Friday, June 29, 2007

And We're Off...

Again. Another trans-Atlantic plane ride, 5 movies (the best being Children of Men, the worst Norbit), 2 vegetarian meals (since when does veggie plane food equal no protein?) and we are in another country. This time it is Israel, though, more of a second home than a foreign country. After 3 weeks in China it's nice to come back to familiar surroundings. The air seems cleaner, the sky blue and clear and the country is absolutely packed with tourists. It's gratifying to see the flocks of young student groups, family trips and random Scandinavian tourists exploring Jerusalem. It means I need to wait a little longer to a get a snack from my favorite falafel shack on Ben Yehuda street but that's fine with me. (I'm sure in a week I'll be so annoyed with the crowds and wax nostalgic for the days of the Intifada - JUST KIDDING! - but until then I'll bask in the Zionist glow.) The first thing we did after arriving was get dinner at Link Restaurant, a hidden courtyard dive with a tree growing out the indoor dining room. And today we did a quick shopping spree at the Machane Yehuda outdoor food market (above). Friday is the best and craziest day to go because the market is madness - everyone is there buying food for Shabbat. But it's that manic energy that gives the place its character. We bought almonds, apricots, olives, stuffed grape leaves, tabouli and English newspapers. That should get us through the weekend.
PS - More China posts still on the way, there's plenty to share.

Monday, June 25, 2007

It's All About the "Gan Bei's"

The Restaurant Shoot, a climactic scene. Our biggest cast on set thus far. We have extras. As in people. To manage. But first, before we can dress the set, we have to actually clean the set. By the good grace of kind friends we were able to use our friend's closed Spanish restaurant, Saffron. When we visited Beijing in November we had a supremely delicious and pleasant meal there, full of flavor and good feeling. But alas it was short lived; the restaurant closed four months ago. (Not to worry - our friends are moving on, developing other restaurant projects, and I know they will be great additions to the Beijing dining scene.) In the meantime, we had a dusty, musty, slightly mildewy space to recover. After a marathon shopping spring at Carrefour (like Wal-Mart) we arrived with supplies in hand: garbage bags, shot glasses, rags, gloves, brooms, cheap cheap Chinese wine (we're talking $1.50 a bottle; it's tough being an extra on an indie film), and candles. Instant ambiance! The place cleaned up nicely, there are still some striking architectural elements to the space like the iron staircase and rustic furniture.

Thanks to our clever casting director we found a guy to play the bartender a half hour before we started shooting. Our actors began filing in at 7pm and by 9ish the lights and all the props had been set. Now it was all about coordinating 15 people to mingle, chat and pretend they're having a good time. This was made infinitely easier because it seemed the actors were genuinely having a good time.

Until they sat down and started drinking The Great Wall wine. The first few "Gan Bei's" (Chinese for "cheers") were enthusiastic but by Gan Bei #24 the expressions were dragging. Luckily we are a team that knows when we have taxed our minimally-paid cast too much and after coaxing out the solo performances we called it a night at about 1am. But not before asking everyone to smash their glasses in an attempt to portray catharsis. Still not sure if that worked. We'll have to see how it cuts together. Breaking things on a movie set is fun; now I see why big-budget movies are always blowing things up. It's the only context where spectacle is tolerated.

Back from Adventureland

We have returned from our travels to the Orient. And we have safely transported all 40 tapes back home. We were a bit nervous at the airport and could not relax until we landed in Tokyo for what would be the first of 3 layovers until we got home. You'd think traveling for 36 straight hours would exhaust a spritely young woman, and you know what, you'd be right. I am nakkered. And I am loving this jet lag thing. I have decided not to fight but to just give in. Hell, I'll adjust some day. For now, naps at 3 in the afternoon are fine by me. I prefer China time, it's like I'm living in the future, man.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Is China is the Next Leipzig?

This article nicely sums up the current developments in China's contemporary art scene. A new Pompidou Center in Shanghai, and Saatchi investing in a Mandarin arts web site are some highlights.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Gallery Shoot

The Gao Brothers generously allowed us to use their studio space to film a few scenes. Their art is controversial - note the oversize plastic sculptures of Mao with breasts - and they've had various run-ins with the government resulting in restrictions placed on them for travel abroad and regarding their studio.

