Composer Q & A

Robert Miller is a prolific composer of film, concert, and commercial music, with six CLIO awards under his belt. We caught up with him at his New York studio and chatted with him about his collaboration on Cinderella Moon. Be sure to listen to music samples from his original score for the film.

Q: Was there any time you didn’t love music?

RM: Absolutely not. There are home movies my family have showing me at age one-and-a-half sitting at a toy piano and pointing to other instruments! In high school, I’d go to Yankee Stadium, but I’d bring my music assignments with me. I wasn’t an introverted music nerd — I had lots of friends. But I was also a part of a clique of serious musicians.

Q: You studied with renowned composer Aaron Copland. What did you learn from him that you brought with you to the Cinderella Moon score?

RM: Economy. The idea that there’s an air of inevitability about your musical composition. Don’t waste anything, but don’t overblow an idea.

Q: When you score a film, what’s one of the important things you consider?

RM: A film score is a collection of puzzle pieces, so while I’m composing, I’m always trying to figure out how themes are going to fit inside each other and balance each other out. I also look for a quality my musician friends and I call “happy/sad.” It means a score that makes you feel all the emotions at once. It’s the quality I look for in a theme that has heart.

Q: Tell us about how you came up with themes for each character and how the music expressed that.

RM: For Mei Mei’s theme, I wanted to convey sweetness, sadness, and hope — a kind of yearning quality. The King is supposed to project confidence and determination, so there were lots of drums, for example, in his theme. In the climax of the film, both of those themes reach a kind of compromise or conclusion.

In the Stepmother’s and Merchant’s Son’s themes, I wanted to provide some comic relief. And every time Mei Mei’s magic slippers or the magical goldfish appear, you hear a flute or harp, giving it a fairytale feel.

Q: How did you approach writing a score for a film set in a fairytale ancient China?

RM: I researched traditional Chinese music and created a demo for director Richard Bowen that I’d loaded up with sample recordings of traditional Chinese instruments. I also learned a variety of traditional Chinese musical styles and incorporated them into my themes.

I asked my friends who knew about classical Chinese music what they thought. I got the ultimate compliment when they were impressed that a westerner could tackle the unique meter of traditional Chinese music!

Director of Photography Q&A

Q: From your first film Suzhou River to Purple Butterfly and now Cinderella Moon, you’ve been the DP for an impressive array of films. Tell us a little about your background.

WY: I studied painting and still photography when I was in junior high. I grew up in the film business in China; my father was a prop man. I loved photography so much, I just kept doing it.

Q: Richard describes the film as having a “magic realism style.” How did you, as the DP, help to bring both magic and realism to the cinematography?

WY: I think the realism in magic realism needs to come first. Creating a magical look is not difficult; what’s important is making people believe that what they’re watching is true. The Chinese have a saying: “You can’t separate reality from illusion.”

Q: What photographs, paintings, films or other forms of inspiration came to mind for you when you and Richard conceived the film’s look?

WY: Richard and I spent a lot of time sharing images we loved and that we felt were relevant to the look we each imagined for Cinderella Moon. We took inspiration from the craziest places. It was very interesting that most of the pictures that inspired me were western and his were eastern.

Q: How would you describe your collaboration with the director, Richard Bowen?

WY: Both Richard and I are very visual people and, since we speak different languages, sharing the universal language of images was essential. It’s really interesting that the process of making films is universal. We do some things differently in China than Richard was used to in Hollywood, but they were small compared to all the things that are done the same. It was also very interesting to have another cinematographer as my director. In the most important way, we did speak the same language. We talked an enormous amount during our prep time about every little detail and by the time we started shooting we already knew what we were going after.

Q: How would you describe your collaboration with the production designer, Zhai Tao?

WY: Zhai Tao and I had never worked together, but we got along very well and I was always very happy with his sets and everything he gave us to work with visually. It freed me to be as creative as possible in that I never had to work around insufficient art direction.

Q: What was it like to work with an American director?

WY: Like me, Richard works from an emotional place, and we were both able to bridge the language barrier by speaking to one another through images. His approach is more “Hollywood” than mine, but we always found a way to meet in a middle place where the Chinese and western worked together.

Q: I know Richard had never shot a film digitally before Cinderella Moon and the films you are most famous for were all shot on film. What was it like to shoot a digital feature?

WY: I found it very easy and it was wonderful being able to see our high resolution dailies on the same night they were shot, even though we were working in very remote locations. If we had shot on film, there would have been about a week’s delay between shooting a shot and seeing it. That was a huge help. But, honestly, the work of a cinematographer isn’t determined by the equipment. We make pictures, we don’t “capture them,” as many people think. In that way, working with a digital camera changes very little.

Production Designer Q & A

In designing the make-believe world of Cinderella Moon, Production Designer Zhai Tao not only modified existing locations in Yunnan to fit the story, but he also designed nearly every prop in the film and supervised the creation of each one by hand. On this page you’ll see some of his designs and plans for props such as the King’s wedding sedan and the Astronomer’s telescope.

Q: How did you become involved with Cinderella Moon?

ZT: Maybe it was fate! Somehow Richard chose me in the end, and even now I think back on what a hard but fun journey it was!

Q: How did you become interested production design? What’s your favorite part about it?

ZT: I’ve always been interested in the arts, and I majored in oil painting from the Chinese Academy of Art. The movie industry inspired my generation in a unique way, so I wanted to express my artistic feelings in a medium more direct than paintings. My favorite part of being a production designer is using what I know — architecture, painting, model-building — to express the script.


