Turning Books Into Film: Behind the Lens with Yulin Kuang

We all wish we could see our favorite books come to life on the big and small screens, but often times we're not so lucky. Then there's Yulin Kuang, a voracious reader, director and filmmaker whose work has enchanted readers everywhere with her beautiful short films, especially her I Didn't Write This series, in which she adapts selected scenes from her favorite books. As fans of her work, we wanted to learn more, so we asked and Yulin answered!

Can you tell us a bit about why you wanted to work in film? Is there a particular director or movie that inspires you?

I've always loved film and television — I grew up in a first generation immigrant family, so movies and TV were the way we learned English. Around high school I realized that writing television was an actual job, and tried to learn as much as I could about screenwriting through Google and library books. In college, I started directing my own short scripts, and then I caught the filmmaking bug and couldn't stop.

There are a lot of directors and movies that inspire me. I try to consume media on a constant basis so whatever I'm watching each week is inspiring in its own flavor. But I do keep Norah Ephron's When Harry Met Sally script and the screenplay for Wes Anderson's Moonrise Kingdom on my desk in hopes of achieving awesomeness through osmosis someday.

We absolutely love your I Didn't Write This series. What inspired you to start the series and which book has been your favorite to adapt so far?

Thank you! I spend a lot of time angsting over my keyboard as a writer/director type and I wanted to get out of the habit where I would use not having a script that was ready as an excuse for not making work. So I started giving myself directing exercises: adapt excerpts of poetry and literature written by other people.

My favorite so far has probably been Jenny Han's To All the Boys I've Loved Before — Jenny Han writes beautifully, and contemporary young adult fiction is one of my very favorite genres.

Describe the process of filming an episode for I Didn't Write This. How much planning goes into a single video?

It depends on whether it's an adaptation of a poem or a piece of fiction. The more involved episodes take about 5-6 weeks of pre-production, a day of production, and then 2-3 weeks of post-production. After I've decided which excerpt we're adapting, I meet with my cinematographer and production designer to discuss the vision for the short. Sometimes there's a casting process, other times I pull from an available pool of actor friends. We often record the voiceover before we shoot. Then my editor and I get to work bringing all the elements together for the final piece.

When you're reading a book and are inspired to adapt it, what comes first? Actor choices? Set ideas? Camera angles?

Stalking the author's social media presence! I always check if the author has shared fan art or expressed an opinion on fanmade work in the past, before I get too attached to the idea of adapting something. I also usually check if the book has already been optioned for adaptation by a production company, and whether anyone has done a fan trailer before. Fan films can get a little touch and go where copyright laws are concerned, and I always want to err on the side of caution. For example, with Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell, I did a lot of digging on Rainbow's tumblr to find her opinion on fanwork before we fully started production. There are other books I've wanted to do adaptations for and then found out later that official adaptations were already in the works, at which point I started looking to other places for material.

If you had the opportunity to helm a feature adaptation of any book, which one would you choose and why?

Right now I'd have to say Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell. I came of age during the Harry Potter fandom era and developed my early writing voice by penning a lot (a lot a lot) of Harry Potter fanfiction. Too often I think fandom is treated as something strange and other by mainstream media, and Fangirl was significant to me in that it was the first time I saw my fandom experience being treated as something normal and okay by traditional media.

What advice do you have for those looking to become a director, especially young women — particularly young women of color — who may not always see themselves represented in Hollywood?

Start now! Don't be your own gatekeeper. When I was writing fanfiction, I was writing the stories I wanted to read but couldn't find in canon. I've taken a similar approach to filmmaking. Write the stories you want to watch.

For a really long time I didn't think I looked like "what a director should look like" and was self-conscious about it. Then I realized my mental picture of a director was very male and white and taken from the photos in my outdated film textbooks, and it was up to me to replace that mental picture with a selfie.

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Watch Yulin's Fangirl short below:

To learn more about Yulin and her work, visit her official website and check out the rest of the I Didn't Write This series and more over on YouTube. For more YA goodies, hop on over to our Everything YA page!