The deal they have worked out is that technically their studio is closed to the public but they are allowed to maintain the space and continue working. So going into this situation we knew there would be complications. We were supposed to try to get the scenes done quickly so as not to raise the attention of the authorities because, as the gallery people explained, anything the Gao Brothers do raises suspicions. Now, if you have ever had the pleasure of being on a movie set you know things take a really. Long. Time. So 4 hours into shooting (2 hours more than the gallery would have liked) and one take into a complicated scene the door to the studio burst open, three Chinese bureaucrats dressed in white shirtsleeves muscled in and proceeded to have a shouting match with the artists that went on for 25 minutes too long for comfort. Then one Gao Brother emerged and urged us to film this argument which one of our Chinese actresses, holding a camera, proceeded to do. We immediately started ejecting tapes from the cameras and depositing them in various actors pockets. This is it, guys, take the tapes and run! The commies are after us! we almost cried. But the thing is, the scene was not done and while the shouting match continued we continued to film the scene. Just keep going, we'll shoot till they kick us out. So we continued with the scene below which involves a conversation with three Chinese girls, involving wine and an adult magazine. Clearly a film production of which the Chinese censors would approve. Eventually the authorities left, and we finished the scene. According to the artists, this kind of fight is a daily occurrence there.

Here the actresses pretty themselves up. Thier wardrobe was provided courtesy of Miami-based designer Krelwear and, frankly, they look smokin' hot.

And here is the cast enjoying a much-deserved "lunch" at 4 pm. It's not a complete day of filming in China unless you think you'll get arrested at least once.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Beijing Bicycle

Bicycles figure prominently in our story. The streets of Beijing are a treasure trove for vintage bike lovers. I came across this classic walking through a hutong. The wheels, the plastic bag, and the color could each tell their own story.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Kitchen Scenes

I think deep down I secretly wanted to film a cooking movie. Something along the lines of Eat Drink Man Woman. Sumptuous shots of produce, chopping, sauteeing, julienning, a veritable orgy of comestables. Neither the script or the production schedule would allow for indulgent cooking sequences. But I managed to convince our team that since Thomas's character is a restaurateur, it would be natural for him to be furiously making omelets the morning he fights with his girlfriend. So off I went to the market with the adorable Chinese parents of the friend whose magnificent apartment (and kitchen, above) we were using as the set for that day's filming. We spoke no common language, except that I know Chinese numbers so I could figure out the cost of things (I hold the purse strings of this operation). We communicated with lots of smiles, hand motions and a few confusing moments. We returned with a bounty of shiny eggplants, cilantro, tomatoes, prickly cucumbers, yellow peppers and asparagus. Unfortunately, Thomas, talented guy that he is, can not cook to save his life and watching him chop a tomato was quite sloppy and maybe even a little violent. Luckily, Li, a chef, was on hand to be a body double (really a hands double) and did some rhythmic, camera-worthy chopping.

Beijing Traffic Fun

Film making allows you to step outside your comfort zone and do things you would never normally do, save for the sake of the film. And indeed everyone we are working with is being tested above and beyond the usual limits of sanity and perseverance for the good of the movie. We decided it would make a great frustration scene if one of our actors walked around a busy Beijing street trying to futaly hail a cab. We chose an intersection near the Third Ring Road for this moment. Not only did it require our actor to walk into the middle of a 6-way intersection involving bicycles, mopeds, tricycle carts, and motorized rickshaws (and various other modes of transportation one finds on a typical Beijing street), it also required 2 people to film the whole thing.

The irony is that is was not as dangerous as you would think. Traffic in Beijing is thick with people and vehicles but it also really cautious. Cars are slower, more reactive to pedestrians have less tendency to rage and make rash moves.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Construction Junction

Construction is a theme of our film. Beijing is undergoing a massive building boom, not only in honor of the Olympics, but because the city has an insatiable urge for more space. There are cranes everywhere you look, construction crews working through the night, tractors beeping their horns behind you every other minute. On our second day of filming we decided to improvise a scene by running the dialogue through the streets of a Hutong. Peeking behind a fence we found what appeared to be a tent city on a construction site near a very developed part of town.

