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Interview with MOVING PARTS writer/director Emilie Upczak

January 3, 2020

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On a sunny winter afternoon in Chicago on the second day of 2020, writer/director Emilie Upczak took a break from strolling through the enticing halls of the Art Institute to talk about her feature film “Moving Parts”, which premieres at the Siskel Film Center tonight, kicking off three screenings at the venue. She will be accompanied by Chicago-based producer John Otterbacher (for more details, click here.) The film revolves around two strong and resilient women – one, a native of Trinidad and Tobago, where the film takes place and the other, a young Chinese woman, newly transplanted to reunite with her brother after the recent death of their father. Characters are at the forefront of this engaging and absorbing character study, but it also covers important topics such as immigration and sex trafficking, guiding us along with a gentle and subtle hand.

The new arrival to Trinidad and Tobago is Zhenzhen, played with openness and grace by Canadian actress, Valerie Tan (“Juno” and “21 Jump Street”) and South African/Canadian actress, Kandyse McClure (“Battlestar Galactica” and “V-Wars”) plays Evelyn, the observant woman local who eventually meets and helps Zhenzhen. Both women are going through their own kind of grief and both have to contend with their own troubled relationship with family members. Their lives intersect when Zhenzhen seeks to escape from the sex work she is forced into.

While Upczak co-wrote the screenplay with Nicholas Emery and Jay White, she draws on what she had learned during the years she lived on Trinidad and Tobago, the southernmost island in the Caribbean. I was quite taken by her approach here and the work from veteran cinematographer Nancy Schreiber and look forward to any future films from her.

More of my thoughts on “Moving Parts” can be found in my actual review. Below, you can read my chat with Upczak…

 

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David J. Fowlie: Hey there!
Emilie Upzcak: Hi!
DJF: I don’t want to take you away from the Art Institute – is this still a good time to chat?
EU: Yes, it’s perfect.
DJF: I appreciate you taking the time out of your afternoon for this! It’s so funny that you’re at the Art Institute right now, since that is the one place I recommend to anyone visiting Chicago.
EU: It’s such an amazing place. I feel like I could spend days here. And we just chatted with Joe Swanberg in the entry. My producer, John, knows him.
DJF: Oh, cool. I’ll be there tomorrow. It was obvious that you had a strong connection to Trinidad and Tobago, but at what point did it occur to you that this story had to be told from this place in the world?
EU: My husband was born there and we moved to Port of Spain in 2005. We planned to be there for a year and ended up living there 10 years. The story was inspired by a restaurant we used to go to late at night and I realized they were selling sex upstairs.
DJF: I can see how that discovery would lead you to a lot of questions. It reminds me how we rarely truly know what’s going on with the people we encounter, engage with or live near. Was that something that was on your mind as well in writing this screenplay?
EU: Yes, very much so. In Trinidad the elite and the impoverished, live side by side, and the harsh reality of the immigrant population is fairly invisible. My husband is a painter and we were involved in the art scene there so I wanted to integrate that via Evelyn and her intersecting with Zhenzhen.
DJF: I see a great deal of strength and resilience in the characters of Zhenzhen and Evelyn. I don’t think people realize the strength it takes to work as an escort when you have no other options, like Zhenzhen does. And it takes a lot of resilence for Evelyn to move forward each day knowing the damaging lives that her brother and father are leading. These two women were interesting enough on their own, so at what point did you see the need for their stories to intersect?
EU: I wanted to explore loosely the idea of female solidarity and look at the coming together of two different worlds that are taking place in proximity and in parallel. As you already noted, mirrored by their relationships with their brothers. Also, living on an island, everyone knows everything that is going on, so smuggling and trafficking are primarily as result of the society turning a blind eye.
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Kandyse McClure and Valerie Tian, taking a break on the set of “Moving Parts”
DJF: I appreciate that each character that we meet, whether it be Zhenzhen and Evelyn or those they interact with, are so complex – there’s so much going on underneath their lived-in performance. Did you work with the actors to develop a backstory for each character? 
EU: Thanks. And yes. Evelyn was based off of a friend of mine, we even used her apartment for Evelyn’s apartment. And Zhenzhen was based off a young woman who worked at the Chinese restaurant the story was inspired by. Valerie (Zhenzhen) met her as well. Kandyse also lived in Trinidad part time so we were able to have more in depth conversations.

DJF: It sounds like the cast immersed themselves in the location for a while. How much time did your cast and crew spend in Trinidad and Tobago?

EU: The majority of the cast and crew were from Trinidad. Nancy Schreiber my cinematographer came for the two weeks of pre-production as did Valerie for rehearsals. We stayed in friends houses, the vibe was very familial and because I lived there I was able to integrate them into the space more quickly.
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On the set of “Moving Parts”: director, Emilie Upczak, 1st AD, Roma Zachemba, and DoP, Nancy Schreiber.
DJF: That synchronicity really communicates on the screen. Schreiber’s work is fantastic here. I’m always curious how directors and cinematographers work together, because obviously a director has an image or sequence in mind, but it has to be shot by the cinematographer. What was your working relationship like with her? 
EU: Nancy is an incredible collaborator. She was very generous with sharing her expertise and also open to my vision and my direction. We made a shot list in advance and did a lot of scouting so we had talked through the shooting style by the time we went into production. I also sent her sample films that I wanted to emulate stylistically – “La Promesse” by the Dardenne brothers is one I remember offhand.
DJF: Ah, okay. I was wondering if you had any other films in mind (as reference) when approaching this story. Dardenne brothers seems fitting. Anyone else? And on that note, were there elements of these topics (immigration and sex trafficking) that you wanted to avoid?
EU: Claire Denis’ “Bastards” was another film. I was trying to depict sex trafficking from a more pedestrian viewpoint, so it was a conscious decision to stay away from violence and exotifying the sex.
DJF: I think that’s what I appreciate the most about your approach. Valerie and Kandyse are so good here. How involved were you in the casting process and what specifically were you looking for in the portrayals of Zhenzhen and Evelyn?
EU: I cast both of them myself, they were introduced to me by a fellow filmmaker in Trinidad who knew them both from Vancouver.
DJF: Did they wind up bringing something to their roles that you maybe weren’t expecting, something that might have changed the characters in an unexpected way?
EU: I definitely feel like they brought the characters alive in a way I didn’t expect. That’s what I love about filmmaking: the magic of the coming together of the written word, the cinematography and the performance in production.
DJF: What has been the reception to the film among the communities of Trinidad and Tobago?
EU: They mostly see mainstream Hollywood films there so the opportunity to see themselves on the big screen and reflect on the society was welcomed. I heard people characterize it as a gentle drama. We also showed it to receptive communities around the island, including members of the police force and coast guard.
DJF: Finally, considering how successful you were at utilizing your locations in this film, I’m really curious and intrigued about your next feature. What can you share about that and how far along are you?
EU: I am in development on my next feature – a story of a botanist who descends the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon to assess the Tamarisk plant population, an invasive species on the River corridor. The premise is water is our most valuable resource and it is a conversation about water in the west. I plan to shoot a short proof of concept this spring on the Yampa River in Utah.

Thanks again for taking the time to chat and review my film. I really appreciate it!

DJF: Thank you. Enjoy your time here and good luck with the Chicago premiere!
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