Film director Jenny Lu has rocked the industry with a stunning award-winning drama about an illegal massage parlour – Mandy News talk to her about how it came together.
Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you got into film, and where you’re from and how film-making came about for you?
I’m from Taiwan, but based in London at the moment. I started working in the film industry about eight years ago. I was doing my PhD in Fine Arts and just before I graduated I had the opportunity to work with graduates from the London Film School and I started to find that I was really passionate about film. I just thought “Wow, the film world is so different from the art world and I really want to learn more about it. I want to discover more.”
I started working as an AD and was a 1st AD in several films, but felt the job didn’t have enough creativity, so I decided to write and direct short films. My aim was to make a feature.
In 2009 one of my friends committed suicide and this shocked me. She jumped onto a huge road that’s connected to the M4 – I felt like she wanted to say something to the world so I decided to do a little research. I discovered that she was actually a masseuse at an illegal massage parlour, and couldn’t tell people what she was doing. When I got to interview some of her colleagues I was quite upset by the life they lived. The more I found out about it, the more I felt I needed to tell the story. Not just about my friend, but also about the people who are still working there, who still struggle with their daily lives.
I slowly put something down on paper, and it started to develop into a script. I put quite a lot of my personal experience into that as well, because after the 2008 economic crisis, my friends and I all encountered career difficulties. We couldn’t find jobs. All that frustration and the clashes between reality and dreams made me want to put that into the story. I believe that was one of the reasons that pushed Anna to end her life. With my personal experience, my friend’s experience and also the environment of that time, the script for The Receptionist was developed.
The Receptionist is set in 2008 and is about a Taiwanese graduate who couldn’t find a job and the only job she got offered at that time was working as a receptionist in an illegal massage parlour. The whole film is her journey and how she finds herself in the end.
So once you got your script sorted, what steps did you take forward to make it into a film? How did that come about, actually?
While I was writing the script I submitted my project to different talent labs. I went to Edinburgh International Film Festival and also Reykjavik, Iceland, and the project market at The Golden Horse Film Festival in Taiwan
I started to pitch my project and apply for funding everywhere, we got local funding and a government fund from Taiwan. My UK producer, Peter Kirby, also secured some private investment. The financial side was slowly coming together so we also decided to do a Kickstarter campaign, for funding of course but also to give the film a voice before it had even been shot.
So how did you meet your producer? Was that somebody you met in Reykjavik or Edinburgh?
I met Peter at one of the directing classes in London Film School. That was an intense summer directing workshop. We talked about my project, he was really interested and had already produced some films in China and India before. I felt like I could count on him and decided to get him on board.
Can you explain the process of getting the Taiwanese government funding? What did you have to do?
The Taiwanese funding was complicated because we needed to write a proposal as thick as an encyclopedia. We needed to figure out our production and distribution plan in details.
It was a lot of work but I think it really pushed us to make decisions. Before that there was no agreement between us and any major actors. The proposal pushed us to talk to our desired cast and crew, and to start auditions in UK and Taiwan.
It was a long process. When we finished the proposal, I needed to pitch the project to a panel of 9 people who were standing between the script and the finished film.. It was really nerve wracking.
So did you have the crew fully locked in for the proposal?
We had to get initial signed agreements from them but they were not contracts, so anything could happen. It was about showing willingness to work on the film if we could make it happen.
When did you shoot it? How long was your pre-production and your production period?
The total development time was six years. The whole pre-production took almost four years. We started shooting in summer 2015 for a month. We shot in London and Kaohsiung (in Taiwan). The Taiwan shoot was about a week.
Did you do storyboards, or use film references? What did you create for the DOP and the Designer?
We didn’t really do storyboards. After Gareth Munden, our DOP, had finished reading the script we exchanged ideas and discussed what sort of atmosphere we wanted to create. I picked films for references too, for example Iñárritu’s Biutiful. We would look through the whole film, scene-by-scene, analysing the camera movements and lighting. I really like the handheld style and some of the one-shot scenes and thought the style would work for some of the scenes in The Receptionist.
When we found the main location - the house for the massage parlour, we literally went from scene to scene. We worked through the whole film. Then we marked down where the characters would be and that’s how we shot it. But of course, sometimes we needed to improvise as it didn’t always work for the actors when they were in the actual space. I wanted the characters to feel as natural as possible.
Also the story mainly takes place in a brothel thats been sets up in a house on a residential street. How do we make it visually exciting within one space? It’s a question that we kept asking ourselves.
As for the Production Designer, I emphasised the use of each room. For example, the living room in the massage parlour is the place where the girls actually get to be themselves. It should feel homely and warm most of the time. In contrast Tina and Frank’s flat feels colder as they starts to grow apart.
How did you prep the performers?
There are five main female characters in the film, and three of them Taiwan based. Most of them needed accomodation in London and I purposely split them up. I let Teresa Daley who played the receptionist stay by herself, and the rest of the actresses who played working girls stayed in one apartment. The three actresses who played the working girls buit up their relationships quickly. They often cooked together after rehearsals so on set, they were like a family who knew each other for a long time.