"Foreign Devils" Day 2

We're calling the film "Foreign Devils," a rough translation of the Chinese word "laowei," a term used to describe Westerners. The plot interweaves the storylines of both Western and Chinese characters. It's an interesting challenge balancing the narratives of a diverse group of people. Our movie also takes place on a 24-hour timeline which makes some things easier - wardrobe stays the same for everyone, continuity issues are minimized - and other things really difficult like matching the right outdoor light to the time of the day in the movie. We are all over the place on this one, mostly because scenes can be unpredictable and light is constantly changing. Plus, Beijing pollution makes every day a gamble; some days it's sunny, other days the smog and haze make the city look like a gloomy metropolis.
The more I get to know this city through the filming, the more I come to appreciate the multitude of possibilities here. Because the city is densely populated and filled with history, you never know what you'll find. The photo above was taken on our second day of filming with our two leads. We happened upon this garbage heap with two wicker chairs perched atop, presumably, their final resting place. Our actors are a hearty bunch, game for anything, and braved the mess for some impromptu pics. Next, we filmed the two of them riding on a single bicycle around Houhai Lake. This was accomplished by riding behind them with a camera clamped to a second bicycle. Guerrilla film making at its best.

Art Movie Fun

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

In Medias Res

We are now day 8 into filming. Ideally I would have updated this blog regularly, giving you all the saucy details of the daily trials of movie-makin. But at the end of each day I am tired and filthy; all I want is a shower and a giant Tsing-Tao beer (the convenience store in our building only sells beer in the 40 oz size which suits me just fine). The other day someone suggested that making a low-budget film would make a great exercise for sixth graders (anything older would be giving film making too much credit) - it's all about problem-solving, team management, budget management and leadership skills. And ultimately, it's tedious, time-consuming work. But some days it's enormously rewarding like when we film the actors on bikes riding around Beijing and commandeer a Kabob stand and get the local skewer lady to act in the movie. On those days you laugh so hard you almost drop the camera and come home having gotten to know the city a bit better through this new lens.
Here is a still from our first day. Our male lead, Thomas Lim (right) is a famous Chinese actor from Singapore. The dude on the left was a hired gun, a character-actor, he came in for a few hours and gave an impressive performance as Thomas's petulant father figure.

Lunch for the crew at a no-frills Muslim restaurant. Our bill for 5 people including beers came to $9.

I think this was Mongolian beef with onions and cilantro. A friends explained that Muslim food is like the Chinese food of China, it's really common and semi-exotic. To me, it tastes really similar to the stuff we eat in regular Chinese restaurants but I am more comfortable eating there because I know there's no possibility of pork juice being in the food.
Then we headed to the Great Wall to film a pensive scene with Thomas.

That day we also had the help of Emmy-award winning camera-man Rick Tullis, a guy whose athleticism outdid all of us. We were huffing and puffing up the massive stairs as Rick dangled from the walls getting breath-taking shots.

Climbing this strestch of the Great Wall is like being on a stairmaster on steroids. Good luck, Olympics tourists.

After we finished and climbed back down we came across this wishing tree; people tie red ribbons to the branches along with hopes and wishes.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Movie Making Madness

So we're making a movie. The first thing to remember when embarking on independant film making is that everything takes longer than you think and its the least glamorous activity ever invented. We started out last week meeting with our actors (both Chinese and Westerners), rehearsing the scenes, rewriting lines, and working on improv with the actors. We walked around the Hutongs extensively. The Hutongs are a series of alleyways and low-roof structures that are charming, old and a vanishing phenomenon in Beijing. Part of the neighborhoods are gentrifying and attracting bohemian types and other buildings are being demolished.

There's always lots of old people hanging out in the hutongs and there's even public exercise equipment available for them to work out, sort of like a playground for grown-ups.

