Joanna Shen (she/her) is an Emmy Award winning director and producer who has continuously challenged the status quo throughout her ascent in the film industry, and has done so by finding and creating space for herself through sheer hard work, creativity and fearlessly leaping at the right opportunities that have come her way. While charting her own path and side stepping the cultural norms and expectations she has grown up with as a first generation Asian-American woman, Jo has not lost sight of the sacrifice and humble beginnings that her parents endured when coming to the U.S. as immigrants. Driven mainly by the will to succeed and prove to them and herself that she belongs in the space she has created, she continues to evolve as an artist and relentlessly pushes herself to tell bigger and bolder stories, all the while empowering and enabling those around her in the process through creative collaboration and a keen awareness of how her identity shapes the work she creates.
Introduction by Kris Mendoza; Edited by Kate Feher
Jo Shen: Hi! I’m Joanna (Jo) Shen. I go by she/her, and I am a director/producer.
Kris Mendoza: Awesome. How did you get your start in the film industry?
Jo Shen: Hmm, where do I start? I guess I knew I wanted to make movies ever since I was a high schooler but it took me until my sophomore year of college to truly have the courage to say, “I can’t see myself doing anything other than making films.” I attended the University of Pennsylvania, which did not have a film major available, so the most relatable major is Fine Arts with a concentration in Video. While I had great professors, I realized a few classes in video making were just not enough. Penn doesn’t have the same resources for filmmakers as a film school so I started asking around for anybody who was in the field that I could possibly connect with. Through one of my aKDPhi sisters, I found two Penn graduates, Erik Lu and Franklin Shen (no relation) who were planning to shoot a music video. That’s how I started my on-set experience.
Looking back, it’s kind of funny. These men were both 10 years my senior and we were about to film in various subways around New York City at odd hours…I didn’t fully comprehend the amount of risk I was taking with these two people I barely knew. I was too excited for the opportunity to finally get some hands-on experience. Erik Lu said later, “Yeah, we thought you were pretty gutsy for coming out.”
That was also my first experience on set working a 12 hour day. They picked me up around midnight, drove up to NYC, slept for 3 hours, and started the day at 5 am. It was pretty crazy and tiring… but I learned so much. It was so fun! I also met one of the most influential people in my creative career on that set, Erik Lu.
Kris Mendoza: It sounds like guerrilla filmmaking at its finest – sneaking around the subways and stealing shots. So you were kind of looking for that in college, didn’t quite get the technical onset education in school, and kind of sought that out? For the next few years, throughout school and leading up to graduation, did that kind of balloon into… more PA-ing on shoots and getting to learn the ropes a little bit more?
Jo Shen: Yeah. The PA work started sophomore year and led into senior year. Most continued to be guerilla-style filmmaking and passion projects. So while that was great in getting experience on set, it wasn’t very clear how the industry works as a full-time career.
So after graduation, I had to stop and think, “Okay, now what? Get myself out to New York?” I couldn’t find enough information about what to do once you found PA work… how to really get IN. I’ve always said during college I either want to be a director or an editor. But how does one become a director? Should I work for a station or an independent production company? Are there other options? The “right” choice wasn’t clear to me and there weren’t a lot of resources out there about it.
Kris Mendoza: I know that led to New York but not necessarily the film industry shortly after, right?
Jo Shen: Yeah. I took a full-time job at a private equity/hedge fund just to get to New York. I thought I would work shoots on the weekends. I took a chance going out to New York thinking, “Let me be in this space at least, where there are a lot of productions going on.” But I learned, while they do exist, there are not as many of them as you would expect. Most weekend work is actually more likely to be passion projects or shorts. There is of course nothing wrong with them but then the question again becomes, how do I make this my career? Bigger freelancing happens during the week, shows are being shot during the week….so you are limited when you have another full-time job.
At that stage, I also wasn’t really good at networking, horrible at reaching out and keeping in touch. So sadly, I wasn’t able to build a strong network of creatives which I think it’s important in our industry.
