Days Nine and Ten
The heart of the film is in the domestic scenes between the husband and wife. While I feel the point of view of God’s Land is from the child, Ollie (Matthew Chiu), it’s the conflict between the parents that sets everything in motion. The father, Hou (Shing Ka), was a successful doctor and gave everything away to join this cult—which has relocated its members to suburban Garland, Texas—and his wife, Xiu (Jodi Lin), is a non-believer. The key scenes we are shooting over the weekend involve testing the marriage. One of the scenes involves the two of them in bed: The husband is trying to sleep, the wife wants to speak with him about the past, how they met, the time Hou met her father and felt so uncomfortable because he didn’t know what to say, and also to get him to talk about how she was the most beautiful woman in school, a beautiful flower in a sea of “frumpy bespectacled weeds.” It’s one of the scenes we used for the auditions, and I always found it to be incredibly poetic and beautiful, as well as tense—not to mention familiar. I think guys have a habit of rolling over and going to sleep when women want to talk. “Just go to sleep,” Hou mutters, “or at least let me sleep!”
But of course she doesn’t, and he rolls over and starts going through his own memories of her. It’s the scene where we see the past relationship, and what drew them to each other. But also it shows their incompatible desires about the future, where she discusses what her son might be doing ten years from now, how the father should teach him about girls, and Hou believes they will be “nowhere” by that time—in another dimension.
Watching Jodi Lin work has been one of the great pleasures of making God’s Land. Like the best actors, she’s emotionally available, able to tap into resources of vulnerability or fierceness or tenderness with a rich inner life. But right from her audition, when she spoke about her mentor Robert Woodruff, one of the great American theater directors, or how she worked with the experimental, playful Charles Mee on his play Queens Boulevard, I also knew her to be very articulate, which is rare among American actors. If I had to compare her to someone, she reminds me of the subtle, nuanced Sam Neill—someone who builds a part. While I’ve never talked in depth with her about process, we’ve joked around about Polish para-theatrical guru Jerzy Grotowski and his exercises (the joke was not about his brilliant work, but how he said yoga is bad for actors—and I think a little humor is good when you’re discussing being in a rehearsal room walking around in circles holding your ankles). But our jokes make me think of icebergs, where you see the tip of it above the water and below are unimaginable depths.
Jodi has had a rich experience in the theater, and judging from her work she must be an interesting person—I believe you have to be interesting, in real life, if you are to be an interesting actor. But what I adore about her is that she carries that with her and doesn’t make a big deal out of it, or ever talk about it. In fact, she’s quite hilarious—her voice is soft and she’s often saying really funny things. Whenever I run into her by accident in Manhattan, she’s wearing round impish sunglasses and carrying around a canvas bag of fruit or something, and has such a cheery demeanor that implies she doesn’t take things, or herself, too seriously.
But when Preston calls action on a scene, it’s quite moving to me to see that transformation. She effortlessly goes into that zone, for lack of a better word, that you have to find when you’re playing a part. I think when you’re acting a role you’re really tapping into certain deep parts of yourself. And when Jodi reveals those sides of herself, I am drawn into her. I think this is what great acting can do. Somehow you find something familiar from life reflected back at you, and if it’s truthful acting, it has the paradoxical effect of bringing you, the viewer, closer to yourself. People always say they lose themselves when they listen to a great piece of music or see fantastic movies or theater or look at a wondrous piece of art, when in fact I think it’s the opposite.
So this bedroom scene takes place at night, and it’s frustrating because we’re shooting during the day and have to gel the windows with blue to simulate moonlight, but we’re filming during magic hour and the sun is rapidly going down, and the further it sinks the more we have to tear gel down off of the windows to get an exposure. It’s almost nauseating for me to have to do this distracting work while the actors are trying to carry on with the scene, but Preston (who is behind the camera for this bit) sees what the picture is doing, and knows what he needs. I duly comply with his every request with the bare minimum of bitching about it, and remain surprised by the atmosphere Preston creates on-set, which is so laid back that even as we’re rushing, the actors seem quietly comfortable and fully involved in their characters and the scene. When Preston does one particular close-up involving their two faces, he is amazed at how eerie the image has become in this tender scene, and he gasps, “It’s like Bergman’s Persona…”
Jackson Ning, who plays Teacher Chen, is performing what, in the script, is a very brief scene of him in a small classroom of children. Xiu brings Ollie into the class, dropping him off, and the teacher introduces him to the class. On the page, it’s not much—more of a transitional beat—but since we’re talking about what actors can bring to a moment, it’s fair to say they can take something that seems insignificant and transform it into gold. Jackson improvises an entire classroom lecture where he is introducing the children not only to each other, but to a tall green plant that is standing in the corner—and then he starts getting the kids to chant a mantra about plant power, perhaps as a way of rejuvenating its dying leaves, saying that their very thoughts can bring the plant back to life. Jackson not only captures the enthusiasm of teaching, but also Teacher Chen’s surprising way with children. More than any other scene, it allows you to understand why these characters are following him in this cult—anyone who can break down the barriers with children, respecting them but also leading them, and able to keep a handful of kids entertained and involved, have some kind of charismatic power. Jackson found this revelatory quality in what seemed, on the page, like a minor scene. Preston is smiling behind the camera.
“One and done—Clint Eastwood style!” says assistant director Alex Gavin after we finish a shot of Xiu and Hou sitting on their couch during a climactic scene of the movie, where their conflict rises to the boiling point. “We have to talk about this as a family,” Xiu says in response to a crisis spreading throughout the cult, whereas Hou responds solemnly, “No, you have to choose for yourself what to do.” As I recall, we don’t rehearse the scene very much, though the actors run their lines exhaustively. We plan to cover it in a dynamic medium shot—which starts with Hou alone as his wife passes back and forth in front of him picking up the mess of their apartment, then sits next to him to fight for their marriage—followed by two close-ups.
We do a very basic, rudimentary blocking for camera. Then we roll camera and run the scene, which lasts for maybe five minutes.
And it’s one of those moments when time actually seems to stop. The blocking, the performances, the angle of the camera—somehow, it all comes together, but the main thing is the performances. Remember when I said earlier that great acting draws you in? Something in Shing Ka’s stoicism, his minimalist acting where he tries to hold himself back, really hurts in this scene—you can see him quavering underneath. And Jodi Lin expresses herself with her entire body, and when desperation takes hold we see her curling up all over the couch, practically wrapping herself around Shing, and as her character tries to stay strong, something breaks in me. I feel tears streaming down my face. And on set, I’ve defined myself as a hard-driving, intense, rigorous, sometimes playfully macho guy who’s always cracking the whip, pushing the machine forward, sometimes playing bad cop, always aggressive. But this scene in particular feels so close to home, I can’t help but cry my eyes out.
And Preston and our director of photography Arsenio Assin are similarly moved. I think Preston also wipes away a tear, and Arsenio is visibly shaken up.
Preston calls cut very softly, and then there’s a discussion as long as the scene itself about whether we should even bother doing any additional coverage, because all of the loaded emotional power was found within that shot. We decide to watch playback in order to make a decision, and while sitting there taking in the images, I cry again. You know, I never cry when I’m making a movie. Maybe I was feeling sensitive that day. But man, something in that scene clutched right at my very heart. And it affected Preston and Arsenio, too, and the actors, and everyone—and collectively we decided that we shouldn’t bother with the coverage, and frankly, why bother with take two? The actors went for it that time, and found something. To do it again would be, frankly, mechanical. It’s in the can, one and done, and we call it a night.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a series of on-set reports on God’s Land, a feature film written and directed by Preston Miller.