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Asian-American Filmmakers to Hollywood: Give Us a Platform to Create Without Compromise

Image: The iconic Hollywood sign in the hills above Hollywood, Calif

The iconic Hollywood sign in the hills above Hollywood, Calif. MARK RALSTON / AFP - Getty Images

NBC Asian America sat down with four filmmakers — Jeff Chiba Stearns ("Mixed Match"), Nadine Truong ("I Can, I Will, I Did"), Robin Lung ("Finding Kukan"), and Tanuj Chopra ("Chee and T") — during the 33rd Los Angeles Asian Pacific American Film Festival to talk about the challenges they've faced when knocking on Hollywood's gates, what their biggest concerns are when "whitewashing" becomes the focus of films, and how audiences can encourage better representation in the media they consume.

From left to right: Jeff Chiba Stearns, Nadine Truong, Robin Lung, Tanuj Chopra
From left to right: Jeff Chiba Stearns ("Mixed Match"), Nadine Truong ("I Can, I Will, I Did"), Robin Lung ("Finding Kukan"), Tanuj Chopra ("Chee and T") Courtesy of Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival

Note: Full filmmaker bios are included below.

When you’re looking for stories to tell, what are the top things you look for when you first are finding a story, finding the research, and deciding to dive right into the topic?

Jeff Chiba Stearns ("Mixed Match"): I think first you need to be very interested in the topic. I’m Japanese, English, Scottish, German, Russian. So I like to focus a lot of my filmmaking around multi-ethnic identity because that’s a topic of interest for me. In America, multiracial people are becoming one of the fastest-growing demographics. I kind of feel like if we can capture these stories now, it kind of brings it to the forefront.

So in the case of “Mixed Match,” we’re looking at a film that explores why there are complications as our genetics get more complex. It’s harder to match us when you’re trying to find a genetic twin for a bone marrow transplant. And that’s something I didn’t know about prior to [making the film], but realizing it stems beyond identity, and now it’s moving into the world of medicine and medical health. So I think for me, it’s also nice that, when you’re making a documentary, that there’s a call to action. We’re doing this to maybe heal the world a bit, you know? Make it a better place, or just in essence with something like “Mixed Match,” essentially trying to save lives, right? Because if we can inform people, educate people, inspire people to join bone marrow registries, donate cord blood of their child when they’re born, these are lifesaving procedures and things we can use to cure cancer.

Robin Lung ("Finding Kukan"): For myself, I’ve always been drawn to stories about women, both in fiction and nonfiction. So in my film career, I’ve concentrated on telling stories about women, and it just so happens that the films that I’ve worked on have been about women of color. And as I’ve gone through my film projects, I’ve learned how rare women of color stories are in the media and how important it is to document them. That’s number one, but number two is really: is it a story that won’t let me go, you know? There are a lot of stories that come into my head and I’ll think, “Oh, that would be a great film.” But there’s only certain stories that really stick with you and haunt you and they won’t let you sleep at night. And this is what “Finding Kukan” was, it was a story that literally was in my dreams, it pushed me out of bed in the morning. It was really that powerful.

Nadine and Tanuj, you’ve both directed narrative films [that are showing in this year’s festival], but they’re still drawing on real-life experiences. How important is identity when it comes to telling your stories – when it comes to casting, writing, creating the vision for your film?

Nadine Truong ("I Can, I Will, I Did"): For me, it’s not always solely based on racial identity; it’s also about gender identity. [“I Can, I Will, I Did”] deals a lot with growing pains and growing from a place of pain to a place of health, whether that’s mental or physical health. And that all sort of ties in with identity and figuring out who you become. How you respond to adversity is something I’ve explored in my own life, so the film becomes a reflection of what you learn and how much – you know, once you’ve had enough space and distance, you can also put it on screen and tell that story.