Kris Mendoza: And then when did you land back to Philly?
Jo Shen: When I decided to do film full time as a freelancer. I worked at that firm for a year. While I had been able to stay creative by working on a few sets and scriptwriting, even wrote a feature (a very crappy one) during my time in NY, I wasn’t satisfied. I needed more. So I did what I needed to do and quit. I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to have saved some money by living with my aunt’s family. I didn’t have to pay that much rent. However, without a stable income, it only made sense to move back to Philly and live with my parents where rent is free and there’s always food in the fridge. But yeah, I packed my bags and left as a 23-year-old because I thought ‘if not now, when am I going to take that risk?’ The firm actually wanted me to stay. They even made me a counteroffer, which was pretty nice. But I immediately said no.
My mom said, “You didn’t even think about it?” But no, I didn’t even consider it because I had made up my mind. I mean, I had already done the hardest part, which was telling my mother that I’m going to be a freelancer with no stable income, so quitting my job was not that hard.
Kris Mendoza: So your mom gave you a little bit of pushback for not taking the offer – Why is it that, specifically Asian-American, parents don’t push their kids into the arts or film? Why is that not a viable career path?
Jo Shen: It’s a part of the Asian-American immigrant experience, or at least for my parents. My parents didn’t come from well-off families. My mom’s side might be slightly better than my dad’s side because she had family in Hong Kong at the time. They came to America for the opportunity to earn better income. For them, money leads to better quality of life, especially because working for less than you need means you don’t even have the time or the option to improve your life. They wouldn’t have had time to think about what their dreams were or what the arts could do for them personally.
Maybe they could learn piano if their school had a piano teacher, but then what becomes of you? Realistically, how much can you make? Can you support your siblings who need help? Can you help pay their bills? That was the biggest concern, rather than art or expression. It’s not something they fathom as a lifestyle or career path because they might not understand how to translate the arts into income.
Kris Mendoza: They think it’s just a hobby or a passion?
Jo Shen: It’s just a hobby, it’s something you do for fun, and not to be taken seriously in terms of career. Especially in my case – I was a good student, I have a good memory, I was able to get into an Ivy League School. For them, I had such a bright future in front of me, I could accomplish so much. So when I decided to take the path of the art of all things, they saw it as an even bigger disappointment. They would say to me in their most loving parent tone, “It just feels like a waste.” I felt that disappointment and it was something I carried with me until I started understanding their views in recent years.
Ultimately, they wanted me to have stability. They don’t want me to have the same worries and problems that were caused by the lack of money as they once did. These are two people that were born with proverbial hurdles in their lives, so for them to see me actively choosing to put new hurdles in front of myself caused a disconnect.
Kris Mendoza: You were pretty brazen to pursue it regardless of being dissuaded, but what do you do after that? Because it seems like there’s still an incredible amount of pressure to be successful at whatever you do.
Jo Shen: Oh, totally, I feel that. Especially with my personality. I’m a perfectionist and filled with ambition. I feel like I have to prove something now that I took this route. If I said, “I’m going to do this and I can make it,” there’s pressure to show them that I can. But also their opinion matters a lot to me. I want them to still see me as the successful daughter that I once was and they can share my accomplishments and be proud.
The toughest challenge here is when am I “successful” enough so they can be proud or don’t have to worry at the least. Is it getting a full-time job? Is it making a great film? Is it becoming an award-winning director? Is it opening my own production company? I constantly question “Is this achievement or recognition worth showing them?” “Is this good enough to show them?”
And a lot of directors out there probably can relate, some projects are very personal, and in every project, you spend a lot of time working on it. I think, “Am I ready to be vulnerable within a relationship that is inherently pressurized? Will my parents understand this art that I’m making?” There is a bit of that.. I’ve been working in this industry for five years, not including the shoots I went out in college, but only in the last year and a half did I start sharing. I can finally say, “Oh! I made this! Do you want to watch it?”
