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A Conversation with HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Huay-Bing Law

“Now that Black Panther has set a new precedent, people are like, ‘You know what, the audience is ready. They're ready for new faces’, and that’s really, really exciting for us right now. It's just about breaking the mold, moving forward, and being able to tell the stories I've been waiting to tell for so long.” – Marrite Go, director

In recent years within the entertainment industry, a slight but steady shift has occurred in the types of stories – as well as the types of creators allowed to tell them – being produced into films and TV. This allowed genre films like Get Out to become the most profitable film of 2017, and the unexpected juggernaut blockbuster Black Panther to continually exceed box office expectations for its entire theatrical run.

With growing evidence that inclusiveness and diversifying representation in media is good for the bottom line in Hollywood, many underrepresented groups are seeing themselves in major studio produced films and TV shows for the first time in decades. For Asian Americans, the family sitcom Fresh off the Boat aired in 2015 – 2 decades after All American Girl in 1994. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film with an all Asian cast in 25 years, since Joy Luck Club in 1993. While Asian American media narratives have continued outside the mainstream within independent cinema – the 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow, which launched director Justin Lin’s career, is one of the most prominent examples – the growing number of projects focusing on and helmed by people of color intended for mainstream distribution is a meaningful sign of change for communities that have dealt with nearly non existent, or one-dimensional stereotypical portrayals, within mainstream media and entertainment for so long.

As Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group, studios and networks are now mounting renewed efforts to elevate and curate fresh voices and visions from within the Asian American community.

One such effort from HBO, is its Asian Pacific American Visionaries contest. Now in its second year, the program provides three emerging filmmakers of Asian and/or Pacific Islander heritage a platform to showcase their talent and voices. Three short films were chosen to premiere at the DGA Theater in Hollywood on May 4, 2018 for the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival – and are now available to stream on HBO platforms until Sunday, June 10, 2018.

I spoke with all three visionaries to discuss their shorts and explore their unique voices: Maritte Go for Remittance, Feng-I Fiona Roan for Jiejie, and Huay-Bing Law for June. In the third and final part of my series, I focus on my conversation with Huay-Bing Law. [Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan.]



Texas Native and Chinese American filmmaker Huay-Bing Law’s short films have earned many awards, including nominations for a Student Academy Award and Student BAFTA. Having studied filmmaking at UT Austin, he has returned for his masters, and was inspired to make his graduate thesis June by his uncle’s immigrant experiences in the 40’s.

Synopsis: An immigrant Chinese wife joins her husband in 1950s Texas at a party after he graduates from university, and finds herself questioning where she belongs here.

Warning: Mild Spoilers follow for June.


Creative COW: Tell us about the inspiration for your story.

Huay-Bing Law: I was in grad school for my masters in film at University of Texas - Austin, figuring out what to make my thesis film on. I remembered this family story that my uncle told me once; he and his family first came to America in the 1940s, when they emigrated from Taiwan to the US, and their first day here they came across segregated restrooms.

I just remember thinking that was such a strange introduction to this country; immediately, the very first day – you're forced to make this binary decision: are you colored or are you white? And being Chinese, you don’t really fall to either category, so it was a very loaded moment, and I wanted to attack it a little bit with a short film. That was really the beginning of it, and then me and my writer Katherine Craft, we worked together to create these characters and kind of put them in the situation. And then a story developed from there.

What was your research process?

A lot of the research came from my family first – just talking with my uncle, my parents about their immigrant experience, family members and just trying to gain stories. Just asking what their response was when they came across these restrooms, and what they made of it. We started from there and eventually, after doing more research I got put in contact with this Chinese couple who attended UT Austin in the 1950s, which lined up perfectly with the timeline of our story. I interviewed them several times, spent time with them over the course of several months, and got to know them better. I asked them a lot of questions about how they came to America, and what their experience was when they first came over.

Both of them said they had the bathroom moment. They both came over separately, but the first day they stepped off the ship, they came across these restrooms, and they’re like, “Oh, this is weird, which one am I supposed to use?” I think it was just a common experience by Chinese immigrants during that time period and I just wanted to explore that more.



Just curious, which bathroom did they use?

My uncle’s mom, she needed to go to the restroom, and she and her husband talked to each other, trying to decide, “Alright, which one do we belong in?” And they're like “Well, we're not white,” so they ruled that out, and they used the colored restrooms. In history though, Chinese people were supposed to use the white restrooms. The exact phrasing I was told was they were allowed to use the white restrooms. The colored restrooms were for African Americans.

Can you talk about growing up Asian in Texas? Would you say that experience significantly informed your approach for June, and in how you shaped the protagonist, June?

June is about beginning to really feel the color of your skin, and really starting to question your place in America as a Chinese person, or as an Asian American person. I think as a Chinese American growing up, like most people of color, they come to that point – a moment in their lives, where they start to feel the color of their skin and they question what that means. Growing up, I mean, I definitely got called names, had my food made fun of… moments like that. Especially when you start to go into rural towns here, where it's like 99.9 percent white, people start looking at you very differently.

