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Conversations with ZiCheng Li

Today we’d like to introduce you to ZiCheng Li.

Hi ZiCheng, so excited to have you on the platform. So before we get into questions about your work-life, maybe you can bring our readers up to speed on your story and how you got to where you are today?
I started making short films in my Junior year in college. Back then, I was still an undergraduate student pursuing a degree in psychology at the University of Minnesota Twin Cities. I took the only filmmaking class available at that time, which changed my life. It made me realize my true passion for cinematic arts and storytelling, and I also discovered my talent in arts. Although still interested in psychology, I felt that I didn’t want to become a scientist or a researcher, but instead use my knowledge in psychology to create art, So I decided to apply for a graduate program in filmmaking.

After graduating from college, I took a gap year to prepare for my application. I went back to Beijing, published my first poetry anthology, made a short film with some friends, and traveled around for a bit. I also started working part-time in a local coffee shop, where I was able to meet a lot of people from all kinds of backgrounds. The coffee shop was not big, so it helped create an environment where people could easily get to know each other, especially with returning customers. It was a crucial experience for me to meet people and hear stories that helped my creativity, and the memories of the time I spent there also became part of my philosophy of making arts and living life in general.

A year later, I was admitted into USC, and I came to LA in 2016 to officially start my journey to become a professional filmmaker.

We all face challenges, but looking back would you describe it as a relatively smooth road?
I wouldn’t say the process was all perfect, but I haven’t experienced any major difficulties so far. I think I’m fortunate enough so far that I have a lot of good friends and peers who support me and know what we are doing. The biggest challenge that I can think of was to persuade my parents that I wanted to study cinema and become a filmmaker. It was a huge investment thinking that this would become what I’m going to do for the rest of my life. No one in my family is an artist, so it was kind of hard for them to imagine what my decision will actually mean, as well as what it will make my life become. But they also didn’t want me to end up in a career that I don’t enjoy. Thankfully, they chose to respect my decision.

As you know, we’re big fans of you and your work. For our readers who might not be as familiar what can you tell them about what you do?
I write screenplays and I also direct. I find joy in creating characters and their stories and watching them come to life in front of the camera and on the screens. I’ve written and directed a handful of short films, ranging from 5-minute ones to the ones in the 20- to 30-minute in length. I also have two completed feature screenplays and countless story ideas and/or outlines that are waiting to be developed. I’ve always been told by others how they admire my ability to use the simplest and poetic way to portray compelling characters and complex emotions that people can feel empathetic for.

To me, a good story doesn’t always mean an intriguing premise or a plot that’s full of twists. I always put emotions in the first place. I think cinema should be about emotions; it’s how you want people to feel, not how you want people to think or analyze. The emotion that I want to convey is the embryo for my characters, and I always let my characters drive the plot.

The world has always been changing, and living in this era, we are constantly exposed to tons and tons of information. I don’t think there are any so-called “original” stories anymore. But emotions are something that we all have. Happiness, sorrow, rage, pain… It is because we have feelings that we care for ourselves, for others, and for the whole world.

In terms of your work and the industry, what are some of the changes you are expecting to see over the next five to ten years?
It might sound pessimistic, but I think the best ages for the film industry have already gone. With the apps for short videos thriving and more and more streaming platforms coming out, cinema and theaters are no longer competitive. The pandemic has also accelerated the process. A TV series can tell a story and show us a character more in-depth while sometimes taking the same amount of time and resources to make as a feature film. Indie films might be cheaper and easier to make, but it’s also more difficult for them to make profits. The big-budget studio films are also running out of original ideas as we see more and more sequels, remakes, and spin-offs are taking up a majority of what they make each year. The generations growing up watching these IPs are aging, and the younger generations might not be as interested in them since the content available right now is so diverse. So I think the market for feature films is definitely going to shrink. Maybe short films will become the new mainstream? I don’t know. We’ll see.

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Image Credits
Beidi Wang, Lameng Bei, Hongshi Zhong

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