Showcase Filmmaker Spotlight: Chung Wei Huang
By Travis Trew, Programming Associate
Taiwanese writer and director Chung Wei Huang started out studying business before making the somewhat late transition to filmmaking. Her thesis project at Temple University’s filmmaking program, Midnight Carnival is a drama inspired by Huang’s own experiences. The film follows Andrea, a Taiwanese student who earches for adventure by taking a summer job in America working for a traveling carnival but is confronted with the harsh realities of life as a migrant worker.
PFS: How did you get into making films?
CH: I was actually in business school, which was really the wrong decision. I knew that from the first semester. My university was really research-based; we didn’t have any communication or art programs really. I was an exchange student at a university in Spain where I took TV production classes, and that was a moment where I realized, ”Oh I really like this!” That’s kind of when I made up my mind that I wanted to pursue that as a career. After I graduated, my first job was on a Taiwanese TV show and then I decided I wanted to get some film training from school, so I ended up at Temple University.
PFS: What was the experience at Temple like?
CH: I really like Temple. I really like that they respect your voice and encourage you to pursue the story that you want to tell. And they also really respect the format. They don’t really push you to a certain mode of storytelling, so you have a lot of freedom to really explore your film language.
PFS: When exactly did Midnight Carnival come about in your education process?
CH: When I was in my second year of graduate school I started to think about what I wanted to make for my thesis. The story is actually based on my own experience. I was hesitating because I wasn’t sure of the scale of the film and if I could actually handle it in terms of production, but a lot of people were very interested in the topic.
PFS: Tell me more about the life experiences that actually inspired the film.
CH: I was in college and there is this really special visa for foreign students. It’s like a working holiday visa that lets you work in America for three months. So it’s really tailored to a student who is on summer vacation, and there is a whole business around it in Taiwan. It’s a way to experience America and make some money to pay for your travels. But then you arrive and you work at a carnival, and it’s not really what you expect to see.
PFS: Was your experience working at an American carnival similar to Andrea’s experience in the film?
CH: In a way. I really had a great time while I was working there but, you know, I think I had a great time because I was only there for three months. It was a really interesting experience for me, but I wasn’t stuck with the job. Once I worked there longer I started to see all the migrant workers and their struggle. Not all of them are really happy with the job but the reality of their lives is that they have to stick with it.
PFS: I think Andrea’s roommate in the film says something along those lines, that she has to do it to survive.
CH: Right, right.
PFS: Tell me a little bit about the production and some of the hurdles that you faced and how you overcame them.
CH: I started to do location scouting when I started to write the script. I knew that I definitely needed a location and my producer found this website that somehow lists all the carnivals in every state. She emailed every single carnival owner around Philadelphia and we reached out to New York, New Jersey, and Maryland. There was only one owner that got back to us to let us know that he was willing to let us shoot at his carnival. Of course, we didn’t have the budget to ask him to shut down the carnival for us, so as you can see there are some instances where we shot while the carnival was still running and we had to work with the flow of what was happening. And some of the things we had to shoot after the carnival was closed.
PFS: How long did you shoot at the carnival?
CH: About four nights. It was really terrible working hours, like 4 PM to 2 AM. I’d say like four nights we were at the carnival and then two nights, we were shooting the set on Temple’s campus.
PFS: You shot the scenes inside the bunks at Temple?
CH: Yeah, the actual bunk house is really small and there was no way you could put any lights and cameras in there. So we built a really simple set: just built three walls and a ceiling we could remove. We found a big hallway, just a big empty space in one of the school buildings.
PFS: So how do you feel about the finished product?
CH: As a filmmaker you have mixed feelings, you feel like you can do better here and there. But generally, I was very happy with it. I think it’s a miracle that the film actually got produced because if it had rained or if the carnival owner had freaked out, we didn’t have any plan B. Also, I forgot to mention that my lead actress was actually coming from Taiwan. We started a Kickstarter campaign to raise money to bring her here and she also had a really tight schedule, so we didn’t have any time to do any rehearsal at all. The day she flew in, she rested. And the next day we had to start filming.
PFS: What are you working on now? Do you have any plans for the future?
CH: This summer I just finished shooting a short. It’s about a boy’s coming-of-age story with a very different demographic setting than Midnight Carnival. I’m also working on a feature film script, which focuses on three different characters’ stories that are interconnected by an Asian American woman’s suicide.
PFS: Are you staying in the Philadelphia area for the time being?
CH: Well, I stayed in Philly after I graduated and then I found a job in Baltimore so now I’m based in Baltimore.
Midnight Carnival screened on Thursday, August 9 at the Prince Theater’s Black Box as part of Philly Film Showcase, an exhibition supporting new work by talented, up-and-coming local filmmakers.