Grief, diversity and gratitude — An interview with filmmaker J.P. Chan

 

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Jodi Long as “Mother” in “A Picture of You.” photo by Country House Pictures

Since he burst on the scene in 2005, J.P. Chan has been a regular on the Asian American film and independent film circuits. His acclaimed short films, including “Digital Antiquities,” produced as part of the PBS anthology series “Future States,” are mostly subtle, thoughtful studies of human relationships, often with a strong Asian American perspective. The Nichi Bei Weekly caught his new film, “A Picture of You,” his first feature, at this year’s CAAM Fest, and caught up with the renowned director to discuss how the film was made and the reaction it’s garnered.

This interview, conducted via e-mail, has been lightly edited. 

Nichi Bei Weekly: You’ve made some very memorable and acclaimed short films. “A Picture of You” is your first feature. What made you choose this as your feature debut? Did you want to make a feature-length film and choose this as your story, or did you create this story and realize you needed to make a longer film to tell it?

J.P. Chan: After several years of doing shorts (and teaching myself filmmaking in the process) I decided I finally had to try a feature, so in 2011 I committed myself to shooting one in 2012. I wasn’t sure how or what I would be shooting but I knew the existing feature scripts I’d done wouldn’t be my first film. So I wrote two screenplays and decided around the end of the year that “A Picture of You” would be the one we could realistically do in 2012. 

NBW: You’ve written that you lost your mother six years ago and that you “wanted to make a movie that reflects the ups-and-downs in grieving for a loved one.” How has creating this film affected your relationship to that event? What do you think you learned about yourself in the film-making process?

JPC: The film isn’t autobiographical beyond the very general premise of grieving for a parent and navigating the changing family dynamic that follows this kind of life event. More than anything, it was an attempt to capture all those feelings during that time in my life and then try to take it somewhere unexpected in a story. It’s funny, losing my mom has been the hardest experience in my life but making this movie is easily the second hardest. It’s been exhausting and stressful. Especially during our 13 months of editing, I kept thinking that my mom would probably be watching all of this anguish and getting frustrated that I was causing myself so much stress. She’s probably like, “Go take a vacation or something!”

But more to the point, I thought often of her strength and perseverance throughout the entire filmmaking process. She had a tough life and she worked so hard to support our family. But she never gave up on us and she never showed any despair about her situation. I try to remember her courage whenever the movie faces a setback that I can’t see a way out of. So in a way, this movie has made me closer to my Mother than I could have ever imagined.

NBW: A year or so ago, I saw your excellent Futurestates short, “Digital Antiquities.” Though that piece is sci-fi, I feel like there is a lot of thematic similarity between it and “A Picture of You.” Do you see the two works as related?

JPC: I don’t, but then again I’m terrible at seeing connections between my work. But if I step back a little, yeah, I can see some themes that I kind of come back to. The idea of family in all its variations is definitely one. I think there’s also a sense of loneliness and/or abandonment in almost every film. But I definitely don’t write with any of these ideas in mind, at least on a conscious level.

NBW: You put together a great cast. I know you’ve worked with Jo Mei for a long time, but how did you cast the other actors?

JPC: Thanks. I feel so lucky to have gotten the cast that we did. We didn’t have money for a casting director, so Jo and I really worked our connections hard to find folks that we thought would be great. Andy (Andrew Pang) is someone I’ve been a fan of for years and we know each other through the Asian American theatre scene (yes, there really is one) here in New York. Teyonah (Parris) I met through Jo when they were both at Juilliard and we had already done a short called “Empire Corner” together, which she is awesome in. Lucas (Dixon) was totally new to us but a schoolmate of Jo’s had acted with him at Williamstown and said he was the best actor she’d ever worked with. As for Jodi (Long), people had been telling Jo for years that she reminded them of Jodi. Jodi is on the TBS show “Sullivan and Son” and someone like that would generally not be available for a small movie like this. But we lucked out that Jo and Jodi share a manager who liked the script and was willing to pass it along to her.

NBW: People of color are generally under-represented in popular media and I feel like independent media is a place where this is less the case. But even in independent media, things are often siloed, you have Asian American film, or black film. In “A Picture of You,” (like in “Digital Antiquities”), you have a diverse cast in which people of color make up the majority. Was this a conscious decision? 

JPC: Yes, absolutely. My intent was always to have a diverse cast, one that looked and acted like the people who are in my life. But I knew doing this would affect the commercial prospects for our film, because an indie film with Asians in the lead will inevitably be seen as an Asian American film, no matter what the film is actually about. 

In many ways, indie film is even less diverse than Hollywood in exactly the way that you mentioned. In Hollywood at least, if an actor or director of color can bring in business at the box office, they keep working and they get resources. In indie film, since there’s so little hope of money coming back, folks tend to work with their friends and tend to promote the work of those friends in hopes that the extended network of friends will buy tickets to the movie. So, for lack of a better word, you have all these little indie film ghettos and the resulting work too often looks and feels insular. I tried very hard to avoid that with this movie.

NBW: The film, I feel, has a really positive and loving spirit. Despite this, if submitted to MPAA, it would probably get an ‘R’ for nudity and possibly for pot smoking and language. Does this restrict your ability to distribute the film in any way? Is it something you considered when planning the film? (And, if so, do you find it ironic?)

JPC: Yeah, the issue came up a few times early on. I actually had one producer drop out very early on because she didn’t think my first film should have this particular kind of nudity in it. But my producer Robert Chang, who was instrumental in getting this film made, believed 100 percent in doing the movie as it was written. He also didn’t shy away from any of other things that would typically be perceived as risks in putting a movie together, like casting Asians in the lead roles! So, once you’ve already jumped on the Asian boat, who cares about the rating? If the ship sinks, it’s not going to be because of that. Might as well go for it and make the crazy movie you want to make.

NBW: The post-production of “A Picture of You” was funded through Kickstarter? How does this approach differ from traditional funding methods? What kinds of new relationships does it create?

JPC: Our Kickstarter was a grueling month-long beg-a-thon that was made harder because Hurricane Sandy hit New York in the middle of it. We were put in the unenviable situation of raising funds for an indie movie when a million people around us had no electricity and needed much more help than we did. But thanks to a few hundred generous folks around the country, we made our goal and finished the movie. These backers will be in my heart forever and hopefully are happy with the movie they helped get made. Making our fundraising goal also gave us confidence that there was an audience for the movie before the movie was even finished. That’s a wonderful thing and crowdfunding is an amazing gift to poor filmmakers like me. 

NBW: For readers that might not be in the Bay Area for CAAMFest, where can they see “A Picture of You” next?

JPC: We are self-distributing the movie and are kicking off our theatrical run … In the fall, we’ll be available on digital platforms like iTunes and Amazon and folks will be able to buy a DVD from our Website. We’d love for folks to spread the word about us and check us out when we screen near them and come out online. My dream is that this little movie gets out into the world in a bigger way because people who’ve seen it keep pestering their friends to check out this movie nobody’s ever heard of. That’s the dream.

 

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