Create your own luck
Marcus is not a fond believer of luck. He prefers to place his trust in the human ability to build, improve and evolve. And if today his business card reads “Film director”, it took Marcus Shenn a long way to discover his inner truth, a lot of courage to follow his instinct, and motivation to build the skills that prepared him to dive in the deep waters of filmmaking.
His journey counts more than six cities stretching from the Far East of Singapore, Hong Kong and Tokyo to the West of Toronto, Los Angeles, and Paris. He was given a professional suit that would prove too tight along the way: a career in finance he had the courage to dismiss, because working with the feeling of sometimes being another “cog in the machine” was simply not good enough for him. Marcus, instead, wanted to create realities of his own fabric; realities, in which he would get to conceive the story, co-write the script, cast the actors, set the frame, add the sound, and control the editing. A world where, like Michelangelo’s God in the Creation of Adam, he would have the power to breathe life into Rebecca, an android companion and heroine of his latest short-film, A Week with Rebecca.
“The important thing is to be able to move the audience through stories, I believe”, he tells me and that gets me thinking that “being moved” must be a good indicator of success for Marcus, whether in filmmaking, friendships or life choices. Perhaps he was under the spell of that same emotion, when he decided to choose Paris as his base camp. Was it the elegance of the Parisians? The smell of their wood-floored apartments that he finds so attractive? Or maybe, the small doses of “dolce vita” that the locals love to inject into their bloodstream from breakfast to diner?
Probably all of the above and many more; one thing is for sure, Marcus will continue to change time zones as one changes shirts to present his films in international festivals and start new projects with partners from all over the world. And that, in the evenings, after a day packed with meetings and Skype calls is over he will walk down to Ile Saint-Louis; and as he will be sipping a glass of his favorite Beaujolais, he will imagine a new story to move us.
Citimarks: Marcus, you are a real citizen of the world: you were raised in Singapore and Hong Kong; finished school in Canada; worked as a stockbroker in Taiwan and Japan; then opened a new career path in filmmaking in Los Angeles and France. What is the motive behind such drive?
Marcus Shenn: I think it’s important to grow, and cultivate life skills so that we can create our own desired realities in life. In finance, my role was sometimes reduced into being the cog in the machine. This largely motivated me to leave the world of stockbroking and study film direction to be able to express my truths and visions. I have a tremendous respect for people who build things. Whether this is about creating a multimillion business like Bill Gates, or conceiving a mind-blowing piece of painting like Picasso. Working in film allows a person to hone their thinking and behavioral skills into creating something from scratch, a world of one’s own form and expression.
In which country do you have the strongest memories as a kid and what were the first films that had an impact on you?
Hong Kong was the country that left me the strongest impressions as an adolescent: this was where there was exposure to video games and pop-culture movies, such as Indiana Jones and Star Wars. There were also a lot of Japanese animation to digest that had a certain impact on what I am trying to do today. I remember an anime show called Tomorrow’s Joe depicting the life struggles of a troubled young boxer who runs away from an orphanage. I was impressed by how serious the subject matters of Japanese anime were. Looking back to Hayao Miyazaki’s fabulous worlds, I realize the impact their superb storytelling had on me.
"In Paris, I got to enjoy the small pleasures of life [...]. Embracing small doses of “dolce vita” in my everyday habits eventually helped me to adopt a more balanced lifestyle."
You first came to Paris to study in a business school. What do you remember from your first days in the City of Lights?
The most obvious thing was how pretty the Parisian ladies were. They have this distinct dress code, and effortless chic. And then, I was impressed by the city itself, by how amazingly beautiful it looked: on my first day in Paris, I took a walk along the Jardin des Tuileries and the Champs Elysées. I remember that the Arc de Triomphe blew me away with its Marianne statue looking so fierce...and with all those cars going around it...everything looked so majestic. Later that day, I spoke with a very elegant lady at a café in the Champs Elysées: I was struck by her liberty talking about Paris, especially about what she disliked in the city.
Did you adopt any new habits in Paris?
When I was working as a stockbroker, I had a disciplined lifestyle: I remember practicing martial arts every night. In Paris, I got to enjoy the small pleasures of life: sipping a glass of wine during lunch, going to parties often etc. Embracing small doses of “dolce vita” in my everyday habits eventually helped me to adopt a more balanced lifestyle.
