Today I am very pleased to bring my readers a Q&A I have recently conducted with filmmaker Adam Christian Clark, whose short Goodbye Shanghai is currently drawing great worldwide acclaim. Focusing on the negative effects of Western Imperialism on modern China, Goodbye Shanghai tells the story of two western bankers who attempt to steal 15 million from a Chinese Bank only to get caught up partying at a local Chinese club. Adam has been kind enough to participate in this Q&A where he recounts his career that has led him from Reality TV, to Quentin Tarantino's A Band Apart company to finally dealing with harsh censorship issues in China.
Was there something specific that jolted your interest in film as a young man or was it something that just progressively happened?
I’ve always loved films, for as long as I can remember. I love all art for its ability to shape your experience. But film has always had the biggest impact on me, it’s the place I go to escape, to relax, to fight, to be what I could never or would never do. That’s it for me. So when a teacher or parent would tell me growing up, to do what you love; or to not worry about money…to do what you love and it will come, that thing for me was always filmmaking. That being said, I understood early on that there’s a fine line with this being a hobby or a way to support yourself. So when I was 17, 18, 19 my main focus was to figure out how people actually made money doing this or anything related to it. I figured if I could find a way to make a living through filmmaking, I would never have to stop watching movies. So I’ve loved movies for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think I decided to make it a career choice until I was 17 or 18.
Were there any particular filmmakers early on who provided inspiration for you?
When I was very young, I remember Hitchcock, Capra, and John Huston having a big impact on me. I was obsessed with Vertigo, It’s a Wonderful Life, and Annie. As an adult I love a lot of filmmakers, some which have had the biggest impact on me are: Wong Kar-wai, Lynne Ramsay, Mary Harron, P.T. Anderson, and Richard Lester, just to name a very few. I think Paul Thomas Anderson is our best living filmmaker, but Wong Kar-wai is my favorite.
I know you worked as a director on the series Big Brother in the early part of this last decade. How did you initially get involved with that and what are your thoughts on it today?
I got involved with Big Brother originally as a way to earn money. It was the only thing I knew of at the time that had its season exclusively in the summer. So I was able to work on it during summer break while still in film school. At that time, most people, myself included didn’t really give reality TV much consideration. The general consensus was that it was just a trend and would not have much of an impact culturally. Little did I or anyone else know. Fan or not of reality TV, you have to respect it for the enormous impact its had over the world in which we now live. I really can’t think of anything greater to define the last decade than reality TV.
Can you discuss your feelings on Reality TV in general and how it has influenced modern films?
I think the biggest impact reality TV has had on modern films is an increased yield of greater voyeurism. I’m not just talking about the obvious cases like Cloverfield or Paranormal Activity, I feel you can see it almost everywhere: Avatar, UP, Slumdog Millionaire and now 127 Hours, The Duplas Brothers, Noah Baumbach (I mean look at Kicking and Screaming vs. Margot at the Wedding that’s 1995 vs. 2005, there’s an obvious difference there).
After Big Brother you worked with A Band Apart, Quentin Tarantino and Lawrence Bender’s Production Company. What were some of the projects you worked on there and what was that experience like?
A Band Apart was a wonderful place to work at that time in my life. I mean truly it was amazing. I remember John Landis had the office next to mine. As simple as that is, there was just something wonderful about that that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. In terms of what I worked on there, I probably worked on the most things and the least things all at once. I was the kid and then some, so basically anything and everything that no one else would pitch on they would give to me, and I loved it. I would pitch on anything, no matter how bad or obscure. I didn’t know any better, and it was wonderful. One fun thing I did was write and direct an hour long TV pilot called Henry VIII. It was kind of like the Wide World of Sports meets something like what you see now on VICE TV. At that time, there was nothing out there like it. And they really let me do whatever I wanted; they literally let me travel all over the world filming this thing. I was really proud of it, and wish it would have gone further. Unfortunately A Band Apart closed their doors while we were still in post, so the pilot was never fully completed or pitched. It was their property, so legally it ended with their restructuring.
I know you have worked with quite a few popular musicians on video projects and the film Fusion. What are some of the similarities and differences in working with a music based performer and actor?