I think in moments like that you start to really feel your otherness. And that’s what I feel like June is feeling. That's how I relate to her the most.

I grew up in a suburb near Houston called Clear Lake. Houston has a very large and strong Asian American population. They have a really bustling Chinatown in southwest Houston, and a very strong community there. I very much grew up in that community. Houston, Dallas, and Austin – which is a little small but growing – those are some of the three major areas where there's a very strong Asian American community. So just growing up in Houston, it was an extremely diverse city. I think I was very fortunate to be able to grow up with people that looked like me, and a lot of people that didn't look like me, and it's just, I don't know – like home.

Speaking of home – this year for HBO APA Visionaries, they added a theme of “home”, which for Asian Americans is a bit nuanced geographically and socio-politically. How would you describe your film in terms of that, and how does it tie in to your experiences?

Well, it's an immigrant story. It's about two Chinese people who immigrate to the US and there is a little bit of a transition period. I’m not sure if they necessarily have a home in this story yet. They're changing their home, they're moving away from their home to a new one and so I think, there’s not really a strong definition of that word for these two people, especially June. I think that's really what the story is about; it's kind of about this character trying to figure out where she belongs. Finding home.

Do you identify more with June or Gene, the husband?

I mean, I think there's a bit of me in both of them. I think June's definitely a lot more aware in sort of, wanting to really look at this space and examine it – examine the people in there. Gene has his blinders on, just focused on assimilating and fitting in. There’s definitely both of that in me. For better or worse.



Walk me through your process on the film, from storyboards or shot lists to editing. I’m curious in the tools you use (software, equipment) and the methods or systems you use to help keep your film from descending into chaos—as film often does.

Since it was my thesis film, it was very much on schedule, based on the university. Basically we spent a semester focused on writing, then we spent the next semester working on pre-production, then principal photography, and then the final semester on post. So it was a very structured approach to schedule, and for the most part it was we approached it fairly traditionally. We had department heads and we had weekly meetings and we prepped the crap out of it.

And it all went really smoothly. I just had a really great team in place and everyone kicked ass, and we had shot lists – but of course on set, you know, you always kind of roll with the punches, and sometimes a scene just works better in one shot so you just cut shots. You really just try to stay flexible on set as much as you can. We used UT Austin schools gear, and for all the costumes we actually used the UT theater department’s. They have a big wardrobe basement there, and we were able to curate a lot of their clothes for all the period stuff which was really great.

For the most part, it all went really smooth and I was really lucky to have sort of the team of collaborators that I had, to be able to pull off a shoot this big, or at least for a student film that for me was a very large shoot.

Congrats on being a semifinalist in the HBO Access Directing fellowship. I read that for the final round, you are given scripts to pitch your take on in terms of approaching production, and I was just curious if you could articulate your artistic vision for the films you’d like to make.

I think for me, at this stage in my career, to be honest I’m still developing and finding my voice. I’m still figuring out the stories that I want to tell. Looking back at what I’ve created, and looking at my next projects I do want to create, everything has been very, sort of personal and based on my own experiences and based on the people around me, and the relationships that I recognize and the people that I recognize.

A lot of those are Asian American stories, and I think that’s a lot of what I bring to the table. I like to draw from those experiences to tell the stories that I feel aren’t being represented. That’s really what I have been focused on creating, and for the foreseeable future that’s what I want to be making my films about.



I know you work primarily in camera, and have even had the opportunity to work on set with filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki. Any lessons you learned that helped inform your short?

One of the main things I learned on those sets was there just isn't one right way to make a movie. I think when you hear about the story of how they collaborate together, Malick and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], you know, they have their own process and a lot of times it's very unorthodox and it's very… it's not the "right way" to approach filmmaking, but they find their own way of working because they have their own point of view, and they have their own perspective on how they want to approach filmmaking. And that’s okay.

I think in film school you're always searching for, “Alright, what's the right way to light this? To cover the scene? To say these lines?” There isn't one right way, and I think working with Malick and Chivo took that to the extreme for sure – but it was great to see these filmmakers that are like the top of their game, and they just sort of make the movies however way they want to make them.

What do you see in the future for your directing and cinematography?

My goal right now is I want to direct movies and I want to direct narrative television. It's what I love to do most in the world and it's what I'm completely committed to doing. I will say before that, my first love as I like to say is cinematography. I’ve always loved shooting and I've always loved being in the camera department. I want to direct because there are stories that aren't being told and I feel like as a director and as a writer that I can push those stories forward.

As a Director of Photography I love collaborating with other directors and learning from them and translating their stories visually. I am going to keep on doing both. Coming up this December, I'll be DPing a friend's feature in August, so yeah I guess, I will continue to be doing both. Hopefully I don’t have to choose right now.

