Supervising Editor Q & A

Lisa Fruchtman is an Academy Award-winning film editor who has worked on films such as Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff, Children of a Lesser God, The Godfather 3, The Doctor, My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Woodsman.

In addition to her Oscar for editing The Right Stuff, Lisa received Academy Award and BAFTA nominations for Best Editing for both Godfather 3 and Apocalypse Now, as well as an Emmy Nomination and a cable ACE award for Truman. Her work for Children of a Lesser God was nominated for Best Picture.

In the following interview, Lisa discusses why she gravitated toward film editing and what she thinks kids could learn from Cinderella Moon. She also talks about her upcoming documentary about women in Rwanda.

Q: You have an amazing resume. How did you get your start?

LF: I started out in documentary film, but I wasn’t headed in that direction originally. I had thought of going to law school, or even going into science. But I apprenticed for the first documentary film collective in the country, and when I arrived in the Bay Area, my first feature film job was as an apprentice on Godfather 2.

Also, I think having a model is important, and at the beginning of my career I saw women editors and realized that could be me. Editing fits my mental style. It combines analytical and creative skills, and really is a writing and rewriting process. You’re not just working with a blank page. At a certain point, I realized, “I’m good at this.”

Q: I think even people who love cinema don’t often think that much about how editing — as much as shooting —  is an integral part of what goes into the artistry of film making. Can you talk about it a little?

LF: What I think most people don’t understand is that film doesn’t exist before it’s edited. My favorite analogy is that a film is like a quilt. You can have the colors and patterns, but it doesn’t exist until you put it all together. Editing helps to frame your movie-watching experience. As an editor I ask, do I choose a long-shot or a closeup? What do I focus on? The speaker? The listener? Every decision helps create the film; otherwise, it’s in fragments. Once it’s edited, you might wonder: how could it have been any other way? But really, it could have been any of number of other films. An editor helps create the film’s dramatic arc.

Filmmaking is an alive process. At each stage, it acquires a new layer. If the director and cinematographer only shot things as they were written, or the actors only read their lines with the directions they’re given, it wouldn’t be the same thing.

Q: How did you become involved with Cinderella Moon?

LF: Richard and I met 25 years ago on a film his wife Jenny directed that he shot: Street Music. They knew I had experience shaping films from the story point of view, and asked me to participate.

Q: Are there different considerations that go into editing a film like Apocalypse Now versus a romantic comedy like My Best Friend’s Wedding, or a film in the magic realism style like Cinderella Moon?

LF: Yes and no. As an editor, I’m in a responsive position. My mindset is that I’m responding to the quality of the story, the actors, the intention of the director. Every film is different, but what you’re trying to tease out is the film’s emotional resonance, the director’s original intent.

Q: Cinderella Moon was shot digitally. How did that affect the editing?

Cinderella Moon was filmed in digital on a Red camera, and the finished product is exquisite. Shooting in digital made it malleable from the point of view of special effects. In the old days, you paid a fortune to optical houses, and you couldn’t even do that until the film was finished. Being able to work both with digital and with Max Chan as an assistant (who’s talented as a special effects person, computer guy, and translator), things were much easier. I’d say, “Let’s try this with the sun and moon,” for example, and he’d go to the other room and try it out, come back — and if we could use it, we would. Fantastic compared to the old days!

Q: What was is like editing a film that was shot in Chinese? Do you think there are differences in how Chinese films are edited versus films made by Americans? Is there a national “style” of editing?

I think there is a style of film that’s culturally based. Richard succeeded in making a film that’s in Chinese, that’s visually stunning, about a little girl in a long-ago China, yet he was also able to get performances that are accessible to a Western audience. It was easy for me to read the actors’ performance and to choose their best moments.  All of this was due to Richard’s skillful direction. Richard’s also a sophisticated craftsman and has a lot of knowledge about film as well as a respect for its different crafts, including mine.

Q: Not a lot of films are explicitly feminist. Any thoughts about working on a film, as a woman, whose message is that girls are as good as boys?

LF: As a woman and a feminist, I think Cinderella Moon’s message is a great thing to put out in the world. It might be trickier in China than here, but I also think that ultimately the message of Cinderella Moon goes out to all kids: to be all that you can be.

