HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Maritte Go
COW Library : People in the News : Clarence Deng : HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Maritte Go
“Now that Black Panther has set a new precedent, people are like, ‘You know what, the audience is ready. They're ready for new faces’, and that’s really, really exciting for us right now. It's just about breaking the mold, moving forward, and being able to tell the stories I've been waiting to tell for so long.” – Marrite Go, director
In recent years within the entertainment industry, a slight but steady shift has occurred in the types of stories – as well as the types of creators allowed to tell them – being produced into films and TV. This allowed genre films like Get Out to become the most profitable film of 2017, and the unexpected juggernaut blockbuster Black Panther to continually exceed box office expectations for its entire theatrical run.
With growing evidence that inclusiveness and diversifying representation in media is good for the bottom line in Hollywood, many underrepresented groups are seeing themselves in major studio produced films and TV shows for the first time in decades. For Asian Americans, the family sitcom Fresh off the Boat aired in 2015 – 2 decades after All American Girl in 1994. Crazy Rich Asians is the first major Hollywood film with an all Asian cast in 25 years, since Joy Luck Club in 1993. While Asian American media narratives have continued outside the mainstream within independent cinema – the 2002 film Better Luck Tomorrow, which launched director Justin Lin’s career, is one of the most prominent examples – the growing number of projects focusing on and helmed by people of color intended for mainstream distribution is a meaningful sign of change for communities that have dealt with nearly non existent, or one-dimensional stereotypical portrayals, within mainstream media and entertainment for so long.
As Asian Americans are the fastest growing minority group, studios and networks are now mounting renewed efforts to elevate and curate fresh voices and visions from within the Asian American community.
One such effort from HBO, is its Asian Pacific American Visionaries contest. Now in its second year, the program provides three emerging filmmakers of Asian and/or Pacific Islander heritage a platform to showcase their talent and voices. Three short films were chosen to premiere at the DGA Theater in Hollywood on May 4, 2018 for the LA Asian Pacific Film Festival – and are now available to stream on HBO platforms until Sunday, June 10, 2018.
I spoke with all three visionaries to discuss their shorts and explore their unique voices: Maritte Go for Remittance, Feng-I Fiona Roan for Jiejie, and Huay-Bing Law for June. In part one of my series, I focus on my conversation with Maritte Go. [Read Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]
Currently based in Los Angeles, with a masters in Film and TV from the University of Southern California, Maritte Go has worked on many projects in various roles, including indie hits Sleight and Flower. She is the Filipino American filmmaker behind Remittance, which was inspired by the experiences of her own family members.
Synopsis: A disenchanted Filipino cruise worker falls to pieces when she is unable to contact her ailing son.
Warning: Mild spoilers follow for Remittance.
Creative COW: I’d love to hear you talk about the process of playing the lead in your own short in addition to directing, and the challenges you had to deal with in making this.
Maritte Go: Well, how me and my filmmaking partner [Brody Engelhard] worked together on that was to discuss how the framing was, like, “How does this look?” And then watching it and cutting back. It’s definitely a partnership of, “Did that feel real for you? Does that look good? Is this direction great, like the way I'm walking?” Stuff like that.
It certainly was a giant challenge — not only was I actor and director, but we only had a two man crew. [Brody and I] write everything together, and shoot everything together. Keeping your mind in character while also thinking about, you know – how is this going to cut, how the framing is, how the acting's going… it's difficult to go back and forth from throwing yourself into character while remembering that we need to tell the story.
We didn't have a sound person. I had to mic myself, so we chose to eliminate dialogue as much as possible – which really works for the isolation of the character. Not being able to talk, or communicate with anyone in a cruise ship with thousands of people really says something about her. I've produced projects with upwards of 80 to 100 people a day, so it's kind of freeing to just do it with one other person. You're forced to think of a solution yourself, instead of calling people to fix it for you.
We had very minimal gear – [aside from camera and sound] one light panel, a Movi stabilizer, and the drone – so we relied heavily on locations. For one of the locations that you see, the glacier, we hiked five hours up a steep mountain to get to it. The camera was in [Brody’s] backpack, and I had my costume and sound equipment in my backpack. But it was totally worth it — the location was amazing. Also in one of the montages, you’ll see flashes of the Philippines. We actually flew to the Philippines and brought a drone. It was just us, with this hi-tech drone in the middle of a province. Everyone's stopped on the streets, and everyone came out of their houses to see what we were doing. It was really rewarding, and I hope showed through the film.
Maritte Go (left) and Broderick “Brody” Engelhard (right) climb up a mountain to get to the glacier location for Remittance.
You are also the first Filipino American HBO Visionary, with a distinctly Filipino story. Could you speak on the specific experiences that lead to creating Remittance?
These last two years, I’ve gone [to the Philippines] three or four times. I'm just able to go back and forth a lot, but yeah… it was definitely a family affair. I got my whole family playing roles. The manager is played by my brother, my mom plays the voice [on the phone], and my nephew plays my son.
