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Project Forte: Jason Chew

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Jason Chew photographed by Kate Feher

 

Jason Chew (he/him) is a Director of Photography from Brooklyn, New York who studied at Carnegie Mellon and NYU, completing a Master of Fine Arts in Film Productions from the Tisch School of Arts in Singapore.  This week on Project Forte, Jason talks about the importance of operating outside a comfort zone to achieve goals and being open to growth within those zones and communities. He shares a valuable experience, suggesting that life within the United States may offer one way to understand yourself, but opening yourself up to more cultures and experiences can broaden your perspective even to your own identity.  Dive in with Kris Mendoza as he and Jason also discuss the evolution of APA and what distinguishing changes motivate both filmmakers to look to the future with a little hope. 

 

 

 

 

Written and Edited by Kate Feher

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Jason Chew:              I’m Jason Chew (he/him) based out of Brooklyn, New York. I’m a Taiwanese-American Director of Photography.

Kris Mendoza:           How’d you get started, Jason?

Jason Chew:              I think the main starting point for me was this 72-hour shootout in New York which was specifically for Asian-Americans.

Kris Mendoza:           Was this with Asian CineVision?

Jason Chew:              It was with Asian American Film Lab.

Kris Mendoza:           And did you have any film background prior to that? Or did you just sign up for that and get right into it?

Jason Chew:              Yeah, I was interning at DCTV which creates documentaries in New York, and I had a few friends from high school who were into filmmaking, so we rented cameras [from DCTV] and shot the 72-hour shootout. And actually, we won that year, which really kicked us off because we were like, “Oh, shit, maybe we—-“

Kris Mendoza:           “Oh, I think we’re good at this!”

Jason Chew:              “Maybe we’re awesome!”  Then, obviously, you realize that there’s so much more to learn and that’s such a little tiny competition. But it was great to have that much encouragement right off the bat.  I started checking Mandy and Craigslist and working on independent sets. People would post a job for a gaffer and I’d be like, “Yeah, I’m a gaffer.” I just wanted to keep doing this work, however I could.

Kris Mendoza:           Fake it till you make it.

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Jason Chew pictured left

Jason Chew:              Fake it till you make it, yeah. I’d be on set, and someone would say, “Hand me a Kino.”  I’m like, “All right, I’ll be right back.”  – No idea what a Kino was. 

I just found out that I really loved on-set collaboration, and that led me to apply for the NYU program in Singapore.  I knew at that point that this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s awesome. I didn’t know NYU did a program out there … Is that an MFA in Singapore?

Jason Chew:              Yeah. It was such a weird program. It was only alive for two years before I got there, without an undergrad supporting it. All the funds were coming from New York, and they just started this graduate film program in what people consider one of the most censored countries in the world. But still, we had all this freedom.. all these cameras. People had this attitude, “Hey, you’re from NYU, come film.” 

There wasn’t a really huge film market there, so we were welcomed. We did what Americans do, we came in and did whatever we wanted and they let us.  It was a great conservatory to be a part of.

Kris Mendoza:           How long was that whole program?

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Jason Chew

Jason Chew:              It was a three-year program 

Kris Mendoza:           You lived in Singapore for three years?

Jason Chew:              Yeah and I met my wife in Singapore. It was really one of the most eye-opening experiences of my life because other than growing up in New York and going to Pittsburgh for school, I hadn’t experienced a lot of travel.

Kris Mendoza:           Gotcha. And I’m sorry, what’s your ethnic background?

Jason Chew:              So my family’s Taiwanese.

Kris Mendoza:           And in Singapore, they speak pretty good English, right? It wasn’t that hard to get around?

Jason Chew:              Yeah, perfect English. It was very easy to get around.

Kris Mendoza:           In terms of living there for three years, well, it’s interesting, it leads to my next question but totally puts a whole new spin on it because I was going to talk to you about the approach to Asian-American filmmaking and Asian cinema or Asian-American cinema in general, kind of those two banners. But it’s interesting because you cut your teeth and learned filmmaking in Asia as an Asian-American and came back. You seem like you might have two perspectives on what that’s like in terms of Asian cinema and Asian-American cinema. I guess, first off, how do you think those two things differ in terms of subject, genre, approach, style, etc?

Jason Chew:             In terms of my Asian-American identity, I didn’t come to terms with it until I went to Asia. I thought I was finally going to fit in because everyone looked like me, but that’s when I realized, “Oh, I’m actually super American.” 

In America, people are so adamant that because you look Chinese you must be Chinese. Not realizing that culturally you’re American just with a Chinese upbringing. 

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Jason Chew, Director of Photography. Photograph by Kate Feher

I’m that hybrid: made up of what and how my parents taught me mixed with the American culture and society I was raised in. I think it really helped me get closer to understanding who I was, and that, of course, affects what you do in filmmaking. Originally I thought “I don’t need to represent Asians. I want to represent everyone.  Why does it need to be about the Asian-American identity?”  But, now, and I think we both realize this, I understand no one else is going to represent us if we don’t.  

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah, if we’re not telling these stories, who is? The people who have started telling our stories aren’t doing it super authentically or giving it justice.

It’s interesting to hear about the path you took to Singapore and back. I had no idea about that. Since you witnessed story-telling there, could you share how you have seen Asian-American cinema evolve thematically?

Jason Chew:              Back in the day, the types of films I watched were Asian-American, like Better Luck Tomorrow. I think that’s just a matter of who was creating the content because for me, growing up on the East Coast, there were very few people telling those stories. 

Kris Mendoza:           When I was in college going to APA classes, there were a lot of “Asian-dash-American” people asking themselves what that dash meant for their identity. I think we’re evolving away from that … and, interestingly, you mentioned Better Luck Tomorrow which I think was ahead of its time. Being Asian had very little to do with that plot, and it showed where we were heading.  In today’s cinema, we’re seeing a refreshing shift of Asian-Americans working in front of or behind the camera… Asian-Americans who just happen to be doing regular things. I think that’s the kind of representation we’ve been pushing for. It’s not so much these stereotyped deli owners or math whizzes or silly sideshow comic relief type characters, which were our roles relegated in cinema for decades.

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Jason Chew pictured right

Jason Chew: I think back to Ang Lee with Wedding Banquet telling his Chinese story in American, but it wasn’t a Chinese-American telling a Chinese-American story. 

Kris Mendoza: Hearing you say that makes me think about the broader picture, the larger problem of the recent uptick in hate crimes against Asians and the rise of the Stop Asian Hate movement.  With everything that’s going on, even as an Asian, we can’t help but look at Asians as a monolith.  We’re thinking, “Here’s Ang Lee, his story represents everybody,” and it doesn’t even seem to represent Chinese-Americans in general, even less so Taiwanese, Korean, Filipino, etc.  So understanding the true diversity within one assumed monolith broadens the scope. There are just so many different immigrant stories rich with the struggle of diaspora, you can’t just look at Better Luck Tomorrow or even Crazy Rich Asians as representative of the Asian or Asian-American experience. The diversity is not even nuanced, there are very black and white differences from culture to culture that you don’t really see from the outside looking in. You just see Asians on screen, right?

Jason Chew:              You just need to see Asian-Americans doing normal-ass-shit, and maybe then people will understand we’re just normal people. Do you know what I mean?  So we don’t have all that stereotype behind us – 

Kris Mendoza:           – Like when an Asian guy walks into the scene and there’s a gong sound

Jason Chew:              Yeah, there’s that book- It’s called Chinatown Interior that I’ve been reading. It talks about roles that Asian-Americans have played throughout time, and I think it’s “why did we need to be all these characters?”  Why enforce a stereotypical accent when I speak perfectly fluent English?  Of course, many other cultures have gone through that, too.

Kris Mendoza:           These spaces, these pigeonholes, we’ve been corralled into were really created by very white-driven perspectives on Asians way back in the day. Whether it was intentionally racist or not, it grew and perpetuated racism by providing the caricatured stereotypes.

Jason Chew:              It happens similarly when men write female characters, which has been detrimental for a long time, because they’re only talking about certain things that men want women to talk about. There’s definitely room for all these more nuanced stories.

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Jason Chew behind the scenes on “Feeling Alive”

Kris Mendoza:           Yes, we can see now how important that authenticity is, people telling real stories of what they’ve come to know and understand in their lives as opposed to someone else just filling in the blanks there like Mad Libs. 

Jason Chew:              Well, Asian people are getting more roles but I still see them as sort of “kung-fu” roles.  Warrior, Mortal Combat and Shang-Chi are all coming out. Those stories are great, and entertaining, but we also need, I think, the other side of that. More dimensions.

Kris Mendoza:           So speaking of another side, we’re talking a lot about representation in front of the camera here. What is your perspective on behind-the-camera Asian-American representation?  And I’ve noticed, you sometimes choose to work on very Asian-American-driven sets, and then some work opportunities are not so diverse. What have you noticed about the  divergence between Asians choosing film as a career path versus other avenues which seem more “Asian-parent-approved?”

Jason Chew:              Asian-parent-approved, Ha. I think it’s really about who’s giving us the opportunities to work our way up or to learn more? I’ve spoken with Union camera operators who say, “Yeah, it’s mostly old white guys in that union.”  And it’s cyclical because if you want to be nominated as a future member, you need someone in the industry to back you – so who is doing all the backing?  I’ve been fortunate to get work on a lot of these sets, but production companies like yours, are the key. You have the funding and the freedom to put together a team of diverse, talented, and hard-working people.  Yeah, it’s really about opportunity, I think.

Kris Mendoza:           Is there a limited amount of opportunities and a seemingly endless supply of people trying to get into film?  I’ve had a couple of these conversations, and it seems like there are no shortage of Asians or Asian-Americans out there trying to stay busy and be on set and work on films, but they’re just a very small population compared to the larger population of filmmakers. It’s always refreshing to me when I meet other Asian-American filmmakers. It’s like, “Okay, cool, so you also defied all the odds of cultural expectations and here you are doing it full-time and doing it successfully.” What are your thoughts on that upbringing and those expectations of what a typical Asian-American career path should look like?  Do you think that will be pervasive in the generations of our future children? 

Jason Chew:              I don’t know what a typical path will look like, but I know that media is constantly changing, and I see a lot of talented people on YouTube, making their own content. There will be different paths, maybe not necessarily as narrative filmmakers but as content creators. Those ideas are changing, too. Maybe our generation thinks, “We need to make movies, we need to make TV,” but this next generation thinks, “We’re making TikToks,” and some of those people are already making a lot of money doing what they’re doing.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s true.

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Behind the Scenes with Jason Chew. Photograph by Kate Feher

Jason Chew:              Being on set as a PA and falling in love with it, that’s already ingrained in me. That’s the kind of stuff that really gets my juices going.  Seeing actors perform on set, or for me to be behind a camera: those are magical things. The way to go is creating plenty of opportunities for people like me to explore those worlds, even just to see if that’s something they want to try out. Maybe it’s not. Maybe it’s different for the new generation.

Kris Mendoza:           It’s a balance of accessibility and exposure, without sharing the idea or the possibility of filmmaking, you don’t even know it’s a viable career opportunity.

Jason Chew:              Right. Coming from my background, nobody said, “Hey, did you ever consider filmmaking?” No parent said that. They were more supportive after I got into NYU because they thought, “At least you could teach afterward, you know? … if you really screw it up.”  There was a fallback option in their minds because of the quality of my degree.

Kris Mendoza:           What does it take to be successful in this career path and have longevity in the game?  You’ve been doing it for, it sounds like, at least over a decade. But what are some thoughts on how to break into the industry and also stay in the industry, whether that’s through the lens of being Asian-American or not?