Tanuj Chopra ("Chee and T"): [Identity] is the heart of all work on some level, but it’s something we actively didn’t discuss a lot, to be honest. We talked about representation a lot, and with [“Chee and T”], we wanted to do something that wasn’t very culturally predetermined. For us, it was more about creating, normalizing brown men especially, and creating a movie that’s funny and engaging and has an all brown cast, and features a multitude of brown personalities instead of having, like, just the sidekick character or the extra character. I mean, half the draw for our actors was that they get to play leads in the film, and these are really great actors you see all the time in television who don’t get to explore a character fully, and fully take a character through an arc.

I think our film could be the same film if it starred all black people, all white people, all Latino people. It would be almost the same film, with a few specific jokes, and I think that was important for us because we wanted people to respond to the comedy all over the country, and not just be limited to culturally-specific humor or stuff that we’ve kind of already seen.

There’s a lot that gets said every year about the lack of diversity and representation of Asian Americans behind the scenes, at the box office, at big award shows. What do you think is missing from the conversation in Hollywood at those top-level offices?

Nadine Truong: I think about this question a lot, particularly because the question of… well, for example, in casting, we have this whole whitewashing phenomenon right now. We’ve always had it. The go-to explanation is always that it’s about who we can draw people into the movie theater, and therefore they cast a certain way. And I’ve always felt that to be such a bullsh-t reason. “Avatar” has blue people in the films, and we can put inanimate objects onto the screen and it still draws audiences. It’s about the story, really. Sure, there is “star power” to get people into the seats, but at the end of the day, you can have a stellar cast but if the story sucks and the filmmaking is subpar, the movie is going to tank. They’re not going to save you from that.

I think people in Hollywood are very much drawn by the bucks, but it’s misplaced. So now that the conversations are getting to be a bit mindful, there’ll be allies that will give us our own platforms to tell our stories. Because it’s not about “them” telling our stories; it’s about giving platforms to people of color, to women to make that happen. We’re not asking to push out “white America” and the films we already see. We’re just asking for that seat at the table.

Jeff Chiba Stearns: I find it interesting, being someone who’s mixed Asian...there’s sort of the in-between that gets blurry where you have actors like Keanu Reeves and Olivia Munn who have “star power,” and they’re leading actors in Hollywood but they don’t necessarily identify as… well, Olivia Munn might take a stance where she says, “Yes, my mom is Chinese” and she actively lets that be known, whereas Keanu Reeves is a little more quiet about stuff like that. But at the same time...there’s a lot of mixed Japanese directors doing great things in Hollywood. Daniel Destin Cretton is one of them, he’s directing “The Glass Castle.” You know, we’re getting stories being told in that respect by people who might identify as mixed. And I feel like that whole thing with “Aloha” and – what’s her name again? I always forget…

Robin Lung: Emma Stone? The famous hapa actress, Emma Stone?

Jeff Chiba Stearns: [laughs] Yeah. So this is where maybe the conversation sometimes veers. There’s so much about representation of Asians in Hollywood, but what about the fact that we have [multiracial identities]? Does that count?

Right, so the politics of casting: who gets to have a platform to tell their stories? We’ve talked about funding. Is it hard when you go to people and say, “Here’s the film I want to make.” Do you have have to make a lot of compromises to get people to put their dollars where your films are?

Tanuj Chopra: We had to give a lot of case studies of successful films that were all white casts. The way to contextualize it for investors and funders is to say, like... if I’m making a comedy, I put out “Pineapple Express” or “Sideways,” films that have resonance that they can connect to. But I don’t feel like that’s good. I don’t feel good about it because it’s already putting me artistically on this [level] I have to achieve.

I think as much as we fight for representation in Hollywood and we’re trying so hard to find that Hollywood dollar, and we’re so explosive about exclusion – exclusion and whitewashing are big issues in our communities – but we’ve had a history of making independent films starring Asian Americans for 15, 20, 30 years. And I encourage our audiences, our friends, our families to come out and support these movies because when we show that we have traction, we can reach critical mass in our own communities and people will follow pretty fast. To me, I can just look back and cite film after film after film after film for the last 10 years that are amazing Asian-American stories, from sci-fi to comedy to love stories. Not just “Better Luck Tomorrow,” but you can take it all the way down to “Charlotte Sometimes,” “Advantageous,” “Colma: The Musical,” “Eve and the Fire Horse,” “Journey from the Fall”... I mean movie after movie after movie – accomplished, Sundance award-winning pictures have come out in our community, and quite often our communities are so focused on what Hollywood is not doing for us and not supporting what we’re making.

