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APA speaks with Tze Chun, whose film Children of Invention took home the Grand Jury Prize for Best Narrative Feature at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival this year.
Since his premiere at Sundance, Tze Chun has been traveling with his debut feature film Children of Invention -- and collecting a fair share of awards along the way. Loosely based on his own life (good to hear that reality was less traumatic than fiction), Children of Invention follows two young children who are left to fend for themselves when their mother is arrested for taking part in a pyramid scheme.
Michael Chen plays the sensible older brother to Crystal Chiu's sprightly younger sister. Cindy Cheung plays the well-meaning single mother, who is schemed into taking an unreliable shortcut towards the American Dream.
APA speaks with Tze Chun about the inspiration for the film, selecting his child stars, and experimenting with new strategies for sales and distribution.
Interview with Tze Chun
May 1, 2009
Interviewed by Ada Tseng
Video by Warren Kenji Berkey
Asia Pacific Arts: Can you start by telling us what inspired the story of Children of Invention?
Tze Chun: I spent a lot of my youth, from 8-14, following my mom and my sister to pyramid scheme seminars all over Boston, so the family dynamic in the film is very close to real life. Obviously there's a lot in stuff in the movie that is fabricated -- my mom is actually very loving in real life, and my dad is not mean, like in the movie -- but there are a lot of details about it that I drew from personal experience.
APA: Assuming that this part is based on real life, what kind of inventions did you make as a kid?
TC: I think I made all of those at some point. The spaghetti spinner, the egg carton with the superballs on it. I mean, they're all things you think of when you're a kid. "My eggs keep on breaking, how do I stop it?" But it turns out the carton is actually made so the eggs don't break. So it's a redundant invention.
I had a short film in Sundance called Windowbreaker, and that has two of the same characters in it, the two little kids whose mom is always out and about. And they're building inventions to protect the house, and those were the types of inventions that me and my little sister did: creating little traps for burglars. Eventually, my mom stepped on a sharpened pencil that was supposed to trap a burglar, so after that there were no more traps allowed in the house.
APA: What were the challenges of turning your short film Windowbreaker into a feature film?
TC: Windowbreaker is about a string of break-ins in a racially-mixed neighborhood and the paranoia that ensues, and it's more of an ensemble. The kids are only one of three or four storylines that we were following. I never wanted to turn Windowbreakers into a feature, but when it came time to write a feature film that I thought I could shoot quickly and cheaply, I kept thinking about these two little kids that were left at home alone, who had a lot of private time while their mom was out working. So then I took those characters and I transposed this other story on top of that situation. And that's how the movie got started.
APA: In terms of casting, what about these kids made you want to choose them?
TC: We looked at about 250 kids over the course of two months. We looked at a lot of kids from New York public schools and some Chinese schools -- like, the Chinese version of Hebrew schools where you learn the language, and then you have an activity like kung fu or something. So we spent two months doing that, and we didn't find anybody that we really liked. There were a lot of language barriers actually. When we cast Windowbreaker, we cast it out of schools in Boston. We looked at 25 kids, and we found two immediately. But I think that in the New York City schools that we were looking at, there were more recent immigrants, so sometimes the kids really didn't understand what I was saying. And we needed them to speak English.
So we eventually found these two kids, because a casting director friend of mine had done auditions for a scene that was cut out of Transformers 2, and these two kids had auditioned for them. We saw their audition tape, and there was something very genuine about it even, though it was just a small scene that we were looking at. So we brought them in.
I think for Crystal and Michael, there were a couple things. One is that they hadn't acted before, but they knew generally what acting entailed. So there was that freshness to it, but it wasn't totally off the rails. And I think they're both really smart. Most of my directing was just me asking them questions, and they knew the script pretty well. When they came and auditioned, it was just like -- Why do you think you're upset here? What do you think happened before? Why do you think your mom's saying that? Or, when your brother says that, how does it make you feel? Just getting them to internalize it and express what that means to them. And once we got them to that comfort zone, it was easy to get them to relax in front of the camera. And that was what we were looking for: kids that could be relaxed, but, when it called for it, they could really be emoting.
And in her audition, Crystal did the scene where she screams, and I remember we ran through it three times, and we walked out into the lobby where everyone was waiting to audition, and everyone was like, "Yeah, that girl can really scream. It was really loud." [laughs] That's her favorite scene in the movie.
APA: You mentioned that the family dynamic in the film is similar to real life, but are the temperaments similar?
TC: I think so, even though my sister will probably kill me if I say that. A lot of the "slice of life" dialogue is something that is similar to a lot of older siblings and younger siblings. The older sibling kind of takes responsibility, and the younger sibling is like "Why are you making me do all this stuff?" But yeah, I think so.
