MIFS: Where did the idea for the film come from?
In the late 90's I came across an historical account of the gold rush and one section of it dealt with the Chinese experience during that time. It fascinated me so from there I drew upon my love of Hong Kong films and Sergio Leone westerns to fashion a script with a female "Clint Eastwood"-style protagonist. As luck would have it I worked with Bai Ling on my feature, Petty Cash, and took the opportunity to pitch the idea to her. She loved it and this project was made to raise funds for that feature. But given that we all still felt that this story needed to function as a stand alone piece as well. Bai's idea was to not do a typical teaser with us faking shots from the feature script and that was something that I didn’t find appealing as well. This short piece, in her eyes, was to serve as an introduction to her character. But what story to tell? The Stranger helping a random person wouldn't mean anything. It had to be personal and grab the audience. Executive Producer Cyn Dulay suggested that we take a flashback from the feature script. That way it would tie the two together but could be enjoyed separately. I never intended to elaborate on that flashback so it’s nice to create a backstory for Bai. From there we hammered out story ideas and I put it all together and designed the script to get a taste of Bai's abilities and to wet the audience’s appetites for more. We wanted to try and create a fully developed character in the little amount of time that we had.
MIFS: How much did the project change from concept to final edit?
I write so that I can direct. That's the only reason. I'm not the best speller and I have horrendous grammar but I know story construction and your better films are good because of the way those directors told the story. It’s the same thing as telling a joke: The thing that makes a joke funny is how it’s told. That being said I tend to write more visually. Bai told me that she could really see the film as she read it. I plan the whole thing in my head first with every aspect planned out before I start typing. Every action has a reaction and I push that as it helps create conflict. So my scripts are lean and don't they really change much for that final edit.
MIFS: Were there any challenges during production?
Many. When we decided to do this project and I completed the script it seemed to be in a constant state of flux. Glen, Bai and I knew we would do something even if it all fell apart. We'd travel to LA and work on something for investor packets, or she'd fly into Milwaukee again and do a photoshoot of some kind. One thing was certain though. If we did shoot it had to be on location as there wasn't a suitable place near us. Though the whole production team searched it was obvious that it had to be South Dakota's Original 1880's Town. It was a complete western town with a saloon plus The Badlands was only 30 minutes away. And if we carpooled we could bring our own wardrobe, equipment, and actors saving us the costs and hassle of casting there. It was only a 10 hour drive and the actors were commited to this and took time off of work to be a part of this. Some didn't even shave for a few weeks to get authenticity to their characters. Other concerns were our budget because we just didn't have enough to pull this off. Our executive producers had half so we turned to Indie Go Go to raise the other half. Even at that we came up about $2,000 short which not only meant that we couldn't afford a particular actor but our post production process was hurt as well. But we ended up lucking out when Brian Roloff jumped in to help fill out the cast. And when another actor dropped out a week before shooting Tom Reed came aboard to complete the cast. Finally Aurum Design stepped in to help in our post process. So while doing a period film 10 hours from home is challenging it's coming together with the help of many donations and friends.
MIFS: With the film completed what has been the most rewarding thing about the whole experience?
We didn't have alot of money to do this and low budget westerns can come across as less than authentic. Sometimes the actors and wardrobe can come across as being too clean. The west was a dirty place. Being less than authentic was something that Bai and I did not want. It would hurt us. After deciding to do this introductory story on The Stranger it was two months of a rushed preproduction schedule then three brutal shoot days with Bai, Glen and myself not really sleeping that whole time. But it was worth it see Bai bring a character I created nearly 15 years ago to life. She's a great collaborator to work with.
Yellow Hill: The Stranger's Tale screens on Nov 10th as part of the 14th Annual Milwaukee Short Film Festival at 6:45pm in the Lubar Auditorium, MAM. It is out of competition during the Juried Selection.