Q: What projects are you working on now?

LF: I’ve gone back to documentary filmmaking. I’m the director, producer, and editor of a documentary with my brother about Rwanda. Specifically, about the women there who are redefining their lives and emerging from the genocide there. They’re the first women drummers in Rwanda and they’re opening an ice cream shop.

Q: What’s the film called?

LF: Sweet Dreams. That’s the name of their ice cream shop, whose sign reads, “Sweet Dreams: Ice Cream, Coffee and Dreams.”

Key Crew

Director of Photography, Wang Yu

Wang Yu has worked on an impressive array of films, from his first movie Suzhou River (2000, director Lou Ye) to The Go Master (2006, Tian Zhuangzhuang). He has gone on to win the Golden Goblet for Best Cinematography at the 10th Shanghai International Film Festival in 2007, and he was nominated for Achievement in Cinematography at the 2007 Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Read Wang Yu’s Q & A.

Production Designer, Zhai Tao

Zhai Tao has worked as art director and set decorator on numerous Chinese films. His feature film work as Production Designer can be seen in Kung Fu Hip-Hop, Welcome to Shamatown, and Who Had Seen the Festival of the Wild Animals?, a film that’s been banned in China. Read Zhai Tao’s Q & A.

Costume Designer, Laurence Xu

Laurence Xu is a much sought-after costume designer in China. He’s also a well-known couture gown designer for many Chinese actresses attending red carpet events at festivals around the world. His feature film credits include: When Ruo Ma Was 17, The Road, The Sun Also Rises, A Bride in Shangri-La, The Red Awn, and Dark Matter. Read Laurence Xu’s Q & A.

Supervising Editor, Lisa Fruchtman

Lisa is an Academy Award-winning editor who has worked in both feature film and television. Among her many film projects are Apocalypse Now, The Right Stuff, Children of a Lesser God, The Godfather 3, The Doctor, My Best Friend’s Wedding and The Woodsman.

Her awards and honors include an Oscar for The Right Stuff; Academy Award and BAFTA nominations for Best Editing for both Godfather 3 and Apocalypse Now; an Emmy Nomination and a cable ACE award for Truman. Her work for Children of a Lesser God was nominated for Best Picture. You can see her full credits on IMDB. Read Lisa Fruchtman’s Q & A.

Editor, Lisa Cheek

Lisa has been a film editor for the past 25 years, working in Los Angeles, New York, Montreal, and San Francisco. She has cut commercials for high-profile accounts and worked on several short films including Spike Lee’s A Weekend in Martha’s Vineyard and the award-winning feature 20 Dates.

Composer, Robert Miller

Robert is a prolific composer of film, concert, and commercial music. His distinctive style has made its mark on over 1800 commercials, a growing body of film scores, and works for concert and the stage. Over the years, he’s received six CLIO awards for his work in advertising. He has also been a long-time collaborator with The American Museum of Natural History’s Hayden Planetarium, composing orchestral scores for two planetarium shows “Journey to the Stars” and “Big Bang.” Read Robert Miller’s Q & A.

Sound Designer, Richard Beggs

Richard, a sound designer and mixer on 65 feature films since 1976, has worked with Francis Ford Coppola, Barry Levinson, Alfonso Cuaron and other major directors. His most recent project was Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere (2010). He won an Academy Award for sound on Apocalypse Now and has also received seven Golden Reel sound nominations.

In addition to his work on films, Richard Beggs has created scores for contemporary ballets and exhibited his paintings at SFMOMA and the Oakland Museum of Art. He also teaches film sound at the California College of the Arts and the San Francisco Film Society. You can see his full credits on IMDB, and read a Q & A with Richard Beggs.

Feli Tang, First Assistant Director and Visual Effects Artist

Feli is a Hong Kong-based Assistant Director and Effects Artist whose two credits don’t adequately represent her unique contribution to Cinderella Moon.

Max Chan Tat Leong, First Assistant Editor, Post Production Technical Director, Visual Effects Digital Artist

Max is a Hong Kong-based technical wizard and highly skilled digital artist whose fingerprints are on every frame of Cinderella Moon.

Joey Wang Yizhou, Script Supervisor

Joey is a Beijing-based Script Supervisor. Cinderella Moon was her first film, and she proved herself to be one of the fastest learners on the planet.

