The Zen of Filmmaking: A Balance of Heart & Mind

by Xuan Vu © 2006

Chapter VIII: Critical Review & Reflection

:: Scene-by-Scene Analysis
:: Introduction
:: “Is Zen Easy or Difficult?”—Communal Life
:: “Zen is Easy”—The Subjects’ Individual Lives
:: “Zen is Difficult”—Communal Practice
:: “Not Easy. Not Difficult. When I’m Hungry, I Eat. When I’m Tired, I Sleep.”—Conclusion
:: Concluding Remarks


…the first public showing [is] not unlike sending your 3-year old child to his first day of school. He’s been in your care for a few years already, and the only reactions he’s really gotten have been from you, or friends who come over and meet him, under your watchful eye. Now, he’s going off to a place where other kids will meet him for the first time: most will not even notice him, some will love him like you do, and others will take him out to the playground and beat the shit out of him. (Andrew Jarecki, director of Capturing the Friedmans)(1)

I could not have expressed such sentiments better myself. My film took me almost a year and a half to complete, from its moment of conception to the final form it takes now. In December of 2005, I had my first public screening to the residents of the Cambridge Zen Center. A week before this I had a private screening with Nick and Tiffany, who were both pleased with the way the film turned out and had nothing but positive feedback to give. Such encouragement, however, was not to be given at the public screening. Since the entire process was completely new to me, I did not anticipate and, therefore, was not ready for a less-than-perfect showing.

First, there was the issue of setting. The Zen Center only has one common area in which a screening could take place, and that is the television room. The TV room is equipped with a 20” television screen and a DVD player—hardly the kind of environment for a big-screen, theater-going experience. The room also can fit only half a dozen people comfortably. This meant that of the twenty or so residents who so kindheartedly came to give me their support, only six of them had the comfort of the couches from which to watch the movie. The rest had to sprawl on the floor or stand along the wall or in the doorway.

Obviously the environment was not conducive to a successful screening experience, but I went ahead with it anyway since I had made numerous announcements about it before, and there were so many people there already. What made me realize that this may have been the wrong decision was when the sound came on. Due to either the quality of the DVD or the inability of the DVD player to read the DVD correctly, there was an annoying low buzz underneath the sound for the duration of the film. In the beginning it only irked me a bit, but as the film progressed, I became increasingly frustrated. Not only were important lines not being heard, but when anything remotely funny or interesting was heard, there would be laughs or comments from the audience that completely drowned out the rest of the lines that followed. Everyone was so jam-packed into the little room that the cramped space created an atmosphere which encouraged conversation and discussion rather than quiet absorption of the film. All of the important moments in the film were lost to the chaos of the room.

Perhaps the most disheartening moment that occurred was one-third of the way into the film, right around the scene in which Nick helps Tiffany with her computer. Having watched Nick and Tiffany as they cleaned during work period and as they cooked dinner together, a member of the audience good-naturedly observed, “Where are the rest of the people in the house? It’s like they’re the only two who live here!” There were one or two others who agreed, and as the film continued, there were more remarks made about the focus of the film.

It is important to note that none of these comments were meant as criticism. They were simply matter-of-fact observations made in the company of friends and housemates. Nevertheless, I took such feedback to heart. My initial reaction was to defend myself, thinking that the intended focus of the film was only on Nick and Tiffany, and not on the entire Zen Center community. Besides, what footage Josh and I did shoot of the community, aside from the practice footage, did not fit in the film in any natural or workable way. Then came doubt: Was their complaint legitimate? Had I set them up in the beginning of the film to expect to see more of the community? And if so, does this make it a bad film? Are the residents offended that I did not include them as much as they might have wanted or expected me to? Then came multiple attempts after the screening to rework the film so that this would no longer be an issue. However, without adequate footage of the rest of the community, these attempts were to no avail.

This was the point at which the fruits of my practice appeared. This question, this doubt, was my koan, and as I sat on the cushion in the days that followed, the chaos began to settle. It hit me that I was simply thinking about it too hard. Yes, the residents’ feedback did point out a legitimate problem in the film, but there was no need to complicate things by adding to the chaos. So I put it down and focused on my practice.

The following week the universe delivered me an answer, in the remarkably simple way it always does: Jose Ponce, the Senior Production Assistant of Film Production Services at COM, asked me when he would finally be able to see my film. I gave him a copy of it, and the next day we had a discussion about his impressions of it. He brought up the same critique that I had been agonizing over, but this time, instead of responding negatively to his feedback, I asked him what he thought I should do about it, given the fact that including more community-oriented footage was not an option. His answer was so simple: Since the problem seemed to stem from the setup, in which I lay the groundwork for the audience’s expectations of the film, why not just add a title card in the beginning specifically stating the focus of the film? Thus, I arrived at the disclaimer at the very beginning of the film: “The following film is the end product of a four-month long ethnographic case study on the Cambridge Zen Center, a lay community of 30 practitioners. This is a glimpse into the lives of two of its residents.” Though this solution may not satisfy those viewers who would still want to see more of the community, it does address the problem of fulfilling the expectations that the beginning of the film gives the audience. Besides, I needed to let it go.

