John Zhao is a Korean/Chinese–American independent filmmaker. Born in China, he spent his childhood with his grandfather, an acclaimed calligrapher who sparked John’s everlasting love for art and poetry. John went to the cinema for the first time in Germany; he was a young boy, but decided that day he’d start making films.
While growing up in America, John spent this time riding skateboards and taking heavy interest in scuba diving and studying the behavior of sharks. He studied marine biology before transferring to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) for its esteemed creative advertising program. During this time, he frequently visited China to teach and travel.
John’s first ad stint was an internship at Wieden+Kennedy the year before graduating. At age 23, during his first year in New York City, he successfully wrote, produced, and directed his first feature, Days Gone By, with rogue tactics and few resources. (Learn more about the film at www.johnxzhao.com.) John is currently developing several more features while freelancing in advertising and film production projects in New York City.
Please enjoy the following excerpt from my interview with John Zhao for Advertisers at Work:
Tuten: You started with film on your own. You did your own writing, filming, editing?
Zhao: Yeah, I mean, that’s the way you should start these days. It’s easy to get someone else to do the dirty work, but as a first-time director, you should know what it feels like produce, to write, to edit, to cook meals for your cast and crew. The technology these days really allows you to do a lot and very quickly. Almost as fast as you can think of something. While I was still in Richmond, going to school, I’d spend as much time working in plays, being a production assistant on commercials, music videos, anything really. Even in a small town I was able to do that and it taught me a lot of stuff.
Then by the time I was able to have some time and mostly have the courage to make my first feature, I thought the best thing to do would be to do everything—that included writing, producing, shooting film, editing, directing. I felt like, “Okay, the technology is available for me to do it all.” It would [also] obviously save a lot of money.
And the third point, and probably the most important, is that I would be able to learn everything and figure out what aspect am I good at and what aspect of filmmaking I am not good at. I knew that by handling each step of the film, it would be fun, but I would also learn firsthand what I wish I had more help on. I knew that would inform my work on the next film. I would develop a new model of working. I’ll know where I should reach out for more help and so on. That was my philosophy when I started making my first feature.