Mark Niu is a journalist, playwright, and screenwriter. Niu’s short film–Juche Rules–which he adapted from his award-winning, one-act play–has been nominated for Best Screenplay at the inaugural Edgemar Center for the Arts Short Film Festival in Santa Monica. (The film will premiere in the 10:30 am block today, Friday, March 26.) The East Coast premiere will be in the Buffalo-Niagara Film Festival on April 24.
Why did you decide to make the transition from journalist to playwright/screenwriter?
I used to toy around with writing spec scripts in my spare time, while I was working as a TV reporter in Hong Kong. But there comes a point where the fooling around boils over to a passion and you have to pursue it. … Journalism is still a part of me, and always will be. But what journalist doesn’t fantasize about being able to take some of the inspiring, altruistic, hypocritical, narcissistic, deviant, and sadistic characters you meet covering stories on a daily basis, and drop them into a story where you have the freedom to absolutely run wild? “Never let the facts get in the way of a good story”… well yes, maybe in some respects, but essentially it’s a journalist’s chance to break free of the rules. Of course, you have to stay true to the characters and the world of believability if you want better results.
Journalists wrote both The Hurt Locker (Mark Boal) and The Blind Side, the former as a screenplay and the latter a book (by Michael Lewis), which was turned into a movie. The Hurt Locker felt so real that it was like I was watching a documentary. The Blind Side felt a little more like an “After School Special” to me, but, when I saw the real family during the credits, my perception started to change as I wondered, “Wow, how much of that really happened?“ It gave me a whole new appreciation for a story when fiction and journalistic-reality are intertwined.
Why screenwriting and playwrighting, as opposed to writing novels?
It just came more naturally to me. I primarily was a TV reporter, so for many years I wrote TV news and news magazine scripts that were always matching up with pictures. To this day, whenever I write something, I’m always visualizing the scene and thinking how it will go together. That’s a natural fit for screenwriting. In broadcast news, we write short sentences too, and brevity is also treasured in screenwriting, not necessarily in fiction. As for playwrighting, just a few years ago I never would have imagined that I’d be writing plays. I took my first class in playwrighting at the USC Master of Professional Writing with playwright Lee Wochner, and I really got inspired and motivated to someday see my work performed on stage. I worked toward that goal and it happened: Juche Rules won the 2008 University of Southern California Play Festival and was performed at East-West Players Theater in Los Angeles. Live performances, a packed theater, and a phenomenal reaction … it was really thrilling.
How did you get the idea for Juche Rules?
I was in a class where we had to write about a vivid memory and try to recall as many details as possible. It was actually an exercise in non-fiction writing. I chose to write about my first trip to North Korea as a journalist, and found the exercise far more challenging than I expected. You soon realize how many details you truly forget. But what you don’t forget are the emotions you felt. And that’s how I got the idea for the play, to hone in on the mixed emotions that I, a Chinese-American journalist living in Hong Kong, felt while making a journey into one of the most isolated countries in the world.
How much was based on your real-life experience?
As a journalist, I make sure to say that it was inspired by true events, as opposed to based on true events. Now, if you look up the Hollywood definition, I suppose that means if I saw a bird soaring in North Korea and was inspired to write about freedom in North Korea, that would suffice. Well, it’s a lot more than that. I traveled to North Korea twice, once by boat and once on a bus directly through the DMZ, which was the first trip ever by foreign journalists to take that route. I drew on material from both of those trips. Both visits were highly controlled and restricted to the Kumgang mountain area, the place where they sometimes have reunions for families who were separated during the Korean War. Thus, my story pretty much sticks to that concept of a journalist on a guided tour in a strange land. It’s a very simple story, but the emotions that the main character, Kai (Roy Vongtama in the film and David Chan in the play), faces are very similar to what I felt. As a young journalist, Kai feels a duty to prove himself and to please his bosses. But at some point, he also becomes consumed by the consequences of breaking rules and actually takes on the North Korean philosophy of Juche, which he originally ridiculed. On my visit to North Korea, I was doing much of that–breaking the rules that our guide had set forth because I was desperate to film shots within the DMZ. In the story, the central conflict results when a soldier (Ryun Yu) boards the bus to keep the journalists in line. This is all true. In fact, I was sweating like crazy when that soldier was sent on as I covered up my camera and hid it in my bag as fast as I could. But that’s where fiction takes over. In reality, I don’t speak Korean and I couldn’t communicate with the soldier. In the play and film, I propose the scenario, “What if the journalist and North Korean soldier could communicate? How would they relate? How would they interact? And how would they resolve a conflict?”
What was your process in adapting your work?
