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Speciwomen In conversation with director Christina Xing

Sep. 18, 2019
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I had the pleasure of living down the hall from Christina for a year, and with that came constant discussions about her passion for film. Since then, she has moved her craft to LA. It was an honor to pick up where we left off with this conversation about her directing style, current music videos, film projects, and the trajectory in which her work is going.

Speciwomen: Who are you? 

Christina Xing: I’m Christina Xing, I’m a 20-year-old filmmaker—or I guess I should say director—born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama. I currently live in Los Angeles.

Speciwomen: Do you feel like there’s a distinction for yourself between being a filmmaker and a director?

Christina: Yes, definitely. How I consider my art as a director is this: there are three different main directors on a film. There’s the director of photography and the director, and then the production designer, who has the vision for the set design and how the film will look. And then, the director of photography is literally making your visuals a reality! You can show them a slideshow of what you see in your head, but they’re the one who interprets it. The director is the one who comes in with that vision, who takes the script and says “This is everything I see in my head, this is what I’m interested in!” and everyone is interpreting based on what the director is saying. Does that make sense?

Speciwomen: Yes, totally. Since it’s such a collaborative medium.

Christina: Exactly. So that’s why I feel like it’s different from being a filmmaker. Filmmaker implies that the person likes to do all of these roles, and they’re more hands on. I don’t feel right owning up to that stuff—all of my friends help do that stuff for me. 

Speciwomen: How did you get into film?

Christina: Oh my gosh, it’s kind of a funny story. I started making films in Alabama and did them with my friends. So I had to do everything basically, or teach my friends how to do stuff. But I never wanted to be a director! I was thinking, “Oh, every director I know is a fucking asshole! Anyone who feels entitled enough to think their story is one that matters or is going to change the world is totally a dick.” I didn’t want to be one of those people. But it ended up being the thing I loved the most, the thing I resonated with the most.

Speciwomen: How do you feel your identity as an Asian-American woman factors into your directing?

Christina: I think as a woman, and as an Asian-American woman, you know what it’s like to walk into a room and have everyone expect you to be a certain type of way. And so [treating] other people—especially [my] actors—well and making them comfortable and heard is I feel like the biggest difference that separates me from other directors. On commercial shoots for example, I just finished this Crayola commercial and that was my first real client client, and I think what was interesting about it was that everyone was shocked at how I handled working with actors. Because I’ve been through so much shit that I know how to make someone feel at home.

Speciwomen: How is it working in the LA scene?

Christina: It’s interesting. I never thought I would end up doing commercials or music videos. I was just so against the idea of selling out. And then I got represented when I came out here, and so naturally it fell into that scene, and I ended up loving it! But in LA, if you take a meeting people will always say things like “I love you! That was amazing!” and tell you they’ll call you even though they’ll never call you back. In New York, they’ll tell you when you’re trash and that you need three new drafts. But then you’ll get a call back and tell you what’s what.

Speciwomen: That’s tricky. Do you think you’re liking LA then?
Christina: There’s this great quote from La La Land that [really resonated with me”—it’s something like, “Everyone here worships everything, but values nothing.” And so I do like LA, I like the weather and the sunshine. I like driving. But I wish that everyone would be more honest with themselves.

Speciwomen: What’s it like working on commercial projects versus personal projects?

Christina: I guess the biggest difference with commercial projects is that...no matter how much you love the idea or how [much] it’s your baby, you have to remember that [your client is the one] funding it and it’s never going to be yours. But then with a personal narrative, there’s no money at all! You probably raised this money, or someone’s giving you money as a favor, and everyone is pretty much working for nothing. But everyone believes in the story and it resonates with them. There’s a lot more passion in it. Whereas with commercials, it—and I hate to say it—kind of feels like a job. I’m doing this for someone else, and I’m going to try my best to put as much of myself in it as I can. 

Speciwomen: I do love your new music video work! I saw the new Claud video for “Wish You Were Gay” and Joe Thomas Carter’s “Gimme Ya Lovin.” Can you talk a little bit about those projects?

