Arts & Culture Theater TV & Film Visual Arts

The Power of a Producer: Tianmin Shen’s Journey in Bringing Unique and Compelling Stories to Life in Award-Winning Films Magdalena and Desert Dream

Ms. Shen is a highly acclaimed film producer whose work has garnered recognition from a range of top industry film festivals. Her films have been selected for and won awards at prestigious festivals such as the EnergaCAMERIMAGE Film Festival, considered one of the greatest and most recognized festivals globally. The festival has been honored to host distinguished filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Wim Wenders on its jury. 

At EnergaCAMERIMAGE, her short film Magdalena won the Golden Tadpole Award. The Golden Tadpole is the festival’s highest honor for short films and is awarded to the most innovative and original work. Additionally, her films have been showcased at the CAA Moebius Showcase, produced through a collaboration of colleagues across CAA’s Motion Pictures department, as well as the Hollyshorts Film Festival, which frequently has selections nominated for the Oscars and win. 

Ms. Shen’s films have also been recognized by the Rhode Island International Film Festival, ranked as one of the Top 10 Short Film Festivals and Top 10 International Film Festivals in the United States, and the LA Shorts International Film Festival, considered the largest short film festival in the world. Furthermore, her films have been screened at Outfest, the leading organization that promotes equality by creating, sharing, and protecting LGBTQIA+ stories on screen. Ms. Shen’s achievements as a film producer highlight her exceptional talent and dedication to the craft.

Can you tell us about your experience working as a producer on Magdalena and Desert Dream and how the roles differed between the two projects?

In Magdalena, I created a social media campaign on Instagram and reached out to potential donors to crowdfund the project. I interviewed line producers and BTL crew putting the team together, and I communicated with different department heads to ensure the production schedule is the most efficient. During production, I was in charge of running the 50 people set every day. I communicated with the cast to make sure that they are comfortable on set and supervised the building and striking of each set. Due to the budget limitation, we are building, shooting, and striking at the same time. 

During post-production, I gave notes to each cut making sure it’s the best version of the film. I reached out and got quotes from sound houses, color houses, VFX vendors and gave notes to the final sound mix. I also submitted the film to various film festivals. In a nutshell, I was the producer who was in charge of internal communication.

In Desert Dream, besides communicating within the team, I was also in charge of scheduling, budgeting, and external communication. I led the location scouts and looked for star wagons, filming horses, and animal wranglers. During production, I was the problem-solver and bridge of external communication. Whenever the production needs something from the location, I would talk to the location owners.

What was your involvement in the development process for each film, and how did you help shape the direction of the project?

I was involved in both projects from the early development stage. For Magdalena, the final draft is not much different from the first draft. We didn’t revise the structure much, just fleshing out the character and dialogues, whereas for Desert Dream, we went through about 20 drafts, with each one very different from another. In one draft, the protagonist was even changed to an American girl instead of a Korean boy which was the initial idea of the film. I contributed creative ideas and made sure that the original vision persists in the development.

After submitting to film festivals, the projects went on to receive significant recognition in the industry. Magdalena won The Golden Tadpole at EnergaCAMERIMAGE Film Festival. It was also officially selected for the prestigious CAA Moebius Showcase; the Rhode Island International Film Festival, one of the top 10 Short Film Festivals in the United States; and the Hollyshorts Film Festival, which had an esteemed jury of Emmy, Screen Actors Guild, Tony, Golden Globe, Academy Award, and BAFTA award-nominated and winning stars.

As the only female on the principal team for Magdalena, what steps did you take to ensure that the female protagonist was portrayed accurately and respectfully?

During the development of Magdalena, my biggest note is that I hope the female protagonist is more active. Even though a lot of bad things happened to her like her early onset Alzheimer’s and her concentration camp experience, I don’t want her to be only portrayed as a victim. What intrigues me the most is how Magdalena fights to live a normal life despite all the things that have happened to her.

Can you walk us through your approach to location scouting and what challenges you faced in finding the right locations for each film?

For Magdalena, the most challenging part is finding an apartment that looks like 1917 Czechoslovakia in Los Angeles. We scouted almost 50 locations, but couldn’t find one that was suitable for the story and production-friendly. To build an apartment in a studio is too costly,  so we ended up decorating an apartment in RSI Locations from floor to ceiling, replacing all the furniture and painting the walls. Thanks to the vast range of locations available, we shot all the scenes in different parts of RSI Locations without long-distance company moves.

For Desert Dream, we had a hard time finding a diner in the middle of nowhere within the 30-mile studio zone. All the Western standing sets within our budget look very fake on camera. Luckily, we found a diner set in Lancaster that was built in 1990 for the Dennis Hopper film “Eye of the Storm.” It was located in the desert-middle of nowhere as depicted in the story.

How did you work with the directors and writers to bring their vision to life on set, and what were some of the biggest challenges you faced during production?

I tried to bring what was on the pages to life as much as possible despite all the challenges. For both projects, we had a hard time casting. The protagonist in Magdalena was supposed to speak Czech, but due to budget limitation, we couldn’t fly an international actress to America, and the pool of Czech speaking actresses is very small in LA. So, we prioritized acting ability over language and tried to use makeup and hair styling to get as close as possible to people living in that period. 

In Desert Dream, there are several Korean lines, so we wanted to cast someone who speaks Korean and looks like a teenager. We ended up casting a Korean American adult who looks like a teenager, so we didn’t need to work with limited minor working hours. However, as his Korean proficiency wasn’t very high, our writer spent several weeks training to improve his language skills.

What was your strategy for coordinating the different departments and ensuring that everything ran smoothly on set?

During pre-production, I communicated with all the departments constantly – the production, art, camera G&E, makeup, and wardrobe departments. Since we had limited resources and time, it was important to really understand each department’s needs and figure out the most efficient way to work together. For example, in Magdalena, there is a scene where the protagonist cuts her arm and has blood spilling. This requires the coordination of multiple departments like SFX makeup to prepare for the blood apparatus, wardrobe to make sure the same costumes are ready for change, and the art department to reset the environment and camera department to ensure that it’s the best angle to capture the special effects. As producers, we need to make sure all these conversations happen beforehand, so when production starts, everything can run smoothly.

Can you speak to your experience with post-production, and how you worked with sound houses and color houses to get the best final product?

A common misconception is that a producer’s job is done after the wrap of principal photography. Post-production is also a big part of the creative process. I researched and talked to different post-sound houses, color houses, VFX artists, and composers, and I wanted to make sure that they are not only great collaborators but also ones who understand the story. 

Both Magdalena and Desert Dream have been selected for film festivals and won awards. What was your approach to submitting to festivals, and how did you navigate the festival circuit for each project?

I think it is important to do research on all the film festivals before mass submissions, such as trying to find what genre the film belongs to and looking for those festivals that target specific genres and regions. For example, Magdalena is a horror drama, and we submitted it to a lot of horror film festivals like the Nightmare Film Festival.

One thing I learned from participating in film festivals is that they are not only laurels on your poster, but also a great place for networking. In Hollyshorts, I went to a lot of other screenings and met a lot of talented filmmakers and potential future collaborators.