This story was really inspired by my mom and my cousin Roy. He had to move to Dubai to support his wife and children back in the Philippines. There's a lot of opportunities in Dubai for Filipinos; they work in the service industry. When you go on cruises, they're filled with Filipino cruise workers, because they recruit in the Philippines and bring tons of people from here to their hotels, to the cruise ships – and they give Filipinos working opportunities where they don't really have that back home. So my cousin Roy lives in a one bedroom apartment in Dubai apart from his family, and he works and sends money home to the Philippines, puts it toward his family. He goes home once or twice a year to see them, but that's it. That was one of the biggest inspirations for this story.
I had been flying back and forth from Dubai and the Philippines to visit family, picking his mind on how does that work, not being able to live with your family. It's been over ten or twelve years and he's just gotten really used to it. I imagine what kind of pain that must be to not be there to see your children grow up; the sacrifice he has put himself through to ensure the success of his children. I put myself in the position of, how that would feel, if I had children and I couldn't ever see them. Maybe once a year, twice a year. Just the pain of getting used to that, that's just… I don't know, it breaks my heart.
And my mom did that too; her sisters, my aunts, put all their money together so that my mom could go to med school, and go to the United States so she could make money for the family. She's now a successful doctor, but she supports our family here. Growing up as kids she supported our whole family, and supported a ton of our family back home – over twenty people.
This year for HBO APA Visionaries, they added a theme of “home”, which for Asian Americans is a bit nuanced geographically and socio-politically. How would you describe your film in terms of that, and how does it tie in to your experiences?
Hearing the call of “What is home to you?” and having been able to travel back and forth to the Philippines, asking what is home to myself or to my family members… I think it's wherever your family is. Even across the ocean, it's where your family is. Location doesn't matter, but the relationships that you have and being able to go there in your heart, knowing that your family is where home is.
In the Philippines it's all about family, they have large plots of land and everyone's expected to live on the land: your grandparents, uncles, cousins. My mom sacrificed herself; her sisters are her best friends in the whole wide world, and being apart from them for decades… I see her cry all the time, missing her family. She sacrificed herself for us, for me to be able to do what I can do now – and tell her story… tell my cousin's story.
Walk me through your process in making your film.
My process was very different from how I usually do it; my other shorts have a bigger budget and a full crew. Sometimes I hire a storyboard artist or I just draw stick figures myself. I'm able to scout all the locations and we can plan everything. This one was very different in that we were traveling to all these exotic locations I've never been before; I just read about the glacier online. So me, Brody, and my brother were brainstorming on how this story could go. We set up major story points to establish who she was – her character, where she was – and then we had to figure it out when we got there.
In the film there's a shot with me tripled, I’m in three places in the same frame, and I watched a Creative COW tutorial on how to figure that out. I got my friend who does VFX to clean it up, since mine wasn’t perfect, but that's how I learned how to do it. In editing, a lot of it was – having planned out a rough outline of the story, I had to find the story in the edit. It was, here we are, how does she feel in this location? In this location? How does this carry the story, the stakes getting higher? I took whatever footage we had and really created a lot of it in the edit.
Can you talk a bit more about your background with higher budget material?
When I first started I was a child actor [in Florida], but I came to LA to become an actor. I kept getting cast in roles like Geisha, Nail Technician, Masseuse Number 2… and I was extremely frustrated with that. I did not come to LA to become the stereotypical side character. So, I applied to USC, to figure out how to write, direct, and produce material for people like myself. I had a creative background in learning how to act and working very closely with directors, but no idea what it would take to make a movie. I wanted to understand how you raise money, put it together, and pull a crew together. I started producing while I was in school and really got into it.
I worked my way up from small no budget music videos and shorts, to now features and big budget commercials. But my whole point in doing that was again, to learn how to do this myself, and to be able to write and tell stories I wanted to tell. I feel HBO has given us an amazing opportunity because, now we can tell a story with an Asian female lead. That was not common place; now I see it more and more. The studios want to hear people like us with stories, and now I have the technical producing background to be able to handle it. I can say, “I can do small budget or big budget, and I have these stories – let's do it!”
That was the biggest goal for me, to learn how to operate on all those levels, and push our stories forward. I’ve learned those skills, and taken these last two years to write a bunch of features and shorts with that goal in mind. I'm coming with that producing business background and pairing it with my desire to express creatively the stories I want to tell.
I heard you were working on two horror films – one on location in the Philippines, as well as one with Radio Silence as producer – who did a segment for V/H/S. Anything you can tell us about either project, and what you’d like to bring to the genre?
The one that’ll shoot in the Philippines is called Binarang. That story is a Filipino American in the Philippines, but it’s an American story. Nobody’s seen a Filipino American at all in American cinema with horror. We've had the Japanese The Grudge and all; watching that was extremely inspiring. I was like, they can do it, we can do it. Why aren't there lead Filipinos? We just need representation and I think that’s something I’ve always striven to do, is to bring more Asian faces to stories. To show people we're not just the nail technician or the masseuse, but we're the villain, the hero, the love interest.
