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A Dream Within A Dream: Bi Gan on Long Day’s Journey Into Night

Jue Huang in Long Day's Journey Into Night (photo by Bai Linghai)

After his road movie Kaili Blues became an international success, writer and director Bi Gan turned to the film noir genre for his follow up, Long Day’s Journey into Night. The layered, dreamlike plot follows Luo Hongwu (played by Huang Jue) as he returns to his hometown, looking into the past for clues about what happened to Wildcat (Lee Hong), a lost love he last saw more than a decade ago. 

Set in the bars, alleys and seedy hotels of Gan’s home province, the film is divided into two parts. Elliptical scenes and a fractured timeline give the first half the feel of a noir nightmare. The second half, an hour-long single take post-converted to 3D, is a dream, or fairy tale, brought to life.

Filmmaker spoke with Bi Gan after Long Day’s Journey into Night screened at the New York Film Festival. Thanks to Vincent Cheng and Weiji Wang for translating.

Filmmaker: You were quoted in an interview as saying that Long Day’s Journey into Night is much more cinematic than Kaili Blues. You weren’t happy with the earlier film?

Gan: It’s exactly the opposite. I’m completely satisfied with Kaili Blues. I think the press may understand things differently because of the language barriers. I think Kaili Blues preserves some of the purest, rawest aspects of filmmaking.

Kaili Blues is more private, for me. It was something I wanted to do for a long time. But because of my limitations, the quality, the techniques of the film are not up to par, so to speak. For Long Day’s Journey, I had more resources, I could work with artists in different fields, and the quality of the film definitely improved in terms of the techniques I got to play around with.

So Kaili Blues may seem scruffy, or gritty, or raw—it has a kind of coarse texture to it. Say someone’s coming to my home, and I’m serving wine in a homemade clay cup. That cup may not be high quality, but it’s clean, and the wine is good. The second serving may be in a pressed metal goblet, or elegant china, but it’s the same wine.

Filmmaker: The storylines in both features are elliptical, with abrupt time shifts, characters who aren’t explained, allusions that remain unclear. You said at one point that you want to “destroy the screenplay from the inside.”

Gan: “Destroy,” yes, but also disrupt, deconstruct. Writing Long Day’s Journey, I started with the film noir genre. I have a femme fatale [Tang Wei as Wan Qiwen], a naïve protagonist [Luo Hongwu], and then I deconstruct, disrupt, destroy the expected way of putting the story together and the connections between characters. I change the story in terms of its chronology. I will mix up time and space, change locations, try to create something that is not as linear as what you would expect in the noir genre.

For example, in a conventional script, when you are introducing a character like Wan Qiwen, you might first see her watch, then the color of her dress, and then her face emerges during her first encounter with Luo Hongwu. And I actually shot it that way. But when I started to edit the film, I wanted to create a jump cut there. When I’m introducing the characters, I take out what happens in the middle. You will get the idea that they somehow met each other without the context of how or why. So, that’s one example of how I can I edit to disrupt, destroy what I already shot and create a completely different narrative.

For Kaili Blues, I did the same thing, the same process. I started with a road movie, and then I started to deconstruct the expected structures, creating a brand new story based on mixing and matching elements.

Filmmaker: But you start with an overall structure in your head. You’re not just tossing genre tropes together.

Gan: Of course. That was too simple an answer. From the very beginning, I knew that to create the two-part structure I wanted, I needed the first part to be more fragmented, more fractured. That way, it will be easier for people to accept this undisrupted, continuous shot in the second half. That was the contrast I wanted to have from the very beginning.

So then, if I want to think seriously about it, how do I make the two parts proportional? If I have two-and-a-half hours for the first part, and one hour for the second, they will feel lopsided. I could easily make the first part into an epic film, develop and pursue those characters. In fact, I actually shot a lot of footage about Wildcat but ended up not using it. Toward the end of the 2D part, the crew members would look at me and ask, “Why do we need the second part? Can we not do that, just keep the first part and cut that into a complete film?” But for me to really make the entire movie work, I needed to make this first part cleaner, so people will be able to have just enough information to get into the second part and still have it make sense. It’s intentionally vague and disorienting.

