Filmmaker immigrated from China to Virginia to pursue his dream – now it’s taking him to film festivals around the world

RICHMOND, Va. -- Some people go to great lengths to reach their dreams: Sunny Zhao traveled more than 7,000 miles.

“I love what I do,” Sunny said, “Every time I do a project I got that feeling like ‘This is so cool’ I want to do more.”

In his Shockoe Bottom editing suite, the filmmaker and musician is putting the final touches on his masterpiece called “Gift” frame by frame.

“This whole process is color-grading and finishing,” Sunny said. “The hardest thing I’ve ever done is this movie.”

Born in China as the son of a cinematographer Sunny’s apple didn’t fall too far from the tree.

“Basically, for me, 24/7 it's all about filmmaking."

Sunny devoured American movies while enrolled in music school.

“As a young kid. When I was growing up I didn’t know how movies were made. Everything looked so real to me. That is why I love it."

Sunny developed an appreciation for directors like Coppola, Tarantino and Spielberg.

“These people are legendary. Steven Spielberg. I mean Schindler’s List is top, top, top on my list,” he said.

Sunny yearned to follow in their footsteps.

“When I watch The Godfather I don’t even think that is a movie. I feel like I’m in the movie. You forget that there is a camera there."

In 1994 he immigrated to the United States where he found the freedom to reach for his goals.

“Obviously here there is a lot of opportunities,” he said. “If you have the drive. If you have the talent and put the hard work in you have a huge chance to succeed.”

The Henrico man opened Dreams Factory studio twenty years ago. Sunny gained a reputation by producing award-winning television commercials. But he envisioned a bigger screen.

“I just felt like it was time to tell stories that mean something to me,” he said.

“Gift” is a full-length feature Sunny has been crafting for six years. The film was shot by Sunny across the Commonwealth.

“We have an all Virginia cast. Everyone in this film is from Virginia."

Zhao never wanted to act. He's most comfortable calling the shots behind the camera.

The Henrico man even bankrolled the film which follows the story of a young girl discovering the power of music. “Gift” has been creating a buzz locally and internationally. Last year the film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and was an official selection in the prestigious Raindance Film Festival in London and Richmond International Film Festival.

“We are at the final homestretch. To get it all done and out."

As he wraps the film Sunny, credits patience and persistence with seeing his project through. The film is his "Gift" to moviegoers around the world.

“Finally the film got to a point that I feel like this is the best I can do with what I have,” he said.

Sunny Zhao an immigrant achieving the American dream on the big screen.

“I am very, very lucky. Very Lucky. Compared to many others,” he said, “I am pretty fortunate.”

Sunny is hoping to show his movie, “Gift,” at a film festival in Los Angles in November of 2019.

Like powerful stories? Watch CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. Fridays for Greg McQuade’s “I Have A Story” reports. If you know of someone Greg should feature, email him at gmcquade@wtvr.com.

Watch "I Have A Story" Fridays on CBS 6 News at 11 p.m. If you know of someone with an interesting story, email gmcquade@wtvr.com

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