How Skateboarding, Cooking, and Boxing Taught Me To Make Films

Guest post by John Zhao

Riding skateboards, boxing with the locals and cooking up a storm were the fun and affordable things I grew up enjoying. Film school I avoided because it wasn’t as affordable and I was paranoid it would take out the fun. After I eventually experienced making a first feature, I couldn’t help realizing a list of pastimes that seemed to inform me of how to go about being a first-time filmmaker. I’m sharing this list from my journal and hope to hear what other filmmakers do in between the cuts.



Former Skaters Spike and Harmony

That public location essential to your performance will try to kick you out. Have a getaway plan or a good lie.

There’s a lot of fun to be had even if your wallet’s near empty. The world is your playground.

Skate videos are absent of narrative and plot. They’re a cornucopia of rhythms, textures, music, and poetry that can keep me intrigued for hours. How can a feature film do the same?

A general disrespect for money and authority is healthy.

Enjoy feeling pain over and over again. It can take a dozen drafts to find your film’s soul and a twenty takes to nail your best move. See failure as slapstick, not sad.

Skateboarders bail and crash the second they become self-conscious of where to land, or intellectualize their movements mid-air. Take a leap of faith when you’re “almost ready” and WILL IT into existence. Staying delusional like this while making films seems to work out.

Every skateboarder dances their own style. Finding your own style and voice, and being completely yourself can be a challenge. But you can make someone lonely in their world feel less lonely for being who they are. You can teach something new and push things forward.

It’s an athletic art form. Develop a great sense of space, timing and balance. Being physically fit is essential for the ride.

Ang Lee, who loves to cook when not making films, directing The Wedding Banquet followed by Eat Drink Man Woman."

Between the producers, the director and the ADs, getting the best ingredients, timing everything accordingly, and serving it while it’s hot will make or break a good recipe.

The reward is in seeing everyone enjoying a great meal; especially if it’s a healthy one and with lots and lots of people. A film can be healthy or unhealthy, social or antisocial. It's up to the chefs to steer it towards good taste.

Too many cooks in the kitchen can mean trouble.

Your waiter interacts with your audience. Make sure your “restaurant” has “waiters” who care and about people.

Making dinner for someone you love, and even for yourself, always winds up tasting better than making dinner for the masses.

And chances are if you had no budget like me, you’ll be doing more cooking than ordering.

Always seems like the hole-in-the-wall venues play the best stuff on their menu.

Following the recipe word for words takes the soul out of it.

Don’t cut your own finger on the cutting room board.

Too much money spent on fancy pots, pans and tools won't necessarily make a better meal.

Respect the taster. Authenticity is key. Anyone can taste the difference between greasy Chinese takeout to real dim sum in Chinatown. Make something that rings true.


Stay in the center of the ring. Stay in the unified field. Never hang around the ropes.

You can tell if a boxer hasn't been doing his jump ropes and mile runs.
Do your homework before going on set.

Find the poetry and rhythm amongst the chaos and fear.

If you’re shy like me, learn to not be afraid of confrontation (at least for the duration of the fight).

As each round goes by (or each take), your time is limited.
Make decisions wisely under pressure.

Bend the rules once you know how to follow them.

And chances are you’ll want to make a film about boxing one day...

Being completely exhausted is evidence that you’ve done great work and given it all you’ve got.

Your "career" can end any day. You're only as good as your last fight.

Scorsese coaching Deniro."


John Zhao is a Korean-American filmmaker who moved to NYC to shoot his first feature with strangers and rent money to redefine his role as a broke college graduate. He’s starting to skate again, reluctant for any more boxing brain damage, still enjoys cooking for his girlfriend and hopes that will carry him through making his second feature this year.



I am so heartened by this action. These filmmakers are all real leaders. I love that they have spoken up for artists' right of freedom of expression on a worldwide basis. We enjoy tremendous freedom here in the USA, but until that is shared by everyone, none of us can truly be free. We must be united in preserving this right for all. Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Robert Redford, Francis Ford Coppola, Terrence Malick, Steven Soderbergh, the Coen Bros., Jim Jarmusch, Michael Moore, Ang Lee, Robert De Niro, and Oliver Stone, among other leading film industry figures, have condemned the detention of Jafar Panahi, the acclaimed director of "The White Balloon" and "Offside," and are urging the Iranian government to release him

New York, NY (April 30, 2010) – Jafar Panahi, an internationally acclaimed Iranian director of such award-winning films as The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside, was arrested at his home on March 1st and has been held since in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison. A number of filmmaking luminaries have come to Mr. Panahi's defense and "condemn his detention and strongly urge the Iranian government to release Mr. Panahi immediately," according to a new petition. (Petition text and full list of signatories is available below.)

