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Producer Mickey Liu went back to high school for ‘Sail the Summer Winds’

STSW on set with postcards and slate
Mickey Liu on set of Sail the Summer Winds, photo by Aijia Che

Mickey Liu knows that every day he steps onto a film set, it will be different than the day before. Every new project brings something new, and every experience is distinctive. Because of this, he always feels like he is learning something new, and no matter how seasoned of a producer he is, he finds that sometimes his experience can mean nothing in the wake of a new challenge. He is consistently exposed to talented individuals and brings teams together to create a masterpiece. For him, that is the best feeling in the world, and he loves what he does.

“Producing is about lots of instant decisions and last-minute situations, which is challenging and exciting. What’s more, I get to read many good stories… and a lot more bad ones,” he joked.

Hailing from Shenzhen, China, Liu has become a renowned producer. His work on films such as An Ill-Fitting Coat, Marie, Nocturne in Black, and Tear of the Peony have made headlines around the world. He knows what it is to tell a good story, and consistently manages to bring his films great success. However, the first time he truly felt this was in 2014, with his feature Sail in the Summer Winds.

Sail in the Summer Winds tells the story of Michael, a 30-year-old white-collar worker, who is always recalling memories with his 6-year desk mate Cammy and best friends Leon, Joyce and James about when they were 17. Back then, these high schoolers were faced with the biggest challenge of their life – the College Entrance Exam. Michael didn’t know what his future held but got an early admission to Cammy’s dream school; Cammy had feelings for Michael but couldn’t say it out loud; Joyce, once a model student at school, failed to live up to expectations at the very moment; Leon wanted to be an artist but was torn between reality and dream; James worked really hard, but things didn’t turn out great for him. Just like every coming-of-age story, they grew up and changed through the best years of their youth.

“I think the story of the film is important because it is a story focusing on friendship in high school. We’ve seen enough saccharine high school dramas on screens and they almost always center on how to get the guy or girl you like. American high school culture is very different from Chinese high school culture. I think the story provides a fresh perspective of Chinese high school life. The story would remind people of their dreams and courage, and maybe they would want to reconnect with friends they haven’t been in touch with for years,” said Liu.

When the Director of Sail the Summer Winds, Lanxin Yu, approached Liu over social media to produce the feature, Liu was immediately intrigued. Yu went to the same high school that Liu attended and wanted to film the movie there. Upon reading the script, Liu knew he wanted to be a part of the film, as the words took him back to his high school days and brought back memories of his younger self. He knew many others would be able to relate, and his partnership with Yu began.

“Working with Mickey is always a pleasure. His great sense of humor makes everyone chilled and relaxed. When it comes to the set, he’s sensitive, responsive, and caring to every crew member and tries his best to make the set an enjoyable working environment that everyone wants to come back to. When we were shooting Sail the Summer Winds, most of the crew members were first-timers, but he was very patient and made our set run like a real Hollywood set. In addition, his charisma held the crew together, not just as an efficient team, but a real family. Mickey is one of the most creative people I’ve ever met. He always has brilliant ideas about the story and has a deep understanding on the structure. Therefore, as a creative producer, he gives clear notes to writers, constructive advice to directors and inspirational directions for promotions. He’s easygoing and reliable, making him the one person on set that everyone trusts,” said Yu.

As the sole producer of the film, Liu’s work was essential for the film’s success. He held the team together and drastically improved their efficiency, while still providing ample amounts of encouragement and boosting morale. He provided critical creative notes at the script development stage, created the shooting scheduling and supervised the pre-production and production. During post-production, he personally designed the merchandise and arranged for the film’s distribution.

Liu also trained the crew and brought professional help to the production, as he was the most seasoned filmmaker on the set. The majority of the crew were young volunteers looking to experience film production, and therefore required a lot of training. Because of him, he had everyone on the crew working extremely well despite their lack of previous experience.

“Although it was challenging, I actually enjoyed training the crew a lot. They were very smart and hard-working ‘students’, so it felt very rewarding seeing them successfully applying the training to their work. The atmosphere was very loving and full of energy. I loved that good vibe on set very much,” Liu described.

