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“If everyone in that (Tuesday) audience gave me a hundred dollars, I would basically get all the money back that I spent on Days Gone By’,” filmmaker and writer John Zhao tells me. That’s a very small budget. However, if John had been referring to Monday’s screening of the film, he would have collected that and much more – people are becoming more and more interested in independent, self-produced films such as ‘Days Gone By’. This year’s Raindance Film Festival saw a significant increase of 62% at the box office compared to last year.
For such an incredibly low budget film though, it radiates raw artistic talent and captures the fleeting nature of human life, as well as showcasing young exuberance of the small cast and crew. Jim Sturgess lookalike Kyle Walters steps convincingly into the role of Mitch, a pharmacist desperate to save his soulmate from the grips of a disease engulfing the small town they live in. Jennie Epland stars as the infected victim Shelley, rendered in full technicolour in the moments that an aching Mitch recalls snapshots of their life together. On the other side of town lies an apartment where a decrepit former doctor lives with his delinquent son and daughter. A mesmerising performance by Julia Max (who plays Trixie) draws the two worlds together. The visual and audio aftertaste of ‘Days Gone By’ lingers in the mind like a tape reel being unwound over time: the echoing strains of the violinist’s chords in the tunnel, the kaleidoscopic home video sequences, Trixie’s white bare back as she dances alone in an abandoned warehouse. Each scene is like a snapshot story in itself (in one scene this is literal as we see Mitch go about his daily routine at the pharmacy in a series of photographic stills), little vignettes that are strung together to create a bigger picture.
John spent his formative years in China, Germany and Washington DC, where he spent his childhood years stealing his father’s camcorder, making home videos with his friends and skateboarding. When he was six, his mother took him to the cinema to watch Spielberg’s ‘Hook’, and from that point on, John knew he wanted to make films. ‘I thought it was amazing, especially being a kid alone in Germany, not speaking a word of German, and yet understanding this film. From a young age I was fascinated with the way pictures communicated with people.’ He wrote his first film at just twelve years old, a horror film, and persuaded his friends to star in it. ‘I’ll always look back at my childhood and remember the fun that we had. I wanted my friends to forget that they were making a film and just to have fun, and sometimes when that happens, it’s amazing.’ Despite his obvious interest in filmmaking and the film industry, John chose not to go to film school. His own parents wanted him to do anything but filmmaking. ‘They saw it as something low class, something similar to drug dealing…’ he says half-jokingly. He also admits that he finds the academic route of filmmaking to be expensive and very class-orientated. Instead he studied advertising at a graphic design school, something which he is grateful for as his advertising experience proved useful when pitching the creative concepts of Days Gone By to potential cast and crew. John’s education of filmmaking was (and still is) very much a hands-on experience; having written, directed and single-handedly created ‘Days Gone By’, his success is all the more rewarding.
John’s story is one to inspire the masses of independent, struggling filmmakers. Moving to New York after a west coast stint at an advertising agency, John arrived in the city of bright lights not knowing a soul and with exactly $476 in his pocket (drawing parallels to the start of Madonna’s career – she famously arrived in NYC age eighteen with only $35 to her name). Pouring all his pennies (or cents!) into ‘Days Gone By’, he curated an incredible young cast, despite the fact that at times could only pay for their lunch. ‘There’s this thing called the filmmaker’s complaint, where they’ll complain that they have no money, no setting, no actors – that it’s an excessive art form. But even taking pictures and videos with your iPhone, that’s filming. Nowadays, it’s so much easier.’ Often, when filming, it would only be John on camera and his sound guy Kevin Haus, trying to get that elusive perfect frame/scene. ‘It’s a funny scenario when the actors outnumber the crew.’
Being an artist makes you do crazy things for your work. John discovered this when filming ‘Days Gone By’; he knocked on strangers’ doors, slept in a rental car, made friends with men who threatened his life. ‘The cast kind of knew I was doing all these crazy things,’ John laughs ‘but I don’t think they knew the extent of what I was doing.’ He says this without even the slightest air of resentment or bitterness – the whole experience, for him, was an exhilarating one, and he’ll always think back on that time with fondness. ‘I’m working now in a structured job, in an office, and sometimes I’ll look back to last year, and wonder what the hell happened. I’d wake up every morning not knowing where the day would take me.’ One night, after filming an especially explosive scene, John took a wrong turn somewhere in Brooklyn and ended up on a dark street, lost in the midnight hours of the night. So, with all the filming props and equipment – including bottles of sleeping pills, empty liquor bottles and a genuine replica firearm (illegal in New York without a filming license) – in the back of his van, he lied down and decided to get some sleep and wait for the sun to rise. He heard some noises. He heard some sort of ruckus. But after two weeks of filming, existing on little or no sleep, he was beyond comprehension and settled into a deep sleep.
The next morning he woke to see a police cordoned scene in front of him. ‘There had been this gang shootout happening while I was sleeping – but the funny thing was, I wasn’t worried about what could have happened. I was worried about the police woman coming towards me at that very moment, worried about the equipment in the back of my van, the illegal firearm replica. But then another officer called her over, she walked away for a second, and I instantly drove off.’
John’s gung-ho approach to filmmaking is in part inspired by Werner Herzog, whom he cites as a major inspiration. ‘He really should be dead by now, considering some of the things he’s done,’ John says in awe. ‘He’s a very sane man, but his films are insane, imperfect – he’s passionate about finding a story, and for him it’s not about the success. It’s humbling.’ What’s on his bookshelf then? David Thoreau’s ‘Walden’ and 80s pop star Rick James’ autobiography, both recommended by friends of his. The former was given to him because that particular friend was inspired to actually live in a caravan after reading it (the main character lives as a hermit in a forest, stripped of superficial, materialistic possessions). John hopes to film a documentary about this friend of his. Other projects in the pipeline are two features length films – a Western and a film set in a Beach Town (he wants to create a trilogy focusing on ‘isolation’ as a theme) – and a few shorts.
John Zhao is a storyteller – there’s no doubt about it. The interview is peppered with anecdotes about filming ‘Days Gone By’, unimaginable scenarios that are so far-fetched they have to be true. This is reflected in the film itself, which was created of fragmentary ideas and random scribblings from John’s notebooks. There’s a busker in a tunnel in ‘Days Gone By’ that was actually created from a man John encountered on his daily walks in New York. ‘He’d always shout weird things at me,’ John says, ‘and I wanted to use him for the film. But when I tried to find him, he had seemingly disappeared. I went down that tunnel every day. But I never saw him again.’ That image – of the man disappearing – marks the end of ‘Days Gone By’ and is a poignant reminder of the fragility of life, the essence of the Carpe Diem philosophy which John seems to live and film by.
Watch the trailer for ‘Days Gone By’ here
Have a look at John’s website here