1) What was your first professionally directed work and when was it?
The first job I did as a director was a branded content piece for Buzzfeed three years ago, in collaboration with Aflac.
2) How did you get into directing?
I’ve wanted to be a director since the age of 12. People didn’t believe that it was a possible career for a first generation Chinese-American immigrant woman in this heavy white male-dominated industry, so most either laughed or advised strongly against it. That never sat well with me. Being an only child, the last thing I wanted was for people to tell me no, so I kept pushing to prove those who doubted me wrong. And, in that process, I kept working towards that goal and fell in love with everything the job of a director entails (the creative, the collaborations, the leadership, and the grind!). In 2015, while I was a showrunner’s assistant on a TV show, I started making spec commercials. I was young, hungry, and had very supportive bosses who encouraged my passion and enthusiasm. The thought of commercial directing as a career never crossed my mind. But at the time, it gave me the opportunity to get my feet wet and hone my directing skills. And, in doing so, the journey really made me fall in love with directing commercials, especially now, at such a critical time when diverse voices are encouraged and welcomed. We now have an opportunity to tell our stories and experiences–to share with the world our narratives and cast diverse faces that are too often hidden from view. What an exciting time!
3) What is your most recent project?
I recently directed a branded doc piece for Google, celebrating an Asian-American small business for Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.
4) What is the best part of being a director?
Media, especially film and video, plays a major role in the reflection of our society and identity. So, to me, the best part of being a director is having a bit of power to shift cultural narratives–to include more diversity and show that people of color matter (it matters so much to see yourself reflected, speaking from personal experience), to create more empathy and tell stories that don’t traditionally get told, to spread awareness and touch on social issues that don’t get addressed enough like global warming, homelessness, etc. I can go on and on but the point is that as directors, we can create change, big or small, and hopefully bring people together and activate our viewers to act, to start conversations and see each other as humans first, even though we come from different backgrounds or speak different languages.
And of course, the collaborations! To work with other phenomenal artists–cinematographers, producers, actors, writers, production designers, editors, stylists, composers–everyone involved to take a seed of an idea and make it into reality. It is such a beautiful process and there are so many learnings behind it all because everyone has a different perspective, a different part of them they can bring to the table and help elevate the project. I admire my collaborators so much and feel so fortunate to get to work with them and grow together. To put every bit of ourselves into a project and see it reflected on the screen is so magical and rewarding.
5) What is the worst part of being a director?
Ah…definitely the interim periods when you have no idea when you’re going to work again. It leaves too much time and room for self-doubt and comparing yourself to other directors who are constantly working. You can start questioning yourself and can go down that rabbit hole of negativity real quick…
6) What is your current career focus: commercials and branded content, TV movies? Do you plan to specialize in a particular genre–comedy, drama, visual effects, etc.?
Having a successful and thriving career in commercials, branded content, and completing a short narrative film are my main focuses of 2019. In the next year or two, definitely features. I am passionate about on-screen representation, socially conscious narratives, immigrant stories, and psychological thrillers about the human subconscious.
7) Have you a mentor and if so, who is that person (or persons) and what has been the lesson learned from that mentoring which resonates with you?
I was recently chosen as one of five fellows in the 2019 Commercial Directors Diversity Program that the AICP and DGA created. One major perk of being a fellow is getting the opportunity to be mentored by an AICP production company. I was lucky enough to be partnered with the amazing knuckleheads over at Knucklehead. One major learning lesson from managing director Cathleen Kisich and EP Lauren Small is to be authentically and unapologetically myself and keep doing and creating what excites me because it is my background and my unique experiences that make me, me.
8) Who is your favorite director and why?
Darren Aronofsky, for this dark and surrealist themes about human desires and subconscious.
Aoife McArdle, for her style, approach, tone, and sensitive human themes and connection.
Wong Kar Wai, for his unique eye, visual poetry, use of colors, and his beautiful reflection of the world I grew up in with the kind of people I grew up with. The nostalgia of old China.
Terrence Malick, for his philosophical themes, poetic films, and unspoken human connection and interactions.
Christopher Nolan, for those plot twists (!!) and nonlinear storytelling.
Kathryn Bigelow, for the performances she’s able to draw out from actors. Wow. And telling war and conflict stories most wouldn’t believe women could tell. For leading the way.
Kahlil Joseph, for talking about race, being unapologetically proud of his background and celebrating the people, his visual style, art, and poetic storytelling.
Hiro Murai, for being so damn disruptive. For waking up the country.
It’s very difficult to pick a favorite…
10) Tell us about your background (i.e., where did you grow up? Past jobs?)
I was born in Shanghai and grew up in the San Gabriel Valley, in the suburbs of East Los Angeles. Moving to the United States in the middle of first grade, I didn’t know a word of English and was constantly made fun of for not knowing the language or using the wrong word or having bad grammar. I was a bit traumatized by it and always resorted to art to express myself. I discovered my desire to be a director at the age of twelve, after a suggestion from my baba. Little did he know, his lighthearted suggestion would stick with me for life.
I studied film and media at UC Davis (Woo Aggies!), moved back down to LA after graduation, got an internship at Mandeville Films, then Craigslisted my way onto an indie film set as an unpaid intern PA. The first day as a PA was exhausting but so incredibly thrilling. I think I worked a 14+ hour day and that night even dreamt of being on set. I loved it and couldn’t wait to go back the next day. From there, the production company liked me and offered another unpaid intern PA position on another indie they were producing (lol, I know). I was stoked! From there, I started PAing more regularly and it led to some non-union 2nd 2nd and 2nd AD work on more low-budget indies, then set PA work on TV shows, then Camera PA work because I wanted to learn more about cinematography and get closer to the camera and set, then an opportunity as assistant to director Steve Miner, which led to a job as assistant to showrunner Jeffrey Schechter on a TV show called Stitchers. Jeff was an awesome boss and knew I wanted to be a director, so he gave me the opportunity to be a part of the entire process of creating a TV series: from pitching to the network, to the writer’s room, to set, to post-production, I was a part of it all. And, every free minute I had, I was plotting to create spec commercials which eventually led to where I am now.
My parents moved to California for, you guessed it, the American Dream. And for a better future and education for me. At times, this industry can feel like a rich kid’s sport, especially to an immigrant kid who grew up in the lower-middle class like myself. It can also feel incredibly selfish, to choose my career and passion over the ability to take care of my parents financially. They sacrificed so much–they left their families in China, their friends, their respectable careers, so I feel a great responsibility to be able to take care of them, to tell their stories, show their faces, and take back our narratives. To make a difference and spread the beauty that is the American story, because after all, aren’t we a land of immigrants
Contact Jane Qian via email