INTERVIEW with Cedric Cheung-Lau of “The Mountains Are a Dream That Calls to Me”

Last Updated: March 3, 2021By Tags:

Last January, in the before times when film festivals were still held in person, I beheld one of the most unique and powerful films I’d ever seen. Cedric Cheung-Lau’s “The Mountains Are a Dream That Calls to Me” was unlike anything I had ever seen before—or since. Filmed in Nepal, it told the profoundly simple story of a Nepalese man named Tukten (Sanjay Lama Dong) who says he is walking to a new job in the Middle East. Along his trek he meets an Australian woman named Hannah (Alice Cummins) whose reason for hiking is never made explicit, though we suspect she is either escaping a past trauma or, perhaps more likely, is not long for this world given her seemingly frequent groans of pain.

Cheung-Lau, who has worked for years for hire as an electrician for various film and TV projects, had never directed a full-length feature before “The Mountains,” but his work behind the camera is sure and true—never pushing his audience one way or another, and thus trusting us with certain, never explicitly spoken, truths not just about his characters but about the nature of being alive.

And behind it all are the magnificent Annapurna mountains of the Himalayas, so lovingly captured by Cheung-Lau’s director of photography, Jake Magee.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Cheung-Lau’s film, and I named it my pick as the best movie of 2020. I spent months scouring the internet in the hopes that the film had been picked up for distribution—selfishly, so I could watch it a second time. When that search proved fruitless, I reached out to the producer of “The Mountains Are a Dream That Calls to Me,” Alexandra Byer, who agreed to re-introduce me to Cheung-Lau after he and I had exchanged a few pleasant words at his Sundance premiere.

(“There’s no wrong way to watch this film. Feel what you want to feel,” Cheung-Lau said of his beautiful film at Sundance.)

Cheung-Lau agreed to speak with me on the phone recently. Naturally, I asked him when (or if) his wonderful film would be available to a wider audience. He also told me about the long gestation of his project, a trip to Nepal in his younger days that planted the seed of the project and so much more.

Our conversation, which has been edited and condensed, appears below.

SCREEN COMMENT: 2020 made everything difficult for films to find audiences, especially in person. Can you tell me what has happened with “The Mountains Are a Dream That Calls to Me” since we met last January at Sundance?

CEDRIC CHEUNG-LAU: Nothing has happened [laughs]: As everybody does, we went into Sundance [in 2020] having some kind of strategy about how to proceed and what we were hoping for. And once the shutdown happened, everything went up in the air.

It was unclear at the beginning how that would affect eligibility for future festivals [or if] playing in a virtual festival would disqualify you for future festivals. Things were constantly shifting, much like views on the virus itself, and so we went into a holding pattern to just wait and see how things would play out.

We did hold a small one-off screening on our own platform, which again was very positively received, and it was nice to have that in the middle of a quarantine to propel us forward and remember what the film is and what it does.

We are [continuing with] festival applications and hoping we’ll get into a few bigger festivals that will allow us to find some distribution. I don’t know when theaters might open, but ideally [my film will] play in theaters again. I know everyone says this about movies, but it’s always better in the theater. And I do believe that. I certainly saw the difference watching it on a small screen and then on a massive screen at Sundance for the first time. And I think it really holds a different kind of power when it’s seen in that setting among people.

READ our coverage from 2020’s Sundance Film Festival

Because you had worked in the industry behind the scenes, did you always want to make your own film?

Yes, absolutely. Pretty much for as long as I can remember I wanted to make films. I grew up in the suburbs outside of Los Angeles, and my escape was always the multiplex.

It took a lot of time for me to figure out what it is that I wanted to do with film and why it was film that was the artform that really drew me in. I interned in a lot of different departments knowing that the end goal was to direct. I wanted to really understand the craft of filmmaking and what everybody did and how it all came together.

Also, I really just love film. I feel privileged every time I get to work on a set in whatever capacity. It’s such an incredible artform [where] you’re taking a group of people and trying to get everybody to achieve one thing despite all odds—and there are a lot of odds.

Alice Cummins and Sanjay Lama Dong in a still from the film

How long had you been thinking about what ultimately became “The Mountains Are a Dream That Calls to Me”?

It was the one idea that I could never let go of. It would lose its steam a little bit and I would find something else to focus on, but this [idea] continued to push through.

At the Sundance premiere you said you made a trip to Nepal when you were younger, and of course you returned there to make your film.

I went the first time in 2010 or 2011. It was the first time I had the means to travel. I was [in Nepal] for two months, and it really transformed me. I remember flying out and thinking, “I have been so fortunate to visit this place, and there are so many places I have to visit, and I probably will never have the chance to return to this country.”

It had spoken to me, and I felt so at home there that I had to return. That became the first return of many that ultimately culminated in this film.

And filming in Nepal was hardly the typical scenario. I can imagine your logistical challenges there must have been legion.

[chuckles] Yes, to say the least, it was a huge logistical challenge. I think in a lot of ways, having worked for so long in the industry in so many capacities, it enabled me to see the possibility of this film. That’s not [even without] understanding that “mountain” of challenges ahead of us. [laughs]

I see what you did there.

No matter how difficult we think making a film in the city is—and when I say “city” I mean New York City, because that’s where I primarily worked—there’s a fair share of challenges there as well, but it’s entirely something else [when] all the creature comforts we’re used to at the end of a long day of filmmaking are nonexistent in the mountains. We’re going to be walking every day—that’s part of the work. [You’re sleeping on] a fairly rigid bed with maybe a little bit of Wi-Fi. Drinking is heavily discouraged because you’re at altitude.

I was very fortunate to have an extraordinary team with me that could help me through the tougher challengers. The other thing [I am] grateful for [everyone on the crew] was all friends.