Jason Chew:              Yeah. I’ve definitely taken all kinds of jobs because, obviously, some gigs pay better than others. You have to be able to find something you can do well … I started out ACing a lot, and doing branded content –  I don’t know if you know The Kitchen or Apartment Therapy.

Kris Mendoza:           Yes, I do.

Jason Chew:              One classmate pulled me into some work creating food branding videos. Together we climbed our way up. At Apartment Therapy, we worked with brands like Target, Pier One, and Walmart. We got a good sense of the client-side and how to really tailor a good product. Building relationships, I think, is key. I was really lucky that my friend pulled me into those jobs, where I could start supporting myself in a way that allowed the opportunity for other more fulfilling work.

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Jason Chew, Director of Photography

Kris Mendoza:            What’s the biggest hurdle you’ve encountered or mistake you’ve made that has really defined who you are today? Or really, what’s one of the biggest lessons you’ve learned?

Jason Chew:              Understanding yourself, determining what you want to make has been both a hurdle and a lesson to learn. One of the most challenging things is understanding what your opinion is but also creating the self-security to put it out there without being vulnerable to rejection.  Being confident enough to think, “This is what my opinion is, and hopefully people are receptive to it.”  Let people know who you are so they can be honest and open about wanting or not wanting to work with you… because that’s fine. And that really is one of the hardest and most important factors, finding relationships in which you really connect. Only then can you make something that’s better than both of you and more than what you could imagine alone. Also, at the same time, you have to have a good time while doing it. You know what I mean? 

Kris Mendoza:           It’s easier said than done, right? Not only finding people in-line with yourself, but also finding people who challenge your thoughts in art and subjectivity.  You don’t want a group of friends that are all exactly the same and who just agree with everything you say. You want them to challenge your ideas, make them better, and improve your art through debate. So that’s also the tough part, too, right? You want someone to vibe with but also challenge you.

Jason Chew:              Yeah. Like you said, it’s an art and it’s all subjective, so everyone’s going to have different ways of making a film or telling a story. But to want to help another person tell that story or make it the best it could be without replacing it with their vision… that’s where love comes in. When you can say “I want to support you and make this better.”  No, that’s not easy to find. I’m lucky to have found that on some projects.

Kris Mendoza:           Is that what keeps you coming back, what keeps you passionate about making films?

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Jason Chew pictured right

Jason Chew:              Yeah. It’s the process of collaborating. This pandemic has obviously made it very difficult to do some of that work, but being on set and talking about ideas – whether you’re discussing a way to light a scene, establish the mood or the tempo – those are the things that really excite me.  I love to bounce ideas.

Kris Mendoza:           As a DP you are in a position to hire folks and give opportunities. Through what lens are you able to focus on the right people? Are you heavily considering age, race, gender, etc?

Jason Chew:              I definitely now lean more towards hiring people of color or LGBTQ people, because if I can give that opportunity, I will. 

Kris Mendoza:           And do you find it hard to find qualified people?  How much harder do you have to dig and look?

Jason Chew:              I think it’s become less and less difficult as I get more experienced myself.  You don’t get to be on bigger sets unless you’ve proven yourself, so the people I work with now are up to caliber. 

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Behind the scenes with Jason Chew

 

Kris Mendoza:           Did you have any early role models even just when you first started? In terms of aesthetic or style, was there any Director or DP whose movies inspired you to further pursue this as a career?

Jason Chew:              Yeah. Back in the day, it was probably Spielberg. But later, once I went to school, I discovered more Asian directors. Oldboy, Park Chan-wook. And Bong Joon-ho did Memories of Murder. The Coen Brothers were a big influence. I felt like you could basically learn something from every director, but I especially liked a lot of thriller-style directors.

Kris Mendoza:           Bong Joon-ho won best director last year and this year we have Nomadland, which is not an Asian-American story but, heralded by Chloe Zhao. Minari  is doing so well too, and for me that goes to show that we must be putting more Asian-Americans and Asians in leadership positions. How is the future looking to you?  You came into this field with very few Asian-American or Asian influences and now there’s more. What do you think the next generation looks like for Asian-American cinema and filmmakers?  They have a new jumping off point which you and I didn’t have 10, 20 years ago?

Jason Chew:              Hopefully what will happen is that younger people will be inspired to not just emulate these directors and writers but be motivated to create something for  themselves. They might take what these directors did and actually find something in themselves that they can bring to the world. Think about Wong Kar-wai. Everyone was just copying Wong Kar-wai all the time, and eventually stopped to think, “Okay, we got to stop making knock-offs of all these other films and just start to learn how to find our own voice.” I think these directors have.

Kris Mendoza:           I love that, it’s very hopeful in terms of the next generation of filmmakers and how they could do even more.  What’s next for you?

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Jason Chew on the set of A Father’s Son

Jason Chew:              Oh, I want to talk about A Father’s Son. It’s a short film by Patrick Chen, based on Henry Chang‘s novel, Chinatown Beat. Basically, he got Henry’s blessing to take the characters in that world and made an adjacent short film. It wasn’t based on any specific story in the novel but involved the detective Jack Yu, who is searching Chinatown for the family of a young hoodlum who was murdered. 

Kris Mendoza:           You worked closely with Pat, can you say anything about his approach to that story?

Jason Chew:              Maybe not specifically the approach, but my experience goes back to the subject of opportunity. When I met Pat, he was doing a screening of three films at the MOCA, the Museum of Chinese-Americans. I’d met him there, so when this project came up, A Father’s Son, he took me on as the DP. For him to reach out to me was obviously a huge pledge to me, and not even once, because after other people found out about the project, he didn’t push me aside.  He could have easily thought, “Oh, I could get all these other DPs now, maybe more experienced…” but he stuck with me. Giving me that opportunity to shoot this film, that was a big thing.

Kris Mendoza:           What kind of circumstances.. What kind of stars need to align for things like that to happen? Is it the catch-22 of this entire industry: you can’t get experience without a job, you can’t get a job without experience? There’s a certain level of trust you need to create instantly for someone to offer an opportunity like that. 

 

Jason Chew:              Yeah. I had been making short films already, but being in the community, being visible definitely helped. Go to events and talk to people, and show them you can bring something to the table.

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Jason Chew

Kris Mendoza:           Be visible but then make sure that you’ve delivered on it at the end of the day in order to move on to that next step. You can only fake it till you make it so much, I guess.

Jason Chew:              Yes. I worked a long time making these underground, low-budget short films. But there was a little bit of chemistry with Pat, and that was the final spice I needed. We talked a lot about Hong Kong cinema and ideas he had for the films and those things also got me excited. We quickly built up that relationship. At a certain point,he must have known, “Okay, you have to be the person to make the film. You were there from the inception, and we’ve been talking about it all this time.”

Kris Mendoza:           I’m excited to see it, I watched the trailer. It looks like very high production value and packs a lot of punch, so I’m very much looking forward to it. You’ve got a lot of good buzz coming off of this project, anything else to look for in the near future?

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Jason Chew

Jason Chew:              Yeah. There’s going to be some documentary work, maybe with Patrick again. I work a lot with an artist called Treya Lam, and we’re doing a visual album with her. I think, for me, one of the other most important things is just writing your own content, like being the seed of the content by finding more time to just work on yourself and your stories. I think that’s important.

 

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Project Forte: Erik Lu

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Erik Lu photographed by Kate Feher

One goal within the Project Forte initiative is to cut through the noise of the status quo, amplifying the voices of creatives within our industry who might not raise themselves aggressively above the clamor.  One such filmmaker is Erik Lu, a director whose presence reaches from Philadelphia to LA, and whose influence settles deeper and wider than that, without ever the need for raising his voice. His body of work digs into human psychology, history, language, and behavior with vignettes that feel determined yet respectful.  To imbibe a tale from Erik Lu is to be a ghost within the world he has built, skillfully and fully – more present than a viewer but less than a character.  When experiencing them, one feels that no detail is out of place, nor is it added or subtracted without device, giving these stories and characters purpose and dimension.  Always questioning the decisions made in film, whether those worlds are his own or his contemporaries, Erik Lu stays hungry to be aware and to understand.  These considerations prove a fuller grasp of “story” and that roundness is seen and felt within his work. He creates relationship as a personal art and as a relatable experience for the viewer.

 

Written and Edited by Kate Feher

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Erik Lu:                      My name is Erik Lu (he/him) and I am a Taiwanese-American director.

Kris Mendoza:           You and I met through mutual friends and started talking about Asian film festivals, so let’s begin there, with Asian cinema overall.  I know you to be very intentional about the crews you work with, not necessarily exclusively, but at least largely composed of other fellow Asian filmmakers who together carve out a community for telling Asian stories. My first question for you is what is the status of Asian cinema right now from your perspective? How has it evolved since you first encountered filmmaking in grad school? In other words, where are we in terms of Asian stories, and how far have we come?

Erik Lu:                      We are making great strides, but we still have a lot of work to do as far as Asian representation goes within cinema. I remember one of the earlier shows I had seen growing up was The Vanishing Son with Russell Wong. It was inspiring because I hadn’t seen somebody on-screen that resembled me like that before, and I felt it gave us a voice. But in the end, to me, it was like kicking the door open, without really walking through it.

The next film to make an impact on me was Better Luck Tomorrow, which pretty much did the same thing but it was the first time I’d seen that in the theaters and on the big screen, which was such a great representation for us. The only problem was, half of my friends couldn’t completely relate to it.  As I remember, it felt more like a West Coast kind of story, and a lot of us East Coasters couldn’t identify with it. But still, it was extremely inspiring.

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Behind the scenes with Erik Lu, Director

I believe the reason why we have a lot of work ahead of us is because of our place in America. We’re fairly new to the American historical timeline. Most of our parents immigrated from Asia recently so most of us grew up as second-generation kids. We’re often living an Asian lifestyle at home and have to adapt to an American one at school and at work. As young kids, identity can be confusing for us, and many of us have just become successive versions of our parents just shooting for a safe, stable, predictable living. Entertainment and the arts aren’t encouraged. This will take time to change.

The other point I would want to make is that jobs beget jobs. The more jobs we get, the more experience we get, the more we can work on our craft, the better we become, the more exposure we get, and the more influence we have to make this world a better place. And it all starts with Asian-American screenwriters writing great stories and creating jobs.

Kris Mendoza:           I agree: 10, 15 years ago, a lot of Asian-American cinema (I call it APA cinema) focused on the question of “Who am I? Where do I belong? … How Asian am I? Vs How American am I? …”  and that emphasis has shifted to Asian representation within everyday American life.  An Asian man or woman can be a leading performer in a film because … they can, right? We shouldn’t have to ask “But why are they Asian?”  and we’re slowly getting over that hump.  We are walking through that door, but how do we build on that?  

You and I have had spirited conversations about films like Crazy Rich Asians...  Much of Hollywood is saying, “It must be proven that there’s an Asian-American population who will pay to go see those movies. We have expendable income, and the box office will define it.” Does that matter?  And by that question I mean, with the success of a lot of recent, bigger, wider releases of Asian-American films or Asian films in the mainstream like Minari and Crazy Rich Asians, is it more important to prove there is a market or to prove that our stories are relatable to Americans, Asian or not?

People are focused on a very particular initiative:  “We have to support this film and show that the Asian community is going to represent a lucrative patronage for Asian film.”  What will motivate Hollywood to invest in Asian stories more?  The promise of expendable income within Asian communities?  Is that what’s important?  Or is it more important to tell good stories that will not just pander and speak to the Asian crowd but be more inclusive to anyone and everyone who watches it?