Through the course of the entire filmmaking process, I have received a number of such contributions and invaluable feedback from professors and mentors, experts and professionals, friends and family. Each individual’s opinions and comments were taken seriously and played both major and minor roles in shaping the final version of the film. To close this monograph and this particular chapter in my life, I would like to acknowledge and discuss the suggestions and influences of test screening viewers that have so radically molded my “baby.”

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Scene-by-Scene Analysis


I decided to open the film with the Morning Bell Chant, which is the chant that starts each day at the CZC. It was very fortunate for us to be able to capture such beautiful music for our soundtrack, without the hassle of securing rights, and so we wanted to use the chants whenever possible. The tune itself helps to establish the slow, meditative pace of the rest of the film, and the sound of the bell and the Korean language serve to transport the viewer to the Zen Center culture, a different type of urban community.

I have already explained my reasons for the title of the film, When I’m Hungry, I Eat. When I’m Tired, I Sleep., in Chapter VI. One interesting thing to note, and which I didn’t realize until after I had chosen it, is that the title captures another aspect of the film that was entirely coincidental: After the cooking scene, Nick and Tiffany wrap up and give each other a hug. Then Tiffany says, “Okay, I’m off.” Nick says, “You’re not going to eat?” and Tiffany says, “No, I’m not hungry.” That’s the first part of the koan. The second part comes at the climax of the film when Tiffany oversleeps and misses bows: She was tired, so she slept. I love the way the world works.

The opening intertitles appear over pictures that I found in the Zen Center library. I chose the one with the cushion for the explanatory narration about koans because it is a picture of the setting in which a koan interview takes place. This intertitle sets up the rest of the structure of the film, as all of the following chapter headings follow the structure and practice of a koan. When we sent our first rough cut out to be critiqued, these chapter headings were individual, self-contained koans that I felt encompassed the meaning of the subsequent scenes. However, my former Professor of Chinese Medicine commented that he didn’t understand the koans’ connections to the scenes and felt that his attempts at connecting them during his viewing detracted from his overall experience of the film. Therefore, I chose just one koan to encompass the entire film and made each component of the koan a separate chapter heading to propel the “story” of the film.

The next intertitle is a picture of the Cambridge Zen Center sign, which is used to solidify the Center’s presence as an official organization. This title card provides basic background information about the Center itself and gives the film a larger context.
The next shot is of Nick, who is cooking. We used this particular footage because it was the only scene of Nick that we hadn’t used in the rest of the film. We also included it to establish his talent for cooking, which is seen later in the cooking scene when he dominates the planning and execution of the meal. In this introductory shot, he also informs the audience of the general demographic and layout of the CZC residencies.

Tiffany’s introductory shot establishes her love for her plants, which is seen later in her plant-watering scene, one of the most engaging scenes in the film. In these introductory shots, I used footage that best represented both Nick and Tiffany’s character. I included lower third titles with their names, years of residency, and occupation as brief background information. Originally, in the rough cut, my voiceover narration provided the viewer with this information, but Professor Doherty did not think that the recording of my voice nor the content of the narration were intimate or personal enough to engage the viewer. Also, voiceover narrations are normally used to convey personal or subjective information, not factual or objective information such as this. After multiple attempts at re-recording, I decided that textual narration would be the better alternative.

The inclusion of Josh in the film came after the first rough cut. Originally the film was only going to be about Nick and Tiffany, with none of Rouch’s self-reflexivity or calling attention to the filmmaking process. However, Professor Doherty mentioned in her Narrative Documentary class once that films should either focus on one character or three characters. To focus on two characters runs the risk of having the audience compare the two. This is fine if that is the filmmaker’s intention, but I had changed the focus of my film at the beginning stages just so I could avoid this effect. The practice of Zen is to help one let go of one’s dialectical thinking, not reinforce it, and I wanted my film to represent the Zen tradition appropriately. After watching the “behind-the-scenes” footage that I had captured during the filmmaking process and realizing that there were some usable, funny moments that would enhance the film, I decided that adding Josh, and consequently me, as a player in the film would accomplish this goal.

Another reason for Josh’s presence in the film is his role as the average American with his preconceived notions about Zen. In his introductory scene, he talks about how he’s “always been interested in Buddhist sex practices,” making an obvious joke, but also pointing to the general association of the Buddhist tradition with tantric practices. This issue of sex is reiterated in a later scene with Tiffany in the kitchen explaining the difference between monastic and lay communities. In the film, Josh serves as the vehicle by which non-practitioners can explore the practice of Zen and learn for themselves what it means to American lay practitioners.