What is on the horizon for other future projects?

I’m DPing a couple of thesis films at UT, over the next couple months. I am writing a feature film with a collaborator in town, and we're hoping to develop that and shoot next year. And I'm also going to be shooting that feature in the late summer. All of that while freelancing as much as I can here in town. So, a little bit of everything.

Anything you can tell us about the projects are about?

The one I’m collaborating with my friend on, it's about first love. It's about growing up Asian American in the south, and sort of a coming of age story in a way. It's something I plan on making no matter what, even if we don't have a budget. Again it's another personal story but it's just something I’m excited to do, and something I know I can make for cheap if I have to.

If you were given the chance to redo your film with the same resources you had when starting out, but with hindsight, what would you improve upon if anything?

I think you absolutely wish that you spent more time on certain things and spent more resources on certain things – and not spent half a day on something you won't use. But you know, hindsight's 20/20. I think the film that was made was made, and I’m very happy with it. I try not to nitpick what I should've done, but it's important to look back and see what you can improve on for the next project. I’m happy with the experience, and happy to move forward.

[Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan.]


Posted by: Clarence Deng on Jun 6, 2018 at 10:15:02 pm

A Conversation with HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Feng-I Fiona Roan

“Now that Black Panther has set a new precedent, people are like, ‘You know what, the audience is ready. They're ready for new faces’, and that’s really, really exciting for us right now. It's just about breaking the mold, moving forward, and being able to tell the stories I've been waiting to tell for so long.” – Marrite Go, director

In recent years within the entertainment industry, a slight but steady shift has occurred in the types of stories – as well as the types of creators allowed to tell them – being produced into films and TV. This allowed genre films like Get Out to become the most profitable film of 2017, and the unexpected juggernaut blockbuster Black Panther to continually exceed box office expectations for its entire theatrical run.

With growing evidence that inclusiveness and diversifying representation in media is good for the bottom line in Hollywood, many underrepresented groups are seeing themselves in major studio produced films and TV shows for the first time in decades. For Asian Americans, the family sitcom Fresh off the Boat aired in 2015 – 2 decades after All American Girl in 1994. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film with an all Asian cast in 25 years, since Joy Luck Club in 1993. While Asian American media narratives have continued outside the mainstream within independent cinema – the 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow, which launched director Justin Lin’s career, is one of the most prominent examples – the growing number of projects focusing on and helmed by people of color intended for mainstream distribution is a meaningful sign of change for communities that have dealt with nearly non existent, or one-dimensional stereotypical portrayals, within mainstream media and entertainment for so long.

As Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group, studios and networks are now mounting renewed efforts to elevate and curate fresh voices and visions from within the Asian American community.

One such effort from HBO, is its Asian Pacific American Visionaries contest. Now in its second year, the program provides three emerging filmmakers of Asian and/or Pacific Islander heritage a platform to showcase their talent and voices. Three short films were chosen to premiere at the DGA Theater in Hollywood on May 4, 2018 for the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival – and are now available to stream on HBO platforms until Sunday, June 10, 2018.

I spoke with all three visionaries to discuss their shorts and explore their unique voices: Maritte Go for Remittance, Feng-I Fiona Roan for Jiejie, and Huay-Bing Law for June. In part two of my series, I focus on my conversation with Feng-I Fiona Roan. [Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]



With an MFA in Directing from AFI, and having studied classical Chinese Literature at National Taiwan University, Feng-I Fiona Roan is a Taiwanese-American writer/director based in Los Angeles. Her AFI thesis Jiejie, which translates to older sister in Mandarin Chinese, was inspired by her childhood experiences living 5 years in Oregon.

Synopsis: Over the course of their first Sunday at a Chinese-American church, a young girl – insecure about her un-American look – betrays her younger sister, fueling an unprecedented outburst.

Warning: Mild spoilers follow for Jiejie.

Creative COW: This year for HBO APA Visionaries, they added a theme of “home”, which for Asian Americans is a bit nuanced geographically and socio-politically. How would you describe your film in terms of that, and how does it tie in to your experiences?

Feng-I Fiona Roan: Jiejie is about a recently immigrated family – a single mom raising two daughters on her own [with the father in Taiwan]. They're moving into a new home, experiencing challenges integrating into this new community. For immigrants, when some of your family is removed from where you're at, it's weird to call that place a home, you know? The protagonist, a young 12 or 11 year old girl, actively thinks about fitting in. She's thinking, “I want to look like everybody else, I want to look like a cool girl.”



She feels like she doesn't belong. She can't justify why she's here. She's struggling to be the same, starting with appearance. Her younger sister is annoying and everything she hates about herself: dressed the wrong way, fobby. She's embarrassed, because her family reminds her what she is: an immigrant who can't speak the language. She goes through all this trouble to say “I can fit in, I can look like them” – and fails. And her younger sister still comes in the end saying, “Look, even if you find me embarrassing, I still love you” – not vocally, but that's what it means to me. That's how she changes. She doesn't realize how wrong she's been until the very end; despite all this, her family's there for her. Home is where her family – her sister, her mother is.