Erik Lu:                     Who knows what exactly Hollywood will do. But we as artists know what we want to do. We can choose to be authentic and tell a real Asian-American story, hope it gets traction, and that Hollywood loves it. That would be the best case scenario. Or we could not. We could sell out and do what Hollywood wants. To me, at this point in time, it just matters what you do at the end. For example, Jay-Z’s early hip-hop stuff was really great. Then he ended up selling out and going very commercial, and his lyrics got lazy. He ended up getting a lot of money and a bigger name but I never got a sense he used his name and money to go back to his roots and showcase and develop similar underground artists.

Do I think everyone should sell out a bit to help out in the end? Of course not. It’s controversial. To me, if an actor accepts a job to do something stereotypical, and it leads to a lot of exposure and power, that actor could use it to give back to the Asian-American community. I can see it as a necessary evil. Three steps forward, two steps back. Slow progress is still progress.

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah. Jay-Z began as underground hip-hop and he had a lot of lyrics that spoke to the streets… then he commercialized, got very successful, and was able to do whatever he wanted. This connects to Asian-American filmmaking because we are part of a very independent  community on the APA side but also need these big blockbuster films to do well in order for people to trust us with more big studio work and bigger stories. Then once we have that trust, then the door is wide open for us –

There’s a lot of conversation about authenticity lately, in terms of story-telling. There are good stories and good Asian-American stories that are not told by or written by Asian-Americans, a lot of conjecture amongst folks who, even within businesses, are calling cultural appropriation left and right when you’re using a particular culture or background to push an agenda, push a product, service, or business forward. Whether it’s Asian-Americans or any other culture, why is it important that we are the ones telling these stories?

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Left to Right: James Chen, Erik Lu, Michael Rosete

Erik Lu:                     Obviously, growing up in an Asian community or an Asian family, you absorb things via osmosis. You absorb the Asian-American community. Living your life is doing your research. There are little things, for example: how you would eat dinner or the subtle placement of chopsticks on the table, little minute things that you already know as an Asian-American writer that you wouldn’t need to do the research on. Even though a lot of Asian families are different, coming from that point of view, there’s a natural authenticity to it. That’s not to say a non-Asian writer cannot write an authentic Asian story. They can. It’s just that if they never lived in that community, they will have to spend a lot of time researching it.

There is one director that I really admire, Cary Fukunaga. He goes out of his way to research the world he’s filming. That’s what separates a good writer/director from another. Doing research. For example, when he wrote Sin Nombre, he went down to Latin America for a couple years, learning about the gang MS-13, putting himself in dangerous places in order to understand how they really operate. Failing to do adequate research is a problem many novice writers have. That’s where the adage “write what you know” comes from. I’m guilty of it myself at times of not doing enough research. When non-Asian writers don’t do their research and write Asian-American stories, its inauthenticity is very apparent.

It’s kind of like the humorous idea we have that you can tell an Asian restaurant is good by how many Asian people are in there.  If there’s a lot, it’s probably going to be pretty good and authentic. If you see all non-Asian people, then you wonder, “okay, maybe the food is good, but is it authentic to that culture, or is it just catering to the mainstream?” 

Kris Mendoza:           Your allusion to restaurants made me think of when, say, a white male chef opens up a Thai restaurant, no one really says anything except maybe “Congratulations, you’re doing this cool cultural restaurant.” 

But if a Thai chef tries to open up a French restaurant there’s a double standard. I do think the same thing applies to filmmaking. Right now, I think there’s a propensity to write what you know, tell our stories, tell authentic immigrant or Asian-American stories, but, at the end of the day, it’s got to evolve past that. An Asian-American writer or director can tell a non-Asian American story and still do it well. Take Chloe Zhao as the first female director to win a Golden Globe and, I think, is also nominated for an Academy Award for Nomadland. It had some star power with Frances McDormand but at the end of the day, that was not an Asian story. And you can’t take that away from Chloe Zhao, she’s still at the top of her game and her craft as a director, but the conversations around it suggest a double-edged sword presenting a question of “what types of stories can we tell and what we are qualified to tell?” 

Erik Lu:                     I have no problem with a non-Asian person writing an Asian story, as long as they do their research: they live somewhere, they spend time absorbing the culture, and they communicate with the people there.

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Erik Lu directing

Kris Mendoza:           As media-makers and storytellers, we have the ability to help shape perceptions of Asian-Americans in a positive light. Given this current climate of Asian hate and violent hate crimes against Asians, how did this evolve and what can we do as media-makers to help shift and change those perceptions?

Erik Lu:                     You mean why are we in such a hate-crime-filled environment?

Kris Mendoza:           Yes. Has it always been like this? I have spoken to you before about my experiences with hate crime, 15 years ago now.. has it magnified?  I mean, if you’re Asian in America you know this is not new. You, yourself, told me a story once about being on the hockey team, being the only Asian, and getting a lot of backhanded racist remarks in that regard. Can you tell us about that?

Erik Lu:                     I agree. I don’t think the resentment against Asian-Americans is new. Maybe in our current situation with COVID and the hostile political climate, people feel more justified in attacking or assaulting Asian-Americans. And you know what, I don’t think it’s solely non-Asians hurting us. Asians are also hurting us, in a way. For example, yesterday I saw an Asian woman who was eating a cooked turtle, chomping the turtle’s head off and just tearing it apart in a very barbaric kind of way. She was disrespecting the animal. It was gluttonous and revolting. It was a fairly new video that just came out, and it made me angry. And people attach that kind of content to all Asian-Americans, who have nothing to do with it nor want to be associated with it in any way.

About the hockey incident, when I was in high school, I was competing in a play-off game against another local team. This was about 1995. I was one of the better players on our team and the opponent high school knew that I was an athletic threat. Any time I touched the puck, the audience of fans from the rival school would chant, “USA! USA! USA!” 

The first time I heard that, I thought, “That’s so strange because… I’m American. Why would the other team’s spectators be chanting for me?” They were trying to get under my skin. They were trying to alienate me in a racial way, and even my teammates knew that was really messed up. 

My father, who had no idea what was going on, was also chanting, “USA, USA.”  He didn’t understand. Kind of funny, kind of sad. That really shows the difference between our generations. The first generation came here to make a living and go about their business without bothering anyone, and the second generation is learning to speak up more and fight that not-so-subtle racism, recognizing the language and the intention better. 

Even now, my father, and this was just a couple weeks ago, he bought a pizza and they charged him almost double the price. My dad just paid for it.  I asked him, “Why didn’t you argue with them?” And he said, “Well, I didn’t want to cause any trouble. It’s okay. They’ve been nice.”  But that’s a big issue for our generation right now because if there’s an injustice, whether it’s small or big, I think it’s something we have to speak up against.

It’s going to take a many generations to get to some point that resembles some kind of racial equality for Asian-Americans. It might even take longer. African-Americans have been at this for much longer than we have, and they’re still working at it. And I do think it’s a possibility that this may never fully end. But it could get to a point where the underlying racism could be suppressed enough that we can maybe get a good night’s sleep for once.

I have a bit of a cynical view when it comes to humans. I think that any time something different is introduced, people get scared, and they retaliate because of their own ignorance. Think about it. You don’t have to spend time and understand what you’re scared of. It’s much easier to retaliate and hate. It’s the path of least energy and consequently, the least rewarding. Learning about someone else and learning to love, it takes time, and patience, and being open-minded, but in the end is most rewarding. Sadly, humans tend to take the easy way out. So, the day when attacks on Asian-Americans goes down, another minority group is going to be targeted. Rinse and repeat. All we can hope for is to create a world where our loved ones can feel somewhat safe and protected. But I don’t think we are ever really going to get to a point where everyone is super happy and collaborative and in complete harmony.

Kris Mendoza:          You hit it on the head – the first generation of immigrants in this country were just trying to fit in, and the second is trying to make their voices known, be less passive about fitting in, be more vocal about belonging here.  Our parents made sacrifices for us to live the American life at the end of the day, and I think there is a tension between the two generations, with one being very passive and disapproving, when the next generation is more vocal and more advocate, whether we’re filmmakers or not. 

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Erik Lu

Do you feel that other media-makers, content-makers, scriptwriters, etc have a certain level of responsibility to push the envelope which keeps the Asian portrayal contained?  Asians have been portrayed as passive, deli owners, dorks, non-sexualized male characters… I’m not saying you have to make an Asian gangster film or even that you shouldn’t,  but do we have a responsibility to portray Asians in a certain light, more indicative and representative of what and how we really are?

Erik Lu:                     My view on this has changed over the years, to be honest. When I was in college I felt it was more important to make a good story and just have an Asian-American as the lead without making any references to being Asian-American. Now, my view is that you really don’t want to give studios, these powerful producers, a reason or excuse to cast a non-Asian person instead.  I believe there’s a reason why a character is written as, say, Taiwanese, Chinese, or Filipino. As a writer, you have to successfully justify why your character is that ethnicity and make sure you stand your ground.

I believe that Asian-Americans can play all types of roles as long as the characters on screen reflect reality. We have Asian-Americans who are leading men and women and some who are actually computer scientists or who do martial arts. For some people it is. I don’t shun an Asian-Amerian writer making a kung fu story set in America. That’s completely fine if it is their reality. Maybe if we just inundate the market with leading Asian character roles, that might push the needle for us way far forward. Some films will succeed, and some will fail. And then we’ll see how much the needle falls back and much progress we make. Again, three steps forward, two steps back.

The reason I chose filmmaking versus painting, music, or any other creative medium is because I’m a soft-spoken guy. I’m not very vocal. I don’t get into huge debates. I’m not confrontational. I’m not a big public speaker. I’m also not as auditory as I am visual. So filmmaking, for me, is the loudest voice I have. I feel I can communicate to a large audience more effectively in this form than any other form. 

Kris Mendoza:           Are you able to be loud while using film as your means of communication?  I mean, even though you personally feel like you’re a little softer-spoken, do you feel like you are able to use filmmaking as an  amplifier for your voice where you wouldn’t otherwise communicate those ideas?

Erik Lu:                     I do feel like I’m louder in filmmaking. I could be in a room where nobody agrees with me, but when you believe in something so strongly, you have to go for it and, at some point, stop listening to the other people. You can get too much advice where it will confuse you. Of course, it’s important to consider everybody’s ideas. That’s just being respectful. And also recognize that you don’t always have the best ideas. But ultimately, when there are things that I feel have to be a certain way, I’m going to do everything I can to make it that way. Film allows me to express myself, and the more adamant I am about my vision, the louder the volume is on the metaphorical megaphone I’m holding. I’m not going to always succeed. More often than not, I’m going to fail. But there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel.

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Kris Mendoza:           You talked a little about Cary Fukunaga, Vanishing Son, Russell Wong, etc. Who are some early influences and inspirations for you as a budding director, young Erik Lu of the USC MFA program?  Who did you look up to and maybe model your work after in terms of inspiration?

Erik Lu:                     I grew up doing a lot of art when I was young. I drew a lot. In elementary school or grade school, during math class or whatever academic class, I would actually be drawing portraits of my friends. So I was always interested in art. Then, in 10th grade, my parents said “You want to go to art school? You’re not going to make any money doing that. You should stop taking art classes and take some computer classes.” So I ended up taking some programming classes, though I don’t think my heart was in it. By the end of my junior year, I ended up getting an editing program and I made a music video to Mo Money Mo Problems by B.I.G. I was just fascinated by the process.

I had one friend at the time who wanted me to help her with a student project, and I did. She was a bit of an aggressive girl, kind of violent. One day, she slapped me on the back, literally slapped me on the back, and said, “Hey, you should do this for a living. You should go to film school.” I was like, “Nah, I’m not going to do that.” But I think a good idea sticks with you, and after a couple days or a few weeks, I felt I wanted to go to film school.

