Interview: Nancy Kelly and Kenji Yamamoto on Unearthing a Lost Treasure with “Thousand Pieces of Gold”

Even before “Thousand Pieces of Gold” hit theaters in 1991, something was slightly off about the way it would go into the world. Nancy Kelly had painstakingly recreated the American West during the 1880s for an adaptation of Ruthanne Lum McCunn’s historical novel of the same name, but the negative of the finished film was sitting in a lab when the Lomo Prieta earthquake that rocked the World Series that was unfolding in the Bay Area crunched the celluloid, leaving behind a discoloration that occurred during the film’s climax.

“It was mangled and I noticed it every single time I saw that print,” says Kenji Yamamoto, the film’s producer and editor and Kelly’s husband. “Maybe not to an audience – hopefully they were engaged with the drama that was occurring at that very moment – but there was always a white flash [from] the crumpled negative with dirt and scratches.”

The flaw was fixed when “Thousand Pieces of Gold” was lovingly restored recently by IndieCollect, something that had been impossible before the advent of digital color correction, and finally having a pristine presentation 30 years after its initial release would seem to be a reflection of how the film may have simply been ahead of its time. That’s a funny thing to say about a period drama, but in opening a window into the life of Polly Bemis, who came to America from China under the name Lalu Nathoy, Kelly crafts a refreshing tale of empowerment that’s in tune with the current moment in following a woman sold off by her father for marriage comes to carve out a place of her own on the frontier.

Starring Rosalind Chao as the formidible Lalu, “Thousand Pieces of Gold” traces her journey from China to San Francisco to Idaho, where she is made the property of Hong King (Michael Paul Chan), a wealthy merchant who for all his riches still can’t own land as an immigrant and requires a caucasian partner in Charlie Bemis (Chris Cooper) to post as a front for his saloon. While King wants to reclaim the money he paid for Lalu by offering her to locals as a prostitute, both she and Charlie have other ideas, gingerly forming a friendship, and drawing on a sage screenplay from Anne Makepeace as well as her own formative years as a cowgirl growing up in Massachusetts, Kelly observes Lalu adapt to her circumstances and begin to transcend them, catching a few twists of fate but defiantly making her own luck amidst the intense sexism and racism in the area.

Besides providing Chao and Cooper with some of their earliest showcases as leads who could command the big screen, a quick glance at the credits for “Thousand Pieces of Gold” features a number of ascending talents from Terrence Malick’s future right hand Sarah Green, who was a co-producer on the film, to “The Messenger” cinematographer Bobby Bukowski. However, Kelly never received the career bounce that many of her collaborators did, returning to documentaries when another opportunity to make a narrative didn’t materialize, despite rave reviews for her feature debut and a modest but healthy box office return. The loss of a follow-up is particularly unfortunate when Kelly is so obviously a director of considerable skill and ambition, sensitive to the nuances of Lala’s shellshock and small steps towards assimilation and realizing the epic scope of the journey she takes.

With a planned theatrical rerelease on hold as a result of the coronavirus, “Thousand Pieces of Gold” is being made available now online through virtual cinemas via Kino Marquee, who will split proceeds with your favorite local arthouse, and this evening (April 29th), there will be a special live Q & A with Chao, Cooper, Makepeace, Yamamoto and Kelly here presented by BAMCinematek at 5 pm PST/8 pm EST. Before they take questions from an audience, Kelly and Yamamoto kindly answered a few from us about how they mounted such an impressive production on an indie budget, how all the right things fell into place and their plans to get back in the saddle soon.

How did this restoration come about?

Nancy Kelly: Sandra Schulberg of IndieCollect, she’s one of our guiding lights. She founded the IFP years ago and she was also the international rep for American Playhouse Theatrical Films, the first time “Thousand Pieces of Gold” was released. When she started IndieCollect, she said to me, you should restore “Thousand Pieces of Gold” and we can do it at a fraction of the price that the labs in L.A. are doing it for, because that’s a $50,000-plus proposition. When they got the Kinetta scanner, we started doing [the restoration] with them.

Kenji Yamamoto: It was a very long process – first, we had to go to my 96-year-old mother’s house where the negatives were stored, and seeing that the clock was ticking, that kind of pushed this forward. [laughs] Then we had to raise money. It’s a $50,000 to $60,000 expense of which we had to consider fundraising and we were not even able to meet that fully, so we had to take savings and put it forth to the restoration. It took us quite a while to figure out how to do this. [Since] IndieCollect is in New York, we wanted to be part of the color balancing process that both of us were in the room with the colorist to actually look at the negative, seeing as it’s being restored.

Nancy Kelly: Because we knew what it was supposed to look like or how it could be improved. When we made the 35mm print, our colorizing choices were so crude, [the questions were] well, you want it lighter or darker? Or more red or green or magenta? We thought it was the top of technology then, but now you can look and say, “Oh, let’s just take this one little part of the frame and lighten it up a little bit.” And we made that film look even more beautiful than it was as a 35mm print. The first time I saw it projected, which was at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York, when the credits came up, I was supposed to go up to do the Q & A, I was in tears. [laughs] They had to keep it rolling to get me on stage.

