Photos (c) 2016, Fred Ambroisine
For some time, the name of Adam Tsuei has been connected with music industry and caused smile on faces of fans of Jay Chou (c‘mon, if nothing else, Kato to Seth Rogan’s Green Hornet), Wang Lee-hom (Lust, Caution; Blackhat), Tai-pop boy band JVKV or queen of C-pop Jolin Tsai. He switched industries and left music for film. What he kept, is sense for filling tacit demands and creating yearning for more. In 2012 he founded production company Amazing Film Studio, and as a producer backed hugely successful adaptations of Giddens Ko novels You Are the Apple of My Eye (2011; d. Giddens Ko) and Café. Waiting. Love. (2014, d. Chiang Chin-lin), as well as the first two installments of Tiny Times film frenchize (Tiny Times, 2013, Tiny Times 2.0, 2013, both d. Guo Jingming). But it was the screening of his directorial debut The Tenants Downstairs (2015) at the 22nd L‘Étrange festival in Paris (7-18 September, 2016).
I should note, that I only got to see The Tenants Downstairs a day later, yet I really really wanted to talk with Adam Tsuei and learn more about his decisions as producer and the feel of the new shoes as film director.
After the introductory small talk, we jumped in medias res just to be stopped just when we found the groove because, obviously, I was not the last interviewer. Actually, the lack on my part left me quite nervous and the reserved manner in which the first warm-up questions got answered only made my heart sink lower and lower. And then came the moment, when my question made Adam Tsuei stop in his thought and, look at me, and suddenly interview changed into a chat. That also explains, or might explain, the structure of the written dialogue, where I did my best to keep it coherent, yet in the end it became impossible.
The Tenants Downstairs is very different from the previous movies based on Giddens Ko, as you will see tomorrow. Very different, I think you’ll be very surprised.
I got familiar with the reviews of The Tenants Downstairs, and it seems that You Are the Apple of My Eye, Café. Waiting. Love. And Tenants Downstairs at least one thing I common: this dry, cynical humour. Even the characters, however cute and lovable they appear, are a bit cynical. Yet, indeed, The Tenants Downstairs feel like “no more pink sky and glitter”.
Right. Because I’m first time director with this movie, I really wanted to show something different. Different from most of the Taiwanese movies. And not only that, I wanted it to be different from the movies I produced. When I was making Café. Waiting. Love., or You Are the Apple of My Eye, or even Tiny Times, I was focusing on the audience or audiences. Not only the Taiwanese, audience, but actually, audiences in Chinese speaking countries like Hong Kong, China, Singapore or Malaysia. I wanted to offer them with different choices. This is the reason why I chose The Tenants Downstairs. Here, it should be said, that I like its story very, very much. I still remember seven years ago, one night, it was when I was having problems with falling asleep. So I was awake, no sleep and I decided to read one of the novels I had in my study. Unfortunately, I picked one that turned out to be a very wrong novel. Because I set my expectations based on my past experience: I read just a couple of pages of no matter if it´s magazine or novel and then it´s very easy for me to fall asleep. Well, the reason why I said I picked wrong is, because when I read this novel, The Tenants Downstairs, I couldn’t stop. I had to continue reading page by page until the end of the novel. You know, I really wanted to find out what’s going on over there, what is the story behind all the things happening. I read until like 5.30 in the morning. I was awake the whole night just because I wanted to finish the reading of the story. The story is really exciting.
What lead you to become its director? Because it‘s obvious you love Giddens Ko‘s writing to bring it onto as the film screens’ producer. But being producer and being film director, that asks for different drives.
Actually, in that time I was not really sure about it. I mean I haven’t decided I would be the director for the novel. But I told myself, if this novel, this story, if we’re ever going to make it into a movie, we have an opportunity to create a good movie for the story. Then, up to a couple of years passed, and in a way, it was this huge success of the Café. Waiting. Love. that brought me back to the idea to film The Tenants Downstairs. But I was having problems to find the right director and then I decided to shoot a movie by myself.
This brings me to.. in what order did you read the books. I mean, You are the Apple of My Eye, Café. Waiting. Love. and The Tenants Downstairs?
OK, that is a very good question. Actually, The Tenants Downstairs is the first novel from Giddens I read through like this. When I said read through it means from the page one to the end. He is good novelist, and I did read quite a lot of Giddens‘ novels, but I haven’t really gotten through it. As you may know, Giddens has almost, well, close to eighty novels and I think I read twenty-two – twenty-five of them. But The Tenants Downstairs is the first one I read through in one take. Then five years ago, I read You Are the Apple of My Eye we were going to shoot You Are the Apple of My Eye – actually, it was Giddens at the time who proposed this idea to shoot You Are the Apple of My Eye. Then of course as a producer, not only myself but also entire team, we needed to read the story, to know it inside out. And couple years later the same with Café. Waiting. Love. But Café. Waiting. Love. was proposed by me, because after the huge success of You Are the Apple of My Eye I was trying to identify the second film, and based on this survey we did five years ago among the audience of You Are the Apple of My Eye where we asked that if we have an opportunity to shoot the second movie based on Giddens‘ book, which one it should be. The answer is Café. Waiting. Love.