At that time, one of my friends, James Chen, who is an actor, had gotten into the Yale School of Drama one year before I got into USC. We were college friends at the time. He was inspirational to me because he’s got extreme ambition, is extremely hard-working, and very talented. He was super supportive of me in a lot of the things that I did. I was pretty new to film, and we would talk about filmmaking and theater for hours and hours. We keep each other going, and he’s one of the people in film I look up to.

Another strong influence for me is Michael Rosete. He’s an actor I had met in New York, and we did a lot of short films together. He is also extremely talented, super passionate about the craft, and truly dedicated. We share similar sensibilities, and he taught me a lot about the actor’s process and how to talk to an actor. We’ve been through crazy late night shoots, horrible weather, dangerous location shoots, and both of us have been battered by production together, but I enjoyed every single minute of it. He’s a great partner in crime and that’s what makes me admire him. 

I really like David Fincher’s work. He’s a master at everything. It seems like he knows more about cinematography than the cinematographer does and more about coloring than the colorist does. He’s an expert at all trades, and I really look up to him.

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Kris Mendoza:          Were you also pre-med at Penn?

Erik Lu:                     I was pre-med. I was a double major, Biology and Asian/Middle Eastern studies. I didn’t do so well my first year at Penn because I was just partying like crazy. I didn’t find film until the start of my senior year, and at that point I started shooting weddings. I decided I wanted to get away, as far away from my parents as possible.  My fine art teacher encouraged me with a list of schools and I wanted to go to LA so I took the summer session at USC.  Then I took a couple years off, I worked as a Lifetouch photographer and was shooting 300 school portraits a day. I was still shooting weddings. Then when I found out I got into the production program at USC, I committed. USC is an interesting school because it has an established name, it’s extremely competitive, and you can make a few really good friendships, but then you can also make a lot of difficult ones because-

Kris Mendoza:           A lot of competition.

Erik Lu:                     Yeah. I mean, because people are-

Kris Mendoza:           I’ve heard.

Erik Lu:                     They’re so career-focused.

Kris Mendoza:           I was going to ask you about that because I don’t know many people that have academically gotten an MFA in film. I think a lot of people either didn’t go to film school or undergrad or technical school, like a Full Sail or New York Film Academy or something like that. I think very few of my friends and colleagues did go on to an MFA level. What was that experience like for you, and how did that mold you into the filmmaker you are today?

Erik Lu:                     So I don’t think film school is necessary to be a successful filmmaker anymore. You can honestly learn everything online. I think technically, there are so many things available to you resource-wise. What film school does do for you is it gets people in the same mindset. For example, USC is a very studio-based film school. It gets people ready for the studio system, where, as I understand, and you know better than I do, NYU is more of an independent film type of school. Obviously, students from both schools cross paths and work on the same stuff, but film school teaches you specific grammar, whether it’s how to talk to a crew member or how to talk to a fellow artist. You spend a lot of time in class getting feedback and it gives you structure. It doesn’t necessarily unlock your talent. It just gives you a platform for structure, and it gives you some discipline. I can usually get a feel for people who went and who didn’t, but I love working with both types, and you don’t need to go to film school to be successful. It’s huge for networking purposes. But the landscape has changed so much since then, the industry has evolved. Back then, when you and I were at school, editing programs cost $30,000. Now, you can subscribe for $50 a month or something like that, maybe $20 a month.

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The other thing I think is funny about film school is that I feel that you will find the 5% of professors in film school to be brilliant. They’re absolutely brilliant and inspiring. Then the other 95%, you might not get that much from them, but that 5% was worth going for.

Kris Mendoza:           In terms of the particular work that you pursue, stories that excite you, where do you see your work heading? I know you’re writing right now, and you have a bunch of work in pre-production… You and I have spoken about a slew of projects you’re trying to get off the ground. What’s a through-line that you see within your own work, whether that pertains to character, genre, mood …

Erik Lu:                     I respond to drama. Drama is where I want to be. I don’t think comedy is really my thing though I’ve done some comedy, and I tend to be better at dry comedy than slapstick. But drama is most important to me. It’s naturally a very powerful medium. And movies that I respond to most are character-driven. I’m not so much of an action guy though I can enjoy an action movie.

Lately, I’ve been getting into horror. My friend Bryant Jen is a big horror fanatic, and, also my friend Kris Mendoza used to talk to me a lot about horror. The best horrors are actually just good dramas, but they take you to a place you can’t normally go. 

Kris Mendoza:           In terms of what drives you, where and how do you see your own identity, not necessarily cultural, but it could include your upbringing or your background. How are you able to inject your brand of identity, you as Erik Lu, into the kind of art that you make?  Where do you see your personal artistry injected into the stories that you create or direct?

Erik Lu:                     That’s a difficult question. Honestly, I’m still learning about myself and still trying to discover myself. I think in order to find my voice, I need to fail, which is a huge part of being an artist. If you never fail, you’re not learning. A lot of that is being open to being criticized and humiliated. Yeah, some people might be mean and they just want to cut you down, but, a lot of times, they really just don’t understand what you’re doing or they’re confused, and you have to be open to discussing that with them and with yourself. You don’t have to necessarily take all of their feedback, but you have to be open.

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Erik Lu photographed by Kate Feher

For me, listening to criticism, it’s never easy. Even constructive criticism. I don’t like it, but it’s like getting a shot. You don’t want to get a shot, but it’s going to help you in the end. Bryant Jen, for example, makes a lot of YouTube content, and his stuff is great. But he has a couple videos where people review bombed him. They might not like him, but he allows people to comment, and he tells me he reads every single comment. I feel that’s important. As long as it’s not a cyberbullying tone, I think harsh feedback can make you grow as a person. That’s something that I want to be able to do. As far as artistry goes, I don’t always know what works. I just try to do it, and I put it out there, and I hope it does well, but if it doesn’t, it’s a learning experience for me, and I try to go from there. That will become part of my identity. 

Kris Mendoza:           In terms of being an artist, I think that’s probably one of the biggest things, right?  There’s a certain vulnerability about making something and sharing it with the rest of the world. In our working together, I can see that you are fairly comfortable knowing what feedback to take and how to maneuver around criticism. If you’re just creating something to please other people, it’s empty. Ultimately, this is a business, right? If you’re in the filmmaking business, there’s got to be a certain number of people that like it in order for you to continue doing what you’re doing, but putting your all into it or contributing a certain amount of sweat equity is important as a creative. 

You were talking about failing… What is the greatest failure you’ve learned from at this point in your career?

Erik Lu:                     I don’t have a single momentary failure that I can think of at the moment, but maybe it is not putting myself out there enough. I get so self-critical sometimes that some ideas never see the light of day. I think people who are able to show their heart and how they feel and accept that people might not like it, to me, those people grow the most. I could have grown more if I were not as critical of myself.

I was watching a Twitch streamer the other day – and this is a really small thing – but the Twitch streamer was talking about some kind of sushi. It was inexpensive sushi, and she coined that as “poverty sushi.” She and some of her friends were laughing about it, but later that night, some of her fans were upset and she felt awful. She responded to all her fans with an apology.  She learned that it was insensitive and that those kinds of jokes are, maybe, not acceptable. 

She apologized to her audience when she realized that and grew from the moment, becoming more aware and more considerate. I admire people who are able to go out and show themselves to the world. My biggest failure is not putting myself out there enough because it means I am not exposing myself to criticism as much, where I think I could grow more as a person.  That’s me in particular and concerning my work, too. 

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Erik Lu photographed by Kate Feher

Looking back to my college-level maturity, I said a lot of dumb things. I think I was arrogant, and I thought I was a lot better than I actually was. I wasn’t careful, and I heard it from a lot of people, which helped humble me.  It helped me to slow down and think about what I say before I say it. That was good for me. I’m embarrassed to admit how I was and I regret that I was like that, but that’s just the way I had to learn. I’m not naturally a smooth talker. I had to get beat down a little bit to understand the importance of slowing down and thinking things through. That’s just a human experience. That’s just part of learning. That’s part of growing up. I’m still making mistakes. Everyday.

Nobody’s perfect. You just need to acknowledge your mistakes and realize that you failed. It’s okay to mourn, but pick yourself back up and keep going. That’s the most important thing to me, as an artist and as a person.

 

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Project Forte: Ryan Sun

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Ryan Sun

 

Ryan Sun (he/him) is a post-producer for AlkemyX in Philadelphia and has a rounded portfolio, breaching almost every skill in the industry.  This week through Project Forte, we delve into Ryan’s outlook on specialization in the workforce and why he finds it important to mentor and bring up others around him.  Read about how Ryan found self awareness and new goals which will celebrate and preserve his family’s diverse cultural background. 

 

 

 

 

Written and Edited by Kate Feher

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Ryan Sun:                    My name is Ryan Sun and I am a post-producer for Alkemy X.  I am of  Filipino-Chinese descent, originally from South Jersey, and I’ve been living in the city and suburbs of Philadelphia for about 17 years now.

Kris Mendoza:           How did you get your start in the industry? It sounds like you went to school locally?

Ryan Sun:                    Yeah, I went to Temple University and graduated with a BA in Film and Media Arts. Their program was highly ranked and very helpful in terms of leading students into this industry and preparing me for my career.  

Kris Mendoza:           In what way?

Ryan Sun:                     I was able to get an internship working in local news and that led to a position as a technical operations coordinator for the NBC news affiliate here in Philly. At the time I was toggling between production and post, doing local independent projects, commercial work, and eventually settling in on assistant editing / editor work. I even got to do some background work down in Virginia for a movie called Evan Almighty and that led to PA-work on other bigger budget movies. So, I’ve run the gamut as far as different types of work goes and settling in.  I was really big on being a jack of all trades / master of none with my eyes set on editing.

Kris Mendoza:           How did you get yourself to editing after all that?

Ryan Sun:                    Yeah, in 2012 I picked up an assistant editing position with Alkemy X – at the time they were known as Shooters – and I was there for their heavy political season in 2012. That led to a staff position as a junior editor for about 4 years before I went to Bowstring Studios up in Conshohocken to do some other fun engaging projects with them in 2018.

Bowstring let me go when the pandemic hit, which happened to a lot of people. It actually allowed me to start freelancing which, ironically, gave me an even surer foot in the market and the industry.

Kris Mendoza:           It’s great that you stayed so positive through that experience.

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Behind the scenes with Ryan Sun

Ryan Sun:                    Yeah, this past year I really got a chance to explore a lot of my creative sides as far as editing, freelancing, and learning how people were handling projects and jobs as we moved through this whole lockdown and quarantine situation. Over this time, I also got to reconnect with the SVP of Operations from Alkemy X, and picked up a post producing position, so here we are today!

Kris Mendoza:           You touched on two things there… First, what’s the importance of specializing?  You talk about being a jack of all trades but also about honing in on a particular craft.  I think oftentimes, myself included, you might graduate and want to do absolutely everything, for whoever’s going to hire you, you know? You’re eager and you just sign up with anyone who wants to give you money.  Maybe then, you very quickly realize you need to be known for something that you do very well, whether it’s gaffer, grip, editor… anything like that leads to more opportunities.  Is specialization better in terms of self-branding or professional branding for yourself? What are your thoughts on that? 

Ryan Sun:                    I think that it can be a double-edged sword in a way because when you hone yourself, you’re really committing and defining yourself and you have to be ready for that. I’m a little indecisive though I wouldn’t say non-committal.  I feel, personally, that I have a lot to offer and a lot of facets to myself which should be honored. I’m open and I don’t want to shut out opportunities that come my way.

