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.