We had the good fortune of connecting with Oliver Li and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Oliver, why did you pursue a creative career?
I don’t really believe there is a guy who lives a “Tranquil life”, at least I don’t.
I do have a typical career: I’m a science majored student who studied all the way for GAO KAO in my teens age, like other Chinese students do. My parents are open-minded and well educated. I chose Chemistry for my undergrad major not because of passion, but my ignorance of what a career of science or engineering is like. After entering the top university in China, I started to develop my interests in wind music, photography and filmmaking. I had a vague plan to learn filmmaking/storytelling for my graduate, and admitted to Chapman as an editing student, which starts my film editing career.
But that’s superficial. Leaning filmmaking is also a journey that I trying to understand more of myself. Those conflicts in the film stories recall my own experience in life: homesickness, school bullying, institutionalization, manic depressive psychosis, violence etc. Some of them I tried to avoid because I didn’t know how to deal with, some of them I fought against, but non of them I could really neglect.
My career helps me deal with those “Spots” in my life. Some films heal me. For example, I would response a lot to the sacrifice and paranoid depicted in Whiplash. Some films I make also do. The first feature film I edited was about a twisted maternal love which kills a son and it’s a total tragedy. I don’t have a so desperate relationship with my mother, but there are a lot of truth in the story.
On the other hand, the processing of telling a story also means a lot to me. Last March when the covid- 19 rises in U.S. I lost my daily routines at school, and I was quite restless. But when I was viewing the footage from a short film named “HEAT” from Loyola Marymount University, I started a dream-like journey: I said to myself: “I could help telling this powerful story. I could tell it well and I have to.” The story is about a passive, introverted girl who can’t deal with the violence in her intimate relationship. Plot-wise, it has no similarity with my experience, but emotionally it’s about a universal human-feeling which connects strongly to me. The process of making that film gave me an internalized power to fight against outside events. When the film is shown to the audience, their feedbacks are all about gaining power and consolation, and I was so thankful to it. I realize I love this process, to tell truthful stories, to build bridges, and to make connections with other human beings.
Let’s talk shop? Tell us more about your career, what can you share with our community?
When I applied to the film schools in U.S., I was confused about the term “Storyteller” shown on their websites. I told a story, then am I a storyteller already?
I didn’t get the point of the “crafty” or “technique” in storytelling until I learned filmmaking at Chapman University. In a workshop in the first semester, I submitted my homework, a short “Moment of Decision”, and was eager to show it. But my professor Jeff Stanzler didn’t let it play, as a film. He keeps touching the space bar and asking questions. I was quite offensive at the moment. I wondered why my story could not even be played integrally. But when I start to listen to Stanzler’s questions, I kind of attracted: : “This is a good set-up, but where is your pay-off?” “Now we are half-way into your 2-minute film, but who is your main character?” “Is this ‘a hero goes on a journey’, or ‘a stranger come to town’?”. Following his train of thought, I started to see my film as an unfinished story to be polished, rather than a work to be shown off. Later in the semester, professor Stanzler helps me a lot with the crafty of narrative. I starts to understand that a story is far more than plot. It won’t be finished until its well-told, no matter in the language of literature, or cinema.
In the Spring of 2019 I started my first editing job: a graduate thesis “Eros” from HongKong Baptist University. It was not a pleasant memory, because I feel hard to understand the affair depicted in the film. It is a wrongful relationship based on my perception. I just tried to use my techniques to tell it in a good way, to orchestrate the scenes, to maximum the drama and emotion, but didn’t put much of my own passion in it. For the two months after the picture-lock, I never look at it as a “good work”. But things converted when I watched it at the Beijing screening of HongKong baptist University in the summer. When I saw the film on the big screen, I knew it worked. I knew it worked well, feeling the reaction of the audience in the room. It stood out, not only plot-wise, but the way it’s told. My director, Yizhen, thanked me a lot in the Q/A session, although I didn’t aware I helped him much in the editing process.
I came to understand that experience after I met professor Peter Markham from American Film Institute. In his film directing class, he raise the difference between Sympathy and Empathy: The part “pathy” derives from “pathos” in ancient greek, which means “suffer” or “feeling”. Sympathy means “with the pathos”, it’s defined as “sharing the feeling”; while “Empathy” means “in the pathos”, emphasizing on “entering to another’s feelings”. Empathy is an approach, it has nothing to do with what social morality taught me, like “an affair is not right, they deserve the punishment”, or “an unfaithful wife should be disdained”. My job as a storyteller is not to judge whether the characters are right or wrong morally, but trying to bring the audience into them and let them feel a universal human truth, which is deeper and more powerful than the what social prejudice teach us. And my job matters a lot since that truth won’t have an access to people, until it’s told in a good way.