That was a major goal of mine, and also being able to pair that with my passion for horror. Seeing V/H/S and all those anthology horror movies where you put a bunch of shorts in this weird twisted world, which is what we're able to do… I'm really excited about that. Going back to Binarang, being able to tell a Filipino American story spoken in English, and bringing that to an American audience is… I’m super pumped for that. One of my biggest inspirations is Darren Aronofsky and he really explores the suffering of humans, to really look at it, to not look away – and what does that mean to suffer, with the horrors that happen within our own minds, the things that we do to ourselves. I really am very, somehow attracted to that. Looking at the human experience and what it means to suffer.
In Remittance, this lonely woman suffers internally by herself, and these horror films I’ve chosen to do, are kind of the same in what it means to suffer, and what is your own personal horror. Also, just growing up Catholic in a Filipino household, my mom really believed in the apocalypse and the end of the world, so I was brought up believing that was always going to come. I’ve grown out of that, but what that does to you as a child, it stretches your imagination. I love working on horror because you stretch your imagination, you do all the fun stuff and VFX, have people levitate or fly. That's what you’re supposed to do, and it's awesome.
I like being able to push the realness of human suffering and the horrors that lie beneath. Filipino horror as a genre is huge, I grew up with so much Filipino folklore. There’s lore about the Manananggal, a succubus woman who sucks the unborn baby out of a woman’s pregnant belly. When I was a kid, people told me they had seen this in the provinces of the Philippines, and I was like, that's so frightening. There's tiny little islands where they have black magic and voodoo doctors, and it’s so fascinating. Some of the movie is going to be shot on this island called Siquijor, which is the island of black magic, and I’ve heard so many crazy stories. Like my grandfather was healed from a curse there, and my dad – crazy stories, but they're so much to pull from. Just like Japanese horror, which is based on all this amazing folklore; I want to bring that here.
If you were given the chance to redo your film with the same resources you had when starting out, but with hindsight, what would you improve upon if anything?
I feel lucky that we got anything — to be able to pull it off was extremely surprising for both of us. I don't think we would have been able to get the same thing with even a slightly higher budget. To be able to pull that off with a 30 to 40 man crew going to a glacier is… it's quite impossible. If we wanted to hike an Alexa Mini up a mountain it would just be so difficult. It's possible, but I wanted to capture real locations and people.
There’s only one stock footage shot in the film, the wide exterior of the boat. All we had was the boat on the dock, we didn't have one far away, so there’s a wide of the boat far off into the ocean. Everything else, those are all real. We were able to get those because it's just us. We have a tiny camera that’s the size of half a shoebox. I think if we over lit it or had costumes and makeup adjusting our wardrobe… I just don’t think that you would get the grittiness I went for. I feel extremely lucky to even pull that off. I wouldn't do it over, I would probably rewrite just another story.
What do you wish to say with your creative voice or vision through the films you’d like to get made? How do you see your career progressing?
I think my biggest goal is to continue telling stories of people who are underrepresented, of repressed voices, and bringing it to people in an entertaining way – via thriller, horror, also drama as well. My biggest goal is to create empathy for certain people, to raise the voices of underrepresented or repressed people, and to say they're here too – that there’s human suffering and it looks like this, with this color skin. I'm excited to tell those stories and I wish to continue making features and to eventually branch off into TV.
But I just think it’s time, after seeing Black Panther we're looking at a totally different market now. I tried to get financing for Binarang about two years ago, and I kept hearing, “you have to have white people in this, because we need to sell this movie”. But now that Black Panther has set a new precedent, people are like, “You know what, the audience is ready. They're ready for new faces”, and that’s really, really exciting for us right now. It's just about breaking the mold, moving forward, and being able to tell the stories I've been waiting to tell for so long. Getting the opportunity to tell those stories is – oh man, I’m really excited.
Any advice for emerging filmmakers?
The biggest advice, if I could go back and tell my 18 or 15 year old self, is to just keep making stuff. A lot of people get down on like, “Oh, I suck,” but you just started. You’re going to get better, but you have to be able to be willing to fail, and fail, and fail, and fail. Keep making your stuff. You’re going to get better. Just keep going, and do not be afraid when someone says, “Yeah that’s really terrible, that script sucks.” Just be like, “Okay, what can I do not to take it personally, what can I do to make it better? How can I improve this?” Just keep going, it only gets better with experience.
Just keep making stuff, no matter how little money you have. There’s so many ways to make movies now – with your iPhones, with rentals on Sharegrid. Write your stories and make them, and tell everyone what you're doing because people want to see people succeed. I haven't experienced people saying… if they ever did say something negative about me, it was more like what can I learn from the experience. Constantly be making stuff, improving yourself, and be proactive. Nobody is going to give you success. Only you can make that yourself. That would be my biggest advice.
[Read Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan and Part Three with Huay-Bing Law.]