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“Is Zen Easy or Difficult?”—Communal Life:

The first scene is of work period. The format of the setup title card was chosen for the same reason the lower thirds were chosen for Nick and Tiffany’s introductions: my voice was not necessary to convey such factual information. Josh and I filmed work period on two different occasions, once for each of the subjects since neither Tiffany nor Nick were present when the other was. We chose to parallel cut the two work periods together to show the audience what a typical work period is really like, when both are present (which they usually were). In this way, we were not intentionally trying to deceive the viewer about the chronological nature of the events. Also, if shown separately, the cleaning process would have been too repetitive, and not enough interesting things occurred that each would hold their own as a scene. We had the task of condensing time and picking out key moments that would allow the viewer to enter into their communal life most organically.

The lines that we chose to include in this scene specifically dealt with a look into the Zen Center’s culture (such as the music talk) and the subjects’ attitude towards living in the community, in order to set up the story for the change that occurs in the end. Originally Tiffany was very enthusiastic about living in a practicing community, and her naturally social nature comes through in her story of how she would use work period as a time to socialize. Nick, on the other hand, seemed to have a more negative view of living in a community, where there is inevitably “drama [and] annoyances.” Towards the end of this scene, Tiffany gives the viewer an account of her own experience with koan practice, which provides a more personal context for the premise of the film.(2)

Ending this scene is the work period bell and Tiffany’s cheerful remark that “This is the life,” which immediately leads into the scene of Nick playing his own originally composed song on the guitar. I chose to make this transition because Nick’s uplifting music fit nicely with the positive sentiment with which Tiffany ended the last scene. This scene also serves to give the viewer a peek into what Nick does in his personal time.

The next chapter, “Is Zen Easy or Difficult?” uses the same picture that I used for the explanatory narration about koans at the beginning of the film to signal to viewers that this question is a koan. This chapter begins with a return to me and Josh on the car while we are looking for parking. This motif returns in a later scene. These scenes serve as both comic relief as well as a way to briefly take the viewer outside of the Zen Center and remind them that the Center is a part of the city, not some remote far-off place.

Then there is a scene of Nick applying to graduate schools. We chose to overlay Nick’s interview over footage of him working on his computer in order to condense time as well as make the scene more active and engaging, per the suggestion of Professor Doherty.

The next scene is the cooking scene. Since this shoot was the only time Josh and I got Nick and Tiffany to really talk about their practice, we decided to make that the focus of this scene. However, the talk about sex at the very beginning of the scene was too good to pass up, so we decided to open the scene with this attention-grabber. Tiffany also points out that the Center’s allowance of sex differentiates the lay community from a monastic one. Like the work period scene, the cooking scene ends with a traditional Zen instrument: the moktok. Nick explains the purpose of the moktok and how it works. This moment is another peak into the unique culture of the Zen Center.

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“Zen is Easy”—The Subjects’ Individual Lives:

I chose to open up this chapter with the last scene that Josh appears in because of the positive note that it ends on: finding a parking spot. This scene both resolves the minor conflict that we had earlier in the film of not being able to find parking as well as providing an example of how Zen might be “easy.” It also gives Josh another dimension of character: he was struggling at the time with the transition between school and the real world, which graduation inevitably brings. This element connects him to Nick’s story of the quarter-life crisis and adds another minor conflict to be resolved at the end of the film when he “graduates with a degree in film production.”

The next scene is Tiffany’s plant-watering scene, in which Tiffany’s unique world is opened up to us. Not only does she name all of her plants (in pairs as well as with feminine connotations and nametags, no less), but she also cleans their leaves with water and a washcloth. Her love for her plants is conveyed through her rationalization for leaving the music on for her plants as well as shown in her excitement over the new roots that one of her plants has sprouted.

Her enthusiastic nature also comes through in the scene immediately following the plant scene when Nick helps her set up an internet connection on her new computer (which she also named). Many friends who saw the original rough cut immediately jumped to the conclusion that Nick and Tiffany were a couple because of this scene, in which they seem rather affectionate and flirty. This is another reason for my inclusion of Josh in the film because I knew full well that the seemingly intimate nature of their relationship had no bearing on reality.
In the next scene, Tiffany talks about her busy schedule, with all of the practice obligations and papers that fill up her weeks. The viewer comes to realize that it is rather stressful for her to balance her practice commitments and academic life. This scene plants the seed (oversleeping) of the film’s conflict (maintaining the balance), which later culminates in the climax of the film. This whole scene is covered in one long take.(3)

The final scene of this chapter resolves Nick’s story of applying to graduate schools by informing the viewer of his acceptance into Boston University, his first choice. I chose to convey this message through an intertitle per the suggestion of Professor Doherty since the footage that we shot of him telling us about his acceptance was poorly covered. We decided to use his haircut footage instead because the opening silhouette shot is the most artistic shot of the film. It also gives us a chance to get to know Nick a bit more, without Tiffany there. The line “It’s like celebrating spring,” referring to why he is shaving his head, signals the pivot point of the film that is about to occur in the next chapter by calling attention to the change in seasons. This is also the scene in which I make a cameo appearance so that the picture of me at the end of the film does not throw off the viewer.

