Interview with director Chen Lu


Chen Lu works as an award-winning director/writer, cinematographer, and photographer now based in Shanghai. Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Film&TV from the Tisch School of the Arts of NYU, Chen has a strong poetic vision displayed in most of his work and is able to capture subjects’ subtlety through his images. He has collaborated with brands like Disney, Nike, RADO, GAP, XIAOMI, etc.  Inspired greatly by Asian filmmakers, Chen wishes to combine his Asian background with the international vision he gained by studying abroad to create unique visual stories endlessly. Chen Lu’s works have entered over 20 film festivals. He works with art mediums including short films, TVCs, MVs, fashion films, and photography.

  • Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that filmmaking is your way of telling stories?

It was during my high school time when I was struggling with my major choice for college. As a Chinese, I am educated in a normal Asian way in schools and am expected to become a programmer, a consultant in finance, or a lawyer by social standards. However, my parents are much more open-minded type amongst others, and they wish me to pursue something that my spirit echoes with. There was one day my father took me to the local cinema and watched Ang Lee’s Life of Pi. I had such an epiphany after finishing the film and stayed up all night, thinking about how stunning it is for Ang Lee to create such an art piece. Then there was a sudden awakening call I heard pushing me to choose filmmaking for my later life path. I was a sensitive child and loved to write and imagine, but before that night I never thought filmmaking can be considered my career. I guess it was Ang Lee’s beautiful technique to present a both visually stunning and emotionally shattering story in Life of Pi, that gave me a wake-up call to choose visual storytelling as a way of self-expression. However, with no background in filmmaking at all, I had struggles when pursuing it. Fortunately, I successfully got accepted to NYU Tisch and the school offered me a chance to peak into cinema art. I am now fully invested in becoming a better storyteller each day in filmmaking.

  • Do you think it is essential to go to a film institute in order to become a successful filmmaker?

It is not essential to go to a film institute be become a great filmmaker for sure. There is a good number of world-famous directors who started out in business that has nothing to do with filmmaking. It is actually the charming part of the filmmaking world. The fact shooting films is a hands-on art that depends more on onset experience, personal understanding, and practice makes it no requirement for entry. Nonetheless, coming from someone who did graduate from a film institute, I think there are benefits for sure to study filmmaking systematically in schools. First, the film programs in schools are well organized for beginners to grasp the idea of filmmaking. From the history of cinema to hands-on practice, you can definitely gain a more comprehensive experience of the film world with the assistance of experienced professors and tutors. Secondly, all the time you are surrounded by classmates who are devoted to filmmaking as you are. So basically, all the time you are engaging with people who discuss films, shoot films, watch films, and are passionate about films. It is also a good way to cumulate enough portfolio for future references because you can utilize the film institute’s facilities and your classmate’s help to create and shoot with no burdens. Thirdly, your classmates are coming from all backgrounds, and they can become great resources for you to reach out to in the future. Filmmaking is a people business, and you have to keep connections and reach out actively to keep on shooting. Nothing compares to a film institute being a good place to have cumulated future filmmakers. Therefore, you for sure don’t have to go to a film institute to be successful, but there are benefits you can gain from the institutions.

  • Is it harder to get started or to keep going? What was the particular thing that you had to conquer to do either?

Personally, I think it is harder to get started. After I graduated and began shooting commercial projects, I am sometimes overwhelmed by the rules, criticisms, and guidelines to follow in commercial projects. However, now looking back, I did learn and evolve each time I finish a case. After I understood the whole process of commercial filmmaking, I sometimes would hesitate to accept a project because I can foresee the whole process coming next. But interestingly enough, I would always lose myself in the creation process each time a project actually initiates. By the end of the day, I realize I am still doing this thing I love. And seeing each shot I have in mind becomes reality will let me forget all the setbacks during the production. Nothing is more rewarding than seeing a project coming to life on screen.

  • What was the most important lesson you had to learn that has had a positive effect on your film? How did that lesson happen?

I am the kind of director that would plan out all the shots in preproduction and hope every shot would replicate what I have in mind on set and in post-production. A lot of times I would edit the films I shot on my own until my thesis film. I hired an indie editor to help me with my thesis film and when I told her what I wanted for the film to present, she rejected it. She told me that she would only need the footage and the script and then she would deliver a rough copy from her understanding, then I could add inputs. I was a bit nervous and annoyed to hear such a response. However, when she delivered her first copy of my thesis film, I was astounded to find out her recreation of my story was much more brilliant than my original idea. With the same footage, she rearranged the story but made it more impactful and insightful. I was ashamed of my doubt of her and learned that everyone involved in a filmmaking process shall be deeply trusted as they would bring a new sight. Filmmaking, being a collaborative process, is never a one-person job. Trusting and listening to the opinions from all the contributors to the film is something I learned from this experience.

