'Dead Pigs' Director Cathy Yan Reflects On Her Unfiltered Vision And Adjusting The Film After 'Birds Of Prey' [Interview]

Dead Pigs is the kind of directorial debut that declares a new voice is on the scene. "Pure" is a word that comes up in our conversation with filmmaker Cathy Yan, whose first feature-length film is just that. It called to mind a Danny Boyle quote, that first movies often represent your best work because you never know if you'll get another shot, so why not try everything you've dreamed of seeing in a movie?Dead Pigs plays exactly like that – an unfiltered dream. It has a strange magic to it. There are the dead pigs; skyscraper's bright lights contrasted with the streets and country life; a heroine (played by Vivian Wu) in a lone house dedicated to respecting the past and fighting the future; and both a singalong and a wonderful reference to the 2006 film Step Up. Yan's debut is inspiringly brazen and bursting with life and personality. That personal style made Yan's sophomore effort, Birds of Prey, one of the hipper comic book movies in recent years.

Yan's debut caught the eye of Margot Robbie, who was impressed by the scope of the characters and world Yan captured. "You can't pull off a film in China for as little money as she had, and make it look so incredible, and still care about the characters more than anything," Robbie said. "She just — in my mind — nailed it."

After years of limbo, Dead Pigs is finally available to stream on Mubi today. We spoke to Yan about revisiting her debut film years after she shot it and the joy of having a movie that shows who she is finally out in the world.

Usually, when I interview someone, they've just finished what they're promoting so they're always so close to it. Since you made Dead Pigs a few years ago, how's it looking back at the movie now?

It's been definitely a weird situation, but it's been nice. I like having a little bit of distance from it. It also saves a little bit, I guess, of the nerves and the jitters of judgment, because I think you're right. I think you are so close to it and certainly, on a movie like that, which I wrote, I directed, and it's very much inspired by my life. It is so deeply personal that I really appreciated having a little bit of distance from it. We actually went and we cut the film a little bit after Sundance after I'd made Birds Of Prey, actually. I went back into the edit and just took out 12 minutes of the film. Nothing very impactful whatsoever, but it was nice to grow a little bit as a filmmaker and realize I don't need that moment or that place without having to over-explain.

I think sometimes when you're just in that rat race of trying to finish the movie and edit and get feedback and re-edit and lock it and all that, you lose a little bit of that distance and perhaps even a little bit of confidence of, you know what? I don't have to address that note. I don't have to clarify literally everything that people have questions about.

After Birds Of Prey, were you feeling more confident looking at it again?

Yes and no. I think, yes, I think in that I just grew as a filmmaker and I was more confident in some of the choices and that I didn't have to over-explain. I actually did have to re-jigger my brain again to go back into the indie world where it's like everything's on pH and turn style and tone and what does have to be explained and what doesn't and all of that. It's a very different world in the studio system and so coming back home to New York, having the time to re-examine my first child in a way. It was interesting to work with my editor again on Dead Pigs and get to see it in this new light.

What were some of the other differences between making a pure indie and being a part of the machine?

[Laughs] I think an indie, it is so pure, as you said. I think a first feature is especially pure because you've got everything stacked up against you to make it anyway so if you do it, you're very much willing it into existence. It was very, very pure on Dead Pigs, especially. I think everyone was just doing it for the right reasons. On Birds, there are just so many more people. Everyone has their different set of incentives on a movie of that scale, so I think it becomes less about the work and less about the vision of the director and it gets a little bit more complicated.

When you first read about the thousand pigs in the river, you wanted to go beyond the headline. With your journalism background, where did you start?

For me, it was a lot of just understanding who these characters were. There's the phenomena of the dead pigs and you're focused on that but actually, what I find really interesting is, who are these farmers? Why would they be so desperate to do that? It's not something that one would naturally think of doing, and so what was the context in which they made a decision that the only thing they could do is dump those pigs in the river?

It must've also been terrifying to feel like your entire livelihood was literally going down the drain, going down the river. There's so much judgment I didn't have from how could this have happened and who are these people? But if you actually get, again, behind the headlines, you start to really think of the people and the context in which they're making these decisions.

