FrictionMagazine catches up with filmmaker Steven Dunning to talk about his self-produced and independently financed film, 'Now Chinatown.
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by Drew Jaya
With interesting titles such as "I Died with a Falafel in My Hand," most of the films at American Film Market youll probably never hear about, although walking through the dense halls of the Santa Monica Loewes hotel, where all the deal making happens, you still come across the next Sylvestor Stallone picture in the same breath as some new filmmaker or up-and-coming actor.
These often disparate elements are what make the dreamers arrive by the truck load to Los Angeles
However, you wouldnt think a conversation with a friendly volunteer would lead to the discovery of an award-winning filmmaker. But I suppose tinsel town is made on stories like this.
Steven Dunning is not your average aspiring Spielberg. Arriving in LA in 1989, he said he went to every studio in town knocking on doors offering to work for free. Persistence paid off and his six months of free work eventually led to paid work. Still at the bottom of the barrel, but eventually his strong work ethic paid off. He moved from production assistant, to production manager, to post-production supervisor, and eventually on up to an associate producer and director of photography. Dunning worked on projects for almost every major studio -- Fox, Paramount, Warner Brothers, and so on doing stints at places like Spielbergs Amblin Entertainment.
Even though Dunning continues to work within the studio system in various capacities, his film "Now Chinatown" was completely self-financed with no studio involvement. Saving all his pennies and building relationships with production folks helped in getting the necessary breaks and favors when it came time to start shooting.
"Now Chinatown" premiered at the New York Independent Film Festival last February and Dunnings undying passion for his work keeps him on the campaign trail for the film even today. The story centers around a young girl from China who ends up working in LAs Chinatown and struggles to find balance between her homeland traditions and her own potential.
Speaking from Darque Pictures, Dunnings production offices in Hollywood, Dunning recounts the many hurdles hes overcome and the obstacles he currently faces. He talks candidly about the process of making the film, what hes learned, what hes gained, and his motivations:
You were a volunteer at this years AFM after already having a film in the can. Was it worth it?
Absolutely. As you know its really expensive to get into these markets as an exhibitor and volunteering was a great way to help out and still run into decision makers. AFM is great because if gives independent filmmakers like me the opportunity to walk up and down the halls and meet with distributors who might be interested in buying the film. What Ive been doing is basically giving them a tape of audience reactions to the my film from the festivals along with the press material and then encouraging them to see the film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival this month.
So how was it for you? Did you get a chance to meet with the right distributors and get some offers?
Yeah, its been pretty good. I received a few worldwide distribution offers from a few companies, for both domestic and international. But Im still waiting to see what would be the most beneficial for the film. Im going to wait until I have all my cards on the table.
What do you think are some of the mainstream medias reasons for resistance to a film like this when obviously it seems to have hit a chord with the few festivals it has screened?
Well, its just the way the system works. Its all about big names and money, bottom line. A movie like this isnt going to get the interest of People Magazine or E! Entertainment. So Ive basically been relying on word of mouth, favorable press, and festival reviews. Im hoping that as more people see the studio quality of the film, it will attract more mainstream press. Kenneth Turan of the LA Times gave it a good review, so that was nice.
Is there a particular social or political stance you are trying to make with the film?
Not necessarily political, but there is a bit of social commentary. I think what I hope the film will do is show how people can learn and understand differences across cultures. Its more a universal story about struggle.
After the screening of the film in London, during a question and answer session, someone asked me if the hardships experienced by the characters in the movie still happen in America. Before I could say anything, someone else in the audience answered the question for me and asked the guy if he ever read the newspaper. He then noted a famous story last year in New York where port authorities discovered a crate full of dead would-be illegal Chinese immigrants who had tried to sneak into the country in a shipping crate. They died on the journey. So at the very least, I hope the film educates some people about this segment of American life.
What compelled you to make this film, as in choose this particular subject matter since you are not Chinese?
Ever since I was in high school, I would take odd jobs like mowing lawns and save up money so I could travel. I would work and save my money so I could travel to Africa, South America, China and learn about other peoples and cultures. Id been to China a number of times and when the idea for "Now Chinatown" took place, I gathered a lot of the details from my experiences with the Chinese community both here in the United States as well as in China.
I was really driven to write this story based on my observations and experiences and thought to myself, if I got hit by a bus or something, what film would I want to be remembered by -- "Now Chinatown" was that film. No studio control which afforded me that elusive final cut. I hope this doesn't sound to cliché, but it is really something that helped me through this whole process: Impossible is not a word in my vocabulary. When I started gaining experience in my production work and got to know people, I mentioned I would be working on my own film at one point so when the time came all those relationships I had built over the years paid off. I was able to get breaks on lot of things from gear and equipment, lab work, and other essentials. I was really fortunate.
The best part of making this film?
Somebody asked me this question during the screening at the American Cinematheque at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood last year after the movie, and I told them then nothing. Nothing was enjoyable about making the film, and I don't mean that to say I hated making the film. Its just when you are doing as much as I am doing for a film -- writing, producing, directing, acting, and financing the film -- you're responsible for everything. The days are long and even when the actors and crew can rest you can't because you're the director, and everything else. You have to set everything up and drive the trucks home at 3 a.m. Its exhausting work.
What are you working on right now?
Im preparing for the Hong Kong film festival and finishing another screenplay that revolves around Chinese themes again. I have an interesting story. I was working on the set of "Anna and the King" in my production trailer and was about to step out for lunch and there was this tall, bald Asian guy sitting on the steps outside my office. Well, I was just going to step around the guy and when he looked up to get out of the way, I realized it was Chow Yun Fat!
Again, I was fortunate enough that during the shoot we soon became friends and we would have lunch everyday during the shooting of "Anna and the King." Eventually, we ended up talking about working on a picture together and he told me to keep him in mind. So during the Hong Kong festival, I will be in touch with him and see how things progress.
You mentioned this other project your involved with, a student exchange program with China. Whats the scope of this endeavor?
Yeah, construction has begun on this new arts university in China called the Beijing International Arts and Culture University. Ill be heading up the American side and serving as cochairman. Im really, really excited about it. Its headed up by Zhu Ming Ying, this famous Chinese pop star who at one time during the height of her career was called the Madonna of China by the press. Were basically creating a center unlike any that currently exists in mainland China. It will give both the Chinese and other Americans the opportunity to share resources in modern culture and arts education. Its really cool.
When Zhu Ming was here in America I took her around to some of the major universities here in California that had strong film, media, and arts programs to being a dialogue on each universitys potential participation in the exchange program and the response so far has been great.
Next is the Hong Kong Film Festival for you. What are your expectations there?
When the movie screened for selected Asian audiences , the audience reactions were great. A lot of people noted that the film is not the typical white-knight-in-shining-armor kind of drama. This film really breaks the common stereotypes of most Hollywood films. Its really a universal story about struggle with Chinatown as a backdrop, and not really a story about Chinatown at all. Chinatown just happens to be where the drama takes place. So based on the Asian audience reactions so far, Im hoping the Hong Kong audiences will be equally receptive.
One of the ongoing processes as an independent filmmaker is that it doesnt stop when the film wraps. It goes into post and then you have to market and find distributors on your own. In my case, its a non-stop job. From maintaining the website to getting the work out through press outlets, its really a grassroots campaign.
Are there any changes you have to make to screen the film in Asia?
Right now, I am considering edits for mainland China. As you know the Chinese government has certain policies over films they will let screen in their country. Dont quote me on this, but I think the language in their official statement has something to do with suggesting films in China portray the government or people in a positive light.
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