I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Xinyi Zhu, director of the brilliant new short-film: Kindling. This Coming-of-Age Drama focuses on estranged friends who reunite when one needs the other’s support through an abortion.
Hi Xinyi, where are you calling from today?
I’m in Los Angeles; I’ve been here since the start of the lockdown. I’m planning to move back to my home country, China, maybe soon, but I currently live in LA.
Did you move to LA to study film?
I moved to LA seven years ago for my undergraduate study in Psychology at UCLA, but I’m now studying film at USC.
How did you get involved as a director on Kindling?
Kindling was made in a class at USC. Every semester the school chooses three narrative films to fund, they selected three directors and gave us a bunch of scripts. Usually they are pretty non-relevant stories, but I found Kindling and I really felt like that was me and my friends, and just my experience told in another way. So I pitched for it and I got it.
Did you work much with the writer throughout the process?
Yeh- The writer came up with the original script, which is structurally and tonally very different to what is now the final film. I would say I worked a lot with the writer. Originally the script was kind of snarky and there were a lot more plot lines, but I wanted to cut down on all the extraneous stuff to have this prolonged silence and unspoken conflicts between the two women. I think the writing process never stopped until the end product. A lot of the actual footage came not from the re-writes, but from the rehearsal.
So the writer, Sheridan Watson, was happy for you to make those changes and move things around a bit?
Yeh! I really appreciated the essence of the story she had originally. And I think she appreciated my point of view as a director. When I made my pitch, it was not just that I chose the story but she also chose me. She watched my reel and we all agreed to work together.
Do you have experience with writing? Is that something you are interested in doing yourself?
I do write, it was just the class’s structure that every person only had one position. I’m a writer/director. I actually just finished my first feature script during the pandemic.
What subject matter are you attracted to as a director?
I’m interested in topics about women and women’s rights. Growing up, as a teenager exploring my gender and sexuality I didn’t have much guidance. I was reading old French books like The Second Sex and stuff like that. I couldn’t find a lot of contemporary stuff that would be much easier to absorb as a teenager. Even now I am constantly looking for that. I love when films talk about women’s issues and women’s lives in a normal situation. I feel like people shy away from talking about abortion, saying “it’s in Alabama it’s not around us”, but that’s so not true. I know so many women who have had abortions. That’s from my Grandma to my Mum, to my friend’s Mums, to my friends. I think it is really important to normalize these conversations.
I also feel like as a woman, all of the female relationships I’ve been in, especially the ones that are super close, they aren’t as simple as “just friendship”. I think there’s a big sense of family in it when we get really close, and a bit of romance as well. It’s really ambiguous but I think the only way to define it is to call it women’s intimate relationships. I’ve always wanted to make a film about that.
Would you say you were trying to convey a message with this film? If so what was it?
I think there is a pro-choice message in there for sure. But I think the portrait of the pro-choice is created by showing the two women making a choice. I think the pro-life and pro-choice debate is kind of meaningless, because to me it’s so obvious that a human being needs to have a choice. Pro-choice means she can choose life if she wants, because pro-choice is so big it covers pro-life. I think showing a woman making a choice is the message.
The film seems to be getting some attention for awards, why do you think that is?
First of all I think I had two really amazing actresses who had really amazing chemistry. Also, I think the subject matter is quite “current”. I’m happy that people are thinking that this is worth showing- the concept of normalizing woman’s struggles.
Why and how did you get into directing, and what are some of your career goals?
I got into directing actually quite late. I always liked filmmaking but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do in it, and I really tried lots of things. I started with producing and production design. When I decided to study at USC, I thought I would only work on writing/directing because that’s what I want to do even though it’s a risking profession. I think I can only write what I can direct, but I enjoy directing so much that I want to direct everything. Going forward, I want to move towards work that has more of an Asian heritage, set in my home town, is literally about my own story and that’s culturally specific.
What’s next for you career-wise?
I’ve joined a new media group where I will direct animation that’s about female sex education, and it’s in Chinese. I’m really passionate about this project because when I was growing up nobody educated me about these things. Even when I as reading some of the research I was like “I never knew this”! I also just finished a short-film script about a teenage girl who wants to run away before the collage entry exams, but that’s all been put on hold during these lockdowns. Then the feature that I just wrote- which is set in my home town- I’ve been sending around to some contacts. I’ve also been making plans to act in a friend’s project about two women’s relationships, which I think she wants to make into a feature. I just feel like I can’t stay still!
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