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Filmmaker Interview With Xinyu "Ciao" Zhao

Filmmaker Interview by Chris Olson

Filmmaker Interview With Xinyu "Ciao" Zhao
Filmmaker Interview With Xinyu "Ciao" Zhao

Lovely to speak with you Ciao. You are promoting a new film called A Conflict. What's the film about?

A CONFLICT is a dramedy about two Asian American theatre actors who, in order to keep their job at a Chinese adaptation of Macbeth, have to put up with the White director’s excessive obsession.

The film is inspired by a true story that the writer-director Alex Jiang experienced. She helped out on a movie set in LA that was filming a story set in China. The writer is Chinese; the script is in Mandarin; and all the actors are speaking Mandarin. Yet they have a white director who’s never set foot in China and doesn’t understand one single word in Mandarin. The irony she witnessed during those days of filming raised a lot of interesting questions about authentic representation and what it means to be a minority storyteller in the current landscape. We’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to instil those feelings into A CONFLICT.

How did you come to be a producer on this?

Alex and I have worked on multiple projects together, and we were actually roommates for the entire year last year. She told me about her experience on that movie set right after they wrapped, and both of us agreed that it sounds like the perfect source material for a satirical story. Weeks later, she came to me with the first draft of A CONFLICT and asked me for notes, so I came on board as a producer right from the start. It was our first collaborative attempt at comedy– satire to be specific, so it’s a fun creative challenge for both of us to make something completely different from our past work.

What have been the challenges in getting this film made?

It’s a surprisingly smooth shoot from a logistical standpoint. We filmed everything in one single location, and a lot of our key creative crew are long-time collaborators from our past, so the team understands each other’s working style as well as creative visions very well.

On the flip side, the seemingly simple story posed a significant challenge to the writing and casting. Because the entire story takes place on a theatre stage between three people, the writing needs to be really witty and smart in order to keep raising the stakes and maintain momentum. Alex and I spent a lot of time bouncing ideas off each other and adding details to make the story rich in texture when the film is contained from the outset. It’s also a balancing act between comedy and the seriousness of our subject matter.

Also for the same reason, we placed a huge emphasis on performances, and the casting process was definitely as exciting as challenging. We reviewed hundreds of submissions for the three roles, looking for comedy actors who also have the range to create more nuance in the characters. There were so many promising candidates with different approaches, which really pushed us to think more about what we want each character to be and what chemistry we’re looking for in the trio. One week before filming, one of our lead cast tested positive for COVID and got stuck in quarantine in New York, so we had to quickly turn around and recast. It was undoubtedly one of the biggest crises during the production, but thankfully we made a plan B early on and it worked out perfectly.

What was the most enjoyable moment on set?

The most fun part about filming a comedy is that you’ll have a lot of cast members with great humour and positive energy to bring to the set. While the script itself is full of satirical and witty punchlines, we really relied on the actors to bring out the physical comedy aspect of the story. A lot of their improvisations are unexpected, nice surprises, and I had so much fun watching the

actors experiment with different sets of actions that can maximize the comedic tone. To be honest, I would’ve never thought of what they did when I was reading the script and kudos to our cast for nailing their jobs. Even the joking around in between takes is hilarious; it really lightened up the mood for everyone working on set. On top of that, most of the crew members on A CONFLICT actually just came off another set that Alex and I worked on together, so it’s nice to have a reunion and work as a productive, well-established team.

How have you been promoting the film?

The film is currently in the festival circuit. It’s been officially selected at multiple domestic and international festivals including WorldFest-Houston, Austin Comedy, Berlin Shorts & Austin Micro Film Festival. In the long term, we’re definitely hoping to get a distributor and find a platform where the story can be shared with the general public.

Where can people see it next?

A CONFLICT will be screened at WorldFest-Houston. Stay tuned!

Why do you love making movies?

I’m always drawn to the power of stories. We can be transported into different realities and explore all kinds of possibilities in life, while peering into the best, the worst and the nature of humanity. It’s so ever-changing yet ever-lasting, and every new movie feels like a brand new adventure on its own. Filmmaking for me is the perfect entry to the observations and reflections I made in life. I can share my feelings about one personal experience and ponder the questions about the universal human condition, trying to make sense of the disorderly world with a constructed narrative. Growing up in a cinephile family, I remember all the emotional impact that some movies had left on me, and I wanted to be able to create something that can potentially be the positive influence on someone else’s life.

What's next for you?

There’re a lot of up-and-coming filmmakers that I would love to work with, so I’m always on the lookout for exciting stories. Personally, for my next project, I’d love to take on a female-centric sci-fi or crime script. I am also developing a couple of feature projects with some really talented writer-directors, and hopefully, we’ll be able to go into production in the near future.


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