Yinwen “Wendy” Mu comes from Beijing, China. She has a bachelor’s degree in Chinese Language and Literature from the Communication University of China, and now she is pursuing M.F.A. in Film and Television Production at Savannah College of Art and Design. As a student producer, she is productive, passionate, and improving her knowledge as much as possible from every film that she is producing. She has already produced one commercial, four student thesis films, three student fashion films, thirteen student short films. In the future, she wants to be a very knowledgeable and professional producer with a high aesthetic point of view and a worldwide perspective.
Her recent short film, "Pay to the Toilet" is about a resourceful and innovative young man who finishes the job using only the tools he has at hands. Pay The Toilet is Wendy's first short comedy. "Money rules the world!" But it can't always buy you everything. People seem to forget that it's just another piece of paper. What's the difference between toilet paper and money? Some people know that problem better than others when they have to decide for themselves.
What's a man to do when he has finished his business on the toilet and finds out that there is no more toilet paper? Well, they say money can't buy you happiness but at the end of the day, maybe it can... Paper is paper after all.
We recently spoke to Yinwen regarding the making of her short film.
What motivated you as a filmmaker to work on Pay the Toilet?
I am a graduate student at Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) majoring in Film and Television Production. My concentration is Producing with a double major in Cinema Studies.
Pay the Toilet was to satisfy an assignment with an urgent deadline for one of my Film Classes named Film/Digital Media Production. I was unsure what I should film but I wanted to make something interesting to surprise my professor Mr. Paul “Bear” Brown who is a lovely and intelligent filmmaker. No one really shot a whole process of this subject matter which is pooping and I thought it would be fun and risky with one scene plus one actor. Also, as a producer, I produced more than 20 shorts at SCAD so I wanted to work in the other departments as well. I wanted to learn about directing actors and understand the experience of how to talk to actors as a director and how to direct actors. I thought it would be exciting and a challenge for me to shoot a super short comedy to finish my first assignment for that class.
How did you start making films and what was the first film project you created as a director?
I was good at painting when I was a little to show people the pictures from my mind and enjoyed looking at their reactions. Also, I loved observing people in life since I was a child. I could sit in front of my bedroom window for a day watching people on the street. I was interested in people how they talk, how they walk, how they react from other people. When I went to Communication University of China (CUC) for my bachelor degree, my major was literature. A famous Chinese playwriter named Cao Yu said: “I love writing about people. I love people: I have written lovely heroes. But I hate people: I have written humble villains. I feel people need to be understood but it’s also hard to be understood.” I wanted to know people and understand people and at the same time, I could polish my writing skills. I was amazed with Les Fleurs Du Mal, An Enemy of the People, The Green mile … One of my favorite assignments was to rewrite the ending of novels, because I could play with the characters and design another ending for them. I rewrote the ending of The Metamorphosis with an American Horror Story style that transformed the salesman Gregor Samsa’s family into insects, but Samsa transformed back to the human being. But I always wanted to put the story on the screen and share it with people so I came to SCAD to be a producer.
With a solid foundation of studying people from CUC, I want to share what I have learned about people and what I have observed in life with my audiences. Pay the Toilet is the first project that I directed at SCAD. It’s a film experiment that I can see whether I convey the message to the audience successfully or not.
How difficult is it to fund independent films and what were some of the challenges of making this independent film?
As for Pay the Toilet, $67.75 doesn’t have to be expensive, although some other films are expensive. The location was the bathroom in my house with 4 people including an actor and crew members on set. The equipment was from SCAD for free. I got a very good deal for everyone’s breakfast and beverages from the cafeteria where I worked. The costume I got online with a nice prize and a good texture. My actor was also from SCAD who’s an amazing Performing Art student and my good friend named Juan Mauricio Williamson. With a very short schedule, our shooting was going smoothly.
There were actually many challenges I didn’t expect.
First, we used what SCAD has available. The only thing they had free that weekend was a first generation URSA Mini. They didn’t have the correct storage for it to record in the format we wanted. It had not ND filters and very cheap lenses. Also, it couldn’t be set anywhere I desired, for example, to set up the camera on the ceiling of the bathroom. There was a shot in the film that I wanted the audience to see the frame from the ceiling with a wide bird-view. So, my cinematographer, who’s also from SCAD Film major named Omar Acevedo-Trejo, was satisfied what I wanted for the shot designing which I was very thankful. I was also nervous and anxious being a director in that super short comedy and he supported me.
Second, the location didn’t have enough space so we had to borrow URSA Mini from SCAD. I loved the decoration of my bathroom very much so it’s easier for production designing and thus saved the time. But the space was so tiny that every time when I stayed in the location, I thought I could have had a big studio and decorated it as my bathroom. But we didn’t have time to borrow a studio from SCAD.
