CFI Q&A With Joan Xu, Young Screenwriter in Beijing

  • The 26-year-old writer was recently a “Global Shaper” at Davos
  • Inspired by real-life stories, her next big project is a Chinese heist movie
  • Unfazed by censorship, optimistic about improving quality of films
(Photo courtesy Joan Xu)

(Photo courtesy Joan Xu)

Joan Xu, a Chinese-American who studied government at Harvard and cultural anthropology at the University of Chicago, was recently at Davos, invited there by a professor as part of the “Global Shapers” program at the World Economic Forum. In conversation at Davos, Xu focused not so much on the power of money in the movies, but rather on impact of the stories—i.e. the soft power—that get her generation excited in China, where she now lives. Barely old enough to rent a car freely in the U.S., Xu has written plenty for the largest television audience on the planet, including a show—The Circledescribed as Entourage meets Mean Girls. At a time when China’s biggest Internet companies are disrupting the film industry, with some saying that the screenwriting process can and should be crowd-sourced, Xu discussed with CFI editor Jonathan Landreth why it still takes an individual to develop an story from idea to screen.

How do you describe what it is you’re trying to do these days?

In a nutshell, I’m a screenwriter in the Chinese film industry. But what I aim to do is twofold: one, to write really good modern Chinese content, and by modern I mean Hollywood-style, structured and written in a way that is more familiar to Hollywood and younger audiences, but still telling local stories within that newer structure. The second element of what I’m trying to do is write Chinese content that might be able to appeal to international audiences. For a variety of reasons, that might take a while before that actually happens.

What were you doing before you found yourself doing what you’re doing now?

I am 26 years old. I’ve spent my life pretty evenly divided between the West and China. I was born in the U.S. while my parents were grad students, stayed there through their early years of professorship and then moved to Hong Kong when I was 10. I went to an international school there, and then moved to Beijing when I was 14, and then spent all four years of high school in a local Beijing high school, so mine was a fairly fusion childhood.

How do you pick which local story to tackle and apply a Western structure to?

Usually my inspirations come from real-life stories. From news articles, like when something really crazy happens and you see how it would fit into a full story. Or, you know, you hear something about an entrepreneur who does something that really encapsulates what young people like, or what they are thinking in this moment in time. It strikes some kind of chord.

How does life in China feel different from life at Harvard or Chicago?

For one thing, there is a lot more action oriented-ness in China. So many young people are starting businesses, becoming entrepreneurs, or even diving into creative industries. They are just going for it because there is still general optimism in the China market. Maybe not in finance, but in pretty much all the other industries. Like, for example, food and beverage, lifestyle, and the creative industries: a lot of what young people like to start. There is still a lot of optimism, so people are diving into it and doing it instead of trying to think about a career in a really structured way, or moving to only one place, like San Fransisco or New York, to do these kind of things.

Why were you at the World Economic Forum?

Professor Klaus Schwab, founder of the World Economic Forum, has this big vision for a platform where the major stakeholders of the world can get together and work on global governance, and he realized at some point that they needed the voice of the youth to join in. People were talking about millennials in these sessions and there wasn’t actually a millennial in the room. So, each year he brings 50 “Global Shapers” to Davos—people under the age of 30 doing cool kinds of globe-shaping things—to represent the youth and also kind of talk about the projects they themselves are doing. I got picked this year, and there were three Chinese delegates. The other two Chinese delegates were, one, building a huge platform for Chinese philanthropy, and, two, building a healthcare tech startup with 500 employees. It was very cool because usually the Chinese delegates at Davos tend to have language barriers, and the older delegates don’t know how to socialize in the more Western setting, so the three of us got a lot of face time with some cool people, simply because we were from China and willing to talk to everybody.

Who were those cool people and what did you talk to them about?

Justin Trudeau, the new hot prime minister of Canada.

Hot? What do you mean by that?

Oh, I mean incredibly good looking, but also hot with an incredibly, surprisingly awesome political message. It’s hard to list because Davos is chock-full of ministers and CEOs. Personally, the big highlight was getting to talk to John Green, The Fault in Our Stars author. He was there too and it was very, very cool to be able to talk about story ideas with him. It was kind of a dream come true.

Did he ask you questions about China, and stories and movies there?

Yeah, I think in general people are just curious about China and there isn’t much information in the mainstream out there about what Chinese movies, stories, and tastes are like.

The Fault in our Stars didn’t play in China did it?

I don’t think it came out in theaters in China, but Chinese audiences have seen it.

How do you know that?

Because when I posted a photo with John Green on my Chinese social media, people were very excited.

Switching gears, one thing I always get asked about China is the pollution. Is there any mainstream media that has addressed the issue with any sense of humor?

In the mainstream media I’m not sure, because when I think about the discussion about pollution, I think it’s so heavily influenced by social media in China. I heard someone at Davos call China nowadays a “social media democracy,” which is not influenced by votes, but where the government pays a lot of attention to what happens on social media, and that’s where people go to voice their concerns and ideas. Pollution is a widely discussed topic on social media, and there is a lot of humor, and interesting gifs and jokes in that realm.

You shared a treatment for a heist film centered on the repatriation of a bunch of antiquities from the U.K. to China. Are you trying to tap a sense of national pride?

China is a fairly nationalistic society, so when the pride is in things like art and culture I feel no qualms about playing to that. It’s not exactly a movie playing to violent nationalism, so I’m okay with that.

