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Lights, Camera and Plenty of Behind-the-Scenes Action

By Ayanna Estelle

Amanda Yam, senior RTF major, at her film's screening at AFF on Oct. 19, 2012.

Photo Credit: Ayanna Estelle
Amanda Yam, senior RTF major, at her film’s screening at Austin Film Festival on Oct. 19, 2012.

Lights! Camera! Action! Those three simple words are synonymous with filmmaking and yet so misleading because there is nothing simple about it. First comes blood, sweat and tears, the biggest lesson Amanda Yam has learned studying in the University of Texas Radio-Television-Film program. She is an aspiring screenwriter, with a passion for film that has been with her since childhood. Yam’s father owned a movie theater in Houston’s Chinatown. As a child, she sat on a red stool in the back corner of the theater watching Jackie Chan movies — he is her favorite. But instead of just being entranced by his stunt work, she took everything in — the film’s script, lighting and locations.

Yam has a passion for film, but when starting UT’s film program she had no idea how much blood, sweat and tears would be shed. But her hard work has paid off. For a class group project she wrote and helped produce a short film called “Prize,” about a boy who finds a cereal box toy that stops time and the tragedy he experiences with so much power. When Yam heard about the approaching 2012 Austin Film Festival film submission deadline, she asked herself, “Why not?” and submitted the short, which was chosen. On the second  day of the festival, there she sat in the back of the theater watching her own movie.

ORANGE: When did you get your start in filmmaking?

Amanda Yam: I first discovered filmmaking in high school. My teacher had this awesome curriculum where he showed us independent foreign films like “Metropolis.” That is when I realized there were other films besides the regular Hollywood blockbusters that I didn’t really like.

What attracts you to independent films?

Yam: Independent films don’t rely on special effects, but on storytelling and character development. I started trying to make what I thought was independent cinema. I didn’t know what I was doing. Since my father ran a small theater back at home, he had some knowledge of the movie industry. He would watch my projects and would say, “Amanda, they’re not very good.” He is a very honest parent, not the type to sugarcoat anything. But he was right; they were very pretentious, just two people talking to each other in a room, no snappy dialogue. As a high school student I just had nothing interesting to say.

Do you now?

Yam: Well even now I’m still trying to figure out what I want to say. I try to take from personal experiences, but if you haven’t experienced anything, then you’re just grasping at thin air. That is why writers have to research, so they get an inside perspective, and a lot of people lack that in their writing, it’s not genuine. Since high school I have also learned that you can’t rely on dialogue.

If you can’t rely on dialogue, what other aspects are needed to make a great film?

Yam: The Radio-Television-Film program is great because it starts you out making films that cannot have dialogue. You create these visual pieces that have to tell a story but without using words. A filmmaker’s rule of thumb: you always show and don’t tell, don’t spoon feed your audience.

What was your first non-dialogue film?

Yam: It was a class assignment called “Paul at the Pool.” It’s about a young boy who encounters a group of bullies at his local pool and his interaction with them and a lifeguard he becomes infatuated with. I submitted it into a UT film festival and the judges said my film had the best focus. As a writer that’s what I want — for the film to make sense.

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“You can have all the money in the world and have amazing production, but if your story isn’t good, people are going to notice,” Yam says. Photo by Rio Noel Zumwalt

What is the worst thing that has happened while making a film?

Yam: Recently the card we kept our footage on got ruined and we had to reshoot a few scenes, which is frustrating and costly. One of my supporting cast members canceled his flight back home to help out.

Filmmaking sounds like a lot of hard work.

Yam: Yeah and it’s funny because a lot of people say Radio-Television-Film majors don’t do anything. And that’s kind of true — some don’t do anything, but those who actually work are stretched so thin.

What’s the greatest thing that has happened while making a film?

Yam: The greatest thing you can get out of being a student filmmaker is putting yourself into your work, sharing it with other people and them enjoying it. It’s scary, and it’s when you’re the most vulnerable.

You recently shared your work at Austin Film Festival, how vulnerable did that make you feel?

Yam: Extremely, I was out of my element. At the end of the other films in the screening they gave a special thanks to New York City, Tilda Swinton and the New Zealand Government. My film was just a class assignment, and the money came out of my own pocket. It was awesome being able to be in the same screening with those amazing storytellers.

What did you gain from being a part of the festival?

Yam: I gained confidence from being in the festival. It was so validating, a nice pat on the back, you’re doing good, keep going, be better, do more.

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“I hate introducing myself as a filmmaker or a writer. It’s always aspring storyteller because I am still learning,” Yam says. Photo by Rio Noel Zumwalt

Do you have a backup plan if screenwriting doesn’t work out?

Yam: Television writing. There has been a migration of writers towards television, because a lot of films are not as developed as they should be. There are a lot of stereotypes about Hollywood trying to make an easy buck that sadly are true.

Can you give us an example?

Yam: Yes, “Transformers” – the big budget films. They have value in our culture. Entertainment value is important, but it’s not the most important part of it. A lot of writers who wouldn’t get their work out in film are now going to television where they have more freedom. Examples are “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos.” You can see the craft of storytelling and that’s what makes these shows amazing.

What does your dad say about your films now?

Yam: He thinks that I have improved, he’s proud of me. Of course there will always be certain things he thinks need improvement.

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