Peier “Tracy” Shen started writing for FF2 when she was first getting into filmmaking, working as a marketing rep for Universal and making shorts (check out her writing for FF2 in the archives!). Now she’s a filmmaker herself, working on funding her first feature. Shen and I hadn’t seen each other in years when we got on the video call for this interview, so we started with some screaming before we got into the conversation. She is exactly the same: playful, always having just woken up, and forgetting she’s started the kettle (sorry Tracy!).
Shen and I met in college, when we lived together in Writer’s House. Every week our cohort would gather in the living room, read our work out loud, and critique it. (There was nothing ironic about this, it was the best thing ever.) Now Shen lives in a community of artists again, with filmmaker roommates in LA. They share ideas and support each other through the demanding, unpredictable work schedules that define the industry.
Shen tends to work with new actors. For “Like Flying,” she also cast native Chinese speakers, many of whom are inexperienced, since established Chinese actors tend to be older. Shen calls the film a “displacement,” with a community of Asian characters, speaking Chinese to each other, in a story set in the US. Shen likes to “get into the mud” with her actors, doing the exercises with them, experiencing the same vulnerability and intensity they do. When given the choice, Shen always opts for a long rehearsal process.
The child actor in “Like Flying” became a protector for Shen (and Shen a protector for her): the child would say to the film’s cinematographer, “Are you not giving Tracy what she wants?” She would copy what Shen did, so that “by the end she became so similar to me, it’s crazy.”
“Like Flying” is in the festival circuit again now. Shen has also just finished post production for a short, “Jagged Joy,” something for which she specifically wanted to make a “happy ending.”
Shen is also working on funding a proof of concept short for her first feature, A Graduation. It’s inspired by her mother’s visit to LA for Shen’s graduation from AFI. “I want the atmosphere to be slightly strange” in the film, she says. There’s something uncomfortable and intriguing about this type of family reunion: at a family dinner, the visiting mother might feel replaced by the roommates’ parents; at the airport, American friends run to each other screaming, while the mother and daughter see each other for the first time in three years, and they aren’t sure what to say but “hi.”
Shen cultivates the atmosphere of “strangeness” on set, too: she laughs remembering how the Director of Photography for “Like Flying” was worried because he didn’t understand Chinese, so he didn’t know the words being spoken. Shen, herself, had a similar experience directing a storyline all in Spanish in “Out of Place.” It was better that way, Shen says, because so much of capturing performance is about the delivery, the framing, more than the words themselves. “If it feels forced, it feels forced in every language.”
Some more highlights from our conversation which are more fun in Tracy’s own words:
What’s it like being a writer for film now, as opposed to fiction?
“Writers are more like, ‘don’t talk to me.’ When you write you have to go to the lonely place, but when you finish, you’re like, ‘Okay, I need to talk to people, I need to get it made!’ So that process is extremely social. I think that’s one of the main reasons I chose film: I’m too comfortable in my room, and I need a job that will make me need to go up to people and ask for things. […] Our work is more personal than easy one-on-one conversation. If I’m letting you cut my film or shoot my film, I’m putting my life on the line [laughs], immediately the stakes are so high.
As a director, you need to explain your ideas to like fifty people, and you have to somehow be consistent. You share a lot. I don’t find that challenging because I have such an intense relationship with work that I don’t really mind sharing. Sometimes it’s great with AFI how they invite the best directors, and then you get to pick and choose, ‘okay so they work that way, you don’t work that way, okay it’s fine,’ and then you lean in a little bit more. Like Noah Baumbach came [to AFI], and he would talk about how specific he is, and I was like I understand you perfectly! Like ‘Yeah no, every word of the script [goes in as is].’”
Have you seen any movies that you’re like, if I’d made that, I’d be content forever?
“So many, so many! Catherine Breillat, I think she’s very daring. Chantal Akerman, but everybody wants to be Chantal Akerman. Andrea Arnold, I think maybe that’s the closest to what I want to do. Chloe Zhao, people really should talk about her more, her stuff is something I’ve never seen before. Alice Rohrwacher. These people blend genres and styles.
One thing I do a lot and probably will do in the future is unmotivated movement, here it’s always about POV and the character’s experience, and I’m always wandering off. I’m very attracted to the things the characters are not experiencing but somehow feel. An example is probably Y Tu Mamá También.
I wish Truffaut was still alive. Sometimes I feel like a little girl, and I wish Truffaut could be alive and tell me everything is gonna be okay. His movies are so personal, they feel so warm, I don’t feel like he wanted to comment on anything too grandiose or theoretical like Goddard. Truffaut feels like a diary, there’s so much ease in just making, there’s not even really an ending, you don’t know where he’s going, it doesn’t matter. I wish Truffaut was my father in a way.”
A week later, Tracy texted me: “I finally remembered the name of the movie I’d be most content to make! Lucrecia Martel. La ciénaga.” Good thing that’s settled!
Check out Katusha’s analysis of Shen’s short films here.
© Amelie Lasker (7/25/20) FF2 Media
Photo Credits: Peier “Tracy” Shen