Q & A With Richard

Q: Cinderella Moon is based on the first, ancient Chinese version of the Cinderella story, from 768 AD. How did you find out about it, and how did it reach the world?

RB:   The story from which Cinderella Moon was adapted was written in southern China, about seven centuries before the story first appeared in Europe. After hearing of its existence, I hired a researcher and scoured the antiquities libraries in Beijing. We found it in the ancient text, had it translated, and sure enough, it was the Cinderella story we’re all familiar with, but with very interesting, very Chinese twists and turns.

Academics figure it likely traveled to Europe over the Tea Horse Trail (the horse-caravan trade route between southern China and Tibet, the equivalent of the Silk Road that originated in northern China). In fact, the area of Yunnan Province where we shot is dotted with towns and villages that are along the this ancient trail.

Q:   Why do you think the original Chinese Cinderella story is of interest to a contemporary audience?

RB:   Cinderella is one of the world’s favorite fairy tales, and Cinderella Moon presents its original telling for the first time ever on film. Many of us in the west find ourselves fascinated with China and things Chinese, so I think it’s illuminating to see how a story we had thought of as western, is so eastern at heart.

Also, in Cinderella Moon, the stakes are much higher for Mei Mei, the Cinderella figure, than whether or not she’ll find Prince Charming. The film turns out to be more contemporary and relevant to the lives of girls today than the Cinderella we grew up thinking was the real thing. Rather than simply being “saved” by a man, the Chinese Cinderella saves herself, and in the process, saves the man and her world.

Fairy tales have morals, and the moral of this story is that girls are as good as boys.  It may sound obvious to us, but this belief is, sadly, still not shared by the whole world.  Thankfully, it’s on the rise in all but the most backward of societies.

Q:   Why did you, as an American director, want to make this film? 

 

RB:   My commitment to making this film grew directly out of my personal life and a social issue I’m deeply involved in. I have two adopted Chinese daughters and I’ve worked extensively with Half the Sky Foundation, an NGO Jenny started in 1998 that helps orphans in China.

When I learned that the world’s first telling of the Cinderella story was from China, I knew this was a film I could and in fact had to make. I felt that if I could film a fairy tale with this social issue at its core, I could bring a wonderful story to the world and maybe have some kind of impact on a social problem dear to my heart.

Q:   What is the creative connection between Cinderella Moon and Half the Sky?

RB:   The most valuable thing I’ve learned from Half the Sky is that the weakest among us have the most to teach. In my work with our foundation, I’m always struck by how brave and resilient these little girls are, despite their understandable fear. What they’re dealing with at their ages is hard to imagine, but do deal with it, some better than others, but all in a way that’s illuminating. I’ve been deeply inspired watching the children of Half the Sky, how the human spirit endures and persists no matter how bleak its circumstances. That observation has informed every part of this film.

Q:   Where are the various locations and why did you choose them?

RB:  While Cinderella is a magical fable, I worked hard for Cinderella Moon to have a very rigorous photo-real feel in order to accentuate the “magic realism” at the heart of the original Chinese version of the story. All my Chinese film-making friends advised me not to attempt this shoot in an actual rural location. They said it’d be too tough. Most period films in China are shot on back lots with a few second-unit landscapes. But I’m too drawn to realism for that, and besides, as a westerner, I couldn’t imagine making a film on the other side of the world on a back lot.

I found the perfect location — very magical, very realistic — in the northern reaches of the most south-western province in China, called Yunnan. This is the Tibetan plateau (most of the film was shot within a few hundred miles of Tibet) and the setting for James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. The area is known within China as “Shangri-La” and its mountainous landscape is epic and breathtaking.

Aside from northern Yunnan’s beauty, it’s also an area of China that has largely escaped the ravages of modern development, so it was possible to stitch together a believable world from long ago using a number of locations in that area. Of course, we were a couple thousand miles inland, so the seashore and King’s island had to be created in the computer from architectural elements shot in Yunnan and combined with coastal elements from Hong Kong, northern China and even California.

Q:   Have you screened Cinderella Moon to Chinese audiences? If so, what did they think?

