A Web Exclusive with Producer Wendi Murdoch

When Wendi Murdoch first came across Lisa See's 2005 novel Snow Flower And The Secret Fan, it became swiftly apparent that it was a perfect work to adapt for the screen.  The story of two women living in 19th Century China, Lily and Snow Flower are bonded both as sworn sisters (laotong, as it is known) and the pain of footbinding, the traditional process of binding young girls' feet to make them more eligible for marriage.  Isolated from their families, they communicate through nu shu, a secret phonetic language – known only to women – written in between the folds of a white silk fan.


A tale of female friendship, loyalty and love, it drove Wendi to pursue Lisa to obtain the film rights. Once she did, she brought acclaimed director Wayne Wang on board – a choice reflected in the fact that Wang had previously directed Amy Tan's novel The Joy Luck Club with great success.  Wendi reflects on her experiences, in bringing both book and film into being, and tracing the inspirational journey of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan.



STUDIO: Can we start with the genesis of the project?  When did Lisa See's best-selling book first come to your attention?

Wendi Murdoch: Oh, it was four years ago.  My good friend, the author Amy Tan, had a book party for Lisa See and that's how I met Lisa and got the book.  I read it and I just fell in love with the book and the story and so that's how it started.


STUDIO: What was the personal pull of the story for you?

WM: A lot.  The story about your life, Chinese women in the eighteenth century, how hard their lives were.  Then today, if you look at China, how beautiful life is.  Women have jobs, choose their own husbands.  In the old days they couldn't choose or have that freedom to love, have a job or go to school.  Also I thought it was interesting to see how far Chinese women have come.  Plus, my grandmother died during childbirth.  Her life was so hard, she had bound feet.  My great aunty, she also had bound feet.  She lived with us when we were little and I remember how painful that was for her.  And she didn't know how to write or read.  I just thought the story was really moving.  And also how poor and difficult life was, but also how beautiful the friendship between Snow Flower and Lily, the love helped them through life's challenges.  Sheer joy, sheer pain.  It was just really beautiful I thought.


STUDIO: Let's talk through the early logistics of bringing the book to the screen; you had to secure the rights I suppose.  Was it a sought after property?

WM: No, actually.  She's a bestselling author, but this is the first of her books to have been turned into a movie.  We just called her and she said yes! (Laughs)  And then Wayne Wang, we talked to him and he was interested.  And so he joined us and that's how it started.


STUDIO: Book to screen adaptations can prove tricky; why was Angela workman brought on board to write the screenplay and what were the challenges she encountered?  Presumably some changes were necessary.

WM: Angela Workman wrote to us after she'd heard that we'd bought the rights, she told us that she loved the book and that she'd love to write the screenplay, she was so passionate about it.  So we hired her and she wrote a beautiful script.  After we had the script we sent it to Wayne and he said it would be better if we had a modern parallel story.  He felt that would make it more relevant to today's world.  Then we got Ron Bass, a very famous script writer, who loved the book and he agreed to join us.  With the lower budget, everyone was working for a reduced fee to make this happen.


STUDIO: Why was Wayne Wang the right choice as director to illustrate Chinese culture past and present?  He helmed The Joy Luck Club...

WM: I love that film!


STUDIO: He tends to make rather more contemporary films...

WM: Yes, Smoke, Maid In Manhattan...  He's very dynamic.  He makes all kinds of films.  Arty films, big commercial films like Last Holiday.


STUDIO: I gather his own grandmother had bound feet, so he had experience of a bygone era.

WM: His mother, his grandmother.  Over the years, over one billion Chinese women had their feet bound, which is crazy!  Painful.


STUDIO: What films did you watch in your formative years; were there any that provided inspiration for Snow Flower And The Secret Fan?

WM: Growing up in China I didn't watch any films, just propaganda films.  I remember The Sound Of Music.  Then later on when I came to America, because I loved film, I would always go to the cinema and watch all the big blockbusters and arty films, foreign films; I love them.  I love watching films; that was my favourite thing to do.  When I was at Yale getting my Masters degree at business school, I took a lot of courses at Yale drama school.  I never planned to make a film, but I always enjoyed films and was interested.  But it's hard to make a film and I'm very lucky that this happened.


