Shooting for the Stars
Making the best of things is a major theme in the story of Sam Voutas and Melanie Ansley, director-producer husband and wife filmmaking team and International School of Beijing (ISB) alumni from the graduating class of 1997.
Sam and Melanie's working partnership has been peppered with demonstrations of humor, quick-thinking, equanimity, and determination. From their speculative move to China to work as film-festival volunteers; to their freelancing work across the film and TV industry (between them they have had careers in acting, screenwriting, producing, and translating); to their dogged-pursuit of personal passion-projects: Melanie and Sam embody ISB values such as innovation, creativity, integrity, community, and global-mindedness.
Australian-born Sam attended ISB over two separate periods: between 1986 and 1989 at the US Embassy campus, and later between 1991 and 1997 at Lido. Canadian-Chinese Melanie moved up to Beijing from Taipei for her last year of high school. She had few expectations for her time at ISB. “It was uprooting and strange for me. I felt that year was going to be a blur; not much would happen and then I would go off to university,” said Melanie. “But, obviously, life proved me wrong! I met Sam, and really enjoyed that year. I formed a lot of love for Beijing, and I have a lot of great memories of ISB.” Melanie and Sam studied theater and were heavily involved in plays and productions by theater director, Randy Moss, whom they both remember fondly.
Sam and Melanie went their separate ways during their university years: Melanie to the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and Sam to The Victorian College of the Arts in Melbourne. After graduation, they reunited and their passion for film and roots in Beijing drew them back to China to work in the emerging film and TV industry. Many overseas TV stations and production companies were trying to develop projects in China, but the teams they brought with them were limited by the language barrier. “It was a great time to be in China, and key for our careers was that we were Chinese speaking,” said Sam. Starting as volunteers, they quickly parlayed their skills, abilities, and contacts into paying jobs.
Beginning with The Last Breadbox, a documentary about Beijing taxi-drivers in the run-up to 2008’s Beijing Olympic Games, and followed by Shanghai Bride which delved into the Shanghai marriage market, they began to develop, and initially self-fund, their own projects. Their true interest lay in narrative film, however, they worked on social-commentary documentaries thinking the process would be easier. “It’s not!” said Melanie. “You have to wait for something to happen to the characters; then they don’t say what you want them to. It’s very inconvenient!” Although the format was problematic in terms of timescales, it was ideal in terms of cost. “Those films were essentially no budget,” said Sam. “We had a camera, we were in China anyway, we edited on our home computer: we made those movies on sheer willpower and how much time we were willing to put into them.”
Melanie and Sam worked on their passion-projects together; professionally they usually worked apart. Each freelance experience grew their confidence, network, and ambitions. In 2009, they assembled a cast and crew to shoot their first narrative film, Red Light Revolution, a Clerks-style comedy, set in a sex shop. “As a result of our separate careers, we brought together a good team that we worked well with,” said Sam. “Although the budget was low, a lot of people thought ‘I could go shoot a same-old, same-old TV series somewhere, or I could shoot this colorful, one-off’, and that’s a much more fun way to spend a month.”
Red Light Revolution was released to theatres in the UK, Canada, and Singapore. Days after its UK release, Sam spotted an illegal copy for sale on the streets of Beijing, its mocked-up DVD-sleeve displaying an all-star Hollywood cast featuring Tom Hiddleston, Rachel Weiz, and Emily Blunt. Sam and Melanie took the film’s theft as the genesis of their latest project, King of Peking, to tell the story of a desperate father driven to movie piracy in order to retain custody of his son. Red Light Revolution went on to achieve viral success in China: selected by streaming platform Tudou as its official Chinese New Year film it racked up over 6 million views online.
Melanie and Sam told us that their connection to ISB is what made King of Peking possible. Many of their ISB classmates supported them, not only through their own donations to the film’s Kickstarter fund, but also by spreading the word on social media, resulting in donations from thousands of complete strangers. Thanks to the buzz created by ISB alumni, the film overshot its initial goal of raising $50k on Kickstarter. Although it represented only a small portion of the total budget, it was an important first step in securing further funding from private equity and corporate sponsors. “People who weren’t connected to us at all threw in 25 dollars because they were working with ISB alumni who mentioned it to them,” said Sam.
King of Peking has been extremely successful on the festival circuit; shown at prestigious festivals such as Tribeca Film Festival, Melbourne International Film Festival, and the BFI London Film Festival. Sam’s directing was recognized with a Best Director win for Asian International Narrative at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.
The couple were encouraged and deeply touched by how ISB’s worldwide community rallied round to help them make their dream a reality. “We were humbled and amazed to receive so much support,” said Sam. In addition to the many virtual reunions online, Sam and Melanie enjoyed a face-to-face get-together with old classmates and alumni in October, watching the movie together on the big screen at the BFI London Film Festival. “It has had a wonderful side effect: it put us back in touch with people that we hadn’t seen in years,” said Melanie.