast, most of the food going to waste. This would come back to haunt us – and is the fundamental reason why everything went to hell later that night. McDonald’s and Noodles? Shit like that just don’t happen on a movie set!!! Daisy Daisy …

The courtyard café, I would later find out, was a front to try and sign us all up for a calligraphy seminar on weekends, with Daisy getting a cut of the profits. If we didn’t get out of the café before 6pm, we’d not only have to sign up for those lessons but also pay a 5000rmb fine. Daisy!!!

Things went slowly for the first few hours, the director was in his groove this day thankfully and did a very good job with the actors. The cameraman continued to be spaced out in his own world of knobs and buttons.

Before this day, it had been me and Daisy trying to get people to work faster and finish on time, this time it was actually me and the director, Efraim … trying our best to get things done in a speedy manner. Why did Daisy all of a sudden decide to ask for continuous lunch breaks and food breaks for the little girl actress? Angrily declaring all the time that we were starving her … this only 45 minutes after the little girls second McDonald’s meal of the day. So, for a full one hour we watched the little girl on Daisy’s insistence eating another full meal – which she obviously couldn’t . There were other instances that day of our assistant producer delaying the shooting as much as possible, for what? To get us well over time and into a 5000rmb fine… yes, this was her friends place. When conspiracies happen … they happen!

Finally after arguing with Daisy about her 4th attempt to not starve the little girl, I lost it and walked out, slamming the door behind me. For some reason – I’m afraid the director might have thought it was aimed at him (because he’s sensitive), but it wasn’t – what was going on behind the scenes was miss Daisy trying to take over the whole production, something that she continues to do even if the film has long since stopped shooting. Daisy Daisy!!!

In many way’s this was the day that the director came into his own, faced with an actor that just could not act, a little girl that suddenly became hungry every 30 minutes and two producers reaching boiling point.

He managed to find solutions for the actors, which not everyone can handle given this kind of a situation. It’s a shame, because this was actually the first day, that despite the over acting of one actor and all these problems, the director kept his cool and if it hadn’t been for me and my assistant things would probably have gone much better. It’s a lesson that I learned, and of course what I expect of a producer, is that you always need to both encourage and protect your director.

I’ll give producing a rest for the next foreseeable years, since I failed in every regard this time.

So, Daisy took over and got her rebellion – most of the crew stayed on not because of her, but because they believed in the director, he; throughout the process managed to direct and lead like a professional despite all the childish behavior of most of the other crew, including his autistic cameraman.

If the film turns out to be a good film it’s entirely thanks to the director, if on the other hand it turns out to be something it wasn’t meant to be, then he’s more than welcome to blame everybody else – and he’s entitled to it.

So, thanks Efraim Smits.

and Daisy knows what she can do…

Bonsai Girl – Ballad of … Tony

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Tony … “Hi I’m Tony, how’s it hanging?” our executive 14 year old producer. Not really 14 years old, but barely over his teen’s and he’s the man we all answer to. What does a kid who’s got it all do when he’s bored? He’s already bought enough designer clothes from Europe to last a life time, he’s already spending 20 hours a week in Toni&Guy for his latest hair “treatment”. He’s got the nice DSLR camera and takes off centered slanted “arty” photos that are just GODDAMN wrong!!

If you spend that much money on a camera, then why can’t you spend some money on LESSONS?

He’s also got the latest Apple Power-book and he fancies himself as a lady’s man – which he no doubt is. What does he need more? He needs respect … respect from who? The person that’s giving him all the money, his father. So Tony decides that the movie business is the way to go. So, he offers the director 8000rmb and becomes Executive producer, he can hang around on set, chat up the actresses or costume ladies and attend the premiere.

Tony was actually nice, and in many way’s did more than just deliver on the budget. He also got us a van and he even stepped in as a runner at one point, doing various errands for me and my assistant. I’d safely say that this movie couldn’t have been made without him. So thank you Tony.

The van he got for us was the property of the Army, yeah the red army. So even though our camera and lights department was 50/50 Chinese and foreign, the fact that the van was from the army meant that no foreigner was allowed to touch it or come close to it. That meant that every time we unloaded or loaded up the van – with a lot of lights and heavy equipment … the western people could only sit around and drink coffee. Our two or three Chinese crew would be left alone to do all the work – it’s the armies rule … not ours.

Other executive producers included my personal friend Julie from Ohio. Who sponsored the last day of shooting and also made sure we got our main actor Mr.Jiang. More on Mr.Jiang later.

