Q & A with Director Adam Kane
Director Adam Kane
As part of ZAMM.com’s continuing conversations with independent filmmakers Martin Grove talks to director Adam Kane about his political thriller “Formosa Betrayed”, starring James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, John Heard, Will Tiao, Tzi Ma, Leslie Hope and Kenneth Tsang, which premiered at the 2009 Montreal World Film Festival. It opens via Screen Media Films in key cities Feb. 26 and expands through mid-April.
Produced by Will Tiao, David Cluck and Adam Kane, its screenplay is by Charlie Stratton, Yann Samuell, Brian Askew and Nathaniel Goodman from a story by Will Tiao and Katie Swain.
The Story: Inspired by actual events, “Formosa Betrayed” is the story of FBI Agent Jake Kelly’s (James Van Der Beek) investigation of the brutal murder of a Taiwanese-American professor on U.S. soil. With the help of his FBI partner Tom Braxton (John Heard) and a sharp Chicago police detective (Leslie Hope), Kelly discovers the murderers have fled to Taiwan.
Kelly is sent overseas to assist the Taiwanese government’s search for the suspected murderers. Initially guided by an American diplomat (Wendy Crewson) and a Taiwanese official (Tzi Ma), Kelly soon realizes that not only is he an unwelcome guest in a foreign land, but that something even more treacherous is happening beneath the surface.
With the help of Ming (Will Tiao), a Taiwanese activist, Kelly discovers the unsettling truth about the island once called Formosa, leading to dangerous and painful consequences. Kelly finds himself on a collision course with the U.S. State Department, the Chinese Mafia, and ultimately the highest levels of the Republic of China government in Taiwan, where this FBI agent discovers how a complex web of politics, identity, and power affects the lives and destinies of the citizens in all three countries – including his own.
Adam Kane bio: Adam Kane was born in Southern California to a musical family. The son of composer Artie Kane (“Looking For Mr. Goodbar”, “The Eyes of Laura Mars”) and studio singer Sara Kane (Andy Williams Show, Perry Como, “The Sound of Music”), Adam found his personal voice by telling stories with pictures, creating home movies and comic artwork.
Kane’s family drama, “The Fix”, premiered at the 2005 Winnipeg International Film Festival where it won Best Narrative Short. “The Fix” won nine major awards at the festival, including Best Drama, Best of Fest, and Best Director.
Kane directed episodes of the television series “Heroes”, “Kings”, “My Own Worst Enemy” and was producer/director for the Golden Globe nominated “Pushing Daisies”. He received a 2007 ASC Award nomination for Best Cinematography for his work on NBC’s “Heroes”.
Kane has worked as a cinematographer on numerous films, including “The Man”, “The Boondock Saints”, “Love & Sex”, “Skinwalkers”, and “Resurrecting The Champ”, which premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.
“Formosa Betrayed” star James Van Der Beek
Between shooting feature films Kane shot television pilots, including the Emmy nominated “Heroes” for NBC, “Reunion” for Warner Bros./Fox, “Level 9” for Paramount Television and “Sam’s Circus” for Columbia Tri-Star. Among his other television credits are: NBC’s “War Stories” and “The West Wing”, CBS’s “Hack.” and ABC’s “Grey’s Anatomy” and “Line of Fire”. He’s also shot numerous commercials for such companies as MTV, Philips, Hoover, Skechers, Direct TV, Mail Boxes Etc., Subaru, Infinity, Nissan, Honda and Calvin Klein.
- Q: I understand there were some actual events connected to the origin of “Formosa Betrayed”.
- A: The events in “Formosa Betrayed” are all amalgamations of real events that happened in the U.S. and Taiwan in the late 1970’s and early 80’s. There were several murders on American soil that the FBI was involved with that ended up involving the Taiwanese government. There are more than a few stories that we culled together to form the one journey behind our lead character Jake Kelly, played by James Van Der Beek in the movie.
- Q: How did you decide this was a film you wanted to do?
- A: I had known one of the producers, Dave Cluck, who had been involved with the project almost from its inception with Will Tiao, who is the chief producer/fund raiser and also wrote the story (with Katie Swain) and also has a part in the film. Will has been a longtime advocate of Taiwanese rights. He had been involved in Washington for many years under both the Clinton and Bush administrations, working on behalf of the Taiwanese independence movement and trying to figure out a way for Taiwan to find its own identity and independence from China. As a result, after he had left Washington he thought that this would be an issue that would be well suited for a film because film has a unique way of spanning the globe and impacting many different countries and cultures.
