US filmmaker sees a wealth of possible stories to tell in China
The day that director Chris Eyre arrived in Beijing, the big news in the city was how a Ferrari had collided with a Lamborghini not too far away from the Bird’s Nest Olympic stadium.
“They said it had something to do with Fast and Furious 7,” said Eyre, who was in China for the first time and took the rumor to heart. “I wouldn’t doubt it,” he said.
The movie had grossed more than 2.4 billion yuan ($370 million) in one month since its release. It was also the first movie to earn that staggering amount in the ever-expanding Chinese market.
That market and the environment that propels its growth were part of the reason Eyre, best known for his 1998 Sundance Film Festival award-winning independent film Smoke Signals, had come to the Middle Kingdom.
Eyre, a member of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Native American tribes, has long been a go-to person for films about Native Americans. But the graduate of New York University’s Graduate Film Program has also been interested in producing films on other subjects and genres, including stories and characters new to him.
“People have been hearing about the rise of Chinese films for years, in Hollywood as in the whole Western world,” said Eyre, who is also the department chairman for Santa Fe University of Art and Design in New Mexico. “There is a lot of interest and focus on seeing what’s happening here.”
He added: “I am always interested in the Chinese film industry. I just want to be exposed to the things in front of me here.”
More than 600 films were produced last year in China, with moviegoers turning over a total of 30 billion yuan to cinemas in 2014. In the first 100 days of 2015 alone, revenue from the film market reached 10 billion yuan — almost 100 million yuan a day, according to statistics released during the recent Beijing International Film Festival.
Eyre doesn’t have a specifi film project about China underway, nor a favorite Chinese filmmaker or actor — at least not yet. The 47-year-old, however, has been taken by his visits to Shanghai, Beijing and nearby cities, and the project possibilities.
“The thing that strikes me is that there are so many people here. Shanghai is huge, Beijing is even bigger,” he said. “When I think about the millions of people here, I’m just totally astounded by the stories that could be told.”
Eyre said the desire to tell stories is the force that has driven him during a film career of more than 15 years. During his stay in China, he’s been busy snapping pictures of the country, where he said he senses “stories everywhere”.
During a tour of the Beijing Film Academy, an institute with 4,000 students and home to many of China’s most prestigious filmmakers, he was drawn to a high-end, eight-legged drone-camera, the DaVinci Resolve video and image editing software, and a virtual animation lab.
“See how small the world is. We all use the same things,” he said. “China is very exciting because so much talent is here, and so many people are embracing media.”
As to Chinese students, who were the other reason behind his China trip, Eyre had a chat with a class made up of literature, directing and animation majors, largely without a translator.
“The students here are the same as everywhere else,” Eyre said. “They’re talented and have a lot of ideas.”
For now, the film school at Santa Fe University of Art and Design doesn’t have students from the Chinese mainland.
“We welcome international students,” he told the class, stressing hands-on opportunities and scholarships provided by the school. And he may indeed soon spot new faces there.
“Nearly one-fourth of our graduates now go abroad for further study,” said Zhang Chen, lecturer at Beijing Film Academy. “More are planning to go, too.”
Zhang added: “So it would be very interesting to see what happens in four, five years, when the group of students comes back with an international background. They could bring huge changes to the industry here.”
Still, understanding another culture may not be as easy and smooth as using universal editing software.
As Eyre’s brief experience with the hip students showed, Meryl Streep is not always a familiar name or face for film students in China. And Natalie Portman’s look required a few moments to decipher. As for Eyre, Zhang Yimou and Chen Kaige (both Chinese directors famous within the country) were names that were slow to ring a bell.
The good thing is though, as Eyre says, “We’re open to everything.”