The other edge of that sword involves getting pigeon-holed.  I know so many people that want to be… I don’t know. They want to be a writer. Well… they’re also really good at being an AD. It’s hard to branch out toward your writing goal if you’re being hired to second or AD your whole life. 

For the longest time, I was playing to one strength that I had of understanding workflow and how to get from point A to point B on a project. So, I became known as this assistant guy who could get projects started and progressing with a plan.  It was really hard to break out of that position and into an actual editor role where I get to make creative decisions and help people understand my ideas for a narrative or commercial or whatever it is. So, like I said, it’s a double-edged sword for people like me. Other opportunities that I took to remain active and relevant kept pulling me back to one thing or another. Regardless, my experience with exercising multiple skills all comes together to better inform my current position in a really engaging way. 

Kris Mendoza:           What level of balance between internal and external validation occurs while you’re narrowing in a career?  For example, and I’ll speak from experience, there was a point in my life when I was doing a bunch of work shooting and editing. I called myself a videographer. I never quite felt comfortable calling myself a DP nor did I feel comfortable calling myself an editor. I was just not very good or confident about either skill.  That’s the internal. The external is when people might tell you, you are that DP or you are that editor, until the internal catches up, and you can define yourself.

Ryan Sun:                    Yeah. When I started freelancing, people recognized that I had a lot to offer in different roles.  I was getting various jobs based on what they remembered of a specialized aspect of my skills set.

When they recognized I could do more, that helped me see more opportunities. It pushed me to think, “Oh, you know what? Maybe, I can direct this thing, or maybe I can lend my hand towards a little graphic animation, create assets, or in another aspect of this job over here…” 

It’s about self-awareness. It’s going to be a little bit different for everyone, and this is how it found me and how I found it. 

I think you should do what makes you most afraid, what scares you to the point of finding your own edges. 

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Ryan Sun photographed by Christina Rose

Kris Mendoza:           Absolutely.  So, circling back, you gave us a pretty good understanding of winding down an unconventional career path.  I want to unpack that, was it unconventional from the typical corporate 9-5 or unconventional from a cultural standpoint?

Ryan Sun:                    Oh, from a cultural standpoint is what I meant by that, yeah. My parents are off the boat Filipino, but they were never super conservative or strict like, “You should go be a doctor. You should be a nurse. You should be something where you have that nine-to-five job or this is what the job is kind of person.” I think they knew, and I knew, from the get-go that I wasn’t going to be very conventional. 

But you’re asked as a kid what you want to become, and I wanted to be a magician chef. My parents said, “You don’t want to be a chef.”  [They didn’t even acknowledge the magician part of it] They said “You’ll work terrible hours. You won’t have any friends. You won’t make a lot of money. It’s going to be hot…”  I remember, some part of that sounded engaging. It sounded fun and exciting. But regardless, it was at the forefront of their minds that I should find a way to grow my roots, whatever it was.  With film, they didn’t really know what to make of it, and they didn’t mind for the most part, but they were always worried about me finding success.

For them, it’s the monetary aspect of being able to survive making a living off of whatever video editing means or whatever getting into media communications means.  The idea of a starving artist is prevalent, especially in Asian culture. They avoid it by being very strict on school, bringing honor to the family, being very diligent and hardworking.

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It is now abundantly clear where Ryan Sun gets all of his energy to keep working…

What’s different generationally is not just the idea of success but the concept of hard work too. My parents came to this country in order to provide a better life for their kids. If you think about it, they gave up a lot of themselves to come to a foreign country, start fresh, and make a brand new kind of life for their family.  That was hard work. 

Kris Mendoza:          So, you talk about defining success as being so subjective. How do you define success?  You’ve made this a career, so it’s possible to have that success in film & TV and not own a starving artist label.

Ryan Sun:                   Yeah. Absolutely. I think that as far as success goes, I’ve been very fortunate to have met certain people and been able to have a support group like that. Coming out of college, a lot of people reached out to me or kept me in mind when it came to different projects. My talents and skill sets took me far, but I think without those connections, I recognize my goals might not have come to fruition.

I’m not even saying that I’m successful, I think I’m still figuring it out.  People think about success monetarily: how much are they making, how much money they have, how much is their time worth. For me, I think that there’s a holistic aspect to success and how you feel as a person, and what you can contribute to the world with your gifts. I try to pay it forward and use a lot of my experiences to give back to students that are just coming out of college or people that are able to get a start into this industry.  I find that very rewarding, personally and so that embodies a sense of success in itself.   I can use my place to connect them to the right people.  

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Behind the scenes with Ryan Sun

The constant search for work as a freelancer is probably one of the most daunting things you can endure. It’s a mark of success in itself when people remember me and reach out for more work, otherwise I would spend 100% of my time doing that instead. Now it’s 50/50 hunting and gathering. Not to mention, being told, “Hey, I can really use your help on this.”  is so rewarding. That’s how I gauge success.

Kris Mendoza:           Do you think that whole notion of giving back and ushering in the next generation was fostered in you by someone in particular? How did you arrive at that mission?

Ryan Sun:                    So, actually to answer your question there, it’s because no one offered that to me. I feel like growing up, school, being on projects.. there’s a lot of stuff that I had to figure out on my own and said, “God, I wish someone would have told me this.”  And just taking the time to encourage someone to go to a happy hour with industry folks can make a big difference too. There’s a lot to be learned in that aspect and it’s hard doing it without a lot of guidance.

Kris Mendoza:           In terms of breaking into this industry… Almost every success story involves someone helping you up a ladder, but it can also be a kind of Catch-22. I mean, there’s still nepotism, favoritism, and cronyism. Unqualified people get jobs in every industry because they are given an opportunity from someone who feels connected to or responsible for helping a familiar struggle.  That’s how the status quo gets fed.  With Asian-Americans existing as a minority, it can be that much harder to break into a very distinct establishment, any thoughts on that? Did any of that factor into your early filmmaking days or even in film school?

Ryan Sun:                   Well, yes and no. I might have to go back to my upbringing to explain this. I grew up in a small town in South Jersey called Pennsville. Their claim to fame was being the town next to the town where Bruce Willis grew up. The demographic was primarily White and Christian.      

My parents ended up here because my uncle worked as a doctor at the county hospital. He sponsored my dad to come lay down roots there, in the center of the tri-state area. I was one of maybe a handful of Asians in this town. There was still a strong Filipino community because they stuck together, maybe to survive.  I remember going to backyard parties, having pig roasts, and doing all sorts of fun Filipino activities. But for the most part, going to school, I was surrounded by white people all the time. I hate to say it, but I became whitewashed in a way.

I was in some dumb band with my best friends growing up, and we had a little geocities website. But we wrote as our description that we were just “three dumb white kids from South Jersey.”  And then, we looked at that sentence and all of us said, “Wait a second. Something isn’t right here.” I stopped, and I realized, “Holy shit. I’m not white.” 

I didn’t see myself as different from these kids of Anglo-Saxon Christian Catholic backgrounds, and that’s not to say my parents didn’t try to instill our own culture in me. I didn’t want to be different, and I mentally blocked a bit of my Asian identity and made their white-ness a part of my life. You get teased in school, especially in a town like that, very conservative minds and very right-wing focus. And so, I saw that kind of target mentality towards anyone who was different. There were probably two or three black kids in my school, I was one of three Asians, and some of us got bullied.  But I felt like I wasn’t on the other side because I had been around these people all my life. I couldn’t see that I wasn’t one of them.

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So, using that growing up experience and going back to the original question: getting my start in this industry, I didn’t fully expect to be treated any differently concerning my race or cultural identity. I will say though that I remember going to my first internship, with all different walks of life sitting in the room with me as we went in for our first intern meeting…

I looked around and didn’t see anyone that looked like me. I don’t think it was a hindrance.  If anything, it made me stand out. I’m not trying to say that me being different gave me an edge. I’m just saying that I think that it’s one of those things that people just notice. I’ve actually been mistaken for a few other Asians in this market…

Kris Mendoza:           Who I’m sure you look nothing like, right?

Ryan Sun:                     Yeah. It was Neal Santos, who I went to school with.

Kris Mendoza:            I know Neal. [jokes] Ok, maybe you look a little alike…

Ryan Sun:                     I could see maybe distant cousins, right? But one guy mistook me for him, and I’ve been mistaken for Ben Wong also, he’s an audio engineer. 

Kris Mendoza:           I know Ben, that one’s a little harder of a sell for sure. It’s not racist or hateful, but it is somewhat rooted in ignorance or just mistake people of color for someone else who looks nothing like them. 

Ryan Sun:                    They’ll see someone that resembles me and it’s a harmless kind of thought, but at the same time it strikes this chord, “Where’s that coming from? What does that mean deep down?”  I do try not to read into it too much.

Kris Mendoza:           I mean I think it takes a good level of self-security to brush past that. It could eat away at a person…

Ryan Sun:                    Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

Kris Mendoza:           I can’t really navigate through this without touching on – call it – the current state of being Asian. This is an interesting time especially after a year like 2020 with focus landing on social injustices against people of color, specifically the Black and Asian communities. What role can we play in helping to stop this within our industry?

Ryan Sun:                    I’m glad you asked, and I should say that I am so totally not a political person, but if anything these past four years have forced me to be hyper-aware. I was involved in the political cycle, working on ads this past election, and I learned that I don’t know as much as I should. You go toe-to-toe with people that are super into what’s happening and I want to hold my own in those conversations – uncomfortable conversations even – but I’m not confrontational and I don’t want to say anything too damning.         

We have seen a lot of injustices and outward transgressions towards people of color and the Asian community.  I’ll be blunt about this, growing up as I described, I certainly witnessed a lot of that mentality.  I’ve never had anything outwardly scary happen to me while living there but the micro-aggressions are noticeable. My wife is Jewish, and we’re an interracial couple, so I’m hyper aware of that. 

And I hate to say it, but in 2016 when we elected Trump as president, I saw a lot of that vitriol and hate in my social media feed.  There was a new public mentality that it was ok to outwardly display this kind of behavior now. More recently, I saw a video of this woman in New York who got beaten up on her way to church. I thought, “Holy Cow, this is scary”

Kris Mendoza:           You think:  “This could be your mom, my mom, or your lola.”

Ryan Sun:                    Oh my god, yes, she was a 60-year-old Filipino woman on her way to church. Take race out of it for a second… for anyone to just wail on an elderly woman is so obscene. Then, you add the fact she was targeted for being Asian, and this man thought she didn’t belong here. I mean that just sets off a lot of bells. 

It raises an issue in our society of how Asian culture is viewed.  If anything, we’re seen as the comedic sidekick, the comic relief, or just the fun-loving Asian guy: the Jackie Chan. We’re not necessarily seen as threatening or –

Kris Mendoza:           – or controversial or anything like that –

Ryan Sun:                    I personally am a fun-loving guy but I’m not sure anyone should equate that to me being Asian or not. I wish we weren’t portrayed as goofy. And that’s changed a lot over the years, but holding on to pure culture and respect for traditions is important because there still is a lot of whitewashing.  Well, who was it,  Scarlett Johansson?  She was going to play some anime character. Think about that loss for Asian culture.

I’m a big fan of cooking shows, as an aspiring magician chef, and Anthony Bourdain did a phenomenal job of highlighting the Filipino culture in his show No Reservations. Honestly, watching that episode made me cry. I was very emotional just because it was so endearing to see someone respect the culture and understand where people of my country came from and what they hold true in themselves.