STUDIO: What can you tell us about casting your leads Gianna Jun and Bingbing Li?  Are they both rising stars in Asia?

WM: Gianna Jun, who is from Korea, and Bingbing Li are both big movie stars in Asia.  Gianna is a big movie star in Korea.  She's in many good movies, including some English films like My Sassy Girl.  Her beauty made her a Snow Flower lookalike.  We had a really good casting agent and we decided on Gianna once she'd seen Wayne.  Bingbing is a big movie star in China.  She's also been in The Forbidden Kingdom for a Hollywood studio a few years ago.  She's very intelligent, the way she looks and she's a really good actress.  So we approached her and she said yes.  We're lucky to have them.


STUDIO: The actresses look very different; Bingbing Li according to Wayne Wang has a more classic look, was that also a consideration when casting?

WM: Wayne did most of the casting, but when I saw her I thought that Bingbing Li was right for Lily, for that character.  Gianna looks more like a modern girl and very sexy!


STUDIO: What sort of rapport did Gianna and Li have off-screen, did they have a natural chemistry?

Yes, I think they did.  Gianna didn't speak Chinese and Bingbing doesn't speak English.  Gianna had to come in and take a Chinese class first and Bingbing had to take an English class.  When they saw each other a lot of times they couldn't talk, so they had to interpret each other's expressions and with touching.  But also they are so professional.  Bingbing told me that when she first saw Gianna she didn't think that she was a movie star from Korea, she said that she was Snow Flower and from today she was going to love her and she was her laotong.  When the film came out in China it was number one at the box office, with a wide release and the word laotong meaning 'friend for life' becoming really popular.  Everyone was saying 'where's my laotong?', 'she's my laotong' and so on.  It was really sweet.


STUDIO: What insight do you feel they gained from portraying the historical roles of Snow Flower and Lily; did they talk about that?

WM: Bingbing grew up in China, her grandmother also had bound feet.  So she was familiar with it.  And with Gianna... in Chinese history there were Koreans living in China in Shanghai, so our director had her come over a month before we started shooting to start learning about things and going through the character.


STUDIO: Can you elaborate on two traditions at the heart of the film; laotong and nu shu the secret language of women?

WM: I didn't know about nu shu until I made this film.  The direct translation is 'women's writing'.  Basically in old times, women were not allowed to go to school and so they didn't know how to communicate with each other.   Living in a woman's chamber was a very isolated life, so they developed their own language, a secret language.  They would write to each other and deliver their messages on a fan to communicate with each other and keep in touch.  I thought it was quite beautiful because it was secretive and forbidden by men, who didn't understand the writing.  It would be good to have that today!  And then laotong is a very special relationship.  When girls were born on the same day under the same sign they were matched together.  Because in those times, being born a girl was a disappointment to the family because it wasn't a boy.  And then they'd have arranged marriages.  Their lives were actually kind of sad, with no love in the marriage and they endured the physical pain of foot binding, because without perfect feet you couldn't find a husband.  Then once they got married they would endure psychological abuse from the in-laws, the husband's family who expected them to produce sons.  So, not much happiness in life.  And so this love that everybody has, they have expressed somehow to each other, and that's what makes things so strong.  It's such a beautiful relationship.


STUDIO: Some of the shots from 19th Century Hunan are reminiscent of old masters, then we have the hyper activity of a modern city like Shanghai; what can you tell us about shooting in China and the overall vision for the production design?

WM: The old times are warm and red and the modern times are cool and grey.  The cinematographer, Richard Wong, is very young and this is his first film.  But now he's got lots of offers coming in.  He lives in San Francisco, he's very good.  He made a small budget film look epic.  »




STUDIO: How did you enjoy shooting in China?

WM: In the beginning I loved the story, then I really enjoyed the creative process and learning so many new things and now I have a lot more respect for all filmmakers.  It's not easy.  I really enjoyed going back there and taking my children there.  They came on set with me.  When Hugh Jackman was there, my older daughter translated for him.


STUDIO: What was the importance of tradition in your family as a child?

