A Conversation with HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Huay-Bing Law
COW Library : Film Festivals : Clarence Deng : A Conversation with HBO's Asian American Visionaries: Director Huay-Bing Law
“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 the third and final part of my series, I focus on my conversation with Huay-Bing Law. [Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan.]
Texas Native and Chinese American filmmaker Huay-Bing Law’s short films have earned many awards, including nominations for a Student Academy Award and Student BAFTA. Having studied filmmaking at UT Austin, he has returned for his masters, and was inspired to make his graduate thesis June by his uncle’s immigrant experiences in the 40’s.
Synopsis: An immigrant Chinese wife joins her husband in 1950s Texas at a party after he graduates from university, and finds herself questioning where she belongs here.
Warning: Mild Spoilers follow for June.
Creative COW: Tell us about the inspiration for your story.
Huay-Bing Law: I was in grad school for my masters in film at University of Texas - Austin, figuring out what to make my thesis film on. I remembered this family story that my uncle told me once; he and his family first came to America in the 1940s, when they emigrated from Taiwan to the US, and their first day here they came across segregated restrooms.
I just remember thinking that was such a strange introduction to this country; immediately, the very first day – you're forced to make this binary decision: are you colored or are you white? And being Chinese, you don’t really fall to either category, so it was a very loaded moment, and I wanted to attack it a little bit with a short film. That was really the beginning of it, and then me and my writer Katherine Craft, we worked together to create these characters and kind of put them in the situation. And then a story developed from there.
What was your research process?
A lot of the research came from my family first – just talking with my uncle, my parents about their immigrant experience, family members and just trying to gain stories. Just asking what their response was when they came across these restrooms, and what they made of it. We started from there and eventually, after doing more research I got put in contact with this Chinese couple who attended UT Austin in the 1950s, which lined up perfectly with the timeline of our story. I interviewed them several times, spent time with them over the course of several months, and got to know them better. I asked them a lot of questions about how they came to America, and what their experience was when they first came over.
Both of them said they had the bathroom moment. They both came over separately, but the first day they stepped off the ship, they came across these restrooms, and they’re like, “Oh, this is weird, which one am I supposed to use?” I think it was just a common experience by Chinese immigrants during that time period and I just wanted to explore that more.
Just curious, which bathroom did they use?
My uncle’s mom, she needed to go to the restroom, and she and her husband talked to each other, trying to decide, “Alright, which one do we belong in?” And they're like “Well, we're not white,” so they ruled that out, and they used the colored restrooms. In history though, Chinese people were supposed to use the white restrooms. The exact phrasing I was told was they were allowed to use the white restrooms. The colored restrooms were for African Americans.
Can you talk about growing up Asian in Texas? Would you say that experience significantly informed your approach for June, and in how you shaped the protagonist, June?
June is about beginning to really feel the color of your skin, and really starting to question your place in America as a Chinese person, or as an Asian American person. I think as a Chinese American growing up, like most people of color, they come to that point – a moment in their lives, where they start to feel the color of their skin and they question what that means. Growing up, I mean, I definitely got called names, had my food made fun of… moments like that. Especially when you start to go into rural towns here, where it's like 99.9 percent white, people start looking at you very differently.
I think in moments like that you start to really feel your otherness. And that’s what I feel like June is feeling. That's how I relate to her the most.
I grew up in a suburb near Houston called Clear Lake. Houston has a very large and strong Asian American population. They have a really bustling Chinatown in southwest Houston, and a very strong community there. I very much grew up in that community. Houston, Dallas, and Austin – which is a little small but growing – those are some of the three major areas where there's a very strong Asian American community. So just growing up in Houston, it was an extremely diverse city. I think I was very fortunate to be able to grow up with people that looked like me, and a lot of people that didn't look like me, and it's just, I don't know – like home.
Speaking of home – 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?
Well, it's an immigrant story. It's about two Chinese people who immigrate to the US and there is a little bit of a transition period. I’m not sure if they necessarily have a home in this story yet. They're changing their home, they're moving away from their home to a new one and so I think, there’s not really a strong definition of that word for these two people, especially June. I think that's really what the story is about; it's kind of about this character trying to figure out where she belongs. Finding home.
Do you identify more with June or Gene, the husband?
I mean, I think there's a bit of me in both of them. I think June's definitely a lot more aware in sort of, wanting to really look at this space and examine it – examine the people in there. Gene has his blinders on, just focused on assimilating and fitting in. There’s definitely both of that in me. For better or worse.
