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Touching Moon: An Interview with Sophia Liu

1.    Please tell us a little about yourself. How did you become interested in cinema? How did you learn filmmaking?

I’m a filmmaker, screenwriter, and producer. From very early age I got very interested in literature and art in general, thanks to my family influence. My parents were “yuppies” at that time and our home was full of books, CDs, videotapes, and film posters etc. As a child, I used to sleep with a movie star album with amazing black and white star portraits. Later I knew they were Greta Garbo, Ingrid Bergman, Marlene Dietrich… While growing up, I became a movie fan. I watched many classic films as a teenager. I remember I even used to watch 3 films a day without sleeping much and got very bad result in math at school. Once my history/literature teacher asked me to direct a play for the school event, the play I wrote and directed got the best award with big success. From that time, I believed that I should be a writer/director. After high school, I got admitted by the prestigious China Central Academy of Drama in Beijing. But I decided to study in Paris instead.

At New Sorbonne University, my major was theatre studies, and I got courses in cinema. Paris artistic atmosphere nurtured and inspired me so much, that I wrote and co-directed my first short film with my schoolmate Benjamin Blot in 2012. Again, it was a successful experience, from which I learnt filmmaking through real practices. This made me realize that I shall pursue the directing career because every time when I was behind the camera/monitor and directing actors, I would forget everything in the world including myself and feel truly alive. Since then, I never stopped creating.


2.    Please tell us how the idea of ​​this work struck you and what steps did you take to reach the final result?

The past 3-year pandemic has heavily impacted everyone’s life in the world. Many people suffered both physically and psychologiquely. The character of Mengyan (played by Guo ZiXing) came to my mind naturally. As a woman filmmaker myself, I also put a lot of my thoughts and dreams, my personal experiences and intimate feelings into this character. As my creative habit, firstly they were only fragments, then I decided to put them together as a screenplay, and breakdown the scenes and finally shot it with a small crew in Shanghai during a few days. But I was not very pleased with the first editing results, so I went to Paris and got tremendous help from many French professionals, including the sound engineer Mr. Vincent Arnardi (César best sound & Oscar nomination). I’m very grateful for all the help that I received from the pre-production in Shanghai to the post-production in Paris. Without those support, the film would not be there. 


3.    Please tell us how you found Zixing Guo and the rest of your actors and how long did it take you to reach the desired result with them?

Guo Zixing is a very talented performer with a lot of potentials. She has danced/performed for the famous immersive theatre “Sleep No More” in Shanghai during two or three years. I met her in 2021 on a small show that she co-directed and performed with her partner Tang Chen, who also played her boyfriend in the film. I got immediately caught by her talent and we became friends after. For “Touching Moon”, she was perfect for the role. I was very happy that she accepted to play Mengyan. Of course, I adapted many details from the script to make her character closer to her. You can say it was a “tailor-made” role for her. After, she suggested me her friend Ning Xi, who worked with her together at “Sleep No more”. I found they have very good chemistry together and the result proves that my intuition was right. Chen Jialin is also my friend, he played the bartender in the film. I knew him since a while, and I appreciate his poetic temperament. Those casting choices saved me plenty of time and energy, so we were able to start shooting in just a few weeks.


4.    Tell us about your shooting strategies and process and also the ideas you had in the post-production stage in the field of editing.

My shooting strategy was very simple: “prepare well and shoot fast”. I think this was a good way in any productions, and it’s never enough. I always wished that we could have “prepared more and better” before the first shot. In the postproduction stage, I kept the film structure and worked a lot on the details with French filmmaker Boun Maguer, especially on the “small cuts”, and the voguing dance scene in the bar. We also got precious editing suggestions from French editor Julia Huteau-Mouglalis. I remember that I were once advised by another editor in Paris to cut most of the dialogues and change the entire film structure, but I didn’t accept. It might be a better short film from a cinematic perspective, but it won’t be the same film that I wanted to make. Also, I must mention that the talented Stefon Bergeron did a wonderful composing work for the film. His music complements the visuals in a beautiful and elegant way.


5.    As someone who has been the writer, producer, and director of a film, do you think monitoring all aspects of production gives you more freedom or does it limit you?

