Artist Spotlight on Filmmaker Shelly Tan

What led you to be a film producer? Tell us more:

You’ll notice something when you ask artists how they developed their interest in art- most of them would start with family history and influence since they were a baby. Well, I was born and raised in a very ‘scientific’ family.

My father is an outstanding applied physics scientist, and so I grew up in a science park which is home to more than 400 high-tech companies. In fact, my film and TV career has not (officially) started until I was 23. When I finally decided to throw myself into the unknown after graduating from NTU, the most prestigious comprehensive university in Taiwan and one of the top ranked universities in the world.

Unlike 90% of the friends around me who would like to be a scholar or having a stable job, I figured excitement and challenges in film and TV satisfy me more of life. I did a small test in my last semester in college, by applying for an intern position in China’s Beijing TV Station. Luckily I got approved and favored by the Sports News Center because of my love in basketball, which was highlighted on my resume.

In that summer, I had the honor and pleasure to serve as their lead producer Phiona Guo’s assistant, and experienced the intensity and craziness of working as media professional. Phiona once said in her office “I told everyone who works for me, make a good proposal, and I’ll find the resource and money to make your idea come true.”

And that’s how we produced a 3-on-3 basketball show featuring NBA star Dwight Howard, sponsored by Adidas. This was my first impression and admiration of the role of producer.

Almost a year later, I took a flight to Beijing again and got my first job as a script supervisor for TV show FIREWORKS. I had completed thousands of production and camera reports while working as a script supervisor for several TV shows.

At the time I have worked with all kinds of directors and producers from diverse background. Most of the time producers, production managers and even coordinators rarely came to the set in China. Due to this very different working style, a big part of my job was to keep track on production and shooting schedule, then report and explain all to them. I was the bridge between the head of creative (director) and production (producer). Thanks to this experience, I was able to learn from some of the best directors in China of their directing process, and how to coordinate a production filming 90 days with more than 200 people.

A turning point of my career came when I was working on the fantasy kung-fu series BULIANGREN. Xiang, one of the producer of Chinese blockbuster TINY TIMES, came to visit our set. He saw my work and how I communicated with the renowned director Wu Bai.

Xiang asked me “You are really good at what you’re doing. Good script supervisors can become a great director or a producer. Which path do you want to go?” I realized that it was time to think about my next step, to take a look at my career development in a much longer term.

After asking for suggestions from my supervisor Wu Bai, who himself is both a director and producer, I decided to gain more professional, systematic knowledge of producing in a much more mature film industry. This is how I came to New York City to take an intensive course on producing, and began my independent film producer career here.

My previous working experience made the whole process easier for me. As I am always more prepared, physically and mentally, on anything that could happen while making a movie. Knowing how to handle the stress and frustration, and spend time and energy on solving problems led me to my success.

What are some of your most important or influential projects?

I would say TV shows UNFORGIVEN, BULIANGREN and HOME SWEET HOME, a short film I produced and shot in New York.

The TV shows are both produced and distributed by the top Chinese online streaming service platform iQiyi, which has the ‘Chinese Netflix’ nickname (and actually signed a deal with Netflix), in China. UNFORGIVEN was a detective show and a Chinese-Korean international co-production. During the 86 days of principal photography period I had to work with dozens of Chinese and Korean actors, in abandoned buildings, the muds and (fake) bloody crime scenes.

We spent over a thousand hours together in cold winter (nobody went home to celebrate Chinese New Year) to create this show- and the final product has not disappointed anyone. UNFORGIVEN reached an audience of over 400 millions. It is still on the platform and broadcasted internationally.

BULIANGREN was a total different story. There are 3 main elements of this show- animation, fantasy and Kung-Fu. Adapted from a popular animation series, BULIANGREN has got very high attention since the development of this show was announced to public. Honestly, it was a risky decision to make a live-action version of an animated series with over 4 billions views online.

Such original material with specific style and a very strong fan base could lead to great success or the very opposite way. Also the money and time it would take to realize all the fight scenes and fantasy elements, including set, wardrobe and most important special makeup, was unthinkably enormous.

Even you figured out the disposable 40 pounds special makeup suit of the character, which cost you thousands of dollars each, how could you manage to film a person wearing this suit and fight in the woods when it’s 95℉ in summer? We ended up filming with 2 units with over 200 crew members for the entire 90 days production window. Before joining this production I had never seen so much stunts and special effects in my life. It was a real honor to me being a part of this show.

BULIANGREN has been recognized as a successful “2.5 dimensions” experimental series, earned high television ratings (8.2/10) and reached over 30 millions views in a day of its premiere.

The other project I want to talk about is a short film I produced after coming to NYC, as the lead creative producer. HOME SWEET HOME is a coming of age/family drama about a teenage boy meeting and leaving his foster family. The director Jin and I both have years of intensive professional working experience in film industry before we came to the US. The idea began as a drama/thriller about a foster kid turning into a serial killer after he’s abandoned by his foster parents.

Though after more research and discussion, we decided to narrow down the story lines and focus on one theme- family. I have been telling filmmakers who ask me for advice on their short film scripts, that if you could focus on one thing and tell a really good and decent story about it, then you are making a great short film better than half of the people out there. And I do believe that we did a good job making HOME SWEET HOME, in every aspect, and telling this story based on it’s core concept.

Thanks to our wonderful young talent Nico Bustamante, who’s known for his work in TV show as Ricky DeSantos in Riverdale, and his work with John Travolta in movie Gotti and in Bel Canto with Julianne Moore. To be able to cast a brilliant young movie star in a short indie film was almost another form of recognition of our efforts.

So far in my career I have worked on multi-million productions and no-budget indie films. Of course some are more influential or commercially successful, like the projects I mentioned above, but I wouldn’t say any of the previous projects is less important to me. Since all the great experiences and connections made me the producer I am right now, and my journey will continue.

What do you hope to achieve in 2019-2020 with your work?

I have multiple projects in development, including narrative films and documentaries in all length. Some short films I produced are still in film festival circuit. I hope that in the next year I will be producing 2-3 of my short film projects, a documentary about female basketball players, and finishing a feature film script development with my writer.

I am extra excited about the documentary project, since I will be filming my high school friend Sze-Chin Peng, who’s now a world famous professional basketball player. I hope this work will show and encourage the power of female workers in different fields.

As a filmmaker, I understand how important it is to get exposure, and that’s why I have always been interested in making documentaries. If there’s any chance that the skills and tools I possess could be used to make a positive difference in real life, I would be more than happy to do so.