In your director’s statement, you talk about your relationship with your mother and how in writing the film, you both came to a better understanding. Can you talk about that, as well as how your relationship with your sister is? Since your film is so much about the relationship between sisters as well as the mother.

We moved back to Taiwan in 2002 for health reasons; my mother has breast cancer. She had better medical care there, and my father was around. Our relationship deteriorated completely; I had a lot of academic pressure once we moved back, and my mother wasn't in an emotionally healthy situation. She’d get emotionally threatening, like emotional blackmail, which made me not want to talk about our experience in the States. Even when my mom had nostalgic moments, I would refuse to look back – until I made this film, and I interviewed them.

I was telling the story from my point of view, but it was important as a director to understand what other characters were going through, or I would have a very flat story. The main discovery during my interview with my mom was… I didn't buy that she would only emigrate because she wanted us to learn English, and put her marriage at stake. After a lot of questioning, my mom finally said, “I wanted to start over, and move away. I wanted a new life.” That’s why I added the scene where the mother was on the phone, and there’s tension between her and her husband. There were personal reasons she emigrated; it wasn't all for the children. She's on the point of breaking down, but can't complain because she wanted to come here in the first place.



And I came back to the states for grad school – I hadn't been in the states since we moved. As an adult I had to go through insurance, get a car, deal with rent, and a very intense grad school experience. Only then did I realize how much my mother went through. It was startling to see my mother in a new light. I can't imagine if I had all this pressure, not even dealing with two girls. I admired her and realized she was doing her best.

My sister, we lived very separate lives when we moved back. We went to different middle and high schools. Partly I didn't want to be in the same school as her, and neither did she. Then she came back to the states for college while I stayed in Taiwan. Our relationship got better when we were both in college. We were more mature then, and we talked about things we couldn't tell our mother; girl stuff. When I told her about the idea, she was really excited. My sister's the nostalgic kind; she's a child at heart, and she gave me a lot of details – like remembering the potluck, the church, and what people wore.

She became the makeup artist for the film. A lot of the makeup was based on our memory and photos of that time. Also, as we were making this film, we would disagree on some stuff – and she didn't have the professionalism to understand what a director is, or her duty was as a makeup artist. So she was talking to me a lot as my sister. If she disagreed with me, she’d say, “This is our story and I tell you what happened!” And I'm like… I just want to strangle her, it was such a bad idea. [laughs] But we pulled through, and it was fine. Now we talk every two or three days, and we text a lot.

We talked a bit before the interview, and you were telling me your crew was mostly Mandarin Chinese speaking. Can you talk about how this helped your process, and why this was important in making this film?

The main language of the film is Mandarin, so having a mainly Mandarin speaking crew helped facilitate communication – especially with a large cast of immigrants who can’t speak English. That was really important. My editor Zekun Mao, just the fact she speaks the language allowed her to pick up subtext between the lines. Chinese people have this thing of, well not just Chinese, but you know – you say one thing, but you really mean the other thing. It's a very polite culture, everything's very subtle, and if I only had an English speaker I may have had to do more work.

The editor brings fresh eyes; they haven't seen it, they don't know what happened on set, they're really just picking up the performance. And [Zekun] really did very well. My cinematographer [Frances Chen] speaks Mandarin, and can communicate directly with the girls. She understands what I’m trying to do, especially when I’m directing; I’m giving them directions in Mandarin, so [my cinematographer] understands and I don't have to relay that to her. Everything is more efficient.



Also, Jiejie is a story told from a young girl's perspective. It was very important to me to convey intimacy. We committed to shooting it as if it was a diary, as if we're following her. I told my cinematographer, if we can let the audience feel what it’s like as an 11 year old immigrant girl in 1997, we have succeeded. Not only were my crew Mandarin speaking, but a lot of them were female; a lot of them experienced the same thing as women. Or the fact that we've all been through some sort of immigration. The cinematographer’s family immigrated to Canada. But my editor and my production designer, they came to the States only for grad school. Even though they didn't immigrate with their family, they still had to go through some integration, just from an adult point of view. And I think it really shows in the film; our shared experience automatically puts us on the same page.

How would you say having women on set helped in other ways?

The young girls needed to stay very relaxed, since we are shooting in very close proximity to them. Often the camera is 10 to 20 inches, or even centimeters away from them or their face – and they have to act like it’s not there. It was important that the energy on set was not intrusive to them, especially in the bathtub scene. We were in a real location so it was a tiny tub, and my protagonist was only wearing a small bathing suit. Being that close… if it were a man there, I don't think she would have felt as comfortable.

