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God’s Land—Production Diary #5

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God’s Land—Production Diary #5

The following is the fifth in a series of on-set reports by producer Jeremiah Kipp on God’s Land, a feature film written and directed by Preston Miller.

Day Six: An Interview with Wayne Chang

We are approaching the middle of our shooting schedule, and finally making some headway. But as the weekends push on with God’s Land, the balancing act of juggling a dozen actors’ schedules is starting to wear on the production. Our lead actress, Jodi Lin, who is in almost every single scene, got paid work for the following weekend and we have to figure out how to shoot around that. Preston will have to operate the camera instead of Arsenio Assin, our director of photography, because he had a last minute schedule change. There would seem to be no romance and glory in making films at this no-budget level.

Undeterred by this is Wayne Chang, who plays the role of Richard Liu, company man and mouthpiece for the cult. He was a teaching assistant under their head guru Chen (played by Jackson Ning), and his wife and four sons feel he is privileged to be so close to the master. They were the first family to join the movement. Apparently, his two youngest boys had never tasted meat in their lives and had recurring nightmares about the apocalypse.

But Liu is enthusiastic, giving long-winded press conferences in his serviceable English about the flying craft that will carry the cult members to the fourth dimension, and how a barbecue pit surrounded by tiki-torches is not a model for their spaceship, but the spaceship itself—and the cooking grill is there to show the animals not to be afraid because the cult are vegetarians and won’t cook them and eat them. Weird, yes, but Liu commits himself fully, attempting to ingratiate himself with the reporters who are having none of it.

God's Land

Liu probably has more dialogue than anyone else in the film, and weekend after weekend we’re shooting press conferences where he stands at a podium and delivers his mission statements. I wondered how big a challenge it was learning all that text. “The thing is,” Chang responds, “I’ve been taking audition technique workshops. I always have sides to memorize, plus other audition materials. So yeah, my brain has become over-loaded with text. My biggest challenge was that the majority of lines are in broken English. Many of them do not make sense at all. They are also non-conversational, which makes it difficult to memorize.”

Chang continues, “But the big shocker really came on my first day of shooting, where I found out that there are two versions of the script. The one that I had was the ’edited’ version, where most of the press conference scenes had been removed. I only memorized what I knew at the time, then later in the day, my jaw dropped when Preston gave me his version of the script. ’What? More Lines?!’ I ended up cold reading the rest of the scenes. I really had to thank everyone for their patience, and assisting me in getting through. I also have a very bad habit, tending to memorize lines in sequence, with rhythm and beats. If the sequence is switched, then my brain starts having mental pauses.”

On a recent Sunday, Preston added even more pages of new lines to insert between his existing lines. “Preston, you have to stop doing this to me!” Chang laughs. “Ahhh! I’m gonna turn you into a frog with Teacher Chen’s magic ring!” While he was given some time on set to memorize, he was having to cold-read and act at the same time, react to his fellow actors, go back to his memorized lines, try to remember the order of the interview, go back to new lines, turn the page, new lines, old lines, et cetera. Try to imagine yourself in this situation. Chang sighs, “My brain was fried—or BBQ-ed!”

God's Land

Chang describes the way Preston works as being spontaneous, open-minded and compassionate. “He’s like a big kid. When we’re setting up, he’s always ready to insert unexpected elements into the scene. It’s rare to see a Director who is open to anyone’s suggestion. He really listens. He made us feel like a team. When he works on set, I feel how much he loves this project. He is so involved with every aspect of the production. And it really motivates me to give him 1000%. I trust him completely, which is why I didn’t rip his hair off when he gave me the new lines.”

There’s a family atmosphere on the set, and perhaps some of that has to do with Chang’s familiarity with the other actors. (“He knows everybody,” one of the other actors says, “always sending out casting notices to people if he thinks you’re right for the part—he should be a casting director!”) “I know Shing Ka (who plays Hou) but never worked with him. I was excited when I heard he auditioned for Preston, and even more thrilled when I learned he got the leading role. I have known Amy Chiang (who plays Vicki Wong) since 2005 and previously worked on an acting film with her—too bad she doesn’t get to showcase her amazing flexibility and dance ability in God’s Land.” He has also gone out of his way to help his co-stars learn Mandarin, even creating a “language tape” video on his blog to help them learn the pronunciation.

When Liu has his breakdown scene at the climax of the picture, his voice quavering as he tries to maintain his composure in front of an audience, the character’s entire value system is falling apart. Chang describes performing this scene as if being on a time machine. “As we know, our emotions come and go in split seconds with time. Emotion also evolves with time. For that particular scene, it was a heartbreaking and confusing moment in the character’s life. He goes into different stages of emotion before, during and after the end of the speech—so I had to keep myself focused on that particular timeline, keep myself strapped on the time machine in order to re-live the moment for the scene’s coverage.”

God's Land

But his favorite scene was a quieter one, a short one-on-one conversation with Hou. “That is the only scene where Richard Liu isn’t around Teacher Chen, the children, or other cult members,” Chang explains. “It was a great contrast between two men, who are of the same age—Liu and Hou knew each other from school—and from similar backgrounds, but have different values in their life. The scene is set up in a contradictory way. It was very emotional and dramatic for Hou, but the setting is casual. There was calmness in the air, quiet everywhere, when Liu steps onto the scene.” When Hou turns to Liu and asks him what he thinks, Liu responds by saying he will consult Teacher Chen. “No—what do you think?” Hou presses, and Liu is suddenly caught having to speak for himself, a rare moment in the film.

Back in 2006, Preston made an audio recording of God’s Land as a way of stirring up interest in the project. (It’s available in full on the DVD for his first feature, Jones.) Chang heard about the project through a friend, and that was his first attempt at the role of Richard Liu. When he was cast, he promptly listened to all of the audio recordings of the real person. “The more I dig into Liu’s personality and faith, the more I’m drawn to him. He’s a type of character I have never portrayed.” When performing the voice-over, “I made choices based on what people would expect from a cult member, but now that we’re making the movie, I see this as an opportunity to improve my performance; to bring myself to another level. I’m looking at him from a new perspective—his own.”

“I knew I wanted the part,” Chang says. “And I knew that I would nail the audition. Because at the moment I stepped into the audition room, I was Richard Liu.”

God's Land

Jeremiah Kipp’s writing has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications.