Re//Store Sisterhood: China Moo-Young
Recently Sarah Mac, our creative director, asked me to meet her friend and talented director China Moo-Young to be part of the Sisterhood series. I was very excited to meet this talented director that was named a “Star of Tomorrow” in Screen International’s annual review of British film-making talent and was selected as a Breakthrough Brit on the prestigious UK Film Council programme. China has worked on TV series Call The Midwife, Spotless and Humans, and pioneering BBC3 drama Thirteen.
On a grey and dreary London morning I ended up meeting a wonderful person with a great drive and focus, collected mind and warm personality. I could have easily spent the whole morning in Soho drinking tea with her, hiding from the rain and sharing so many similar interests including Ashtanga Yoga. She is currently writing a couple of personal projects and is co-developing two others with a writer for television and film. Additionally she has just finished directing three episodes of HARLOTS, a new television drama series set in the world of 18th century Georgian London brothels written by Moira Buffini. It stars Lesley Manville, Jessica Brown-Findley and Samantha Morton. It is available to watch on ITV Encore and Hulu in the US. We met over fresh mint tea in the filmic setting of Dishoom Carnaby, where the interior transports you to a 70s Bombay.
How would you describe your personal style?
Simple. Boyish. 60s inspired. Geek. Part-time hippy, part-time professional assassin. Pretty much either barefoot or in boots – always striving to be chic but never ladylike.
What made you decide to become a Director? And what inspires you at the start of a new project, for example now with your upcoming series Harlots?
As a child I wanted to be a theatre set and costume designer then I went to the National Youth Theatre everything changed for me. There was this experimental multi-media physical theatre piece that knocked me sideways, and I knew I wanted to learn to work with actors and tell interesting stories in unexpected ways – so I asked the director where he had trained (he had studied Drama at Bristol University) so that’s where I ended up. Studying cinema made me fall in love head over heels with film and here I am.
Characters in a story are the first thing that inspire me and from there I take inspiration from anything – books and documentaries in that world or subject, if it’s a period setting I do a fair amount of historical research too. For Harlots I spent time at The Geffrye, Sir John Soane’s, The Museum of London and the V&A. I always collect photography references and watch a lot of films for ideas of tone, look and feel. I collate extensive mood books generally about 100-200 images to help me better articulate what I have in my head to everyone around me.
What is the favourite element of your job? And biggest challenge?
For me character is the most compelling element of the story (whether it’s television, film or on stage) I love beautiful mis-en-scene but I’m not moved by a set, costume or clever slick camera technique. I am moved by character – everything else must follow that – so for that reason I would say actors are the element I hold most dear to me on a production.
Behind the scenes I adore the rigour of working with people who are wonderful at what they do and finding a way together to make what is on the script page a reality. I love the energy of forging this close and strong creative family with everybody on a journey towards a single ending.
The biggest challenges for me are practical logistical issues that have an impact on the overall creative vision. Things like time limitations, weather and budget restrictions. But often, wonderful things come out of adversity. I actually like restraints in many ways as it makes you work harder and forces you to be more inventive in your approach.
What role does yoga play in your life?
Yoga plays an integral and ever evolving role. I’ve been practicing traditional Ashtanga for 16 years. For over a decade I had a very dedicated five days a week early morning practice. I did a daily modified yoga practice throughout my pregnancy until the day before I gave birth. Since my daughter was born it’s definitely more challenging and ad-hoc in its timing – a few days per week in the morning or evening at home or I go to a lead class at TriYoga. I have been doing more Iyengar recently and find the slow precision involved really enhances my own practice. Once my little girl gets older I hope to bring her with me to the shala and return to my early morning Mysore practice. Meanwhile over the years I have found the more I practice the more I realise that the yoga you do on the mat you whilst great is just preparation…It’s when you can’t practice that is when you begin your real yoga practice. You learn to breath, be still, steady, soften, be really present and kind to yourself and others off the mat too – that is what real yoga (union) is for me!
Do you practice mindfulness and in what way?
I’m not religious but my spiritual beliefs are most akin to Buddhist and Tantric philosophies. I endeavour to live with self-awareness and practice the Yamas and Niyamas set out in my yoga tradition. And when it all gets overwhelming I just try to remember Groucho Marx “Yesterday is dead, tomorrow hasn’t arrived yet. I have just one day, today, and I’m going to be happy in it.”
What is your favourite indulgence within the world of wellness.
Simple pleasure like sleeping in until 7.30am when I don’t have my kid with me, and an Epsom salt bath in the morning is lovely. I am very easily pleased!
Where do you go when you want to find inspiration in London?
I like to walk and I love this city’s art galleries and specialist museums. The Tate Modern always invigorates me. I just saw the Hockney retrospective at The Tate Britain which was fantastic. The Royal Academy’s recent American Abstract Expressionism exhibition blew me away and has stayed with me. Every year I look forward to The Serpentine’s Summer Pavilion. In general I relish leafing through art and photography books – The Photographer’s Gallery and Foyles are particular favourites. And I love going to see films as often as possible – my local The Phoenix is one of the oldest running independent arts cinema screens in the UK, it was built in 1910 and is wonderfully old fashioned.