Filmmaker: When Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke were writing 2001, Clarke said Kubrick deliberately removed everything that explained who the characters were. The idea was that the viewers would make up their own stories about them.

Gan: My approach may seem a little more childish, not as mature. Instead of an epic, I wanted to make a fairy tale. That’s the reason why I omit or edit out parts, to make it more like a fable, a noir tale.

Filmmaker: So, the past and present exist together?

Gan: In a temporal sense that’s the best way to condense the story, make it more into a fairy tale.

Filmmaker: Sylvia Chang [who plays Wildcat’s mother] said that you would change the script before you got to the set.

Gan: It’s easier for the crew to just look at a script, then we shoot it exactly the way it was envisioned in terms of storyboards and how the scenes have been broken down. But that’s not good for me as a filmmaker. As a screenwriter, I interpret or translate the first draft, and I can tell you it ends up very differently from how I started. It’s the same as a director. If we just follow everything that I’ve written down in a particular script, I don’t think that will accomplish what I eventually want the film to be.

I was very anxious as to how I was going to do this. Just based on the limitations of time and budget, a lot of things in the script were not going to happen the way I intended anyway. So, I had to leave a lot of room for revisions, for changes, for disruptions and deconstructions. Because I think that’s the only way for me to actually accomplish what I eventually want to accomplish in my head.

Of course, then it won’t be very easy; it was challenging for the crew because they then had to follow all the changes that I had every single day. It was very frustrating for some of them. They thought scenes were going to be shot in a certain way, and suddenly I changed things. Because, after all, I am not a professional director. This is my second film.

I was so anxious. I’m the only person who’s even seen the entire script that I had written first. I would look at that script and think, “Wow, how am I going to accomplish this with what I have now?” Every day, the crew would get a shot list or call sheet, what they needed to do that day. And I had no idea how to actually convert that into something they could execute. Two hundred people waiting on me, and I had to somehow translate what was in my head into a daily production breakdown or flowchart or whatever. I just had no idea how to do that. Sometimes I was just killing time playing games on my phone, hoping for the best, hoping that I would find what I was going to do that day.

Also, for this film I had to find a balance between myself as an individual, as a personal filmmaker, [and] with the film industry as a whole. That was very unfamiliar to me. I’m learning the ropes as I go.

Filmmaker: Does all that pressure help your work?

Gan: For me, at least, I think how the process of making a film should be is that you need to feel as though you have escaped death every single day. If you’re too complacent or too comfortable, that means you’re not actually doing what you’re supposed to do. You need to do as much preparation as you can, but at the same time recognize that you are going to need to deal with and negotiate and solve unknowns every step of the way. I think that’s a good process. These are good problems to have, good anxieties and pressures; they will help you make something great. Because if you want to solve a problem that you face, you need to dig up everything you have learned, everything that you know, all of your frames of reference, just to solve that problem. That will really help you as a director.

Filmmaker: That’s a hard way to live. Are you at least having fun?

Gan: Yeah. It comes with the territory. If you don’t want to live like this you should do something else.

Filmmaker: You had a forty-plus-minute take in Kaili Blues, so it’s not much of a surprise that there’s an hour-plus take in Long Day’s Journey. Why did you decide to add 3D?

Gan: I’m afraid that we’re losing some of the magic of movies. A lot of people are watching movies online or on their smartphones. I think we can fall in love with movies again. I want to go back to the first time we were sitting there in a theater and together saw that train coming toward us. I want to force people to actually sit collectively in a theater to watch this.

This movie is very much about memory, how when you close your eyes trying to reminisce or remember, you conjure up these three-dimensional memories. That’s exactly what I wanted to capture. So, before I even wrote the script I had the idea of making part of the movie in 3D. And on a technical level, with 3D you can really increase depth of field. So, the story can be very character driven, and you will be drawn into the narrative without paying too much attention to the surroundings or their context. So, before I even wrote the script, I had the idea of making part of the movie in 3D.

