Australia, Features, Filmmakers, Interviews

Director interview: Sky Crompton

We speak to Sky Crompton, director of independent movie Citizen Jia Li

An independently produced feature film from Australia centring around three Asian characters, Citizen Jia Li has screened around the world and won an Award in the USA. We spoke to director Sky Crompton about the film and his career.

How did you get into filmmaking?
Film came to me gradually. I had worked in mostly creative or communication related roles since the mid 80s and along the way tried to get the film rights to a book we were unsuccessful at getting the rights but it got the idea in my head about making films. Then in the mid 90s I had the opportunity to change directions and decided to give film a shot. Producing, writing and directing in corporate video I soon realised that I wanted was to work on my projects, so I took up Lecturing in media, animation and film to allow me that freedom while training the next generation of filmmakers. In 2000 I came home from film school in New York set up our company to look after development and production of our projects the first of which was a short TV SiFi pilot, came then Citizen Jia Li or Citizen as it came to be known by the cast and crew.

What was your inspiration for the film Citizen Jia Li? Why attracted you to writing a story about three Asian immigrants?
I have always been interested in other cultures. Being a Lecturer provided the opportunity to interact more closely with people from Asia as co-workers and students. It was during a conversation with some of my Asian students about how they could find new markets by telling stories to Asian audiences that really started the ball rolling.

These students, both immigrant and first generation Australian Born Chinese [ABC], had never thought of making an Asian film, so I decided that someone should give it a go, and why not me as I was looking for a topic for a feature script. That is not to say that no one had made an Asian feature film in Australia but they are few and far between.

I choose Asian immigrants for this very reason that they are underrepresented and poorly presented in Australian film and TV. Some of my actors had parts in major Australian TV series as dead victims in crime dramas and other meaningless bit parts; so forget about getting leading roles I wanted to give them this opportunity.

Immigrants are quite often seen in a negative light; do you hope you can change this with your film?
Immigrants are people just like everyone else, the same fears, hopes and dreams, the difference is that much of the time they are more vulnerable. I wanted to show that aspect and to empower these characters creating a diverse set of unusual characters open to the use of pathos and empathy to give hope and engage the audience without preaching to them.

How did you avoid falling into Asian stereotypes with your film?
The characters could easley have fallen into that trap and become just simply that ….stereotypes. I avoided this by making the characters so deep that they seamed to be real people with a complete history of their own, having good and bad sides, positives and negatives I gave them a depth and a breath that is lacking in stereotypical characterisations. By doing this I created characters that the audience knew or identified with and therefore transcended stereotypes because they became three-dimensional …real.

I’ve read the film was shot for less than the cost of the Nissan 350Z that one character drives. How did you manage to stretch the budget so far?
I likened it to base-jumping without the Para-shoot. To put this in context you need to understand that there are inherent difficulties with Citizen. Firstly I don’t speak Mandarin; it was the first feature for 90%+ of the cast and crew; the film had to be shot in 12 days; finally the shooting budget was between $25-$30K. Success was all in the planning and execution for this I had some simple rules.

Firstly the “film has to be completed by the end of the shoot, so we had to get every shot. We were not coming back”. Secondly came my process driven approach of “Do it by the numbers. And allow triple redundancy because things are going to go wrong”.

I’ll give you some examples of how this approach worked. Pre-production was almost six months and once I had found the cast we rehearsed casually for 2-3 months prior to the shoot and then one week of rehearsals for key dramatic scenes.

Eighty-five percent of the locations were within 500-1000 meters of the unit offices and dressing rooms. The city of Melbourne [who don’t charge fees for small crews] became one of the characters and deliberately so. Everyone who could help did Chris Pang got us the loan of the 350Z for the shoot a car that he had previously owned.

A lot if the efficiency of the shoot was knowing where to spend the time and money where it will end up on the screen. So when Daniel Yun asked for a dolly and jib I said ‘sorry but no’ we were going sticks [tripod] and handheld. I was ruthless with myself knowing when I had the shot and them moving on there are a number of scenes which are either single shots or single takes in-fact there is one which we got in one shot in one take, these decisions and approaches gave the film a specific visual look which was appropriate for the story and characters.

This said I would embrace the opportunity to shoot three pages a day for 45+ days, I just didn’t have that luxury on Citizen otherwise it would not have been finished. Oh one final point that feeds into how I shoot, I never rehearse on set, and rehearsal is something that happens beforehand. On set it’s blocking for the camera/sound, the location and then we are into performance and we are rolling. This allows things to move in an economical fashion and you get better performances every time.

How much support is there for independent filmmaking in Australia? Is there much of an ‘Indie’ scene?
Australian films take 4-6% of the Australian box office, funding for our films comes from either international studio/investor for the blockbusters, soft government/tax credit funding for the small budget and private funding for the no budget [Ed Burns set]. When I set out to make Citizen I said I was making a global film, its being recognised globally and I think today that is how every one has to approach film making globally. So to answer you question it is a tough environment.

