When renowned production designer Xiwen Zhang first reads a film script, she begins envisioning how to express the themes presented in the story into a set. She explores how to reflect a character’s decisions in the props, and how to align the artwork with a director’s vision. Every detail the audience sees by the time the film hits the screen is meticulously planned, from the color palette to the background props that barely are visible in the frame. This type of work is what takes a script and makes it into a story; it is what makes a movie a cathartic and transformative experience, and it is why she is so passionate about what she does.
Hailing from China, Zhang has shown the world what she is capable of as a production designer with her work on such films as Stay, Affectionate Heart, With You, and many more. Whether drama, comedy, or documentary, Zhang knows how to capture the heart of a story through the production design.
Zhang likes to draw inspiration through her own life, which she recently had the opportunity to do with the film Where is Happiness. The moving drama follows an Asian girl who arrives in Los Angeles in pursuit of the American Dream, but the reality is not what she envisioned. She is sad, disappointed, and feels lost both physically and mentally.
“This film made me recall my memories from about three years ago. It moved me a lot when I read the script. I was so moved by the main character, Juan, in the film. She has her own dream and wants to do something that can change her life, and I saw myself in her. She wants to be somebody someday, and even though her life is miserable she doesn’t want to give up. I felt so sad about her life and knew people would relate to the story. I knew I had to make this film,” said Zhang.
In the film, Juan is a struggling waitress, and Zhang wanted that reflected in the set of her apartment. It would not be realistic to have the character living in a lush apartment in Beverly Hills, and instead Zhang sought a location that was very small and affordable for the character, which would also allow the lead actress to truly get in the right headspace.
Zhang chose to shoot in a real apartment rather than a studio, believing reality is powerful when it comes to film. This film is emotional and the audience needs to truly feel for the character for it to be a success, and Zhang’s decision made the film and the character feel truly real.
This decision proved fruitful for Zhang, as Where is Happiness has gone on to several prestigious film festivals over the course of the year. Zhang was awarded the Women Filmmakers Award for her work at the Best Shorts Competition, and the film also won Best Women Short at the Indie Short Fest in May. Zhang was thrilled by the success, not only because her hard work paid off, but because people were moved by the story.
“I like this story because it reminds me a lot of a past moment in my life. Having your film resonate with an audience is not an easy thing, but this movie touched my heart in many ways. For me a good movie must have this power. Real, resonance, reflection, these are important elements for a movie. I am so happy that people got that from Where is Happiness,” she concluded.