Matthew Chuang, ACS visits Filmmakers Academy for the Finding the Frame interview series hosted by Brendan Sweeney. Chuang recently returned to Los Angeles after wrapping Of an Age in Melbourne, his second collaboration with writer and director Goran Stolevski. He sits down to talk about his journey as a filmmaker, shares inside details about the mechanics of cinematography and reveals his experiences on Blue Bayou and You Won’t Be Alone.
Watch the full interview!
THE ORIGINS OF MATTHEW CHUANG, ACS
Matthew Chuang was just a kid when he relocated from Tawain to Australia. He was inspired by all the classic blockbusters like Star Wars, Indiana Jones, and Jackie Chan films. While spending time at the video store, he became fascinated by films like La Haine and filmmakers like Wong Kar-Wai. Growing up with restauranter parents, Chuang didn’t realize that a career as a filmmaker was possible for him. He didn’t quite have the marks to go to college for design or architecture because he was too busy filling his time with movies instead of studying. So, when he was 17, Chuang’s father recommended that he go to a small film school.
Post Film School
After graduating from film school, Chuang and a small group of filmmakers bought a Panasonic AJ-HDX900 Professional High Definition Camcorder and shot a film on the weekends, which would become Braille. Now, Chuang relents, “It’s not a great film,” but that they “definitely learned a lot on that film.” The film was made on a budget of $40,000 and allowed him to try out different cinematic techniques. According to Chuang, there’s no better way to learn filmmaking than “baptism by fire.”
Chuang was pulled toward working with the visuals as opposed to directing like most other filmmakers. However, in his early days, he directed personal projects like short films and music videos in order to learn the craft. Like most filmmakers, he networked and built his rapport with other filmmakers and eventually began operating on commercials in and around Europe.
A Leap of Faith
It took a few years for Chuang to take the next step in his career. When he was around 26, he still lived at home with his parents and was unemployed for some time. His self-confidence was at an all-time low. So, like the sad romantic of a Wong Kar-Wai film, he relocated to Melbourne, partially because of a girl that he met in Japan. Unfortunately, the girl was not interested in Chuang, and to make things worse, he didn’t know anyone else in the city. In the letter rejecting him, she wrote that he seems to be the kind of person who really goes for what they’re after.
That line struck Chuang because he never really felt that way. However, it stuck with him and he thought that maybe he should, in fact, be that person. This led him to move to where there was opportunity and worked with anyone who gave him a chance. “I’m not here to just mess around,” says Chuang. Instead, evolving beyond his early 20s, he learned to pursue his passion head-on.
PREPPING CINEMATOGRAPHY FOR BIG PROJECTS
Your preparation for a project “depends on the filmmaker,” says Chuang. When working with very artistic directors like Ana Lily Amirpour and Justin Chon, Chuang tries first and foremost to understand their point of view. He likes to know why they make certain decisions so he can best support their vision.
Chuang’s first collaboration with director Ana Lily Amirpour was for the short film, KENZO ‘Yo! My Saint’. He recalls talking over ideas with the director at a cafe. She told him what turned her on about cinema, like longing, lust, and the concept of someone still within you after your relationship has long since expired. The project was deeply personal for the filmmakers. When filming the project, Chuang recalls very emotional Lily standing at the monitor.
“I love what she does with filmmaking because it’s so personal to her and she’s invested emotionally into this. She’s going by her feelings. It’s not overthought, it’s not too calculated, it’s just like her instincts and how she feels. And, to be honest, they’re the time of filmmakers that I’ve seen that – and I guess the seed started to grow and that evolved with Blue Bayou with Justin [Chon] and it evolved even further with You Won’t Be Alone with Goran [Stolevski]. Lily was one of the first filmmakers where you can feel what you are shooting. I think she was calling it a cinematic orgasm.” –Matthew Chuang, ACS
Feeling Blue Bayou and Future Projects
As he progressed with Blue Bayou and You Won’t Be Alone, Chuang pushed even further in how he ‘felt’ the project. He acknowledges that it’s from spending a lot of time with the director, producers, and crew.
He relents that this isn’t always the case with every project, such as commercials that might have a predetermined design. But, Chuang tries to stay open and explore.
CINEMATOGRAPHY COMPOSITION & SPECS
Filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki operate with set rules of engagement. However, this may change by the project. Matthew Chuang shares his experiences on both Blue Bayou and You Won’t Be Alone.
