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The Night Tram - An Interview with Jason Wen

Please tell us about your background. What made you fall in love with cinema? How did you become interested in filmmaking and what did you work on before making The Night Tram?

I’m originally born in the USA, where I was raised in the suburbs surrounding Dallas. In 2001, I completed a short computer animated film, f8, which received quite a lot of recognition. At the time, there were very few independent computer animation filmmakers producing their own work. It was just at the right time when computers and software had become affordable and powerful enough for an individual artist to pull it off.

I used to want to be an animation filmmaker, but I got burnt out with animation after making f8 which took over 3 years, working full-time to complete. I ended up gravitating to photography, as it forced me to go outside and it’s feedback is much more immediate.

After f8, I found work as a visual effects artist, mostly on feature films in London. I began as an animator on Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Eventually, I got into previsualisation (a kind of computer animated storyboard), which I enjoyed immensely, as I found it more creative than feature film animation. In previs, there is the opportunity to interact with the director and other department heads to help them develop what are typically rather complicated action scenes.

I decided to go back to film school for a year. So in 2019 we moved to Prague, temporarily, so I could attend Prague Film School, where I made two short films, Amanita and The Night Tram.

I became interested in films, in large part through my brother, who would take me along to the cinema in the 80’s and early 90’s. My mom used to own a shop in the mall and I remember somehow going into the cinema by myself and seeing Pink Floyd’s The Wall. I must have only been 6 at the time and I actually haven't seen the film since. But, it’s amazing how I can still recall a bit of the film. I guess this time was nearing the end of an era when films were really treated as a special form of entertainment, before the internet and digital television took off.

I’ve always been creative and filmmaking for me is the perfect creative outlet. I like interpreting a story the way I would imagine the world in the film and sharing my vision. I really enjoy the whole process of filmmaking. I like getting all excited about a story and then immersing myself in all the nitty gritty details in order to make a film a reality. There is also the social aspect which comes from the interactions with all the talented people. I also love the geeky tech side of filmmaking. With filmmaking, I’m allowed to completely engage myself. It’s the complete opposite of boring.

Which filmmakers influenced you and your filmmaking? Which films have affected you the most?

Kubrick’s a pretty easy choice for me. The director most directors respect, which is very well deserved.

I only started watching Kubrick’s complete works when I was a college student, and it was a huge eye-opener for me. Especially, A Clockwork Orange. His films have such strong and raw visuals and incredible psychology. As a small child, I very much remember seeing sections of 2001: A Space Odyssey when it was broadcast on TV. Though I was too young to really understand the film much, I didn’t hate it. Its visuals and music certainly left me with a strong impression. It’s such a gigantic leap that a filmmaker could imagine and create a film experience like that.

Some films I am particularly fond of are Mulholland Drive, Grave of the Fireflies, Days of Heaven, Rushmore, Alien, Blade Runner, There Will be Blood, Citizen Kane, Sunset Boulevard, The King of Comedy, Paper Moon, Lourdes, Stations of the Cross, A Pigeon Sat on a Branch Reflecting on Existence and Otakar Vavra’s Romance for Bugle. All these are my perfect films. They manage to be entertaining while also having something to say. I very much admire films which have a unique and singular vision.

What are the themes/issues you try to reflect in your films? What, in your opinion, is the most important quality of a film?

I observe that all my films so far have had characters trying to achieve some level of happiness and freedom. I believe this reflects on my own wish to have financial freedom which I think would give me the creative freedom to do nothing else but make films for myself, first.

It’s most important that really good films express a personal expression. I think any really strong film should meet this quality first, otherwise, the film won’t be unique and thus have no singular vision. This means the work doesn’t matter, as anyone else with no ambition for personal expression could make the film.

Where did the idea for the film come from? Was it from your own experiences?

I got the idea to make the film when I was riding the tram in Prague around 2 am. At this time, people tend to be more expressive, for one reason or another. There were quite a few interesting passengers on the tram and I was intrigued how all these individuals, with all their own stories, come together on the tram, if only for a brief moment in time. I couldn’t understand what most of the passengers were saying, but their body language said a lot. I only witnessed a sliver of a passenger’s life, but even so, my imagination would try to fill in the blanks. I became fascinated by how strangers whom we encounter and will never see again, still have an impact on our lives.

From there, the idea gradually evolved into a story juxtaposing two couples, an old couple, with many years of life, love and emotional baggage, and a young couple in love, just at the beginning of their adult lives.

One day, on my way to Prague Film School, I happened to be walking behind a man carrying two busts, much as depicted in the film. I never saw the man’s face. I didn’t need to. Just the image of the female bust looking at the male bust, with the man’s head between them, it was such an exciting moment. I immediately knew I had to represent him in the film, right in the middle, between the young couple at the front of the tram and the old couple at the rear of the tram. I love how I can get hyper aware and sensitive to my surroundings while working on a film. It was like that man’s presence was a miracle staged just for me.

Please tell us about the production and your experiences of making The Night Tram. What are some of the challenges and difficulties you faced?

The Night Tram was shot as my final project at Prague Film School. Jitka Kubínová and Kateřina Vlasáková at Prague Film School helped me with arranging location permissions, booking the tram, and renting props and costumes. I knew I needed a tram stop location, so I spent a lot of time pouring over the night tram timetable and virtual scouting in Google Streetview. Trams run 24 hours in Prague, but through my research, I discovered a few tram stop loops which aren’t used at night. We went to visit the locations in person to see if they were a right fit for the film. I really liked the space we ended up with, with lots of space for the actors and the lovely symmetry of the overhead lights when the tram is parked just right.

