Interview with director Peier Tracy Shen

Peier “Tracy” Shen is a Chinese writer & director based in Los Angeles. She recently obtained her MFA in Directing from the AFI Conservatory. She also graduated with honors from Columbia University, with BAs in both English and Film & Media Studies. She served as a marketing representative for Universal Pictures for the past three years, and interned at FF2 Media as a critic for two years. She has written, directed and produced several short films and stage plays. Growing up in China while receiving a Western education, she’s drawn to the struggle of straddling two cultures. Her characters thereby are always set to explore their sense of identities in order to discover their way home.

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

It was in college, where I initially wanted to be a prose writer. I didn’t have any understanding of the film medium, but I remember seeing In the Mood for Love and how I recognized this inexplicable beauty of loneliness and longing. It has moved me like nothing before so I decided to be a filmmaker.

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

Well, I recently obtained my Directing MFA from the American Film Institute Conservatory. The experience has its ups and downs. You learned your discipline and how to collaborate with other people. But in the end, I guess the heart of directing cannot really be taught. So it’s just a matter of finding what you want to say and how to be better at it.

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

I think the important thing is to find your truth, because there are so many people really eager to give you notes. Sometimes it’s brilliant and they change how you think about the story forever. Sometimes it’s a distraction and they lead you further away from your intentions. It’s important to exist in a place that’s dangerous, knowing that some people will never really get you and that’s okay.

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

Casting took a bit long for this film. Because there was no dialogue allowed, we had to find actors who are expressive enough that render words unnecessary. We went through quite a lot of people and some of them were pretty good but there was something missing. So we kept pushing till almost three days before production. But eventually, Kurt and Madeleine came in and just brought such incredible energy and we were just so mesmerized. I think the lesson learned was to not compromising on the performance. Find your perfect actors. They really do most of the work for you.

  • 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?

“Another Satisfied Customer” was an AFI Cinematography MOS project. I was really glad that Anton (the cinematographer) approached me because it’s a such a wonderful challenge to do a story within 3 minutes with no dialogue. The truth is it’s hard to keep it that concise. We shot two rounds of story boards to make sure that the story is actually working.

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

I think it was probably the story development. It was my cinematographer’s project as much as mine, so it wasn’t just me dictating what to do in the story. In the beginning, I focused way more on the woman and I wanted to explore kind of a dark drama about how a woman planning to kill herself but ending up dead anyway. It’s almost funny about how moody I wanted it to be. I was in a dark place and I wanted to show something like “yeah… suffering.” But Anton (my cinematographer) was very drawn to the salesman character and his emotional arc, somebody who is just so eager to sell things and so smug about it ending up being really bad at his job. It was hard for me to let go of my ideas at first, but then I watched Wild Tales. I was so excited about the way Damián Szifron pushed the limit of a situation that I just did what he did, running with the absurdity of a situation.

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

Well, most of the members on my team are my personal friends and we worked with each other before, so there was a sense of trust. But a sense of trust is not like blindly complimenting each other. I think in “The Favourite,” Lady Sarah says “No. Sometimes, you look like a badger. And you can rely on me to tell you.” And when Queen Anne asks why. Lady Sarah says, “Because I will not lie! That is love!” So sometimes trust is saying “you look like a badger.” But it would be incredibly hard if somebody takes offense and it won’t work and somebody probably end up crying in the bathroom. But I’m like that. I say it. It’s tough sometimes, but thank God my collaborators understand me.

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

It is and it isn’t. Cinema needs its audience. I think it’s a filmmaker’s role to please them and to entertain them, but it’s also the filmmaker’s responsibility to challenge them. Sometimes challenging them is by not worrying about the audience like they’re toddlers. Let them be confused and see if they get more pleasure through figuring the characters out by themselves.

  • 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 have never submitted to festivals before and I’m only recently starting its process with this MOS project and my thesis film “Out of Place.” I think it’s quite fun to see what’s out there and it’s really motivating to see that maybe you’re not as bad as you think you are.

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

Of course fresh. I think that’s the only way to be. Or you know sometimes it’s your biggest nightmare realizing that your story is being told out there by people who are better at executing than you are. And you just ask yourself “Why? Why am I still doing this?” The answer has to be “Because I’m doing something that cannot be done by anybody else. Even if it’s a failure, it has to be unique in some way.”