Advantageous: Jennifer Phang on Making Way to Sundance
COW Library : Indie Film & Documentary : Kylee Peña : Advantageous: Jennifer Phang on Making Way to Sundance
A futuristic story of economic hardship overshadowed by opulence and competition, Advantageous is a film that director Jennifer Phang felt was necessary. Reflecting today's world of competition in a diminishing middle class, Advantageous tells the story of a single mom's sacrifice to protect her daughter's future in a world that prioritizes appearances. Originally a short film developed with ITVS for Futurestates, Advantageous in its feature form debuted at Sundance 2015 and won a Special Jury Award.
Creative COW: In writing and directing Advantageous, it seems like you're commenting on society and maybe some of the experiences you've had?
Jennifer Phang: Advantageous is about a mother who has to decide whether she will undergo a new bio-tech procedure that would put her into a younger body so she can keep her job as a spokesperson. It is ultimately a story about what a parent is willing to sacrifice for their children's future. But it is also looking at how women are valued in our society in the present and into the future. Though I was brought up to value intelligence, work ethic and kindness, the world around me continued to tell me that those values were far less important than my appearance. We're surrounded by screens telling us how we should self-improve and what products and services we need to achieve an ideal.
I believe that while most people feel we have control over our own thinking, it's really hard for us to stay impervious to sustained, long-term manipulation. And I know that when too much of my energy is spent trying to please others visually, and my potential to help create a beautiful world -- where we can even coexist peacefully -- is weakened. The film also explores issues with class and our complicity in creating a difficult society for our kids. There's an underlying theme of what it could mean to love and protect of our family as technology advances and creates new options for us -- but I'm definitely trying to expand the definition of "family" beyond people who are directly related to you.
You co-wrote Advantageous with Jacqueline Kim and won a collaborative vision jury award at Sundance. Can you tell me about how the collaboration process works for you?
Advantageous started as a short and Jacqueline played the lead role in the short. She brought energy, ideas, and beauty to the short film. I asked her if she wanted to co-write the feature because I understood she was interested in more film writing. She and I spent time together writing a piece we built around the structure of the short and expanded the world. We took about a year to do that because there were some other projects we also had to work on. So we were writing and re-writing off and on, racing time because we wanted to work with the same young actor, Samantha Kim, who played the daughter, Jules, in the short film. We had to make sure we shot the film as soon as we could before she got too much older. Our process was to take turns at the script, advising each others' work, proposing revisions and creating new scenes.
Advantageous: A Sundance Film Festival Award winner.
How do you separate the writing process from the directing process, if at all?
I often work as a writer/director, which for me takes a different approach than when I work as a writer. When I'm working solely as a writer I don't direct as much from the page. On Advantageous, I did direct a little from the page because I wanted collaborators to understand the tone and visual style of the story as clearly as possible. I like to think I know in the writing process when I might have too much dialogue or if a scene is too long. I'm always writing with the heartbeat of the film in my mind.
Advantageous still with Jacqueline Kim
But you don't always want to squash ideas that have potential too early, because some of the most magical moments can spring out of them. And in your story and actor preparation you do need to communicate some context, even if you plan to shorten scenes later. Whether it's in rehearsal or on set, your actors do need to live through some of their characters back-story, even if it is going to be cut. It's a tough balance -- do we cut this to make sure we don't waste too many resources during principal? Or do we shoot this even though it could eventually be cut? So the short answer is that I don't really separate my process when I'm writing an independent film that I plan to direct. I just continuously attempt to improve the work. In shooting and designing I try to achieve the most striking images I can within the story context and subjective experience of the characters.
And you share an editing credit on the film with Sean Gillane, so how did the collaboration move with you to post production?
I was deeply involved with the post production process. Sean is multi-talented. He is an amazing asset for all phases of production and post. He took care of our workflow, and he and I traded the cut back and forth all the way to the end. We were very hands-on in terms of the look and management of the visual effects too, with him sometimes producing supplemental motion graphics and comps at one station while I was editing on the other station. When Sean needed to prep shot animatics for our visual effects team, Dynamic Link enabled us to jump into After Effects easily from Premiere Pro. It was a marathon, but our team was able to do it because of the combined experience we shared. That flexibility afforded us a little more time to strive for something ambitious.
It sounds like Premiere Pro was essential to this back and forth process, especially considering all the required visual effects.
A scene from Advantageous, where Premiere Pro played a heavy role in the handling of the VFX.
Yes. At one point we needed to take a break from cutting in order to finish other tasks, and Sean had to go shoot a documentary in Guatemala. It was the perfect time for someone with fresh eyes to come on board. So we asked Gena Bleier if she would join us as an additional editor. I had met her through our one of our producers Moon Molson, and I knew of her work with Moon on The Bravest, The Boldest -- a powerful film she cut for him that went to the Sundance and Claremont Ferrand.
Gena was able to work remotely and we were able to send projects back and forth with her, reconnecting to our duplicate copies of footage.
A VFX shot from Advantageous.
This industry is a bit odd in that college isn't a barrier to entry. You went to a great film school while another director may have skipped it, and everyone has a strong opinion about this. How do you feel your education shaped your career?
There's definitely something interesting about the networking that comes along with going to a top film school. Also certain film schools like the AFI where I went are known for placing emphasis on their story-telling, choice subject-matter and cinematic language. And these schools don't emphasize technical skills as much for directors. I think that might be the one reason I would recommend film school for directors. I also think film school is a good place to learn how to work with others. It's hard to define success as an independent filmmaker, so it can be a healthy thing if you're making strong connections and being generous with one another while contributing to other people's work. If you can have a healthy exchange of ideas with everyone, everyone becomes more sophisticated as filmmakers together.
You mentioned to me that your directing class was maybe a third women, and other media programs are 50% women or more. But actually working in the field, this number drops dramatically. Why do you think there's such a gap?
I think with any industry, people gravitate toward others because they identify with each other. Some men can identify with each other's concerns and that's why they help each other. I think some of the concerns that women face are very subtle and complex, and perhaps they're hard to call out without risking alienation or appearing like a victim. There is a perception out there that if you're thought of as a victim, you cannot hold a position of respect. I don't think that should be the case, but I believe that fear exists.
There are many misconceptions in history that favor the idea that the most "driven" people are men. But we know today that women are very driven too. I feel like more and more people are viewing assertiveness as a sign of leadership. It's all something I've had to think about a lot. I'm very very glad that more and more women are finding ways support each other in the industry. I was so excited when the Femmes Fatales group reached out to me before Sundance. I had always wanted a group of women directors with which to connect.
You've become a major force in independent filmmaking, so what kind of advice do you have for people who are trying to get into that world and trying to get their film made?
I think one of the struggles younger filmmakers face is when they get advice from a lot of different sources, and many of those voices are valid but might not be applicable to every person. It's really tough to figure out who you are when there are so many options for your identity as a filmmaker. You can constantly be trying to be someone else because you want to achieve someone else's idea of success. Success-driven filmmaking can actually lead to failure because you end up doing it for the wrong reasons. You put your energy into something you don't truly believe in and eventually feel empty and give up. I've heard many people who say they want to abandon their films and needed to move on because they're burnt out on their project.
I think young filmmakers should know that filmmaking isn't just about you and your success. It's about the story you're telling and what your viewers take from that story. It's very powerful to put fresh perspectives into the world, and I think that should be our focus.
Images from the film, courtesy of the Sundance Institute.