We felt this was very much in the same vein as films like “The Killing Fields” and “The Year of Living Dangerously” — political films that I had a deep admiration for as I was growing up. My interest in filmmaking has always been centered around the idea that you can still present important issues to the world through the vehicle of filmmaking and entertain people at the same time. I think both of those films did that well. So when I started hearing about the story of “Formosa Betrayed” I was shocked. I didn’t know anything about the history.
You know, when we grow up in the U.S. we learn a lot about the Holocaust, for example, and about what happened in Nazi Germany during World War II. So when we see a movie like “Schindler’s List” and we see the train heading towards Auschwitz, we in the audience give a collective gasp because we know what that means because of the history that we learned. But (we don’t know about) Taiwan and its history with China and what happened when Chang Kai-shek was driven out of China at the end of World War II by Mao Zedong and what happened as a result of (Chang’s) dictatorship on Taiwan that followed.
People don’t really understand, especially in the Western culture, how many people suffered and died as a result of his iron fist. I think that most of us who grew up in Southern California like I did end up feeling that Chang Kai-shek was probably a pretty good guy and that he helped liberate Taiwan. And the events historically would be otherwise. One of our challenges with the movie as I became involved was not only to make sure that we got some of that history across, but very specifically we wanted to make sure that it didn’t become a civics lesson.
We didn’t want it to become some a lecture about all these bad things that happened and overshadow the value of the movie as a story because movies, I think, to be interesting need to entertain as well as educate in this platform of political thrillers — otherwise, you end up with a documentary and we knew that we didn’t want to make a documentary. We wanted to make something that was more entertaining than that.
I had known about the project for years through my friend Dave Cluck. They had other directors that were attached to the film. I was reading drafts as they were being developed only as an outside opinion because the movie’s complicated with all the politics and history and because Americans and Western culture don’t really know anything about that history. After they had parted ways with their second director there was an opening in my own schedule and I woke up one Christmas morning (in 2007) thinking about the movie, as I often had because I find the material fascinating, and I realized what I felt was missing from the script.
And that was the viewpoint from a Taiwanese man on the ground to show the audience through the journey of our American FBI agent what it was like to be in Taiwan from a native’s perspective in the same way that in “The Killing Fields” the perspective of Sam Waterson (as Sydney Schanberg) was adjusted through the prism of Haing Ngor’s character (Dith Pran). In “Formosa Betrayed” we wanted to begin the movie meeting the character of Ming (a Taiwanese activist played by Will Tiao). Through the journey that he takes with James Van Der Beek’s character we see him as a human being towards the end of the movie. As the cultural issues don’t become isolated only to Taiwan they become human issues. And that’s what really struck me about the movie that I thought was important and fascinating and would be savored by a wider audience.
- Q: What happened next?
- A: That was 2007. I was working on a TV show called “Pushing Daisies” as its producer/director. Like many of us, I fell victim to the writers’ strike. Three weeks before we had all been laid off because we were all waiting for the strike to come to some sort of conclusion. I probably had too much time on my hands so I started thinking about the movie again and when I realized that the missing component for me in the script was the character of Ming, I immediately called my friend Dave and we set up a meeting with Will, Dave and myself. We all sat down for five or six hours and we talked about my perspective on the movie and what direction I wanted to see the script take. And we all agreed to work together.
Because we were in this window of a strike and there was the possibility of SAG striking in June of 2008, I wanted to really expedite the process and move forward. So I brought in another writer, Nate Goodman, who wrote the final production draft of the screenplay, and we beat out an outline over the course of four or five days with he, Brian Askew and myself. Brian was the previous writer on the project. We all agreed what they were going to write and then Will and myself and Dave Cluck got on a plane and started scouting without a script.
- Q: And when was this in terms of the Writers Guild strike?
- A: This was after the Writers Guild went on strike but before SAG (was potentially going to go on strike).
- Q: Why were you able to work on the screenplay during the strike?
- A: None of our writers were Writers Guild. They were all non-union. My biggest argument to Dave and Will was that we need to take advantage of this time period because there’s going to be a lot of terrific actors that are not going to be working and might be really interested in this kind of story. We really expedited the process and began scouting and writing. We were in production by April of ’08.
- Q: How long and where did you shoot?
- A: We shot for eight days in Chicago and then we shot for 23 days in Bangkok, Thailand.
- Q: I imagine Taiwan would not have been happy having you there shooting such a politically sensitive movie.