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“Zen is Difficult”—Communal Practice:

We present the practice footage in the same manner as the rest of the film: chronologically. The bowing scene starts with an exterior shot of the Zen Center and a list of the practice times. Underneath is the sound of the moktok, signaling the beginning of morning practice (which was already explained by Nick). As previously discussed, this scene does not have any dialog or conversation, to distinguish it from the rest of the film.

The climax of the scene occurs shortly after the bowing scene when Tiffany runs down the stairs and realizes that she had overslept and missed the bows. To have captured this was entirely a matter of coincidence. We had scheduled with both Nick and Tiffany that we would be shooting morning practice, and both agreed to be there. When Tiffany did not show up, I could not help but feel disappointed that we couldn’t film her doing what she, in her preliminary interview, regarded as her favorite practice. So Josh was simply standing in the doorway shooting some establishing shots of people going into the dharma room when out of nowhere we hear the sound of Tiffany’s voice whispering to Kathy Park, the CZC director, about how she didn’t hear the bell for the bows. Little did we know at the time that this would be the climactic moment of the film. It seems that the film gods were definitely with us that day.

As a moment of reflection for the viewer over the drama of the scene, we continue with morning practice into chanting, where Tiffany looks very tired and discombobulated. In the original cut, the scene that followed the chanting scene was of Tiffany talking about how much she enjoys chanting. After screening this cut to a group of friends and seeing how the previous scene had such an impression on them as the climatic moment, I decided to resolve the conflict of the film by including the interview with Tiffany where she talks about her experience that morning.

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“Not Easy. Not Difficult. When I’m Hungry, I Eat. When I’m Tired, I Sleep.”--Conclusion:

The concluding intertitle provides a resolution to the koan of the film and signals that the film is ending. I chose to add the meditation scene as the final scene of the film because that was my initial interest in the whole topic of Zen, and up until then there had only been the talk in the kitchen about it. It was also to show that even through all the struggles between communal life and individual personal life, school and practice; in the end, balance can be restored through the simple act of just sitting.
The film ends with pictures and updates of what the subjects have done since the filming ended, the irony of which has already been discussed in Chapter VII. Underneath the visuals is another one of Nick’s guitar songs. The rolling credits play over the Evening Bell Chant, which closes a typical day at the Zen Center.

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Concluding Remarks

In Taiwan, the dharma name that the head nun had chosen for me was Zixin, zi being the family name, or the prefix in front of the dharma name given to all those receiving the Three Refuges and the Five Precepts in a ceremony similar to a Christian Baptism and Confirmation, respectively. Xin, or hsin as previously mentioned, is the Chinese word for both “heart” and “mind,” meaning that the Chinese believe these two to be inseparable. In my three years of studying Eastern thought, practicing Zen, learning film theory, and acquiring practical experience in filmmaking, I have realized the meaning of this word: the Zen of filmmaking, as of everything, is the delicate balance between experience and intellection, between the heart and the mind. One could not exist without the other, and to truly attain anything, whether it be Enlightenment or a successful career, one must learn to integrate both fully into one’s life.

Filmmakers rarely have the opportunity to sit back and reflect on all of the work, time, and effort that they put into making their films. For this reason, I have been utterly grateful for the opportunity that this project has given me, for it has reminded me of all the lessons I have learned along the way as well as how far the journey has taken me. The moments of spiritual revelations; the laughs and good humor that come from realizing that life is too short to take seriously; the long hours spent in the editing room; the tears of sweat and emotion that come with the filmmaking territory; the beautiful relationships that blossom between individuals in any situation, good or bad; these have all been such amazing gifts the first time around, and to be able to relive them has been even more of a blessing. Thank you for joining me on this journey.

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(1) Anderson, John and Laura Kim. I Wake Up Screening: What to Do Once You’ve Made That Movie. NY: Watson-Guptill Publishing, 2006. 17.
(2) The rationalization of the choices for this scene came about after feedback given by a woman who came on the Taiwan trip to shoot a documentary about the academic monastic program. She commented that the work period scene felt too lengthy, that there was too much footage of cleaning and not enough happening in terms of the story. Rethinking this scene and seeing what footage was available to include helped shape the scene into its current form.
(3) At the time of filming this scene, Josh remarked how perfect this scene worked in terms of both precision and story-wise.

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