So, this post is to give credit to Tony and Julie for being there and believing in the producer and the director of this fucked up production.

Bonsai Girl

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Just completed producing a short film by director Efraim Smits. It was interesting to say the least, both of us don’t speak any Chinese and we were attempting to make our first film in China, in Chinese and using mostly Chinese crew.

With a limited budget of RMB 8000 to work with, things were always going to be tough. We had a schedule of 4 shooting days and after I walked off set and never returned the shooting schedule went to 6 days, and they said I wasn’t pulling my weight?

No hard feelings, me and the director are still friends but it was a bust up between the two of us that ensured the filming went into total insanity and chaos in the final two day’s. It wasn’t really the issue of who was working more, it was more a case of the sensitive director not handling shouting and abuse from the insensitive producer during the 3rd day of shooting, when once again the DP had been drifting in and out of a self induced comatose and the director once again discussing the meaning of life with the 9 year old main actress … they were all set to be again 5-6 hours over the scheduled shooting time, when I the producer got a panic attack when told by the assistant producer that if we didn’t finish on time, we would have to pay 5000rmb for the location… meaning NO BUDGET at all.

Therefore I went into AD mode (assistant director) … and started screaming like any good AD would in that situation. My screaming meant that our sensitive souls from Latvia felt abused and therefore: rather than abuse them any more I felt that I needed to make them go their own way – Do their own stuff and be sensitive. Anyway, I’ve never had any aspirations to be a producer, since I’m already a director.

Thing’s were going badly from day one, with our DP being lost on his way to set, the lights not having arrived, the actors being made to wait at a McDonald’s because the filming location had not been opened for us, one actor not yet hired, At 8.00am the director was sent to Beijing Film Studios front gate to find an actor from a bunch of migrant workers who crowd around there every morning waiting to be discovered. He spent about 2 hours going through hopefuls and finally hiring one woman for 100 rmb per day. That was more than we were paying our one professional leading lady, who’s actually studied acting. Anyway, during those 2 hours our cameraman took a taxi by himself, him having just arrived from Latvia a day earlier – that was a big mistake.

After having lost his way and wandered around Beijing for 2 hours the Taxi Driver finally found us. The DP and two of the lights crew then went to the lights rental company to find the required lights for shooting… they would return 3 hours later. Filming had been scheduled to start at 9.00am, we were ready to shoot at around 4.00pm.

Shooting went slow – meaningless discussions (from the director) about life and death and the soul searching of the heart to the Chinese actors, who I felt only wanted to be told if they were good, bad, less or more. I’m not sure the 9 year old understood fully the method of Lee Strassberg. But my Latvian director tried his hardest to make her understand. It wasn’t the director that was the worst in delaying everything. No no … It was the Director of Photography (DP) who had that honor. Mr. Januz (from Latvia also).

It’s amazing how much you can fiddle with a camera? To his credit he had a great relationship with his Canon 5D Mark II, but that’s not the case with his crew, who he left standing around waiting for hours and hours …  Then giving them aimless directions on where and how to set up for each scene – ensuring therefore that each day would go at least 4-6 hours over time.

In our first day of shooting (and also the second), that meant MONEY. Each hour we went over the scheduled time, our friendly landlady of the location would confiscate a light, a costume or an item from the set and demand 100 rmb more. In the end we went from having an oral agreement of paying 300rmb per day to paying 500rmb. The next day it would be 800rmb that we needed to pay her, or else we’d not get any of our lights back… And it’s thanks to our assistant producer and her insistence that she knew how to deal with Chinese landlady’s that we were already 700rmb over budget… If I had had it my way, the landlady wouldn’t have gotten a single yuan and we would have escaped from the location the first day and found another one for free the next day. But I trusted the Chinese “inside” information, something I’ll not do again, since you can still be a local and not understand when somebody is FUC**NG you up ass, you can still be a foreigner and understand when people are being greedy. When it comes to basic greed – it’s not about where you are from, it’s about who you are. Greed is greed and stupidity is stupidity … wherever you are from!

I have countless other stories from the shooting, that I might go into in the next few days.

The bottom line, no matter how the movie turns out, this was a real learning experience in how to make a film in China… or how not to do things.

Most people came out the other end fine, including the relationship between me and the director, me and the Chinese assistant producer are not on speaking terms any longer…

More stories from The Bonsai Girl to follow…