How is the heist film going along?

It’s going well, we are adding in details and adding in layers, but so far everyone we’ve talked to has been very receptive of it. We don’t think that we’ll run into problems with censorship and it’s also really, really fun. It’s based off something I read in The New York Times about real Chinese people lifting art from European museums. It’s really fun to work on, because not only is the heist genre really fun to begin with, but it’s one of those instances when Chinese people have watched movies like Ocean’s Eleven, they know what a heist movie is. There’s never really been a heist movie in China but there’s been robber stories and thief movies, so you can kind of reference all of those at once in a big mush that doesn’t necessarily conform either to a Hollywood movie or a traditional Chinese movie.

You draft full scripts, not treatments. Is that because you were told, “You’re too young for this, you need to have a full draft,” or is that instinct on your part?

First, as a relative newcomer, most producers and directors want to see your writing style and what your dialogue looks like before they will invest in you or want to work with you. In a sense, a script is a bit of a writing sample. Second, actually just writing out the script gives me some measure of control over the story, so that’s my personal preference.

How do you make a living?

For one thing, as long as I sell a project, or work on a project, I’m actually okay, which is not too difficult in the China market if you’re a bilingual screenwriter. On the side, you can also do freelance projects, editing of treatments, and helping with bilingual synopses.

Is the freelance work coming from Chinese studios looking for foreign investors needing bilingual content, or from co-producers trying to bring projects into China hoping to attract Chinese investors?

It can be both. I also dabble in things like translating for movie stars when they come to China. It’s possible to find very interesting freelance work with great exposure if you’re bilingual, know the general co-pro community, and have the stomach for handling talent.

There’s lots of rom-com and action in China but fewer message films, dramas with a social conscience. Am I wrong, or do you feel like there’s room for growth?

There is room for that to grow, if you look at the Chinese film industry in the very little amount of time that it’s been alive. It is very much still in a land-grab, gold rush stage, so when there’s so much low-hanging fruit, in terms of movies that can make money, the producers and studios have not had a lot of incentive to invest in a lot of more deep, meaningful content, and frequently are just slapping together a couple of stars and getting a director to make you a ton of money, but I think it’s moving in that direction.

There’s great pressure to cover the cost of all the theaters being built in China, a need met primarily by big budget films. But there’s also talk of a need for broader subject matter and a wider variety of genres. Can you imagine indie film houses popping up in China?

There is enough optimism in the market that people will take more risks, and they’ll still have the commercial films that are put out there to make a lot of money, but there is also surplus money to put into passion projects. There already have been several Chinese movies in the domestic market in the past year that I’ve felt are quite nuanced and had more meaning that other movies. Obviously, Mr. Six, for example.

Sure the box office is booming, but few Chinese films ever travel overseas. Tell me more about the source of your optimism.

I’m optimistic about content getting better in China because there’s an increase in talent in the industry. This film industry came out of the state-owned system when the screenwriters were trained very differently and selected very differently than in a competitive, commercial, entertainment marketplace. Nowadays, there are more and more young people looking at the entertainment industry in a totally different way, and being trained abroad, and even the education system is changing at home, so there is going to be more and more talent that can create good content.

Give us an example of somebody who really blew your mind in terms of their arrival on the scene.

Because all the people I’m talking about are all kind of young and my age, they’ve not necessarily produced yet, but they’re now in Beijing and I’ve talked to them, so I guess I’m hopeful for them, that there is a lot of networking and work to be done before you’ll see them.

What about reading the tea leaves with the censors? What’s that like these days?

I’ve never personally interacted with the [State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio Film and Television (SAPPRFT)], but the reason I’m confident is that I’ve sought the advice of older, more experienced China screenwriters who have worked with the process a lot. I think the most key thing for understanding censorship is just reading a lot of kind of official Chinese government statements, or getting into that mentality of what they like, and the kinds of processes that are familiar to them.

Does Xi Jinping’s speech on art and culture trickle down to the level of you writers who are conceiving the next great stories?

Because I’m not attached to a company and especially not attached to a state-owned company, those kinds of announcements don’t really affect me at all. In general, yes, there are certain restrictions [as] to what can be written, but I guess I don’t really feel it. I work in genres that are not that sensitive: romantic comedies or action-adventures, and it’s still very easy to have a good story come out that is not really politically sensitive that has a positive message, that’s not really something that [SAPPRFT] would disapprove of. So I haven’t felt too restricted by it yet. I imagine if I really wanted to write some kind of drama someday that was critical, then I think it would become relevant.

What pays better in China for somebody your age, film or television?

TV pays better because there are a lot more opportunities—there are a lot more TV shows being produced than films, and Chinese TV shows tend to be long, so anything from 40, 50, 70, 100 episodes are common and you’re paid by the episode, so it tends to rack up to be a lot more than for doing one or two feature films.

What was your favorite piece of Chinese filmed entertainment in the last year, whether it was TV or a feature film, and why?

The massive popularity of Mr. Six and the waves it made in social media proved that even when the movie itself is not perfectly executed, Chinese audiences are hungry for that type of content, a debate about whether the movie was promoting an old way over a new way. The character [played by] Feng Xiaogang is both considered a kind of a rogue—not exactly a morally upright character in society—but he is made into a sort of sympathetic, honorable character in his old age. There was a lot of debate about this movie’s message.

Recommended ReadingIn ‘Mr. Six,’ China’s Changing and Staying the SameBy Jonathan Landreth