The following interview was originally featured on Los Angeles Film Awards.
Filmmaker in the Spotlight: an Interview with Ann Huang
January 24, 2018
Ann Huang is a filmmaker based in Newport Beach, California. She was born in Mainland China and raised in Mexico and the US. World literature and theatrical performances became dominating forces during her linguistic training at various educational institutions. Huang possesses a unique global perspective on the past, present, and future of Latin America, the United States, and China.
Recently, Huang’s debut experimental short film Palpitations of Dust won an Honorable Mention award at the Los Angeles Film Awards.
In the following interview, Huang takes us on a journey from her childhood in China, through her MFA studies at Vermont College of Fine Arts, to making her debut film. She inspires us with some unique thoughts about creativity, writer's block, and storytelling.
Ann, you have quite a fascinating upbringing—born in China and raised in Mexico and the US. Tell us about your background. Was your family artistic? How do you feel your early childhood experiences and memories play into your work?
I was born and raised in Mainland China. I’m from a physician's family that had three generations living under the same roof in a house that lacked a proper sewage system and water heater. My passion for words dates back to my childhood. One of my essays, "I Saw Your Back", won numerous awards in the Children's Palace and was later published on the school board.
When I was fourteen, my parents took me out of China during the Tiananmen Square Protests of 1989. They were the scholar recipients for a medical exchange program in Mexico City. There, I adopted Spanish as my second language along with the country’s inexhaustible culture.
My childhood memories have, in many ways, instilled in me the source of inspiration for work. Having said that, I could never forget my days of learning two new languages simultaneously in a class filled with Mexican classmates, my first three-hundred memorized Chinese poems from Tang’ Dynasty, Tai Chi classes with my grandfather, the Chinese Civil War songs my maternal grandma used to sing me while lying half-paralyzed on her bed, where she remained for nearly a decade of her late life.
When did you begin writing poems?
I took up writing novellas and poems right after deciding not to become a law student.
World literate and theatrical performances were dominating forces during your linguistic training at various educational institutions. Can you elaborate on that? Which institutions did you attend?
During high school in Mexico City’s Thomas Alva Edison, I volunteered in a theater where I was exposed to many local plays and rehearsals. I also performed in a few school plays. After high school, I was transferred to Baruch College, The City University of New York. New York City's raw energy at the pinnacle of the world's cultures further enhanced my zest for American literature. By taking a number of humanity and English courses, I gained great exposure to the grandest ideas of the brightest minds of American history. When I am not at the museums, libraries, or theaters, books are an extension of my living.
The works of two feminist writers were shaping my vision during my college years. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman and Doll House by Henrik Ibsen. Both have protagonists who were very vulnerable at the beginning of the story, and yet transformed to become someone they would hardly believe they would by the end of it. The transformation during and the twist at the end of the story-telling process piqued my interests in literature and writing.
Why did you decide to move to Newport Beach?
I moved to Newport Beach after co-founding a brand of home healthcare products and had to move my office out of my garage. Newport Beach is close to where I work—it has been known as the surfer’s paradise. Though I am not a surfer, I am an avid beach runner and love to watch surf contests.
There is a beach I love to run on with my Frenchie, especially during the winter months. I’ve learned to appreciate the experiences and sensations that words and films can’t capture. I love where I live.
Where do you draw your inspiration from these days?
I almost always draw my inspiration from my dreams. I have always held a strong belief that dreams should not be thrown away as they become known to us even though they seem surreal and irrational to our consciousness. Instead, they need to be channeled to guide us to our destiny.
Growing up in Mexico, I was been exposed to Wilfredo Lam’s house and La Casa Azul, the house of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, located in Mexico City’s San Angel Inn area, which is now populated by local artists. When I first saw Rene Magritte’s painting titled “Homesickness” there, I was in complete awe.
In Magritte’s painting, the painter’s half-waking self with wings, the lamp post, the lion, and all of them on a balcony in the night reaffirmed my homesickness from over two decades ago when I left China for Mexico. I frequently dreamed about the balcony of my childhood apartment during the first year I moved to Mexico City. In my dreams, there were a lamp post and a lion and I was hoping to climb down each time I visited that balcony. Then I realized that the dreams I was having were an indication of my homesickness for my homeland.