Robin, your documentary focuses on one of those forgotten voices. Someone who was part of creating a film and then was essentially erased from the narrative. How do you go about pitching that to people in the first place when they might not already see there’s an issue?

Robin Lung: I’ve been fortunate that people have latched onto this story and have been supportive, but in the “mainstream,” I still don’t have a broadcast partner. So the story’s made, but I’m realizing that it’s considered a niche audience, that Asian Americans are “niche.”

Tanuj Chopra: Do they think your film is strictly for Asian Americans? Is that how they’re trying to market it? It seems like a universal story to me.

Robin Lung: My tag line now to try and sell it is: “White men like it too!” Because in my audiences, I’ll have white men come up to me and say, “Thank you for telling this story.” But I think as soon as you say “history” and then there’s “Asian” attached, there’s a knee-jerk reaction that only a certain segment of the population is going to watch it. I think it’s lazy decision making by gatekeepers who aren’t really taking risks.

But I think there’s a hopeful sign that television is starting to wake up and it’s economic. I had a talk with the head of diversity at HBO and a television writer at a retreat, and they said that in television, if a series doesn’t have a diverse cast, it won’t last after its first season. It’s known now in the television world. So they’re hiring diverse writers and they’re purposely putting in diverse cast members – not because they want to be magnanimous and make sure we’re all represented, but it’s all about the bottom line. I think eventually Hollywood is going to wake up. I mean, “Hidden Figures” outsold “La La Land” at the box office.

Tanuj Chopra: And look at “Moonlight” and “Get Out.”

Robin Lung: Yeah, things are going to start improving. I’m of a hopeful attitude about it. Tanuj, you named all these great films. The good thing is we have this huge slate of great actors, great directors, people who are very skilled, so that as Hollywood begins to wake up, there are people who can deliver. We’ve proven there are people who can deliver.

We interviewed John Cho during the festival and we asked him about “Better Luck Tomorrow” and its legacy, and he said he had mixed emotions because he hoped “it would be the first of 20 ‘Better Luck Tomorrows,’” but he doesn’t think that it was.

Tanuj Chopra: It’s funny, I was watching “Better Luck Tomorrow” [at the festival’s opening night], and there’s so much “Better Luck Tomorrow” in “Chee and T.” There are shots – whether consciously or subconsciously – in the car having a conversation, on the grass like in “Better Luck Tomorrow” … I think I made another “Better Luck Tomorrow” actually!

Nadine Truong: You remixed it! [laughs]

John Cho: Diversity Happens Naturally As Long As We Produce the Stories We Want to Tell 2:37

Tanuj Chopra: But to follow up on John Cho’s comment… John Cho made “Better Luck Tomorrow” and then went into outer space. There actually have been a hundred more “Better Luck Tomorrows” made. I’ve seen equally accomplished films come through the festival every year and it’s just that the media needs to put more of a spotlight on our filmmakers, on indie filmmakers. Nadine’s made three films. This is her third film! We’ve made a hundred “Better Luck Tomorrows” since “Better Luck Tomorrow.”

Nadine Truong: We just don’t have the Roger Eberts of the world...

Tanuj Chopra: People have gone to Sundance, people have followed Justin Lin’s path. And not that Sundance is the only marker of anything, but there are people who’ve replicated this. Last year, Andrew Ahn’s film “Spa Night.” There’s just... every year there has been another “Better Luck Tomorrow.”

Nadine Truong: “Gook,” this year.

Tanuj Chopra: Exactly.

Looking ahead, what do you hope to see grow out of this festival and influence what’s happening at that “mainstream” box office?

Robin Lung: I hope that Asian-American audiences continue to grow, and I think we all have to work to build those audiences. Our media matters, and supporting movies and going to watch movies and getting people out there to see diverse programming is really important.