In addition to all of this, Liu employed some American methods of film production to this Chinese movie. The Director was pulling herself in every direction, taking on many tasks beyond what she needed to do. On Chinese film sets, this often happens, as they are very director-centric. Liu however, having experience on American film sets, talked to the director and told her how they could make everything more efficient, and she just needed to focus on her main duties as a director. In the end, it worked seamlessly.

“Producing this film was a very unique experience because I think it would be almost impossible to have this selfless of a cast and crew ever again. Everyone gave their one hundred percent for free and they never complained and never lost morale while working long hours in hot summer. It was definitely a labor of love and I was very moved by what they did and shooting at my high school brought back so many happy memories,” said Liu.

Sail the Summer Winds premiered in August 2014 at a theatre in Shenzhen and then went straight to DVD, where it sold well locally. It was covered by local newspapers and television stations in China, where it received very positive reviews. It is now available to stream online.

Liu and his team decided to donate all the proceeds from the film to his local high school, to support the film and television club there. Liu wanted to motivate the next generation of young filmmakers to follow their dreams, and in his footsteps. For those looking to do so, he offered the following advice:

“Find the stories you really love and try to make them happen. Don’t pursue certain types of stories just because they are “hot and trendy”. It takes such a long time to get them made that you may give up if you don’t love them enough. When in doubt, you can always go back to why you wanted to pursue a career in producing. It can actually give you a lot of strength. It’s all about the nuts and bolts, and your instinct is usually right,” he concluded.

 

Top photo: Zihao Qin and Mickey Liu on set of ‘Sail the Summer Winds’, photo by Aijia Che

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Laura Santoyo Dangond’s sets in ‘Lockdown’ transport audiences to high school

Originally from Bogota, Colombia, Laura Santoyo Dangond has always been a fan of movies. Growing up, she watched her favorite films, like Matilda and Jumanji, and would see more than the story. She would ask her parents how the filmmakers were able to create other worlds and dreamlike elements. Although her parents did not have all the answers, they encouraged their young child to make her own hypothesis as to how “movie magic” was achieved, and she never stopped wondering. As she grew, exploring the world and various cultures, her hypothesizing never stopped, and eventually she turned her passion into a career. Now, Santoyo no longer wonders how to achieve the magic of movies, and as a sought-after production designer, she is now the one creating other worlds.

Throughout her career, Santoyo has shown just what an extraordinary production designer she is. Her work on films such as Tim of the Jungle, The Plague and Falling are just a few examples of what this acclaimed production designer is capable of. However, despite such success, Santoyo considers the pointed drama Lockdown as the highlight of her career.

“It is probably the most challenging and rewarding experience I’ve had in this profession. I loved working with that team of people; we all believed in the story we were telling and together we overcame so many difficulties. Particularly for me, it taught me the importance on trusting the people you are working with and to support each other. In the end it all paid off, because it’s been one of my most successful projects,” she said.

Lockdown set

Max Sokolof, Caleb Heller, and Laura Santoyo Dangond on the set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Lockdown is about a 17-year-old boy named Julian. He is a misfit struggling through high school when he is taken hostage in the school restroom by Brandon, a classmate with a gun. Their perilous standoff proves that nothing is as it seems. Julian fights to hold onto the hope that he will survive – not just the hostage situation, but his entire high school experience. Throughout the film, audiences learn of both characters’ complicated backstories.

“This story talks about very important issues, such as depression and anxiety in adolescents, bullying in schools, access to guns, police brutality, and more that are affecting our society. It can help to bring these subjects to the table and encourage people who watch the film to have discussions about them,” said Santoyo.

After its premiere in November 2016 at the American Film Institute, Lockdown went on to be an Official Selection at many prestigious international film festivals, including the Orlando Film Festival, Garden State Film Festival, Sedona International Film Festival, Byron Bay International Television Academy Foundation for Best Screenplay and won the Golden Lion Award at the Barcelona International Film Festival. Such success may never have been possible without Santoyo’s outstanding production design.

