Film Features

2018 Student Academy Awards: Luke and Wenting Deng Fisher’s EMPTY SKIES

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Surfing the wave of last year’s Time’s Up movement, the 2018 Student Academy Awards feature a batch of outstandingly diverse directors and stories. With four of its eight nominated films shot outside of the United States (from mainland China to Haiti), the ripple effect of championing diversity and acknowledging minority voices in Hollywood can be felt all the way to this year’s recognition of young talent. That isn’t to say that the Student Academy Awards haven’t always been rather diverse (just look at our roundup from last year), but the expressly political nature of this year’s batch proves that fighting for social justice is the current state of mind—and for good reason! With this series, Merry-Go-Round will be highlighting all eight films nominated in the Live Action – Domestic category.

Directors have worked in teams for decades, but it’s rather uncommon to find a pair that is married. Enter Luke and Wenting Deng Fisher, a husband-and-wife duo that met at Ohio University and got married shortly after the completion of their thesis film, EMPTY SKIES. After having garnered the attention of the Academy, Luke and Wenting can rest assured that the nigh-insurmountable challenge of filming an untold piece of Chinese history in the United States not only worked, but paid off in spades. As a Chinese native, Wenting worked together with her husband to bring this vision to life, shining a light on The Great Sparrow Campaign, a tragic era in which Chinese farmhands drove a species of sparrow to near extinction, only to have locusts and famine decimate villages, resulting in the death of 30 million citizens.

My first question is very specific to you guys. You’re the only directing duo, so what’s the process like for you as a directing team?

Luke: Before we even got into the directing part, we co-wrote the script together. Wenting is from China so she’s an expert on the history and the time period. The idea originated from the forward of a book that I bought her. I found it really interesting and shared this with her. I told her to make a short film about it, but nothing happened for a while. I kept bothering her about it and she kept thinking about it and eventually we worked on a script.

Wenting: We had to do some research since I didn’t grow up in that time period. I had heard a few things about it since the story of the sparrows is quite well known in China, but I didn’t know the exact details of the events.

Luke: The writing process was interesting. Wenting acted as the BS meter and would tell me, “No, they wouldn’t do that. No, they wouldn’t say that. No, that’s not right.” It was me throwing out a lot of stuff and then her kind of selecting what made sense. We still had too much material, so the two of us would make certain changes and build the story. Having written it together made directing it much easier.

Wenting: Of course, we wrote in English first so both of us could understand. Once that was all done, I’d translate and polish it into Chinese.

Was it a thesis film for the school?

Wenting: Yes it is.

Luke: And it fulfilled Wenting’s thesis requirement. I actually had a separate one that I made to graduate.

What is the thesis process like at your school?

Wenting: It’s a three-year program and in our third year we are set free to do our own work and make whatever we want. Every film has a committee of teachers and we have to go through them. We have to meet with them for script development, pre-production, and post. But in the process there are a lot of opportunities to apply for grants and scholarships. That’s how our film was funded. But since our film was more ambitious, we had to reach outside of school to find support that could help us make the film.

Luke: The committee process is interesting too, since they start in the script phase and you keep getting notes and feedback. There are a lot of mentors. And it was really great support.

Empty Skies

Where did the crew end up coming from?

Wenting: Most of the crew is from LA since we shot the film there. We flew out there from Ohio, of course, and our DP came from New York.

Luke: A lot of our camera and lighting department came from our cameraman. The way we found our DP is interesting too. Ed Lachman (CAROL, FAR FROM HEAVEN) is one of our alumni.

Wenting: I happened to be one of his PAs when he came to Athens, Ohio for a film festival. I spoke to him about our film and he recommended his apprentice, Tinx Chan. We reached out to him and he was happy to come on board.

Luke: Tinx was great to work with. One of our producers found our sound guy. One of our Ohio friends brought on recent undergrad students to come help on the shoot as PAs. In terms of directing, Wenting and I had a roundtable with Tinx and discussed how we think scenes should play out. We didn’t really talk motivation and all that with Tinx, but we discussed blocking a lot. Wenting and I never really disagreed, though. We really saw eye to eye. Wenting is actually a DP herself so our approaches to filmmaking are a little different. I’m more of a writer-director-editor myself, so I get very concerned about angles and how things edit together. Wenting thinks a lot about light. Since our film is totally outdoors, we spent a lot of time talking about how to get the right images with natural light. Tinx had a really great time bouncing off of us. In terms of directing actors on set, it was quite funny. I don’t speak Mandarin, but I can speak the script. After so many rehearsals, I just knew what was being said, and the assistant cameraman who spoke Chinese asked me if I spoke Mandarin. *Laughs* We definitely split up responsibilities. Wenting was on dialogue police and I checked out the emotions.

