‘Touch’: An interview with filmmaker Aleksandra Szczepanowska
Aleksandra Szczepanowska is a talented filmmaker who wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film Touch. She has, thus far, been the only western woman to make an independent film in the People’s Republic of China.
Touch follows the life of a married western woman living in China named Fei Fei. When she meets Bai Yu, a blind masseur, they begin an intense love affair. Their relationship causes demons and creates violent impulses which are set to implode.
Those interested in watching this thriller / romance film can follow Touch social media accounts to learn about the digital film festivals it’s taking part in, and stay up-to-date with the film. You can find them on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
We had the lovely opportunity to interview Aleksandra Szczepanowska about her unique film, her career, and being a filmmaker in general. Here’s what she had to say.
Tell us about your journey into film. What did you do before becoming a filmmaker?
I was passionate about the environment (and still am) and worked in many capacities around the world in environmental policy and consulting, looking especially at how oil and gas had socio-economic and environmental effects. Eventually I turned to energy fully and worked for Shell Oil & Gas, specializing in the commercial development of liquefied natural gas (LNG) projects.
I had always acted in parallel to other activities since I was seven, and was torn between the two trajectories, missing one when doing the other. I still miss energy work very much. The scope and importance of it. I loved my colleagues, who are mostly scientists or engineers, or lawyers, and am still in touch with a lot of them.
Is there any film or TV show that inspired you to become a filmmaker?
I was most inspired by In the Mood for Love by Wong Kar-Wai. I saw it in the cinema and I think my mouth was open in sheer awe the whole time. I had never seen anything like it and was buzzing with inspiration afterwards. It wasn’t much later, after I let go of what was expected of me, that I was able to turn to making films.
What was the first project you worked on, and what did you learn from it?
My first writing and directing project was a short I shot in Paris, in French! I co-wrote and co-directed the film with my mentor, a French producer. I learned that I loved directing. I had never directed before, and I was addicted.
Do you have any experience with mentors? If so, do you recommend them for up and coming filmmakers?
Mentorship is where I got started and was the only way for me. I would not have done anything without it. I would highly recommend it. And it’s okay to grow out of your mentor and seek out the next one, for the next phase of your growth.
Do you listen to any music to help you create?
I am inspired by music to create and visualize before writing anything. But for the actual process of sitting down and writing, I need sheer silence.
I was known in high school for carrying around ear plugs and even using them in class, since I found the girls too boisterous and noisy. Didn’t make me very popular, but I have [a] strong sensitivity to sound and music. If it’s on, I can’t ignore it, and it has a strong effect on my emotions. I do create while listening to water sounds and wind sounds, as noise cancellation. If that doesn’t work, then I will resort to Bach.
Walk us through your creative process.
I keep a log of storylines, and of images and lines of dialogue that I hear. And when I need inspiration I visit them. If something strikes me hard, I will immediately make an outline or a treatment. When I am ready to write the next script I meditate on the opening image of the film and try to see the whole thing play out in my mind.
I then write a step outline as quickly as it comes. If I need to take a break I do. But the faster the better. I then massage it and edit it and get some feedback and start fleshing it out, before writing. The actual writing then becomes effortless and goes quickly.
For directing, I stick to key images throughout the process that inspired the work or are symbolic of the whole story, so I don’t lose the original feeling that led to its creation. It’s a long road and holding onto that original inspiration is delicate and important. With Touch, I remember thinking about fabric and the texture of sheets and skin and hair that a blind person might feel, and that I wanted to film, and how I wanted the camera to be a part of that.
I don’t storyboard, since I can’t stand my drawings, but I do carefully prepare a shot list and make little sketches on the margins. I collect films that have the same heartbeat as my film and watch them with the cinematographer. So by the time of filming, everything is so prepared and familiar, there is room to play, and once in a while, I will sneak in an extra shot or scene, if inspired. There is a balance of being prepared and being open to spontaneity.
Who are your current influences?
Wong Kar-Wai remains a constant source of influence and inspiration. Also, Paul Thomas Anderson, Pedro Almodovar, Michael Haneke, Kim Ki-duk and of course, Federico Fellini.
Name five films you think everyone needs to watch in their lifetime.
In the Mood for Love, The Housemaid, Ida, Amour, A Ghost Story.
What inspired you to create Touch?
I was inspired by many things colliding together at the right moment. But the first kernel of inspiration was an experience I had when I first encountered a blind masseur in China who was very curious about me and we had a sweet and bizarre exchange, that stayed with me over those past fifteen years.
