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Low-budget filmmaking challenged former lawyers Francis Hsueh and Steven Hahn to maximize their resources and make deliberate choices. APA speaks with the directors and actors Pia Shah and Louis Ozawa Changchien about Pretty to Think So.
Video interview with Louis Ozawa Changchien and Pia Shah
Interviewed by by Ada Tseng
Video Edit by Oliver Chien
In Francis Hsueh and Steven Hahn's debut feature film, the group leader at a meeting for compulsive gamblers delivers an encouraging speech: Alcoholics Anonymous might believe "once an addict, always an addict," he says. But they, on the other hand, believe that people can change.
"Isn't it pretty to think so?" Hanna muses -- a quote from Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises.
Pretty to Think So follows a young investment banker named Hanna, played by Pia Shah, who has just lost her job. Not knowing what to do with herself, Hanna falls into a quiet, insecure daze, questioning her ability to compete in the corporate world and falling into the arms of a confident lawyer, Jiwon (played by Louis Ozawa Changchien), who aggressively pursues her as if he were closing a deal. Through a client, Jiwon meets Alex (Rob Yang), Hanna's childhood friend who she hasn't seen in a decade. Soon, Hanna is skipping celebratory business happy-hours with Jiwon to go to Gamblers Anonymous meetings with Alex, a former addict who is now working as a youth minister in the Bronx.
"In some ways, our movie is influenced by Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven," says Hahn, referencing the 1992 Western about a reformed cold-blooded killer who goes back for one last job, only to discover that his past has not been completely buried. Likewise, all three characters in Pretty to Think So find it difficult to move their lives forward, whether their goals involve career, love, or general mental stability.
The film takes place in New York during October of 2000. Capturing this particular period and setting was very important to the filmmakers, both former corporate lawyers who have been living in New York since they graduated law school. It was pre-9/11, there was the Bush-Gore controversy, and the dot-com bubble was about to burst.
"It was a really frothy time, and then suddenly it changed," says Hahn. "The NASDAQ dropped, people were out of jobs, and New York really seemed different overnight."
"There's a lot of nostalgia," says Hsueh. "We both remember that time with a lot of fondness,"
There is a quick scene in the film where a bicyclist rides by wearing an orange Kosmo.com messenger bag. Hsueh and his wife used to use Kozmo.com, an online convenience store started by two twentysomething Korean American investment bankers. You could order stuff online, and bike messengers would deliver it to your door within an hour.
"It was very emblematic of the dot-com boom and bust," says Hahn. "It was a great service, but they weren't making any money. But they thought they were going to go IPO, and everyone was going to get rich."
"At the time, I was working with students, " says Louis Ozawa Changchien. "I was actually living more of a life that Alex [his character's nemesis] was leading. But I had a lot of friends who were in that world -- the dot-com businesses -- and a lot of people were getting laid off. People were still partying, but there was that kind of fear. The interesting thing about the film is that these worlds do affect each other, and in this story, the worlds collide."
Initially, Hsueh and Hahn were actively pursuing Battlestar Gallactica actress Grace Park for the lead role of Pretty to Think So. They had Changchien in mind for Alex, Shah had been cast for a small part as the best friend, and Yang had been cast as Jiwon's mentally-disabled brother, a character that was eventually written out of the script. When they realized Park wasn't going to be an option, they decided to do some casting musical-chairs.
"I got a call from [them] saying that they wanted to turn the script around on its head and have the South Asian character be the lead," says Shah, "and to have a love triangle that would push the envelope that much further for Asian Americans."
"We went through the script to make sure there wasn't a real issue with the ethnic casting change, and there wasn't really," says Hahn. They only changed a little bit of back story, making Hanna's family the first Indian family in New York's Chinatown.
"It seemed like it was something very realistic," says Shah. "It didn't seem that strange to me that an Indian person could fall in love with an East Asian guy."
"One issue we struggled with," says Hahn, "[a question that we got] was: now that the lead is Indian, shouldn't you explore that more? What they meant was that there should be some struggle or exposition about that. And we strongly resisted that. Because what difference does it make? In New York, there are all kinds of crazy couples, so let's just let it speak for itself."
Along the same lines, because ethnicity wasn't meant to play a prominent role in the storyline, the filmmakers weren't concerned with casting the characters in a specific way. "We didn't think it was necessary to cast the Korean guy to play the Korean lawyer or Chinese guy as the Chinese [minister]," says Hsueh. "Obviously they're not. Louis is half-Japanese, half-Taiwanese, playing the Korean guy. And Rob, who plays Alex, is Korean, playing Chinese. We really tried hard to pick the best people we had auditioned."
Without the budget to fly people in for auditions, they cast their talent from the pool of actors in New York.
"There's indie film," says Hahn, "and then there's indie film."
"There are a lot of films that are independent," says Hsueh, "but only in the sense that they're not in the Hollywood system. There's still a lot of money thrown behind them. They're just scaled-down versions of big Hollywood productions."
In contrast, Hsueh and Hahn did much of the writing, editing, directing, and shooting themselves. They kept the personnel at a minimum, and they couldn't afford a huge post-production team. Hsueh was composing and scoring a lot of the film on his computer at home. They had hired a sound guy, but in the end, took care most of the sound design themselves.
"We had a lot of hungry people who were just willing to help out," says Hsueh. "We were really fortunate."
In fact, knowing from the beginning that they needed to maximize their resources and stretch each dollar, Hsueh and Hahn wrote much of the script around locations that they knew they could get for free. They wanted to be shooting in a different place, from scene to scene.
"Most indie films have six locations that they just keep going back to, over and over," said Hahn. "To me, film always smells like an indie movie when you see them going back to the same location. So we definitely wanted to avoid that."
They applied for a permit to shoot around New York, and they made creative use of their friends' apartments, even covering the walls of one of the apartments in soy sauce in order to make Alex's place look dirtier. It also helped that their previous project Party, a documentary about the Asian American party scene in New York, provided them with old club contacts. One of them, a contact from a club called Hero, saved them a lot of money by letting them shoot inside, without having to pay the normal $15,000-a-night fee that they usually charge.
The budget also dictated the way they directed the film. "We shot the script exactly," says Hahn. "There was no changing it. We got there and shot the script. And maybe we would have liked to have a more collaborative relationship with the actors or the DP, but there wasn't time for that."
According to Hahn, most of the scenes in Pretty to Think So were shot in an average of two takes. While, admittedly, some of the long takes were done to save money, they allowed the filmmakers to channel films like Hou Hsiou-hsien’s Millenium Mambo, whose slow, roving shots they cite as an inspiration. They attribute their use of double takes to Chinese cinema, such as Infernal Affairs and Wong Kar-wai’s films.
"Asian cinema is an influence for both of us," says Hahn. "Also, I think it's a reaction against the quick MTV-style cutting, so you can breathe in a scene more. I think some people might think it's slow, but that was definitely purposeful. It was trying to be a slow burn until the end."
Pretty to Think So will play at the Los Angeles Pacific Film Festival on Friday, May 2nd.
Next up for Hsueh and Hahn is a dark comedy about a young married man who is obsessed with getting him and his wife on a sub-orbital space flight. Pia Shah just completed a role in a Bollywood thriller Eight By Ten, starring Akshay Kumar and Ayesha Takia. And Louis Ozawa Changchien will be next seen in a BBC TV movie called Heroes and Villains: Shogun, about Tokugawa Ieyasu's rise to power, and Gigantic, a comedy starring Zooey Deschanel and Paul Dano.
Date Posted: 4/18/2008