Imagine taking a school project you spent a lot of time on to your Asian parents hoping they think it’s great …
Jo Shen: My parents define success very differently. I find success in helping to tell stories, but I’m looking for a bridge to connect their idea of success with mine. It’s hard because I’m stubborn and I get that from them…
Kris Mendoza: Times two.
Jo Shen: Yeah, I’m not going to give up at this point. I already made my decision, this is the world that I’m living in. It is just that I want them to be happy for me and not be concerned. I think that’s the biggest thing.
Kris Mendoza: So at a young age before pursuing this as a career, did you have any influences growing up in terms of filmmaking?
Jo Shen: Growing up, I would say, what kind of inspired me early on was the storytelling aspect I experienced from every direction. I’ve always been attracted to the participation of a story, the creativity that goes into interpreting one. When I was young, I remember putting on a puppet show with my cousins – I don’t know if you’re familiar with these books that don’t have any words or text to show the narrative, they’re just pictures, but they do tell a story and you kind of makeup dialogues from the visuals. I wrote up a story and then we decided to put on a puppet show with art inspired by that book. I was 8, maybe, and my cousin stated, “Oh, you are kind of the director.” Looking back, I guess I always knew I wanted to be a director or some kind of storyteller.
So growing up I was also into watching TV, the way that visuals are portrayed, different kinds of movies… I was really into fanfictions as a teenager! I would write short stories all the time and make those fan edits of my favorite characters from TV shows.
I think for me, it’s a craft I slowly developed because of those interests in storytelling. And I ended up looking at film and video as one of the best ways to express this and to reach people.
Kris Mendoza: I know you and I have talked a lot about this in different contexts, but what are your thoughts on the state of Asian-American cinema or Asian cinema in general, and where does that fit into the larger landscape of filmmaking?
Jo Shen: I think we are riding a wave of change right now, where our stories are no longer about a simplified identification of the Asian-American duality. Our characters were presented as being constantly split between their Asian side and their American side. “Who am I” was kind of the Asian-American film language I grew up with.
It’s very refreshing for me to see how the current Hollywood is slowly starting to view Asian-American stories as just “human” stories, which happen to have an Asian-American context, of course. But they are possibly a mother first or an individual that is put into a certain situation and because of their background, experience, and beliefs, they act in a certain way. The Asian American perspective should then come out naturally from there.
It is also important for us to remember that Asian-Americans encompass a large group of people. We have so many different cultures within that spectrum, so it only makes sense that we have our own stories and perspectives of the Asian-American experience. I think TV and film are finally starting to realize that. What we have today in terms of story quality and character dimensionality is not something a 10-year-old-Jo-Shen would be able to see often in a theater. That is true, but we still need to continue to instigate change. There’s so much more work left to do in terms of involvement both behind and in front of the camera. Name a TV show that has an Asian American actor and examine what kind of character they are. Right now we’re in a place that forces these characters to fall into maybe 3 available stereotypical buckets. And maybe they’ve evolved a little bit beyond “doctor” and “lab rats” or “nerds”, but we’re nowhere near as diverse or accurate enough in representation.
As for behind the camera, we may have some opportunities, but for me – it’s just as important that Asian Americans first believe that they can do it and that our allies and supporters recognize the diverse positions we can fill. If the project focuses on an Asian American story, try to do just a little bit more research into finding an Asian American Director, or DP, or Production Designer. They have a great effect on how true an Asian-American story can look and feel because they’ve been through it. Depending on what the story is, maybe they do have a slightly different experience, but typically they get it more. I do think it requires a bit of an infrastructure shift, saying “Okay, when do we take that extra step and look further.” It requires some people with power in a production company to say that oftentimes for the gears to start turning. Unfortunately, right now we are relying on quotas and requirements to have one Asian American or one minority on a project which sometimes leads to the bare minimum.
Kris Mendoza: It shouldn’t just be a quota.
