Born and raised in Xi’an, China, one of the country’s oldest cities, Danwen Lei always had an interest in filmmaking, and is now an internationally sought-after film producer. She has spent most of her esteemed filmmaking career in Beijing, and worked at one of the country’s top documentary production companies. She actually began her career as a filmmaker in VFX, something she still loves to this day, but she found her real passion in producing.
Lei aims to make the Chinese filmmaking industry a worldwide phenomenon. On top of working on major Chinese productions like the upcoming Forever Passion, as well as other hits like Happy Birthday to You, Under the Flag, and Gold Fortune, to name a few, Lei aims to educate others in her country that seek to make impactful and important films. When Lei began her career, the VFX industry was revolutionizing thanks to innovative new technology and a higher standard for seamless and out-of-this-world effects thanks to movies like Avatar and The Lord of the Rings. At that time in China, there were no industry-wide standards or process specifications, problems kept appearing and Lei wanted to make changes just like everyone else. Even though later she found her passion for producing, she still had this idea in her mind, so she proposed several VFX-related books to a famous publisher in China that focuses on the how-to’s of filmmaking. During the past 5 years, she has translated the book The Making of Life of Pi by Jean-Christophe Castelli and The Visual Effects Producer by Charles Finance and Susan Zwerman, which were published and well-received in China. The latter has been recommended by Frant Gwo, the director of the 2019 sci-fi hit, The Wandering Earth (which grossed $700 million worldwide, including $693 million in China. It is China's third highest-grossing film of all time and the third highest-grossing non-English film to date) as a VFX producing bible to those who want to work in this industry. It soon became a must-read for the students who major in VFX, VFX artists and producers in China. Lei is proud to have made such an important contribution.
On top of her important work in China, Lei has made quite a name for herself in Hollywood, the home of the worldwide entertainment industry. Always aiming to tell stories that will resonate with audiences around the world, Lei did just that last year with her film Sunrise in Heaven.
This feature film is adapted from a true love story that spans a lifetime, but eventually results in a painful loss of love. Jan is the daughter of an overly protective militant father, but that doesn't stop her from falling in love with Steve, a young GI in the Air Force. The couple must find a way to win over her father so they may be married. In the future, a devastating car crash leaves her (now) husband on life support; she must keep faith in God as she faces the prospect of his passing. Recalling their courtship through flashbacks, she relives out the early days of their relationship.
“I enjoy the authenticity of the story and when we brought the 1960’s Los Angeles to the real world, I was deeply moved by each scene and the plot. This is the magic of film that can touch all audiences,” she said.
In the beginning, Lei was hired to be the location manager on this project. Her job was to find all the locations that could bring the audience back to the 1960’s Los Angeles. They needed a church, an airbase, a residential house, a desert, and a hill where the camera could overlook the 1960’s LA city landscape at night without the shining skyscrapers. It was a vital task because not only did she have to find these specific locations that were essential to the film, but she also had to negotiate and finalize the contracts with the location owners, and apply for the film permits in a very short amount of pre-production time of 3 weeks. However, because she has produced many films throughout her career, she knew exactly what needed to be done. With a lot of communication and visits, she found potential locations within the budget, and locked the film permits from Los Angeles and other cities around. She even got the “airbase” location for free, which tremendously helped with the overall production budget. As shooting day approached, she was promoted to Associate Producer of the project. as a recognition from the producer and the executives for her outstanding work.
“It’s nice to try something that I thought I was not very good at before. I feel like an expert now. I do get frustrated when I get lost in all the potential options, as well as when I don’t have a clue about one location that is very hard to find, or that our budget can’t afford, but the more time I spend on balancing all the pros and cons, the more I communicate with people, the more information I have, so that I can come up with some options for the director and producer. Besides, while working with the line producer, I’ve learned a lot from her as she mentions she was just like me when she started her producing career. We became good friends after this project,” said Lei.
Sunrise in Heaven was distributed by the renowned New Line Cinema, and released online on April 9th, 2019. It is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video, so be sure to watch this moving story.
Published by Zoe Sewell