“It is a great satisfaction to know that all the hard work, time and effort we as a team put into this project doesn’t go unnoticed and that we accomplished the purpose of telling a story that touched so many people,” she said.

Lockdown bathroom set
Laura Santoyo Dangond, Max Sokolof and Caleb Heller on the bathroom set of Lockdown, photo by Jane Hollo

Having worked with Santoyo on his previous film Hotbed, the Director, Max Skolof, reached out to the production designer knowing the caliber of her work. At the time, he did not even have a clear idea of what the story was going to be, but he trusted Santoyo to help turn his vision into a reality. In the beginning, there was no script, and Skolof only had a newspaper article that he wanted to base a film around. Knowing the difficult but pressing issues the film addressed, Santoyo was immediately onboard.

“Working with Laura is a joy. She’s always curious, always soaking up ideas, always creative. She takes disparate things and puts them together in unexpected and revelatory ways. She has the highest standards for herself. Every detail is thought of. It helps me direct and it helps the actors find real depth. And on top of all that, Laura’s the kindest person you’ll ever meet. It’s also rare to come across someone who has such a strong and unique sense of aesthetics. She’s incredibly precise when it comes to expressing the story and the characters visually. Laura is brilliant in that way. She understands the language of cinema and she uses every tool at her disposal to help tell the story. Whether it’s knowing how to make use of space, or how to evoke a certain subtext with just color,” said Skolof.

When she begins every project, Santoyo makes sure to research her characters, and Lockdown was no different. She looked into what neighborhoods these adolescents would live in, the sociological and economic backgrounds and more, just trying to get to know as much information as she could to create a realistic design that would reflect both her leads.

Upon completion of the script, she did a breakdown of all the locations and noted what bits of the story took occurred in each place. When doing this, she noted the most important location in the story was the bathroom. Its design became her priority, and she began looking for a crew that would help bring her ideas to fruition.

“The design of the restroom was the biggest challenge because is where the two boys meet, and their feelings are revealed. We used a very restrained color palette that reflects the psychological state of both of them,” she described.

Rather than using a real location, Santoyo built the entire bathroom set on a soundstage. She went back to her research and looked for paintings and photographs that evoked the same feelings and emotions that she wanted to convey and saw a pattern in the colors. Most of the references she liked used yellows and reds. With that in mind, she did a preliminary design and presented it to the director. After his approval, she ensured all other departments, such as lighting and cinematography, could work with her concept. Once the designed was approved by everyone, the members of the art team, led by Santoyo, began sourcing the materials and painting samples.

The complexity of the two characters had to come across in the visual design and Santoyo achieved such a feat. She worked closely with the director, the director of photography and costume designer to better express the anguish and anger the characters were going through. The sets that she designed allowed the actors to better understand the characters’ backgrounds and helped facilitate the process of getting into character. In one instance, she even wrote offensive graffiti in the bathroom stalls that bullies may have written about their characters.

Such small details may seem trivial to some, by Santoyo knows how important they can be, and that is what makes her such a distinguished production designer. When watching Lockdown, audiences notice and appreciate how authentic the set is and allow themselves to be fully taken away to the high school. Any moviegoer knows, that is what makes a good film, and Santoyo makes that happen.

 

Top photo by Caleb Heller

Actor Yifan Luo channels his teenage years in ‘Talentik’

Yifan Luo knows what it takes to become a sought-after actor. The Chinese native recognizes the importance of patience; success does not come over night, and acting isn’t easy. You have to study and constantly be looking to improve yourself. He knows that even the most renowned actors spent years not hearing back from auditions but never giving up. That is exactly what he did, and now he is a leading actor in China’s film industry and has begun making headlines around the world.

“During some difficult times, you may not get a chance to work for months. Under this circumstance, will you still be sure that you want to be an actor? Can you be patient enough to go for auditions one after another with the best performance you can give although none of them gives you a callback? Will you be as passionate for some work that might give you $200 in total as those big things that you have done before? If the answers are no, then you should not be an actor,” he advised.