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Kris Mendoza:           Is it fair to say that as media makers and storytellers, especially being people of color and Asian, it’s our responsibility to tell our own stories accurately?  It’s going to be a slow burn… a feature film or two won’t  suddenly change the perception of Asians.  You talk about this “goofiness” and that comes from years and years of conditioning in Hollywood, creating those stereotypes. 

Ryan Sun:                    I think honestly, for any culture, it’s important to maintain the rights to our stories, whether you are Black, Asian, First Nation, Indian, Caucasian…

I told you about growing up whitewashed, well now I’m now playing catch up in regards to understanding my own culture, who I am, who my family is, and where I see myself going.  I’m having a kid this summer. I need to make sure that this child is going to be raised knowing that we have a very vibrant Filipino culture on one side and on the other there will be Hebrew school and learning about Judaism. I think it is our responsibility, yes, and we’re the ones with the tools so if we don’t tell our stories, who will?  

Kris Mendoza:           No better way to end it right there. Any parting thoughts?

Ryan Sun:                     I think that for me and for any other marginalized person in this industry, it’s always important to stay true to yourself. Do what you need to do to stay on a path that fulfills you, but also stay true to your culture and family.

Hillary Hanak

Project Forte: Hillary Hanak

Hillary On Set With Camera

Hillary Hanak (she/her) is a seasoned cinematographer from West Chester, PA, who cut her teeth in the competitive Los Angeles scene before settling back into the Philadelphia area. With over 20 years in film, and the foresight to learn at every opportunity, she’s wise to the nature of the industry and how to navigate it. Hillary has fostered opportunities for many promising young talents, recognizing the benefits of building a strong community of filmmakers in our city.  She leads by example, fulfilling a crucial responsibility to usher in much needed change.  Project Forte strives to create the dialogue for experiences and perspectives so we can establish the need for that change.

 

Written and Edited by Kate Feher

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Hillary Hanak:           I am Hillary Hanak-Newman…the Newman part is really only Facebook official, I just got married this past year.  I’m a freelance Director of Photography and I’m the Video Content Producer and Director of Photography at Aramark. 

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Newlywed Hillary Hanak-Newman

Kris Mendoza:           How did you get started in the industry?

Hillary Hanak:           I went to college for Film & Video at University of Pittsburgh, which was a theory-based program at the time, so they paired us with Pittsburgh Filmmakers for production and hands on courses. After I graduated, I moved out to California with not much money in my pocket. I had emailed over 200 DPs before I left, just going down the list of DPs in Los Angeles, and one of them responded to me and said, “Yeah, I’ve got a feature coming up. You can be the loader, no problem.” And that was my first job, loading film canisters for features, before the writers strike happened.                 

During that time, a lot of work washed up, but I had a 9-5 at a film lab, called Fotokem,  on  the weekends, and I could still freelance during the week. I worked for a place called Wooden Nickel, which is a grip and lighting rental house out there. It turned out to be a great way to network and I got to know everyone in the business while I worked there. Then I started my own grip and lighting rental company called Get a Grip Equipment in Los Angeles. I bought a truck, I bought gear and… I had a partner at the time and we just took every job we could take to build our name and build our reputation, and that ended up working out really well. We were really successful. We worked on everything, from low budget and no budget, all the way up to working with the Foo Fighters on “Sound City, and “Sonic Highways”. And really got into the rock documentary niche by the end of my time in LA. 

Foo Slate

I was with someone for 13 years and they ended up passing away out in Los Angeles, and it was really difficult. So, I came back here to be closer to family and still wanted to be in the film business, but didn’t know how that was going to work out. And soon as I moved back here, I got a call from the Foo Fighters, again, to do a second documentary with them. I ended up driving across the country and then flying back and going on the road with them for about a year.

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Hillary and Matt on the Foo Fighters Truck

Kris Mendoza:           Coincidentally, it seems like we both moved out to LA right around the same time. I got there and the writer strike happened, but I did not give it as much of a chance as you did. I did a year out there, I don’t want to say it was wasted, but I didn’t get to work on anything substantial. I didn’t know that you had your own rental business at one point out there . That’s pretty awesome.

Hillary Hanak:           We had it for about five years, from 2008 to 2013. When I left, my business partner, Igor Kamoevi,  and I just literally split the company in half. So, I have half the gear here and he has half the gear there. He took the truck and I took the van and we kind of split it up that way. He still has our clients out there. And then when our clients need somebody on the east coast, they call me. So, we’re still in contact, and he’s still working under that name, but I ended up coming here.

Kris Mendoza:           In terms of the kind of work you do now… I know you have a 9 to 5 producing videos at Aramark but what kind of work do you keep busy with on the freelance cinematographer side of things?

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Hillary Hanak on the set of Block

Hillary Hanak:           Before the pandemic I did a short film for Carrie Brennan called Block, which is running the festival circuit right now, and doing really well. It’s won a couple of awards for directing and performance. I’m also currently in post-production on a documentary that Kelly Murray and I produced. It’s called The Openers and it follows an aspiring Philly comedian as he breaks into the comedy scene and opens for other stand-up comics.  The goal is to capture the journey comedians take in the very beginning of their careers, before they establish themselves in the scene, or work their way up to a Netflix special.

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Hillary Hanak and Kelly Murray behind the scenes on the set of 3:13

I am working on a documentary about the four men surrounding Malcolm X and then another documentary about Alexander McClay Williams who was a 16 year old African-American boy in the 1930s who was convicted and put to death for a murder that he didn’t commit. I have a lot of things in the works and passions I’m working on constantly. 

We went up to New York a couple years ago and shot Alicia Keys, and we did the Jonas Brothers documentary, travelling down to Cuba with them. It just keeps coming and coming and going. And I just balance it out with other work. I never say no. I just say yes, and I figure it out later.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s the way to go. It’s the blessing and the curse of being busy and when it rains, it pours. Just saying yes and figuring it out later is sometimes the best way to go. 

You seem to have a gravitational pull towards documentary. Is that by nature, kind of working on with the Foo Fighters and becoming known for an aesthetic?

Hillary Hanak:           I did just fall into the rock documentary genre, to be honest with you, but I’ve always had an affinity for real life, true stories and documentaries. 

I was working on this low budget film with a DP who was, like, eight and a half months pregnant… And it was not a good movie [jokes].  And I promised her that I wasn’t going to jump off to go on another job for another three weeks; that I would finish this movie with her. And she really appreciated that. I lost a lot of money by not taking other jobs, but it was important to be there for her and support her. Sure enough, she was the one who ended up referring me to her best friend who was one of the DP’s on the Foo Fighters documentary. And I kind of fell into that and got to work with some amazing people and hear their stories. It was just fascinating to me. I thought I knew a lot about music and I thought I knew a lot about film, and I’ve come to find out that every time it’s just the surface, no matter how much you know, it feels like it’s just the surface.

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Hillary Hanak pictured right, with The Foo Fighters and President Barak Obama

Kris Mendoza:           Talk to me about the mission of Philadelphia Women in Film and Television (PWIFT) and what kind of work you do on the board there.

Hillary Hanak:           So, I was brought on by fellow filmmaker,  Dafna Yachin, who is the vice president. I did a documentary with her called The Great Flip-Off, and it was an amazing experience. We worked really well together and she recommended me to be on the board of PWIFT.  When I came on, the role that was available at the time was secretary/social media director. So, I’m able to get the word out more about PWIFT.  We have a real presence in Philadelphia and people know about us, but we want us to be even more of a support to the community of female filmmakers. The pandemic has been really hard. We used to have galas and events where we could do networking but now we’re making that work in the virtual world. We held an event called Focus In Zoom where we invite different female filmmakers, actors, directors, producers, crew members, and so on, to talk about their experience in the film business.. We’ve been able to do a couple of happy hours and last week one of our members held a private screening of her documentary which she wanted some feedback prior to its release. It was amazing.

Kris Mendoza:           From your perspective, is there a solid community of female filmmakers supporting each other out there? What’s that like in terms of finding other women in your field, especially, to learn from and bring an open mindset?

Hillary Hanak:           I can only speak from my own experience, but I feel like I have a solid group of female filmmaker friends and colleagues in Philadelphia and the surrounding areas. We push each other to do things outside of our comfort zones.

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Hillary Hanak and Simone Holland

I remember Maestro did an interview with Bianca Moon, and in it she talked about a series, Vex, we worked on for Simone Holland. And she was getting into the grip and lighting world and was worried at the time about taking an upcoming project. And I told her, “You have it. You have the passion, you have the knowledge. You just need to believe in yourself and learn a little bit more. Don’t go on a set thinking that you know everything.”  And now she is working all the time and doing great things!

Kris Mendoza:           Regardless if you are a man or a woman, that should be the mindset you go in with –

Hillary Hanak:           Exactly. Because the minute that you step on a set without an open mind you’re going to stop learning. I’ve been in the business for over 20 years and I’m still learning when I go on set. And I think that that’s really important. Our community is constantly expanding and we challenge each other to do better.

Kris Mendoza:           We’ve interviewed for Project Forte and many of our guests have specifically mentioned you by name as someone who has helped give other women opportunities early in their careers. Supporting each other can be the simplest thing, like giving that pep talk. 

Personally, I’m conscious of each time I step through a door, that someone opened that door for me, speaking figuratively. Were there people early on in your career who heralded that kind of mentorship and support, who fostered that spirit in your overall approach to things?

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Hillary Hanak behind the scenes

Hillary Hanak:           Definitely. My boss, Bryan Godwin,  at Wooden Nickel was very supportive of my career, and we’re still good friends today. I used to call him “my west coast dad.” He was there if I needed support or advice in LA, where there’s so much competition. I always went on set thinking, this might be my last day on this set. You never take it for granted because there’s always somebody that could take your place. You may not know everything when you step on set, but if you have a hardworking and positive attitude, if you’re kind to people, they are going to want to work with you. These are 12 hour days. You might be working for six months on a movie and you don’t want to work with a jerk every single day. 

Kris Mendoza:           I find myself saying that same thing. If anything, it leans towards the people-business more that the technical business. You can have someone who is great at what they do, but if you can’t work with them they’re no good. 

Hillary Hanak:           Yeah. And in terms of opportunities: Rachel Morrison, who is now a really famous DP – she did Mudbound – she took me under her wing. We did a film called Any Day Now in LA before she blew up. And Jessica Young is incredibly talented and always finds new and different ways to create unique vibes on screen, whether it is using strip diopters or vintage lenses or vintage lighting, she pushed me to keep thinking outside the box on different techniques possible.  She was one of the Dp’s on the Foo Fighters docs, and she is still doing movies with them and those are coming out soon, and her film 2 Distant Strangers just won an Oscar!  We just had a really good rapport and being able to find people you work with well, can quickly become your support system.  Ultimately you want to work with people who inspire and push you toward upward mobility and the perk is that you get to not only work with these people but become friends as well.  

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Hillary Hanak with Dafna Yachin

Kris Mendoza:           As far as your approach to fostering strong women filmmakers in the community, you seem to be someone, just based off of what other people have said and the type of work and sets I’ve seen you on, that kind of has a very intentional approach to hiring and working with diverse sets. Why do you have that approach and what led you to have that mentality?

Hillary Hanak:           It’s funny that you say that because I honestly don’t think of it that way. I just hire people that are good at their jobs and are good working together with each other. I don’t necessarily hire somebody because they’re female. For example, Fre Howard is an amazing makeup artist and I hire her for her work and her presence, not because she happens to be African-American or female. I know that any set that she goes on, everyone is going to love her and her work will be amazing. 

