Norris Wong is the director of My Prince Edward (2019), an irresistible romantic comedy featuring actor-musicians Stephy Tang and Chu Pak Hong, showing as part of our Hong Kong New Talents program. The team at the Hong Kong International Film Festival spoke to her about making the film and about the challenges facing independent filmmakers with limited budgets in the Hong Kong film industry.
Norris Wong graduated with a Master's degree in Fine Arts at the Academy of Film at the Hong Kong Baptist University in 2012. Her graduation film From Here to There (2012) was screened at the Tokyo International Lesbian & Gay Film Festival, whereas Fall (2013), won the Best Script Award (Open Category) at the Hong Kong Fresh Wave International Short Film Festival. Her first feature, My Prince Edward , was supported by the First Feature Film Initiative of Create Hong Kong, and won her a Best New Director award at the Hong Kong Film Awards. In 2021, she was honoured with the Award for Young Artist (Film) from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council.
Hong Kong International Film Festival: It has been a while since My Prince Edward has been completed and released. What are your thoughts at the moment? What challenges did you encounter in the production of this film?
Norris Wong: The budget of My Prince Edward was rather low. I had to be hands-on with everything, from conception and pitching at the beginning to distribution and promotion towards the end. It has been a great experience as I got to learn about every process involving the making of a film. Because of the budget constraints, many interesting and amateurish things happened in the production process. For example, when I first spoke with the producer about the concept of the film, he felt that the idea wasn't ready to be made. But since my assistant director and I believed that it was, we had to work together to convince the producer. Everyone showed a lot of passion in the process. After a good take, the crew applauded to encourage me. Perhaps because this was my debut as a director, I was not very confident and the whole thing felt a bit amateurish, like a student project. For instance, we ran into rain one day, but we could not reschedule or cancel, so we went ahead with shooting. When the rain stopped later, we needed to make rain to maintain continuity. Since we did not have the budget for a water truck, we went to the flower market and bought two huge watering cans. The assistant director and the prop master had to run alongside the tour bus and pour water on the windows to create the rain! Such moments came out of having a low budget, but it was a fun and memorable process.
HKIFF: With the tight budget, was the producer particularly strict about cost control?
NW: Because of the tight budget, they didn't allow any mistakes. Before every scene, they made me go over my plans with them. I had to tell them how I would film everything and all the camera placements. They monitored the process even more closely during preproduction.
The production manager was smart. He set aside a portion of the budget for three shooting days without telling me. He just told me I had 15 days to shoot, but it turned out that I had 18, so there were three extra shooting days for backup. After we watched the first cut, the producer gave some notes. Some involved reshoots, and others involved new materials that were written after the first cut.
HKIFF: You are preparing for your second film now. Are you considering other kinds of financial support?
NW: If everything goes as planned, my second film should be under the Directors' Succession Scheme of Create Hong Kong. It will be produced by Mabel Cheung and Alex Law, and I will be working with another new director, Wong Hoi. We are still working on the script, and we may start filming around the end of the year. This time, I have a budget of HK$9 million, which is almost triple the budget for My Prince Edward . That should make things easier, and it offers more room for exploring different topics. We'll be able to do more fun things with it.
HKIFF: Without these grant schemes, can you imagine how you would find investors?
NW: I can still find investors without those schemes, but it would definitely be much harder because there would be a lot of compromises with film companies and investors. There are other new directors who are given HK$3 million to make a low budget film on commercial topics, such as ghost stories or web novel adaptations. It's a feasible proposition, but there would be much less creative freedom compared to the First Feature Film Initiative.
HKIFF: From My Prince Edward to the Directors' Succession Scheme, you have received support from several veteran directors. How did they help you?
NW: From my experience, the established filmmakers are very keen to help new directors. From scriptwriting to editing, many veteran filmmakers have reached out to offer help and advice. I believe they do want the new directors to succeed and someone to carry the torch. I think it's invaluable to feel such solidarity among us.
HKIFF: Quite a lot of new directors came on the scene in recent years. What are the biggest difficulties and challenges for them?
NW: The hardest part is, if the director wants to make more films after a debut, there is no established and proven commercial model for the marketing of the second and third films in Hong Kong. Still Human grossed nearly HK$20 million, which is considered successful at the Hong Kong box office. However, if a film's budget exceeds HK$6 to 8 million, it may not actually break even after splitting the revenue between different parties. As a result, the current trend is to minimise cost . Like I said, you would have to make a film with HK$3 million. Another trend is to look to other markets if the local market cannot support the project, but the problem is that other countries or cities may not be interested in Hong Kong-centric subject matters. I think the challenge is to operate in a commercially viable model without government subsidy. This is probably the problem many new directors face after their debuts.
HKIFF: If there is no government subsidy, how do you think these new directors can cope with this challenge?
NW: I have two ideas. One is to go independent.
I have a plan that involves working with new directors on self-financed projects with budgets of HK$1 to 2 million. These films will be made in a very independent way, like student projects. This is one way of minimising cost. Another idea is to try and look for resources outside Hong Kong. For example, I am trying to build my network in Taiwan, to see if there is any room for Hong Kong-Taiwan co-productions. There's interest for that in Taiwan, but the problem is that the Taiwan side wants to use Hong Kong actors who are well known to the Taiwanese audience, while the Hong Kong side wants Taiwanese actors who are familiar to the Hong Kong audience. There may be a difference of opinions on this matter, and that is something I have to consider. If the budget for My Prince Edward came as a loan, then I would be in trouble. Fortunately, I received a grant that didn't have to be repaid, or I would be heavily in debt.
HKIFF: Now we have the First Feature Film Initiative and the Directors' Succession Scheme. What else can the government do to help? How can film companies help?
NW: I had an idea, though I don't know if it is still effective: The government can subsidise movie tickets. For example, audiences will pay HK$120 to see The Avengers while they pay only HK$30 to see My Prince Edward . I am not sure if this price difference would be appealing, nor do I know if this would work. Many cinemas are offering discounts because of the pandemic, but it does not necessarily mean that more people are going to the cinema. Other than supporting productions, perhaps there can be some adjustments done for distribution as well.
HKIFF: You have been in Taiwan for a while, how is their support system for new directors different from Hong Kong?
I do not think their support system is targeted towards new directors. They have a more established subsidy system. For example, there is support for script development that both veteran and new directors can apply for. They have been doing this for many years. They have this built-in mentality on how and where to apply for these subsidies, so there are new proposals coming up every year.
Reprinted by kind permission of the Hong Kong International Film Festival Society.