I think you find this phenomenon not just in China but everywhere in the world. It's something that we're doing in America right now. Do we judge the people that we feel like aren't believing in the right things or are more susceptible to conspiracies? Are they still good people and what is the context in which they're making these decisions, especially if they're making these decisions out of desperation or ignorance or lack of education or whatever it is, or the pressure of having to compete? Does that make you think of it differently and maybe emphasize a little bit more?

I think for me, a lot of my work is about that. It's about trying to find some sort of empathy for people and putting the audience in their shoes and realizing, not in necessarily always a completely positive way, that they're just humans and hopefully, in that they have both. They make good decisions, they make bad decisions but they're deeply human, and therefore worthy of respect and empathy.

The brother is a good example. You empathize with him, but he really tests the limits of his sister's and the audience's empathy.

Yeah, thank you. It's really fun to hear what people say about all the characters and who their favorite and who isn't but everyone has a different opinion, which I think is really interesting.

I'm fascinated by the character Sean Landry, who's kind of the perfect modern-day villain. He's the unassuming guy who reads Joseph Campbell, listens to inspirational podcasts, and spends over a year in China not learning the language, as he's trying to change the country. Was the character influenced by people you've crossed paths with? 

Yeah, yeah. There's a lot there I think that was informed by my experience when I went back to China as an ex-pat and had friends that were part of that world. There was such a massive influx of Americans and just Westerners in general to China, especially around the early 2000s. 2008 was the height of that boom.

Everything seemed possible. It was like this wild west or, I should say, wild east out there. Yes, it was definitely inspired by some people that I knew but also, again, hopefully with a dose of empathy too, of just what sort of situation is it in which you feel that you would... You have nothing to lose in the fact that you would move to a country that you don't know the language of, that you've never really lived in before because the possibilities are so tantalizing to you.

Then, there is this weird fascination, I think it's starting to finally die out, but this fascination with Western culture and with white people and especially white men that is very much, you can draw the line with Hollywood and just American cultural power and the fascination with that. What happens to a person when you're relegated to the sidelines perhaps in your own country to the point that you would actually move to a different country you're unfamiliar with, but then when you're there in a weird way exalted. I thought that wasn't a really fascinating character.

Do you look back fondly on your time in journalism? What was a story or two you got a lot out of covering?

For sure. I remember when I moved to Hong Kong, this was in 2000, then I moved back to Hong Kong for the Wall Street Journal in 2010. It seemed like everything was relatively peaceful and not chaotic and certainly not the way it is now. And then obviously, it's just gotten so much more interesting. At the time, it was more Hong Kong seemed very stable and China is where all these crazy things were happening and everything just felt on a bigger scale and with such ambition but also earnestness, which I found to be very funny. A level of kitsch and ridiculousness that I both, simultaneously, found to be very funny and amusing. I miss that earnestness, I feel like in the U.S. we're much more cynical and ironic.

But in China, there's an ambition there, especially at the time that I also found to be exhilarating. So going to China and getting to cover there, I wrote a piece for the Wall Street Journal that was on the front page about Hengdian World Studios, which was I think at the time, I don't know anymore, but at the time was the largest like studio backlot in the world and they had one-to-one replicas of the Forbidden City and just this insane backlot. It was created by this guy who was a known businessman that had a big idea. Those giant stories of change and human will, I think, was what was so deeply fascinating about China and the change.

Then what's funny about that is then I made Dead Pigs, that came out, and then there was so much change that was happening I think in the U.S. weren't even aware of or cataloging in the right way. Suddenly, news in the U.S. became so much more interesting, pivotal, and even controversial. I think that's been the interesting dynamic of having made a movie that I thought was about China and about this moment in time in China but is actually deeply reflective, I think, of what America has gone through and large parts of the world.

When you were at NYU, you were thinking of producing more, right? What was it that made you think, no, I want to direct for a living? 

I think it was just doing it. I think directing is so theoretical until you actually do it, and you don't have many opportunities to do it. I'm very thankful for NYU because I went through the MFA program, I actually had the opportunity to work with actors and actually do the thing. It's hard to replicate that, you don't really practice directing, I don't know how you would, really. The way to practice is to do short films and more short films. I was able to do that, and I think by the time I was in my third year of NYU, I was pretty certain that I wanted to write and direct.