RB: I worked hard to maintain the original Chinese-ness of this Cinderella while keeping it accessible to a non-Chinese audience. It’s no surprise to me that Chinese viewers know immediately that Cinderella Moon was not made by a Chinese director. The feedback so far is that Chinese audiences feel it’s an accurate and sympathetic take on their culture as seen from the outside.

Q:   Tell us about the casting.

RB:  More time was spent on the Cinderella search than any other pre-production activity; I cast all over China for about two years, and I saw easily more than a 1000 girls. I knew that without a great Cinderella the film would fail. We found Xiao Min in Chengu (southern China) just about ready to graduate from a performing arts school. I couldn’t believe how great her audition tape was and immediately flew her up to Beijing. We hit it off and I was certain she could do it.

I wanted the archetypal characters in this fairytale to be sharply drawn and somewhat extreme. Clear character types are appropriate to fairy tales and transcend cultures, so again, this was another way Cinderella Moon could be global. I purposely cast actors whose characters would be immediately recognizable types worldwide. The story deals with some pretty serious issues, and I also felt that watching fun characters would be critical to the lightness I wanted to work into the film.

The cast of 16 main roles comes from four different areas in China. Some are seasoned character actors, a few had studied acting but never had been in a film.  I also cast several non-pros… a waitress, a truck driver, a couple of farmers.

Q:  Why did you choose to have Cinderella Moon look the way it does, and how did you establish the look?

I made Cinderella Moon in the style of magic realism, which I tried to infuse into every part of the film, especially the way the film looks. Wild and unbelievable things happen throughout the film; magic is at the story’s core. However, I felt that since the story was set in ancient China, the magic shouldn’t feel like an unusual occurrence, but natural. In an ancient Chinese fairytale world, magic should be a natural part of everyday life, experienced as an ancient mind believing in magic might experience it.

Also, my visual bias and the needs of the story both required that the film look deeply realistic: real looking characters, sets, landscapes, and wardrobe. But, being a fairytale, the film’s world needed to look unique, self-contained, make-believe, and magical.

Every visual element was real, but the way its all put together is total fantasy.

The Kingdom of Shangri-La

At the beginning of Cinderella Moon, its orphaned heroine Mei Mei asks why it’s not possible for heaven to be on earth as it was when she was a child and her mother was still alive. Taking a look at her childhood home in northern Yunnan province, more mythically known as “Shangri-La,” or paradise on earth, it’s understandable that childhood seemed that much like heaven to her.

Shangri-La is a natural setting for the film’s fairytale world, and it also happens to be where the original Cinderella story is said to have been written in 768 AD.

THE TEA HORSE TRAIL

There’s speculation that the original Chinese Cinderella story may have gotten its start migrating to Europe and morphing into its more familiar European Cinderellas via the famous Tea Horse Trail, the ancient southern route — its counterpart was the Silk Road route in the north — where China and Tibet exchanged tea and horses. Time, the elements, and Chinese efforts to pave over the Tea Horse Trail have eroded it, but its legend lives on.

Cinderella Moon’s Full Moon Dance was shot on location in an ancient town in Yunnan called Shaxi. An UNESCO-protected historical site, Shaxi is an old tea-horse town with a Wild West feel. If speculation about the original Cinderella story heading west along the Tea Horse Trail is true, it probably made a stop in Shaxi along the way. Until modern times, horses were the only way to cross the rugged mountains, and some of their descendents live on in Shangri-La and are still used to this day for local portage. Descendents of Tea Horse Trail horses even helped transport some of the film equipment to rugged locations for Cinderella Moon!

Shangri-La has always been a real place, but its rugged remoteness and cultural independence from China proper — the locals even had their own pictographic language — have always cloaked it in the mystery of a “lost kingdom.”

SHANGRI-LA’S EXPLORER: JOSEPH ROCK

Shangri-La remained largely hidden from outsiders until it was “discovered” by the west in the 1930s by intrepid self-taught botanist, cartographer, linguist and explorer Joseph Rock (1884 – 1962). His writings for National Geographic and Harvard intrigued westerners who knew little about southwest China or the borderlands of Tibet. His photographs of Yunnan ethnic tribes, scenic splendor and hidden monasteries even inspired literature.