Did you get to marvel at what you accomplished? What was it like to realize you had taken on something so ambitious for your first feature?

Nancy Kelly: Everybody thinks that, but to us, it was just a story we wanted to tell and we figured it out. We had a fabulous co-producer who put together a crew that became like a family and it’s like how can you go wrong with Rosalind Chao and Chris Cooper and Michael Paul Chan and Dennis Dun. To us, it just seemed normal.

Kenji Yamamoto: Yes, and in seeing many independent films at that time — John Sayles being one of our heroes — a small crew, the script and the process of the director directing the actors was truly the way to go. The one thing we had in our hands was a screenplay and I asked the crew members, “You won’t be paid as much as your Hollywood salary, but are you engaged with the story? If you like the script, we’d like to consider you.” That was above all else.

What was it like to collaborate with Anne Makepeace on the script?

Nancy Kelly: Anne and I met when we were both touring with our first film. I always laugh that we met at the food table…[laughs]

Kenji Yamamoto: Where filmmakers usually meet.

Nancy Kelly: She lives in San Francisco and so do we, and she had written a script called “Jewels” that had gone through the Sundance Lab. It was an original script we liked and when we were looking for a screenwriter, she was just the first person that we thought of because she was incredibly talented and she was our friend, so she would have respect for us, which most people didn’t because we had so little experience. It was a really hard novel to adapt because it [covered] Polly Bemis’ entire life. We knew [the film] should start with her father’s decision to sell her and [end with] her decision to call the U.S. home, but [Anne] really honed that theme of home. When the three of us went to the Sundance lab to work on the script, we got some really, really good suggestions from Robert Redford and Tom Rickman, who wrote “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and Frank Pierson, who made “Dog Day Afternoon,” and the drafts that Anne wrote were what American Playhouse Theatrical Films came onboard for.

Kenji Yamamoto: The one thing about Anne was that she was truly curious. She would ask questions about what it was like to be a Chinese immigrant coming into this country and how does that person feel? As a third-generation Japanese-American myself, she asked me how I communicated with my grandmother and what was the transition of my grandmother learning to speak English, which she did not speak very much. Having a person with a curious mind opened up a lot of doors to approach the script and what kind of dialogue should be spoken, so I really have to respect this very active mind onboard with us that we could just freely talk [about] these basic questions of what it’s like being the other, going into a new community? What is it like to be a woman in an all-male society? I really respected Anne asking these questions.

When you bring up language, I wondered was it much of a decision to include as much Mandarin as there is in the film when financiers are notorious for having an aversion to anything foreign in a primarily English-language production?

Nancy Kelly: Yeah, hen we were looking for a distributor, one of the negative things that was said to us was, “You managed to make a film that had to be subtitled everywhere in the world.” [laughs] But to us, it touched on the real things about an immigrant’s experience coming to the U.S. and Rosalind, when she came to audition, her mother had taught her part of the audition in Mandarin, so she literally spoke Mandarin [as the character]. She was totally into it.

Was that what sold you on her playing the lead?

Nancy Kelly: She just was Lalu. She was strong and she is a really good actress. We looked and looked and we saw actresses from London and Taipei, but we never ever saw anybody who even came close.

Kenji Yamamoto: And Rosalind was, I think, the second person to audition for the role of Lalu/Polly. [laughs] And it’s true, we saw this inner strength in her performance that just came out, so she was always the bar that everyone had to compare to and no one reached that bar.

You mentioned you were a fan of John Sayles. Is that how Chris Cooper came to your attention?

Nancy Kelly: We knew of him because there wasn’t an independent filmmaker at that time who didn’t know of Chris Cooper. But when I met with Lora Kennedy, the casting director, we had lunch and we barely hit the chairs before she said, “Chris Cooper is Charlie.” And she was totally right.

Kenji Yamamoto: I’ll never forget when Nancy came back from New York,we recorded his audition on VHS and we’re upstairs in our bedroom, watching the auditions and I said, “Who. Is. That?” Because he immediately bounced off the screen.

Nancy Kelly: Rosalind talks about this too — she was remembering when we were in rehearsal, she was like, “Wow, this guy is subtle.” And then when she saw the first dailies, she’s like, “Oh, I see… This is fantastic.”

The other main character you had to track down was Nevada City, this amazing Western town. What was that like to find?

Kenji Yamamoto: We were entertaining my mother-in-law and her girlfriend and we were in Caramel. Clint Eastwood was mayor at the time, so they went off to a restaurant to see if they could spot him [because] he owned a restaurant there. I decided I cannot join them, so I was sitting in a hotel room, reading this article in Sunset Magazine [about] this restored historic town called Nevada City, owned by this former senator of Montana, Mr. [Charles] Bovey and it was called Bovey Restorations…

Nancy Kelly: He was an heir to the General Mills fortune.