What was your experience working on Touch?
From euphoria to sheer agonizing pain. Most of the time it felt like me against the world, or me against China, or me against commerce. I had to fight hard to get money here and there, and then fight to stay on as director of my own project, and then fight even harder to stick to the original story. It was one long uphill battle.
Though I am not unique here; I think most directors have this experience—especially if it’s a debut film or if they are trying to make something different—and even more so if they are a woman or minority. On top of all this, I was away from my family a lot in the U.S., which was a personal challenge. And then there was the unique struggle of working in China; legal changes regarding moviemaking were at one point regular monthly occurrences. No one knew what was going on most of the time.
How did you get into character as Fei Fei? Where did you draw inspiration from?
Inspiration was everywhere in China. I looked to certain Chinese women, how they behaved and dressed and imagined their inner life, as Fei Fei might have. Also, the circumstances of preparing the film, as a western woman among Chinese men, prepared my inner life in an organic way.
While working on Touch, you wore multiple hats throughout production. How did you juggle all your roles?
I was used to writing, directing, acting and producing in the same film, since I had done this already with four of my shorts. In an independent film they merge more seamlessly. In effect, you are the auteur of a film. Everything was the same as the shorts in this regard, and I know my pace of filming.
The biggest difference with Touch was the producing. Since there was more money on the table, there was more at stake. I did not have a producer supporting me, so there was no buffer between me and all the money guys. I would produce my own film again, but next time in a team consisting of at least one other person. I was flying solo. I won’t do that again.
Do you prefer being in front of or behind the camera?
I love both. Increasingly I prefer being behind the camera. But if an accomplished director approached me with a juicy role, I for sure wouldn’t resist.
Is there any part of the filmmaking process you prefer over the rest?
I love post-production. There is a major relief after shooting. I get to look at what has happened and make sense of it and shape it and refine it. Since I love writing, it is like re-writing the film. I live for this first day of post. It is my happiest day.
You’re a strong supporter of organizations supporting women in film. Why do you think it’s important for women to work together in the film industry?
Women are highly under-represented as filmmakers, especially as directors. There should be more of them. Directing is actually more suitable for traditional female characteristics, since it requires people and relationship management, multi-tasking, negotiating, improvisation and listening, or letting go of ego.
And as we know, different points of view make storytelling richer, as well as encouraging growth and empathy as a society. Since there tends to be a boys’ club, especially in the U.S. in TV, breaking through requires a group – requires an inside job. Organizations are great for this. We hear other female experiences and we make connections to band together to break through. It’s important for everyone as humans and as consumers, and it’s the fair and right thing to do.
How do you think the film industry can better support female filmmakers?
Equal pay. Higher standards of conduct and respect. Increased opportunity with measurable results – like the festivals who pledged 50/50 by 2020. Mentorship and shadowing opportunities. Grants and funding.
Do you consider yourself an indie filmmaker? If so, do you think you’ll ever stop being an indie filmmaker?
At the moment I’m independent of the Hollywood system, the studios, and for this reason I am indeed an indie filmmaker. But I am eager to explore different media. I would love to direct television, a big budget franchise film, and even commercials. Probably an art installation along the way. As long as the material is authentic, appealing to me, and stretching my abilities, I will do it.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
On the beach shining my golden-naked-man statuette.
If any director could direct the story of your life, who would you choose and why?
Asghar Farhadi. He is able to take complex problems and make them simple.
Who composes the soundtrack of your life?
What’s next on the docket for you?
Pre-COVID I was working on an indie film about addiction and excess in China, a sort of darker and more realistic reply to Crazy Rich Asians. Post-COVID, my entire existence has refocused on my family, as I am struck by how much I have missed being away from them, filming in China.
I crave nothing more than to be closer to home and making a different kind of story now. I am currently writing a feature about a man who suddenly, at age 70, decides to leave his wife of 40 years and their family and move back to his home country, seeking to be with his first unconsummated love from high school. It looks at love, promises, and aging, and speaks to the rejection of the American Dream and the disillusion that comes with traditional ideas of success.
What indie filmmakers do you think we should have on our radar?
I have too many filmmaker friends – answering this will get me in trouble.
Do you have any advice for up and coming filmmakers?
Create a family of filmmakers and collaborators who can take the ride with you. Work on your writing. In the end of the day, if everyone says no, then pick up a phone and shoot it anyway.