Do you ever experience a writer's / poet's block? If so, how do you handle it?
Before I went to Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA), I felt hopeless about keeping my creative mojo. Then I met with my mentor, Jean Valentine, in AWP Denver and was introduced to her work. Upon her recommendation, I applied for the Master of Fine Arts program at VCFA. There, not only had I formed my network, I had also discovered the foundation of my writing’s inspiration: the surrealistic gestures coupled with automatic writing processes in igniting creative sparkle.
Over the years, you’ve published several books: Love Rhythms, Delicious and Alien, and White Sails—these are available for purchase on your website and at Barnes & Noble. When did you publish your first poetry collection and what was the process like?
I published the first poetry chapbook Love Rhythms back in 2013 with Finishing Line Press. It was the first thing to bring me back on my feet after a long period of rejections. I was getting so many of them that I lost track. I was aloof and feeling neglected—it was mentally draining. Then an acceptance letter came in the mail and their first line was something like, ‘Since you never replied to our acceptance letter via email ...’
The process was straightforward. The editors would send me galleys for review and we had a smooth cooperation. Later, Amazon reached out to me about creating an audiobook for the same book. I asked my editors about my rights and they were very helpful in granting me those.
How did you come up with the idea to make the movie Palpitations of Dust?
While creating my audio book for Love Rhythms, the idea of creating something visual came along. Then on my book signing night for Love Rhythms at Laguna Art Museum, I met with my photographer, Eric Stoner. We became friends and he mentioned the house where he worked and that he thought it would be a great location for shooting our first poetry film.
This is when I thought I could actually bring out more of my pure lyrical poems through the process of filmmaking. That way, the once one-dimensional placeholder for my poems could transcend to be multidimensional with imageries, visuals, and sonic impressions that accentuate the flavor of each poem’s essence. We thought it could be a huge breakthrough for showing the depth of the poems as well. They would no longer be constricted to the paper and would become alive, just like the way they are in their creator’s mind.
Palpitations of Dust is your debut film as a writer and director. Congratulations on creating such a wonderful short! How did you prepare? Did you attend any film school for training? And what did you find most challenging about creating this movie?
Thank you so much. I am so happy to see Palpitations of Dust receive its awards and acclaim in the film festival circuit.
Before making Palpitation of Dust, I hadn’t taken any film classes, but I had amply read film-related books and articles during my final critical thesis semester at VCFA. I was drawn to the surrealism that followed the Dadaism and was very much tuned in to their gestures.
We had a great film location. The owners of the house have hundreds and hundreds of paintings and hand-painted works of art. It is a collector’s house. We were a very small crew and were all invited to preview the house and loved it. We did some sample shoots and planned the scene takes.
The most challenging task was to create scenes not only to interpret but also transcend the poems. Even though I wrote these poems myself and had a vague idea about their visuals, there could be a thousand different ways to interpret them. Because of this, I let the color choice for key production materials help me decide which way to go.
For instance, I have both a painting of Rothko and a radio that is domineering in red and there is a room in that house that has one wall painted red. We decided to start the film from that room and chose red as the dress color for the female protagonists in that poem-section. Then everything fell together quite neatly.
In another scene, I had the female lead Tatiana walking anxiously in a room next to a purple couch. I matched her dress to the room’s interiors so that her physical stance would blend in as much possible and make her anxiousness more apparent.
Another challenging task was to capture ‘magical’ moments that we encountered, which were not contemplated beforehand. One instance was the shooting of protagonist’s (Tatiana’s) death scene. We saw a light reflection through ceiling onto a spot on the ground and immediately knew that was it. It was a magic moment to capture, yet we were very nervous because we knew the light reflection could fade away quickly. We tried to complete that scene within one to two takes.
Let’s talk about some technicalities. How many days did you have to shoot? Did you shoot each poem-section separately?