I think it depends on situations. Every project is different and has its own specific needs to be produced. For example, big commercial projects and blockbuster film projects would need a big crew to function correctly. As an indie filmmaker with limited means, I have to find reasonable ways to produce and make compromises. From a creative perspective, being writer, director, and producer at the same time, could assure the general vision. And I think this is the most precious thing in indie-filmmaking. There are no conflicts between writer, director and producer, which provides huge creative freedom, but at the same time it could also limit the artistic quality in specific areas. Because you need to be everywhere at the same time, especially directing and producing as one person. Until now, my method was separating producing and directing as much as I can by staggering in time: preparing more and better in the pre-production stage to save most of the energy and focus on set for directing. And yes, I also hope that soon I could be able to totally focus on the creative side from beginning to the end.


6.    Many young filmmakers are afraid to work at night because of the lighting problems. Your film is full of scenes shot at night. Tell us about your experience of working at night.

I am a night lover. I love nights more than days. I often work at night. And of course, I love shooting/creating at night and I’m often in love with the night scenes in the movies. Lighting is crucial in all kinds of image creations, both photography and filmmaking. Yes, lighting could be a problem for night scenes. But I think we should not be afraid of it. My first short film “Ne te retourne pas” (2013) has a lot of night scenes in Paris, I remember we even didn’t use lightings, but rather “borrowing” lights sources from every possible way, like streetlights, boat lights, bridge lights, lights from cafés, lights’ reflections from windows, water and even rains... All those techniques came from our cinematographer Benjamin Blot who was also my co-director at that time. Now, I’ve learnt a lot of lighting techniques from commercial projects’ experiences during all these years. And I felt more confident to shoot night scenes of “Touching Moon”. Of course, good DOPs can direct the lighting and electric departments to make the magic happen. I have to say thanks to our DOPs: Stanislav Semeniuk, Yang XinYao, and Xie Qiang. I would tell young filmmakers not to be afraid of shooting night scenes, learnt to “borrow lights” when the conditions limit you, or even some very basic lighting technics could save your scene. But never think that by pushing the ISO of your camera to the highest could be a solution! That would be a big mistake. 


7.    Do you think film festivals help young filmmakers? What experiences have you had from attending these festivals? And please tell us about the audience's reaction to watching your work.

Yes, festivals are very important to young filmmakers. Many important filmmakers were discovered by film festivals. I think it was a good way to promote both the emerging filmmaker and his/her works. I had wonderful and unforgettable festival experiences, where I met film professionals, artists who inspire me, and even made good friends with them. In my memory I always got positive reactions from the audience, which touched me a lot, and made me feel that my work is significant, that people can understand each other through the story I made even though they speak different languages and think in different ways. For me, filmmaking is magic because its result reflects and connects humanity.


8.    How do you see the current situation of filmmaking in China? Do the government and institutions help young filmmakers?

I think now it’s a very good time for filmmaking in China. After the pandemic, audience rushes back to cinemas. Recently, I discovered very good Chinese films in cinemas in Shanghai. China has a huge film market, and its potential hasn’t been totally reached yet. I think we still have a lot to do, a long way to go and much space to discover and develop. Yes, I know there are many supports from our institutions, both public and private for young filmmakers, many were presented by film festivals, like FIRST Film Festival, Shanghai International Film Festival etc.


9.    What experiences did you gain while making Touching Moon that you think can be instructive for other young filmmakers?

I would say “Prepare as well as you can!” Many people and young filmmakers think that a film is made on set. Of course, all films are made on set. But it is partly true. For me, a film was born on paper and in the head of its creator. Once you get your scenario done, changing many times your script, and finally breaking it down into shot list or storyboard, the film has already been there! Now my most important suggestion comes: Do not kill it! You can change it as much as you want, ask suggestions and support as much as you need, but do not give up on your “original dot” and try every possible way to protect it and make it grow! I used to get this suggestion from Greek filmmaker and actress Sofia Georgovassili. It helped me a lot and I’m very grateful. You must believe it in the first place to make it happen later in your life. You must not kill it first. Otherwise, it will never be.  


10.Will you continue to make films in the world of short films? Or are you planning to embark on feature filmmaking?

Yes, I will continue to make short films. I love this format very much. I found it very interesting to test different styles and technics with small or relatively low budget. It offers much creative freedom. And yes, I’m also thinking to embark on feature filmmaking. I have to admit that I have “killed” many features in my head, now it’s my turn to suggest myself: “Do not kill it/them!”


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