David Kaplan’s first feature film, Year of the Fish, may be a retelling of Cinderella. But with the title character toiling away in a Chinatown massage parlor while her “stepsisters” engage in sex work, it’s a far cry from the Disney classic. The animated movie (live-action sequences were shot and then digitally painted over, giving it a look similar to Richard Linklater’s Waking Life) is an updated retelling of the oldest known Cinderella story, a Chinese version recorded circa 850 A.D.
Kaplan took the title character of the ancient tale, Ye Xian (An Nguyen) and turned her into a modern-day immigrant laboring in a massage parlor, where the owner (Tsai Chin) forces her to work as a maid when she refuses to participate in the required sex work. While there she befriends the bizarre Auntie Yaga (Randall Duk Kim) and falls in love with her “Prince Charming,” a jazz musician named Johnny (Ken Leung). Shot entirely on location, the film turns the vibrant streets of New York’s Chinatown into the perfect fairytale setting.
Now director David Kaplan talks to MovieMaker about creating his first full-length film (which charmed enough viewers to win the Audience Award for Narrative Film at the 2007 Boston Independent Film Festival).
Jessica Wall (MM): You used digital painting technology to animate the film in a style that calls to mind a “painting brought to life.” Why was it important to you to use animation to tell the story of Ye Xian?
David Kaplan (DK): Because the story is a fairytale with magical elements, the rotoscoping helped situate the film somewhere between reality and dream. When one of my actors, Ken Leung, saw the film for the first time, he said he felt like he was watching the whole thing from underwater, from the fish’s point of view!What a wonderful observation.On a practical level, it was also a way of taking very harsh, ugly, inexpensive mini-DV footage and turning it into something lyrical, graceful, beautiful and HD. Further, it allowed us to shoot with a tiny crew and almost no lights.
MM: The film has quite an eclectic cast, from seasoned Shakespearean actor Randall Duk Kim and Obie Award-winner Tsai Chin to An Nguyen, who makes her feature film debut. How did the cast interact with one another on set? What was it like for you to direct actors with such different backgrounds?
DK: I felt very lucky to work with such a marvelous and talented cast.The newcomers performed admirably alongside the veterans. We had a terrific casting director from the theater world, David Caparelliotis. The various actors chose to work on the film because they were excited by the script. I suspect every feature film cast is an eclectic bunch, with a range of backgrounds and training and methodology. A director must navigate as best they can and guide everyone along the same narrative and stylistic path.
MM: What inspired you to bring this traditional tale to the streets of Chinatown? How did filming on location enhance the role of the setting?
DK: The story upon which the film is loosely based is an old Chinese fairy tale, the oldest known version of Cinderella. Therefore, it seemed to make sense to set it in Chinatown. Plus, New York’s Chinatown is an incredibly cinematic neighborhood—it’s vibrant and alive and the colors are amazing. Who wouldn’t want to shoot a film there? Since we were such a small operation, I think we managed to capture a side of Chinatown not often seen on film.
MM: This is not your first foray into the fairytale genre; in 1997 your short film Little Red Riding Hood (with Christina Ricci in the title role) received several festival awards. What is it that you like best about turning fairytales into films?
DK: Fairytales are like myths; they’ve been passed through hundreds of generations and have achieved a kind of simple perfection. They touch on some very deep and universal human truths. They are also (to me) incredibly visual, so they lend themselves perfectly to the film medium. And if you look around at films (and books and plays and poetry), you begin to see fairytale and mythic structure everywhere: The Devil Wears Prada, Maid in Manhattan, Rocky, Pretty Woman, Forrest Gump, Star Wars, etc.
MM: Are there any other fairytales that you’ve got your eye on for future projects?
DK: I wouldn’t mind doing a Hansel and Gretel at some point….
MM: Though you’ve made several well-received short films, Year of the Fish is your first feature. What was the transition like between the two? Can you offer any advice for moviemakers who want to move from shorts to features?
DK: Making a feature film is much harder, largely because of the fundraising involved. That’s a terrible chore. Also, it demands a mental and physical stamina over the course of several weeks or months. Anyone who’s made a short film knows how exhausting that can be—making a feature is exponentially more exhausting with every passing day it continues. However, my advice would be to figure out some way to do it and just do it! You will find a way through it somehow. And a filmmaker must do it, because you’re not really taken seriously as a director unless you’ve made a feature film—even if it’s a bad one! A bad feature is considered more dignified than a great short.
For more information and showtimes, visit http://www.yearofthefish.com.