But it's funny because the kids are totally different. Crystal's character is really whiny in the movie, but she never complained once on set. She's totally on board with everything; she was a real trooper. And Michael is very serious in the movie, but he's really funny and energetic in real life. He's a really good hip-hop dancer. So, there are a lot of in-between takes where you can hear him beat-boxing.
APA: I saw the film at San Francisco, and you guys were selling DVDs, even though it was only your second festival screening after Sundance. You yourself called it an experiment that you guys were doing. Like, "this is the state of independent cinema, and we're just going to start this ourselves." Can you talk a little bit about that, and tell us how the experiment is going?
TC: Yeah, it's going really well. I don't think it's a bad time for independent film, but I think we're in some kind of transition, so the old mode of distribution is broken, and it's very difficult to get a dialogue about independent film, to get people out to see them. There were no offers from distribution companies that made sense for our investors. So what we're doing is a hybrid approach, where we're using our festival run as part of our theatrical run. So we'd like to do maybe ten months of festivals. We played nine festivals this month, and hopefully we'll continue doing that for the next year. And then we'll probably do a self-release of the movie in a few select cities, limited runs maybe late this year or early next year. And we've been selling DVDs on the festival circuit. And of course we tell people, if they're living in a city where we'll play at a festival, we'd love for them to see it on the big screen. But a lot of the times, it's not possible, so we're getting a lot of orders on our website, from people who live in cities where there aren't a lot of film festivals and art cinema. And hopefully these things will all come together and create a grass-roots promotion of the film.
And this month alone, we've made a significant amount of our budget back, just from the DVD sales. We've found that about 10% of the audience will buy the DVD after the screening. So, to me, it's a really interesting experiment, and what we're hoping to do is, in 16 months, put all the information up on our website. We're not ruling out distribution, and we're certainly looking at foreign distribution, so we can't expose our budget. But eventually we'd love to have our budget, what we spent it on, what film festivals we got into, and how much we made at each film festival, be completely transparent. So we can put it on our website, and other indie filmmakers can look it, so everybody wins. If it doesn't go well, then they can learn from what we could have done better, and if it does work, then hopefully it can be some raw data for people to build upon.
APA: Since you grew up around the pyramid scheme seminar environment, where everyone is hustling and trying to make money. What's it like for you coming from that to Hollywood, where stereotypically everyone is hustling and trying to make money?
TC: I guess I sometimes wonder if I learned to pitch by watching those people pitching stuff. I mean, I didn't go to graduate school. I went to undergrad at Columbia in film studies, and when I graduated, I just went back to school and made a schedule for myself. So I made a no-budget short film every six months and wrote a feature film every nine months. A lot of it was pretty bad, but eventually I did one that was good enough to get noticed. And I think, more than coming from that world, watching my mother work really hard all those years showed me the value of persistence -- having no other option except continuing to do what you're doing until something happens for you.
APA: You are an illustrator as well. [Chun did the illustration for the poster of Half Nelson.] Since you do filmmaking, writing, and illustrating, I'm wondering, in terms of your creative mind, do you consider these different creative forms separate, or is it something where one informs the other?
TC: Well, in high school, I always thought I was going to be a comic book artist, so I did a lot of visual art. And then I got into film, and I think part of it is that I'm kind of lazy, and when you come up with a story and you need to draw a comic book, it's like "Oh my God, this is going to take three years to do." Whereas, you can just point the camera at something.
I did a lot of portraiture in college, and that's how I made money. I painted portraits for people -- for themselves or for their kids. You know, I found that I really like people's faces and when you do a portrait of somebody, how that sums up their life experiences or what their personality is. And, I think it does inform the filmmaking. I think every kind of creative thing informs filmmaking, and that's definitely a big part of it.
APA: Can you talk about your next project, which is based on your mother?
TC: It's called You're a Big Girl Now, and it's about my mother's childhood growing up in Singapore. She was an orphan, and she was bought by a brothel when she was five years old. From the age of five through 12, she lived in the back rooms of this brothel with other young girls and kind of became really close with them. The way the brothel worked was that when you were 12, you would start working there. Luckily, right before my mom turned 12, she and an older prostitute escaped to Hong Kong together, and in Hong Kong, she worked in sweatshops and went to school and eventually got enough financial independence to find her old friends and eventually find her real parents.
It takes place over a number of years, and it's somewhat similar to Children of Invention. It's about young kids who are placed in harsh conditions, but they're very resilient and are able to persevere.
APA: I'm gonna end with a silly question. I read that since your mother was involved in these pyramid schemes, you guys always had Nu Skin and HerbalLife-type stuff lying around. So, are you a secret expert on lotions?
TC: I think a lot of people whose parents worked in pyramid schemes have boxes and boxes of skin cream. I mean, how moisturized can somebody be? It's like: "To join up, you just need to buy twenty bottles of this." [laughs] I think I had very moist skin as a child.
Date Posted: 6/5/2009