Islamic Republic officials initially charged Mr. Panahi with “unspecified crimes.” They have since reversed themselves, and the charges now allege that he was making a film against the regime, a very serious accusation in Iran.

Mr. Panahi’s films have been banned from screening in Iran for the past ten years and he has been kept from working for the past four years, but he continues to stay in Iran.

"Mr. Panahi deeply loves his country," says Jamsheed Akrami, an Iranian-American film scholar and filmmaker, who helped organize the petition. "Even though he knows he could have opportunities to work freely outside of his homeland, he has repeatedly refused to leave. He would never do anything against the national interests of his country and his people."

Mr. Panahi is one of the most heralded directors in the world. He has won such top prizes as the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival for Offside (2006), the Un Certain Regard Prize at the Cannes Film Festival for Crimson Gold (2003), the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival for The Circle (2000), the Golden Leopard at the Locarno International Film Festival for The Mirror (1997) and the Cannes Camera d'Or for The White Balloon (1995).

PETITION: Free Jafar Panahi

Jafar Panahi, the internationally acclaimed Iranian director of such award-winning films as The White Balloon, The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside, was arrested at his home on March 1st in a raid by plain-clothed security forces. He has been held since then in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison.

A recent letter from Mr. Panahi’s wife expressed her deep concerns about her husband's heart condition, and about his having been moved to a smaller cell. Mr. Panahi’s films have been banned from screening in Iran for the past ten years and he has effectively been kept from working for the past four years. Last October, his passport was confiscated and he was banned from leaving the country. Upon his arrest, Islamic Republic officials initially charged Mr. Panahi with “unspecified crimes.” They have since reversed themselves, and the charges are now specifically related to his work as a filmmaker.

We (the undersigned) stand in solidarity with a fellow filmmaker, condemn this detention, and strongly urge the Iranian government to release Mr. Panahi immediately.

Iran’s contributions to international cinema have been rightfully heralded, and encouraged those of us outside the country to respect and cherish its people and their stories. Like artists everywhere, Iran’s filmmakers should be celebrated, not censored, repressed, and imprisoned.


Paul Thomas Anderson Joel & Ethan Coen Francis Ford Coppola Jonathan Demme Robert De Niro Curtis Hanson Jim Jarmusch Ang Lee Richard Linklater Terrence Malick Michael Moore Robert Redford Martin Scorsese James Schamus Paul Schrader Steven Soderbergh Steven Spielberg Oliver Stone Frederick Wiseman

Petition Organizing Committee: Jamsheed Akrami, Godfrey Cheshire, Jem Cohen, Kent Jones, Anthony Kaufman

I am delighted that I was able to help in securing some of the directors' participation that the Organizing Committee had selected.  The prompt response and eagerness to help that I encountered from both the individual directors and their companies was truly inspiring.

The Rise No-Budget NYC. Good Machine '97

I don't even know what this was for, This was for something on WNYC called "Egg" produced by Jeff Folmsbee.  but I do know that my friend Dan McGuire was also heavily involved in the shooting and editing of it.

I co-founded Good Machine back in 1990. We made a lot of good films and had some good times too. Iget a big kick out of seeing glimpses of folks from so long ago: Mary Jane Skalski, Heta Paarte, Glen Basner, and James Schamus and Ang Lee.  Nothing like seeing those gigantic computers and roladexes too. Too think we could make a film without an iPhone...

It also feels so fresh to me.  The same drive and ideas that made Good Machine a good idea back then, holds true to this day.  Everything is new again. We founded that company on the idea of a no-budget film fund (okay micro-budget in today's vernacular) could make money and build a better mousetrap in the process. That, and the fact that I had a good long list of directors who needed some help. Both those things still hold true.

Although I must admit I no longer have a Che poster behind my desk, although the Obama "Hope" won works as the same sort of litmus test.

TIFF IFF Discussion: DIY, DIWO, But Just Do It

Eugene at Indiewire caught the essence of the public conversation I had with Thomas Mai of Festival Darlings to kick off the IFF at TIFF the other day. I particularly like the photo, so check it out here.

