Roseanne Liang is no film school reject. Although she was accepted into medical school, she instead studied computer science and film theory and went on to earn her Masters in Creative and Performing Arts at the University of Auckland. Liang then began her career in the industry as an assistant editor, but directing was always her ambition.
In 2005, she made her directorial debut with the documentary Banana in a Nutshell. Six years later, she adapted her doc into the biggest local film in New Zealand of the year: My Wedding and Other Secrets. It’s a romantic comedy with real conflict and stakes, a hard-earned happy ending, and questions more pressing than “will they or won’t they.”
The debut wasn’t the action-packed first at-bat Liang had envisioned for herself, though. “By then, I was already making shitty stupid action movies with no proper stunt crews or anything like that,” Liang says. “It’s in my blood. I can’t shed who I am or all the experiences that I’ve grown up with, I can’t shed my cultural influences. I can’t shed the fact that I was going to American movies and then coming home and watching Hong Kong martial arts movies on VHS. Those are the movies that make up my cultural DNA.”
Liang finally shot bone-crunching action with her visceral, blood-splattered short film Do No Harm (watch it here). As a result of a successful festival run, Liang met with the producer behind one of her favorite action movies, Atomic Blonde: Kelly McCormick. Together, they made Shadow in the Cloud in the exact style of personal whizbang action Liang had always aspired to make.
With Shadow in the Cloud now available to rent and arriving soon on Blu-ray, I got on a Zoom call with the filmmaker, who recently wrapped shooting a television show in New Zealand. Liang could’ve talked about action all day long. Action is, as she said, her first true love.
You portrayed film school life in your first movie, My Wedding and Other Secrets. Was that similar to your experience, talking about your love of Spielberg and Lucas and dealing with film school snobs?
Not quite as hilarious as all that, but I was writing ridiculous vampire noir. They weren’t that ridiculous. I was just interested in genre. I wanted to make genre movies. And then, this thing was happening in my life. My film tutor, who was one of those mentors, said, “Write what you know.” Write the truth. She said, “You’re going through this right now, why don’t you write about that?” She challenged me to put aside the vampire movie, put aside the Kung Fu movies and focus on what’s happening to me right now. I guess she was my Yoda. Concentrate on where you are. Maybe people will come and see that, and they did, certainly in New Zealand they did.
It was my first dramatic feature film. I feel people like me are expected to make movies like The Farewell. This is not to cast aspersions on The Farewell or any movie that is true and real. The fact is, my first feature film is something that’s true and real and related to me. I still maintain that that was the diversion, that was an important detour.
So, when you made Do No Harm, was it gratifying to finally fully realize the action you had in mind?
It was special. What happened with My Wedding and Other Secrets is that — it did really well in New Zealand. And then I went overseas to the UK sales agents to meet and greet. I asked, “Where else are we going theatrically in the world?” They said, “Oh no, we’re not going to release it theatrically anywhere else in the world.” And I was like, “What? You’re my sales agent.” And they were like, “No one goes to the movies to see movies like yours anymore. No one pays fifteen bucks to watch your movie, especially when there are no stars in it.”
I was gutted, I was absolutely gutted. Then I understood where they were coming from. Because I was that person. I wasn’t going to pay fifteen bucks to watch a quiet drama without people that I recognize. I was going to the movies to see action, horror movies, and sci-fi. And that’s when I realized I needed to turn back to my first love, which is the action genre.
We have a Film Commission here, which fosters New Zealand talents, and they put me on a number of internships. I learned a lot more when I went to Hong Kong. I interned there and just got to watch how people did it. By the end, I was able to make Do No Harm with a whole lot more knowledge under my belt. In fact, Do No Harm was supposed to be a proof of concept.
For a feature, right?
Well, it was a prequel, it was a completely different prequel that was an origin story of a supporting character. That movie I wanted to make has since been shelved, possibly forever. Because people became so enamored of Do No Harm, and it was always nothing more than a short to me. I thought it was everything that I wanted to say, in a short film, because I was aware that short film and feature film are two separate forms. A short film has to be about one idea or a much simpler idea. The simple idea was: what if a doctor who has sworn to protect life is forced to take it?
What screws can we turn to make her go against an oath that she’s taken? What is the first seed of corruption for this person, who later, when she’s older, has completely lost all sense of morality? So, that was all I wanted to do. To this day, Do No Harm is how I’m able to be talking to you, how I made Shadow in the Cloud, and how I’m now having conversations with Hollywood executives about how to make more movies.