Also, a director chooses crew based on their approach, and innate understanding of story. Sometimes they bring a totally fresh perspective, and that can be stimulating and good. But when I’m making something autobiographical, I need my crew to understand the story as it is. It was a naturalistic film, it's not a stylized film, so it didn't have much room for interpretation. What I needed was that [my crew] understood the story. I don't have to explain why she felt embarrassed, why she felt like she didn't belong, why she would say such terrible things to her sister. Cause they've been through it.



Walk me through your process on the film, from storyboards or shot lists to editing.

AFI requires us to do video storyboards. Instead of traditional drawn on paper storyboards, we actually film it with our iPhone, DSLR… basically we film a very rough version of what our thesis would be. We did that, and the first draft of the videos did not work; I went through a meltdown four weeks before our shoot. My editor was very involved. She sat down and analyzed with me, why some shots didn't work the way we thought it would, and she would advise.

I wanted the cuts to be as invisible as possible, because it was a naturalistic film. They had to be very well designed. I did a lot of rehearsals, and shot my rehearsals. The two girls didn't have any acting experience, so I have to not only make sure they are able to act, but with a camera in their face. Taped rehearsal means we go in with a plan; I rehearse for two hours, my DP comes in the third hour. I would show the actors the effect I wanted, but I would never show them how they look on camera. If they were sitting normally sometimes, they were too short, and you couldn't see them. We had to do a lot of cheating. I would explain to them, this is how it will look on camera. Because we were working this way they slowly understood what I was trying to get on camera and performed better.

In the end, they were so good I could tell them, “This is what I want it to look on camera”. We had two days of video storyboard on location. It’s really important if you’re doing video storyboards to do them on location. Also you have to do them with your actual cast, especially children because of their height, you can't have stand ins. When we were shooting exercises we would use stand ins, like adults, just to see how this shot worked. But I think with children you can't do that. Also, it was a learning process for them, a warm-up for them to know what you're trying to do.

I was editing beforehand. We'll edit [the rehearsal], and look at it, see if this new version works. Work with your editor, and re-edit. If something doesn't work, reshoot and work that in. Change it. And rewriting through the rehearsal, I could see some actions [were] awkward for them. Initially I had more pushing around in the story, because me and my sister were very physical. But this was not the dynamic of these two girls, they're not that comfortable. I took a lot of that out because it didn't feel real. And on set, my cinematographer got me a handheld monitor, which allowed me to be very close to the actors. I wasn’t behind a monitor with 10 people standing behind me.



It’s important to children that you're there. They're easily distracted, we have a very big set, so it was important they were always looking at me, staying concentrated. And we only had 8 hours a day to work. I think the handheld monitor really saved me on set. We learned about cut points we wanted from the video storyboards. That was very informative to the script supervisor. She had to make sure that cut point is correct, and it significantly facilitated our final editing process. Sometimes we would shorten it, find new cut points in their performance. A smile, or expression, and we always try to cut out all the fat. The final product was more concise, we worked really hard on telling this story in the shortest way possible.

How would you define your artistic voice as a director?

I think I'm early in my career, but I can tell you what interests me a lot at the moment. I love realistic, naturalistic films. I'm discovering a lot, I'm learning about different kinds of realism. So definitely that's what I'm interested in. I love Hou Hsiao-Hsien, definitely. Kore-eda, the Japanese director. Also Dardenne brothers. I got the rehearsal and filming techniques from Dardenne brothers, that's how they work.

I think I'll continue making female driven films, that's what I'm most passionate about. Eventually I’d like to film my first feature film in Taiwan, centering around the story of my immigration back – a family drama set in 2003 during the SARS epidemic. That's what I want to do. I guess you can say I love family drama. Family fascinates me because, it's something everyone has to deal with, and is one of the most fundamental relationships we have as human beings.

If you were given the chance to redo your film with the same resources you had when starting out, but with hindsight, what would you improve upon if anything?


We changed everything we could beforehand, and had two days of reshoots after six days principal. We spent a full day reshooting the tag scene. I learned my lesson – when you have ten kids running around, and you're trying to tell a story that happens during the game, it's very crazy. In our principal photography, it was a very hectic day. We managed to get our point across but the camera was so hectic, it wasn't in line with the other scene. In the reshoots, we were trying to find a balance of how to not have it so shaky but clearly tell the story. We got to fix everything we were not happy with. I don’t think I would have changed a thing, frankly.

[Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]


Posted by: Clarence Deng on Jun 6, 2018 at 9:26:14 pm

A Conversation with HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Maritte Go

“Now that Black Panther has set a new precedent, people are like, ‘You know what, the audience is ready. They're ready for new faces’, and that’s really, really exciting for us right now. It's just about breaking the mold, moving forward, and being able to tell the stories I've been waiting to tell for so long.” – Marrite Go, director

In recent years within the entertainment industry, a slight but steady shift has occurred in the types of stories – as well as the types of creators allowed to tell them – being produced into films and TV. This allowed genre films like Get Out to become the most profitable film of 2017, and the unexpected juggernaut blockbuster Black Panther to continually exceed box office expectations for its entire theatrical run.

