After a career spent directing theater, Christina Yao decided to try making a movie - and for her maiden effort, she chose a sweeping tale of late 19th-century China, complete with period costumes, horses, camels - and numerous rugged locations.
What was she thinking?
"I call it beginner's ignorance," says Yao over an Italian dinner before a recent screening of her film, Empire of Silver, which opens in New York Friday (6/3/11). "I knew it would be difficult - but not how difficult. I probably should have had two other movies under my belt before I did this one."
A native of Taiwan who attended graduate school at Stanford University, Yao had worked for years in the San Francisco Bay Area as a director, where she was associated with American Conservatory Theater.
"I just thought it was time to try something new," she says. "I felt I'd started repeating myself in theater. I'd hit a plateau. It was time for me to stop and move on."
Yao began writing screenplays but had trouble finding funding for her films. One of her potential investors in Taiwan, however, had a project he was interested in making and offered her the chance to get involved. It was a historical story about merchant bankers of the Qing Dynasty, who brought Confucian principles to their banking practices. Yao and cowriter Cheng Yi created composite characters but used real historical incidents to fashion a story Yao describes as The Godfather meets Hamlet.
"I thought that this is a new story about China, about a subculture nobody knew about - and that convinced me to do it," she says. "It was a project with a lot of heart that would allow me to do something meaningful about China. And I knew he was going to make it one way or another. I figured if I didn't make it, someone else would."
Still, working from a book on the subculture, Yao found it challenging to create a through-line that would sustain a film and compel an audience: "Then I realized that, in major historical books and films, one recurrent them was succession," she says. "It's the plot crisis point in any power structure. And I was able to use the business morals of these people as the context."
She found a line producer who was a veteran of the Chinese army and was able to shoot the film for $10 million - despite extensive CG demands. These included everything from creating an attack by hungry wolves to erasing boulders placed along the edge of a steep mountain road.
Yao and her crew also had to cover the road - which was paved with asphalt - with tons of earth to make it realistic for the late 19th century. The road was so steep that the camera cranes had to be disassembled and carried to the location by hand.
"We shot in 13 cities in four provinces," she says. "The odometer on my trailer ended up being five times the distance from the east coast to the western border. Whoever rented that trailer to us must have ended up regretting it."
Yao discovered theater in graduate school, where she'd gone to study Asian literature. She took an acting class - and was told by a teacher that she was a natural. So she began acting, and quickly discovered that it wasn't for her.
"I don't enjoy being on stage," she says with a shrug. "I love creating roles, but I don't relax well on stage. I can't take energy from an audience and relax. I discovered that about two productions in. But I did enjoy directing. My strength is literary analysis and how you find the depth of a play. My ability to interpret the piece, to bring out more of a play, helped me get jobs. And my training as an actor helped me work with actors."
Yao already is putting together her next film and has no intention of going back to theater.
"Film is like learning a new language," she says. "If I go back to theater, I might forget the vocabulary of film. I consider myself a beginning student, so I'm not ready to go back and forth. I want to do a smaller film, a farcical comedy. I'm going to stay away from big productions for a while."
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