Christina: It’s actually pretty funny ‘cause I haven’t ever fully revealed this before, but Claud and I met a few times in person when they were out in LA because we’re good friends. And they told me, “Hey, I have this new song. I really think you’d love making a video for it,” and they showed me the song and I was really shook by it. Claud’s original idea for the video was that they wanted to make something really iconic for the LGBTQ community, something showing real love in its purest form. But I felt like that kind of countered the lyrics in the song, because the song has a story of its own and people would be confused if we just showed beautiful images of people loving each other while the song says “I wish you were gay” to someone who isn’t. I had just rewatched 500 Days of Summer, because I was going through this thing with a guy where I really liked him and I wished he knew. I just wanted him to see me. I made “I Wish You Were Gay” after a scene in the movie, because the biggest problem in the media for people who are underrepresented—like the LGBTQ community or POC—is that people think that it’s so different. It is different because there are more biases against us, but there are also universal things like falling in love with someone who doesn’t like you back. I wanted to make a video that anyone could relate to.
Speciwomen: So tell me about “Gimme Ya Lovin.”
Christina: The artist himself is also gay, but he didn’t want the video or his branding to be all about that. But the song is about falling for someone, a gay guy, and he wants him to give him some lovin’. And he also came to me wanting a Chaplin concept, because he had Chaplin in mind when making the song. With all those parts and pieces, I took his song’s narrative and thought about it. Because I get curbed so much! So I wanted to make a humorous video as an ode to everyone who gets curbed.

Speciwomen: I love the Chaplin imagery! Do you normally go into filming with a concept like that? Where do you look for inspiration for visuals?
Christina: What I do is an artist gives me a song and maybe some ideas. I take it all to the drawing board and I make something called a treatment, which is usually a slideshow that can be used to explain to people what you see in your mind. [You take] images from other videos, movies, paintings, photography, and try your best to articulate your vision. And then the artist will either tell you that it’s great or that you should do it again.
Speciwomen: What other filmmakers do you think people should be paying attention to right now?
Christina: Lulu Wong, who just released The Farewell. She’s a Chinese-American filmmaker, and I think everyone should be keeping their eyes on her because she’s phenomenal. It should be at every theater.

Speciwomen: Speaking of movies—I was having a conversation recently about my qualms with the museum industry and its inaccessibility, and my friend said films are going to change the world, since movie theaters don’t have as many cultural barriers and are way more accessible. How do you think film can change the world?
Christina: Film and media are the biggest powerhouses in the universe. Films can cause riots, cause people to recoil in disgust. They’re so powerful, and sometimes they impact our lives without us realizing. I joke about this with Shane, my director of photography, all the time—that if you fail as a politician, you should just pick up directing. It’s the same thing in many ways, because getting a film together and getting the money to do it is like running a political campaign. You have to constantly tell people to believe in you! If people believe in what you’re saying and what you want to project to the world, you’ll get the funding or the nomination.
Speciwomen: So I know you’re working on This Old Dog, a film written by our friend Shaun Phuah about reuniting with an estranged father. How’s that going?

Christina: First off, Shaun is brilliant. The biggest thing with this film is that it isn’t flashy—it’s not about getting curbed or falling in love. It’s about my dad. About dads. It’s hard, and telling this story in the first place is different from my other stuff. It’s a very serious film and when people watch it they’ll either acknowledge “This director is going off on a different style” or “Wow, she’s actually a serious storyteller now.”
Speciwomen: Do you feel like your work in the past hasn’t been serious? Or was it just serious in a different way?
Chrstina: I feel like my past work has elements of what I would call first date syndrome. Watching any film is like going on a date with the filmmaker, and when people go on first dates it’s more universal and broad. You’re trying to be likeable. But when it goes to the nitty-gritty stuff, when it goes beyond first date—fifth date, fifteenth date—you start to talk about what’s hard. “This is what’s screwed up in my life, this is what I’m going through, I’m kind of a shitty person.” It becomes… I don’t know…
Speciwomen: Less performative?
Christina: Yeah. And I’m doing that with this film.

Photo by Renee Monroy.