Interview by Maria Nikolaeva Lechtarova
The integration of ethnographic detail, media theory, and analysis throughout your book creates a fluid space for critical thought, as well as enchantment with the subject matter. Writing multi-sited ethnography is a notoriously difficult task. How did you first decide that having a comparative framework was necessary for your analysis? What structuring insights guided your writing process?
Thank you. Yes, transnational multi-sited ethnography is very challenging. Due to time and funding constraints, you can’t always spend equal amounts of time in each place (and even if you do, there’s no guarantee that you’ll come away with commensurate observations). Yet multi-sited ethnography is also rewarding, as you acquire various perspectives.
More than a comparative study, I consider this ethnography a connective study. Comparison is built into multi-sited ethnography, as George Marcus has said. Yet there are some fundamental similarities between many entertainment industries around the world, especially commercially-driven ones. So, I intended to “follow the activity” into differently located sites with their own particular histories and contexts, to discover specificities as well as commonalities and links between the industries.
Both the Hollywood and Hong Kong media industries operate at multiple scales, simultaneously, and I tried to capture that. They may present as fairly self-contained and separable from one another. Certainly in the day-to-day production process, people are often deeply immersed within their immediate environments. However, the entirety of the production activities of these two industries is not always contained within the city in which their industry is based. Sometimes filming has to occur on location, across state, national, or regional borders. Or, a production may bring in talent or money from other parts of the world. And in fact, Hollywood and Hong Kong have been directly connected to each for about a century through particular individuals, ideas, and financial investments.
The Hollywood and Hong Kong industries also share a long history of being highly commercial, and both have had to increasingly contend with China’s growing film industry – more directly than most other national film industries. Both are seeing more and more of their projects and their workers physically cross borders for economic reasons. And both have tended to be male-dominated at the studio executive level and on set.
Therefore, despite their differences, Hollywood and Hong Kong share many concerns and issues. This is why I didn’t organize the book into separate geographies; there is no pure “Hong Kong Section” or “Hollywood Section”: neither place exists in isolation. In trying to convey film and television production as a diffused, transnational practice, we move back and forth across specific sites within chapters, which combine findings from both places.
By using the concept of media assemblage as an organizational device in the writing as well as an analytical approach to understand the empirical evidence, I was able to preserve the open-endedness that I often saw. (This open-endedness includes some of the overlap between film and television production in both places, too.)
So, I refer to this book as a connective study because I explore material and thematic links between the two industrial centers, alongside the contrasts. Now, there are a couple chapters that deal primarily with one site, but even those still refer to the other site. For instance, in the chapter devoted mostly to Hollywood, I included observations of Hong Kong filmmakers working at a Los Angeles studio, partly as a way to show how in its own backyard (or, backlot), Hollywood is more transnational in its production activities than even it realizes sometimes – and reliant on Asian labor. In our contemporary globalized world, we often operate in industries or institutions that may appear very geographically contained yet are actually quite porous. As a result, place-based worker identities in the States and Hong Kong have been caught up in issues of nativism and racism in the former and localism in the latter.
Of course, there are some very significant differences between the Los Angeles-based industry and the Hong Kong-based industry, especially in regards to geopolitical and economic power, which I discuss. This is why multi-sited ethnography – from research to writing – means grappling with the tension between compartmentalization and connection. It entails shifting perspectives, or multi-sightedness. I found that people in both industries had their own reasons for emphasizing both the uniqueness of their industry and its unity with other national media industries. Figuring out the contours of this relationality has been exciting
I found your concept of “media assemblages” to be a portable tool for comparing very different media worlds. Ethnography stands as the anthropologist’s media of choice to disentangle and explicate the assemblages in field research by constructively distancing them from the spectacles of the anthropologist’s fascinations. However, if you were going to make a documentary film of this book, how would you envision it? Who would be your intended audience, and how would it compare to the audience of this book?
Making this book into a documentary is a great idea! I’d focus on my finding about the intersection of religion and media production. Some people are surprised to hear that Hollywood studios skip “unlucky” 13 in their numbered sound stages, one studio having even kept a psychic on its payroll (confirming industry hype about “the magic of moviemaking”!). And folks in Hollywood are intrigued to hear about incense burning on Hong Kong film sets to ensure an auspicious shoot, as well as astrological forecasting. Meanwhile, they themselves may collect St. Clare of Assisi icons (she’s the patron saint of television) to help them through the various challenges of filming – the social and emotional risks as well as physical and financial ones. For instance, when filming a death scene in either industry, concerns about mortality can trouble the cast and crew, immersed as they are in these stylized settings.
Why this particular focus? The assumption that there is an absence of religion in the culture of industrial production remains quite strong among people I talk to in both the U.S. and East Asia (especially the United States). The assumption is fueled by economic rationalization and the Enlightenment narrative of a steady march towards scientific reason. Sometimes people see its presence, but they don’t think about its implications.
Anthropologists know that modernity doesn’t mean the loss of mysticism. And people who study performance or religion know that there is a long history of the two being intertwined. But a public anthropology film that shows actors reading Scripture on set or producers budgeting for the hoih geng lai (“opening lens”) ceremony would help general audiences see that “modern” and technologically sophisticated workplaces are not free of religion and spiritual expressions, especially in industries that hinge on so much uncertainty and insecurity. Anthropologists have a lot to offer in helping people to question received categories. Despite the presumed secularity of commercial media environments, actually, expressions of religion and the supernatural are enfolded, sometimes expected, in the very spaces and practices of these businesses. They can even guide work decisions, such as when and where to film.