- A: (Laughing) That’s true. There were three reasons we chose not to shoot in Taiwan even though we did scout Taiwan. One is that we were doing a period piece and Taiwan now doesn’t look anything like it did in the 1980’s. Taiwan is a particularly rich country and they’ve refaced themselves several times over the last two decades. So that was a matter of production design and practicality.
The second reason is that there’s no film infrastructure in Taiwan. It would have been very expensive for us to bring a lot of our crew and gear from Beijing. The third reason was the political issue. We were concerned that because we were depicting events in the movie that really happened — like the Kaohsiung incident, which happened in the late ’70’s in Taiwan where there were many, many people jailed and killed at a public protest — if we shot in Taiwan there might be some political backlash and we might get shut down.
- Q: Is there a film infrastructure in Bangkok?
- A: There’s a very deep film infrastructure in Thailand. There’s at least two or three camera rental companies. There’s Technicolor, who has a laboratory there. And there are many, many crew people who are bi-lingual in Thai and English. So it’s actually a very film friendly place to shoot.
- Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced in production?
- A: We were prepping the film on two continents at the same time and for a low budget film that was challenging. We were shooting in Chicago first and that was the fewest number of days that were on the schedule. We had the majority of the work being prepared in Thailand and we couldn’t be in two places at the same time. So we were flying back and forth between Thailand and Chicago during prep and when we were prepping in either city because the other city was 12 hours apart we were constantly on Skype at all hours of the day and night, having conversations about casting and locations and so on. That was a big challenge because we certainly didn’t get a lot of sleep at the beginning of the movie.
Casting was a big issue. We didn’t find James Van Der Beek until very, very late in the process — about four days before we started shooting. James came in and read along with Jeremy Renner from “The Hurt Locker” and another very talented actor named Ethan Embry and a few others. We realized after seeing James that James is exactly who we wrote in the script for the movie. He is quintessentially the young American that we see our journey through.
He’s not so old that he has too much experience so if he got himself in a situation like this he would buck the system. And at the same time, he was old enough to be able to handle himself and make decisions based on the predicament he was in. But because James is a very open and skilled personality and actor, he was able to handle all those colors flawlessly. He represents a bit of the open eyed American who’s seeing something new and foreign for the first time. He really was the fish out of water we were looking for.
- Q: Wasn’t it living dangerously securing him just four days before you were going to start shooting?
- A: It is. We were an independently financed picture. Will Tiao had raised $5.3 million for production from private investments and we didn’t have a studio to run to in case we went over budget. So we had to make some decisions. We had a lot of discussions the week before about whether we should push the start date or whether we should roll the dice. We had a lot of confidence and faith in our casting director, Deborah Aquila, (and felt) that she was going to be able to help us find quality people to be involved.
- Q: I know you have in your background a lot of work as a cinematographer. Were you ever tempted to shoot this yourself?
- A: No. Ever since I started directing I’ve never had the instinct to shoot myself. Part of that has to do with the mammoth responsibilities that a director has towards a production like this. There are so many elements, especially on a period piece, that need attention from a director that I didn’t feel I would be able to do justice to either job if I took on both.
- Q: When you work with a cinematographer and you are a cinematographer yourself do you work differently than a director would who isn’t?
- A: I think it takes a great deal of surety and confidence for a cinematographer to work with a fellow cinematographer. There’s a lot of concerns when someone is working with a cinematographer turned director that that person is only going to want a cinematographer to be a surrogate or proxy and that the director/ cinematographer is really going to want to shoot the movie and just have the cinematographer of record light the movie for them. That’s not how I work at all.
There’s no doubt that I have a breadth of knowledge and obtain some ideas because I think visually from all my years of shooting. But, at the end of the day, I firmly believe that when you bring on all of the key crew members — cinematographer, production designer, editor, costume designer — you are bringing those people on for their creative strengths, as well. It’s foolish to ignore what they’re bringing to the table because the truth of the matter is that the director has the final say anyway.
So when I work with cinematographers I want to get the very best out of them. At the same time, we can have very, very detailed conversations about specific focal lengths for film lenses and about lighting because I have that in my background, as well. I think that most cinematographers like working with me because I can be so specific. They have a very good idea about what I’m after as a director.
- Q: Coming back to shooting, how many days did you shoot in each location?
- A: We shot eight days in Chicago and we shot 23 days in Bangkok.
- Q: Any scenes that were tougher to shoot than expected?