We finished shooting the whole film in one-and-a-half days. The first day started out at 9:30am and we wrapped around 10:00pm that night. The next day, we did the drone shoot, the beach shoot, and the shoot of the car parked outside the house. It took us a couple of hours to film that morning.
We didn’t shoot each poem-section separately. We had to shoot everything inside the house in a single day, as we were asked to do.
Tell us about your collaborators: Dean Nathan, Eric Stoner, and Tatiana Rozo. How did you get them on board and what was the collaborative process like?
Dean is a terrific wedding videographer and a friend of Eric. Tatiana is my colleague and had never acted on camera before. As soon I told each of them the storyline along with the scenes, they were all very excited. Making a poem film was a new thing for all of us.
The process was very smooth and fun. I planned the production materials for Eric and Tatiana and made sure they knew what they would be wearing for each poem-section scene. We brought in the production materials for the mise-en-scene. We started by defining the room and rolled the camera.
Dean was very professional and collaborative with his camera work. He was a perfectionist behind the lens and shot endless retakes for each scene while I was directing the crew to build up their emotions.
Eric was very helpful in grasping the quality of light and ideal angles for each scene and shifted to be in front of camera the next second. It was a different role for him since he was used to being behind the camera. However, he was not shy at all and performed very well. He did a splendid job on evoking the emotions that were infused into the storyline.
Tatiana was also an indispensable asset for this film. Her naturally bold and swift reactions to the camera were outstanding. She captured the true soul of the female protagonist in each of the poem-sections and rendered it freely.
During post-production, I worked mostly with Dean on editing the film. First, we put the visuals together in their most integral sense, skimmed through some unusual raw footage for key scenes, added on a few special effects, and then the music. It took us about five afternoons to finish up post-production. It was a heart-warming process and it felt good to have the film come into light this way.
The artwork featured in the movie certainly adds to the beautiful concept of the film. How did you come up with the idea to use the same actors for all poems, and what sparked the visual idea for each section? How did you find the locations?
The art pieces featured in the film were from the shoot location. A local museum wanted to borrow the artwork from the owners of the house (our film location). Subsequently, the owners commissioned Eric to register the paintings by taking closeup photos of them. That’s how we knew about the location.
During principal photography, we were very intrigued by the religious context of the artwork. I believed their inclusion to the film could add on a layer of contrast or tension. We asked for permission to use them and were glad that they were included in the film.
I never considered having multiple actors for the film-poems because I always wanted to have a more lineal storytelling ‘feel’ to the film. At the end of the story, it doesn’t matter if people still don’t perceive this as a lineal film. I tried to bring these non-lineal poems to life, and the only way to do this was to have a story to share with my audience.
Most of the visual ideas were on my storyboard, except for a few. For instance, for the scene where Eric and Tatiana are standing back-to-back and struggling to find their true home, I didn’t have the location figured out until we were on-site trying to find a treehouse like the one mentioned in the poem. Then I had the idea of taking the surreal aspect of the treehouse and turning it into a dream house that would become a void/nightmare. It worked brilliantly. It took us about twenty minutes to get this scene in place but I was very happy with the result. There, my film (one medium) and poetry (another medium) challenge and converse with each other’s form rather than simply echo it. That was the climactic moment of making a poetry film.
You used different styles of music for each section. What influenced the musical choices?
I like to have a distinctive oeuvre to synchronize with the visuals, especially by bringing in dissonance. I enjoy watching silent movies and always had the idea of creating a film with music contrasting/complementing to its images. I consider this another tangent of my experimentation. My music choices were somewhat disruptive and disjointing with the emotive themes for each poem-section: longing, joy, disarray, conflict, and loss. The ending was both anti-climactic and maddening.
“My poems (poem-film, subsequently) are intended for my readers/audience to take time on introspection instead of speeding through it.” We think Palpitations of Dust is exactly about that! What were some of the audience reactions you received?
When I was working on writing erasure poems (one of my favorite types of poetry), I learned that the less you write, the more you let people think through them and meditate on the content. Sometimes that is the beauty of art and poetry. I was very clear about chopping up the footage so much that every second would be meaningful and elusive enough for the audience to draw their own conclusions and reactions.