Walk me through your process on the film, from storyboards or shot lists to editing. I’m curious in the tools you use (software, equipment) and the methods or systems you use to help keep your film from descending into chaos—as film often does.
Since it was my thesis film, it was very much on schedule, based on the university. Basically we spent a semester focused on writing, then we spent the next semester working on pre-production, then principal photography, and then the final semester on post. So it was a very structured approach to schedule, and for the most part it was we approached it fairly traditionally. We had department heads and we had weekly meetings and we prepped the crap out of it.
And it all went really smoothly. I just had a really great team in place and everyone kicked ass, and we had shot lists – but of course on set, you know, you always kind of roll with the punches, and sometimes a scene just works better in one shot so you just cut shots. You really just try to stay flexible on set as much as you can. We used UT Austin schools gear, and for all the costumes we actually used the UT theater department’s. They have a big wardrobe basement there, and we were able to curate a lot of their clothes for all the period stuff which was really great.
For the most part, it all went really smooth and I was really lucky to have sort of the team of collaborators that I had, to be able to pull off a shoot this big, or at least for a student film that for me was a very large shoot.
Congrats on being a semifinalist in the HBO Access Directing fellowship. I read that for the final round, you are given scripts to pitch your take on in terms of approaching production, and I was just curious if you could articulate your artistic vision for the films you’d like to make.
I think for me, at this stage in my career, to be honest I’m still developing and finding my voice. I’m still figuring out the stories that I want to tell. Looking back at what I’ve created, and looking at my next projects I do want to create, everything has been very, sort of personal and based on my own experiences and based on the people around me, and the relationships that I recognize and the people that I recognize.
A lot of those are Asian American stories, and I think that’s a lot of what I bring to the table. I like to draw from those experiences to tell the stories that I feel aren’t being represented. That’s really what I have been focused on creating, and for the foreseeable future that’s what I want to be making my films about.
I know you work primarily in camera, and have even had the opportunity to work on set with filmmakers like Terrence Malick and Emmanuel Lubezki. Any lessons you learned that helped inform your short?
One of the main things I learned on those sets was there just isn't one right way to make a movie. I think when you hear about the story of how they collaborate together, Malick and Chivo [Emmanuel Lubezki], you know, they have their own process and a lot of times it's very unorthodox and it's very… it's not the "right way" to approach filmmaking, but they find their own way of working because they have their own point of view, and they have their own perspective on how they want to approach filmmaking. And that’s okay.
I think in film school you're always searching for, “Alright, what's the right way to light this? To cover the scene? To say these lines?” There isn't one right way, and I think working with Malick and Chivo took that to the extreme for sure – but it was great to see these filmmakers that are like the top of their game, and they just sort of make the movies however way they want to make them.
What do you see in the future for your directing and cinematography?
My goal right now is I want to direct movies and I want to direct narrative television. It's what I love to do most in the world and it's what I'm completely committed to doing. I will say before that, my first love as I like to say is cinematography. I’ve always loved shooting and I've always loved being in the camera department. I want to direct because there are stories that aren't being told and I feel like as a director and as a writer that I can push those stories forward.
As a Director of Photography I love collaborating with other directors and learning from them and translating their stories visually. I am going to keep on doing both. Coming up this December, I'll be DPing a friend's feature in August, so yeah I guess, I will continue to be doing both. Hopefully I don’t have to choose right now.
What is on the horizon for other future projects?
I’m DPing a couple of thesis films at UT, over the next couple months. I am writing a feature film with a collaborator in town, and we're hoping to develop that and shoot next year. And I'm also going to be shooting that feature in the late summer. All of that while freelancing as much as I can here in town. So, a little bit of everything.
Anything you can tell us about the projects are about?
The one I’m collaborating with my friend on, it's about first love. It's about growing up Asian American in the south, and sort of a coming of age story in a way. It's something I plan on making no matter what, even if we don't have a budget. Again it's another personal story but it's just something I’m excited to do, and something I know I can make for cheap if I have to.
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 think you absolutely wish that you spent more time on certain things and spent more resources on certain things – and not spent half a day on something you won't use. But you know, hindsight's 20/20. I think the film that was made was made, and I’m very happy with it. I try not to nitpick what I should've done, but it's important to look back and see what you can improve on for the next project. I’m happy with the experience, and happy to move forward.
[Read Part One with Maritte Go and Part Two with Feng-I Fiona Roan.]