Wenting: The kids were bi-lingual. They are born and raised in the United States. Since they grew up in a Chinese, household they spoke Chinese.

Empty Skies

What was it like working with Chinese-Americans who had to play a very specific version of a mainland Chinese child from a certain time period?

Luke: Before we even get into that, it was actually surprisingly hard to find children who spoke fluent Mandarin. Which is kind of a surprise, because LA has such a large Chinese population. Parents who had been here a generation or two networked within the acting community, but their kids didn’t really speak great Mandarin. It was basically impossible to find Chinese parents who want their kids to act. It isn’t that we put out a casting call and nobody showed up. We literally went to schools and language classes, scouting for kids, but it was so hard to find that specific child. We thought they’d line up for this since we wanted to represent Asian diversity in film, but it really was a challenge.

Wenting: I really was hesitant having Chinese-Americans playing mainland Chinese children. I wasn’t very sold on that idea. We had a casting director who gave me tons of portfolios. It was really hard for me to say yes to anyone. But there was this one girl whose mom was very supportive. I spoke with her a bit and realized she was really smart and could learn very quickly. She was really amazing and had a great resume. She’s even a SAG actress.

Luke: She was in BOSS BABY after our film.

Wenting: I gave her a second chance for the callback, and since the shooting was getting close, we really had to cast soon.

Luke: We didn’t lock our lead until four days before the shoot. We actually got him through the girl’s mom. Because she knew who to talk to and where to find Chinese kids that spoke the language well. I always expected these child-actor parents to be very pushy and difficult, but I was so thankful that we had this amazing woman. She wasn’t just supportive of her daughter, she was supportive of the whole project.

Wenting: We had really great rehearsal sessions with the kids. Worked on their accents and lines. But to answer your question more precisely, I think they played the roles really well. A little side note: The boy was actually Chinese-German, so his hair was brown. But after the makeup test, we dyed his hair black and made him look really legit. *Laughs*

Luke: His friends at school got a kick making fun of his black hair. But to philosophically answer your question, we didn’t want our film to be super depressing. We didn’t want it to just be about how terrible these kids lives are. Sure, it’s a depressing time period, but we tried to find those moments where kids find fun and enjoyment; that universal quality of childhood, kids being kids regardless of their circumstances.

My next question was going to be about your process of working with the adult actors.

Luke: One of the most interesting characters for me is the communist cadre. It was important to me that he shouldn’t just be a villainous guy. I don’t think viewers would like him in the film, but I wanted the rehearsals to really focus on why he was behaving the way he was. I wanted him to be a good person who was forced to do bad things. I think there were too many people in China doing bad things for them all to be bad people. That was the complexity of the character to me. So when we spoke about it, we centered his character around the idea that he knew what would happen to these children if they wouldn’t obey and follow the demands of their government. He did this to protect them as the cadre of their village. Sure, we can argue about what is right and wrong, but he was able to justify his behavior as protecting the kids. And my favorite moment in his performance is where he asks the kid to kill the sparrow; the cadre actually looks away. It’s that subtle moment of shame or empathy that the cadre doesn’t want to seem weak.

Empty Skies

What is next up for you?

Wenting: Speaking for myself, I’m more of a cinematographer. I’ve been trying to shoot more projects but really, I really enjoyed the writing process and collaborating with Luke. So we’ve got some feature ideas and even TV pilot concepts we’ve been working out.

Luke: Yeah, Wenting and I are definitely working on things. One of the ideas we have is also a Chinese theme, but it’s a different time period, and different story, although it is also historical. Recently I was hired as the director for a corporate client, but I’m always looking to direct and script doctor greenlit material and work more on things other people have written.

In an ideal world would you guys work side by side?

Luke: Well we are married, so we’re always side by side. But yeah, we’d absolutely be open to directing. I fought with myself more than I fought with Wenting during the shooting, though we weren’t actually married when we shot EMPTY SKIES.

Thank you so much for talking to me about this!

No, thank you so much for doing this and getting the word out about our film!

Catch EMPTY SKIES on the festival circuit this year, and keep your eyes peeled for more of Luke and Wenting’s work down the line!

Sergio Zaciu
Sergio is the Merry-Go-Round Magazine Film Editor and a film connoisseur from Romania. He pretends to understand culinary culture enough to call himself an LA foodie, but he just can't manage to like scallops.

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