Kris Mendoza:           I 100% agree! It’s refreshing to hear you say that because it’s become the crucial point: Bianca said it, Simone said it… “I want to be hired because I’m good and people value what I’m bringing to set,” as opposed to fulfilling a check box. It’s important for folks to look a little harder and be more intentional. There’s an ecosystem you’re building through this networking amongst female filmmakers.

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Hillary Hanak with Kelly Murray on the set of Your Wreckless Heart

You’re putting yourself in diverse circles, and I think that’s why you end up hiring them. I don’t think it’s completely accidental, but it is great that you’re hiring them because you know that they’re good and you like working with them. There are stereotypes that say women are hard to work with… strong women, type A women… and working with women is counterproductive. What do you say to all those stereotypes? From your experience, it seems like that’s absolutely not the case because you continue to work with the same strong free-willed women that you do.

Hillary Hanak:           Yeah. I’m going to be completely honest with you. There have been times where I have worked on a set of mostly women or a set with mostly men, and you can be pulling your hair out. But then on another set it can be the most amazing experience ever.  It just depends on the people you are working with.  The Block movie that we did had females as every department head and that was probably the best all-female shoot I’ve ever worked on. Everyone was there for each other. We were there for the film. We were there knowing our craft and working as hard as we could, and figuring out… when there were issues, we solved them and didn’t divide. So, I think with anything, you can have the good shoots and the bad shoots.

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Hillary Hanak on the set of Block

It’s really knowing, who do you want to work with? And that’s one of the things about this industry that I love, is you get to decide who you want to work with going forward. When you’re up and coming, you might not have that luxury, but once you kind of get a name and a reputation for yourself, then you get to decide. So, if you don’t click and vibe with somebody, whether it’s male or female, you don’t have to work with them. You can find somebody else. And I think that that’s something important to understand. It’s not the end, if you don’t click with this person, there’ll be somebody else.

Kris Mendoza:           What are your thoughts on women washing, it sounds so weird to say that out loud but “women washing,” in terms of crew and hiring. Does that seem counterproductive or is that something elastic we need to flex to before coming back to a new center?

Hillary Hanak:           I had this happen during a job: I was crewing up and… I’ve never been asked this before… Honestly, I’ve never been asked who I’m hiring and what their ethnicity was or their race or their gender or anything. But this client said, “We want a really diverse shoot and we want a female crew.” And I said, “Well, I’ve already hired some people and they’re not what you’re looking for.”  But if the client is asking you for something you have to deliver.  Now, it was a little challenging to me because I had hired a guy who had done me a favor prior, and I told him, “Hey, on the next job, I’m going to get you back,” and this was a really good job.              

Hillary Texas
Hillary Hanak

He happened to be a white male who was fantastic at his job. He is the camera guy when I have questions. And I had to let him go because they wanted a woman of color for second camera. I didn’t have anybody in my contact list because the production wasn’t in Philadelphia and, because of COVID, a lot of people didn’t want to travel or stay in hotels. The girl I found was great but I could tell very quickly she wasn’t at the level this guy was.  She still did a great job, but was newer to the film industry and he had been in the business for 15 years.  

It was challenging because I wanted to give back to the person who had helped me out before and I was not able to do that.  But ultimately I was able to expand my network in another city and please my client at the same time. 

Kris Mendoza:           Inclusivity is great, but when it becomes exclusivity, that’s when you’ve jumped on the other side of this very thin line. You’re being intentional, but it backfired. It’s good to hear you say that because we’ve been doing these interviews and don’t want it to seem like a very anti-white male initiative. That’s certainly not the case. I think there are still a finite amount of opportunities, of filmmakers, and of crew people on the supply side. It just sucks that it’s a zero-sum game.

Hillary Hanak:           It negates the fact that we’re building this community to support one another, and yet we’re not able to give back when we have the chance to. 

Kris Mendoza:           And just to clarify, that particular job, it wasn’t like you were going into a labor and delivery room, or something very women centric that… It was not one of those situations?

Hillary Hanak:           No. We had actually asked, “ Was it a sensitive subject?”  But they were not able to give us a reason and… I did meet some other people on set who I had never worked with, so I got to expand my network a little bit. 

Kris Mendoza:           It’s an ecosystem where everyone needs to thrive and everyone needs to survive. If someone’s very good, very pleasurable to work with, they are hirable regardless of gender or color. 

Hillary Hanak:           And don’t get me wrong. When I first started… I was one of six females in the union that I belong to in Los Angeles out of 3000 members. Since then they’ve asked me, “Well, was it hard being… What happened when you went on set?”  There were a couple of shoots where, I walked on set, and the men looked at me like, “Oh, great. We’re going to have to work harder today because we have a female.” And then I would pick up the 4/0 cable and put one on my left shoulder, and I’d pick up the 4/0 cable and put one on my right shoulder, probably 75 pounds a piece, and start walking down the road. And they would go, “Oh, okay, we’re cool. It’s all good.” And I personally loved that. I loved the look on the faces of people who underestimate me. Some younger people I’ve talked to are afraid of that moment. You should be proud of that moment. Go on set and show them you’re a bad-ass, and do what they don’t think you can handle, do your job.

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Hillary Hanak pictured right

Kris Mendoza:           It’s satisfying, but at the same time, that’s a privilege most people don’t have to think about: working harder to win the approval of everyone else around them. They show up on set not having to spend that first hour proving they’re worthy of being there.

Hillary Hanak:           You have to arrive with the mentality “I’m here to do a job, and I’m going to do my job. And hopefully you will hire me again, but if you don’t hire me again, I’ll get another job.”

Kris Mendoza:           It’s a good attitude. As we wrap up, what’s down the pike for you, anything you want to tease? 

Hillary Hanak:           Yeah. I’m filming a web series in New York this June. I’m doing 3 out of the 6 episodes, and it’s called Halfway to Fifty. Kelly Murray is directing one of the episodes as well, we work well together and often. We just went up to Jim Thorpe Film Festival for our film, Your Wreckless Heart, which screened in the Local Heroes film block.  It was also accepted to the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival.

Kelly Murray And Hillary Hanak
Kelly Murray and Hillary Hanak

Kris Mendoza:           You’re doing all this under the banner of Pink Lemonade Pictures?

Hillary Hanak:           Yeah.

Kris Mendoza:           Gotcha. Care to talk about Pink Lemonade Pictures and the kind of work you guys do?

Hillary Hanak:           Sure. So Kelly and I met years ago through mutual film friends.  She had written a script for a short film called The Astronomer  and contacted me to shoot it. And our friendship and working relationship kind of blossomed from there. Under Pink Lemonade Pictures, we’re interested in making original films and documentaries that can impact and inspire our community.  We’ve done three shorts: The Astronomer, 3:13 which is with Maestro’s Long Story Shorts platform, and Your Wreckless Heart.  The Openers  will be the first feature length project that we produce together.  

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3:13 – A Maestro Filmworks’ Long Story Short

Kris Mendoza:           And you’ve got a nine to five!

Hillary Hanak:           Yeah. I don’t sleep.

Kris Mendoza:           Any parting thoughts?

Hillary Hanak:           I think it’s a very tight knit community here in Philadelphia. I hope that through Project Forte, people can be exposed to more options for crew on their next job. I think it’s great what you guys are doing with this. I really do.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s the hope! I really appreciate your time. Thanks again for joining us and look forward to working with you again!

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Project Forte: Steve Nguyen

Project Forte is an original series of interviews presented by Maestro Filmworks and hosted by Executive Producer, Kris Mendoza.  These conversations work to amplify marginalized voices within our industry, promoting a continued initiative around allyship.  Allyship is not about the struggles of our contemporaries canceling each other out, but rather about solidarity.  Our goal is to cut through the noise of the status quo in order to highlight the voices of the many talented and creative individuals who are forces in their own craft.

 

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This week we sit down with Steve Nguyen (he/him), a production manager and line producer working in Philadelphia.  He investigates a crucial factor present in our industry, the difficulty of cutting through a cyclical network to establish roots and make more diverse connections.  Steve shares a unique perspective, recognizing at a young age the social behaviors that cement cultural stereotypes and the importance of rising above them.  Having fought for breakout opportunities, he recognizes the value of hands-on experience and has harvested a valuable education by cutting through the gravel of PA-work to achieve his goals in leadership. Join us in this deep dive, which broadens our understanding of how the industry can evolve, especially through considerate production staffing and management by Steve Nguyen.

 

 

 

 

Written and Edited by Kate Feher

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Steve Nguyen:          My name is Steve Nguyen and I’m Vietnamese and partly Chinese. In the film industry, I’ve been a production manager and a line producer as of late. 

Kris Mendoza:           Welcome. I know you’re about that Philly life but I actually don’t know too much about prior to that. Are you Philly born and raised?

Steve Nguyen:          No, I was born in Lansdale, Pennsylvania and I really grew up in Souderton, Pennsylvania, and now live in Philadelphia.  I went to Pennridge High School out in Perkasie. It was mainly a white school, there were maybe three Asian people..three black people.. and three Puerto Ricans out of about 500/600 people. It was a small school.

Actually, oddly, it felt like other Asians growing up were battling each other to be the token Asian person… which is a trap I didn’t fall into.

Kris Mendoza:           It’s interesting you say that. This has nothing to do with filmmaking but … If I’m out with a couple of Filipino guy friends and we see another group of Filipino guys at the club: you would assume that we’re like, “Hey, what’s up my people.” [jokes] But you end up staring each other down and trying to be like that, “Hey, there’s only enough room here for one Filipino group.” So it becomes very territorial. I’ve tried to change that up a little bit by walking up and introducing myself but people are still so put off by that.  

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, I think once you go to college you start opening up, but a decent amount of Asians grow up being the “only ones” and there is a sense of survival pushing you to vibe with the white person, even in relationships. I just remember the Asian kids would make such self-deprecating comments about being Asian, like, “Oh look at my eyes.”  And I would see all the white guys laugh or play on a stereotype and that would anger me. But at the time I thought, “Well, they’re also winning. That kid is winning because people are liking that shit.”

Kris Mendoza:           Like he’s owning it.

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Steve Nguyen and Jo Shen on the set of Americano

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, and I think sometimes black people fall into that too, especially in high school. They use the stereotype to gain more of that status and acceptance. It’s very hard to be yourself as any color but, still, they use that device to make themselves look less alien to people.  I think it still goes on a little bit as adults, especially in corporate culture, but not so much in the art industry because it’s too evolved for that. 

Kris Mendoza:           …You talk differently, you carry yourself differently just to fit in more?

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, and then you might make a joke to put someone at ease about your culture. If the Asian guy brings lunch for the office, he might joke, “Don’t worry, it’s not dog.”  People laugh, which relieves tension, and maybe you feel better but I don’t support that.

Kris Mendoza:           Injecting humor to disarm because you feel like you have to be liked or accepted?

Steve Nguyen:          You do it to yourself first, too.  If you brought in Kimchi and somebody asks about it, you sort of dismiss it with, “Here’s some shit that I eat.” Almost to defend against an ignorant person who might say something ridiculous. I don’t know if we’re off on a tangent but-

Kris Mendoza:           No, this is right on schedule here. You said this doesn’t happen in our industry because it’s too evolved, is that because filmmakers tend to be more progressive in general?

Steve Nguyen:          It’s because I think we’ve been conditioned. If you’re in the film business, you’ve obviously watched movies,  TV, or subscribed to something like music so generally, it becomes the diet of what we consume.. You’re watching more, and you’re probably exploring more, so you have that open mind. Culturally, whether it’s race, whether it’s sexuality… you’ve been exposed to it more than the average person. Also the documentaries for the past 15, 20 years have been very social justice conscious so I think people are hyper-aware of political, racial, gender, and environmental issues. 