Did you run into any problems or difficulties shooting the film?
As I said earlier we had problems everyday, from my lead actress Claudia losing her voice a week before shooting, to Daniel Yun coming down with sinusitis half way through the shoot despite which they both just kept soldiering on. Some days we found locations where locked out, equipment was locked in [don’t ask], but every day we got our shots, every location we left on the day scheduled with the shots in the can. It came down to the planning which allowed us to be flexible in the extreme.

Any film is only as good as those you work with. How did you find collaborators like cinematographer Daniel Yun and composer Tim Trappett? And how did you cast the film?
Actually Daniel Yun had been one of the students I had talked to about making Asian films we kept in touch and when I had the story I contacted him and several others all who were interested in making a feature and we talked about putting a team together, the choice of Daniel as DOP was almost organic as Daniel and I already had a report and I had liked his style for sometime it seemed the right decision and I turned out to so. Also his being an Asian immigrant allowed the lens to have the Asian eye that I was looking for the film.

I approached Tim who I knew from years before and runs his own recording studio, Turnstile Records, as I was looking for a Pop soundtrack and wanted to create it from the ground up. Tim and his brother collaborated on writing and producing the soundtrack with the exception of Kelly Slew’s song Love Lost Love Found. Kelly I met through Chris Pang and I asked her to write a theme song for the film in Chinese to put the final seal as it were on the Asian sound of the film.

I have to also give a shout out to Rebecca Harris the designer and her team with out whom the film would not have looked how it did. And my associate producers; production manager Ashley Wild and 1st AD Christian K these guys and galls made it happen along with every other member of the cast and crew.

Casting the film was a more difficult undertaking than I though it would be the main reason was the lack of Asian actors in Australia compared to other ethnicities. I was also looking for young actors who had a good dramatic range who were also attractive as it was essential that that appeal to the target audience. So when it came to casting it took me about two months to find my lead cast in Claudia, Chris and Susanna through friends, agents and lots of phone calls. I even had to change the role of Daisy, which is played by Susanna from Japanese to Japanese/Chinese [for the better I might add] for the lack of ethnic Japanese actresses in Melbourne [the minute I say this they are all going to come out of the wood work, but that was then].

But once I found them [the cast] the decision was very quick I simply put them all in a room together had them read against each other and cast them almost on the spot.

Chris Pang in particular seems to be something of a rising star. How did he become involved in the film?
When I was looking for a strong leading man to play the role of Kong Chris came to me through the casting process, I was looking for a strong attractive male lead with a good performance range and Chris was recommended by his acting coach long time Australian actor and director John Orcsik who is a friend of a casting agent friend of mine Jo Rippon [who taught me every thing I know about casting]. It turned out Chris was perfect for the role and I was the first to cast him in a leading roll.

Since then he has made Tomorrow When the War Began and next years Hollywood genre flick I Frankenstein. Chris and I spent a lot of time n his character beyond the script to bring out his character in performance and it shows on the screen where he expresses time and again without words just pure emotion ripping off the screen.

You’ve taken the film to several festivals across the world and won several awards too! Did you enjoy this part of promoting the film, and how was it connecting with audiences in different countries?
I wish I could I have travelled as much as the film has in the last two years. For a range of reasons I had to stay at home and was only able to go to the Australian festival screenings, this was both disappointing and liberating as I was free of the hype of being at a festival and focussed on promoting and getting the film into distribution which in it’s self was a Herculean task. The website Hope For Film quotes the figure of 50,000 feature films released in the 2011-12 period with only a small percentage getting distribution, my film was one of those because of the effort we putting to the goal of international distribution.

So for me the connecting has really been a slow burn from the first test screening where I had the Asian audience members laughing in all the right places to the strong reviews film is getting on the back of distribution and people actually watching the film. As a producer a project never leaves you and I have a feeling that citizen still has a ways to go when we release into Asia. But at the end of the day its not about me, its about the audience connecting with and giving their time to the film.

What filmmakers inspire you?
I grew up watching a combination of John Ford and Akira Kurosawa so I have really diverse tastes, my mentors would have been Kristove Kieslowski [Three Colours films], Sydney Lumet [Dog Day Afternoon], Wong Kar-wai [In the Mood For Love], Billy wilder [The Apartment], Jean Paul Rappeneau [Cyrano De Bergerac] all these directors bring an intimacy and pathos to their characters that I seem to need to find in my own. I love the way that Wilder and Rappeneau especially allowed humour in to move their characters and the drama.

And finally, what are you working on at the moment?
Coming off Citizen has been a long journey from script to distribution I think that I would like to work outside Australia next so I am open to opportunities in the USA, UK and Europe and as much as I enjoy producing, at the moment I am interested in possibilities of shooting someone else’s work for a change, leaving the producing and writing to others. As to the company’s next projects we have a TV/Web series based on the Characters in Citizen. Looking to features the book I mentioned earlier we ended up getting the rights so I hope that to be our next feature.

Citizen Jia Li was recently released in the USA on Hulu service (available in the US only).

Interview via email. Thanks to Sky for getting in touch!

About the author

Andrew Heskins
Founder of, which he's been running since 2002. And it's all thanks to Monkey, Water Margin and those damn fantastic 80s Hong Kong action movies! Andy works as a graphic designer in London... More »

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