A nine-year-old girl who watched the film for the first time said she could tell the story would end badly. She pinpointed that the ending was cruel and somewhat predictable since there were two girls and one guy. I couldn’t help laughing aloud at that.
From their first viewing, most people didn’t get the story, yet picked up on the feelings of the protagonists. I would encourage the audience to watch the film two or more times in order to get a different grasp of the story, no matter how many different conclusions or ideas spring up each time. Others said they liked the calming effects of my narration as opposed to dialogue. That spoke to the beauty of poetry film.
Palpitations of Dust won the Best Experimental Film award at the 2017 Prince of Prestige Academy Award, Best Award at the Los Angeles Film & Script Festival, Best Experimental Film at the LA Cinema Festival of Hollywood, and most recently, an Honorable Mention: Experimental Film at the Los Angeles Film Awards. The most recognition always goes to the writer/director, but we wanted to ask, who are the people who helped you bring this project to life that you wish to thank?
Palpitations of Dust was a group effort. It is a film made through collaboration with lots of trust. I want to thank Eric for finding the perfect set location and for his trust in my poem film from day one. I want to thank Dean for entrusting my visions and enduring my timeless requests for perfecting it. I want to thank Tatiana for unwinkingly following my wardrobe demands and caring insurmountably about the success of this film.
I want to thank my husband for his never-ending support. I want to thank my parents for being my best cheerleaders. I want to thank my Frenchie, Ms. Asia, for being my sweetest non-speaking companion and being there when I needed her the most.
And I want to thank my poetry and film mentors who instilled in me the element of art, especially Jean Valentine and Ralph Angel, my pen-pals who drove me to be a better poet. I also want to thank the living and dead poets, writers, and psychoanalysts whom I never met in real life, but connected with through their writing, especially Carl G. Jung, whose beliefs in collective unconscious was the root of my work and Agnes Varda, whose pioneer energies in the genres of photography, film, and art were astounding.
What are your short-term career goals as a poet and as a filmmaker, and what are your long-term goals? Where do you see yourself in ten years?
I want to keep writing and publishing more poetry collections and making short films based on them.
My dream career is to make short poem films based on my poetry. My biggest ambition would be to create a TV series like ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS, except mine would be a mini-series solely based on poems with a surrealistic take.
Here are my next steps:
Continue filming the poetry adaptations of 5-6 poems in a batch;
Narrow down a marketing plan with materials that are niche-oriented;
Pitch the film to film festivals, indie film circles, and any other venues such as museums and film schools that might be interested in promoting art/poem films;
Create advocacy campaigns about poem film awareness via social media;
Find the right TV/show partners (even spokespersons) who are willing to try out the idea of a poem film mini series.
In sum, I want there to be an everyday household embrace of my poetry films. That said, commercially, I want to be able to interpret my poems in a better light so that a larger audience can identify with my work. Fundamentally, I want to continue recreating my poetry films so they never lose their intrinsic stance.
If you could have a short chat with 10-year-old Ann, what would you tell her about creativity, dreams, and aspirations?
This is such a wonderful question. I am not sure how to answer, but I know 10-year-old Ann would want to tell me about a lot of her dreams and aspirations. I would want to listen to her before I tell her that creativity is not an instrument. Creativity follows and surrenders to dreams and aspirations like a thirsty fellow needing food and water.
Dreams and aspirations go hand-in-hand, like the mother and father in a household. The household needs harmony and from that, creativity is born, like a child who is nourished by her mother’s passionate nature and by her father’s determination and tenacity. Together they form a strong and sweet household, building a dream-come-true world of joy and success.
What’s next for you? Are you in the process of developing a new movie? Are you working on a new poetry collection?
I am in the pre-production phase for my third short film called The Pines of Spring. I am simultaneously ‘re-visioning’ two of my book-length poetry collections, Saffron Splash and A Shaft of Light.
Where can our readers follow you and your work?