From China to LA: How Sam Voutas’ Life Has Changed Since ‘Red Light Revolution’

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Filmmaker and actor Sam Voutas, who had his big break in China, now splits his time between Asia and Hollywood. In an exclusive interview, he talks to Greek Reporter about his latest projects, making a movie in Greece, and the increasing popularity of Greek cinema.

Since Greek Reporter last spoke to Sam Voutas, the Greek-Australian filmmaker and actor has been quite busy after the success of his film, “Red Light Revolution.” Having screened at the Santa Barbara Film Festival as well as the Singapore Film Festival in 2011 (in which it won the Audience Award), the comedy-drama about a regular unemployed Chinese guy who decides to open a sex shop just to “get by” garnered much praise for Voutas, and led to more opportunities in the entertainment industry.

Among other projects he’s working on, Voutas is starring as Papos in the upcoming mythological action-adventure fantasy “Empires of the Deep,” opposite Bond girl Olga Kurylenko, and is also set to appear in the 2014 thriller “False Colors.”

We caught up with Voutas, who is currently traveling between Los Angeles and China, to find out about his latest film and television endeavors, as well as to talk about the increasing popularity of Greek cinema and his recent visit to Alonnisos.

You’re currently in L.A. Are you still living in China?  

I’ve got a toe in both places at the moment. When ‘Red Light Revolution’ was playing film festivals in 2011, I spent a week in LA just staying on a friend’s couch while looking for distributors and the like. Talking to filmmakers in LA, it became clear that even if I was familiar with the Chinese film model, when it came to how things worked in Hollywood, I was really in the dark. And as for many of the people in LA I talked to, the way the Chinese film industry operated was completely foreign to them. It was as if I was shooting films on Mars or something. So there was a disconnect but a real interest as well. I started thinking if you can get to understand how things operate on both sides — China and the States — and speak the language of both sides, there’s opportunity there to do new things. That goes in terms of distribution but also for stories too. China is hungry for Hollywood collaboration and it’s the same vice versa. It’s like everyone’s getting ready for a first date and no one knows whether it’s going to be a bust or if there’s going to be great chemistry. So I’m really hoping to develop projects that incorporate both sides.

How have things changed for you career-wise since the success of ‘Red Light Revolution’?

We’ve probably had about seven to eight million people see the film in China by now and that’s definitely helped with setting up the next project. The main goal is to just keep creating new material, whether it’s working with Chinese media companies to do stuff for them in LA or just my own indie films. It’s definitely a plus to have one feature film in the back pocket now. The hardest was when I could only tell the story of ‘Red Light Revolution’ at pitch meetings with nothing visual to back it up.

You’ve spoken out about film censorship in China. Have any changes been made recently to that? How difficult do you find it to make films with limitations?

The name of the censorship bureau has changed but I reckon that even with a new face, it is essentially the same thing. Just because you change the initials doesn’t mean it doesn’t serve the same purpose. You’ll still have movies that never come out or are delayed for years because they just don’t get passed. It’s quite incredible the power the censors have. You can have your story approved, go out and shoot the film, then hand them a cut and they can demand cuts despite the fact that they approved the story to begin with. It’s absurd.

What has changed these last few years is that Chinese directors are being increasingly vocal in their criticism of film censorship. So just the fact that censorship is more openly discussed in China is a positive thing. The reasons the directors are frustrated is in one way for commercial reasons, because censorship is bad for business. It delays product hitting the market. But I think it’s also because censorship can destroy a movie. It’s essentially allowing bureaucrats the chance to dictate artistic decisions, and that tends to be catastrophic. Sure, some bureaucrats may be closet Picassos, creative geniuses trapped in their cubicles. But I haven’t met one like that yet.

Have you come across other Greeks who moved to China to work in the industry?

Not yet! I’m sure it’s happening more though. Most of my experiences on film sets in China tend to be in far off locations with no foreigners around for miles. What I’d give for some home cooked Greek food out there I tell you.

What have you been working on since our last interview?

A lot of effort was put into the various theatrical releases of ‘Red Light Revolution,’ pretty much up to when we released it in Singapore in the middle of 2012. While that was going on my friend Eric Flanagan and I took part in the Sundance Screenwriters Lab in Utah. We had a script that got into the labs so we got to spend a fantastic week in the mountains, meet great people while workshopping the story. We’re moving forward on that project now. After the labs I enrolled in the Professional Program in Producing at UCLA. Every night, you get a different guest speaker, usually someone from the studios or agencies, and they give you their perspective on how the US film industry works. This was all part of my trying to understand the Hollywood system. So I’d take that class at night and develop screenplays in the day. And these last three months, I’ve been up in Inner Mongolia acting in a Chinese historical drama for director Tian Zhuangzhuang. It’s an old school epic, with enormous set pieces, lots of CGI and the like. I have a small role on that but it’s taken up quite a large chunk of the year.

SamVoutas2You mentioned in your last interview that you’d like to make a movie in Greece at some point. How close are you to making that happen?

I very much wish I was close to shooting that one. What I’d really like to do is take an ancient Greek play and film it in modern day China, in Mandarin with an all-Chinese cast. The themes in those plays are so universal, and unlike in the West, Greek theatre is not widely known in China. It’s not studied in most high schools. So there’s an opportunity to do a really unique production over there that reflects on contemporary China while also introducing Greek theatre to China. It’s still a dream, but it’s one I’m very passionate about.

Have you traveled to Greece since 2011?

After ten years away, I was finally back in Greece recently for my dad’s 70th birthday. He and the family were all in the town of Kastania staying with relatives, and I was really lamenting that I was unable to go due to filming this movie in Inner Mongolia. Then one night after wrapping filming for the day, the production manager took me aside and told me there was going to be a week’s break in shooting. I wasn’t due back on set for eight days. I rushed to Beijing airport that next morning and about twelve hours later was in Greece. Sitting on the ferry landing on Alonnisos was very surreal, seeing my family on the pier. It was great. I missed out on seeing the relatives in Kastania, but just to get to go at all was more than I could have expected. And about a week later, I was back filming in Inner Mongolia. Crazy.

Watch Sam acting in a Chinese TV series:
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What do you think of the recent surge of Greek cinema and its popularity in the worldwide market?

I think it’s absolutely great. But I think the big goal is getting more international venues to screen Greek films. Where have all the subtitled films gone from local cinemas? I remember growing up, cinemas used to play subtitled films all the time. Even in university, I remember ‘Beware of Greeks Bearing Guns,’ and other smaller Australian or Hellenic films playing at local theaters. Now they show only Hollywood blockbusters. Maybe if you won the Palme D’Or, then you get a release, but it’s really tough. It’s as if the world is closing up rather than opening. Greek cinema is going through an incredibly exciting new wave at the moment, why are these films not playing at more places? So on one hand I’m really encouraged by the films coming out of Greece, on the other hand I think quality foreign films aren’t getting the same chance to succeed at the box office as before.

What do you find to be the major differences between working in film and television? 

In the States, I think the differences between the two are less and less. That’s especially the case now that so many film people are working in the TV space. In China though, the two mediums are still miles apart in terms of quality. Chinese TV series are generally written fast, shot faster, and forgotten even faster. Everyone’s lines are usually dubbed over, there’s little focus on performance. Most TV series there are still like fast food, it hasn’t transitioned yet. I’m sure it will though. It’ll just take time.

Is there anyone you’d like to work with that you haven’t had the chance to yet?

You can’t go past [filmmaker] Costa Gavras. Very unlikely that our paths would cross, but I can always daydream. As we say back in Australia, he’s a legend. No doubt about it.