An interview with Yiwen Cao | Chubby Café | VMA19 Best Indie Feature Winner | May Edition
Chubby Café, Award of Prestige winner as Best Indie Feature at the Vegas Movie Awards, is a deep and touching movie filled with a lot of plot twists and funny moments.
Originally conceived as a TV Series, later become a feature film, Chubby Café tells the story of a boss (Chubby) and four quirky employees of a coffee house, struggling with definitely out of this world customers.
Yiwen Cao is the producer, screenwriter, and actress of Chubby Café. She joined us for a pleasant interview, where she takes us behind the scenes of her film and explains from her point of view why imperfection is what makes their characters more authentic.
• Yiwen, congratulations on winning Best Indie Feature at the Vegas Movie Awards! Let's start from the beginning. Tell us a bit about your early childhood…how much being a child star of CCTV, the most important TV station in Beijing, China, helped you become familiar with storytelling and filmmaking?
Actually, since my parents didn’t want other things to bother my study, they only allowed me to act before I was 8 years old. Luckily, my limited time spent in the right place. From kindergarten, I joined several children programs on TV, like Da Fengche, Qi Seguang, and Duo Bao Duiduidui. All of them were very successful and popular in China, especially in Beijing. And on the Children’s Day of 2000, I was received by the former vice-premier of China Ms. Wu Yi in the TV station.
After leaving CCTV, I never stopped writing original stories and organizing related activities in school. I trained myself by winning speeches and writing contests, and I organized singing competitions and created students’ dramas. Then I was awarded as “The outstanding actress in Beijing” when I was 14. But at that time, I never noticed that I did something related to filmmaking and storytelling. I just did what I liked. Maybe writing and acting has been hidden deep down in my heart for a very long time. I just never knew about that. But if someone gives me a chance, I will definitely catch it.
• Chubby Café starts as an amusing tale, full of hilarious gags, to then suddenly let emotions come in, dealing with much deeper subjects such as friendship, trust, family, love. How did you come up with the story, and how long was your writing process?
I believe good stories should have something in depth. It will be great if the audience can think about their own lives after watching films. So I’d like to pay attention to human nature. Love, family, and friendship are definitely significant factors to make up a regular person’s life. Lack of any of them, life will be incomplete. But which one is the most important? Everyone has a different answer.
When I was a kid, I was very naughty. Climbing pipes on buildings and jumping from roofs were my regular activities. Though I got injured many times, I was fearless. However, my personality was totally changed from adolescence without any reason. Suddenly I’m no longer talkative and I became an observer. I began to think about people and logic.
I’m strict with writing suspense, because logical plots make stories convincible. But smoothness is boring. So I also put many plot twists. At the same time, I know people don’t like seriousness. After one day’s study or work, they need to relax. Thus, I use hilarious gags and amusing tale to make people laugh.
All in all, it’s quite easy for me to write a suspense comedy because I know what factors are necessary for my screenplay. This time, I used 3 days to write the movie Chubby Café.
Love, family, and friendship are definitely significant factors to make up a regular person’s life. Lack of any of them, life will be incomplete.
• Your film has a really colorful cast, starting from the four lovely employees Lazy, Petty, Anger and Simple, each with a distinct personality. Illusion and Chubby have features that make them really complex characters to deal with. From a screenwriting standpoint, how hard it was to put together all these personalities?
In my opinion, though there are more than 7 billions and 5 hundred millions of people all over the world, there may only be hundreds of kinds of people in all. In our daily lives, we may just meet a dozen types of people. For example, sometimes we seem to know somebody at first glance, it’s just because he/she is similar to a person we knew. They belong to the same type. Thus, it is not difficult to find some common traits of people and put these traits in roles.
At the same time, I believe everyone has merits and demerits. Thus, unlike some main roles in other films, roles in my films are not perfect. Good factors and bad things are all live in every role. Being a good person or not totally depends on the roles’ choices. In Chubby Café, Illusion and Chubby are the main roles, but they are not perfect. Illusion was selfish, she hurt parents and best friend to pursue her “love”. And as the owner of the Café, Chubby is really bad at managing. The Café loses money every day! But most of the audience won’t hate them because they also see the shining points on them. With those obvious demerits, they even think Illusion and Chubby are much more lovely.
In my standpoint, nowadays, we don’t need to create roles with perfect personalities. To show some shortcomings can make the audience have common sense with roles.
• Your unique storytelling aims to never let the audience know whether the main roles of your film are still alive until the end. What’s the reason behind your choice? Is it a way to closely involve your audience and let them draw conclusions based on their own inner thoughts?