In adapting a play to a film, one advantage is that your characters are fully fleshed out. There’s so much more dialogue in a play, and so much thought put into how they would react, that you know the characters really well. All characters in Juche Rules are distinct with the way they speak, their motivations, and even their sense of humor. That makes it great for a screenplay, which can easily get so caught up in plot and getting from point to point that you don’t have time to develop your character. From a play, you know these guys so well that you can easily translate their character to the screen. However, the 15-minute marker for short film festivals made things really tough. Only some festivals have that as an actual requirement, but a lot of people told me that if you don’t keep it under 15 minutes, any festival will have a hard time finding space for it. My play was about 30 minutes, so it was cut in half. We had to make a lot of painful cuts, lose a lot of dialogue, and instead try to communicate those things through looks and actions. Also, as my director Kristina Romero pointed out early on, I needed to have a lot more of the action and direction focus on the main character. In a play, your eyes are focusing all over the stage, but with the camera you need to zero in on your protagonist and make him the ultimate center of the story.
What was your greatest challenge for Juche Rules the short film?
I’d have to say the location and environment. The play was set in a harsh winter and that’s not easy to find in Los Angeles. The costs skyrocket if we have to transport or house everybody somewhere else, so we needed to be within driving distance. Producer Roy Vongtama, director Kristina Romero, and I went on a quest to find snow in March in the Angeles National Forest, which surprisingly, has very similar terrain to North Korea. Eventually, we did find snow lightly coming down, and we were very much like excited children seeing the first snow of the year (at least in a lot of other states). But we soon discovered that the road gets closed off immediately for being too unsafe. Furthermore, many of the roads around there are either restricted for filming or majorly expensive to film on–you get charged by both the County and the Forest. Well in the end, we jumped through hoop after hoop to find a legal spot up there, (it was back to scorching L.A. weather by then) and lo and behold, we got our filming permit approved only the night before we were scheduled to shoot. Man, and I thought North Korea was hard to film in! Another big challenge was finding the bus, which we are very proud of. I don’t think anyone will ever find a bus like it again. The first one like it was supposedly blown up in an X-Files episode, and I heard that the one we used was recently destroyed too.
How does writing a short film work as a “calling card” for your work? Using festivals to help you get noticed?
I’ve heard both sides. Some people have won awards on the circuit and it really never amounted to much. Others met a lot of influential people just by hanging out at the festivals and having their work shown there. A common wisdom is to have a full-length of your short ready to go in case someone inquires. I just started on the independent film festival circuit, so it remains to be seen. But I think for the most part the key people involved in Juche Rules just felt it was a solid piece of work where they could showcase their talents and have the opportunity to create a piece of … dare I say the word… “Art.” Certainly, just getting a film finished helps career-wise, because you have a screen credit and it proves that what you wrote was worth other people taking the time to get involved. Also, a short film is a lot easier for agents or mangers to watch, as opposed to reading a 110-page screenplay.
What are you working on now? In the world of journalism, I’m presently working with an organization to produce a TV show with an American and Asian focus. I’m also brushing up a pair of comedy screenplays, writing a second draft of a play, and about to begin writing my next dramatic screenplay that is based on a true story.
Any advice for writers?
I’d suggest new writers start out by writing a story that’s based on something they know really well. A lot of people think their own lives are boring, so they want to get as far away from that as possible. However, I’m positive that within each person lies a memory or experience that can provide fuel for an original story. You don’t have to stick to your life story exactly, or even at all. But find that emotion you felt, for example, the confusion you felt when moving to a new school where no one understood you, the betrayal you felt when your friend let you down, or the unusual satisfaction you felt when you finally met a person even more boring than yourself.
In detective stories they always say follow the money. I think in writing it’s always helpful to follow the pain, and if it’s too painful, fictionalize it in some way (change the name, age, or gender of the character), so that you can capture that emotion and follow where it takes you.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you first started writing?
I still want to know more about the business and marketing end. I have taken some good classes in that area, but you always need to know more. Writers aren’t usually very good self-promoters, but it is an essential part of surviving the business.
Sometimes, I wonder whether, before getting into this crazy business, it would have been better for someone to have pointed out the odds of getting onto a writer’s staff, having your work sold, staged, or even made into a movie. On the other hand, they’re pretty scary stats, but I suppose, if you’re a writer, you tend to wear those stats as a badge of courage. I remember walking into my very first writing class with instructor Sid Stebel and he looked us in the eye and said, “You’re all dreamers. All of you. Otherwise, you wouldn’t be here.” I guess that pretty much sums up being a writer.
Tags: Author Q&A Buffalo-Niagara Film Festival Debra Eckerling Edgemar Short Film Festival Juche Rules Kristina Romero Mark Niu Plays Roy Vongtama Screenwriting The Blindside The Hurt Locker University of Southern California Play Festival Write On!