Nadine Truong: I’d love in the future – I mean, really, right now – to see a lot more movers and shakers behind the camera and in powers of position who are women of color, specifically Asian-American women in really powerful seats to make these stories happen.

Tanuj Chopra: I hope that Asian-American artists and voices don’t have to make any more compromises in their production, and that they’re fully funded to execute their vision at the highest level, just like any other indie or feature film. I hope the resources are there to enable Asian Americans to express themselves at the highest quality of craft. Not just to shoot digitally, like shoot on film. Shoot with the crew and cast you want to work with. I hope the voices in our community get the dignity of that level of treatment.

And I agree: I hope we have more women – women of color, Asian-American female stories, Asian-American queer, transgender stories. I think we’re missing out on so many stories and perspectives right now and it makes me sick when I look at the numbers in Hollywood. It makes me sick to my stomach when you look at who’s getting jobs and who’s not.

Jeff Chiba Stearns: I think the National Film Board of Canada announced that 50 percent of all the films they’re going to fund are going to be directed by women, so there are initiatives in place that are happening, which is great.

You know, films are changing, it can’t help but keep changing. Distribution is changing, it can’t kept but keep changing. So the way people consume their media is going to keep changing...so if less people are going to theaters, then things are going to have to start waking up and maybe that’s the revolution. That’s the way we’re going to tell our stories and get it out to the mass population. It’s not so much about the big Hollywood blockbusters anymore. Maybe it’s going to shift. When? I don’t know. But I think people are discovering stuff now, and that’s great. I think because you have initiatives with HBO and NBC and, I don’t know about Netflix, but I do notice they’re buying more content that’s created by diverse filmmakers...so people are discovering it. And that discovery is exciting for people who might not know that it exists. We still have a ways to go, obviously, but I think it’s moving. Maybe that revolution is starting – slowly, but we’ll get there.

Nadine Truong: And those diversity programs are really great, but my wish is that they’ll not be necessary anymore at some point, that we’re so integrated and these stories are available to the wider audience, and the wider audience wants to see it and to see those different perspectives and voices.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

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The Filmmakers:

Jeff Chiba Stearns (director, "Mixed Match") - Jeff Chiba Stearns is an Emmy-nominated and Webby award-winning animation and documentary filmmaker. He founded Vancouver based boutique animation studio Meditating Bunny Studio Inc. in 2001 and has since created 9 short and feature animated and documentary films. Jeff’s work has broadcast around the world, screened in hundreds of international film festivals and garnered over 35 awards. "Mixed Match" is Jeff’s second feature length documentary.

Nadine Truong (director, "I Can, I Will, I Did") - A German-born Vietnamese filmmaker, Nadine Truong earned her MFA degree in Directing in 2009 from AFI. In 2006 she was a proud fellow of the Los Angeles Asian American Pacific Film Festival’s ‘Armed With A Camera Fellowship’. Additionally, she received the San Diego International Asian Film Festival’s prestigious George C. Lin Emerging Filmmaker Award in 2010. Her feature credits include "Someone I Used to Know" and "Senior Project."

Robin Lung (director, "Finding Kukan") - Robin Lung made her directorial debut with "Washington Place: Hawaii's First Home," a 30-minute film about Hawai‘i’s historic governor’s mansion and home of Queen Lili‘uokalani (aired December 2008). She was the associate producer for "Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority," Hawai‘i unit producer for "Vivan las Antipodas!," and unit producer for NOVA's "Killer Typhoon." In 2015, she was a documentary fellow at the NALIP ARC filmmaker residency.

Tanuj Chopra (director, "Chee and T") - Tanuj Chopra’s first feature film, "Punching at the Sun," a story about South Asian teenagers coming of age in Elmhurst, Queens has premiered at Sundance and Tribeca Film festival. Variety called the fiery debut “a display of talent that’s distinctive, original and iconoclastic.” Other titles he has directed include: "Chee and T," "Grass," "Teacher in a Box," and the web series, "Nice Girls Crew." He is currently part of the 2017 Fox Director’s Lab.