With growing evidence that inclusiveness and diversifying representation in media is good for the bottom line in Hollywood, many underrepresented groups are seeing themselves in major studio produced films and TV shows for the first time in decades. For Asian Americans, the family sitcom Fresh off the Boat aired in 2015 – 2 decades after All American Girl in 1994. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film with an all Asian cast in 25 years, since Joy Luck Club in 1993. While Asian American media narratives have continued outside the mainstream within independent cinema – the 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow, which launched director Justin Lin’s career, is one of the most prominent examples – the growing number of projects focusing on and helmed by people of color intended for mainstream distribution is a meaningful sign of change for communities that have dealt with nearly non existent, or one-dimensional stereotypical portrayals, within mainstream media and entertainment for so long.

As Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group, studios and networks are now mounting renewed efforts to elevate and curate fresh voices and visions from within the Asian American community.

One such effort from HBO, is its Asian Pacific American Visionaries contest. Now in its second year, the program provides three emerging filmmakers of Asian and/or Pacific Islander heritage a platform to showcase their talent and voices. Three short films were chosen to premiere at the DGA Theater in Hollywood on May 4, 2018 for the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival – and are now available to stream on HBO platforms until Sunday, June 10, 2018.

I spoke with all three visionaries to discuss their shorts and explore their unique voices: Maritte Go for Remittance, Feng-I Fiona Roan for Jiejie, and Huay-Bing Law for June. In part one of my series, I focus on my conversation with Maritte Go. [Read Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]



Currently based in Los Angeles, with a masters in Film and TV from the University of Southern California, Maritte Go has worked on many projects in various roles, including indie hits Sleight and Flower. She is the Filipino American filmmaker behind Remittance, which was inspired by the experiences of her own family members.

Synopsis: A disenchanted Filipino cruise worker falls to pieces when she is unable to contact her ailing son.

Warning: Mild spoilers follow for Remittance.

Creative COW: I’d love to hear you talk about the process of playing the lead in your own short in addition to directing, and the challenges you had to deal with in making this.

Maritte Go: Well, how me and my filmmaking partner [Brody Engelhard] worked together on that was to discuss how the framing was, like, “How does this look?” And then watching it and cutting back. It’s definitely a partnership of, “Did that feel real for you? Does that look good? Is this direction great, like the way I'm walking?” Stuff like that.

It certainly was a giant challenge — not only was I actor and director, but we only had a two man crew. [Brody and I] write everything together, and shoot everything together. Keeping your mind in character while also thinking about, you know – how is this going to cut, how the framing is, how the acting's going… it's difficult to go back and forth from throwing yourself into character while remembering that we need to tell the story.

We didn't have a sound person. I had to mic myself, so we chose to eliminate dialogue as much as possible – which really works for the isolation of the character. Not being able to talk, or communicate with anyone in a cruise ship with thousands of people really says something about her. I've produced projects with upwards of 80 to 100 people a day, so it's kind of freeing to just do it with one other person. You're forced to think of a solution yourself, instead of calling people to fix it for you.



We had very minimal gear – [aside from camera and sound] one light panel, a Movi stabilizer, and the drone – so we relied heavily on locations. For one of the locations that you see, the glacier, we hiked five hours up a steep mountain to get to it. The camera was in [Brody’s] backpack, and I had my costume and sound equipment in my backpack. But it was totally worth it — the location was amazing. Also in one of the montages, you’ll see flashes of the Philippines. We actually flew to the Philippines and brought a drone. It was just us, with this hi-tech drone in the middle of a province. Everyone's stopped on the streets, and everyone came out of their houses to see what we were doing. It was really rewarding, and I hope showed through the film.


Maritte Go (left) and Broderick “Brody” Engelhard (right) climb up a mountain to get to the glacier location for Remittance.

You are also the first Filipino American HBO Visionary, with a distinctly Filipino story. Could you speak on the specific experiences that lead to creating Remittance?

These last two years, I’ve gone [to the Philippines] three or four times. I'm just able to go back and forth a lot, but yeah… it was definitely a family affair. I got my whole family playing roles. The manager is played by my brother, my mom plays the voice [on the phone], and my nephew plays my son.

This story was really inspired by my mom and my cousin Roy. He had to move to Dubai to support his wife and children back in the Philippines. There's a lot of opportunities in Dubai for Filipinos; they work in the service industry. When you go on cruises, they're filled with Filipino cruise workers, because they recruit in the Philippines and bring tons of people from here to their hotels, to the cruise ships – and they give Filipinos working opportunities where they don't really have that back home. So my cousin Roy lives in a one bedroom apartment in Dubai apart from his family, and he works and sends money home to the Philippines, puts it toward his family. He goes home once or twice a year to see them, but that's it. That was one of the biggest inspirations for this story.

