Preface: This two-part interview originally was conducted for AsianAvenue.com but has since been "lost" on the site. I'm reprinting it, in full, after the jump. Both were done following the big Sundance debacle but Part 2 was conducted right after MTV Films announced that they were picking up the film for distribution.
Buzzworthy: An Interview with Director Justin Lin
Justin Lin went into the famed Sundance Film Festival a relative unknown and came out as one of the most talked about filmmakers there. No less than Roger Ebert – the most recognized film critic in the country, if not the world – has written about him and his new film, Better Luck Tomorrow and Lin has gone from being known mostly just in Asian American circles to potentially becoming the next indie film chosen one.
Lin’s previous film, 1997’s Shopping For Fangs (directed by Quentin Lee) was a critical hit among Asian American film festival patrons, but distribution woes hampered its wider release. For his new Better Luck Tomorrow- a story about a group of well-to-do Asian American students who descend into crime and murder – Lee took a major risk in cleaning out his life savings and maxing out his credit cards – not to mention enlisting the funding aid of (MC) Hammer - to pay for this independent feature.
While at Sundance though, a storm of controversy brewed as some viewers – unhappy at the movie’s dark edge and subject matter, attacked Lin for both misrepresenting Asian Americans as well as encouraging youth violence. To his defense came no less than two of the most visible film critics in the country: the NY Times’ Elvis Mitchell and Roger Ebert – the latter of whom used his January 18th column in the Chicago Sun-Times to write about Lin’s film and the need to support it over politically correct paranoia. AsianAvenue.Com spoke with Justin right after he got back from his whirlwind Sundance adventure.
Oliver Wang: I just have to open this by asking – MC Hammer helped fund the film? How did that come about?
Justin Lin: I ran into him in Vegas and we started talking and got to know each other. It was amazing – it’s almost like he was an angel. I called him, he asked “how much do you need” and boom boom, he wired the money within minutes. He never even signed any paperwork and I’m still trying to get his money back but I can’t get a hold of him. He saved the movie.
O: Getting to Sundance - it sounds like things got out of control. I heard that at two different screenings, people literally got into shouting matches in either attacking or defending Better Luck Tomorrow.
J: It’s amazing, if you were in that room, people were so pumped up. It was amazing having two of the top critics in the country [defend the film]. Usually critics just watch movies but they felt so passionate that they had to stand up and voice their opinions. After the Ebert thing, within five minutes, it was going down Main Street, it was buzzing all over the place. It was definitely a Sundance moment.
O: Did you anticipate this kind of passionate response to your film?
J: The whole point of [the film] was to stir things up a little bit, stay true to the characters and to deal with this issue [of youth violence]. This film should open up questions, should be something that you don’t walk out, five minutes and forget about it. You should think about, hopefully, a day or two and you talk to people about it. It’s all about discourse.
O: As one of the few Asian American directors let in the door – so to say – at Sundance, how did you feel about this swirl of publicity?
J; The great thing we found out is that, you go to Sundance, the Asian American contingent is quite small. But this was pretty much one of the biggest buzz films there and it was incredible. As an Asian American filmmaker, I feel like we kind of crossed a threshold. The first thing out of their mouths wasn’t, “oh this was a great Asian American [film]”. People really related to it, our actors walking down the street, just getting stopped signing autographs, taking pictures. People just went across the color lines. They see it for a couple of minutes and they forget [it’s an Asian Ameican film] and people can relate to it, it has universal appeal.
O: That’s funny you should say “universal appeal” since the movie touches on a taboo subject these days, which is youth violence, made all the more risky in the movie world post-Columbine. What made you want to make a movie about Asian American kids going bad?
J: When we read the paper, all of us, every other week, we see something about youth violence and it’s appalling and disturbing and that’s how I feel when I read it. But at the same time, when you read it, you also get a sense you can relate to their anger and that’s what kind of intrigued me. You read about it but people don’t really talk about it and when they do talk about it, it’s never in inclusive terms - it’s very close to us yet everyone distances themselves from it.
O: From what I understand, part of the problem that some had with the film was that they felt like the images of the Asian American youth were very negative…
J: [interrupts] I don’t think it’s negative at all. As a filmmaker, you try to make the best film, you try to stay true to what you’re trying to do. The problem is that every time you see Asian faces on screen, they’re usually there for an “Asian” reason. It’s usually there because they’re a kung fu master, a doctor, a tourist but they’re always on screen for the reason of being Asian or Asian American. And as a filmmaker I don’t think we should have standards different from other filmmakers. It’s not about being negative or positive, it’s about being true to what you’re trying to do.
O: How did it feel to be criticized for making a film – and I’m quoting from one of your Sundance detractor –that’s “amoral for Asian Americans”?
J: I’m Asian American – f--- man, I’ve done more Asian American projects than anybody. Go back to my short films and documentaries. I’m probably more sensitive to these issues than definitely him – he wasn’t even Asian American!
