Jason Wishnow has told the story of Oedipus with vegetables and documented zombie yoga in Williamsburg. Now, fresh off a stint as TED’s director of film and video, the Lower East Side filmmaker is set to complete his most daunting production yet: a 10-minute short in which Chinese artist-activist Ai Weiwei will make his acting debut.
Arranging a meeting with the onetime political prisoner, who is under constant surveillance, proved surprisingly easy. “They emailed me directions to Ai Weiwei’s studio which included a map that said, ‘This way to Ai Weiwei’s studio,’ which is kind of like having a giant neon sign outside a super villain’s lair that says, ‘Secret lair,’” Wishnow told us.
A week ago, Wishnow launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $33,000, the amount needed to complete The Sand Storm, shot in China last year. Already, over $63,000 has been pledged from a total of 1,500-plus backers around the world. B+B spoke to the director.
The worst thing about it is to me the water shortage was an abstract construct in terms of creating a plausible environment where relationships could melt down. And as it turns out there are actually places where the water stops in China, which I didn’t really know abut going into this project.
About a month. All of a sudden, one day I get a message from Ai Weiwei’s studio saying. “He’s read the screenplay, he’d like to talk with you tomorrow morning. Can you come by?” So I took the high-speed train from Shanghai to Beijing, it’s a six-hour train. I got there, met with him in the morning and had a Skype conversation with [cinematographer] Christopher Doyle that afternoon about it. And just a couple days later [the three of us] got together in Beijing to talk for the first time, and have lunch, and go location scouting.
The holidays were coming. Like, when Chinese New Year happens, the country just goes on hold for about a month. And so we knew if we didn’t shoot it right away we’d have to wait. We scrambled to get the rest of the crew and the rest of the cast together. We were holding auditions and we were location scouting and we were trying to find sets and build sets, and fine-tuning the screenplay, discovering that metaphor works differently between languages.
Everyone looked at the script and was like, “This should take four days.” But we chose to do it in two, in January 2013. Also we were restricted by things that make it a really uncomfortable environment to shoot. In the winter, the sun’s only up for a few hours, it was below freezing, the smog was through the roof.
The script is entirely in Chinese and I was surround at the highest level of the production by people who were bilingual. We would prepare for a scene, I would say a few words, and then someone would repeat what I said in Chinese. We’d call action, and it would be a whirlwind all around me of cameras moving and acting, but at that point, I couldn’t understand what they were saying so all I could do was hope that we got it.
Like I said, we had to find the cast, we had to find the crew, we had to build sets, we had to do everything — and there was no time for fundraising. So I just bet the farm. I felt like, “This is my next move after TED and I’m willing to put all of me into it.” So creatively, financially, emotionally; and that’s what I did. With the Kickstarter campaign now, initially we’re saying it will cover finishing funds for the film; if we can surpass that then we can go back and pay back some of the costs of the film and some of the deferred costs. There were loans, so I guess we’re covering our IOUs.
I really believe in putting movies on the Internet; as you know, that is something I have been doing for years. Different stories can benefit from different viewing environments, and this footage looks so lush and gorgeous — I guess lush isn’t the right word for this smoggy, dystopian, sort of empty wasteland, but rich. And so for that, I can’t wait to show the movie on the big screen [at film festivals]. We’ll be ready to premiere it really soon, actually. I mean, we waited until the film was close enough to completion to roll out this Kickstarter campaign as well, so it’s a matter of weeks — not months or years — before the movie is ready.
Well, let me put it this way: if they were and we said so, they might take it down. So I’ll tell you the answer, but I did want to mention that. A friend of mine just logged in today and was like, “Dude, I had no idea you could go to Kickstarter from China!” so [it’s] still available. It’s totally one of those things — there are times when China will just block The New York Times for a while. That’s just a thing that they do, and, “Oh, it’s the week when The New York Times is blocked, so I’ll look for a different news source this week.”
Oh, Ai Weiwei really likes to cut hair. That’s, like, one of his hobbies. And if you look at his Instagram, part of it is like a trophy gallery of scalps he’s done. Chris and I both have, like, crazy hair. So the whole time we were shooting, Ai kept saying, “I really want to cut your hair.” I’d say, “Well, I’ll only do it if Chris does it,” and Chris would say, “I’ll only do it if Jason does it.” That also meant we were both committing to it. So right before the last shot of the film, Ai Weiwei sat us down and he shaved both of our heads simultaneously, jumping from one to another — sometimes with his eyes closed, and it shows.
He’s brilliant and he’s wise and he’s also at times like a big kid. He’s a prankster. He’s a trickster, like in the mythic sense of being a trickster. You see in his art there’s oft — mixed in with tremendous gravity, there’s also a degree of levity.
There are all of these weird, funny moments that sort of happen with him when he’s on set. There’s moments of playfulness and seriousness, crystallized in the way he portrays this deliveryman or water smuggler character in the movie. There are these little moments that are distinctly Weiwei-esque, and that’s partly why it’s such a pleasure to watch him on film.