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Interview:
Juan Vargas
By Dec 4, 2008 Arts

This Saturday, the oldest cinema in Shanghai, the Xinguang Cinema, hosts the seventh Meiwenti Productions Short Film Awards. Founded in 2005, Meiwenti Productions is a group of locally-based, independent film makers, actors, producers, and writers, mobilized as a social network to meet, trade talent, and help each other realize their cinematic projects.

SmartShanghai sat down with the founder of MeiWenti Productions, Juan Vargas, at the pub as he was finalizing the plans for the awards ceremony. The conversation meandered into the film awards past and present, making movies in Shanghai, and the Meiwenti philosophy of film making. Half way through, one of the entrants to this years competition, Michael, stopped in to get some emergency software help from Juan. That's in there too.

Juan had his laptop propped open and cell phone ringing every five minuets, but he looked firmly in control with pint in hand.

Don't miss out on this unique cinematic event. To book tickets, email juan@meiwentiproductions. They're 50rmb. The screening and ceremony runs from 7:30pm until 11:00pm, and the afterparty is at 789 Nanjing in Le Royal Meridien.

Yes, there will be a red carpet.

***

SmSh: So this is the seventh edition of the Meiwenti Short Film Awards. What's different this year?

Juan: Well, starting in the sixth edition, we decided to start having a theme. Before it was just open. There have been always a few requirements that people had to include, but last year we decided to give it direction with a "horror" theme, and this year the theme is "erotica."

SmSh: What was the horror one like? Bloodbath movies, zombies?

Juan: [Laughs]. No, no. It was all comedy. To do horror, it's hard -- it's a very emotional thing to try to scare somebody...

SmSh: It's easier to be funny?

Juan: I think it's easier to do drama. You know... "Oh, my son is dying... crying... oh no... cancer." But comedy you have to be funny. If it's not funny you're not going to make people laugh and then...

SmSh: Where there films in the horror festival that were trying to be funny that just crashed and burned?

Juan: Nah. Because at least if it's not very funny it might look stupid enough that it's funny all the same [Laughs]. And people are going to laugh a little bit. But with horror you need to do things very well... you know. A couple of guys managed to do something decent. But my own movie ended up being a comedy...

SmSh: What was your movie?

Juan: Oh, it was a haunted house...

SmSh: Was there fake blood?

Juan: Yeah, we had a ghost and chocolate coming out of its mouth...

SmSh: Who won last year?

Juan: It was a French guy. And he did something underground... basement... shaky camera.

SmSh: Like Blair Witch?

Juan: Not exactly... his concept was good. And he did a really good job. But I don't know if it was really scary.

SmSh: So for the films entering the contest, what kind of equipment do they usually use? Is it guerrilla or state-of-the-art?

Juan: We're using mostly HDV. There are a few films just DV, and there is actually one with HD.

SmSh: Is it hard to get equipment in China?

Juan: No. It's easy, it's affordable... Well, the way I see it is if you're a foreigner, it's cheap. But if you're a Chinese university student -- compared to being a student in Europe or America -- it's expensive.

SmSh: What is the cheapest camera someone could buy to make a film that would qualify?

Juan: You don't need to buy one, you can rent them, that's the whole thing. You can rent cameras starting from 150rmb a day, but the thing is nowadays, if you're renting a camera for 150rmb a day you've probably got a friend with that camera and you should just use that...

SmSh: Is sound a really big problem though?

Juan: Yeah, yeah, for any movie. The sound is always the problem...

SmSh: I don't know shit-all about making movies. Do you have to use a sound guy with a big boom?

Juan: Ideally yeah, but the thing is film... it's a big prism of possibilities. The more money you put into it the more options available to you, the higher the quality.

Enter Michael

Juan: Well this isn't part of the interview but it's quite interesting because this young man heard about the contest two weeks ago, and he shot a film last weekend and he's here because he's got big problems editing. And he's got to get a computer tomorrow and I'm giving him some software to edit.

SmSh: To Michael: What's your film about?

Michael: Um well, it's part of the erotic film festival... basically, what happens is that there is four friends, but one of them is more of an associate, and she stumbles into a love triangle, and she prompts them unknowingly to tell sexy secrets.

SmSh: So it's like a love square story?

Michael: Well, she sort of unknowingly prompts them to tell secrets and it ends in the revelation of what's really going on.

SmSh: So you're working with four actors? How did that all come together?

Michael: Well, I'm a writer and I met them through my writers group. And that how this whole thing sort of happened. I got introduced to Juan... who I think I meet a couple times before. And so I wrote the thing and sent it back to my director, who I'm working with on another unrelated project. And we auditioned for a day.

Actually, I was just going to write it and not direct it, but then there was no director so that ended up being me as well...

SmSh: So is this your first movie?

Michael: Yeah, this is my first movie I've ever directed. I've written a bunch and I'm producing one right now. But yeah, this is the first time I've ever directed, and it's been a fantastic experience for me as well. Hired a camera man...

SmSh: How much is it to hire a camera man. Sorry, I'm all about how much shit costs [Laughs].