I had been flying back and forth from Dubai and the Philippines to visit family, picking his mind on how does that work, not being able to live with your family. It's been over ten or twelve years and he's just gotten really used to it. I imagine what kind of pain that must be to not be there to see your children grow up; the sacrifice he has put himself through to ensure the success of his children. I put myself in the position of, how that would feel, if I had children and I couldn't ever see them. Maybe once a year, twice a year. Just the pain of getting used to that, that's just… I don't know, it breaks my heart.

And my mom did that too; her sisters, my aunts, put all their money together so that my mom could go to med school, and go to the United States so she could make money for the family. She's now a successful doctor, but she supports our family here. Growing up as kids she supported our whole family, and supported a ton of our family back home – over twenty people.

This year for HBO APA Visionaries, they added a theme of “home”, which for Asian Americans is a bit nuanced geographically and socio-politically. How would you describe your film in terms of that, and how does it tie in to your experiences?

Hearing the call of “What is home to you?” and having been able to travel back and forth to the Philippines, asking what is home to myself or to my family members… I think it's wherever your family is. Even across the ocean, it's where your family is. Location doesn't matter, but the relationships that you have and being able to go there in your heart, knowing that your family is where home is.

In the Philippines it's all about family, they have large plots of land and everyone's expected to live on the land: your grandparents, uncles, cousins. My mom sacrificed herself; her sisters are her best friends in the whole wide world, and being apart from them for decades… I see her cry all the time, missing her family. She sacrificed herself for us, for me to be able to do what I can do now – and tell her story… tell my cousin's story.

Walk me through your process in making your film.

My process was very different from how I usually do it; my other shorts have a bigger budget and a full crew. Sometimes I hire a storyboard artist or I just draw stick figures myself. I'm able to scout all the locations and we can plan everything. This one was very different in that we were traveling to all these exotic locations I've never been before; I just read about the glacier online. So me, Brody, and my brother were brainstorming on how this story could go. We set up major story points to establish who she was – her character, where she was – and then we had to figure it out when we got there.

In the film there's a shot with me tripled, I’m in three places in the same frame, and I watched a Creative COW tutorial on how to figure that out. I got my friend who does VFX to clean it up, since mine wasn’t perfect, but that's how I learned how to do it. In editing, a lot of it was – having planned out a rough outline of the story, I had to find the story in the edit. It was, here we are, how does she feel in this location? In this location? How does this carry the story, the stakes getting higher? I took whatever footage we had and really created a lot of it in the edit.



Can you talk a bit more about your background with higher budget material?

When I first started I was a child actor [in Florida], but I came to LA to become an actor. I kept getting cast in roles like Geisha, Nail Technician, Masseuse Number 2… and I was extremely frustrated with that. I did not come to LA to become the stereotypical side character. So, I applied to USC, to figure out how to write, direct, and produce material for people like myself. I had a creative background in learning how to act and working very closely with directors, but no idea what it would take to make a movie. I wanted to understand how you raise money, put it together, and pull a crew together. I started producing while I was in school and really got into it.

I worked my way up from small no budget music videos and shorts, to now features and big budget commercials. But my whole point in doing that was again, to learn how to do this myself, and to be able to write and tell stories I wanted to tell. I feel HBO has given us an amazing opportunity because, now we can tell a story with an Asian female lead. That was not common place; now I see it more and more. The studios want to hear people like us with stories, and now I have the technical producing background to be able to handle it. I can say, “I can do small budget or big budget, and I have these stories – let's do it!”

That was the biggest goal for me, to learn how to operate on all those levels, and push our stories forward. I’ve learned those skills, and taken these last two years to write a bunch of features and shorts with that goal in mind. I'm coming with that producing business background and pairing it with my desire to express creatively the stories I want to tell.

I heard you were working on two horror films – one on location in the Philippines, as well as one with Radio Silence as producer – who did a segment for V/H/S. Anything you can tell us about either project, and what you’d like to bring to the genre?

The one that’ll shoot in the Philippines is called Binarang. That story is a Filipino American in the Philippines, but it’s an American story. Nobody’s seen a Filipino American at all in American cinema with horror. We've had the Japanese The Grudge and all; watching that was extremely inspiring. I was like, they can do it, we can do it. Why aren't there lead Filipinos? We just need representation and I think that’s something I’ve always striven to do, is to bring more Asian faces to stories. To show people we're not just the nail technician or the masseuse, but we're the villain, the hero, the love interest.

That was a major goal of mine, and also being able to pair that with my passion for horror. Seeing V/H/S and all those anthology horror movies where you put a bunch of shorts in this weird twisted world, which is what we're able to do… I'm really excited about that. Going back to Binarang, being able to tell a Filipino American story spoken in English, and bringing that to an American audience is… I’m super pumped for that. One of my biggest inspirations is Darren Aronofsky and he really explores the suffering of humans, to really look at it, to not look away – and what does that mean to suffer, with the horrors that happen within our own minds, the things that we do to ourselves. I really am very, somehow attracted to that. Looking at the human experience and what it means to suffer.



