How A Director Turned A Creative Sabbatical In China Into A Secret Sci-Fi Film Starring Ai Weiwei

Jason Wishnow left his job as the film director for TED to go to China and write–but when he ran into dissident artist Ai Weiwei, his project changed focus.

How A Director Turned A Creative Sabbatical In China Into A Secret Sci-Fi Film Starring Ai Weiwei
[Stills courtesy of Jason Wishnow]

Jason Wishnow didn’t go to China to make a movie. But when you’re a filmmaker, you’re in a creative environment, and you’re talking to Ai Weiwei–the dissident Chinese artist, subject of the 2012 Sundance jury prize-winning documentary film Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, and occasional detainee of the Chinese government–sometimes your plans change. For Wishnow, those plans ended up including making a short film about a water smuggler, played by Ai Weiwei in his acting debut–a film that could be a “prelude to a feature.”

Jason Wishnow

Wishnow, who had been directing the film presentations of TED Talks–Ai Weiwei was a subject in 2011–went to China as a way to stir his creative juices. “I had left my job, and I wanted to just go some place to write. A friend had an empty apartment in Beijing,” Wishnow says. “I had never been to Beijing before, and I thought it sounded like a great place to go away for a couple of weeks and flesh out new projects. I didn’t even tell anyone where I was going–I made a point of really treating it like a writing retreat, no one knew where in the world I was for that time. When I got back to New York, right away one of my friends said, ‘I hope you didn’t just go and move back in with your parents because you left your job.'”

Wishnow laughs at the implication now. He’s currently sitting at nearly $65,000 in a Kickstarter campaign (almost double the campaign’s initial goal) aimed at finishing and recouping costs for the project he found himself undertaking while he was in China: namely, a 10-minute dystopic science fiction short film starring Ai Weiwei that he managed to find himself secretly making–without the knowledge of Chinese authorities, who follow Ai Weiwei’s movements fairly closely.

So how does a guy whose friends think he may have moved back in with his parents find himself creating undercover art with one of the world’s foremost political artists?

“Ai Weiwei had done a TED Talk, but he and I had never met one-on-one–it was recorded, and then the hard drive it was on was brought out of the country and mailed to me in New York,” Wishnow explains. “I went to his studio, and the first time I met him, he walked into the room wearing this t-shirt with his face on it and the word “MISSING” underneath it like a milk carton, and then the word “FOUND” stamped across it. He’s got this larger-than-life presence–everything he does is monumental, from his artistic creations to his persona. You feel that presence when you’re with him.”

Ai Weiwei and his modified “found” shirtImage: Reuters, David Gray

Wishnow hadn’t gone to meet with Ai Weiwei in pursuit of a project, and he hadn’t gone to China to make a film but being in the presence of the artist inspired him. “When we sat down, I kept thinking about the energy he exudes, and how that would radiate from him in front of the camera,” Wishnow explains. “And then, at a critical point in the conversation, he said, ‘Well, while you’re here, what do you want to do? Is there anything I can help you do while you’re here?’ It was very much something along the lines of, ‘You need anything?’ and right then and there, I knew exactly what I wanted, but I didn’t want to actually say so. I said, ‘I’ll come back in a couple of days with something.'”

Wishnow returned to the apartment he was staying in to write the proposal for what would become the 10-minute short, The Sand Storm. Pulling references from other films as inspiration, Wishnow fleshed out the idea of what the movie would look like and what the story would be.

“I went into his studio and I said, ‘I would like to do a science fiction film with you,” Wishnow recalls. “I said, ‘I’d like to do a film with you, but unlike anything in the past, it’s not a documentary. It’s not you playing you, or you playing an artist–it’s a science fiction film, and you would be a smuggler.'”

Wishnow says that the idea of doing something radically different from the sort of work that Ai Weiwei normally does appealed to the artist. “He just said, ‘Great, write me a script,'” Wishnow says. He then recruited the third member of the production team–Hong Kong-based, Australian-born cinematographer Chris Doyle, a frequent collaborator of filmmakers including Wong Kar Wei and Gus Van Sant.

