Directing and the art of communication

Working between the U.S., Taiwan and China, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan highlights a key attribute for a director in the international arena: great communication skills.

“I give my 200% to see it through, roll with the punches, stay curious, and try to find fun and humor along the way.”

Bertha Bay-Sa Pan directing Whoopi Goldberg in "Lucy in the Sky".

“The American film and television industry can be difficult to enter no matter what your background may be; but I try not to think so much about my ‘identity’ and focus on the work instead – just do the best job I can with whatever task at hand, and learn as much as I can from any situation”, says Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, an award winning writer and director who is now an instructor at IAFA. Currently based in New York, she works between China, Taiwan, and the US.

Bertha is an experienced director and screenwriter in both English and Chinese, with an extensive background in music production. She develops, produces, and communicates stories that move, entertain, and inspire. She says is excited and inspired by her conversations with the IAFA founders and other instructors. “I’m looking forward to meeting the students and sharing all that I’ve learned in this rollercoaster ride of an industry!”

Born in New Jersey, she moved to Taipei as a six-year-old to start first grade in a Chinese school. It was quite a culture shock to live under martial law. She didn’t adapt so well to the strict rules – wearing uniforms, singing the national anthem and raising the flag every morning, marching and so on. Thankfully, her parents were pretty liberal and supportive through her various forms of rebellion. Each time Bertha went to a different school – and they were many – she started out in a new environment. “I would study my surroundings and observe the characters to figure out how to best fit in as quickly as possible”, she remembers. “Guess it turned out to be good training for making character driven movies?”

Her first feature film, Face, was co-written by Oscar nominated filmmaker Oren Moverman and premiered at Sundance Film Festival as a Grand Jury Nominee. The film received an Audience Award at GenArt Film Festival, as well as the Critics Award for Best Director at CineVegas Film Festival, the Grand Jury Award for Best Director at Urbanworld Film Festival, the Premio Speciale Prize at the International Women’s Film Festival in Italy, and was nominated for a Gotham Award.

Face was also selected for the Rio de Janeiro Film Festival, where one of the IAFA sister schools – the AIC (International Film Academy) – is located. The film was released theatrically in the U.S. to positive reviews from major publications, including The New York Times (a NY Times Critics Pick), Entertainment Weekly, The Hollywood Reporter, The Chicago Tribune, and the BBC.

Bertha’s second feature film Almost Perfect is a romantic comedy. It premiered at San Francisco Asian American Film Festival and continued as an audience favorite at Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, the legendary Friars Club Comedy Film Festival, and the Hawaii International Film Festival. It was also the Opening Night Film at San Diego Asian Film Festival, Vancouver Asian Film Festival and Boston Asian American Film Festival. In addition, the film was featured as the Closing Night Film at Philadelphia Asian American Film Festival, and it was the winner of the HBO Emerging Filmmaker Award. Almost Perfect was also selected as a "Must-See Film" at Gwangju International Film Festival in Korea, and chosen by Asia Pacific Arts as a Top Ten Film of 2011. Theatrical releases in the U.S. and Taiwan garnered glowing reviews from Variety, San Francisco Chronicle, Honolulu Pulse, MTV, China Times, and other publications.
Both Face and Almost Perfect were originally inspired by personal stories of the director’s close friends. It took her a long time to develop each project. After many years, drafts and variations, eventually they evolved into what the films became. “My writing process is usually dictated by characters — I feel like most of the time I’m just following them and trying to keep up”, she said in an interview. About her directing style, she adds that it is important that every line, every emotional beat, and every moment in the script are hit precisely.

“I find the most fascinating characters and stories are always in the real world — in experiencing life, in studying human behavior, and in keeping one’s eyes open for beautiful images that tell engaging narratives or reveal compelling moods”. For Bertha, every project is different, whether it is self-generated, a for-hire situation or a rewrite. “As a writer or director, no matter how high or low the pay, I have to be able to relate to the characters (who are usually deeply flawed yet irresistibly loveable), feel moved by their story (which has to carry some sliver of hope no matter how dim the circumstances), and be able to visualize the scenes. Then I give my 200% to see it through, roll with the punches, stay curious, and try to find fun and humor along the way.”

Bertha also directed Mando-pop superstar Leehom Wang’s 3D Chinese concert film Open Fire, which premiered at Toronto International Film Festival. She was the director of several music videos, documentaries, and award-winning short films, including Sluggers, starring Hassan Johnson and Corey Parker Robinson, both from the acclaimed HBO series The Wire.

Her latest directorial short is Lucy in the Sky, written by Will & Jada Smith Foundation and Sloan Writing Award winner Jen Rudin, starring SAG Award winner Catherine Curtin, seven-time Tony Award nominee Danny Burstein, Zoe Colletti, Quinn McColgan, Kelly Hu, and Whoopi Goldberg, winner of Oscar, Grammy, Emmy, Tony, and Golden Globe Awards. Having directed such incredibly talented stars, Bertha’s approach to directing actors is to be prepared to answer any questions they may have. “Be a good listener to what they have to say; be observant of how to communicate with each individual to bring the best out of them in the most efficient way possible”, explains the director.
At IAFA, Bertha intends to bring all of her experiences to class. “I prefer showing over lecturing, and answering questions according to what the students want to learn specifically, so that they receive practical information according to their needs for tackling any scenario, from prep to post all the way into the real world”. Along her career, she has developed a close working relationship with her teachers and mentors, which she will pass on to her own students. “I always enjoy collaborating with professionals whose experience and expertise I can learn from, and together elevate the project beyond what I’d originally envisioned. In that sense, many of my cast and crew can be considered teachers and mentors.”

Bertha started out her career in the music industry as a teenager and moved on to film and TV distribution before working on sets. She recalls even doing craft services on commercials, saying that it is amazing how much one can learn at the food table. She also got to observe different directors while working as an actor’s coach. She believes that, as a storyteller of any format, it is always easier to not be so self-conscious, which then frees the artist to immerse herself more into the characters and the narrative, ultimately making a more compelling and universally relatable story. “Since film is a collaborative effort, focusing on the work (vs. self) also makes one more fun to be around, especially if you’re stuck together for 12 hours every day”, she adds. As for her current projects, Bertha is now working on an adaptation of a bestselling young adult novel, a couple of U.S. China co-productions, a new show, and an old screenplay.

By Katia Kreutz @ IAFA