Interview: A chat with Chinese film producer Xinyu “Ciao” Zhao
Take one look at her credentials and it’s clear Xinyu “Ciao” Zhao is not one to rest on her laurels. Ciao is a LA-based Chinese producer with experience in narrative shorts, documentaries and commercials.
Her documentary works have earned over 1 million views on Chinese video platforms, and her narrative shorts have been selected at festivals including Austin Micro Film Festival, Austin Comedy Film Festival, Indie Short Fest and Canada Shorts. Most of her works feature the AAPI experience and she’s collaborated with majority female and non-binary filmmakers.
We were lucky enough to snatch a few moments with the producer to gain some insight into what’s in store for us and what she sees in store for herself.
Tell us about your history as a filmmaker. How did you get started?
Having been a cinephile for as long as I can remember, I’ve always known that I wanted to find a job that’s film or TV related, but I never thought of myself as a screenwriter, director or cinematographer.
I wasn’t really sure where I belonged and how I could fit into the industry, until a mentor of mine connected me to a video production company in Shanghai that makes short documentaries about consumer culture and millennial lifestyle in early 2019. With years of experience in event planning and a fairly good understanding of what’s going on in our society, I interned there as a producer’s assistant.
We were in the midst of interviewing a K-pop idol trainee and a Chinese teacher in Nepal, while exploring other new ideas. Although I can’t imagine myself sitting in front of Premiere Pro or coming up with creative shots, I found myself fascinated by the process of pitching new ideas, offering editing notes, creating itineraries and even ordering catering.
Producing provides the perfect balance of creative and logistical work; it was also during that period that I realized I’m still drawn to narrative works. When I came back to LA, I started interning in development at multiple production companies, where I got to further develop my creative taste and learn what constitutes a good story.
I produced my first narrative short The Story of This Life with my then roommate and talented writer/director Alex Jiang, and I have been hopping between projects ever since.
Who were your biggest storytelling influences growing up?
My family works in publishing, so my creative voice is actually heavily influenced by books instead of movies, which might explain why I focus more on stories than the visuals.
During my teens, I was obsessed with sci-fi novella and detective novels. I really enjoy Flowers for Algernon, All You Zombies, and How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. I have a whole shelf of crime fiction from Kanae Minato, Agatha Christie and Soji Shimada.
My taste in books carried over to the field of films and TV, so naturally I became a huge fan of the likes of David Fincher and Ridley Scott. The one big moment for me was in 2014, when I was watching Interstellar in the theater for the first time. When Matthew McConaughey’s character starts knocking books off the shelf from the Tesseract, I remember myself smiling and crying at the same time.
I can still feel my heartbeat racing to this day when I think about that scene, and that’s the moment when I decided that I wanted to make movies as emotionally powerful as that.
At the time, I probably thought I loved sci-fi and crime fiction for the wild imagination and the thrills, but looking back on those early influences, I’m always drawn to stories that feel big and small at the same time.
Small in the sense that the character’s journey is deeply personal and intimate, but the emotions it carries are universal, powerful and transcendent. The stories I love are usually about how ordinary people respond when they get pushed into extreme situations, and it’s the perfect lens through which we can examine the best and worst of humanity.
Your short film, Call for Cassie, won Best Producer and Best Indie Short at the Indie Short Fest. Were you surprised by the overwhelmingly positive feedback to the film?
Whenever I got involved in a new project, I always had faith in the script and wanted to do the story justice with the best execution I can provide as a producer. I can’t say I never imagined Call for Cassie to succeed; obviously no one sets out to make a bad movie. That said, I was really honored to have my work recognized by others.
Call for Cassie doesn’t seem like a complicated film from the outset: it’s rather contained and character-driven. However, it’s surprisingly challenging from a producing standpoint. Because the story features an intimacy scene at a spa shop, it’s the opposite of professionalism and we had a hard time finding a spa that’d be willing to rent us the space.
I had to pivot to looking at other business places that we can use to redress, and we ended up faking the entire location with a hair salon and a private residence. It was also my first time filming an intimacy scene, so I spent a lot of time learning about the guidelines and working with our intimacy coordinator.