I asked Paul Sadot – the acting tutor on Northern Soul – to come on board to help us to break the ice. He’d give us games to play and later we brought the characters into the games. I think that really helped because the actors started to get to know each other mentally and physically. I remember we also ask the actors to switch roles so they all understood each other’s characters.
When we got to the set, we started to do walk-throughs for major scenes. I would remind them what happened before and after the scene and what mental state they should be in. Some actors especially Chen Shiang Chyi (who played Sasa) gave the role loads of input, from her personal experience and her understanding of the character which made this role very interesting.
Did you re-write some lines for the actors on the day?
Yes, but not much because we already discussed lines. I had continuous meetings with the cast at all times of the day from the moment each of them was brought onboard, just to go through their roles and make sure there’s a continuity and transformation.
What I changed most on set was the length of the scenes. I decided to cut some scenes short after rehearsals, as the story and characters go through a process when pages from the script are acted out and come to life. .
What did you shoot on? What were the challenges? What was easier or more difficult when it came to the realities of shooting on the day?
We wanted to have a documentary feel in the film so about 90% of the film was shot with handheld. We thought using Amira was ideal. It’s lighter than an Alexa. The customers are going in and out out of the parlour all the time and these girls don’t really stay in the same room for long, I thought that was a suitable way to catch that kind of atmosphere.
There were some challenges on set, especially because there were cast and crew coming from Taiwan and they’d never worked in the UK before. The UK cast and crew had never worked with a Taiwanese team either. I think the first week was the most difficult one, there was so much communication needed, cultural differences and different ways of approaching things.
When did you start and finish post? What did you edit on?
We finished doing pick-up shots in December 2015 and spent more than a year on post. We completed the film in January this year.
We edited on Final Cut. Our editor is Hoping Chen who worked on Ilo Ilo - a Singaporean film which won Cannes Camera d’Or.
So, tell us about what’s happened since, because you’ve shown your film at quite few festivals, and you’ve got some coming up.
We had our international premiere at the Edinburgh Film Festival and also got selected for Durban International. We got nominated for ‘Best Feature’ for Salento International Film Festival and ‘Best Film’ and ‘Best Actress’ for Milan Film Awards. The film got me an award for ‘Emerging Director’ in the 40th Asian American International Film Festival in New York. We had two sold out screenings at Raindance and its showing as part of the London East Asian Film Festival at the end of October. Chen Shiang Chyi recently got nominated for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ for Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards. It’s a big award event there. People call it the Asian Oscars.
And what are the next steps? Is there a distribution date yet?
That’s something we’re working on at the moment. We had our theatrical release in Taiwan this summer and sold our rights there. We are looking for European distribution now. We’d really like to take the film as far-a-field as we can as we feel it’s relevant everywhere.
Tell us a little bit about the difference in mentality of filmmakers in Taiwan – what’s the industry like?
Well this is actually the first time I worked there with film-makers. As a director, you will find it quite amazing, because when you ask for something, the crew will make 100% effort to make it happen. Its slightly more old school with regards to hours and health and safety, not in a dangerous way, but also not so much overkill with red tape. I was quite surprised but also very pleased at the way they work for the director.
Also, the expense – the transport, the food – is much cheaper than the UK. The professional level, I think is quite similar. They work really hard and also have a lot of co-production experience. For example, Scorsese’s Silence was shot in Taiwan, Luc Besson’s Lucy and Ang Lee’s Life of Pi too.
They welcome foreign productions. I do feel Taiwan is a good place to explore, and then also, scenery-wise it’s really beautiful and unique.
Tell us a little about the other projects you worked on before The Receptionist and things you’re looking to do in the future.
Before working on The Receptionist, I worked on a short film called The Man Who Walked on the Moon. That did quite well. It was the winner of fantasy award in Amsterdam International Film Festival and also selected for several festivals around the world such as London Short Film Festival. I have also directed music videos, most recently “Answers with Questions” for Lazy Habits.
For the future, I’ve already started developing a treatment for my next film.
For filmmakers who haven’t made a feature yet or who have never made anything before, give us some advice for them.
If you really want to make a feature film, you definitely need to make short films first. Commercials or music videos do not give enough room for practicing your story-telling skills. Short film make you think about character development
If you want to write a film, there are many good stories out there for your inspiration. If there are stories that you feel are important or need to be told, that’s the best opportunity for you to make a film because it will be unique.
Also, make connections. For example, Talent Lab is really useful. That’s how I met our executive producer, Damian Jones (the producer of The Iron Lady). I pitched to him for 20 minutes and made a good impression. He came on board and helped us to find investors. Having good connections can really push your project further.
Can you describe, what is it that you look for in an actor? Whether it’s their personality or the way that they work...
I think I’m looking for realness. I want actors to be honest and ask questions of themselves. How would you feel and react in a certain situation? Everyone shares similar emotions but reacts differently so I want them to bring their personal experiences and imaginations to the character.
I like actors to surprise me and bring new ideas to their characters. I think it’s more about them digging through themselves, and then how those raw emotions attach to that fictional character.
As someone interested in film making in China, great to get some insights of how it is in Taiwan. Haven't seen the movie yet, but will be looking as soon as I finish this review!
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