[Producers] Alexandra [Byer] and Maddy [Askwith] played an integral role in [ensuring] we would be moving as fast as we had to, but slow enough [to] make it happen [while being mindful of] altitude sickness or the plethora of things that were happening in our bodies at the time.

It was difficult, but we all came together and figured out exactly what had to be done.

Your two main actors, Sanjay Lama Dong and Alice Cummins, are phenomenal. How did you find them?

Again, I was very lucky. I spent a long time looking for [Hannah]. I’ve always been interested in working with non-actors. Alice Cummins is a performer but she’s not an actor.

I went into this exhibit at the Hammer Museum [in Los Angeles]. I came across this video piece, [and] Alice was a dancer in it. I remember moving past it and catching a glimpse of her face in this performance, and immediately being pulled back into the room. I just sat there entranced by her, and I had to figure out who she was and speak with her.

We did a little bit of research and reached out to her. In a fortuitous way, at the moment I reached out she was actually driving across Australia and camping with her partner. I thought, if that doesn’t say you’re perfect for this, I don’t know what [does]?

I was beginning to lose hope because she hadn’t responded to my email in some weeks, [but] finally she did. We never really talked about the character explicitly or how I wanted her to act or what the performance would be. We just got to know each other, and I think in those conversations, we were both able to convey what we wanted to explore [in Hannah’s] character.

With Tukten [I told] our production manager in Nepal when I first got over there what kind of person I was looking for. He just started sending me people. It was probably a dozen or so. And when I first met Sanjay, there was just something…it felt right.

In Nepal they don’t really have “access” to films like this. I’m not even sure [Sanjay] ever even saw a film like this, and he’s never had any acting experience. He’s a guide by trade. But he had an innate understanding of what we were trying to accomplish. I gave him very limited direction [and] he showed an incredible intellect in terms of understanding what he needed to do and who this character was. He gave me a tremendous performance that I am still shook by every time I think about it.

Alice Cummins has that amazing scene where she completely disrobes in the dark, grunting along the way as if she’s in pain. You did it all with one long camera take. She is so compelling in that scene. I’m curious how you two discussed capturing that singular moment for her character, Hannah.

Of any scene I think that was the scene we probably talked about the most. First of all [the discussion entailed] making sure she was comfortable with [the nudity. We discussed] what we were trying to do with that scene and why I wrote that scene initially, why I was interested in it, and then why she would be interested in doing that.

Alice is very generous and very open, which I think really helped. I honestly can’t remember how much direction I gave her. It really grew out of the conversations we had over several months before we filmed it. I think [I reminded] her [before filming it] some of the things we had discussed, that we had connected over.

She has incredible presence. She really knew how to take limited material and feel it and let it carry the scene.

The footage of the mountains your cinematographer Jake Magee was able to capture was out of this world. I can’t stop thinking about that one moment late in the film where you hear what is probably an avalanche as the screen is blank, and it then slowly fades up to a shot of the mountains in the far distance—then just fades out again. Since you yourself have a background as a cameraman, did you ever consider shooting this film yourself?

I’ve thought about shooting my own films and directing, but I also have come to learn how important it is to have someone with a slightly different perspective [onboard].

Jake and I have been friends for a very long time. I knew that whenever I made my film it was going to be Jake [as the DP]. He understands me in a way that I don’t know anybody has ever understood me.

I remember talking to him and laying some groundwork. We talked about how I wanted the film to feel and look. [Jake] has the capacity to see what I see in my mind; we’re very comfortable and can speak honestly with each other, which I think is one of the most important things in any creative collaboration.

There are three ringings of a prayer bowl during your film, the first at the very beginning as Jake Magee does that incredible pan up to the top of that mountain as the tone fades. I noticed on second viewing the two other ringings later in the film, perhaps meant to cleanse one’s mind. What is your approach to spirituality, and did you consciously take a spiritual approach to “The Mountains Are a Dream That Calls to Me”?

I absolutely did. I don’t subscribe to any kind of organized religion, but I do think there is a very spiritual side to me, and a lot of great art, in my opinion, is very spiritual. It’s about expressing [what] we can’t find outside of art. Language is restrictive in some ways. With art you can fill in those spaces and take those leaps of faith in understanding that some other human—who obviously you can’t really get into the mind of—can feel something and fill in those spaces to create a greater piece [of art].

There’s a calming presence to the film I’ve found myself really easily reentering. And I think a lot of that has to do with the soundscape and its ability to transport us to that place. It really reminds me of the mountains of Nepal and its movements.

When I first started talking to [my sound designer], I wanted him to think of the entire film as a musical piece. The bell signified this way to kind of awaken us but also to [then] re-enter another space—that’s where the idea of the bell started to align itself.

What you’re saying about it, leading us into this spirituality, really rings true, not to necessarily turn another pun there [laughs]. The tone and the way it grounds you, and [also how it] pushes you into a different sphere is the best way I can describe that sound. It holds a great significance to me.

Jake Magee (DP) on the set of ‘The Mountains Are a Dream That Call to Me’ (Photo: Joey Dwyer)

I realize you’re still trying to get this film seen by more people. Meantime, are you cooking up something else?

At the beginning of quarantine it was very difficult to get over anxieties I had and find the creative space to work. But there have been several ideas that have been gestating within me, and I’m hesitant to talk about any of them yet.

Your film is so beautiful and very centering. I sincerely hope you get it in front of more eyeballs—and make another.

It’s very hard to share a film because as much as I want it to be a dialogue and be everybody’s, it’s also a leap of faith.

At the end of it, I just want to connect. I want people to experience my expression and see what they get from it and what they feel—and have that conversation.

I certainly always wanted to [direct] and I’m glad I had the privilege to do so—and I hope I get another opportunity to do so.

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