It’s a highly emotional and vulnerable climatic scene, and I wanted to ensure that the actors feel comfortable during the process. I was really glad with how the film turned out, and it was amazing that our story got to resonate with the general audience.
Both Call for Cassie and The Story of This Life revolve around Chinese characters. How important is it to you to promote diversity in the stories you tell?
An emphasis on diversity and inclusion came naturally with my own background. I spent the first 18 years of my life in a different country and a different culture, so obviously Chinese or AAPI stories are the dearest to me.
My yearning to tell these stories came from a purely personal place, and I didn’t really know how important it is for the filmmakers until after. Last fall, I helped out on other productions where I witnessed the “norm” of the industry, and only then did I realize all the projects I helmed have always had a much higher percentage of AAPI and female crew members.
I definitely became more aware of my own role as a minority filmmaker since then. Going forward, my priority is still to look for stories that genuinely excite me. I don’t doubt that a lot of female-centric and AAPI stories will be able to achieve that, and it would be awesome if I can help elevate the minority voices with what I do.
Can you tell us about your latest film, A Conflict, and how it differs from the work you’ve done before?
A Conflict is the second film I’ve produced for my long-time friend and writer/director Alex Jiang. When two Asian American theater actors join a Chinese adaptation of Macbeth, they have to put up with the White director’s excessive oriental obsession. It’s the first time both of us worked on a comedy as well as a single-location film, so writing became the key to encapsulating the satire while keeping the heightened drama.
We spent a lot of time crafting witty exchanges and tweaking small actions in order to make the film feel rich in texture within such a contained space. It’s a great learning opportunity for myself and a rewarding journey.
Luckily, Alex and I hired most of the cast and crew from projects we’ve worked on before, so we were already familiar with each other’s work style. The communication process was incredibly smooth, and it’s just a great filming experience overall.
You had an interesting academic background before working in films. Do you feel like your studies in these other disciplines help inform your storytelling process?
I double majored in Communication and Jewish Studies in college, even though I knew fairly early on that entertainment is what I want to do. I’ll say every minute in these fields count! I took a lot of psychology and mass media lectures through the Communication program, so it’s a deep dive into the wants and needs of our generation.
Meanwhile, my Jewish Studies program is a blend of history, philosophy and religion classes, so I was really learning about the human condition and the good and the evil. A huge part of storytelling is informed by what we’ve encountered and what we’ve learnt out of those situations.
When we’re young and fresh out of school, knowledge of books and history become the substitute for the real-life experiences that we haven’t got a chance to have. I was really glad that I got to learn about social science and humanities during those years, all of which are critical to the growth of my creative voice right now.
What is the main thing you want audiences to take away from your work?
I want the audience to feel the heart of the stories. Regardless of the length or the subject matter of my works, the one thing I focus on the most as a creative producer is the character arc.
As a movie-goer, I’m really signing up for the character journeys and I want to be able to root for them, whether the tone is hopeful, empowering, bleak or moving. So when I get on the other side as a filmmaker, this is also the experience I would like to bring to the audience.
You’ve worked in a number of different mediums, including commercials, shorts and documentaries. Does your approach to producing change depending on the type of medium you’re working in?
Of course! Producing different types of medium requires different perspectives as well as skill sets. Commercials are always in service to a specific brand or a campaign, which means we need to put in a lot of effort in communicating with the clients.
I’ve developed an acute understanding of some seemingly intangible feedback from the clients and learnt how to balance the director’s creative vision with the need to promote a specific product.
Meanwhile, because we’re usually working within a certain budget and need to ensure the profits of ourselves as the production studio, another emphasis is to achieve great results in the most economically efficient ways. A huge chunk of my energy goes into negotiating with local vendors and building a network to get the best deals.
Meanwhile, documentaries are special in the sense that there’s so much spontaneity and uncertainty embedded in the filming process. While I still need to plan ahead for things like itineraries, catering and lodging, the biggest challenges usually come from the unexpected circumstances, so I’m always ready to go in and improvise.
The directors often call me their emotional safety net on set. Most of the times, we’re following the interviewee into their personal life and private space, so it’s also important to be considerate and make sure the interviewee is comfortable with our presence.
As for narratives, the goal is always to make sure everything goes as planned and to tell a good story without the pressure of having to report to anyone. Despite all these differences, basic skills like communication, organization and attention to detail are always transferable, and I believe it’s helpful to carry the mindsets from one medium to another.