Musicians are able to do something amazing with their talent, something I can’t do and will never fully understand. That being said, so can actors. One thing I’ve grown to learn is that there is no substitute for a great actor. A great actor makes your job really easy, and most musicians are not actors.
You directed a few shorts before Goodbye Shanghai, including The Editor: A Man I Despise. I often feel like the short format is a really undervalued one and I was wondering if you could discuss what draws you to it?
There’s no comparison to the joy I get from making a film. It’s the single thing I enjoy most in life. So for me, a short is great because it’s so much more accessible than a feature. You can spend your whole life building towards or trying to make that first feature, but there’s not that excuse with a short. You can much more easily make a short on an impulse or a whim. And then that’s what they are too for me as a viewer; they’re there for me when I need a quick fix. Short’s are like candy.
You ended up in Shanghai around 2006. How did that come about and can tell us a bit about the television series you wrote and directed?
China wasn’t really on my radar at all in 2006, and then I got a call to direct a sort of Chinese version of Top Model. I took the job and was a week later spending the next year in Shanghai. The show was without doubt the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Just in every aspect: it was the first real reality show in China, the cast and crew were entirely Chinese, it was grossly underfunded while having huge Fortune 500 sponsors to deal with. It almost killed me, but I would not have traded the experience for anything, it was up to that point the most exciting experience of my life. Shanghai has settled down a lot since, but at that time it felt like the center of the world. I always tell people, and still today the only way I know how to describe it is it say it was like living in a 1920’s Fitzgerald New York, and you were the factory owner, I felt like I was Jay-Z when I went out at night.
How did you handle some of the censorship issues that arose with China’s Communist Party?
Ultimately I was never really able to fully handle them; you could say I lost. It was an uphill battle from the start. You have to realize, this was the first reality show ever in China. They had stage game shows a la American Idol, but just the performances, reality as we know it had never been done. The process in China is that the censors approve all scripts before shooting, no exceptions. But reality shows don’t have scripts, so what do you do? This is something we were never really able to figure out, and they were never really able to understand. We literally had to write fake scripts and turn them before we shot. They gave us no other choice, but that may have ended up being our biggest mistake. Ultimately the show aired, but its broadcast was fragmented and delayed to say the least. Shortly after, the government issued a decree banning all future reality TV from primetime, which is still in effect.
You’ve worked twice with Pulitzer Prize winner Charlie LeDuff, can you tell us a bit about those projects?
Charlie was my favorite New York Times reporter; I was a fan and had been following his writing for years. I reached out to him one day and asked if he had ever considered writing a screenplay. We hit it off and ended up collaborating on several projects. Charlie then moved to Detroit, wrote another book, and is raising a daughter, so I was lucky to have met him when I did because I don’t know if he would have the time today.
Goodbye Shanghai has gotten tons of acclaim and has played at many festivals. Any highpoints regarding its release you want to share and how can folks track down a copy?
Every time it’s shown in a theater is a high point. Notably for me, it was amazing to see it at the Arclight in Hollywood because not only is it an amazing venue, but it’s my local theater, it’s the place I go to see movies, so that was very special for me. You can view it for free at its official website, and there are DVD’s on Amazon, the best way though is the 35mm print, so keep checking the website and I’ll post any future screenings. Or if you have a theater and would like to exhibit a 35mm print, please feel free to contact me and I’ll get it to you.
What are you currently working on and do you have any future project plans you would like to share with us?
I’m very excited to say I just finished shooting my first feature film. It’s currently entitled Don’t Leave Me, and should be done this coming summer. It’s a comedic drama about the simultaneous love and hate only sisters can have for each other. Caroline (Marguerite Moreau) goes to great lengths to stage an intervention for her younger sister Jackie (Bitsie Tulloch). You start off thinking you’re watching a clear-cut intervention story, but as the story progresses Jackie’s alleged problems start becoming the least of the family’s issues. It’s an honest look at the great torture and love a crazy family can hold you in.
That sounds terrific Adam and I hope you might come back and do a follow-up for us around the time of Don't Leave Me's release. Thanks again for taking the time to do this. I really appreciate it and wish you all the best on all your future projects!
It’s beyond my pleasure, thank you again so much Jeremy.