Interview with MOVING PARTS producer John Otterbacher
By Michael Glover Smith
MOVING PARTS is an auspicious debut feature for American writer/director Emilie Upczak. This potent social-realist drama, which deals with the smuggling of a young Chinese woman, Zhenzhen (Valerie Tian), to Trinidad and Tobago where she falls into a life of prostitution, admirably refuses to either exploit or exoticize its subject matter. Upczak will be on hand to discuss the film when it receives its local premiere at the Gene Siskel Film Center on Friday, January 3. Producer John Otterbacher will join her for the Q&A at that screening and will also appear for audience discussion on Tuesday, January 7. I recently spoke to Otterbacher at his Chicago studio where most of the post-production on the film was carried out.
Michael Glover Smith: How does a filmmaker from the Midwest end up producing a film about a Chinese woman living in the Caribbean?
John Otterbacher: In my late 30s I went back to film school to get an MFA at the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Totally fell in love with the program, loved the people there. My partner in crime, day one of being in Vermont, was Emilie (Upczak). We just clicked. It was her thesis project to write this script. But I’d produced films before and I’m hanging out with Emilie and she’s like, “You’ve made movies. Can you help me make this movie?” So she put me on the project early as a producer and kind of tapped me for knowledge. And while we were in school, she applied for and got a grant in Trinidad, which was a large amount of the funding for this. Trinidad’s economy was up, they were trying to encourage filmmaking and art in the area, and she had lived in Trinidad: She ran the Trinidad and Tobago Film Festival. So, we graduate and within a year of her graduating, she makes the film. I wasn’t even there for the shoot but I helped with crewing up, equipment, story, budget, everything. And she had a plan for post-production; she was trying to take advantage of a tax credit in Puerto Rico. So post-production started there but it wasn’t working out. And I said, “let’s bring it here (to Chicago). I’ve got my team.” Every film I’ve been on, by necessity, I’ve had to take all the way through to delivery. Every film I’ve worked on has come through this space. You do it enough times and you feel confident. And I’ve got a good team of people who help me. With Emilie and I, there’s a trust thing. I think that’s one of the most important things about the director/producer relationship that gets overlooked. People think producers are about money. I’m not a money guy. I’m a “how do we get things done?” problem solver. How can we make the movie better? So that trust between the two of us is key. She came here and she worked with my editor, Jon Gollner, and sound designer, Kris Franzen. And we worked with another one of our VCFA classmates, Rafael Attias: He’s in Rhode Island but he’s from Venezuela. He’s amazing. He did the original score for the film.
MGS: Which is great, by the way.
JO: Thank you. We were very happy with it. He knows what that place sounds like, that part of the world. But he also added sound-design elements. He would bring elements to us and Chris would mix it. Chris is from the Midwest. He doesn’t know what Trinidad sounds like. But, between Emilie and Rafael, they were like, “You need these ‘peepers,’” these little frogs and different things. And they really build the world of the film for me.
MGS: I think the film does a good job of putting a human face on the issue of sex trafficking, which is something everyone has heard about but is something of an abstract concept for most people. Was that always the goal for you guys?
JO: Emilie, for a long time, was like, “This is not a sex trafficking movie.” She said, “This is a movie about a young woman who chooses to follow her brother to another country, for family reasons, and makes a series of bad choices influenced by dubious people.” And a lot of people talk about her being a prostitute. Prostitution isn’t sex trafficking. Well, they overlap, let’s say. I’m not an expert in that area. In Emilie’s opinion, she’s like, “This is a choice for some people. And I’m not saying Zhenzhen made good choices. She was in a difficult spot.” So that was something we constantly discussed because, for me, it was always a human trafficking film. I just thought that was, I don’t want to say “the angle,” because I don’t want to put it in a box, but you are always looking for ways to describe the film to people. We’re talking about a young woman who, initially, was smuggled; she paid someone to be moved.
MGS: And that person then demanded more money as soon as she arrived.
JO: Right, and that’s where smuggling and human trafficking very much overlap. For me it is a human trafficking movie. But, initially, Emilie wanted to tell the story and put a human face on something that most of us overlook. She didn’t want to paint Zhenzhen as this victim. I think that was really important to Emilie. You can see how someone makes a series of choices because of the situation they’re in. It’s not as simple as “These bad people went to this place and grabbed these people and brought them here as slaves.” It’s a series of choices and people taking advantage of people in bad spots combined that leads someone to this point. She definitely wanted Zhenzhen to be a real character and there were some points in the edit where there had been some storylines developed where it was more of a crime thriller. And we got feedback where people were like, “Oh, you should develop that more.” And we were like, “But we didn’t shoot that, really.” And so there was this strange pressure to make a crime thriller or a psychological thriller, which are genres that people understand – as opposed to this movie, which I think challenges people in a different way. And so, at the end of the day, Emilie felt strongly, “This is the story that I want to tell.”
MGS: Valerie Tian is great as Zhenzhen. She has this interesting quality of being very naturalistic while also having kind of a movie-star quality. She knows how to hold the screen. I know she’s a professional actress and I assume a lot of the rest of the cast are non-professionals. Can you talk about the casting process and blending different performance styles?
JO: Casting, as you know, is critical. You have to make certain choices by necessity. Valerie was not a choice made out of necessity. Casting on a low-budget film is often: I’ve got to cast these characters and I’m going to have to use locals and people where this is not their full-time job but they’re enthusiastic. If you’re doing something authentic and you have a good relationship with the community, which Emilie did, people want to be involved. And then I need to bring in these people who are pros: Valerie and Kandyse (McClure) were both in that department. And the willingness of people to go to Trinidad – and I’m not sure if it was the allure of something exotic and different, which I’m sure helped – but actors, if they’re into something, get excited and are willing to do things that they wouldn’t do for a big studio film or T.V. show. So there was a great mix. I thought Valerie was great. This is not a knock on Valerie but, the first cut of the movie, I didn’t think that her performance was great. It’s interesting how performances can kind of come out in post-production. That’s where my hands, particularly on the creative side, were most in this film. That was really interesting to me. Because I do think now, I agree with you, her performance is the movie in a lot of ways.
MGS: Her facial expressions are always compelling.
JO: It did come out in the editing. The first pass: you just drop in the best-looking takes or the takes that are like, “We’ve got to get all the lines of dialogue in the film.” You follow the script; the script is your road map to the film. Then you get past the rough cut and you’re like, “Screw the script. The script doesn’t mean anything at this point. This is the footage we have.” We looked for what is the essence of her character. Sometimes the essence of the character is not necessarily in the best takes. You think it is but then it’s not. We certainly didn’t “create” her performance but post-production is a place where you can find the right performance for the film.