O: He wasn’t even Asian American?
J: No, he was Caucasian. I can’t speak for all Asian Americans, but the ones who were there…there is a certain level of pride when see characters on screen. These characters, they live in this environment, they don’t have to explain why their teenagers in suburbia – they exist. That’s what the struggle is that we go through as Asian Americans. You exist and you live here but at the same time, but you don’t want to have to explain every little reason why you’re doing this and doing that.
A few days after our initial conversation with Justin Lin, it was leaked to the press that "Better Luck Tomorrow" was picked up by MTV. As reported by the Hollywood trade magazine Variety, "In the first-ever acquisition of an Asian-American film from Sundance, Paramount-based MTV Films has ponied up just under $1 million for North
American distribution rights." AsianAvenue.Com caught up with Justin who was amused that the story leaked but was quick to note that the figures quoted by Variety are inaccurate (because the deal isn’t officially public yet, he couldn’t tell AsianAvenue.Com the exact figures involved). This led into a larger discussion about the challenges of marketing and distributing an Asian American film to a wide, non-ethnic specific audience. Here now, Part 2 of our conversation with Better Luck Tomorrow’s Justin Lin.
Oliver Wang: I know you can’t cite exact figures, but this MTV deal must still be fairly big, no?
Justin Lin: They’re putting a lot of muscle behind this, it’s pretty amazing. It was incredible man, they really loved the film and the buzz was getting so big at Sundance that there were three different companies vying for it and within one hour they decided to [acquire the film]. Plus they already signed me up for my next film. It’s amazing, I [was] worrying about my rent when I left Sundance because I put everything I had into this film.
O: Let me be candid – MTV doesn’t exactly have the best reputation when it comes to cutting edge film, though Election was fairly well received. Are you confident that they’ll have what it takes to get this film out in the way it should be?
J: I have faith in MTV. They were definitely one of the studios that was vying for the film that did not demand a re-cut or even discuss possibly changing the ending. If they’re taking up this film, they’re guaranteeing some investment in this film, I think the worst case scenario is still going to be very positive.
O: Were they at all concerned with how to market a film with an all-Asian American cast?
J: The first meeting we went into, they didn’t even talk about the Asian American demographics and that’s a compliment in itself. I was the one who brought it up – "look, there is a community that is starving for Asian American films" and they were ready to bid for this film without even considering.
O: Were all your potential backers as open?
J: You know, I met with Asian American investors and they’re telling me to change these characters to Caucasians. That definitely surprised me. That’s the struggle of being an Asian American. I can’t totally fault them – they were trying to be good business people and they have their own opinions but at the same, I wish they would have some more faith. That was one of most unpleasant experiences on this whole journey.
O: This film will probably hit the theatres towards the end of the year. Between now and then though, Better Luck Tomorrow will be screening for at least three different Asian American film festivals. You’re now in a position where you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that for publicity’s sake but I suspect the festival circuit is still very important to you.
J: We’re educating Hollywood – they don’t really know the existence of Asian American film festivals and I feel like it’s important that it play at festivals. If you neglect [them] it’s not right. Visual Communications was a big part in being able to help [the film] so I felt like it has to play in the community. The great thing is that we can do that and it can still cross over.
O: Speaking on that, it’s clearly been very difficult for most Asian American films to cross over with the exception of something like Joy Luck Club which Better Luck Tomorrow is clearly nothing alike. When you distributed Shopping For Fangs, it didn’t do as well as anyone would have wanted. Do you think things have changed enough now?
J: I did learn a lot from Shopping for Fangs about distribution. I don’t think things have gotten easier, but at the same time I think there’s been this growth in Asian American cinema. It’s also about the right match and helping the distributors learn that there might be a crossover. But the thing is, it’s up to us to do it. You don’t sit there and wait for the studios to figure it out – you got out there and do it. This is an issue that goes beyond the Asian American community, but I think it’s especially pertinent to the Asian American community.
O: What’s interesting about your film is that your characters are all Asian American, but they don’t spend the film being self-conscious about it in the way that most Asian American films seem forced to be. Shopping for Fangs was much the same way. Why haven’t there been more Asian American films like these where ethnic identity is NOT the sole focus?
J: It is so hard to actually get a film, to raise the money to make a film that a lot of times only certain films of Asian American content get the funding. I also think it’s a maturity with Asian Ameican cinema. I was talking to a filmmaker – he made one of the early Asian American films – and he literally thought they were going to go bankrupt, and if they were going to go do that, they were going to put as many messages as they could into that film. I can’t speak for [all Asian American filmmakers] but when you have the opportunity to speak, you’re eager to get that message across. We’re at a point now where we don’t need to do it because it’s already been very well done. It exists, people know about it. For us, I think it’s time to move on.