For Blue Bayou, the director Justin Chon wanted things to be “very free,” says Chuang, because they were making a film about real people.
There were two DPs [Chuang and Ante Cheng] and they would light the spaces and then “keep the mechanics of filmmaking outside of what the actors were doing.” This pre-meditated design allowed for a free-flowing composition. They shot the film on 16mm so their lighting approach was to use natural sources like windows and practical lighting.
Chuang describes how New Orleans was in and of itself a character. “We definitely spent time to get to know the people there and embrace that. They were very warm and we wanted to support that within the film, and to really show a very distinctive character to New Orleans and to embrace the character and the textual quality visually. The weather is insane there so we all wanted to represent that light…. Shooting on 16 definitely supported that.”
The filmmakers used an ARRI AMIRA for digital capture and an ARRI Arriflex SR2 with a 416 magazine to capture 16mm. They also shot with Canon EOS 250D and 500D as well as with Ektachrome. For lenses, they shot on Zeiss Super 16mm Super Speeds and Canon lenses.
Justin Chon and Chuang were inspired by other filmmakers who used 16mm like John Cassavetes as well as Mexican New Wave films like Y tu mamá también. Chuang pitched Chon on using Zooms to help convey his character who was adopted from Korea from a young age and full of self-doubt, so “it helped bring out what Justin was doing with his performance.”
Meanwhile, the AMIRA was used for sequences like the night exterior motorcycle heist. They didn’t have the resources to light the street, so the AMIRA was predominately used out of necessity. At other times the AMIRA was used when the filmmakers split off into multiple units in order to make their schedule work.
YOU WON’T BE ALONE
Conversely, You Won’t Be Alone was about a witch in 1800s Macedonia who lived in a cave for years. She doesn’t know how to behave around other people due to her extreme isolation. In conversations with the writer/director Goran Stolevski, they realized the story felt so crazy that they had to ground it with the actors. “I never seen human behavior or body language in that kind of way, so we agreed to support and to allow the actors to do their thing.”
Chuang spent a lot of time in pre-production going through the space with his RED Komodo and his set of Cooke Speed Panchro lenses to try compositional ideas. By doing their homework, so to speak, when the actor moved to a certain spot, Chuang was already familiar with the location and lit from the position of the camera while still capturing the performance but framing it in a way that was abstract.
They used longer 40mm to 75mm lenses, sometimes with the 75 of the diopter because Goran wanted to get close.
SHARING THE ROLE OF CINEMATOGRAPHER
On Blue Bayou, Matthew Chuang shared the role of director of photography with Ante Cheng. Previously, Justin Chon and Ante Cheng worked on two films that went to Sundance: Gook and Ms. Purple. Originally, Ante Cheng worked with Justin Chon on Blue Bayou but the film kept getting delayed. So, Matthew Chuang was brought in and helped build the film, as well. Then, when Alicia Vikander was cast, suddenly the film became much bigger. As the writer, director, and lead actor, Chon realized that we needed the support of both DPs, since it was all of their largest film at that point.
Naturally, other filmmakers – like one of Chuang’s favorites, Wong Kar-Wai – used multiple DPs in his films. Chuang says that you need to put your ego aside and when both cinematographers met, they decided to really embrace each other. Even to the point of sharing the same Airbnb. They made their decisions together and remained on the same page creatively. Combined, they made the pact that “it needs to be better than if one of us had shot it.”
ADVICE FOR FILMMAKERS
Matthew Chuang’s advice for budding filmmakers is to be open. This means opening yourself to new ideas and opening yourself to making mistakes.
“A lot of people run on fear,” says Chuang, and playing it too safe could be overly confining. Even the best filmmakers like Lily, Justin, and Garn have moments of doubt, and Chuang tries his best to support them. And, this also works vice versa for when Chuang feels doubt. According to Chuang, filmmakers must support each other in such moments.
“Filmmaking is a very collaborative thing so you do need the support of a lot of people devoted to that.”
WATCH THE FILMS SHOT BY MATTHEW CHUANG
Blue Bayou is a 2021 Official Selection of Festival de Cannes and is currently playing in theaters. Learn more about how you can watch.
You Won’t Be Alone is a 2022 Official Selection of Sundance Film Festival and is currently streaming on Peacock.