Producer’s Notebook: When in China, Shoot as the Locals Do

Keyframe is proud to introduce Producer’s Notebook, a regular column by award-winning film producer Karin Chien, in which she details her experiences making films around the world and reflects on the state of film production in the 21st century.

I recently produced a documentary-like shoot in China for the World Economic Forum (note, the WEF is the one that Brangelina crashes, not the one that caused riots in Seattle). On paper, the shoot seemed straightforward: book interviews, book local crew, book flights, and transport equipment to Dalian, the Chinese seaside city that hosts “summer Davos.” But filming in another country is never simple. Especially one ruled by anxious Communist Party officials.  And especially when shooting inside one of the most exclusive venues in town.

For your amusement / education / pre-production purposes, here’s what I learned (the hard way) to expect when producing and shooting in China. Bear these 10 tips in mind on your next trip to the Middle Kingdom, you’ll thank me later!

1. When attempting to unload equipment at China’s WEF, a highly secured gathering attended by international heads of state, finance and business, your ratty equipment van will require pre-authorization from the central Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Do not assume that you and your crew having passed full WEF security clearance 6 weeks in advance will help matters.

– Corollary 1.1:  Expect that CCP approval will take as long as the Forum itself.
– Corollary 1.2: Also expect that your van’s license number will be odd-numbered on the day when only even-numbered license plates are legally allowed on the road due to anti-congestion regulations.
– Corollary 1.3: Don’t rule out the possibility that your equipment van is actually a passenger van, and not registered to transport equipment at all, with a driver who is trying to avoid the authorities, not drive towards them.

2. When chatting up Chinese security guards to avoid being kicked out of a non-permitted location, if you reveal that you are from America, said guards will tell you exactly how much America owes China. (It’s $1.2 trillion).

– Corollary 2.1: Also expect taxi drivers to tell you how much Americans owe the Chinese (still $1.2 trillion).
– Corollary 2.2: As a follow-up, be prepared to explain why houses in the US are being advertised in China for only $1.

3. It is possible to negotiate everything in China, and I mean everything – down to the price of Holiday Inn Express hotel rooms. It’s not the $5 savings that counts, but the principle of haggling for it.

– Corollary 3.1: Expect local Chinese to be very comfortable with this fact.
– Corollary 3.2: Expect most everyone else to be very uncomfortable with this fact.

4. When encountering long-time expat Western producers in China, expect a hearty disdain for the entire country and populace, with extended rants over long dinners. Commonly overheard sentiments: “Beijing taxi drivers are all miserable / There’s no such thing as good service here.”

– Corollary 4.1: Expect these producers to bargain their Chinese crew to obscenely low levels while overpaying the Western crew members whatever rates they demand, and then housing the Western crew in hotel rooms that cost more than the Chinese crew salaries.

– Corollary 4.2: Expect neo-colonialist mindsets to be in healthy supply in general.

5. Do not expect your American director to eat Chinese food, especially at fancy official banquets. (“Um, can I just have some white rice and soy sauce?”)


6. When in need of an iron to make your clothes presentable for a world-leader convention, do not expect the staff at your 17-story, four star Chinese hotel to provide one. Instead expect the front desk to advise you to go out and buy an iron.

– Corollary 6.1: Expect to find a hot water kettle in every hotel room across China, which, in a pinch, can be used to steam wrinkled clothing.

7. If you are a female film producer, when introduced to an older Chinese male authority figure, expect the man to look for the closest male, and ask what he does as a producer.

Corollary 7.1: If the closest male insists that you are the producer, the old man will again ask closest male about producing.

8. Be prepared for lack of blue sky during exterior b-roll shots. In fact, expect Beijing to be like a science fiction city where the sun has died.

9. When taking your Western crew to trespass on a local village to shoot beautiful landscapes without a permit, expect villagers to chop down bushels of sugar cane and offer them to you as welcome gifts.

Corollary 9.1: When protesting offers of sugarcane, expect those offers to multiply.

10. Expect to spend your time researching the right local Chinese crew to hire. Then during production, expect them to be incredibly professional, hard-working and hospitable, helping to solve lesson-learned-the-hard-way #1 and biting their tongues at Corollary 4.1 – 4.2.

Karin Chien is an independent film producer based in New York City, the recipient of the 2010 Independent Spirit Producers Award, and producer of eight feature films, including Circumstance (2011), The Exploding Girl (2009), The Motel (2005), and Robot Stories (2002). Karin is also the president and founder of dGenerate Films, the leading distributor of independent Chinese cinema to North America and beyond.


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