At the end of October and beginning of November, I spent two weekends helping out on set of a Columbia film school thesis film. It was tiring, but was a rewarding experience. Here’s a short video from their fundraiser page to give you a little bit of a background.
POOR PUSSY is a tragic love story set in late-1960s Chinatown. Mai, a proud but impoverished seamstress discovers that she may be pregnant with the child of her boss and lover, King. Over the course of a night on the town, Mai challenges King’s love, putting their relationship and her own future on the line, discovering a truth about him that changes her perception of him forever.
The director/writer, Kevin Lau, is currently going to Columbia, but decided to do the production in Los Angeles. His good friend, Leonard Wu, is co-producing the film, so he reached out to find people to help out. I signed on originally just because there are already a bunch of mutual friends (the co-producer, the assistant directors, the casting director, the lead actor, the sound guy, the art guy) on staff.
Originally, I was just going to be offering general help since I do know my way around a film set, but I also mentioned that I read and write Chinese pretty well and can help in that department. I, then, became the translator for the portion of the script that’s supposed to be in Mandarin.
Of course, the dialogue doesn’t always translate well between languages, so there’s a bunch of back and forth between the writer, the co-producer and me. Finally we finalized the script. I also provided phonetic transcriptions and voice recordings for the actors, since some of them can only speak Mandarin, but not read Chinese.
And then came the time of the shoot. I was on set supervising the language portion, as in, if some of them said a certain line wrong, I let the continuity supervisor know that so it doesn’t end up in the final edit. I provide last minute Chinese coaching if the actor is struggling with a particular line. Also, I would walk around the set and look at the posters and decorations on the wall to see if the handwritings look authentic. And if the newspaper on the table has a headline mentioning modern day politicians, I tear that out.
Beyond that, my job was to “do whatever Dave (the assistant director) tells you to do”. So I also helped out with general duties like distributing the walkie talkies. I have known the assistant director for a while now and I think that helped. He knew what he could rely on me to do.
For example, in one shot, he needed a janitor in the background. I was thinking, hm, I think I know what’s coming. And a few minutes later, he told me to put on a jump suit. Yep, totally saw that one coming. And he knew I would do it without any hesitation.
I also ended up being a background extra on some of the days of shoot. I was hanging at a bar, sitting at a table talking to a friend. Since the other chair, where my friend was supposed to be, wasn’t in the shot, they just left it empty. So it was just me sitting there talking to my imaginary friend. Maybe it’s the puppeteer thing, I don’t know, but I am excellent at having conversations with an empty chair (watch out, Clint Eastwood). Several cast and crew members noticed and asked what conversation I was having. Well, I don’t know either. Seems like an interesting conversation, though.
While on set, I enjoyed watching people who are really good at what they do work their magic. The actors are excellent at what they do. The crew set up the camera, do a few takes, change the angle, and do more takes, so sometimes it’s the same scene over and over. But still, it’s interesting to watch over and over. And there’s just something interesting about watching people’s facial expressions through lenses / on a monitor. I somehow enjoy watching the director giving notes to the actors and their reactions. The actors’ faces really do grab my attention more so than other people’s!
And I enjoyed watching the crew as well. The costume / wardrobe person was always going around fixing everyone’s clothing, sometimes taking a needle and thread and just started stitching what the actor was wearing while they were setting up a shot. As someone that works with puppets and is routinely fixing the puppet while it’s not on stage / on camera, I can totally relate and also enjoy watching her do her stuff. And the people setting up the lights, the camera, and dressing the set are all really professional too. It’s always fascinating to watch the people that are good at what they do adjusting all these small details to achieve perfection.
You can tell just by looking at the set, the props and the operation of the whole shoot to know that countless hours have been put into the planning. Some of them flew from New York for this too. I think it’s beautiful to see a bunch of people sharing a vision and just pour in their work even though they are receiving no monetary compensation. I am really looking forward to seeing the final product.