In her enthralling NFTS grad short The Pregnant Ground Chinese-born London-based Writer/Director Haolu Wang explores the tumultuous emotional landscape of a woman who comes to believe the ground below her apartment is pregnant following her traumatic stillbirth. An immersive narrative which effortlessly bridges the gap between the real and the fantastical, we sat down with Wang to discover how the film’s magical realism was anchored by a grounded psychological journey of trauma and loss.
This film is a beautiful mix of surreal fantasy and deep emotion, what inspired the story and how did you take that into production as your NFTS grad short?
The idea of the film came to me as I saw a raised road bump, the size of an apple, during an evening walk around my apartment block. That image intrigued me. A lot of roadworks were happening in my area. Workers were digging the ground open during weeks. It was loud and noisy. It felt intrusive. At the same time in my life, I felt pressure to have children. It felt as intrusive — to bear a life inside me. The claustrophobic atmosphere intensified my inner struggle. These few strands of images, sounds and emotions interweaved together naturally and became the story for The Pregnant Ground.
I wrote the script in a week. Further development took a few more weeks. Preproduction was intense and difficult, given the scale of the production versus the limited student film budget. We had to find an apartment block with a gated exterior courtyard that allowed for extensive onset dressing, an indoor swimming pool with natural light, a cheap underwater tank, and also to build a “womb” in the NFTS studio along with three transportable “pregnant bumps” of varying sizes. We even had to create a 3D vagina opening for the womb! With my production designer, cinematographer and the VFX team, we determined which elements could be created/altered in post and the best way to integrate these elements during the shoot. I wanted the surreal scenes to feel magical and emotional. We had lengthy discussions and tests to fine tune the look of all elements to fit a precise overall tone.
The production itself took seven and a half days, spanning across five locations, in London and Beaconsfield. It was the best production experience I’ve ever had! Though the film itself is dark and melancholic, the set was full of laughter. It was a very creative experience. We shot on Alexa Mini with anamorphic lenses. Postproduction took about three months at the NFTS studios. It was a hugely ambitious film and I’m proud of what we achieved in the end as a team.
Were there any scenes in the making of The Pregnant Ground which you found particularly challenging to create?
One challenging scene was when she jumps into the crack of the pregnant bump and disappears underground. The bump had to be solid enough for her to stand on, but not too heavy to transport onto location. Her jump must feel like free fall. The crack on the bump was too small for her body to cram through. We used a four-metre outdoor green screen to composite two shots together in post.
I wanted the surreal scenes to feel magical and emotional.
We built a wooden platform for her to jump from. We calculated the jump trajectory and prepared a landing point. The two shots had to merge into one — the light, the angle, the movement, the edit. It was one of the most critical moments in the film, and I was very worried about it during production. We had to record the two shots on two separate days with different lights, which made matching shots more difficult. It was a real team effort — lengthy discussions with the DoP, the production designer, art director, first AD, compositors, editor, and stunt coordinator.
Another challenging scene is the night dream fight scene, where she pushes him out of the window. It’s an emotionally brutal and physical scene for a night shoot in a very small room. The first rehearsal we did, during the fight between the two leads, they knocked down the entire curtain. We had help from a stunt coordinator to ensure the actor’s safety when he is pushed by her towards the window. At some point, we even had a blow-up doll on set as a dummy falling out of the window. We eventually decided to fake the fall-out by using the curtain in the foreground and letting the actor fall through it onto a crash pad.
The small space was a challenge for the DoP and sound team. We rehearsed many times for each department to find their best routes. The logistics aside, the most crucial for me was getting the emotional tone right. It’s not a realistic scene, but it had to feel real at the beginning. The audience must believe that it’s actually happening, and the scene gradually spirals out of the naturalistic tone into something nightmarish. We did many takes for the scene to shape the performance. It was intense but gratifying.
How did you find and bring actress Lu Huang onboard the project? Given that so much of the film rests on her shoulders what techniques did the two of you use to craft her nuanced performance?
Initially, we had difficulty casting Asian actors in London. Lu Huang is a well known actress in China and internationally. She hasn’t done a short film in many years and I knew it would be a long shot. She shot four feature films as the lead last year… one was in Cannes Un Certain Regard section this May. My producer reached out to her and to our great surprise, she replied asking for the script. I sent her the Chinese script overnight. She thought it was original and interesting. She accepted the role and we were over the moon. We could only cover her travel cost from Beijing. Lu Huang stayed with me in the same flat where we shot the film, and she even cooked for me and the crew!
She related to the woman in the film and we connected as two friends and two women.
We had no time for rehearsal. We met the night before the shoot and got to know each other during the production. We never analysed the script. I talked to her once about the story as I envisioned it and we never discussed it again. She understood me intuitively. It was not an easy role, as much of her performance relied on her inner world and imagination. I’m lucky that she is a hugely experienced and instinctive actress. On set, we didn’t need many takes. It wasn’t difficult. She related to the woman in the film and we connected as two friends and two women. It was a fantastic experience and we are close friends now. I guess filmmaking is a personal and emotional experience after all.
Are you currently working on any new projects at the moment?
I’m in development on an English language sci-fi feature film with producer Camille Gatin (The Girl With All the Gifts) and a Chinese language psychological fantasy feature film, ideally to be shot in China.
The Pregnant Ground is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.