In Remittance, this lonely woman suffers internally by herself, and these horror films I’ve chosen to do, are kind of the same in what it means to suffer, and what is your own personal horror. Also, just growing up Catholic in a Filipino household, my mom really believed in the apocalypse and the end of the world, so I was brought up believing that was always going to come. I’ve grown out of that, but what that does to you as a child, it stretches your imagination. I love working on horror because you stretch your imagination, you do all the fun stuff and VFX, have people levitate or fly. That's what you’re supposed to do, and it's awesome.

I like being able to push the realness of human suffering and the horrors that lie beneath. Filipino horror as a genre is huge, I grew up with so much Filipino folklore. There’s lore about the Manananggal, a succubus woman who sucks the unborn baby out of a woman’s pregnant belly. When I was a kid, people told me they had seen this in the provinces of the Philippines, and I was like, that's so frightening. There's tiny little islands where they have black magic and voodoo doctors, and it’s so fascinating. Some of the movie is going to be shot on this island called Siquijor, which is the island of black magic, and I’ve heard so many crazy stories. Like my grandfather was healed from a curse there, and my dad – crazy stories, but they're so much to pull from. Just like Japanese horror, which is based on all this amazing folklore; I want to bring that here.

If you were given the chance to redo your film with the same resources you had when starting out, but with hindsight, what would you improve upon if anything?

I feel lucky that we got anything — to be able to pull it off was extremely surprising for both of us. I don't think we would have been able to get the same thing with even a slightly higher budget. To be able to pull that off with a 30 to 40 man crew going to a glacier is… it's quite impossible. If we wanted to hike an Alexa Mini up a mountain it would just be so difficult. It's possible, but I wanted to capture real locations and people.

There’s only one stock footage shot in the film, the wide exterior of the boat. All we had was the boat on the dock, we didn't have one far away, so there’s a wide of the boat far off into the ocean. Everything else, those are all real. We were able to get those because it's just us. We have a tiny camera that’s the size of half a shoebox. I think if we over lit it or had costumes and makeup adjusting our wardrobe… I just don’t think that you would get the grittiness I went for. I feel extremely lucky to even pull that off. I wouldn't do it over, I would probably rewrite just another story.



What do you wish to say with your creative voice or vision through the films you’d like to get made? How do you see your career progressing?

I think my biggest goal is to continue telling stories of people who are underrepresented, of repressed voices, and bringing it to people in an entertaining way – via thriller, horror, also drama as well. My biggest goal is to create empathy for certain people, to raise the voices of underrepresented or repressed people, and to say they're here too – that there’s human suffering and it looks like this, with this color skin. I'm excited to tell those stories and I wish to continue making features and to eventually branch off into TV.

But I just think it’s time, after seeing Black Panther we're looking at a totally different market now. I tried to get financing for Binarang about two years ago, and I kept hearing, “you have to have white people in this, because we need to sell this movie”. But now that Black Panther has set a new precedent, people are like, “You know what, the audience is ready. They're ready for new faces”, and that’s really, really exciting for us right now. It's just about breaking the mold, moving forward, and being able to tell the stories I've been waiting to tell for so long. Getting the opportunity to tell those stories is – oh man, I’m really excited.

Any advice for emerging filmmakers?

The biggest advice, if I could go back and tell my 18 or 15 year old self, is to just keep making stuff. A lot of people get down on like, “Oh, I suck,” but you just started. You’re going to get better, but you have to be able to be willing to fail, and fail, and fail, and fail. Keep making your stuff. You’re going to get better. Just keep going, and do not be afraid when someone says, “Yeah that’s really terrible, that script sucks.” Just be like, “Okay, what can I do not to take it personally, what can I do to make it better? How can I improve this?” Just keep going, it only gets better with experience.

Just keep making stuff, no matter how little money you have. There’s so many ways to make movies now – with your iPhones, with rentals on Sharegrid. Write your stories and make them, and tell everyone what you're doing because people want to see people succeed. I haven't experienced people saying… if they ever did say something negative about me, it was more like what can I learn from the experience. Constantly be making stuff, improving yourself, and be proactive. Nobody is going to give you success. Only you can make that yourself. That would be my biggest advice.

[Read Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]


Posted by: Clarence Deng on Jun 6, 2018 at 9:19:31 pm



Born to Chinese immigrant parents and raised in the San Francisco bay area, Clarence Deng’s interest in film, TV, and inability to avoid Chinese school lead him to work on a variety of productions in New York, Los Angeles, and Beijing. After graduating with a BFA in Film & TV from NYU, he is currently a freelance Assistant Editor in Hollywood, and works toward contributing his voice to the growing landscape of Asian American cinema.


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