Michael: Well, mostly I paid in bone marrow. There is a real need for that in the market right now... actually yeah, Juan has been instrumental in arranging all the things for me. He's been the chess master -- getting all the pieces in play...

Juan: Well, for me I'm helping him co-ordinate little things, but really it's just been a great time watching this fucker run around...

SmSh: [Laughs]. You're "producing."

Juan: Not really, I'm just helping him with contacts, but this guy has worked his ass off... It's a good thing he's hyperactive.

Michael: I actually run on ACDC power. I just plug myself into the wall and I'm ready to rumble.

Juan: So now the deal is he has roughly 48 hours to give me this movie or we'll have to disqualify him and laugh in his face. All that effort wasted [Laughs]... Maybe we'll record that.

SmSh: [Laughs] Okay, so you were talking about the horror theme from last year. This year is erotica. There's no nudity right? Is that a government thing?

Juan: Yeah of course, well, we're in China. We don't want to have to improve our Chinese in a Chinese prison, or our erotic film making from there either...

SmSh: Have you had to disqualify people?

Juan: No, we explained it beforehand. We have to respect the rules of the place we're in... but you know for me actually, it's a good idea to censor it a little bit. From last years experience -- if you try to do horror and if you don't do it right it comes out like comedy. If you don't do erotica right it comes out like cheap soft core porn... And then we would get in trouble for nothing really.

So, everybody was forced to be more creative and think about their situations. I think all the movies are really good. This is going to be the best one.

SmSh: What are the legal barriers to making films in China? Do you have to register something?

Juan: You need to get your script approved. For short films no, but if you're going to make a feature film or a TV show or something, than you have to get approval. You need to send your script and they'll send corrections. But that's for feature films.

SmSh: What about shooting in public places? Are there laws against that?

Juan: No. It's like any city. If you're going to stop traffic or something you need a permit but if you're doing guerrilla shooting, just go for it. And most people, you know, they're helpful. You just explain what you're doing and it's no problem... if you're shooting in establishments though you need permission, and then they usually want money, but that's the same everywhere.

SmSh: So what can people expect from the films in this year's competition. Is there story lines? Or is it more conceptual?

Juan: Everything. There is a lot of stuff. We have 12 films. And there are a lot of different angles, so it's going to be really interesting. There are some that are based on really nice photography, some are storytelling, acting... it's a good variety.

SmSh: So who are the people that are entering? Is it expats? Chinese?

Juan: All films are a mixture. Most films are in English with Chinese subtitles, and there is one that is in Chinese with English subtitles.

SmSh: How does the judging work?

Juan: We have six awards: best film, second best film and others. And these are chosen by a professional jury. We have someone from the Shanghai Film Academy, a director from ICS, and a film professor, and they select first, second, and third. And for the actual awards ceremony on the night, we have people voting, and they will choose "People Choice" after the screening... best actor and best actress.

SmSh: So tell me more about Meiwenti Productions.

Juan: It started in 2005. It's a movement of film makers, and... well it all started because I was into writing novels, but for me in Shanghai it was too hard to write... crazy city, you know. So I don't know, I decided to make a movie. Got some friends together, got some people interested. It was too see if we could actually do it. The movie was called 90 Day Visa. It was about this America jackass coming to Shanghai and everything goes wrong for him. It was 72 minutes. It was a fantastic learning experience. Before I knew fuck all about making movies. Technically, of course, there were all kinds of problems. Any kind of problem you can imagine we had them in the movie. We had to re-dub like 60% of the movie.

SmSh: Sound problems right? I hear the sound is the worst part of these things.

Juan: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know why? Because when you're shooting, you don't see it. You just assume everything is fine...

SmSh: How big was the cast?

Juan: Overall, cast and crew, we had over 100 people.

SmSh: Wow.

Juan: Yeah, it was a major production. Yeah, so after that we managed to get so many people interested, so we had the idea of making the contest... as a way to keep people into it. So we've had the contest for twice a year and it took off from there.


SmSh: So you describe Meiwenti as a "collective"...

Juan: Yeah it's a group, but there is no memberships or anything like that; it's open. The idea is that we just help each other. If I want to make a movie I can just call you because I need an actor... and usually people just volunteer because it's fun. There are a lot of things you can do in Shanghai. Lots of possibilities. So we help with finding people actors, crew, equipment -- and it's all for free. The whole idea is to help each other.

SmSh: What are your suggestions for people starting out? People who want to make movies or short films in Shanghai but they don't know what to do?

Juan: Go for it. You can call us. It's free. We can help getting actors, crew, equipment... we can also give advice. When people have ideas sometimes they don't know how to get going and we can help with that.

SmSh: Okay because I have some friends very interested in making zombie movies.

Juan: Mei wenti.

The Seventh Meiwenti Productions short film awards takes place this Saturday at the Xinguang Cinema. Tickets are 50rmb and you can get them by emailing juan@meiwentiproductions.com. It starts at 7:30pm. The afterparty is at 789 in Le Royal Meridien. For more info, check out the Meiwenti Productions website here.

Images with this article are from the various short film entries.
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