By Emma Marsano | Special to the Almanac
For many high school students, spring break means taking a couple of weeks off to relax. But for Zoey Lin, an international student in her junior year at the Woodside Priory in Portola Valley, spring break in April 2013 meant a trip to Hangzhou, China, to shoot a short film that she had helped write, cast and fund.
Zoey grew up in Hong Kong, where she learned English in school. As she got older, she felt compelled to spend most of her free time preparing for the standardized tests that she says dominate Hong Kong's educational system, rather than pursing her interests in photography and fashion.
Unhappy with the prospect of continuing to sacrifice her creative passions, Zoey decided to come to the United States for high school.
She applied to Woodside Priory's boarding school, and after enrolling, took advantage of the school's visual media and drama programs.
In January 2013, she and a friend began writing the script for a 40-minute feature film, "Butterfly Lovers." The movie is an adaptation of a well-known Chinese legend of the same name, which tells the tragic story of a young man and woman who fall in love, only to find out that the young woman's family has already arranged her engagement to a wealthy stranger.
At the end of the original legend, both lovers die, but their spirits live on together as a pair of butterflies (hence the legend's name).
Zoey knew when she began working on "Butterfly Lovers" that most English-speakers her high school classmates included would associate the film's basic plot with the Shakespearean tragedy "Romeo and Juliet." In fact, she was counting on that piece of shared cultural understanding, because one of her main goals in writing "Butterfly Lovers," a Mandarin-language film, was to make a movie that would be emotionally and culturally accessible to a young American demographic, with or without English subtitles.
But Zoey didn't limit herself to the structure of the ancient legend when she helped write "Butterfly Lovers." She had been inspired by the film adaptation of the novel "Cloud Atlas" when it was released in late 2012, so she tried to emulate author David Mitchell's technique of weaving together interrelated story lines from different time periods.
In Zoey's film, the young lovers of the original legend share screen-time with present-day versions of themselves; they are given the chance to start over together in modern times. Zoey's aim was to explore the idea that "whatever you did in the past affects your position in the future as well," and to demonstrate that in this day and age, we all have the freedom to resist societal pressure to conform.
Zoey also cites filmmaker Baz Luhrmann as a source of creative inspiration. She especially admires his ability to combine "detail in fashion with avant-garde filmmaking strategies," and to add modern elements to classic stories.
Zoey and her co-writer finished their screenplay in February 2013, and by April, they were ready to travel to China to begin filming. After arriving, they only had two weeks of spring break to shoot the movie. "So the timing was pressured."
"Pressured," as it turns out, is something of an understatement. Zoey and her 23-person cast and crew sometimes worked for 18 hours at a time, because for each day of filming, actors needed to don complex traditional Chinese costumes, and have their hair and makeup done.
Between February and April, Zoey recruited the costume designer, the makeup artists, the camera crew, and the actors who worked on her movie, by reaching out to friends she had made at various fashion events, photo-shoots, and cosplay conferences (events where fans of comic books, video games and films gather and dress up as their favorite characters). "There were a lot of people interested (in the film) because this was the first modern version of the legend," she says.
Zoey also needed to raise money, in order to rent lighting and camera equipment and pay her cast and crew. Ever resourceful, she offered product placement to a variety of businesses from furniture companies to animation studios to the car company Bentley Motors in exchange for sponsorship.
Even then, she still had one final obstacle to overcome: She had to negotiate with the local government of the city of Hangzhou for the chance to film scenes inside of the Hu Xueyan mansion, a residence that was commissioned in 1872 by one of the wealthiest businessmen of the Qing Dynasty.
Today, the home is a tourist attraction, but most of its rooms are kept blocked off from the public for preservation's sake.
Not to be dissuaded by such restrictions, Zoey got in touch with local government officials, and told them, "We are hoping to display China's beautiful legends and culture to the world." After a while, "they finally agreed to let us use about three days of shooting time," she recalls. "We couldn't use (any lighting equipment) and we had to talk really quietly; there were guards watching over everything."
After returning to California, Zoey saw her film through post-production, even adding in special effects herself. In June, the film premiered to an audience of 400 guests and reporters at the Sheraton Hotel in Hangzhou. After the premier, "Butterfly Lovers" received many positive critical reviews.
Zoey also received an offer from a production company that was interested in buying the film, but turned it down, because she had already signed a contract with youku.ch (China's equivalent to YouTube) to release the film online. Butterfly Lovers has garnered over 800,000 views on youku.ch since its release, and what's more, a shortened, 10-minute version of the film won the Legends of Hangzhou Micro-Movie Contest for 2013-14.
Having succeeded in such a massive undertaking as helping to write, produce, and direct a short film, Zoey says she is very grateful for all of the support she received along the way. She worked with Woodside Priory Visual Arts teacher Hovey Clark on the screenplay, and was encouraged at every step by her family.
"My dad always told me that, as long as I can bear the failure, (I can) go do whatever I want," she says.
Going forward, Zoey and her collaborators are considering extending "Butterfly Lovers" into a full-length feature film. She is also hoping to make another film this summer, after having such a great experience making "Butterfly Lovers."
"The part I really enjoyed was when the entire crew put their trust in me and in my vision of the film," Zoey says. In the end, she adds, "I think the result is more than we expected it to be."