What do you listen to at the moment?
I am pretty classic on my playlist right now it’s Hendrix. Dylan. The Stones. Chuck Berry. I have either Radio 6 Music or Radio 4 on at home. I am aware I now sound like I am 65 years old!
I have a personal practice that is a blend of sound, breath, threshold consciousness and art. It helps to calibrate my inner compass to my true north; a necessary practice for me. “
Could you recommend an organic / local produce cafe / restaurant in your area?
I like to go to a couple of local farmers markets near me in Highgate and Primrose Hill. There’s a French market every few months in East Finchley – it takes over the whole High Road for three days and the food is great. I enjoy Columbia Road on a Sunday buying plants for my garden. I’m a big fan of Mildred’s vegetarian restaurant in Soho and I was ecstatic when they opened a big restaurant in Camden just down the road from TriYoga. The Grain Store in Kings Cross is very special – I’ve had some of the best food and times there.
Where do you go to shop for clothes / accessories?
Press owned by Melanie Press in Primrose Hill is a small independent gem of a store that stocks a great mix of labels season after season. I like YMC and Toast for everyday and Filson is great for timeless outdoor gear (I wear this when I am filming). The Tidy Street General Store on Brighton Lanes is a beautifully curated store with quality clothing, lovely footwear and ace hand woven baskets! I love old pieces and I often trawl vintage stores, second hand clothes market stalls and charity shops. For yoga apparel I favour Manuka Life and Stella McCartney for Adidas – both brands understand how to use fabrics and forms that withstand rigorous dynamic practice.
And when it comes to wellness?
A regular yoga practice is the single thing that continues to nourish and teach me both physically and spiritually. I’m extremely grateful to all the wonderful authentic wise and wonderful yoga teachers I have had over the years at TriYoga in particular Joey Miles, Eileen Gauthier, Ryan Spielman, Nadia Narain, Anna Ashby and Robin Catto.
Every few months I like to have a massage with the incredible masseuse and naturopath Susan Nove. When I’m filming usually it’s a couple of months stint so it becomes much more of a regular necessity to sustain my energy levels and flexibility. I have also done Somatic work in the past and this transformed things profoundly for me. For general maintenance I like to see Osteopath Guy Gold a few times annually.
I have been vegetarian for 27 years but I am not militant about it. It’s an individual choice to be vegetarian, vegan, raw or whatever – whether you choose to eat red meat or fish stocks that are in depletion, people should privately and quietly make their own choices that they feel comfortable with. I find all this noise about ‘clean eating’ is just fashion food marketing! It’s great if people are more aware of what they are consuming and the health and environmental benefits of eating well, but it can be greatly divisive. I believe in balance and just trying to eat well most of the time by choosing non-processed, whole foods and organic whenever possible.
Who would you like to see on here in the future?
My friend, and some time collaborator, the choreographer & movement director Imogen Knight. She’s an incredibly intuitive creative and a real force in theatre and dance right now. I can’t wait for her show ‘Nuclear War’ that opens at The Royal Court Theatre later this month.
What is your favourite plant based / Vegetarian recipe?
An absolute current favourite is this sweet slaw (serves six) I love the bite, sharp and sweet flavours. It’s based on Yotam Ottolenghi’s winter sweet slaw I’ve been making since a friend of mine I stayed with in LA made it for me. I don’t want to say I’m addicted to it but it has made a regular weekly appearance in my kitchen for the couple of months.
For the salad:
150g mixed seeds (sunflower, pumpkin etc) or you can use your preferred nuts peanut or cashew work well.
10g coconut oil
1 tbsp agave syrup
½ tsp salt
½ tsp chilli flakes
7 inner leaves of Savoy cabbage (170g in total), finely shredded
½ red cabbage (270g), finely shredded
1 mango, cut into thin strips
1 papaya, cut into strips (if you don’t have mango / papaya I have substituted with sweet oranges which works really well)
1 fresh red chilli, deseeded and finely sliced
15g mint, leaves picked and roughly chopped
20g coriander, leaves picked and roughly chopped
For the dressing:
100ml lime juice
1 lemongrass stalk, chopped into small pieces
3 tbsp maple syrup
2 tbsp toasted sesame oil
1 tsp soy sauce
¼ tsp chilli flakes
4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
To make the dressing put all the ingredients except the olive in a small saucepan and reduce for 5-10 mins. Remove from heat and allow to cool, then strain and stir in the oil.
Put the seeds / nuts into a hot pan and dry roast for a few mins. Add the coconut oil, once melted add the add the agave, salt and chilli stir constantly – it only takes a a minute or two and be careful not to burn then set aside. Put shredded cabbage into large bow along with all the other salad ingredients, add the dressing, toss and taste – add salt if needed.
Serve immediately. For lunch I like it with toasted sourdough or for dinner with something more substantial. Keeps for a couple of days in an airtight box in the fridge so you can make a big bowl up.
Thank you China for the inspirational talk, I look forward to seeing Harlots and your personal project!
Interview and photos by Maaike Mekking www.maaikemekking.com