Then it really was Dead Pigs. I think it was just the script just naturally came out of me quite quickly, actually. Then it became a much more specific desire as opposed to I think I theoretically would like to write and direct or be a director. It was like I want you to make this movie. Obviously, it's real and I can start visualizing it. I think when you have something that specific, you just say to yourself I'll do that and then soon enough you become a writer-director, I guess.

What were some of the early short films you made at NYU?

Oh gosh, things I'd never want anyone to see [Laughs]. Yeah, we ran the gamut. I'd made a short film that was, again, sort of inspired by this scandal in China, actually. Funnily enough, though, David Rysdahl who plays Sean Landry in Dead Pigs, he was in that short film. So, the very first short film I ever made in my life. I cast David and I also cast another friend of mine, Daniel K. Isaac, and now we're developing a show together with FX and Fox Searchlight Television. It's really lovely actually to get to continue to work with these people, and I like to think that I have a decent eye. FX could not be a better partner. They encourage the weirder, the riskier, the more subversive storytelling and I just love that.

Looking forward to it. What were your gateway movies? Which filmmakers got you interested in visual storytelling in the first place? 

I think a huge one was both Chen Kaige and Zhang Yimou. My dad was a big fan of that nineties era of Chinese cinema. I think they just have withstood the test of time so well. I still remember watching Farewell My Concubine as an eight-year-old or something. I think also being very inspired that there are people who look like me that had fully-fledged characters and in a very well done piece of cinema, right, that would allow me to believe and maybe inspire me to think that I could also be a part of that somehow, which is deeply important.

I think I grew up watching those movies as well as expanding upon that, sort of East Asian art-house cinema of the time that has all been deeply influential for me. Wong Kar-wai and his aesthetic certainly. Then I also just love Robert Altman, Paul Thomas Anderson, that American cinema. I think in a way Dead Pigs is probably a marriage of the tone of American indie with the aesthetics of the classic Chinese indies that I grew up with.

We both spent a lot of our childhoods growing up in and around Washington DC, which along with Maryland and Virginia, are such cinematic places. How'd that environment influence you as an artist? 

For me, I think that the thing that influenced me about growing up there was that it felt international. It was both deeply American, the most American you could get, right? Washington DC, literally the center of power in America. But also I grew up in Northern Virginia and then would go into DC, so there was also something very international about it. I think having that perspective on the world and even getting to observe DC as opposed to live in, it was interesting. I remember we would drive into DC because we were only 10 minutes away and go to see movies or go to performances. I think there is something very romantic about the cherry blossoms and all of that about my memories of that city. I think the subway is super, super interesting, and cinematic. I really want to shoot something in the subway.

So many characters, too. 

Yeah, exactly. It looks like it's from 2001 Space Odyssey.

With Dead Pigs, it's just one of those debuts, as you've said, that is just jampacked with a filmmaker's fascinations, aesthetic and thematic interests, where you get a crystal clear sense of someone as a director and their taste. Looking back, what are you most proud of? 

For sure. I'm very proud of it. It's weird to talk about a movie because I have changed as a filmmaker, and as I said, there are shorts that I hope will never see the light of day, but I am genuinely still very happy and proud of Dead Pigs and loved the opportunity to re-look at it in the edit.

I remember at Sundance my husband was like, "Well, this movie is you, specifically your sense of humor in a movie. I don't know how you did that." I keep using the word pure, and I think you had used it first, but I think that's really accurate. It's just before you even know what you're doing, I think the only thing you got going for you is your instincts. So, I just shot things that I thought looked interesting, that I was amused by, that was interesting or fascinating to me, and then put that all together. You can't really articulate it.

I think that's what's fun about looking back now and putting those pieces together and seeing, well, these are my instincts, and actually, these are the things that I want to carry on in my work. It's really nice, too, in that way to have a version of myself and my work out there that is completely unfiltered.


Dead Pigs is now available to stream on Mubi.