Do you intend to produce a feature-length narrative at some point?
That’s always the goal. I’m currently developing a couple of feature scripts with my collaborators which have received recognition at screenplay competitions including Big Apple and WeScreenplay’s Diverse Voices Screenwriting Lab.
Hopefully we’ll be able to bring these stories to the audience one day. Meanwhile, I’m also working full-time at a production company, which gave me a lot of opportunities to work on feature projects on a larger scale.
What has been your greatest professional success?
On a personal level, it would be the moment of seeing a crew and cast of 60+ people on set during our third day of filming for Dancing in a Forbidden World. It’s a period piece set in an Asian American nightclub in 1940s San Francisco, so we redressed an old warehouse in Downtown LA and everyone was walking around in vintage dresses and suits.
Based on the scale, it’s not hard to imagine that the budget for this short is over the roof. My co-producers and I spent months financing this film through fundraising, sponsorships and independent financiers, so it truly felt like a movie magic moment when the story came to life in that old warehouse.
We’re currently in post-production with the film, and I cannot wait to share it with the rest of the world in a few months. In terms of results, I have a lot of exciting updates about my past projects. The details are currently still under wraps, but hopefully I’ll be able to share the news with the public soon!
Can you tell us about any other upcoming projects?
I’m currently in post-production for three different projects, so I’m not looking to get on set any time soon and instead focusing more on developing some good stories. One of the scripts I’m developing with my friend is a character-driven drama about a small town teenager who’s navigating their sexuality and gender identity under the restraints of a hyper-masculine climate.
The character is inspired by a news article about teenage boys who work at bra manufacturers in China, and the gender dynamics that come with the job has always fascinated me. It’s definitely one of the more nuanced and wilder scripts that I’ve developed, so my writer/director and I would love to take our time with it to make sure we capture the tone of it.
What about a professional setback? What did you learn?
The one thing I’m still learning is how to offer the best creative notes for directors. For most of my past projects, I’ve worked with writer-directors. Having spent my past four years working in development, I’ve had a fairly solid understanding of the story elements and I’m confident in the script notes that I gave.
However, because I didn’t come from a production background, I’d usually take a back seat during the director’s conversation with other department heads and let them work their magic. The upside of working with writer-directors is that they have a consistent, overarching creative vision for their own story, but sometimes the highlight moments in a script would get lost in execution due to lack of experience.
Just recently, I rewatched one of my earlier projects and finally realized that some insert shots and b-rolls described in the script were missing from the final product, which really influenced the character portrayal. The amazing texture and the mood of that specific scene on paper couldn’t fully translate onscreen.
When a writer-director has lived with their story for so long, they might not necessarily notice those subtle differences, and it’s up to us as producers to offer the extra pair of eyes and remind them what’s so great about the story to begin with.
What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?
To me, the most important thing for any up-and-coming filmmaker– regardless of the track you’d like to go on– is to develop your own creative voice. What is your story about? Why do you want to tell that story? In those questions lie the universality of human emotions, and you’d have to understand what draws you as a storyteller before you can learn how to connect with your audience.
Beyond that, be humble and consume as much as you can. Read books, experience life, and watch others’ works. I believe that inspiration for good stories can come from all facets of life, and while storytelling might be an inborn talent for some, it is a skill that you can acquire by active learning.
Lastly, what is your favorite film of all time and why?
This is a tough one. I have a favorite film in each genre: Some Like It Hot for Comedy, When Harry Met Sally for Romance, Die Hard for Action and Memories of Murder for Crime Thrillers… If I have to pick, Arrival will probably be the answer since this is exactly the type of films that I’d like to create as a producer.
As I mentioned above, I’m a huge fan of sci-fi novellas, so this story is right up my alley with such a smart first-contact premise and wild twist. Yet deep down, it has a thought-provoking, emotional arc about a mother coming to terms with loss, existence and memories under the restraints of time.
To me, the film walks the perfect balance between spectacle and heart, and it leaves the audience with as many deep thoughts as emotions. Until this day, I’m scouting a lot of newly released sci-fi novellas with the hope of finding some materials that can impact me on the same level.