I.M. Pei: Building China Modern follows the renowned architect I.M. Pei as he returns to his ancestral home of Suzhou, China, to design a new museum. The film premieres tonight, Wednesday March 31 on American Masters on PBS (check local listings). Beyond the Box recently caught up with director Anne Makepeace and producer Eugene Shirley to give you an in-depth behind the scenes look at the making of the film.
Was there a certain visual theme that you were looking to obtain for this program?
Eugene Shirley: Yes, indeed – and this is one of the fundamentals about the project that was set out from the beginning and that everyone on the team knew: we were looking to document the interplay between tradition and modernity. It’s an idea we kept exploring and Pei kept articulating, but it’s also seen visually throughout the film. It’s pretty much everywhere.
You can see the quality of the image shifting from the beginning of production to the end of production. What were some of the decisions that were made in terms of the type of cameras and equipment you used on location?
ES: Where possible, George [Adams, director of photography] and Anne [Makepeace] would discuss camera needs and I would throw in my two cents. This is exactly how it worked when we shot in Paris, for example, and one of the reasons why we got those lovely shots of Pei at the Louvre, as well as of the architecture. When we filmed in China, however, we often did not have the long lead-time required for us to bring in our own equipment – which would have required advance notice of many weeks in order to secure the necessary visas. We were committed to accompanying Pei on every trip he made – and we stuck to that commitment – but it meant that we often had to move heaven and earth at the last minute. And under these circumstances you can’t always get the equipment you want.
How did you begin to select the crew for this project?
ES: There certainly was a small U.S. crew but there was also a very significant team from China. Our partners were the China Intercontinental Communication Center (CICC) and we were small by their standards. The CICC supported us with a team of executives, producers, interpreters, production managers, and drivers. The American team spun out of long-term relationships that both I, and my executive producer and sister, Anne Shirley, have had for many years. We tried to make sure there was a good working relationship between the American and Chinese teams – and then to keep those relationships steady for over a decade.
Eugene had already been working on the film for quite some time before you came aboard the team, Anne. Did you encounter any difficulties in coming into a project that had already moved this far into production?
Anne Makepeace: I came on in year 2 or 3 of a ten year project so there was still plenty of time to put my imprint on it. During the editing it was a little bit harder because I wanted to focus much more on the artist and the artist’s vision and the artist’s history – the biographical elements. Eugene was much more interested in the issues of modernism vs. tradition and what the museum embodied. So there was tension, but I think the tensions worked. Eugene pulled more in the direction of thematic elements that were interesting and I pulled more in the direction of the personal elements that I found interesting. I think the synthesis really worked out. We also had a wonderful editor (Brian Funck) and he was just terrific. That helped a lot.
How did you work to resolve the “tension” or differing visions while editing?
ES: I had very strong ideas about what the film should be about fundamentally – the basic story we should be telling, the theme, and essential content. But other than that, I was delighted for Anne and George and Brian to simply do their work. Anne Shirley and I, along with the other executives, then saw it as our jobs to make sure they had the environment necessary to do creatively what they needed to do. Of course there were tensions at times. At the end of the day, if the matter was about vision or what I considered an issue fundamental to what we were trying to do, I cast the deciding vote.
How did you decide on the types of questions to ask during interviews?
ES: Research. Bob McKee, the famous writer on story structure, argues that “writer’s block” is simply a function of a writer not having done enough research. The same thing is true regarding interviews. People will tell you amazing things, but you’ve got to do your research to know how and where to probe. If you’re not getting what you want, chances are you’ve not done your research.
AM: Eugene had done a lot of research and connected with a lot of people. He and I would go over what he had in mind that needed to be covered and I would make sure to cover those things. I also like to be spontaneous in interviews, so when someone said something that would spark another question, I would just go in that direction and explore the directions that weren’t planned. The interviews with Pei I tried to establish a very intimate and personal connection with him. And I think we did have that and he did reveal himself. This was especially the case in the last interview. He seemed very vulnerable.
Pei became more vulnerable as time went along through production?
AM: There was a hiatus in production, so there was a several year gap in working with Pei. Eugene was able to show him some scenes and they really got him back on board. Because Pei had seen some of it edited, he was more relaxed and confident about what we were doing. Also, he’s just older. Pei is 92. He’s looking at his legacy and realizing that because the Suzhou Museum means so much to him that this film is a really important part of his legacy.
What’s the biggest thing you would like people to walk away with after watching this program?
ES: Pei didn’t like the direction of architecture in China and wanted in the Suzhou Museum to try to do something about it – even to the degree of attempting to define a new direction for Chinese architecture, one which does a better job of moving into the future without denigrating the past. I would like for people to walk away from the program being more enlightened about the vigorous ways that modern and traditional values can come together. And I hope that viewers feel more empowered about achieving this synthesis in their own lives.
AM: The creative process is what interests me and is what I would like for people to understand and walk away with. I also think the film tells an important story of China which is becoming hugely important on the world stage and growing even more so. And lastly, I would like people to say wow, “Look at what you can do in your nineties.” I think this can be something that can be really inspiring for people to see that you can just keep going and going and going if you have passion and you have vision and you have a desire to do so.
AM: I’m really thrilled to have been a part of and to have created something that I am proud of. It was a huge pleasure to work with Eugene. He inspires huge loyalty in everybody he works with. He’s a great guy with a vision that he never gave up on and I really admire him.
ES: In the end, all that I can say is that everyone has been extraordinarily generous and kind. This includes both institutional partners like ITVS, SCETV, American Masters, and CICC, as well as individuals at every level. In fact, it’s incredible how generous so many people have been on this project. Our “special thanks” and funder credits are not nearly long enough.
I.M. Pei: Building China Modern premieres tonight, Wednesday, March 31 at 10:00 on American Masters on PBS (check local listings). A co-production of Pacem Distribution International and ITVS in association with South Carolina ETV.