We also made our way to the 798 Dashanzi Arts District, a massive complex of industrial buildings that have been converted into galleries and artists studios. Now the area is also home to upscale restaurants and showrooms.

The Gao Brothers Gallery, whose studio we used as a location thanks to the connections of one of our Chinese actresses. Without the resourcefulness and relationships of our cast and crew we'd be nowhere with this movie.

Despite the commercialization of the neighborhood, the the Soviet-era architecture is still visually compelling.

Friday, June 08, 2007

People Who Love Design

Top Chef 3 Miami Gossip

Top Chef 3 Miami premieres Wednesday, June 13 at 10:00 p.m. Looks like there's plenty of chopping, shouting and food eatin' galore. According to this Herald article it appears that Food Gang chef Howard Kleinberg is no longer the chef there because of his participation in the show, (they weren't so keen on his taking a month off to compete). Hmmm. Does that mean he won? Hmmm...
Watch the trailer here. And another clip from the show here.

Tartine Bakery, San Francisco

Tartine Bakery opens at 9am on Sunday morning. When we got there at 8:53 there were already 15 people waiting in line all dressed for a blustery San Fran summer morning. And as the morning progressed the line extended down the block, even when the bakery opened for business. It's rare that I have the patience to wait in line for food, I mean how good can those morning buns be? But oh, they were good. And the almond croissants were flaky contortions of buttery dough, crunchy chopped almonds and more butter. The pain au chocolat is made with Scharfenberger chocolate, possibly the best idea to come to fruition in the baker world. Everything looked good including the quiches, bread pudding and banana cream pie. San Francisco is a foodie town, and from the looks of the dot-com gourmands packing the bakery, there's plenty worth waiting on line for.

Monday, June 04, 2007

And We're Rollin..

We've arrived. After a quick jaunt to San Francisco, some incredible almond croissants at Tartine Bakery (photos forthcoming), 11 hours to Tokyo, and another 3 to Beijing. I want to take this time to praise All Nippon Air, the Japanese airlines with the mostest. I think I was won over by the unlimited sake available. Now time to study the Wallpaper guide to Beijing.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

Chispa Mini Review

Chispa is one of those places I always hear about but have never tried. Until last week. We stopped in for a mini-meal of sorts, preferring to a try a bunch of little things rather than big entrees. The Coral Gables spot is a cavernous space with a magnificent rectangle bar by the entrance. The mosaic tiled floors are a nice touch, too. On the whole, I was satisfied with the Neuvo Latin cuisine, the food was flavorful and fresh and service was great. My only issue was that it seemed like a lot of things are deep fried that are not stipulated as such on the menu. Or maybe we just managed to order a fry-happy selection. Like the roasted sweet peppers and goat cheese listed on the appetizer amongst things like anchovies and marinated shrimp. The lightly bread fritters (above) in red pepper sauce, though tasty, were unexpected.

The mahi ceviche, however, with cocnut shavings, lime, soy and ginger was exactly what we were looking for - tangy and refreshing with perfect hunks of fish. The salt cod bacalitos, were a little too bland for my liking, they lacked that salty fishy kick that would have made the sour orange aioli worth dipping into.

And a flatbread of spinach, carmelized onions and goat cheese would have made a decent pre-dinner snack.

A side of yucca fries were hefty and generously doused with lime and sea salt giving them character.

Service was great, and there were plenty of large parties enjoying themselves. Chispas seems like the perfect place to take out of town guests who are curious about Latin food but want a sophisticated setting. It works. We plan to return to try some of the larger plates, maybe on one of the nights when they have live music.

Beijing Ho!

I'm off to China the next two weeks so there may be radio silence here on the blog. Last time I was there I had trouble accessing blogger and reading my blog. But I'll do my best because I expect to have plenty of adventures to update you about. I'll be working on a film project and so far this has already provided me with great amounts of material. Think surreal YoutTube audition clips of Chinese actors talking about their stage experience in productions like Fiddler on the Roof and Bob Fosse musicals. Seriously. I have a few posts that I've been sitting on out of sheer laziness so I'll get those up. In the meantime, wish me luck.