Third, for the original score in Pay the Toilet, I had many requests for my music composer Ao Li, who’s from Musicians Institute majoring in Songwriting and Production. That was my first time working with a professional music composer for a comedy film. It made me very anxious because I was afraid that the audience might not like the music. Ao Li and I had worked together before, so we’ve known each other’s personalities, and it’s easy for us to communicate. But still, it’s hard to write a piece of good music. There were a few challenges for Ao. First, it took him a long time to decide where to start the music. He created reference music to my liking and finished the original music based on it. We probably had to discuss this at least ten times. Second, I wanted the music to support the emotional undertone of the character. For example, Ao designed the piano phrasing, when the character noticed that the toilet paper had run out so that the high register notes of the piano matched the character’s reaction. Also, because of an issue with our camera, there was a shot with a few seconds where the picture blurred in and out. We didn’t have a better take for that shot, so we minimized the problem by having my colorist Chen Du, who’s a talented cinematographer from SCAD, reduced the blur with color grading, but it was still hard for the audience to see the actor’s facial expression. So, I talked to Ao if he could fix it with the music, and that’s how he came up with the aggressive piano part where the character had a hard time on the toilet.
Which genre is your most favorite genre to work on? Why?
My favorite genre is drama with comedy elements. I like the story with people and to tell this kind of story, but sometimes the story is overwhelming or complicated to understand for the audiences. But if there are some comedy elements, the audiences can laugh, cry, emotional release, whatever, which is a good way to enjoy the movie. Our daily life is cinematic and very complicated and I don’t really want my audience to watch yet another complicated story on a big screen. Even when I want to tell a complicated story or a serious story, I want the story to be entertaining and where my audience can laugh while they watch my film to get the message I wish to convey. Also, there is a thing very interesting for me. Sometimes, the funny cue in my film I don’t think it’s funny, but my audience laugh out when they watch it and tell me they enjoy the film.
What is your next film project and what are you currently working on?
My next film is about a grandpa helping his daughter to fix the relationship with his granddaughter by playing a flip the coin game. It’s a short narrative with a comedy element. This story is about my grandpa who I love and miss the most. I want to write a character for my grandpa who was wise, funny, lovely, and caring for me. I am the writer, producer, and the director in this film. This film is also my Directing Actors Class final assignment that I plan to shoot it in the fall 2021.
Currently, I am producing two graduate students’ thesis films. One of them is about a Mongolian musician who wants more American audience to understand his music but he hasn’t found where he belongs to. Then he meets a mysterious and beautiful woman who wants to steal his horse-head fiddle instrument that his father carved for him. The other one is about a mother and her son Charlie go visit a sketchy doctor after her boy is diagnosed with myopia in the hopes that he will make her son’s vision return. But the doctor is “useless” and Charlie has to lie to his mother to make her happy. We plan to shoot these two films in the spring 2021.
How can cinema and films have an impact on society?
This is a very big question and hard to really explain clearly. But every film has different voice and power. Film can record filmmakers’ emotion, mood, or life stories, about an individual human being, a family, or the big society. It also can be an ideal world from filmmakers’ thoughts and they want to share them to the audience. Film is the product of the entertaining industry that has a solid art foundation and target audience and community marketplaces. For example, The Boys in the Band (2020) targets on LGBTQ community and the audience who tend to like this Broadway show version generally are interested in the screen player Mart Crowley. The audience watch the film and they will like it or dislike it but they can experience the film and receive the message from filmmakers. They watch the film and the film also watches them because the film is like a mirror of each person.
Why do you want to make films and want to be a filmmaker?
I feel I don’t have any other talents except for making films (Just kidding). I want to be a filmmaker because I love people and I love watching people so I want to tell stories about them and share my sorties with them. I am good at painting and observing so I think filmmaking is the best way to present and share my talents with other people. While exploring my creativity, I want my audience to see what I see and to feel what I feel from life.
Please name three of your most favorite directors who have been influential to your work.
Martin Scorsese. I am amazed that how he tells young filmmakers to see the films. He says: “what you are doing is training the eye and heart of the student to look at the film in the different way by asking questions and pointing to different ideas and different concepts and suggestions.” The tip he gives is very useful to me and it helps confirm that I am on the right track since I started studying Film and taking this seriously as my career. My favorite film from him is Taxi Driver. I like the way he directs Robert De Niro and how he sets up the tone to present New York City in the film. Every time I tell myself that I wish I can work with him one day.
Bong Joon-ho is my favorite Asian director. The Host is the first Korean film I have watched. I enjoy watching how he presents family relationship under the big social dangerous situation, which is the monster in South Korea’s Han River, to the audience. It reveals how the director shows the weakness as well as the power of humans which is part of humanity. Then he holds a big umbrella, which is a society or a social issue, cover every human being and the audience can see the life of each of them. As the family in The Host, which is a unique and not an “ideal” family because there are many issues with the family members, but the audience can see their shadow from this family more or less. As for me, I want to keep studying how to write the story about life, about family, about every human being, and about society. I want my film is to “see the world from a grain of sand”.
Quentin Tarantino is also one of my favorite directors. I like the way he talks, his personality, and his attitude about filmmaking. He is a such practical director. Once he said: “Trying to make a feature film yourself with no money is the best film school you can do.” I am at an art school now and learning filmmaking. I want to combine my filmmaking knowledge with this attitude to see the world clearly for my stories as well as to build my career with a strong personality: be determined, be practical, be driven, to tell my stories and put them into the marketplaces.