Sometimes, process is more important than result. I think this sentence is especially suitable for suspense. The audience become detectives when watching this kind of movie. For myself, I believe the most worthy moment of light is when it’s in darkness. But for most common people, what is the darkest moment of their lives? Or what is their most fearful thing? Maybe it’s the time to face death. Thus, when the main role in my film faces death, I give her a chance. That chance may be extremely unrealistic, but it still remains hope. As Chubby said in the film “Hopeless hope”. People like miracles. Common sense may tell us the main role is dead, but there is still a chance. The result you believe indicates your inner thoughts. To be a realistic or romantic person? You always have a choice. By the way, after writing a long story, I need to take a break. And this moment, it’s your turn to choose.
• Due to a limited budget, and the fact that the Café you used for the shooting didn’t allow any acting during the day time, actors and employees had to work at night constantly when shooting Chubby. Has this always been a problem for you, or in the end, it became a fun part of this experience?
At first, I felt excited because I never did this before. But some other actresses didn’t have good expressions. On the first shooting day, the weather in Beijing suddenly turned cold. So the actress who acted as Illusion got a high fever. In the following days, several actresses also got cold and some staff ran away. So we had to keep recruiting new staff and taking care of actresses. Since I am not only the actress and screenwriter of this film, I’m also a producer. These things distracted me. But luckily, the other producer Wang Weiqing helped me a lot. We encouraged each other and got over difficulties. And after finishing shooting, core members made jokes of ourselves as “We had American time in China, does that mean we should get awards from America?”. Luckily, we made it.
• Chubby Café has been directed by Li Qia, with a long experience in TV series, at his first time with a feature film. How did you work with him to achieve your vision, and how did you and Li recruit your definitely large cast?
Li Qia is a very skillful director of TV series. And he is a very patient director. He is always listening. I respect him. For recruiting the cast, we organized interviews for three days. Ha Sen, who acted as Illusion in Chubby Café, showed her outstanding acting skills during the interview. Hong Hong, who acted as Simple, is a very pure and lovely girl. Her smiling made us feel relaxing during shooting. And she is good at improvisation. Wang Jiahui (Petty) and Gao Xue (Lazy) also worked very hard. Wang impressed us in the interview and Gao ate lots of cakes during shooting. They are all very professional and thank all of them.
• In order to act as Chubby, the boss of Chubby Café, you put on 30 pounds weight. Why did you make this choice? Did you want to emphasize the concept of “It looks chubby, but tastes lovingly”?
That’s a good question. Firstly, as a matter of appearance, when you read the word “Chubby”, you don’t think about a slim person. In the film, Chubby is a friend that you can rely on and you never worry about whether she will steal your boyfriend. She is just a decent and loyal person. So the person who acts as Chubby couldn’t be sexy or mature. She is quite like Baymax. So we needed a person who looked like a big baby.
And for personality, since Chubby is also the Café owner, she should have some boss’s traits. But how could a big baby run a Café? That would be funny. So Chubby should be the kind of person who looked both strict and funny. Thus, Chubby is a complicated role and it hard to get a suitable actress. So I’m willing to take this challenge.
• We really enjoyed your constant attempt to find a positive shine on your characters, and deliver a final positive message despite traumas, revenge, sufferings, loss of loved ones. Is it also your personal approach in real life?
Kind of. As I referred in previous answers, when I was a kid, I liked to take adventures and to observe people. And I also moved to different provinces to study and work. So I met lots of interesting people and have many people’s images in my mind. At the same time, I am sensitive. I’d like to see people’s micro-expressions and to find out the motivations behind their behaviors.
People are complicated, but lovely. Though suffering a lot, there are still many beautiful things worth us to pursue. I believe that a hard time will become a fortune after being a success. Before that, a hard time is just a hard time. And people may regard them as excuses even humiliation. Since I am still on the way to make a great film, I don’t think I am qualified to talk about hard time or bad things now. Thus, let me stop this question here and let hope go on~
The person who acts as Chubby couldn’t be sexy or mature. She is quite like Baymax. So we needed a person who looked like a big baby.
• What’s next for Chubby Café and for you? Do you have any more upcoming projects in the making?
Actually, I wrote a TV series named Chubby Café before this movie. That is a comedy and I wrote for 2 years. Before we began to shoot, a major investor changed her mind and asked me to make a movie first. So I used 3 days to write a totally different story but still named Chubby Café to memorize that one. Next, I will keep making movies and TV series and I already wrote dozens of stories. And I’m looking forward to cooperating with Americans.
• Thanks, Yiwen for this interview, and for giving us intense emotions with your Chubby Café.
Thanks for your questions! I had a great time with you and hope your Film Festival become more successful!
WATCH THE TRAILER:
Bio on Baidu Baike (a Chinese Wikipedia): https://baike.baidu.com/item/%E6%9B%B9%E8%AF%91%E6%96%87