Jo Shen: Yeah. Be discerning. Find the right people for the right jobs, and also open up opportunities if you have something that you think is fitting for a person who wasn’t considered but had certainly worked their butts off. Don’t settle, maybe take another hour to look again or take that extra call when people have reached out for a job, just to gauge, “Do they fit the project?” There’s always the argument of how capable they are based on their CV, but you never know until you talk to them or you see a glimpse of their potential. If you don’t hire them based solely on their lack of experience, it stays that way.
Kris Mendoza: For me, it seems like film, TV, media… they’re important tools to help shape accurate depictions of what Asian Americans are. You talk about these buckets and two-dimensional characters within them, does that happen because we’re not the ones telling those stories? Why is it important for Asian-Americans to take the reins and be given the opportunity to contribute to their own representation?
Jo Shen: I think there are a lot of minute details about what an experience is like within a narrative. Sometimes if you haven’t gone through it yourself, you will not know to focus on some of those details. I think that’s probably the main reason why it’s super important to have a voice behind the camera and in power, who has knowledge of where it’s coming from. It benefits the authenticity of the end product when they can explain and enlighten all the story-tellers coming together to create.
These are the people who would know the depth behind a character like, for example, an Asian immigrant mom working seven days a week, who sacrificed her time with her children and believes that’s appropriate. To me, good character building comes from asking questions like, “Is there something behind that?” “Do they regret it?” “How is the relationship between her children and her gets affected? What are some of the cultural intricacies that may have contributed to this?” Ultimately, how do you shape her story, her belief where it only makes sense for her to make that decision? What is she feeling and how do you emulate that onto the pages and the onto screen? It’s more than just saying how she feels, there are tidbits shown that give that mother a fuller story. And while it isn’t impossible but definitely harder if you hadn’t gone through that. I, myself, still struggle to write these characters.
Creators are always balancing how they are telling stories against how people are comprehending them. As an Asian-American filmmaker writing an Asian-American story, I might share with people I am close to, or people I think can understand. And they tend to be fellow Asian Americans –
Kris Mendoza: – you are working in a bubble.
Jo Shen: Yeah. So then after you have a decent, maybe good script, more often than not the suggestion of “we should probably have someone non-Asian to read this and see if they get it.” comes up. And usually, that means a Caucasian individual in America because they are the majority of the population. And if we’re trying to sell a film, they need to bring in people. That’s the not-so-fun business side.
But bringing it back to the story, I don’t know if everybody else understands they’ve had the luxury of not having to consider whether or not the powerful majority will accept or understand it. And we have to consider them because they have the power to silence our story. Does that mean we’re shackled?
That’s a question that I asked myself, like, “Is that the right thing to do?” We’re stuck between keeping the story authentic and otherwise tailoring it to the majority, who will decide if it spreads based on how much they can identify with it. America can represent such diverse thinking, but at the same time, it’s also so predominantly white. It’s a hard balance sometimes, to operate truthfully without shutting people out. That’s a challenge we face, whereas others have had luxury in knowing the majority will automatically identify with their story and therefore accept them.
Kris Mendoza: They don’t have to think about it.
Jo Shen: Not at all. If you’ve never experienced adversity, all you have to think about is “Is this a good story?” but for those who have been pushed aside or belittled, we have to face vulnerability in telling our story and that means we worry if people will show empathy. “Will they get it?” The balance is finding how we can all get there as genuinely as possible.
Kris Mendoza: For sure. So this is Women’s History month so I got to ask if there are any women that inspire you, in your work, in this industry. Who are some women that lift you up and inspire you to continue to do great work?
Jo Shen: I think in my every day working at Maestro, the women on my team, Rebecca Schwartz and Kate Feher, boost me up the most. I think it’s from the sheer support of being in this together and I work with them so closely.
Kris Mendoza: What kind of projects do you like to work on?
Jo Shen: I like the ones that are more narrative-driven. Surprisingly I’m doing a lot more documentary work right now. It’s a different world for me, because I never imagined doing a documentary. Ultimately the creative work I like has to center on telling a story that is true. That’s where documentary still appeals to me, it’s just a different challenge: to find a creative way to present the existing story, versus building a story from scratch with a written script. Documenting the world then determining the story is one side of the same coin. Determining the world, then recreating it is the other. With narratives, you might have more control over what you want to say through your characters, so those are usually the projects that are most exciting for me. I like stories that hold ground and reflect true meaning in life, which a person can discover when watching it.
