Recently CommitteeLA had the pleasure of inviting director Jennifer Phang to join our roster. We were drawn to Phang for her arresting visual style which merges special effects with live action, as seen in the visionary worlds of her first two feature films, Half-Life (2008) and Advantageous (2015).
“I’m a person who really enjoys nature but who also enjoys magic and surrealism,” says Phang. “All my passions work together in film and that’s why I became a filmmaker.”
Phang is also known for her compelling, character-driven narratives, where individuals and families confront challenges brought on by exterior forces, including extreme economic inequality and natural disasters.
“My films are sometimes seen as cautionary tales,” says Phang. “I think that’s because they explore whether we want a society that leaves people behind. The stories ask if we really want to focus on competitiveness — or are we better off finding a way for all of us to survive more sustainably?”
For her cinematic exploration of these questions, Phang has garnered numerous accolades, including the Sundance Special Jury Award and an Independent Spirit Award Nomination for Advantageous. We recently sat down with Phang for a discussion about her films and work, and found that in conversation, she is as inquisitive, prolific, and eloquent as her films.
When you were making your films, did you have any idea that they would receive the responses they did?
Jennifer Phang: I always strive to work on projects with relevance, but did not know what to expect. With my first feature Half-Life, I wanted to be bold with our aesthetic. I wanted to invent my own rules for an alternate version of our own world. I think more people are appreciating films with small budgets that accomplish otherworldly ideas using visual effects.
In writing Advantageous, I was inspired by some of my favorite series, including Battlestar Galactica. The concepts of cloning, consciousness transfers, and new technology are almost second nature to me. I started to figure out how new technologies could affect a single-parent family in a near-future that was experiencing economic stress. I didn’t fully anticipate the warm reception we received, but I was heartened to find out I wasn’t alone in my concerns. But I think the avalanche of reactions comes from a few things:
One is this burgeoning awareness of women’s issues, not just in film, but globally. Women want to see themselves represented in realistic ways. It’s funny that it takes sci-fi and fiction film to express women’s issues in a clear way. In Advantageous, we speak to challenges facing women as commodified objects and women as single mothers.
The film also speaks to parents who are concerned with the welfare of their kids. The price of education climbs higher and higher and public schools keep falling into trouble. The economy of the Advantageous world is one that is so stratified it only allows for extremely rich people or poor people and no one in between. I think the disappearing of the classes is something that people relate to. The cost of education and fear of future technologies taking away people’s jobs– these are all subjects that concern everyday people.
How did the story of Advantageous take root in your mind?
JP: I was living in New York City, and one of the great things about living in New York is you’re regularly exposed to people from vastly different economic backgrounds. That’s what keeps you grounded. I saw parents with more privilege or more access to resources being really engaged with their kids, kind of like Gwen and Jules. I observed the kind of mothers and fathers who were highly engaged with their kids. They were helping their kids to be curious and introducing them to new forms of art and ideas, but often speaking to them as if they were adults. And then I saw working class parents who needed to focus on basic survival and making sure their kids were not involved in crime. The disparity was pretty clear.
I thought of myself in the future having a kid, and I considered what I would need to make sure my kid survived. The pressures of living in a fast-paced metropolis like New York became very clear to me. And I looked at those pressures in cities all over the world and I started to understand what my own mother had gone through in raising me. My mother and father had maybe $300 when they moved to the San Francisco Bay area. They were dirt poor and able to work all the way to where they are now and were committed to supporting me in my filmmaking education. I know my mother’s focus had always been making sure I had a safety net and that I had more opportunity than she did. So developing my understanding of what it means to be a parent and the challenges of people in all walks of life, all those things helped me shape that story. And of course, I was emboldened to take on substantive sci-fi by works like Battlestar Galactica, Blade Runner, and Ghost in the Shell.
Have you been a sci-fi fan all your life?
JP: I think almost everyone is a fan of Star Wars at some point in their life. So that’s always the starting point. And then I became a Star Trek fan. But I’ve obsessed over all kinds of TV shows and films. Even period pieces like Room With A View and Age of Innocence influenced Advantageous because they’re about women and social mobility. I also brought a Victorian aesthetic to our futurism, and it became a form of Victorian futurism.
How did you approach the aesthetic intersection of visual effects with live action and execute that vision in your film?
JP: I envisioned a world where we could make skyscrapers look like people. I’d had this idea for a long time, and when I saw an opportunity to try it with this project I just went for it. So I worked with my VFX art director, and we would sit there and use clay and come up with shapes for these buildings and modeled things back and forth. We were designing buildings from scratch then working with concept artists and kept coming up with more ideas and evolving them. In the television world there’s the writer’s room, and we kind of created a virtual design room. My focus was exploring things with talented people within the scope of what I wanted. I tried to be clear about where we were headed and also be meticulous about the results. The same thing happened with our matte paintings. We were looking for ways to make our world look as realistic as possible. It often came down to observations on shadow, reflection, highlights, sky colors, and adding motion. Everytime I drove around I would look at cityscapes and figure out what it was about the way the light worked that made things feel real.
You’re heavily involved in almost every aspect of production on your films from the CG modeling to the matte painting to directing. Do you have a favorite part of the process?
JP: What was really wonderful about the Advantageous and Half-Life experiences was that I got to access a different parts of my skillsets. I learned how to be dynamic. There wasn’t really a favorite part, because even under pressure I was enjoying every moment. Why not enjoy every moment you get to be creative and explore new ideas?
In making Half-Life, your first feature, what was your biggest fear?
JP: The fear was that the ambition wouldn’t pay off. It was a super risky project. But it turns out that audiences, peers, and curators were excited to celebrate the risks that we took and that has helped open doors for me to make more work.
What do you think of storytelling in VR, and are you thinking of exploring that?
JP: 360 VR is an exciting medium because it invites artists to stretch their approach to telling a story. A friend of mine spoke about how VR can be many things — which is true because it’s a flexible medium and highly immersive. You can use it in an experimental way, or you can use it to take people to new places. It’s great for training, empathy, narratives, documentaries. As long as users can have a comfortable experience I think we’re on track toward something exciting.
What’s the biggest lesson you learned from making Half Life that you will take with you in the future?
JP: I think it goes back to risk. You want to work with people who aren’t too afraid of risk. There are many people who are risk-averse. And sometimes it’s good to be cautious. But sometimes an excess of caution leads to mediocrity. My job as a director is to be able to sift through voices, and have an instinct for what is compelling for our project scope, and then try to create something exciting.
What are some of your favorite shows and films in recent memory?
JP: I got really addicted to Breaking Bad. The creators worked outside of the box in terms of bringing a cinematic approach to television and trusting their audience. I also loved Game of Thrones for similar reasons. I guess what’s exciting about Thrones is that they are willing to look at female characters in a bold way that a lot of other shows can’t. But hopefully that has set a strong precedent for a next generation of shows. Speaking of women, I also got interested in How To Get Away With Murder and Scandal, because the female characters embodied a lot of agency. They’re also flawed, complex and interesting. It’s just wonderful to see thinking women being strategic on-screen.
What are your thoughts on Ex Machina taking the Oscar for Best Visual Effects?
JP: I thought it was well deserved. The effects are astounding and poetic. I was pretty blown away by the look and feel of the whole film. And I was excited to learn this was the first time a woman took home an Oscar for Visual Effects Supervision.