The cinematographers discuss their extracurricular work outside of the Hollywood ecosystem.
When Richard Bowen and his wife, Jenny, adopted a baby girl from China, little did they know the path they had started down. A year later, their new daughter was thriving, despite a rough start in life. She joined two older Bowen children, and another Chinese orphan would soon expand the family further.
“At the one-year anniversary party, my wife said to me, ‘I know what I want to do with the rest of my life,’” says Bowen. “She deserves all the credit for starting the foundation. Only a small percentage of children are adopted, so we wanted to do something to help the others. The transformation in these kids is pretty dramatic.”
The foundation is Half the Sky, and today it operates four nurture and enrichment programs designed to prevent or reverse the ill effects of institutionalization. Strict family planning policies in the 1980s caused an influx of healthy baby girls into China’s orphanages. Half the Sky’s website notes that 94,000 children have been helped in 51 cities, with 21,000 caregivers trained in using the programs they developed. Nearly a million children are yet to be reached, however.
Richard shot more than 100 short films last year on behalf of Half the Sky, and he is currently preparing to shoot a series of PSAs with celebrities. Much of this material is never seen outside of China. He used expertise gained shooting in China to smooth the way for his own project, titled Cinderella Moon.
“In my research, I found that the Cinderella story actually has its roots in a Chinese tale from 768 A.D.,” Richard says. “The scholars think it may have come to Europe with Marco Polo. The basic theme of the Chinese version of the story is that girls are just as good as boys. A light bulb went on in my brain.”
Richard spent two years developing the project, raising money and scouting locations. Phil Radin and Bob Harvey of Panavision helped with the cameras. “I had directed commercials and I had always really enjoyed it,” Richard says. “I never had any great drive to be a feature director. But this got under my skin. I genuinely like the movie.”
Directing required Richard to work with another cinematographer for the first time. His name was Wang Yu. “He's done a lot of really very well-known Chinese movies,” says Richard. “He's never broken out internationally, but he's a very good cameraman. I saw this movie so clearly in my head, initially, before we made it. I was so specific about what I wanted that I think I made him crazy. But I love the guy.”
Cinderella Moon is currently working on distribution. It must first pass censorship in China. But there is an opportunity to see the film in Santa Monica at the Aero Theater, 1328 Montana Ave., at 2 p.m. on April 28, 2013. The screening is a co-presentation of the American Cinematheque and the Los Angeles Children’s Film Festival. There will be a Q&A with Richard after the screening, and he says he’d love to see you there.
I caught up with Theo Van de Sande in New Orleans, where he was working on Homefront, a feature film directed by Gary Fleder. I first interviewed Theo in the late 1980s about a film he’d shot called Rooftops. He had recently been invited to join the ASC by Harry Wolf, who had seen The Assault, a film Theo had shot in Holland that won the Oscar for best foreign film in 1987. Lately, Van de Sande has been alternating between narrative Hollywood fare and small documentaries he shoots with his wife, writer-director Michèle Ohayon.
In 1998, the film Colors Straight Up was nominated for an Oscar in the best documentary feature category, where it competed with films with support from Spike Lee and Steven Spielberg. Colors Straight Up profiled a non-profit that teaches drama to inner city kids. Since then, Theo and Michèle have collaborated on five documentaries: Cowboy del Amor, about a horse breeder who sets up American bachelors with Mexican women; Steal a Pencil for Me, about a love that survives during the Holocaust; S.O.S./State of Security, which demystifies the workings of government in the hope of avoiding future security breaches, and a documentary short titled Focus Forward/Solar Roadways, about an Idaho engineer who wants to cover U.S. roadways with solar panels.
“It’s tough, because when we are both working on a documentary, there’s not much income,” says Theo. “We have two kids in school. So sometimes, I’m working on a $100 million film with six crews working at the same time, and the next day, I’m working in a dangerous part of Los Angeles where I’m loading my own cameras and connecting the electricity.”
Theo notes that budgets in the middle range, from about $25 -$80 million, are rare these days. He’s not the first cinematographer to tell me this. “They disappeared like snow in the sun,” he says. “And the few independents that exist have much difficulty getting their film distributed.”
But Theo still finds the “circus” enjoyable. He recalls the Volcano production shutting down La Cienega and Beverly for some major explosions. The director was Mick Jackson. “Mick and I looked at each other, and said, ‘Who the heck let us do this?’ In no other business will you find that craziness. Give us money for a dream, and maybe it will work out in the end. I have learned more and more to enjoy that. I think of the logistic and political aspects as my job, and the actual shooting, the artistic part, as my hobby.”