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Q+A with Rui Xu, 2022 Project Involve Fellow

March 2023

Last week we had the chance to get together with Rui Xu, an independent producer based in LA and 2022’s Participant Project Involve Fellow, in conversation with our own Diego Nájera, a Project Involve alumnus. The two spoke candidly about their experience with the program, of which Participant is a sponsor.

Diego: Can you tell us what Project Involve is about, and what you think makes the program so special?

The program groups together directors, producers, DPs, editors, and writers to create 6 short films. From the producing perspective, it was a big challenge, but also a great opportunity for us to learn how to work with other artists on a team. We had to start from the ground – from new ideas – then go into development, put them into production and then post-production. We pretty much did everything, from head to toe. I met so many great filmmakers in our cohort. I think that’s the most important part: Learning from the filmmakers, and working closely with them to make sure they are successful.

Diego: How did you first hear about the fellowship?

Well, I had heard a lot about Sundance, Film Independent, and all those kinds of big organizations that are helping filmmakers, especially during the early stages [of development]. So I actually just went online to look up the information and found Project Involve. I thought it would be the perfect thing for me, and I just gave it a try. Honestly, I didn’t expect to get selected because I actually don’t have a very solid background in filmmaking. Lucky enough I got in, and I just finished working with everyone there.

Diego: Well, that’s super interesting. I’d love to hear a little bit about your background. You applied as a producer. But what was your background before?

Well, my background was actually in sound engineering for music labels. Then I realized I didn’t want to sit in the studio alone forever! I wanted a job where I could work with people. My friends back in China – that’s where I grew up – introduced me to the filmmaking industry, so I started working in film and theater production. I really wanted to know if there were other options for producing so I went to CalArts in the Creative Producing program, focusing on theater instead of film. I had an amazing mentor in the film school who kind of led me to get more into the filmmaking world.

Diego: A big focus of Project Involve is uplifting filmmakers of color and immigrants like ourselves. [Diego is originally from Mexico.] To get people that maybe historically haven’t had a chance to make a lot of films, and have them tell their stories. What did you think when you found out that this is the profile of the program?

I think that’s actually the most beautiful part of this program, because everyone is from different countries and cultural backgrounds, and everyone brings forth very unique ideas. We have the seeds of the stories, but the producer, editor, and DP all have very diverse cultural backgrounds which does a lot to enrich the story.

Diego: I remember that part a lot, connecting with people that have a shared experience, but at the same time different points of view.

I was born and raised in China. I moved to the United States in 2009 to go to grad school at NYU. Traditional Chinese culture is very solid in my blood, but honestly, I tried very hard to immerse myself in American culture. It’s very different, from my perspective. I will say I love to show my cultural background and put it into my storytelling. So even if I’m working with a Vietnamese American director or a Cuban American director, my voice and my thoughts also speak to their work.

Diego: Do you have any advice for people who want to get into this kind of program, or specifically, Project Involve?

Project Involve is definitely a program that anyone who wants to get into this industry should try. My biggest takeaway from this program, as a new filmmaker, is to just learn new things. Preparing your mentality before getting there is very important, because some people think, “Hey, I’m going to do this, and then move on to the next level.” But that might not be true, because we don’t know what the future holds. The more important thing is to learn how to work with people from different backgrounds. As far as the process, just, you know, go online and apply. But when you decide to get into it, really prepare yourself to be very open minded and ready to take on a challenge or challenge others on different ideas.

Diego: Obviously you’re just coming out of the program, so this is just the beginning, but how do you think it’s already starting to make a difference for your career?

The most beautiful thing that I take from the program is the many great friends I’ve made, and the potential to work with them in the future. Other than that, career-wise, I would say it helped solidify my mindset as a producer. I learned that collaboration is really important. A lot of times as producers we feel like we just need to get things done, but it’s really about how you communicate with different people and figure out, you know, how can we do this, together?

Diego: Yeah, I agree. I feel like I learned that as well. It’s about that spirit of collaboration, and from my experience, being out of the program for like 5 years now, it’s also about building that community. Just being part of an organization like Film Independent gives you a family. I can go back and connect with you 5 years later, and I get to meet new people who are coming out of the pipeline and growing that family. For me it’s been a great source of relationships that I’ve gone back to time and time again. And now it’s a community I continue to champion, because I know what the program is about and what the organization does.

I actually have one thing to add on. I have to say, Project Involve is really a prestigious program. Because when I talk to people about being a fellow, I feel like people kind of go, “OK, I see your skills and this foundation you have to work on the next thing.”

Diego: We talked a little bit about the diversity side of Project Involve. Do you think there’s also an aspect of positive social change that Project Involve is contributing to?

Yes, I think so. The short that I produced, called The Blues Hour, is about a Black couple that has a newborn baby. They start fighting because of their anxiety about the baby being in the NICU, and they feel this pressure from society that forces them to make their decisions a certain way. The writer and director are both people of color, and they wanted to speak their voice. It’s a family drama, but behind it, we see a social problem. And the other interesting part – I know a lot, but I’m not as familiar as our Black director telling a Black story. But bringing my perspective creates a spark that makes the story accessible for wider audiences. We’re not making a Black story for Black people. We’re actually trying to tell this story to all audiences and have them understand it from different perspectives: have them see the problem, and understand why we’re telling the story.

Diego: What are you working on that you’re excited about right now?

I’m working on 2 different projects, both by first time feature directors. One is a Vietnamese American story, and the other one is a Cuban American story. So you can see that I’m still working on stories from diverse filmmakers with different cultural backgrounds. And actually, I’m also planning to work on taking a short film and turning it into an episodic project.

Diego: And this is a tricky one. What’s your favorite movie, and why?

I do have so many favorite movies. But one I saw recently is Joker. The performance is beautiful, and basically I felt so connected with the character. It’s a super commercial film, right? But if you really look into it very deeply, you’ll see something behind it, the social issue. You see the ecosystem that causes his struggle. And then the other reason is I really like the music. Yeah, I’m really kind of a music fan.

Diego: Is there a movie that you would say taught you something, or inspired you to take action about a social issue?

One of them is The Cove. I was shocked. I mean, I’m an animal person. And dolphins are some of the smartest creatures in the world, so to have them experience this [slaughter practice], makes you wonder what’s the reason behind it? It’s tradition, and it’s also how these Japanese people survive, so it’s a complex issue. I had a conversation with David Rockefeller last year about their Ocean Foundation. He inspired me on how to tell a story – about how to deliver information in a way that makes an audience care.