Q: Did you know right away how you wanted things to look and did shooting in Shangri-La effect your approach?

ZT: I fell in love with the story as soon as I read the script, not just the Cinderella fairytale, but I was also excited about creating a true, beautiful fairytale in the land of wonders: Yunnan. We were so lucky to shoot there. It’s been given the name “South of the colorful clouds” in history, because there are so many minority tribes living there who have numerous local cultures and customs.

I really like the term magic realism. I wanted to put an emphasis on telling a familiar story but in a unique, Chinese way, to create a true world where miraculous things happened. After we scouted in Yunnan, I had these images in my mind of a beautiful kingdom visually distinguishable but without the limitation of nationalities, a place that looked marked by time but was not part of any particular history.

Q: Were you influenced by the Disney Cinderella?

ZT: Cinderella Moon is totally different. We never wanted to create a fantasy movie. Everything started from the magical land of Yunnan. We searched for inspiration from the local Dong-Ba culture and wanted the Chinese culture as it was expressed in Yunnan to help express the characters: simple but vivid. The final visual effect stresses realism combined with eastern art.

Q: What were the benefits of shooting in the various locales and what were some challenges?

ZT: Most of the sets were located in remote places. The benefits were that the places were rustic and untouched and seemed mysterious, but at the same time, there were so many challenges. Transportation, for instance. We carried equipment on mules, used local stones for props — a fun experience!

Q: What are some props in the film that had to be built?

ZT: There were so many props, and almost all of them had to be made by hand. Some special ones: the marble tub that Mei Mei bathes in the hall; the Dowager’s sedan chair and King’s sedan; the Astronomer’s instruments; and the tools Mei Mei uses to make pots. There are so many different minority tribes in Yunnan, and different kinds of styles. Richard asked the art and prop departments to give him the most humble tools from as many minority tribes as they could, so the art department constructed an invented culture based on the Dong-Ba people — architecture, props, vehicles.

It was harder to create the props for the royal court than for the villagers. We had to create everything for the palace: the king’s chair, his altar, the astronomy instruments. Since the props were all based in different eras, we focused more on the look and artistry than on the historical accuracy of the look. Whether it was a palace or a hut, we designed it with heart.

Q: Why do you think people should go see Cinderella Moon?

ZT: It’s a beautiful fairy tale that returns Cinderella to her eastern origins and creates a world that both seems both real and like a fairytale. Who wouldn’t want to see that? I’m sure everyone will enjoy it.

(Be sure to check out the gorgeous sets slideshow that features Zhai Tao’s creativity on full display.)

Anime Inspiration

The term “anime,” the Japanese word for animation, is now used by film buffs outside of Japan to describe Japanese animation as a whole. Colorful and stylized, Japanese anime films, like classic fairy tales, often have an epic style and fantastical storylines set amid the everyday.

When asked which films inspired him most as he was preparing Cinderella Moon, Richard Bowen didn’t hesitate:  “The anime films of Hayao Miyazaki.  They aren’t ‘cartoons’ in any sense of the word and the the best ones proudly deal with female protagonists coming of age.  Perfect for the world’s first Cinderella.”  

“I love the way that Miyazaki blends magic and realism,” says Bowen. “When fantastic things happen alongside the everyday in a film, you can say things you wouldn’t be able to say with strict realism.”

In such classics as Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, and Princess Mononoke, Miyazaki’s films exist in the dream space between magic and reality and Richard found inspiration in Miyazaki’s belief that that a meaningful film can be made for children, and conversely, that a film in a children’s genre could be worthy of adult attention.

With a strong female protagonist coming of age, a storyline and style with one foot in realism and the other in magic, the childlike yet sophisticated Cinderella Moon, like a Miyazaki film, isn’t just for kids or just for adults: it’s a film for the whole family.

Magic Realism

Although Cinderella Moon is a fairytale, the message at its heart is that magical things can actually happen in the world. Director Richard Bowen knows this from first-hand experience. As a result, he chose magic realism — a genre of storytelling in which fantastical events happen amid realistic settings — as the style he would adopt for the film.

For Richard, the day that his adopted daughter was placed in his arms was the day that he began to feel that magic was indeed possible. As he held her, he was overcome by two contradictory thoughts.

On the one hand, the odds were nearly zero that his path as a cameraman from Hollywood and his daughter’s path, as an abandoned Chinese infant, would ever cross. They might as well have been living on different planets. And yet at the same time, Richard knew with certainty that this child was born to be his daughter and that their coming together had been inevitable.

What force is at work, he asked himself, that can explain a turn of fate in our lives that’s both impossible and inevitable? Countless philosophies and religions have given that force many names, but they all share one idea: that none of us can fully account for who we become or the many factors that determine the shape of our lives.

“Cinderella Moon’s fairytale world is based on an ancient Chinese worldview where magic was a natural part of everyday life, “ says the director. “The story I wanted to tell needed magic that was realistic in its presentation, because we can only see magic’s actual role in the world when characters interact with it as natural, rather than supernatural.”

That feeling in magic realism that the impossible event can also be inevitable is at the core of Cinderella Moon and its exploration of the mysteries of fate. Perhaps one reason the Cinderella story has so been beloved throughout the world is that it gives us hope that for each one of us there is the life we were born to live, and that in our search to be who we were meant to be, there’s a possibility that magic will touch the reality of our lives as well.