Is the film culture in North America any different from the one in Europe?
Having experienced being on movie sets in North America, in Europe and in Asia, I can say the differences are noticeable. In Los Angeles, directors must struggle a lot to defend their vision; they have to negotiate pretty much everything with all the professionals involved. From the wardrobe designer to the actors and the cinematographer, everyone gets quite ferocious about guarding their respective departments, thus making it harder for directors to keep control over their work. In Europe and Asia, people are a little less territorial, leaving more space to the directors to express themselves.
Your latest short film, A Week with Rebecca, tells the story of a man sharing a week of his life with Rebecca, a life-like female android. What issues did you want to raise through this film?
A Week with Rebecca was initially conceived to portray the feelings of Rebecca in her moments of loneliness, functioning as a robot companion; a mission she was not particularly fond of. This was inspired by a Japanese photographer who was very good at taking pictures of celebrities at the end of their stage performance. Over the course of their act, they must look happy for the audience; but as the curtains fall, they let it all out: their exhaustion, their tension, sometimes their sadness; and it was during that short moment of candid exhaustion that the pictures were taken. As Rebecca’s script evolved, it also grew to talk about social issues more relevant to our times, such as the phenomenon of outsourcing intimacy and connection. Hopefully, the story makes us think why sometimes fail in our relationships so that we needed technology to step in and create improved simulations.
Filmmaking involves so many activities: conceiving the topic, writing the script, casting actors, working on the editing and so on...Which one is your favorite part?
I love casting. It is very interesting to meet people from different backgrounds, to watch them go from a normal base line emotion to getting into character. That’s fascinating. I spend a lot of time casting to get to know the people who interest me for a role; that helps one see not only whether they perform on the screen, but also what they would be like to work with. Ninety per cent of directing is casting, so if you choose the right person, you’ve won a lot of the battle.
Which film directors have you been inspired by and who is your favorite French film director?
I have great respect for Ridley Scott, Steven Spielberg and Ron Howard: the production in every one of their films is technically flawless or almost flawless, in contrast to other filmmakers who may be less consistent. The body of work of all these directors is consistently great. In Ridley Scott, I love his subject matters, his aesthetics…I wouldn’t mind watching Blade Runner again and again. With regard to the French cinema, I like Luc Besson’s style of directing, especially in his early films, such as Nikita and The Big Blue -whose characters and music were simply amazing-, as well as The Fifth Element.
What did you think of Parisians in your first social encounters?
Paris is a hard city to break into, especially if you don’t speak the language. One thing I have observed about Parisians is that, in the beginning, they can be quite clannish, not willing to leave their comfort zone; but that can change as soon as they get used to your presence. The first time you appear in a party, they will probably ignore you; the second time and third time, they pay very little attention; by the fourth time they see you, chances are that they will come and speak to you in a very friendly, casual manner as if you were pals with them for a long time.
If you had to leave the city for a long time, what would you miss the most?
The parties. Especially those organized in Parisian apartments. Parisian apartments are also something I would miss. They don’t have to be particularly fancy in order to look stunning, I think there is an effortless elegance in them: their decoration and the way the wooden floor creaks giving them an irresistible charm to my eyes.
If Paris was a song, what song would that be?
Première rencontre, by Françoise Hardy.
If Paris was a book?
Les Misérables, by Victor Hugo.
If it was a film?
Can I say two? Nikita, by Luc Besson and Frantic, by Roman Polanski.
If you could travel in time for one day, which century of the French history would you go back to and what would you like to discover?
I would go back to Paris of the roaring ‘20s, the so-called “années folles”: during that short period between the two world wars, Paris became the cradle for the avant-garde scene in painting and music. Perhaps sit at Les Deux Magots to meet the intellectuals who were hanging out there and brainstorm about the future of the world.
What is your favorite French word?
Non, French word for No. It reminds me of an old commercial for the Perrier sparkling water. A guy is walking in the desert dying out of thirst. He finds a bar and goes “Perrier, Perrier!” but the bartender coldly responds “Perrier? No Perrier”. The guy leaves the bar because he can’t drink any other water. This uncompromising attitude that characterizes French people when it comes to refined taste is well summarized in their emphatically pronounced “Non...”.