- A: We had several situations that were dramatically different for different reasons. One of the very first challenges we had in Chicago on the shooting schedule was shooting the end of the movie. Since we were doing the Chicago portion first, all of the scenes towards the end of the movie between James Van Der Beek and Chelcie Ross, his FBI boss, were filmed first. Because of the political nature of the film, there was a lot of discussion about what was being said after Jake Kelly goes through this very long journey and what happens to his character as a result. So we did a lot of rewriting on the set with James and Chelcie during those scenes where James is challenging Chelcie’s authority and, in fact, challenging the whole policy of the FBI in this particular political situation.
On the opposite end, in Bangkok we had to shoot the protest that was modeled after the Kaohsiung incident. There was a logistical problem because we shot that sequence outside of Bangkok Metro, which means that we had to bus a large number of extras — about a thousand — outside the city, which was very expensive. We had a very large scene to shoot which required about a hundred stunt people to play protestors and military police. When the rioting starts to break out there’s tear gas thrown into the crowd and military police start beating protestors and arresting people.
It was a very large sequence to choreograph and we had to shoot that in two days. Controlling crowds of that size usually goes one of two ways — either it’s complete chaos because the people don’t want to be there or the people are completely into it and it goes really smoothly. Fortunately for us, we had the latter and I think all of that energy is in the movie.
- Q: How did you work with the actors? Did you rehearse?
- A: We had a really realistic and fair schedule for a film of this size. The way I like to work as a director is to have rehearsals with actors before the shooting day, if possible, to talk about the essence of the scenes. It’s always best if you can get both actors in the room, if you’re having a scene with two actors, so you can talk through some of the issues with them together and pull out different scenarios so by the time you get on to set you’re not spending that valuable shooting time dealing with that prep.
So ultimately I was able to do that with the actors that were sharing scenes together. I also had individual meetings with James, for example, where we would talk about the arc of his character and about what was happening for him in individual scenes.
- Q: Did you storyboard?
- A: I storyboarded sequences in the movie that required visual effects, which I find is a very useful tool because there’s a lot of different departments that are involved in making visual effects happen. The camera department was obviously involved as are visual effects, but also wardrobe and set design and other departments have to be involved in the discussion of what it’s going to take to make a shot work. And so I did storyboard a very small amount of the movie. But more than that, being a cinematographer I also used visual references from other movies and/or paintings and photographs in order to communicate my ideas with my cast and crew.
- Q: You’re opening Feb. 26 through Screen Media Films. How did your distribution deal come about?
- A: My lawyers are Bill Skrzyniarz and Tanya Mallean and their firm is Skrzyniarz & Mallean. They called Paradigm to take a look at the film when we were looking for producers’ reps to represent the movie for sales. Ben Weiss at Paradigm responded to the movie and we made a deal with him. And when we set up a screening for possible distributors one of the people he invited was Screen Media Films. And Screen Media really responded to this film. They have a history of eclectic taste in films. They recently released “The Private Lives of Pippa Lee” with Robin Wright Penn and they did “Lymelife” last year with Alec Baldwin. They really responded to the subject matter and the filmmaking that our film had to offer and so we made a deal with them. They have world rights.
- Q: What is the release plan?
- A: The list (of cities) has shifted slightly — with an independent film we’re competing against studio films for theaters. I’m quite proud of the fact that we got a theatrical release in this climate. It’s very, very difficult for indies right now, as you know.
- Q: Yes. With so many high profile independent distributors having been cut back or shut down, it’s got to be very tough these days for independent filmmakers.
- A: It is. It’s always the hope when you make an independent film that you’re going to have it seen by wide audiences and one of the greatest gifts a political movie can have is to be seen globally because of the issues that the filmmakers feel are important. They’re the whole reason why filmmakers make the film in the first place. So we feel quite fortunate that Screen Media Films had the vision and the interest and the love for the movie the way that we do and we’re glad to see that they’re helming its worldwide release.
- Q: What’s the release plan?
- A: The plan is Feb. 26 in New York, Los Angeles, the Bay Area and Boston. Then two weeks later (Mar. 12) in Chicago, Philadelphia, San Diego and Washington, D.C. Two weeks after that (Mar. 26) will be Houston, Dallas, Austin, Toronto and Vancouver. And then two weeks later (Apr. 9) will be Seattle, Atlanta, Miami, St. Louis and Kansas City. And then the final tier presently scheduled (Apr. 16) is Honolulu, Columbus, Ohio, Detroit and Ann Arbor, Michigan. If the film does well and we’re seeing audiences respond to it then our distributor has agreed to open the release wider.