WM: My parents were very tough.  Tiger father or tiger mum!  Very tough, they had very high expectations.  Everything had to be the best.  But it paid off!


STUDIO: What traditions do you pass to your own daughters?

WM: I want to, but I can't impose traditional Chinese values on our children because these are different times and also they were born in the US.  They have different surroundings and think differently.  They both speak Chinese and English.  Instead of saying, "You need to be number one," I say "You need to do your best."  But I do push them hard and I want them to have good values.  They study hard.  They do extra homework every day after school.  They play the piano and the violin.


STUDIO: And what about cuisine at home?

WM: They eat what we do at home.  If we eat fish, they do the same.  We don't have children's food and adult food.  They eat the same.  Their favourite thing to do is make dumplings together.


STUDIO: You are one of three sisters, what store do you put by your own female friendships and relationships?

WM: I'm very fortunate, I have many good girlfriends, they are very important.  I have laotongs, more than just one.  It's really interesting because today with technology, my really good friend from school in the US now lives in Singapore, so we don't see each other often but because you have this technology, we can email each other, Skype each other.  Also I take girlfriend trips with my friends and now we take mummy and daughter trips, which is really nice.  I just feel very fulfilled.  It makes life richer and more enjoyable when you have good friends.


STUDIO: So, how would you describe your experience of being a first time film producer?  Exhilarating, exhausting?

WM: Both! (Laughs)  Difficult!  But I am really fortunate.  I tell people that it took me four years to make this film and they say, "Only four years?!"  But also a lot of good Chinese films that get made never get distributed in the US.  Feng Xiaogang's film Aftershock took over a hundred million dollars in China, but in the US it got a small one theatre showing.  I just thought that it would be interesting for me to make a film with a Chinese story with a theme about friendship that is universal and hoped that it would get an international audience, for people to understand China a bit more.


STUDIO: What sort of material are you actively looking to produce?

WM: I would love to do more because I really enjoyed it.  Through producing this film we've created some good opportunities and many people have come to us to give us projects, so my partner and I have been looking through projects, one of which we're in development with.  So when we're ready to announce we'll let you know.  I want to focus on a story in China because I want our children to know what's happening over there.  Not many films address what's going on in China today.  It would be interesting to do more of these kinds of films, to bridge two different cultures.


STUDIO: The Chinese economy is buoyant while other world economies flag; how does the Chinese film industry compare with Hollywood?

WM: Every year China produces about five hundred domestic films.  They import about twenty, but over the last few years the industry has grown so fast.  Right now there are six thousand screens and at that pace there will be about thirty thousand screens in five years, which is really exciting and encouraging.  The other thing that I'm so excited about is that their screens are usually high quality, hundreds and hundreds of Amex theatres and everything digital.  In the US most theatres are 35mm, so it's quite advanced in China.  Hopefully with this film doing well, other filmmakers will be interested to make more films in China. So it will be great; I hope so.


STUDIO: You have a keen eye for style and fashion and are often photographed in some beautiful gowns and outfits like in Vogue recently.  Did you keep a watchful eye on the film's costumes?

WM: We had the most amazing costume designer from Hong Kong, who did the costumes for In The Mood for Love for Wong Kar Wai.  He designed the sets and costumes and everything.  For the modern part, because we had no budget to buy new clothes we got sponsorship from Louis Vuitton for shoes, we got Channel.  Also sometimes they borrowed my clothes to wear.  But we didn't want it to be too fashionable, so the focus was on the character.  The Nina character, she's a typical Chinese girl, a hardworking banker.  She's an only child, with high expectations on her from her parents, so she's dressed in quite a boring way.  The other, Sophia, is quite dreamy.  More free, she dresses a little sexier.


STUDIO: That must be a first, borrowing the producer's clothes.

WM: People think that being a producer is so glamorous, but I was bringing tea, bringing lunch.  We tried to save money everywhere.  We had three hundred people on the set, such a talented team.  You find talent everywhere.  There were so many good people.  The crew was fantastic.  They created all the set for the ancient parts of the film, all the furniture, the set, everything.  The director was amazing to work with.  I just feel like I'm so lucky to do this.  But also it's so different.  With every little element something could go wrong and the film wouldn't come out good.  I'm very happy and it's very moving when people see the film and they like it and we get emails and letters from people who say, "I've just seen the film."  It's made me go back to my best friend; we had a misunderstanding and didn't speak to each other and I called her and said, "Let's make up."