Those days are now long gone for Luo, but he constantly remembers them and remains humble despite what he has achieved. Just last year, he was recognized for his portrayal of a schizophrenic psychopath in the thriller SAM, and even received an Honorable Mention for Best Actor at Festigious 2017. He has many exciting projects upcoming, working alongside some of Hollywood’s elite. He also is incredibly versatile, exploring different genres and mediums. Just last year, his film Talentik was released online, allowing audiences to stream the film when they chose.

“Yifan played an important role as one of main characters in our production Talentik. He is such an energetic actor while everyone can see his talent and profession on set. Yifan always spends lots of time on his character and script before shooting, so it’s easily worked with him, saving time and money for our production. Also, his attitude and enthusiasm are often infectious to the other actors and the crew. We are so fortunate to have had Yifan in our production,” said Steven Li, Director.

Talentik 2
The cast and crew of Talentik

The movie is about three Chinese college freshmen who get accepted by a United States Ivy League school. They arrive in the US without anybody helping them and get a text message telling them to look for any possible clues that can lead them to finding the school. While looking for clues, a strong relationship is gradually built among the three characters. One day, one of them gets kidnapped by the villain. The remaining two characters try very hard to find her and save her from the bad guy. Finally, they realize that everything has been set up by the school in order to help them to learn how to work with each other. At the end, they find the school and all get accepted.

“The story tells us the importance of cooperation. Nobody can succeed without the help of other people. Individualistic heroism no longer works for society. We all need to help each other. This movie gives a very good example of how three spoiled kids finally learn how to trust and rely on each other in order to reach the same goal,” Luo said.

The movie tells the story of the three characters on their journey, and Luo plays one of those three characters. Everything happens around the three of them. Luo plays Luke, a college freshman. He initially failed the college entrance exam in China, but happens to be accepted by a college in United States that comes out of nowhere. He comes from a rich family in China. His parents love him so much and they want to control everything in his life. This is why he finally decides to go to the US, so that he can break away from his parents. And interestingly, he is a mind-reader. His favorite thing is to read other people’s mind and make fun of them. The character is quite a few years younger than Luo, who was ready for the challenge of taking on a different generation.

“It was amazing to work with such a professional actor like Yifan who always came prepared and donates himself into the character. The film wouldn’t be such a success without Yifan’s participation. He is a true artist who concentrates on his goal and is in the character with all his heart. It was such an honor that we worked with Yifan in the film and will definitely keep working with him again in the future,” said Olina Wang, Producer.

Wang approached Luo to work on the film, knowing he is an extraordinarily talented actor, and playing comedy without overdoing it and simultaneously having to act 8 years younger than you actually are can be challenging for many actors. Luo was eager to try something different, and immediately accepted the role.

While shooting Talentik, Luo decided to method act, and stayed in character at all times, not only in front of the camera, but also when he was waiting, getting ready for makeup, having lunch, taking a break, etc. He tried to really become the character. He did funny things that he normally would not have. He forced himself to eat twice as much food as he really needed, just like a growing teen. He joked around on the set, making everybody laugh. All these things were to help get himself into character.

“Working on Talentik was awesome. Everyone liked each other. The set was full of laughter. We helped each other with whatever we could. There was no conflict nor any argument during the whole shooting process. I believe that’s the most important thing in a film shoot. Once there is an argument going on, everybody stops and tries to deal with the argument, which delays the process a lot. With good relationships between all the casts and crews, we didn’t have to think about too much and could focus on making the movie good,” he said.

They definitely achieved that. After shooting the film in 2016, the film was released on Sohu Video, one of the largest online distributors in China. It quickly received over 10 million views and is still going strong almost a year later. At the time, Luo was not expecting such a response, as he had so much fun making the film that he considered that enough.

“I have to say that I was deeply surprised. I didn’t know it was getting so many views until one of my friends called me and told me about it. At the beginning, I thought he was lying. I didn’t believe him until I went online and checked it myself. I still feel proud of what I did, what the team did. We brought something to the public and got realization. That’s enough for me. The only thing I ever want is for people to like what I have done and for people watching my work to have fun,” he concluded.

And that’s exactly what viewers feel when watching Talentik. Be sure to watch Luo’s performance in the film on Sohu Video.