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
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.