SHANGRI-LA’S MYTHMAKER: JAMES HILTON

In Lost Horizon, (1933), James Hilton tells the story of Hugh Conway and a fictional monastery he’s taken to after his plane crashes in Tibet. Called “Shangri-La
in the novel, the hidden monastery is a utopian place cut off from the rest of the world that’s so beautiful it seems to describe paradise on earth. There, its inhabitants live peaceful, seemingly eternal lives. To people who were repudiating the ugliness of the 20th century, the idea of an earthly paradise high in the mountains where people live peacefully proved to be irresistible.

RETURN TO SHANGRI-LA: CINDERELLA MOON

By filming Cinderella Moon in Yunnan province, Richard Bowen returned to Shangri-La both geographically and culturally to explore the birthplace of the Cinderella fairytale and to see what it still has to teach us. It was in Yunnan that he found the perfect location for the magic realism style he was going for.

“Aside from northern Yunnan’s beauty,” says director Richard Bowen, “it’s also an area of China that has largely escaped the ravages of modern development, so that it was possible, using a number of locations in that area, to stitch together a believable world from long ago.” In Shangri-La, there’s a sense of magic in the air everywhere you go…what better place for a fairy tale?

Filmed in Shangri-La

When Richard Bowen was scouting locations for his fairytale Cinderella Moon, he wanted to make sure that it fulfilled two requirements for the magic realism style he was going after. It needed to look like a place where magical things could happen, but it also needed to look and feel real, as if it were a documentary he’d just shot yesterday.

Northern Yunnan Province where he ended up shooting Cinderella Moon delivered in both respects. In addition to its fairytale-like beauty, the area that was the inspiration for author James Hilton’s “Shangri-La” in Lost Horizon appears almost untouched by time and has a rough-around-the edges feel.

“In remote pockets of Yunnan today,” says Bowen, “there are still small towns, villages and landscapes that (with a little help) photograph convincingly as 800 AD. And there are still people who are virtually unaffected by modern life. Hollywood polish can’t make this world or its people any more visually beautiful — only less real.”

Yes, there are some special effects in the film, but one of the most important special effects is Yunnan and its natural beauty. As a result, this “Shangri-La” is practically one of the most important characters in Cinderella Moon. “The tension between a kind of documentary realism, made possible by actual ‘800 AD’ locations and people,” says Bowen, “and magic, made possible by a restrained use of visual effects, is at the very heart of this film.”

All of Bowen’s Chinese filmmaker friends advised him not to shoot in an actual rural location. They said it would be too tough. Most period films in China are shot on back lots with a few second-unit landscapes, but the director’s eye was too drawn to realism for that. “As a westerner, he says, “I couldn’t imagine making a film on the other side of the world on a back lot!”

As a result of this dedication to realism, Cinderella Moon was shot in four locations in northern Yunnan: Shaxi (which was once part of the Tea Horse trail and where the Full Moon Dance scene was filmed); Wei Bao Shan, (a Taoist temple which served as the King’s Island Palace); Nuo Deng (Mei Mei’s village); and Bao Shan (the landscape surrounding the village).

Bao Shan sits above the headwaters of China’s famous Yangtze River, which originates in Tibet and joins the sea at Shanghai. Bao Shan has the distinction of being the only village along the upper Yangtze that, in ancient times, the fearsome Tibetan warriors could not conquer. Bao Shan was so remote that the crew of Cinderella Moon had to get there on horseback and camp on its river in tents!

Wei Bao Shan is the site of an ancient Taoist temple that had just the right balance of majesty and “shabby chic” to be the King’s court in Cinderella Moon. The monks in this working monastery agreed to let Bowen and his crew film here as long as the faces of the temple’s deities were not filmed. Through the magic of special effects, Wei Bao Shan was turned into a coastal island.

Shaxi is an UNESCO-protected site due to its link as the stop-off point for weary travelers on the Tea Horse Trail, the road used by China to conduct its horses-for-tea trade. There’s conjecture that the Cinderella story started its journey toward the west via this ancient trading route and may have actually passed through Shaxi.

Nuo Deng is a beautifully-preserved 2000-year old village in a part of Yunnan that was once the site of the only salt mine in the region. It is in this area where the Burma Road of WW II was built and the “Flying Tigers” gained fame. As an interesting twist of fate, it’s also where the director’s father fought during the war.

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.