STUDIO: The music in the film is beautiful; much of it is by Rachel Portman, a British composer.  There's a lot of cello which is lyrical and melancholic.

WM: She's amazing.  It's really moving.  A traditional Chinese sound, also a modern sound.  She mixes them together, with Chinese instruments and it's also a bit more international, not too Chinese.  Very moving I thought.  We were very lucky to have her.  I mean, this film is such a small film, but we have Ron Bass and we have her, they've both won Oscars before.  It's amazing.  But I've been everywhere.  In China we did three hundred interviews, in every city.  Our actress (Bingbing) went to five different cities.  Every city she'd go to the theatre and say hi to everybody and everybody would talk about it.  She has eight million Twitter followers in China.


STUDIO: In the film we see women with ambitions and women limited by society.  Thinking about your own career path, to what degree were the early years influenced by family expectations?

WM: When I was little we were very, very poor, we didn't have hot water.  Life was really simple.  You go to school, you want to be the best that you can be, and only through study do you get a better future.  So you can go to better universities and look after your family.  Because I was the third child, a girl and my parents wanted a boy.  So the first disappointment was a girl, then the second and the third and then finally they had my brother, then we were brushed aside.  So I always tried to prove myself, which is good.  Then when I came to America, throughout school, life was really hard.  I'd never been to a supermarket before, but because of that hardship growing up in China, when you come to America it's easier. (Laughs)


STUDIO: What would you say has shaped you most - discipline, hard work, courage, family expectation or a combination of these?

WM: Ambition!  I just wanted to have a better life.  Like, we had meat to eat once a year, but I wanted to eat it every day.  I'm so lucky today, I have such a great life.  I want to do things that I enjoy; I'm not just going to sit at home doing nothing.  But also I feel I've really made a difference.  After the Shanghai Film Festival, we promoted the film and spoke to different people.  Two movie studios have already gone to China to make local films.  Our investors, now they come to us and say, "I want to invest in more of your films."  It's just really nice to hear that.  But also many people try hard for years and never get a film made.  It's very hard, so I feel very lucky.


STUDIO: What about author Lisa See's reaction to the film, was she involved in the filmmaking process at all?

WM: She was amazing because first of all she trusted us even though we were first time producers.  And during the promotion of the film she went everywhere in the US to talk about the film, on radio and television, press, everything.  First we told her that we were going to make the film, and then we told her that we were going to add a story to her story, so we talked to her and she understood and supported it.


STUDIO: Is she writing anything else that you're keeping an eye on?

WM: Yes, she wrote Shanghai Girls and the recent bestseller Dreams Of Joy, the number one best seller on the New York Times list.  And after our film came out, Snow Flower, which was a best seller four years ago, became a best seller again which was fantastic!  She always posted and blogged about our film which really helped.  Everybody really helped.  All my girlfriends.  In each city in the US we did a laotong screening, each of my girlfriends hosted a screening which was good and also we did a friendship talk on the Huffington Post with Tiger Mom and different people, so all really supportive.


STUDIO: Apart from your professional career you have an active interest in various organisations and charities; which are particularly close to your heart?

WM: I work with Sarah Brown and The White Ribbon Alliance for Safe Motherhood because my grandmother died in childbirth and sadly today it still happens in some countries; those kinds of deaths can be avoided very easily.  My husband and I focus on supporting public education.  So we support Harlem schools, Lower East Side schools, schools everywhere in America.  I think education is so important and through education, you empower women and you can change your life.  It happened to me, it will happen to other people as well.



Snow Flower And The Secret Fan opens in cinemas November 4th.



To win a copy of Snow Flower And The Secret Fan film edition novel, go to our Competitions page here!

"The beautiful friendship between Snow Flower and Lily, the love helped them through life’s challenges. Sheer joy, sheer pain. It was just really beautiful."
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