In 2013, Nicola Fan quit her stable career in advertising to pursue a freelance career in filmmaking. Five years on, with films that have shown at Hong Kong Sundance Film Festival and at panel discussions at Cannes Film Festival, she hasn’t looked back.

For as long as she can remember, Nicola Fan has had a craving to tell visual stories through art and film. This innate desire led her to study Graphic Design at her dream school, the Rhode Island School of Design, and then on to a steady career at J.P. Morgan and Time Warner Inc. But it wasn’t long before the urge to tell her own stories in her own way took over, triggering her to risk it all by ditching the corporate work setting and going freelance.

Her first feature-length documentary, ‘She Objects’, was officially selected for the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Hong Kong, opening up a world of opportunities for the ambitious filmmaker.

Nicola Fan

How has your upbringing shaped the way you view the arts?

Both my parents love the arts. My father majored in architecture and always encouraged me to share his love of drawing. I spent much of my youth reading comic books and religiously watching cartoons. Though my mother never pursued the arts professionally, musicals and the like remained a staple of my childhood. So when the time came for me to pick a major, my parents were fortunately supportive of me going to art school.

What kind of stories interest you the most?

I’m drawn to stories about injustice and minorities. I once did a documentary called ‘Inspire Hope’ for an NGO showcasing the beautiful relationship between the mentors and mentees. Recently, I’ve been getting more into fictional storytelling as it’s a great way to dramatise what we experience in our lives both externally and internally. An example of this is ‘Scott Pilgrim vs. the World’, a film about a socially awkward kid that, instead of verbalising, internalises his feelings. The movie did a really great job of bringing the audience into his head and visualising his inner-world. It’s a very real depiction of what I want to show in my work too.

Nicola Fan

How do you go about finding inspiration?

Music is a major driving force for me. Certain melodies and lyrics inspire me to bring them to life on screen. With documentaries, I like to find inspiration from the person I’m focusing on, but that doesn’t come instantly. You need to do your research and ask in-depth questions. Of course, there are times when I get stuck and become unsure of which direction to take, but there are ways around this. I normally take a break for 1 or 2 days or ask my team for their opinion on things. In the end, it’s up to you to find your inspiration.

What did you hope to achieve with your documentary ‘She Objects’?

‘She Objects’ was a collaboration between me and The Women’s Foundation, along with my lovely producers Jessica Kam and Patty Keung. The Women’s Foundation had a pretty clear direction from the get-go, and it was one that I happened to support wholeheartedly. Their goal was for this documentary to ignite an educational discussion within local high schools, where the topics of sex, relationships, and gender roles in society are not usually explored at much length.

What are your thoughts on the current film industry?

The creative industry in Hong Kong isn’t the most thriving, but that’s not new. Both makers and consumers can be more adventurous, however, at the same time, funding, development, cultivation, and nurture for the Arts is simply a limited resource in Hong Kong.

What are some challenges that you’ve met during your career?

With film, I worry about whether I’m pushing things enough, whether I’m communicating the cinematography effectively, or whether it’s even worthwhile introducing this particular character. The biggest question I ask myself every day is ‘is it enough?’. Over time, I’ve come to realise that it’s really all about practice and experience.

Do you think there are enough opportunities for young filmmakers right now?

It’s not so much the number of opportunities but rather the economic situation that’s preventing many from seizing the various chances available. Space is scarce and rent is unreasonably high. So the time we can put into our creative passions is rather limited. Freelancing has given me a bit more freedom to seize these opportunities, but overall it is difficult.

What do you think about the current representation of women in the film industry?

I’m more concerned with the lack of women behind the scenes. Having women behind the scenes with positions like screenwriter, film director and editor would really change the storytelling landscape and I am very intrigued by what could potentially be achieved. I hope that, in the future, we will see more female storytellers — we shouldn’t be afraid to initiate stuff ourselves.

Do you have any advice for aspiring young filmmakers?

Don’t be shy or embarrassed about the work that you do. Most of the time, imperfection is what makes you unique. With creative work, you need to be the entire machine. You also need to understand yourself and be honest about what your aims are or what you’re interested in. However, teamwork sparks magic too. I believe that with a good team, you can achieve greater things.

How do you handle critique?

I’m always appreciative of critiques as they help me better understand what outsiders are seeing, and how they are reviewing my work. Past negative comments have helped point out some cultural aspects, personal factors, and other things I might have missed and ought to have covered, and now hopefully won’t miss in the future.

Can you name some filmmakers that you admire?

I really love Michel Gondry’s films. He’s such a genius without the help of big budgets. You can best see his craftsmanship in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. And, for me, Stanley Kubrick is a very interesting visionary. He’s a legend in this field, so naturally I took a lot of inspiration from how he puts his layout together, his composition, and his framing of things.

Future plans?

I’m currently working on some commercials that are coming out later this year. I’m also doing some advertisements and a feature. These are still in their early stages, but they should be coming together soon, which I’m pretty excited about.