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Steve Nguyen pictured right

So, yes, I think that’s why most people in our industry are overly evolved.  We’re just constantly learning things or open to learning things. 

Kris Mendoza:           It’s refreshing to hear that because, of the people I’ve spoken to so far, there really are different perspectives on how far the industry has come and how much further it has to go. I’m trying to gauge it properly.   Is there a lack of people to nominate or is there work getting lost in the sea of the status quo?  Is it possible there are not nearly enough people entering this industry because of cultural differences or expected career paths?

Steve Nguyen:          I don’t think the establishment is a systemic thing. I think socially, filmmakers are aware and they are trying to be a “good person” when it comes to the practice. 

In the end I think it’s who you know or who that person knows. Networking in any industry presents a barrier to entry, made more difficult unless you shine. It’s not necessarily about race, but it is mainly a white industry still. Black people have been successful but until there’s an active hiring initiative for somebody with a different culture or background or race, hiring starts with “Oh, I need to fill in this position, who do you know?”  So most likely that person doesn’t target a minority option they just say, “Oh my cousin or my friend from college does this…” 

So you can call that systemic but I don’t think anyone is saying, “I only hire white people.”  Look at how politicians tend to fall up. They keep failing and failing but they’re getting promoted all the time and I think it’s the same way with this industry. We could take chances on untried people and get rid of bad people. Stop giving them more opportunities.  We wouldn’t have someone like Spike Lee otherwise, but it’s not even much of a gamble. You can vet them, interview them, put them through the wringer, but give them an opportunity.

I think you have to build your own economy, that’s what Atlanta did. They have lots of minority-owned businesses and the method is to keep working with each other, even on an individual basis. There’s reciprocation in building alliances but we can’t get there because everybody’s chasing after the big dogs. 

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Steve Nguyen

There’s a big movement to decentralize power and I think we can have multiple economies. It doesn’t have to be one linear economy. And it’s moving that way anyway. We don’t even have a common mainstream anymore.  Everybody operates in their own cultural world now. 

Kris Mendoza:           Yes, absolutely. So, you said a lot of good things there and what I’m hearing is – you have to take a chance on folks but there’s no shortage, it’s just a matter of hiring.  When staffing a production line, instead of going with the people that have been at arms length, take a second to ask, “Who else is out there?”  Ask a couple of questions, get a little more intel, but open up your horizons in terms of finding new people.

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, personally for me, that’s why I think I’ve taken so long to get where I’m at today. I didn’t come into this with a connection. I had to put in the free work or the low-pay work and grind. Nothing is given to you unless you know somebody.  We all want diversity but we also want the people that will work hard, rather than placing people due to a quota. I’ve always had a mindset for hiring diversely, but a big complication is the timetable.  I can’t spend a month looking for the right candidate who may also be female or a person of color when –

Kris Mendoza:           – when you know five white dude gaffers, for example?

Steve Nguyen:          We try, right? 

IMG 7872
Behind the Scenes with Steven Nguyen

Kris Mendoza:           I’m interested to hear how you cut your teeth in the industry, was there anyone or two people in particular who took a chance on you? And what was that experience like?

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, so there was a film program available while I was in college. I was a business major but I took this 10-week class in Philly – a bit like what the New York Film Academy does. There was a producing teacher who also worked as an independent movie producer and he said, “Hey, we’re shooting a movie, you want to come and help?”

So I would work, then go to class, and at night I would volunteer on those shoots. Eventually, I was making enough money to leave my other job and commit to building my resume. I got a lot of experience on low-paying jobs and I was expanding outward towards Baltimore and New York, taking any job I could. Starting with PA work, I shifted to grip and then to AD then UPM, which was just a natural progression for me since I had a business background. Making a movie is more than just the story. It’s the financing and the distribution. That’s the next chapter for me.

Kris Mendoza:           You put in a lot of sweat equity to get where you are today and in some cases, this loops back to what you said earlier, you’re starting with no real connections. Whether you’re a person of color or not, you have to grind a little bit harder and jump in with a weighted vest from the beginning.

Steve Nguyen:          It’s either comfortable or very lucky. I could not get a PA job on a studio picture so I had to be in the independent world. You have to know someone to get in on these Hollywood productions and if you’re a good worker, then you’re part of the machine.  Ironically, I think it was better to learn at that bottom level. Instead of waiting around to get that production manager opportunity in the Hollywood system, you can grow the position you want. Being in the freelance world, you’re an entrepreneur without the business behind you. You’re trying to sell yourself and you can always build towards whatever position you want to be in.

Movie Posters

Kris Mendoza:           I 100% agree with you. I’m also conflicted because I’ve had multiple conversations with other folks about these diversity quotas and in some cases it’s a modern-day affirmative action in our industry presenting those necessary opportunities. Is it fair to say there will be undue pressure for people of color fulfilling those quotas to prove themselves for the whole of a marginalized community?  Will they have to try extra hard to impress people as a responsibility? Is it down to the few, to prove we can operate and we can do well in these positions if given the opportunity?

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, in the end, everything’s competition so you have to be better than – doesn’t even matter what race – you need to be better than everyone or you’ll be replaced.  There’s a problem when the people in power take the initiative to hire an assistant of color or a woman assistant but then they don’t extend that to any position of managerial or department head status. If the department head is white, do we feel good enough that the lower-paying job is diverse? The true progressive should involve seeing the potential in a person and grooming them to be the best they can be. 

Kris Mendoza:           So if it’s just a checkbox, then there’s the possibility that it’s considered “good enough” …

Steve Nguyen:          Hollywood’s been talking about diversity forever and I don’t see a change.  The only way to really do this is out-compete them as companies and give out opportunities that way. When they see a certain model for inclusion working, maybe then those minority companies can breakthrough.

I don’t think it’s deliberately systemic, but you need to build your system instead of waiting on somebody to do it. You can try 25% harder to give that opportunity, and honestly that’s all I can ask for. Just try a little bit but don’t kill yourself doing it, you know?  Because you might want more Indian people on your set, but you’re in Nashville …

Kris Mendoza:           So let me take it a step farther and say, assuming we do that extra 25% and you go that extra mile, what does this net production?  What is the value for productions to have this kind of diversity at the end of the day anyway? Beyond inclusivity, what results can we quantify?

Screen Shot 2021 04 23 At 9.56.03 AM
Behind the Scenes with Steven Nguyen

Steve Nguyen:          I don’t know if it’s a measurable thing. I don’t know if you can make more money because of it. I think socially it’s good to talk to people that don’t look like you, or work with people that don’t look like you. I think it helps with bridging communities in general and if you’re forcing it, sure maybe that could make things worse. If you hire a bunch of Filipino janitors to satisfy a diversity quota but don’t place any as managers, that’s where it gets bad socially.

Kris Mendoza:           That’s when they’ve really missed the point. 

Steve Nguyen:          I think maybe you can quantify how it affects the well-being of a team or a process. People can feel good about it, which probably makes them better at working. Because they also check their boxes – “I went to work today and I talked to black guy, I talked to a woman, I talked to an Asian guy.” It’s that subconscious feeling that trickles out into society.

Even though in today’s society we’re getting into a person’s identity, we’re also hoping that when people talk to each other, it’s not about the identity or maybe you don’t see their identity.  Ultimately you want to be so comfortable with them that you don’t see their color or gender, etc. We want to talk to each other as humans and to get there you have to exercise your biases or prejudices.  If you’re not comfortable around women, talk to women all day and become culturally socialized.

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah, maybe you can’t say a film made 10% more because you got X number of POC or anything like that. But maybe there’s a way to gauge the economic impact of a film within a city.  You can gather the production details of how much money you spent in restaurants and hotels, etc. 

I do agree, being on set with other cultures breaks down those barriers which keep you from people you wouldn’t normally interact with. If you’re able to collaborate, you take those relationships with you, even beyond work, broadening all your horizons – I think that absolutely makes sense.

Interestingly, you talk about the issue behind not putting people of color in managerial positions but just including them as seconds and thirds… I think that’s especially important when it comes to a narrative.  If you get a  Director, a DP, or a Production Designer in charge of molding things visually, that affects the level of authenticity and the nuances of telling a diverse story. 

 

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Steve Nguyen pictured right

Steve Nguyen:          Guiding or mentoring a person who goes on to have a successful life because of that opportunity, that can come back to you 10 fold.  

Going back to the business side of things, we’re talking about diversity in hiring, but the diversity in product identity is also important. There are a lot of films and TV shows that market without a cultural identifier, so that becomes a white story. Especially the blockbusters or any big movies, so you have to find a charming person.  There are certain actors like Denzel  Washington or Will Smith who sort of go beyond race – they’re just personable. 

Kris Mendoza:           Yeah I think it important to talk about diversity in front of and behind the camera. I think when you start to balance on both sides, that’s when you really start to build these new economies, like you’re saying.

Steve Nguyen:          Also, you’re an entrepreneur, so you’ll understand that Hollywood tests independent films. They let you risk your own money to make these decisions and then if they see that it’s successful, they bring it to market. Take Ryan Coogler for instance – he did a $300,000 movie and he put his money where his mouth is.  Maybe that is why he got the chance to do Creed then Black Panther.

Things are happening now, Eddie Huang did a movie recently called Boogie, it’s an Asian basketball story. Think those stories are pretty cool to watch but also I’d like to see stories where race has nothing to do with it.

Kris Mendoza:           …where there just happen to be Asian folks doing regular people things and it’s not a focal point.

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, how many stories have we seen about infidelity or “the affair” and I think “Why is that a white specific story?”  Or all these lifetime movies about women in peril – they’re not culturally specific so you really could put any charming person of color into it. You could use that same formula for anybody.

Kris Mendoza:           I think audiences are primed now. I remember in 2000, Romeo Must Die came out with Jet Li and Aaliyah. [ R.I.P. Aaliyah ] I read there was actually a kissing scene at the end of the movie and test audiences freaked out.

Steve Nguyen:          They ended up hugging in the end, right?

Kris Mendoza:           They shoulder bumped or hugged or something like that but apparently there was actually a more romantic scene in there and audiences just weren’t ready. People were up in arms then, but today, I think we have to make the content and hold ourselves accountable, make good stuff, and not rely on race as a ticket.

Steve Nguyen:          But also it’s like, “Who cares?” Even with this cancel-culture, I still hear the same voices over and over. I think any emotion is good so you have to walk away from that critique, especially in the creative world…there’s always going to be somebody that doesn’t like what you made so just stand by it. I don’t even know why they use a test market.  Imagine writing a song that is test-marketed. You want to have some emotion to it,  that’s how you get people to be passionate about it-

Kris Mendoza:           Why create if you’re only making what people think they want…

Screen Shot 2021 04 23 At 11.33.22 AM
Steve Nguyen and Time Viola on the set of Americano

Steve Nguyen:          Yeah, and you shouldn’t market in a general sense. I hope if you are going to a test market, it’s with people that already like that genre. If it’s a superhero movie, don’t test market to people who don’t like superhero movies. If they’d rather watch Italian neo-realism films, then who cares about their input. It’s not for them.

Kris Mendoza:           This has been an insightful conversation, do you have any parting thoughts? 

Steve Nguyen:            Be open to learn, evolve and commit to the destiny that you define. Use your voice, someone will listen.

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Maestro Filmworks is an Emmy Award winning video production company and creative agency specializing in commercial, corporate and broadcast video production. We are independent and minority-owned and since our establishment in 2005, our mission has always been to produce engaging and imaginative films that inform, entertain and inspire.

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