Producer Danwen Lei brings authentic Chinese perspective to new film ‘Under the Flag’
Beginning her impressive filmmaking career as a VFX artist, it didn’t take Danwen Lei long to discover her true calling for producing. It felt like a natural fit for the Chinese native, who was always thinking of the bigger picture on every project she would work on, even while doing other positions. She has an innate ability to find quick and effective solutions to problems, and is highly organized, all of which are essential for a successful producer. When she was working on her film Where the Dream Begins, where she was co-director and co-writer, she realized that in order to make it a success, she had to see the project from all departments’ perspectives instead of just being a director giving creative ideas, and she quickly found a passion in that. She knew in that moment that she was meant to be a producer and has never looked back.
“Producers usually spend much more time on a project than any other team member. This means gaining different experiences from each project that will help you do better next time. Sometimes, it’s a team member who is reliable and you want to work with them again, or it can be a new film technique that opens a new world for post-production. Being a producer, I am met with fresh story ideas every day, and it’s fascinating how I can bring them to the world with different approaches. I like the fact that my job is to bring a director’s vision, a cinematographer’s view and a production designer’s sense of style together to the editor and make it something that other people can relate to and appreciate,” said Lei.
Lei’s producing instincts have proven fruitful, as she has been at the helm of many acclaimed films, including Happy Birthday to You, Sunrise in Heaven, and Gold Fortune, which was screened at the US Embassy in Beijing after its extraordinary film festival run. Lei always aims to tell important stories and loves that as a producer she has the ability to find scripts that she thinks need to be shared with a wider audience and can make that happen. One of Lei’s most recent projects, Under the Flag, exemplifies this.
Under the Flag is about a driven and conscientious girl at China's premier dance school, who gets the lead position in a prestigious performance but struggles to accept it after she learns that her mother has bribed the teacher to buy her the part.
“This is a very special project to me as I’m proud of the story, it is not only about how a 14-year-old teenage girl’s understanding of fairness is broken by her most trustworthy parent, teacher and principal, but also it reflects the struggles of being an art student in China, as I was also trained 5 years as an art student learning western painting. I can relate to the story from a similar background as the female lead character, it makes me rethink the art education system that we have in China towards teenagers. In this way, when I was producing it, I realized that the most important thing in making this film was to keep it real,” said Lei.
To do this, Lei first wanted to find the perfect cast. She was particular about them actually being teenagers, being fluent in Mandarin, and for them to be able to do a certain level of traditional Chinese dancing, again to maintain the film’s authenticity.
Lei also was adamant about finding the right locations. In the end, after scouting over 20 locations, she found the ideal middle school in Los Angeles, and viewers would never know it wasn’t in China. She wanted to give the audience a feel of a normal Chinese middle school.
During the 4 months pre-production, Lei spent most of her time focusing on the lead actor, putting her into acting training as she was a non-actor and wanting to make sure she was reading when it came to film. She also found the other dancers and had them rehearse every week with the choreographer. She knew these details were extremely important to the film’s overall success.
Due to all the Chinese elements involved in this story, Lei brought a pivotal perspective behind-the-scenes that was necessary in making Under the Flag a stunning masterpiece. The film premiered in November at the Conservatory Showcase program of the AFI Fest 2019, and will soon be making its way to prestigious festivals around the world.