The Western Filmmakers Behind iQiyi's Viral Wang Feng Documentary

By Jocelyn Richards, December 7, 2017

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In less than 24 hours of going live, Existence, an English-narrated documentary that charts the story of China’s biggest rock musician, Wang Feng, had racked up 1.25 million views on iQiyi. 

Netizens everywhere weighed in with comments, many moved by the film’s candid depiction of a celebrity so often mocked in the media.

From their home in Guangzhou, producers Tom, Maxwell and Jacob Sanderson – three brothers from York, England – watched the numbers climb in a well-deserved culmination of their three-year endeavor to write, film and edit the first major documentary on China’s rock-and-roll legend. It was the project of a lifetime, and one the Sanderson brothers could have never seen coming.

“We arrived here nine years ago with a suitcase, we didn’t know anyone and we had a crap camera,” jokes Tom, who was instrumental in financing Existence. “But to now be navigating the Chinese music industry and dealing with Wang Feng and Zhang Ziyi on that level… it’s like a dream.”

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The trio started out by founding their own film production company, SLA Studios, in 2011, splitting a RMB7,000 salary and one-person apartment three ways until the business gained momentum. Their passion for music inspired them to focus on filming festivals, concerts and events all across China, which is what led them to Wang Feng in 2014.

“He was doing a show at the Bird’s Nest in Beijing, and we were filming the sound team because it was a huge operation – the logistics of filling a 70,000-person stadium with music,” explains Max. 

Wang-Feng-performance

When one of Wang Feng’s crew saw what the Sandersons had filmed, they asked to work with them on the spot, saying they had something unique – “20 percent that’s different from other film companies.”

The initial agreement held that SLA Studies would film Wang Feng’s national tour, 10 shows total, and create a standard concert movie. But Max – who would become the chief writer and director of Existence – quickly discovered the story went deeper than that.

“We went to the first show in Shijiazhuang and it wasn’t like what I’d imagine a rock band to be backstage – it was so well behaved,” he recalls. “And Wang Feng seemed like a pretty serious and highly professional guy, so I thought, I have to do something on him.

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“We met his mum for coffee – no cameras, just to talk – and she just burst into tears, telling us loads of stuff. We realized we had a really good story.”

But turning the project into a film about his whole life – instead of just the tour – would mean funding part of it themselves, and there was no guarantee Wang Feng was ready to share his intimate past with the world.

Still, the Sandersons decided to go for it.

“We lost everything,” Tom recalls. “We totally restructured our business model within a period of about three months to make a conscious effort to pursue [the film].”

It took a while – up until the first cut – for them to gain Wang Feng’s trust. And even then, he was so “insanely busy” most days that he often forgot they were making a documentary about his life – a film that would ultimately show the world who he is.

“He’s quite reserved,” Max admits. “The most time we spent together was traveling from hotels to gigs. It’d always be a 20-minute journey or so, and we would just sit and talk about the meaning of life, or anything.”

Wang-Feng-existence

Gradually, and with support from Onsight Post Production House in London, the Sandersons pieced together a narrative of the real Wang Feng: an introverted kid turned rebellious rocker, caught between his blossoming individuality and the pressure to conform.

At its core, the film was just a summary of his life. But for Wang Feng, it brought clarity. 

“He was like, ‘These guys understand me completely – I’ve never been able to look at myself in this way,’” says Max of Wang Feng’s reaction to the final cut.

Interviews with immediate family members – including his wife, high-profile Chinese actress Zhang Ziyi – bandmates, friends and mentors helped show local audiences a more relatable side of the once distant megastar.

Zhang-Ziyi-and-Wang-Feng-in-Existence

band-Wang-Feng

For non-Chinese audiences, Existence legitimized the idea that China could have a real Springsteen of its own – not just a talented impersonator. 

“Wang Feng’s story is more ‘rock and roll’ than most of the rock artists in the West,” offers Max. “You hear his songs talking about ‘breaking free’ and all that stuff and it’s like, wow, the ultimate – I mean, isn’t that the definition of rock?”

Tom adds that while there may not yet be much desire for Chinese music internationally, there is a market for people interested in the stories of Chinese artists. 

Existence is uniquely crafted to target both wider international audiences and local audiences. It’s a new concept for Chinese video streaming sites like iQiyi, and one SLA Studios plans to continue developing.

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“It would be great to create a five-part series, kind of like Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix, with stories from China that are genuinely interesting,” Tom says. 

The team is already discussing a second film featuring DJ Youdai, who is interviewed in Existence and who knows “pretty much everyone” in the Chinese music industry.

While that will likely be their next adventure, the Sandersons also have another goal: to get Wang Feng on BBC Two’s Later… with Jools Holland – and make him famous worldwide.

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Existence is available to watch on iQiyi.com.

[Photos provided by SLA Studios and taken as screenshots from the film Existence]

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