Filmmaker: Can you talk about designing the shot? Had you finished work on the first part?

Gan: I had maybe seventy, eighty percent of the 2D material edited before we started shooting the 3D part. When I did the long take in Kaili Blues, there were certain elements of the location I didn’t get to capture, places in the vicinity that I really wanted to use in a film. So, for the 3D shot, I decided to focus on this one location, this former mineshaft and the surrounding factories that were from Soviet Union times. It was turned into a prison, which was also abandoned. Now it’s just ruins that I found amazing, that I really wanted to use in a film. It took months of preparations to put everything together. The actual rehearsal process took 10 days.

Filmmaker: You attempted the shot twice, several months apart.

Gan: The first time we tried, we did two takes, and they both failed. In fact, we never finished a take. Three or four months later, when we tried the second time, I changed certain blockings, the way the characters moved. I took them into different locations, so I could make it even more interesting, smoother, in terms of transitions. So I did make some changes based on the two failed takes [from] the months before. The way we ended the sequence was also different the first time. We were supposed to end when the woman went back on stage again and finished singing her song. When we came back months later, we all decided that the best way, the best moment to end the film, was to end it on the sparkler.

Filmmaker: What happened during the second shoot?

Gan: We shot on two nights. The first night, we tried three takes, and they all failed. The second night we shot two takes. In both of them we completed the whole routine. In the first take, Sylvia Chang’s character is holding a torch at one point. The wax was dripping down onto her hand, and out of instinct she threw the torch away—still remaining in character. That was one unique thing about that take.

After I had the first one, I felt a lot better, really relieved that at least we had one finished. We did another take afterwards. That one had the horse going wild, spilling apples onto the ground. We decided to go with that one. After the first take, with Sylvia’s hand getting burned by the wax [Chang gasped, “Oh, my god” before translating], we quickly wrapped it. She was very, very professional; she stayed for the second take, the one in which the horse went wild. Afterward, she called me from the airport and said she couldn’t even get through customs, the border security, because her fingerprints were too damaged to press onto the scanner.

Filmmaker: You added Wong Chi Ming to the crew for the second 3D shoot. He worked as a gaffer on several Wong Kar-wai films and was lighting designer for Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin.

Gan: The first 3D attempts, they were failures not only because we didn’t finish everything we were supposed to do in the shot. We also didn’t have the right lighting design at the time; we didn’t have the layers and textures I wanted. So I didn’t feel inspired to actually finish the takes anyway. 

Months later, we had lighting designers and gaffers like Wong Chi Ming come in and light the whole place so that we had very, very layered lighting. They completely changed how I saw how to do the take. I was very inspired, I really wanted to make this long take work. When you light the right way, you get this feeling, this textured depth-of-field. I needed it really deep, a 4 to 5.6 focal length, so we really needed the right light, especially with the camera we were using. Also, they solved the spinning room, where we couldn’t have any fixed lights for the scene where the two characters kiss.

Filmmaker: During that 3D shot you use sound to define space, like how a hidden character knocks off frame. In one interview, you complained that designing a shot this carefully meant you couldn’t change anything when it came time to film. But a lot of elements are left up to chance, like the Ping-Pong game.

Gan: The horse, too. We didn’t know that would happen. You know, David Chizallet, a cinematographer on the reshoot, he was the DP on Mustang, so we definitely needed a wild horse in my film.

I really put a lot of pressure on my actors for the table tennis scene. There’s Huang Jue, and the other one is actually my half-brother. I kept telling them that this is the first part of a very long take, and I am going to do it again and again and again until I get it right. So they better do it well. Not only that, but my brother is really bad at table tennis, and he has to win the game. It took a long time, and a lot of bribes, to get my brother to make the effort and practice, practice, practice and eventually win the game. After the take, he returned the 200 renminbi he won. He told me filming was such hard work that I needed to keep the money.

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