Kris Mendoza: Cool. What are you working on now?
Jo Shen: So many things. But the one that I really want to pull together this year is a short film that I have been working on. It’s probably looking like it will be between 15 to 20 minutes, the way that the script is written right now. On draft 10 or rewrite and there are still some kinks that I’m trying to work out. But it’s basically a story that explores a relationship between and a Chinese immigrant mom and her Chinese-American daughter. It’s an idea that stemmed from a disagreement I had with my own mother. It was one of the first times that I wondered why my mom is the way she is and what she will do when work is no longer a part of her life. So I decided to write about it. It’s my way of understanding my mother because I don’t have the courage yet to ask about all her life choices and dive deep in our relationship. However, it’s also an Asian American experience I want to put on screen because there is something unique about that.
Kris Mendoza: What’s the next step for you in terms of realizing that dream?
Jo Shen: I think part of me is probably doubling down on that narrative side because ultimately, I want to focus on improving as a director by visually curating stories.
I want to make a movie that I can show my children, which talks about our experiences or my parents’ experience in America. I don’t think it has been told or visually depicted in a very well-rounded way yet. We need more! I think that’s the goal that I have for myself. In some ways, those are the grounding stories that matter to me most. Of course, throw in an action film somewhere, because that’s always fun! But I really want to tell human stories that haven’t had the space or the opportunity to be told. And I think that’s what I ultimately want to do. That’s the reason I got into the field.
Kris Mendoza: What do you attribute your success to? You’re one of the hardest working people I know and that drive certainly has a lot to do with it. What do you attribute your wins to, so far in your career, and how can you keep that momentum going?
Jo Shen: Yeah. I mean, you nailed it. I think being hardworking is one way to do that. I’m a true believer that, yes, you may be talented, but you also get what you put in. I was raised by two very hardworking parents and I carry that with me.
But more importantly, I have stories to tell. I have a voice that I want to be heard. And ultimately I believe that this is the best forum for me. I want people like me to witness an Asian woman winning awards and “making it” for lack of a better expression, so they know there aren’t just a handful of female Asian directors out there. This is not just a dream for those few lucky individuals. That this is a viable path for a lot of people that will come after me.
Kris Mendoza: Have a hand in shaping that?
Jo Shen: Yeah. Every time I walk onto set, I know who and what I represent. So I view what I do, how I do it and how I carry myself on set, in some ways, forging a path for the girls like me that will come after. If I do it “right”, then they will not be met with the wrong assumptions, prejudice, and challenges that I had to go through.
I don’t care to be super well-known or famous or anything. I get a lot out of experiences like going to a local Philly school and sharing my industry knowledge and experience with the younger generation. I had a somewhat typical path — worked as a PA, put in my time, got the experience, and then an opportunity at Maestro came along. During the time of pre-production for Americano, as an editor, I asked my boss, Kris Mendoza, “Can I PA on this?” And he responded, “You want to PM and 2nd AD this instead?”
That was probably the jumping-off point where my dream started becoming my career. It felt real. But the truth is in between all those steps, I had my mistakes and dark times where I thought, “Can I make it?” “Okay, if I don’t make it, what am I going to do?” However, I’m still here — creating. And I want to share my experience so the younger Asian American generation can possibly get a leg up or at the least, be able to point at me and tell their parents, “Hey, she has a job making film. It’s stable. Don’t worry.”
My parents are watching me. That’s pressure not to fail. I stuck with it but I’m sure a lot of people gave up their dream in the face of that. Because it’s hard doing something you can’t share with your loved ones. It’s scary to fail with no support. I just want to dispel those fears through the films I make, the stories I tell, and the experiences I share so that more creatives like me can get that courage to make those dreams a reality.