Talking strangers and surreal experiences with writer and director Liz Sargent.
“I haven’t really seen Hong Kong except from the sky, and it’s totally surreal,” says Liz Sargent, the fourth emerging filmmaker to make a fully funded short film as part of “The Stay” collection, her eyes fixed on the cityscape below. “This whole thing has been surreal!” She turns away from the window and smiles. “And it’s been a great way to see Hong Kong.”
It’s the morning after the wrap party for “Strangers’ Reunion,” Sargent’s emotional yet finely considered drama about the first meeting between an adopted daughter and her birth mother. We’re seated at a corner table 116 floors up in the Club Lounge of The Ritz-Carlton, Hong Kong, and the views are indeed magnificent. But it’s what’s been playing out three floors below us over the course of her shoot that Sargent is still trying to take in.
Of the five winning scripts selected from the nearly 500 entries to “The Stay,” Sargent’s is undoubtedly the most personal. Born in South Korea and raised by her adoptive family in the United States, Sargent herself had only recently made contact with her birth mother when Sargent’s husband forwarded details of the film competition to her and urged her to take part.
“I was trying to throw another script idea into it, but it didn’t feel right,” she says of her path to entry. “I’d just experienced this intense thing and was only beginning to realize what that meant. And as I was trying to figure out what scenario would fit in this room [all scripts had to take place within one of five designated Ritz-Carlton suites], it just sort of worked. I could see that a hotel room was a safe, private environment where we could be super intimate and have this life-changing experience.”
Her story does exactly that: American fashion executive Mira and her birth mother, Yura, an elegant, self-made fine tailor from Seoul, come together at Mira’s hotel the day before their designated “official” meeting. With no translator and little shared verbal language between them, the two women are forced to work through misunderstandings and, to varying degrees, their own guilt and prejudices, toward the first tentative bid at connection. It’s a visually rich film — Sargent has an attention to detail that makes the most of the fine elements and sumptuous surfaces of the suite — with her actors moving through the room in a way that appears beautifully choreographed without feeling staged.
“I don’t really know how to write a script. I wasn’t trained in that way,” Sargent, a dancer-turned-choreographer-turned-filmmaker, acknowledges. “I knew these characters in my heart, and I closed my eyes and visualized every moment they would have in the room. It was hard not to feel emotional,” she adds with a laugh. Indeed, days after this shoot, life would imitate art as Sargent met her own birth mother for the first time in South Korea.
The shoot was the first time Sargent, a self-defined indie filmmaker, has taken command of a production of this scale. “I’ve only worked with people I know [before now], so we’ve had a shorthand in communication and they see my vison as I see it, so it’s very easy to work with them.
On her decision to set her story in Hong Kong and write part of her script in Korean, she jokes, “Learning how to communicate in a room with four languages being spoken [was challenging]. I really know how to screw myself.”
But, in fact, Sargent led her crew with an authority beyond her relatively short time behind the camera, an outcome she attributes in no small part to her on-set guide and “The Stay” mentor, Oscar-nominated writer and director Mike Figgis.
“Having Mike there just helped so much,” she says. “He really respected my vision and showed me how to facilitate it on this level. He helped me find new ideas and taught me how to play with techniques in a way that was very beautiful and also felt honest to the way I communicate and see things.”
Great to hear, but it makes the news that Sargent very nearly didn’t submit her script in the first place even more surprising.
“I thought it was a really silly idea to enter,” she says. “I mean, I’ve never seen somebody win one of these competitions.” She pauses to glance back out the window, and when she continues it’s with that same note of disbelief. “Because people don’t really win these things, do they?” she says. “People don’t actually have these experiences, you know?”
Actually, they do.