In a nutshell it came down to the fact that we seem to be fighting for the role of Nero as our culture burns down around us. The audience were producers with great projects, maybe 50 or 75 were there (invite only). Only one of them had a blog. Only one of them curated a film series. Only one of them had a project priced at under $1.5M. Maybe 10 were on Twitter. About 25 were on a social network.
It's kind of shocking how the film biz is such a luddite culture. Innovation has been the key to my survival and it's never been because of things I invented, just utilized.
THE WEDDING BANQUET is often said to have been the first narrative feature cut on an Avid. Granted it meant working on AVR Level 3 and having as a result 8 out of focus shots in it, but that didn't stop it from winning the Golden Bear in Berlin.
LOVE GOD was one of the first films originated on video and output to film, and although it never secured distribution, it never would have made it to Sundance and beyond without Sony & Apple both granting us free tools and processes to make the film.
Good Machine may have been the first American-based producer-driven international sales company, but regardless of whether it was or not, it capitalized on the obvious (that our full film's cost could come from overseas) at a time when the status quo was something else, and ultimately gave us something to sell beyond the films themselves.
I got some of my initial breaks because I had built a budget program when they weren't yet commercially available, explored product placement prior to agency involvement, and other early adoptions that were available to anyone with their eyes open.
I have been a beneficiary of others' slack behavior. I got full advantage of an inefficient, lazy, inbred, elitist system. I have gotten to make over 60 films in 20 years. It gets much harder from here. I am doing what I can to help and there are some others that are out there doing the same, even a few doing more, but it is not enough. We have work harder to increase the reach of our web, to shrink the holes in our net. We have to get our comrades to adopt and utilize the tools before them.


I have to admit that I generally like what films get selected for preservation via the National Film Registry.  I don't know if you saw the latest list of what got selected for 2008, but you can look at it here.  They add twenty five titles a year.

But what I bet you didn't know you vote for what is to be added.  Or so their website says.  All you need to do is send your nominations in to:

You can only nominate 50 films a year.  They have a handy dandy list of suggestions too.  They generally do a pretty great job.  There are a few areas though that need greater emphasis.
Indie films definitely need help.  Without the studio support, they tend to be a little less organized and being held under worst conditions.  The studios aren't going to let a moneymaker fall into disrepair.  A filmmaker who may own their negative but not the house they live in might just be a little different story from the one owned by the mega corp.
I have suggested they add in 2009:
Susan Seidelman's SMITHEREENS (1982)
Bette Gordon's VARIETY (1983)
Alex Cox's SID AND NANCY (1986)
Spike Lee's SHE'S GOTTA HAVE IT (1986 )
Whit Stillman's METROPOLITAN (1990)
Todd Hayne's POISON (1991)
Hal Hartley's TRUST (1991)
Gregg Araki's THE LIVING END (1992)
Allison Anders' MI VIDA LOCA (1993)
Tom Noonan's WHAT HAPPENED WAS... (1993)
Terry Zwigoff's CRUMB (1994)
Todd Solondz's HAPPINESS (1998)
Not bad for an initial fifteen.  Granted quite a few serve my self interest, but...  Let me know what I should suggest for the next 35.

The Benefits Of Less

For my tastes, I have long encouraged the practice of getting away from the cinema of excess and getting back to the compromise.  I have always learned a great deal by bouncing back and forth between budgets.  Truth be told, for me it is out of necessity, not strategy.  Yet for directors, the proof has come that it should be part of the process.

Time and time again, filmmakers have rejuvenated themselves, their work, and their careers by dropping their budgets and picking up some freedom in exchange.
Ang Lee, Alfonso Cuaron, Gus Van Sant, Steven Soderbergh have all done this, with Crouching Tiger, Y Tu Mama, Gerry/Elephant, and Schizopolis.  Coming off of The Hulk, Great Expectations, Finding Forester, and The Underneath respectively, these subsequent "indie" productions yielded great work (generally) and a major creative reboot.
And now we get to witness this again with Darren Aaronofsky's The Wrestler, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, and Jonathon Demme's Rachel Getting Married.  These are three of the year's best films.  This formula could also be applied to Van Sant's Milk (which I hope to see this weekend) but now the back and forth between budgets and control appears to be part of Gus' process.
Ann Thompson pointed this out to everyone in the business today so hopefully we can witness a few others gaining from the new poverty.  Anne includes my other fave of the year, Ari Fohlman's Waltz With Bahir, as another benefiter of this approach.