A big challenge for the shoot was Covid. We were originally booked to shoot in March 2019. Everything was set for the tram and we were just a few weeks before the shoot, when I started having bad feelings about the situation with Covid. I ended up calling off the shoot as the news wasn’t looking good. Just a short while after I cancelled, all film school projects were halted and schools shut.

In many ways, it worked out for my film, as I had much more time to prepare, while we were all in lockdown. In addition, the weather in March was far colder than I had anticipated and it would have been a problem for the cast and crew, as the entire film takes place late at night. We ended up shooting in the summer, when restrictions were lessened and the weather was much more agreeable.

I had to maximise our shooting time, so I pre-planned all the shots I felt I needed in previsualisation, using the software Blender. My producer, Lorena and I had two rehearsals with the main cast, Simona Prasková, Marek Dobeš, Filip Lizner and Aděla Holemá. We discussed the characters, their backstories and I let the actors interpret from there.

I rehearsed with Filip and Aděla first at school. We conducted our second rehearsal on a tram and at the actual tram stop location. I think it greatly helped them to shape their performances. Originally, the young couple didn’t have lines. Their roles were meant to be like a silent film performance. However, I liked their interactions and chemistry when we were rehearsing and I let them try out ideas for their own dialogue which were worked into the script.

I told the actors time was tight during the shoot, so I would very much depend on them to make their own choices for their roles, with a little bit of input from myself. We didn’t have many set ups and I kept it to no more than three or four takes. I don’t speak Czech, so I had a Czech script supervisor, Honza Ryba. Also, my partner, Lenka Horáková is Czech, so she helped me write the screenplay and would give her opinion while I was editing.

Props were kept quite low, we placed a garbage bin and a tram stop I built myself at the tram stop location. I had a very small and dedicated crew made primarily up of Prague Film School students and Sonia Slansky who did the special FX hair and makeup.

The crew really had to be small, due to the short schedule and space restrictions while we filmed on the moving tram. I decided to shoot the film myself, as I was the one who knew most the shots I wanted. I have quite a long history with photography which has translated to my films. I went into film school, hoping that I would have the opportunity to direct a short film shot on Arri Alexa. However, the camera would have been too cumbersome and time consuming to set up for The Night Tram. I also wouldn’t have been able to get the smooth and fluid movement I was after without renting a steadicam rig, which would have also necessitated hiring a steadicam operator. I shot the film on a Blackmagic Pocket 6K, with most shots stabilised on a Moza Air 2 with follow focus. Lenses used were Canon 17mm tilt-shift, 50mm 1.2, 24mm 1.4, and 70-200 2.8. It was a challenging and physically tough set up to use, but I got the results I was after.

Sound was difficult due to the wildly varying noise levels inside and outside the tram. My sound recordists, Shanshan, recorded with a Zoom F6 which helped as it has 32 bit floating point recording capability.

At the tram stop, my gaffer, Vinay, set up two battery powered Aputure 300DIIs high up to boost the light coming from the cool street lamps above the tram.

What are the advantages and disadvantages of independent filmmaking and working with small budgets? Does it liberate the filmmaker or limit his or her freedom?

Personally, I like independent filmmaking. The cast and crew have to be more flexible, which I appreciate and the process feels more intimate and pure, due to the much smaller crew size. Being the director, during the filming, it feels like running a marathon while also having to make creative and logistical choices and decisions on the fly. I’m always thinking about the what ifs, so I try to be as prepared as possible.

I think it's always good to have limitations as I feel more creative ideas spring from having walls to scale. I think it’s very easy to get carried away when there aren’t so many restrictions in place and too many of the filmmaker’s wishes are granted without any pushback.

Actually, in some ways, it seems having a smaller budget can be more liberating for a filmmaker. With large budgets, people very rightly want a return on their money. So it’s often safer for the filmmaker if fewer risks are taken.

Tell us about your festival run. Have film festivals provided you with the experience and exposure you needed?

It’s always great to have a film accepted at a festival. It’s a form of validation for all the hard work. We become so infested in our films, so it also hurts when rejected for a festival. I feel this film is maybe a bit old fashioned. Perhaps, as it doesn’t address hot topic issues, the size of the audience that ultimately gets to see it will be lessened. However, I made the film for myself, first. It’s my way of expressing the beauty of Prague at night, with its classic trams and is also an interpretation of the unique dynamics that unfold every single night amongst its passengers.

What was the reaction of those who watched your film? Was the feedback what you hoped for?

I received a lot of useful feedback from my Prague Film School instructors, generally all positive. I ended up cutting out around 3 minutes based on their responses, in order to clarify my intentions and tighten things up.

Please tell us about your future project(s). What are you currently working on?

Right now, I’m working on My Friend Fly, a light-hearted short film starring my seven year old son as the star. We started work on it, as a family project, while we were under lockdown in Prague.

It’s all shot in the Prague flat we were living in and out in the Czech countryside, where my partner’s parents have two cottages. The film has been completely shot and now I am busy with the post-production. There are a lot of visual effects shots to complete and, as I’m doing it all myself, it may take me a year to finish.

Beyond that, I would like to film another science fiction short film idea of mine titled, Annie & Isabel. However, the budget required would be a lot higher than any of my films produced so far. It’s beyond what I could self-fund. So for it to happen, a lot depends on whether I can secure the right amount of money.

It’s a story about a pre-teen girl and her nanny and how over-reliance on technology opens a rift in the girl’s relationship with her parents.


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