I can understand that.
Now, The Tenants Downstairs is not on the audience list, it is not on the priority list. It is my personal favourite. I love the story.
Sure,with the previous films you were very audience oriented, like with Apple of My Eye, and Cafe. Waiting. Love. perhaps more to the Taiwanese audience, and then also kind of approach more fitted for the Mainland audience with Tiny Times, which, we speak about the first two films, are not only cute but also glam, shiny.
Yeah shiny. Yeah you’re right. And it‘s a dream, kind of dream of teenagers in China.
As Tiny Times also touches the fu er dai, were you considering this topic when you approached it, or why you took up Tiny Times?
Actually the reason why we took up Tiny Times is because, I have to be very honest with you, we did not pick up Tiny Times by ourself, myself and Angie Chai (CCO of Amazing Film Studio-note). You know, we are very good working partners. I remember four years ago one of the very big Chinese film company come to me and Angie and asked us to produce Tiny Times movie for them. Then of course we spent a lot of time to really study Tiny Times stories. Tiny Times was written by the Guo Jingming…
…who also directed it…
… and he is huge. He has huge fan base in China. I still remember his weibo, which is just like a Facebook or so in China. He was having close to forty million fans. That’s huge fan base. That was then. You know how many it is now? Almost double.
I‘d say even more, but anyway.
So I was confident that if we can work together with Guo Jingming, we’re going to create another blockbuster of the movie. And we were right. Even tough Guo Jingming had no experience as how to direct a movie, we convinced him to be the director and Angie and myself organized a very good team, producton team for him. So that’s the reason why Tiny Times was such a success in China.
So The Tenants Downstairs is kind of anti-movie to ones you have been connected with, right?
Yes, The Tenants Downstairs is very different. You know, my challenge was, you know, for the previous four movies we were always targeting teenagers, what is majority audience. OK, teenagers, and people up to thirty. But with The Tenants Downstairs we cannot say we targeted teenagers because based on the classification or the category of the movie, we can only allow the audience who are older than eighteen years of age. And it was deliberate decision.
That’s a risky move.
A very risky move, very challenging. Very challenging. Luckily, we are facing a huge success with this movie. As you might know, our box office in Taiwan now, we are ranking number two this year. It is a huge success. We’re talking about three millions.
My guess would be in The Top 5, because of the production background. And now you say it’s like from above 18 which really can cut the audience down. Actually, do they really control it in the cinemas in Taiwan?
Yes they do. Well, perhaps except some of the smaller cinema in small town maybe, there really don‘t, as they need people to come to keep running.
As a producer when you either agree to produce a film or pick up a project, what do you like to have in a control, what is your priority?
I say it straight: it‘s a good director. Yes, a good director for the project. As a producer of a movie, I think there are two key responsibilities. Number one: I think this is the most important issue, you need to support your director to fulfill what he wants. Number one priority. But in the meantime you have to control cost, OK. Still, to me, the first one should be supportive to the director, the second one control the cost.
So how it went between you as a producer and you as a director?
You know, that’s very good question. OK. As you may know, because of my background – I was with music company B.M.G. and Sony Music for more than twenty years – so I’m very good in carrying out the business plan and very good in controlling the costs. But for The Tenants Downstairs is my first movie as a director, I think I paid more attention to the role of the director rather than producer. So that means I’m very lucky. I had a lot of support from the investors and from my team to do whatever I wanted.
Moreover, with You Are the Apple of My Eye, you were credited with the music department of the film, and then with The Tenants Downstairs you were credited as a composer.
I’ve worked with a lot of good music composers because, as you know, I came from music industry, so I know a lot of the good composers. And I really enjoy working with them, no matter if they are local Taiwanese composers, or international composers in Boston. I think this is one of the elements that added lot of good value to the movie. So tomorrow, when you watch the movie, you will find out a lot of the good music, on the score, inside of the movie.
When adapting a novel or a book what is your approach? How much do you stick with the book and how much do you let it be retold rather than copied?
Another very good question [surprised look that made me feel kind of proud Ron Weasly]. I think, first of all I ask myself: “Which part of the story is going to attract majority of the audience?” If the answer is yes for whatever part of the story, I would try to keep it. Then I ask myself which part audience would never appreciate, and I would pass it, I would remove it. So because I used to be “only” producer for some of the movies and now became also director, I’m always very logical and it is easy for me to judge a book, especially from the business side.
It is obvious from the movie choices and also from the replies you already gave, that you like to play it safe, don‘t you?
[Smile] That’s right, you’re right, you’re right. I always ask myself if I should shoot just a part of the story, I need to make sure the audience will appreciate it. Otherwise, just simply forget it.
Also, it somehow seems like a precondition for you to be in love with the work you do.
Oh, absolutely, absolutely.
But going like this because it has to be…
… you have to fall in love with just story and the movie.
And then keep it tamed…
Absolutely. You know, it’s a kind of passion. You have to feel the passion for this project. You are it. And you have to be very honest, honest to a movie project you are in.
Oh, I think we are to be stopped.
No problem. If you are still around, we can have coffee or two tomorrow and you tell me what you think about the film.
I’d like to, yeah sure, let‘s after the film.