Kenji Yamamoto: He had this fascination for turn of the century Gold Rush memorabilia and was especially interested in buildings, so whenever he discovered that there was an authentic late 19th Century log cabin, he would buy it, number the logs, take it all apart, have it shipped to Montana and reconstruct the building. So he created this fictitious town — Nevada City. Another film actually shot there before we were there, “Little Big Man,” which starred Dustin Hoffman. They buried all the telephone lines, so there was no modern electrical facilities showing in the frame, and it was actually perfect for us. We not only set up the location for shooting there, but the production offices as well so that outside of the production office ten feet away, the shoot was happening. It was like an old style studio lot.

Did you actually schedule the production around the seasons? There’s a scene that appears to take place in real snow when the rest of the film looks like the spring and summer.

Kenji Yamamoto: No, we didn’t. [laughs] We were budgeting a box of snow, fake snow, and I think it was $300 for a square yard. That’s all we could afford. And the plan was to shoot a foot stepping into it and then leaving frame and that was going to be our winter scene. But lo and behold, it was late spring and one morning, it snowed. Our cinematographer Bobby Bukowski came to the production office and said, “We’ve got to shoot this. Get everybody in the car, let’s go down to the location. We’ve got to forget the schedule as we have it. Let’s go!” And I remember that the battery froze on the lighting truck, so they couldn’t get the lighting and [Bobby] said, “I don’t care. Let’s go!” [laughs] So they literally shot it that morning and by the afternoon, [the snow] was all gone.

Nancy Kelly: Yeah, I was so happy because in every film, there’s something that people will say to me, “You don’t need that. It’ll be just fine if you don’t have that.” But we needed that passage of time. And the idea that $30,000 worth of snow fell out of the sky just before we wrapped was just…oh! Every time I see those scenes I’m just thrilled all over again. [laughs]

Nancy, did your training as a cowgirl come in handy on this set?

Nancy Kelly: [laughs] Oh god, yes! First of all, when we were raising the money, I ran into no end of sexism about my ability to direct a film, but I had already made it as a cowgirl in a male-dominated world. I started out with no cred in that cowboy world and over time I learned what you need to do and to do it well, so I got to be what they call “good help” – that’s the highest praise. “You’re good help.” So when these people from L.A. came with their soft hands and faces that had never been out in the sun, they’d say things to me and I’d be like, “I’ve already made it in a male-dominated world. [I know] you’re wrong.”

Then when we were shooting, none of the horse stuff intimidated me because I knew horses. But what I didn’t realize is that movie horses are trained not to spook when the sound recordist raises the boom over their head, but Judy Karp, the soundwoman, remembers that every time her boom operator lifted the mics, the horses would spook. And [for] the ox cart that the father puts Lalu in when he sells her [at the beginning of the film], we had all the actresses in the cart and the ox ran away across the bumpy prairie. Our wrangler had to go and get our ox to circle around, but I remember looking at those actresses and thinking, “Boy, these are tough women. They didn’t even blink an eye. They just sat there.”

When you’ve been doing these Q & As with your cast and crew after a number of years and just having the perspective that you have at a distance, is there something you’ve learned about your own film only now?

Nancy Kelly: Oh yeah, Kenji and I recorded a commentary for the Blu-ray, which is going to come out eventually, and we got in touch with Rene Haynes, the local casting director, and you can only imagine what her challenge was trying to find all those Chinese extras in Montana. I didn’t know anything about this, but she and her brother and her mother drove all over Montana, posting “If you’re of Asian origin, please get in touch,” and the most Chinese people that she found were almost 200 miles away in Butte at a mining school. Most of them didn’t drive, so we had to send drivers…it was unbelievable. And [Kenji], did you remember that we had to drive the camera truck from California to Montana?

Kenji Yamamoto: Oh yes. What I do remember is that we had $100 in our bank. [laughs] So we drove the equipment about a thousand miles to get to location and the way that the funds would be released is that on the first day of preproduction, we would get paid.

Nancy Kelly: The other thing that Rosalind brings up at these Q & As is what a good director I was for her because of the guidance I gave her during preproduction. I shared a lot of our research [with her] and we talked a lot about Lalu and the worldview of a survivor or sexual abuse and of trauma. I just really appreciate hearing something like that from someone like her.

Is it true you have another film in the works as we speak?

Nancy Kelly: “When We Were Cowgirls!”

Kenji Yamamoto: Yep, we’ll raise money hopefully with some help and independently produce it. We know how films are made that you really want to make on your own and often times, the director is hired by the producer and the producer is hired by the financier. If you raise the money yourself, you’re essentially empowered to choose who the director is and that director is Nancy. [laughs]

Nancy Kelly: And we’ve learned this from Jonathan Hertzberg, the director of distribution at Kino Lorber [who is handling the re-release] – he named all the marketing pluses about “Thousand Pieces of Gold” and the number one marketing plus was that it had a woman director, so I’m hoping that this time around with “When We Were Cowgirls,” the fact that there’s a woman director, the two leads are women, and that it’s an adventure story, that that be an advantage. Instead of the last time where the only way we got through it was [realizing] that all those people who treated me in sexist ways were worthless. I was moving on.

“Thousand Pieces of Gold” is available to watch now through Kino Marquee’s Virtual Cinemas, with proceeds split with your favorite local arthouse. A full list of theaters is here.

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