With Yizhen’s recommendation, I get to know Xusong, another director from HongKong Baptist University, who was trying to edit his thesis film, “The Puppy of a Bitch”, in a feature version. I asked my classmate, Tong Wen to co-edit the film with me. That becomes my major job in the Fall semester in 2019. It’s the first time I edit a film with over 60 scenes and I did that part in my spare time. To get feedbacks from the audience, we held several screenings at Chapman Dodge, and I believe that’s the coolest thing I did in my graduate. I would never remember the screening I specially held for professor Stazler at Chapman Studio West. This time Stanzler watched it from beginning till the end. After the screening he starts to talk, he talks and talks, about theme, about the performance, about the director’s idea, much more than what he told me a year before in the workshop course. In the end, the way him shaking hands with me was like saying “Ok, Oliver. You really grew. Now you are a film editor. And I’m so glad to see that.”
After everyone’s gone, .I just can’t held it anymore and burst into tears in my car.
Professor Bruce Green told me “I don’t care much if you edit the scene I assigned or not. As an editor, you just don’t stop. You work on a project, you move on, and work on another. If you have another film to work on, that’s totally fine and that’s good.” I guess I just kept editing narrative films. I edited more than 10 short films and 2 feature films till now. It’s not easy to go this far in two years. I have to reach out much and talk with the directors. There are jobs that won’t work out because the director doesn’t like my first cut, or some other reasons. That just happens sometimes, and I’m totally fine with it. And of course, there are times when I struggle to work out good cuts for the film. While in the journey, I starts to enjoy everything about it. I was sure what to talk with the directors in the beginning, but now I’m quite experienced in building some connections. I don’t judge the footage, or the directors’ creative vision, but just play with the footage and try to work out the best way to tell the story with the directors, and I’m fine if it didn’t work out, our I wasn’t good enough. I starts to see the beauty in the narrative strategies of the great filmmakers, no matter what the “style” is, eastern or western, Edward Yang or Martin Scorsese, Lee Chang-dong or Bergman, Kurosawa or Kubrick. I feel like I could learn from their crafty and help the directors nowadays to tell their story in the best way.
I like to be a “Bridge”. The bridge between the footage to the film, between the story to the audience, between people to people. I believe the approach to make connections is valuable. I will go on with this approach and see what happens next. That’s how I see myself now as a “Storyteller”.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
When my friends come to visit me, I would always bring them to some famous places of interest: the Universal Studio, the Griffith Observatory, the Getty Center and the Getty Villa, the beach of Santa Monica, etc.
As a film student, I always bring my friends to special film screenings which you may only find at Los Angeles. I watched “An Elephant Sitting Still” at Laemmle Glendale and had Q&A session with Cinematographer Chao Fan. At Arclight LA, I watched “Parasite” with my friend and even had Q&A session with Bong Joon-ho. I have to mention the Egyptian Theatre and I went there three times to watch “2001: A Space Odyssey”. Also the most crazy experience of watching a film in my life is to watch “The Room” with a whole room of crazy fans who could remember all the lines and jokes of the film.
As for dining, I always take my friends to The Smoke House in Burbank. It’s shown in the film “LA LA LAND” and they have photographer who could take polaroid for the guests. The Shoutout series is all about recognizing that our success and where we are in life is at least somewhat thanks to the efforts, support, mentorship, love and encouragement of others. So is there someone that you want to dedicate your shoutout to?
I want to dedicate my shoutout to my parents. They gave me room to try what I like and won’t limit my interest. I believe most other parents won’t do in China. Also, they always encourage “communication”, which made me believe people could communicate, with some efforts made.
Two of the collective also plays an important role in my youth. One is my high school class, the other one is Tsinghua Univeristy Symphonic Band. Those two organizations gave me great sense of belongings during my late teens and early twenties.
My career in filmmaking started when I study at Chapman University. And credit to those professors: Paul Seydor, Jeff Stanzler, Thomas Ethan Harris, and Peter Markham from AFI. Some of my classmates are my treasured friends in film career: Editor Cindy Yu, Emma Li, Tong Wen; Cinematographer Joy Wang, and Xiaojun Jian; Director Davis Chang, etc. Also, the directors I worked with helped me a lot, e.g.: Ronald Huang, Xiao Hu, Yizhen Pei and Xusong Huang from HongKong Baptist University Academy of Film, Chen Zheng from Loyola Marymount University.
Other: IMDb: www.imdb.com/name/nm10708425/
p1 – p3 : “Heat”, Chen Zheng, 2020 p4 “The Puppy of a Bitch”, Xusong Huang, 2020 p5 “Fading Scar”, Ronald Huang, 2020 p6 – p8, “Eros”, Yizhen Pei, 2019