I still don’t know how I did it. In a way, I was following my nose with Do No Harm. I never thought it would open the doors that it has. It’s terrifying to me because, do I know how to replicate it? I don’t, if I’m going to be honest. I don’t know how to replicate whatever magic I wove in Do No Harm.
How did you first feel coming out of film school?
I think I came out with a lot of hopes and dreams and wanting to be Orson Welles, a prodigy. But then, Robert Rodriguez’s 10 Minute Film School taught me this whole thing about how you’ve got at least ten bad films in you, so you may as well just start making bad shit. I think that advice was in his 10 Minute Film School or Rebel Without a Crew book, just like the front part of it, that prologue. There’s a lot of gold in there.
So, now I get asked to mentor sometimes, right? People will ask, what advice do you have for me? I will always point them to 10 Minute Film School and a thing called The Gap, too. Do you know that?
So look up The Gap by Ira Glass on YouTube. He talks about how The Gap is the gap between your killer taste and what you’re making right now. When you start out, that gap is really big. But as long as you keeping making a body of work and closing that gap, then that’s the way to become a successful creative person. I love that. When people ask, “What advice would you give to me?” It’s the classic you learn more from your mistakes than your successes. Early successes are very dangerous because you get full of yourself and you’re never interrogating yourself anymore.
When I came out of film school I certainly felt small. I knew that I needed to play a big game, but then also knew that I needed the confidence to jump in and do something and not worry too much about whether or not we’ll be good. See what happens, but also have the good sense to be able to gauge it and learn from it, because I think otherwise, people make bad work and just keep making the same movie.
You worked as an editor before directing. What did that experience teach you about directing?
I now work with editors who are better than me. I started assistant editing when I was at film school, and I worked my way in post-production. It was my bread and butter. You learn so much rhythm. The rhythm of storytelling. We need to cut fast, we need to cut slow, how to cut all those things. When I’m on set, inevitably there’ll be some AD will come and say, “We’re not going to make our day. We’ve got to cut something.” I can cut it without the struggle. That’s something that I think is useful. I can cut all the extraneous stuff and just get to the bare minimum of what I need, which is often all I have time for to shoot. Then at the same time, at the end, it will be, “Why didn’t you get that coverage? Why didn’t you keep on running? Why did you cut the tape there? Why don’t you just keep going?” I love coverage when I can get it out to coverage.
Where do you usually begin planning your action scenes?
Well, with action, I like to work with my stunt coordinator on that. I worked with this guy called Tim Wong, who cut his teeth stunting in Lord of the Rings and is now working on James Gunn’s Suicide Squad. He’ll tell me how to sell the shot. We worked together on Do No Harm like this. He rented some school gym on the holidays with his guys and was, “Okay, here’s how I think it should go.”
So if a guy comes in, and he’s tasked with killing the guy on the table, then why would he wait? Why do they need to flap their lips when their mission is to come in and kill the guy on the table? And then the DOP, the stunt coordinator, and I will talk about the best and most interesting way to execute that. What would be cool here is geography, so let’s talk about a top shot. Tim is the one who told me that a shorter lens, a wider lens, and coming straight towards you are more dynamic. So shoot wide and tight, and always have it coming towards you because it’s more visceral for the audience watching.
There are many studios, like Marvel, for example, that will reportedly tell filmmakers, “We’ve got the action covered, don’t worry about that.” Would you work under that condition?
I feel it’s saying, “Here is a meal, but I’m going to take away the yummiest part.” I love action design, and I wouldn’t do that. What happened with Black Panther? I feel like the rush that happened with the VFX… I don’t know the full story there, but the fight scene at the end of Black Panther is widely regarded as one of the worst examples of physics breaking VFX. To set up these incredible characters and relationships and then suddenly waste them in this very silly fight that no one cares about… I know this is rich coming from me, having my Shadow in the Cloud, which is widely regarded as one of the most physics-breaking movies.
Well, it is and it isn’t. I know that the show is ridiculous. We actually did gravity tests for a bunch of other stuff that no one talks about as true to physics. And I’m oh, “So you forgot?” So, that doesn’t count. If you don’t want to watch a silly fun movie, then just don’t watch this movie, just don’t [Laughs].