Hopefully such a film would generate more conversations about the precarious conditions of media labor, and the experience of contemporary work in general. It would make evident to people that we do indeed draw from a variety of cultural elements to make our labor more meaningful, to legitimize decisions, and to protect ourselves as we work, even (especially) in bureaucratic or mechanized settings. The question could then be raised: what other professional workspaces and activities commonly considered secular are actually influenced by, or inclusive of, expressions of formal or informal religion as well as the supernatural? Trading floors? Science labs? Our understanding of managerial accountability and decision-making may then take on another dimension.
This becomes particularly relevant as we consider the implications of automated labor and robot replacements, especially in an industry that increasingly relies upon computer-generated images and digital doubles to enhance or replace the human form. We should think deeply about what it is that human beings bring to the workplace. In addition to the particular skills or talents we offer, people harbor foibles and fears, inspirations and intuitions; these are not mutually exclusive. Our memories of past experiences and anticipations of future events shape our productive capabilities. Our cosmologies – the way we think about the universe whether we’re atheists or adherents – also play a role in formulating our outlook and our decision-making in the workplace (explicitly stated or not). Although corporations and labor management often discourage you from bringing the totality of who you are to work, and some people become quite successful at partitioning themselves (with recent advances in robotics likely to intensify the pressure to do so), not everyone can accomplish this, nor, perhaps, should we always strive to.
In your chapter on “Affective Labor” you illuminate the critical emotive aspects of film production that often take backstage to the “effects” of film reception. How does industry folklore of criminal involvement and encounters with death during the production process circulate publicly?
The industry folklore of those things has frequently circulated through broadcast and print media and rumors in both places. There is a history of organized crime in both industries, especially in Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Gangsters such as Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky remain part of the American popular culture landscape, inspiring books and movies. Years ago the Hong Kong actor, director, and producer Philip Chan, who actually used to be a police superintendent prior to joining the film and TV industry, spoke to Hong Kong and British media about triads in the Hong Kong entertainment world. But you don’t hear too much in the news today about organized crime in the Hollywood or Hong Kong film/TV industries.
It’s also worth mentioning that literally a century ago Hollywood became a magnet for drug dealing and use. News reports and rumors of drug use (some legal, some not) among silent film stars contributed to Hollywood’s early reputation as an immoral environment. Over the years, complicated issues of accountability and ethics arose for actors in particular, a few of whom have in interviews and memoirs referred to being “offered” certain substances by production members or management to help their job performance, whether it be for energy, recovery, weight loss, and so on, somewhat similar to athletes and U.S. combat pilots. Manipulating the corporeal and emotional potentials of its workers – even creating a distracted worker – became a tactic of those who manage affective laborers.
Other kinds of illegal activities are regularly reported in the media, such as managers embezzling money from actors. Especially in Hollywood, there’s a lot of contract litigation that gets covered by the trade publications and entertainment media. Other forms of potentially illegal activity, such as discrimination and sexual harassment or abuse on film/TV sets, may publicly surface through reportage of law suits, interviews, and now blogs, social media, and leaks, more so in the U.S. than Hong Kong. The amount of unpaid labor in Hollywood via internships has also come under recent legal and media scrutiny.
As for fatalities, news of accidents on set in Hong Kong circulates in print media. The drowning death of a cameraman on a Jackie Chan film a few years ago in Hong Kong (which was a US/China/HK co-production) was reported around the world because of the big names involved on the film. Accidents during filming on Hollywood projects typically appear in Hollywood trade publications as well as American mainstream media. Regarding the very recent death of stuntman Jon Bernecker on the set of the American TV show The Walking Dead, I was glad to see that the L.A. Times included quotes from OSHA about the lack of workplace protections in its coverage. This kind of context and scrutiny by journalists in both places is needed, especially for productions that film on location, where safety is not always so rigorously followed and rushed schedules can lead to very dangerous mistakes.
You weave together a complex, composite image of the Hong Kong and Hollywood film industries by analyzing their overlapping cinematic and occult histories, as well as their common mode of expression – the camera. I enjoyed peeking through the aperture of your ethnography to consider the space of film production as having its own supernatural gaze – one that shouldn’t be met head on, like that of an onstage actor. What were media workers’ relationships to image-capturing technologies in their lives offset, and how did they differ from their professional roles as mediators between worlds?
When they’re working, they don’t have a lot of time off-set, in Hollywood or in Hong Kong. Between projects, the relationship to those technologies operated for many of them on a continuum. Film and TV are visual mediums. In both sites, it is in many media workers’ best professional interests to be familiar with how their work looks on-camera (depending on their job: their set design, their direction, their lighting, their angles, their bodies, and so on), as well as the latest developments in camera technologies. Many technical personnel in particular devoted some time off the set to these technologies, so it’s a pretty consistent relationship.
Lots of media workers, even extras, wardrobe assistants, and set designers, often described locations or scenery they observed in their downtime with an eye to how they might look on camera. With smart phones, now “everyone” is a photographer or filmmaker and nothing is too esoteric to be captured and curated. Yet industry members striving to remain employed and competitive have for many, many decades been professionally primed to evaluate all the world as a potential film location, to assess any and all surroundings as a possible backdrop. Offset, they are still mediating between worlds: their private and professional ones.