Production with He Shuming on 'And the Wind Falls'


'And the Wind Falls's is a short film by He Shuming that was nominated for Best Cinematography in the recent Singapore Short Film Awards. But really, this film deserved awards in other categories as well, including script and performance. We catch up with He Shuming on the making of this short film.

Synopsis

Millie, a housekeeper in a small-town motel, spends thankless days cleaning up after others as she dreams of overcoming her past and regaining custody of her estranged daughter. When Millie discovers a large sum of money in one of the motel rooms, her apparent good fortune forces her to question the true meaning of redemption. 
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Your film presented a very interesting study of social demographics in the US. What inspired the story? 

I had a conversation with a friend about finding yourself in a situation where you’re caught in a victimless crime and trying to get around it. What are the moral implications, what would one do, etc. Also, I had to start writing a script for my thesis but I was going nowhere. All I knew was I wanted to make a film fronted by a female protagonist.

One weekend, I drove to Joshua Tree, trying to write and had some time to myself. The housekeeper at the motel was the only person I chatted with, and we talked briefly about our lives, about what we do for a living and about our families. She’s around my age, a first generation Mexican-American who grew up in in Los Angeles. I would say all these little details formed a basis in my head to make this film, and it sort of evolved from there.

There’s a lot of talk of late, about having more diversity in film and television. Being a non-white filmmaker residing in the States, I tend to lean towards creating lead characters that present a more normal representation of who we see on screen.
Are housekeepers are a treasure trove of stories? How close to reality is your story in the film?

Oh yes, they certainly are. There’re all sorts of people going in and out of motels, and housekeepers clean up after them. Housekeepers always seem invisible but they have such interesting observations. I find that the one person that no one really thinks about is often the center of the universe.

The story in the film is completely fictional, and developed over the course of a year before we started pre-production.

What was the casting process like? How did you find your actors?

We worked with our casting director, Jennifer Ricchiazzi for this film. When we met for the first time before hiring her, we talked about the script and the actors we were looking at; we had a dream list of actors that we think are suited for the roles, basically actors I imagined to be the characters when I wrote the script and Jennifer went out and short list actors for the auditions.

The casting process took about over slightly a month. We had callbacks for actors we liked and they did scenes together. Actors who came to read for the lead role of the housekeeper had to do chemistry reads with actors who were called back to play her daughter and mother-in-law. We went straight into rehearsal about 2 weeks before shooting. It was the shortest amount of time I had working with actors before shooting.

How did you work with your actors? Especially in your position as a foreigner directing a film rooted in localised issues.

Because of the short amount of time we had before the final cast were attached to the film, I workshopped in class with actors I had worked previously. I’ve learned so much from these actors, who were so giving and intelligent. The sessions were intense, but it helped with rewrites and allowed me to think of what I needed to talk about during actual rehearsals, which we didn’t have a lot of.

We had our first table read after our main cast were locked and had a discussion about the story and the characters. Leana Chavez, who played Millie, was such a giving and dedicated actor. We spent plenty of time talking during our rehearsal sessions, sharing experiences that they’ve heard, what would you do if you were the character, etc. I’ve learned so much from all my actors on this film and I think it’s important to look at the roots of what these characters are going through as human beings and realizing how universal the experiences can be.
Is this your first short film made in the US? How different is it making a film in the US as compared to Singapore?

This is my fourth short film made here. With And The Wind Falls, I felt like we had an army of people working together, like a well-oiled machine. There are definitely more rules designed to protect everyone working on a production. It’s just the way the industry is set up over decades of filmmaking, especially in Los Angeles. The permits, union rules, labour laws, etc. It’s very admirable, to be honest.

Also, this is the first time I budgeted reshoots for a film! We did pick up shots, added scenes and reshot an entire scene over the course of 2 days. It was such a luxury.

But other than that, I think the fascinating thing about filmmaking is wherever you shoot, cinema is our common language.


What were the greatest challenges you faced in making this film?

Before coming here, I was used to a certain kind of storytelling. Maybe it’s the sensibilities in cinema that I was accustomed to. I was used to taking my time with a scene, not wanting to rush anything and being a little too passive with my characters. I think with this film I wanted to be less passive, and I don’t know if I’ve succeeded completely.

Writing the script was a challenge, too. From the very first drafts, we had to decide if she was going to return the money or keep it for herself. Whatever she chose to do in the end poses all sorts of questions about why she did it in the first place, so it was really digging deep into the truth about her motivation and realizing there really isn’t a right or wrong answer, but I still need to decide her course of action and justify it.

We had a test audience when we had our first director’s cut, which helped us decide what made sense and what didn’t. It helped because we were so involved through the course of development and production that sometimes we lose track of whether the film told the story we really wanted to tell. And sitting through the honest critiques from a theatre of test audience can be one of the most gut-wrenching experiences a filmmaker can have. But it helped because their notes confirmed what we needed to work on for the reshoot and in our edit.

All the hell we go through as filmmakers only helped to serve the film.

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