Making any film is both an exhilarating and frustrating process, and The Sand Storm was a bit of both–the “hurry up and wait” aspect of filmmaking was in effect on this project, as well, and complicated by Ai Weiwei’s busy schedule.


“Like many films, it was very quick, and then very slow,” Wishnow laughs. “I spent a while working on the script, but then when I sent it to Ai Weiwei, I didn’t hear from him for maybe a month, and I just figured he didn’t like it. I was thinking, ‘Well, if I don’t hear from him within the next couple of days, maybe it’s time to go back to America’–and then, out of the blue, I got a call from someone on his staff who says, ‘Hey, he’s read the script. He wants to meet with you tomorrow morning. What are you up to?'”

Wishnow, who had been visiting Shanghai, hopped on a high-speed train to make the 760-mile trip back to Beijing. That same day, he found himself on previously scheduled Skype with Doyle, who committed to the project–immediately taking the film out of the realm of “very slow” and back into the realm of “very quick.”

“On the same day, both of them came on board–and then we had exactly two weeks to prep everything and shoot the film, because the holidays were coming, and when that happens, the whole country shuts down,” Wishnow explains. “During those two weeks, we had to cast the rest of the film, and find the rest of the crew.”

After recruiting the rest of the cast–the 10-minute film features four main characters–production got underway. The team shot in cold and smoggy conditions in Beijing (the pollution index hit a record 800 during production). Because of Ai Weiwei’s status with the Chinese government (one early meeting saw him whisked away for interrogation by police), the film was shot largely in secret, with code-names and various forms of communication. (Though, as Wishnow points out on the project’s Kickstarter page, Ai Weiwei did Instagram a photo from set.) Because of the secretive nature of the project, the Kickstarter campaign was launched after the film was in the can, to recoup costs and help out with VFX, music, subtitles, and other finishing touches.

All of which sounds extremely complicated for what is, ultimately, a 10-minute short from a director who has made only three other narrative shorts over the past 15 years. When asked if all of this was a ton of work for something that is, in the end, a difficult-to-market project, Wishnow laughs. “Have you seen my other shorts?” (One of them, made just before he joined TED, is an all-vegetable adaptation of “Oedipus” that, he says, “looks like Ben Hur” and which took over a year to make, shot in CinemaScope and put out in 35mm, with visual effects from Industrial Light and Magic.)


“I have a bad habit of tackling obsessively overly ambitious short films that will potentially do nothing for my career trajectory,” Wishnow says, noting that he’s just made an entirely Chinese-language film that, given the fact that it was made in secret and stars a famous dissident, may never properly screen in China.

Still, given the success that Wishnow’s currently experiencing on Kickstarter, with nearly 1,500 backers and a new goal by mid-week of $88,000, it seems that this project is getting the attention it deserves–which, Wishnow says, could lead to bigger things in the future.

“I framed the film as the prelude to a feature, so in many ways it builds a world and creates a context,” he explains. “It may or may not include the characters that you see in this short. I would honestly love to pursue all of these characters, and I’ve thought quite a bit about different permutations of where the story could go, based on the fact that there could be a version that would include Ai Weiwei’s character in a more substantial role–or potentially not at all. If I could, I would love to include this segment in a feature, as well.”

Of course, with all of the attention from fans and supporters of Ai Weiwei internationally, there’s also attention that could make filming that feature in China a challenge, as well. Ultimately, while the short seems poised to make a splash, Wishnow’s feature plans aren’t strictly in his own hands. “Right now,” he says. “I just want to see if I can get back over there. It seemed a bit easier before I was getting interview requests from Fast Company and the like.”

About the author

Dan Solomon lives in Austin with his wife and his dog. He's written about music for MTV and Spin, sports for Sports Illustrated, and pop culture for Vulture and the AV Club