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Interview: David Kaplan (Year of the Fish)

I had already made 3 fairy tale short films – LITTLE SUCK-A-THUMB, THE FROG KING, and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD starring Christina Ricci – so making a fairy tale feature film was a natural progression. an early draft of the script was workshopped at the Sundance directors and screenwriters labs. YEAR OF THE FISH is a loose adaptation of an old Chinese folk tale, so I decided to set it in the wonderful, vibrant neighborhood of modern-day Chinatown.

Year of the Fish is a film of simple ambitions. A Cinderella story by way of Chinatown, the pic is an unabashed fairytale told with a straight forward, modern-day charm in lieu of a meta-deconstruction approach – A Princess Bride or Amelie this is not.

The film follows Ye Xian, a fresh-off-the-boat Chinese immigrant who arrives in the Big Apple with dreams of making a life for herself. Of course, little does she know the job opportunity arranged for her is at a “massage” parlor where she is expected to service the male clientele with a smile. Unwilling to debase herself, the Evil Aunt proprietor makes Ye Xian her whipping girl tasked with doing the parlor’s grunt work. It is in this capacity that she meets Johnny, an accordion-playing grandma’s boy with his own problems. Along the way she also crosses paths with a collection of fantastical characters who help her overcome her obstacles to Johnny’s heart.

Premiering at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, the film is writer/director David Kaplan’s first feature. I had a chance to talk to the filmmaker about the evolution of the project, the use of rotoscoping in telling the tale, and his upcoming project with The Daily Show’s Aasif Mandvi.


David Kaplan

David Kaplan Year of the Fish

Imran Jaffery: What was the genesis of the project?
David Kaplan: I had already made 3 fairy tale short films – LITTLE SUCK-A-THUMB, THE FROG KING, and LITTLE RED RIDING HOOD starring Christina Ricci – so making a fairy tale feature film was a natural progression.  An early draft of the script was workshopped at the Sundance directors and screenwriters labs. YEAR OF THE FISH is a loose adaptation of an old Chinese folk tale, so I decided to set it in the wonderful, vibrant neighborhood of modern-day Chinatown.

IJ: You seem to have an interest in fairy tales and Year of the Fish is certainly a modern take on the genre. What do you find appealing about them as a filmmaker?
DK: I think they have a great visual appeal that’s perfect for film. And since fairy tales, myths and folklore have passed through so many generations of storytellers, they touch on some very deep and universal human truths. Often they’re treated simply as children’s stories, but there’s much more to them than that. And, in fact, most popular films draw their structure from fairy tales and myths even though they may not be so explicit about it: look at THE DEVIL WEARS PRADA, ROCKY, PRETTY WOMAN, MAID IN MANHATTAN, STAR WARS, etc., etc.

IJ: Chinatown plays an integral role in the film. Did you embed yourself on Canal Street researching the community?
DK: Yes, there was a lot of research and a lot of B-roll photography. But I also am a native New Yorker and grew up downtown near Chinatown so I knew the neighborhood.

IJ: Were you afraid of running the risk of falling into caricatures and stereotypes of the Chinese-American community (as is so often the case in American cinema)? The film certainly straddles that line.
DK: Janet Yang, the producer of THE JOY LUCK CLUB, came onboard very early as our executive producer because she loved the script and appreciated its humor, its boldness, and its energy.  We also enlisted two local Chinatown community leaders, Paul Lee and Telly Wong, as advisor and associate producer – they also read the script, loved it, and had many bits of cultural advice for changes that were made before shooting.  What became clear is that. of course, there are many different levels of sensitivity within the Asian-American community, as there would be with any community.  I think a good example is the reaction of the Italian-American community to THE SOPRANOS; some were insulted by what they deemed caricatures of characters like Paulie Walnuts, and others thought the series was the greatest thing since sliced gabagool.

With an adaptation of a fairy tale, it’s important to make the distinction between stereotype and archetype. That is, there is a “wicked stepmother” character in the film (played by Tsai Chin).  On a simplistic, surface level, one could view this as the “dragon lady” stereotype, but in fact this role is an archetypal mythic/fairy tale persona, meant to be taken in conjunction with the “good mother” character (either the heroine’s dead mother or Johnny’s grandmother) and together these two parts express the duality of a real complex mother figure. It’s the same with the “wicked stepsisters”. These archetypal characters express something ancient and universal about sibling rivalry and the danger of stepfamilies.

IJ: Can you talk a bit about the casting process, particularly that of Ken Leung and your star (and relative newcomer) An Nguyen?
DK: I worked with the wonderful casting director David Caparelliotis from the Manhattan Theater Club. We did auditions for everyone in the film except for Tsai Chin, who lives in California, and Randall Duk Kim.  Ken Leung and An Nguyen were terrific in their auditions and that’s why they were cast.

IJ: How did the idea of having Johnny play an accordion come about? It’s such an odd choice of an instrument!
DK: I like the accordion a lot – I find it soulful and charmingly old-world.  i liked the idea of him being able to practice out on the streets and in the parks of Chinatown.  It seemed like a nice off-beat choice for Johnny, something more interesting than a guitar or sax or piano.

IJ: The film looks like it was shot on the run with a tiny budget. As your first feature, how did you take to the larger canvass and production process?
DK: Because we rotoscoped the movie, we were able to shoot the live-action part on mini-DV with a very small crew, almost documentary-style.  In post-production, we painted over each frame digitally to create a beautiful HD version.  This was the perfect way to approach this story because it allowed us to move fast with no lights or trucks and be relatively unobtrusive while shooting in Chinatown.

IJ: How did you settle on the visual style of the film? Was it decided early on that you would go with the rotoscoping process?
DK: Yes, the rotoscoping was decided early on because it would situate the film somewhere between reality and dream-space. This was ideal because of the various magical elements in the story. When my actor Ken Leung saw the film for the first time, he said he felt like he was seeing the whole thing from underwater, from the fish’s point-of-view! I hadn’t intended that but it’s certainly a valid observation.

David Kaplan Year of the Fish

IJ: Do you wish you did more with the technique? It provides such a huge opportunity to add layers to the frame and to heighten the fantastic aspects of a film (as Richard Linklater has done to great effect), but Year of the Fish is totally devoid of such flourishes. Was it merely a budgetary limitation or a conscious decision?
DK: Rotoscoping was a way of taking some very ugly, harsh video and turning it into something that was visually and aesthetically acceptable, even beautiful. On this film, we went for a very different style than the Linklater films. His films are kind of like graphic novels – all clean sharp edges and even color spaces. For YEAR OF THE FISH, our approach was more like a watercolor painting, or a sloppy oil painting. We embraced the chaos of letting the colors spill beyond their borders and into each other. The software we used, Sythetik Studio Artist, is terrific and chock full of possibilities. If you ever have the chance to see the film on the big screen, you’ll appreciated the complexity, depth and richness of each image.

Of course on any project one could always use more time and more money.  But I’m not sure I would’ve heightened the fantastic aspects of the film – some of my favorite portions of the film are effects that were much more subtle and poetic, like falling snow over the streets of Chinatown or a wisp of smoke from a blown-out candle.

IJ: What can you tell us about your upcoming film with comedian Aasif Mandvi (7 to the Palace)?
DK: It’s going to be great – great cast, great script, great location (Jackson Heights, Queens) and great subject (Indian food). Very funny story and very touching. Truly a wonderful experience as a director.

Gigantic Releasing releases Year of the Fish in theaters this Friday, August 29th.

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