  • What were the production realities from casting through editing that you had to accommodate? How did you navigate those compromises or surprises and still end up with a cohesive film?

Every film project has its own storyline and suitable people for casting. It is vital to accommodate everyone who showed interest in playing a role in your film and treat them with full respect to let them act out the whole chosen script parts. Some people need a minute and some guidance to get into the character you wish to portray so don’t judge beforehand. People bring surprise to me all the time during the whole production process. DPs will bring stunning new visions for shots, gaffers will bring ideas of lighting, and as I mentioned before, editors will reshape the story in ways you alone cannot envision. And during shooting commercial projects, the client will also contribute to the projects greatly because they understand their brand or products a lot more than you. So, I try to be a good listener and would try my best to organize the whole production process towards a collective goal as the director. Collecting options raised by everyone involved, and rephrasing them in your own voice, is the most important role a director shall play in any production, to my understanding.

  • What was the hardest artistic choice you made in the making of a film, at any stage in production?

I must mention my thesis film: Ash, one more time. In the script of that film, I planned to shoot a courtroom scene and a jail scene on real locations. But after consulting with my producer, I realized that those real locations would charge way beyond our budget. So, I had to come up with artistic choices to solve the shooting locations. I later came up with the idea of shooting those scenes in the wilderness rather than in an actual courtroom and jail room. After I screened my final film, people appraised me for choosing such an unusual location for these two scenes, and they see how choosing unrealistic locations really strengthened the story. So, that’s one thing about filmmaking, you never know if your sacrifice of creativity can actually become a gift for a better story.

  • You are a collaborator. How have you discovered members of your team and how do you keep the relationship with them strong?

I am trained at film school to respect and be friends with all crewmembers in production. I think it is a borderline of filmmaking: respecting everyone who’s trying to make the film a reality. I have encountered so many talented filmmakers who are skilled in cinematography, editing, directing, color-grading, sound, etc. And all those people who are still working with me till now are the people I met in school, met one set, known from a party, or even met at a coffee bar by random chit-chats. I highly appreciate those people who can work by my side and would attentively listen and ask for their suggestions on my project during a project. And when people can feel your respect towards them, they would put in their own energy and creativity in making a project better. I have seen many directors or producers on set who have no respect towards crewmembers in Chinese productions and I feel disgusted by their thinking of them being superior. I wish there’s a time we can change the fact that there is a hierarchy on production sets and just be as friends who work to create films, simply.

  • What do audiences want? And is it the filmmaker’s role to worry about that?

When I was in film school, I would not worry about the audience’s role at all. With all the ego I had on my mind, I think I would just shoot projects I wish to present. However, after years of commercial filmmaking, I realized that a film project needs to be echoing with people in order to gain its value. It is my personal view and does not represent all filmmakers at all. To me, I found that a film needs at least one audience. All art films, when delivered to the public, shall be open-minded to reviews and to the audience simply because the film isn’t yours anymore once published. I think people’s shared emotions and world views are valuable subjects to be touched upon. It is rewarding to see how the audience reacts toward your project and their reviews are the keys for you to grow and be better. When I read reviews from my audience saying how the film made them cry or rethink relationships I feel really appreciated. And when the audience criticizes my films, I would actually document the reviews and see if I can resolve such an issue in my next project. The general humane emotional trigger is the standard for me to see if my characters in projects are realistic enough or full of fantastical bullshit.

  • What role have film festivals played in your life so far? Why are they necessary? How do you get the most out of them?

I love to submit my projects to film festivals because I think the projects, I made are not my own piece but belonged to everyone who worked on the film. So, by submitting to film festivals and earning a place in film festivals can be a good response I can bring to my whole crew members. I think directors should dig in and utilize the film festival’s publicity to show the projects you made to a wider audience. I appreciate how many film festivals there are out there doing their best for filmmakers like me to keep on creating and sharing.

  • Do you believe that a filmmaker should be original and fresh or he/she should stick to classic but safe cinema style?

A filmmaker no doubt should be original, no matter what kind of filmmaking style he or she chooses. There’s a saying that all stories are already told. But I would add to the saying that how you tell your story is still a mystery. We are definitely witnessing a booming era of video and film projects thanks to the growth of the internet and cheaper filmmaking equipment brought to the world. From my experience, I have never seen so many creative ideas being carried out in films more than ever. Even from short Tic Tok videos, I can see how people can utilize their smartphones to create unprecedented engaging storylines. So keep on shooting and never adhere to the safe zone. Human’s gifted with creativity, and I don’t see the day creativity gets drained any time soon. Learn from any kind of media you can find, and write, shoot, edit, and publish the film so people can see your fabulous work!