Zhang Yimou says working with young amateur actors suits him perfectly
Chinese director Zhang Yimou met with TIME reporter Stephen Short in Hong Kong during a promotional tour for his latest work, Not One Less. The film, starring amateur child actors, won the Golden Lion at the 1999 Venice Film Festival.
TIME: How come Not One Less didn't compete in Cannes last year?
Zhang: Because the film is made in China, it's Chinese controlled. I asked them to send the film to Cannes, but nobody knows why it didn't go. When I asked why not, they responded with silence. Not one word.
TIME: Where is the title Not One Less from?
Zhang: I wanted to make a film about love and caring. I think there's not enough of that in contemporary China. I think it's vital that people have these basic things in their nature and can show them and share them with others.
TIME: Is the film political?
Zhang: No. Not One Less is really a very simple film about love.
TIME: Was it difficult working with children?
Zhang: Working with the children was the hardest thing I've ever done in my career. Everyone always says never work with children or animals and now I realize why.
Zhang: Nobody had. We auditioned about 4,000 children the length and breadth of China for six months before finding our two lead actors Wei Minzhi [who plays the substitute teacher] and Zhang Huike [who plays one of her students]. There was actually another girl we chose over Wei Minzhi, but then we took her and Wei to Beijing, stood them in the middle of a busy street and asked them to scream at the top of their lungs. The girl I originally wanted couldn't do that, but Wei stood there and belted her lungs out. She was incredible.
TIME: How did you get the children to act?
Zhang: During shooting you have to make children think the whole thing is real, so we never showed them the script. You can't give any hints about what you're going to shoot, otherwise the kids will all go away at the end of the day and imitate TV characters the next day. We would end up playing lots of games with them. We often took 20 or 30 takes, sometimes 70 to 80. There was no rehearsal of any scene.
TIME: You must have felt like father and mother to them all.
Zhang: Yes I did. I had to be incredibly patient and tell them off quite a lot. Wei Minzhi said that I was very strict.
TIME: And were you?
Zhang: I had to be sometimes. If I hadn't been strict it would have been even more frustrating.
TIME: The adults were nonprofessionals too, right?
Zhang: Almost all the adults were playing the roles they play every day in real life. The mayor, Tian Zhenda, has been a mayor in a rural town for 14 years. He turned out to be very funny. He was the exception. There's one scene involving a concierge at a TV station. The woman who we used in the movie has been concierge at the station for 30 years. Every time I said shoot, she'd clam up and wouldn't speak. In the end I grabbed a bystander and told the concierge that if she didn't speak when we started the scene again, I would replace her. So when the second candidate came to try, suddenly the concierge was terrific.
TIME: Since few of the actors knew anything about the movie world, you probably had more leeway in what you could make them do.
Zhang: That's true. We have a saying in Chinese: it's easy to see the pit of hell, but difficult to deal with its little ghosts. Amateur actors were perfect for me. I could chose one but have a standby waiting, so we could always change them if we wanted to. That was very unusual.
TIME: Did you pay the children?
Zhang: Yes, the children got around $600 each.
TIME: That's a small fortune in rural China.
Zhang: Yes, it's totally changed their lives.
TIME: Has that been a good thing?
Zhang: Very. Wei Minzhi has been doing commercials for tea. She wears exactly the same clothes she wore on the movie and of course she gets paid for those.
TIME: They're all still in school?
Zhang: Yes, Wei is at high school. But it's funny: in the film Zhang plays a character much younger than Wei's, but in real life, he is one year older than her. He's still at junior school. So on the set, he kept taunting her and fooling around with her because he's actually older. He keeps failing his exams, so he's stayed behind to keep retaking them. But he wrote me a letter a few weeks ago saying he's now passed and is going to high school next year as well. They were fighting each other in real life and as actors all the time and I think that helped a lot of the scenes in the movie. He was still fighting with her during the promotion in China.
TIME: Will you work with them again?
Zhang: Zhang Huike was superb. During that promotion in China, all the audiences were crazy about him. I regretted a little that I didn't shoot more scenes with him. He's very smart for a boy who's still in junior high school.
TIME: What's your next film about?
Zhang: It will be modern, very modern, set in a Chinese city like Beijing or Shanghai and will be about people being alone. People who have become alienated, people who are searching for love.
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