Thursday, January 24, 2013

Will Tiao on "Formosa Betrayed"

What was your filmmaking background before setting out to make Formosa Betrayed?

WILL: I started off as an actor, first in Washington DC, then New York, then Los Angeles. I did a lot of plays, television roles, and independent films. I once did an original theatre piece which was a hit, so my partner and I made it into a short film. That short film ended up doing well on the film festival circuit, and I got asked to produce a low-budget feature film. Once I had that under my belt, I realized that if I was to be a producer, I really wanted to put my energy into my own film, which was Formosa Betrayed.

What was the genesis of Formosa Betrayed and what was the writing process like?

 WILL: My parents were political refugees from Taiwan, and when we were growing up in Kansas, my parents had been spied upon there for their political activities and blacklisted by the government in Taiwan. As I got older, I did some research and realized that this spying was going on throughout most US college campuses throughout the 70s and 80s, and in some cases, led to assassinations and murder.

I then developed this into a story set in the early 1980s about an FBI agent who is investigating the murder of a professor, and is sent to Taiwan where he realizes that the investigation leads to the highest levels of US-Taiwan-China relations.

To develop the story, I did a ton of research on the actual murders, and found newspaper articles, Congressional testimony, and lots of books on the subjects. Then I hired a writer (the first of what would be 6 writers) to help me turn it into a treatment (a short story version of the film).

After a couple of revisions, I then hired her to do an initial script. At that point, I had a director attached and we decided to go in another direction, and hired a different writer to do a rewrite. This went on for about a year, and I ended up going through 3 directors and 6 writers, until we finally got to a point where we were happy with the script and ready to shoot.

The final version that you see on screen was developed by the eventual director, Adam Kane, and writer Nathaniel Goodman. I had final say on what went into the script. We took inspiration from such films as The Killing Fields, The Year of Living Dangerously, Z, Missing, Three Days of the Condor, The Parallax View, and a number of other political thrillers from the 1970s.

Did the movie change much in editing, and is so, how?

WILL: The film did change a bit in editing. Not so much the story but more about the timeline of events. Audiences are very story savvy nowadays, and we didn't want it to feel like a CSI or Law & Order episode, so we changed things up a bit just to keep the audience on its toes.

What was the smartest thing you did during production? The dumbest?

WILL: I think the smartest thing we did was choose to shoot in Thailand instead of Taiwan for 1980s Taiwan. We got some criticism for not shooting in Taiwan, given that the story took place there, but we did scout Taiwan and found that it looked completely different 30 years later, and the amount of CGI we would have to do was out of our budget. Moreover, Thailand is very film friendly and had the look we wanted. We were able to work with an American production services company that had worked on many big budget movies.

Probably the dumbest thing we did during production was to go into pre-production and scouting before our script was finished. We were actually already in Taiwan on our way to scout Thailand when we got the shooting draft. The timing was critical because it was between the WGA strike and a potential upcoming SAG strike, so we felt rushed. It was a dumb move but we felt we needed to do it so that we could get the shoot done before either of the strikes affected the production.

Can you talk about how you raised your $8M budget?

WILL: I started by, as I mentioned earlier, putting together the story with a writer and getting a director on board. Then I hired a lawyer and set up a production company to begin raising financing.

I reached out to Taiwanese-American cultural and political organizations and through word of mouth began to raise financing from individual investors. Over a year, I was able to raise over $5 million, which allowed us to begin principal production. I worked with an investment bank to then raise the finishing funds which allowed us to finish the film and get additional funds for prints and advertising (P&A). The film was released nationwide in 2010 and is now in over 40 countries.

What is the biggest mistake that beginning filmmakers make when they set out to raise financing?

WILL: I think the biggest mistake I see is the lack of preparation before speaking to investors. Most producers/filmmakers see investors as kind of annoyance they have to deal with. I always remind them THESE ARE THE PEOPLE WHO WILL MAKE YOUR DREAM POSSIBLE -- TREAT THEM WITH RESPECT! Always be respectful and at the same time make sure they feel included in the project. I see way too many filmmakers be completely clueless when it comes to speaking with investors, particularly those who are not savvy about the film business.

What did you learn from making the film that you have taken to other projects?

WILL: What I've started to do now is work on slates of films rather than single pictures. What making Formosa Betrayed has done is open certain doors and I'm now looking at working in different aspects of the industry including television and distribution.

What are you working on next?

WILL: I've got a number of feature film projects that are in pre-production and development. I've also got a producing partner who is a producer on two hit Showtime shows, House Of Lies and Californication, so we are working on some television projects as well. As I mentioned before, I'm also interested in getting into distribution -- so it's been a very busy slate of things to come!

I also started to think about how to help other filmmakers get their projects off the ground, as over the years, I've had many people offer to take me out to lunch, or a drink, just so they can pick my brain when it comes to filmmaking and particularly film financing.

I finally decided to create a film financing workshop that encompasses the A to Z of how to make a film -- from a business perspective. It's the type of stuff they don't teach you in film school. I've been teaching that workshop in Los Angeles over the last couple of years, and recently have turned it into an online course called FILM FINANCE MASTER CLASS:

It's a mix of videos and live webinars where I interact with students specifically to help them get their dream projects off the ground. I've designed it so that the beginning filmmaker to those who have been in the business for many years (but have not been able to get their projects running) can benefit from it.

If any of your readers are interested in checking it out, the link above will give them access to several free lessons as well as an upcoming live webinar which will serve as an introduction to the entire workshop.

Because the course has live elements we plan to start next session of the course in the next couple of weeks. So if you're interested, please feel free to sign up here:

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