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Grassroots film director Justin Lin of "Better Luck Tomorrow" explodes onto the Hollywood scene.
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Interview with Justin Lin
February 16, 2004
Interviewed by Allan Axibal
Transcription by Allan Axibal
Barely in his 30's, Justin Lin has been openly praised as one of the most distinguished Asian American filmmakers of today. Lin's illustrious career began in college, where he earned a BA and Master of Fine Arts (MFA) in film directing from UCLA's School of Film and Television. Collaborating with fellow student Quentin Lee, the pair developed the film Flow (1996) and later wrote the screenplay for their sophomore film Shopping for Fangs (1997) which screened internationally at countless film festivals. Lin's contributions to the aforementioned films simply served as a prelude to his directorial acumen. Debuting at Sundance, Lin's most highly acclaimed film Better Luck Tomorrow (2003) recounts a disturbing coming-of-age tale about a group of seemingly perfect Asiam American students who turn to a life of crime as a source of diversion. Initially starting off as a grassroots campaign to promote the film, MTV later acquired BLT, its very first Asian American film picked up for distribution. Lin's upcoming projects include collaborations with world renowned filmmaker Spike Lee, mega-producer Aaron Spelling for a new drama series airing in September 2004 on the WB, and Christine Vachon (producer of Boys Don't Cry (1999), and Far From Heaven (2002)) for a new independent film. Lin is currently in the pre-production process for 20th Century Fox's film The Tenth Justice.
APA: Please introduce yourself and tell us a little about your background.
Lin: My name is Justin Lin. I'm a filmmaker. I actually do make money now, so I'm officially a filmmaker. I went to UCLA and got my B.A. in film directing. I was getting my M.F.A. and was on my last class until all this happened and then I wasn't able to finish. I was totally done. I was down to my last class-- Italian American cinema; it was all I had to take. It was in the fall quarter and I was working on my final paper (twenty pages), and I was a page and a half into it. It was Thanksgiving weekend when I found out that my film got into Sundance. After I found out that I got in, my phone has not stopped ringing and I haven't had time to go back to finish my paper. So I'm still seventeen and a half pages away from getting my Masters.
APA: Do you think that you'll ever go back to finish it?
Lin: I have to! But I really just have not had time. But it was great to go through the whole program. It just sucked the way it exploded and happened-- that it was right before I was supposed to get my Masters.
APA: Better Luck Tomorrow is the only Asian American movie post Joy Luck Club to reach box office success. What is it about your movie that made it so appealing to the audiences as well as renowned film critics like Roger Ebert?
Lin: It was inadvertent. We didn't go out and try to make a film that would be a box office success or whatever it's labeled. But I think it's interesting because my philosophy for filmmaking developed while I was at UCLA. I made a lot of short films and documentaries. I shot and edited films and I realized that filmmaking is very much a merger of commerce and art. It's very rare for you to say, "I feel passionate enough that I have to make this movie and if you're not going to give me the money, I'm just gonna go out and get credit cards." You can only do that once in your life. So very quickly, I asked myself, "If I got that one opportunity, what would that film be?"
For me, as an Asian American, seeing three-dimensional Asian American characters on screen-- well I just want to see that. Anytime I saw three-dimensional human beings with flaws, like in Goodfellas and Schindler's List, I could relate to these characters, regardless if they were Italian American, Jewish American, or African American. They were all very three-dimensional and they were complex and flawed. But I could never relate to the Asian Americans on screen because they all were one-dimensional caricatures. This was an impetus for me to want to see this onscreen and this led to: "What issues do I want to deal with?
I was working a lot with youths and sports in the media in which identity was very important and seemed very important to me. I didn't want to hammer it home. I just wanted to explore the story with these kids. From then on, I felt like getting people on board like getting Ernesto Fabian, who came on to write with me. I think that they were able to relate to the passion and then it kind of snowballed from there.
The producers, the crew, the cast, everybody came on for the right reasons. There was no money involved. We were barely able to get by. But that passion just spread and the great thing is that we were able to somehow get the exhibition space for Sundance. From there, people were able to come and see it and it just caught on. Anyway, this is a long answer to your question but though it was definitely inadvertent, it came out from the right people and any time people are passionate, you will at least garner some sort of attention.
APA: On the other hand, what is it about Asian American movies or Asian American moviemakers that's clashing with American audiences?
Lin: When you watch Asian American films, there are definitions and labels to what it means to be Asian American. I think that we're still really early in the whole definition of what Asian Americans are onscreen. When you watch Joy Luck Club and other Asian American films, a lot of them do deal with issues of immigration and family. To their credit, they've done a really good job and yet there are so many other perspectives of the Asian American experience that haven't been seen onscreen. Those stories need to somehow find their way on the screen.
This is something that is very new to the audience and sometimes having something new doesn't necessarily make people comfortable. We knew that and I think that it led to a lot of interesting dialogue. We all know that Better Luck Tomorrow was not made to be the "feel good" movie of the year. It was made to really initiate dialogue and I think that's what it did. People might see it and they may like it or they may not like it, but hopefully they have enough respect for it that it leads them to a conversation with somebody else. That was our initial hope
APA: You had a very tight budget with Better Luck Tomorrow. At one point, you took out ten credit cards to fund this movie. How did you make ends meet?
Lin: It was tough because I was working full time. I was making documentary movies and I had saved up all of my money. I had saved up all of my grant money from UCLA and I really knew that I only had one shot. I didn't want to do the credit card route; it was a necessity. I went out and coming from a working class family I didn't know any rich people and I didn't know how to find investors.
The ones that I did find, it was all about compromise. Whenever you hit people with money, they want to make sure that their investment is as safe as possible so they were always asking me, "Can I change the ethnicity from Asian American to Caucasian?" This one guy said, if you change it to Caucasian, I can get you McCully Culkin and you can get two million dollars on the spot." Stuff like that. It's great. I got to learn what the business place was but I also learned what film I really wanted to make, which is with Asian American characters. But at that time, it was the only way I could do it because I had no people who really believed in the project enough with Asian American characters so I just had to apply for ten credit cards and I got myself into six figures in debt. In a way it's kind of liberating because there was nothing else I could do. I wouldn't recommend it, but I also think that it was a journey that I had to go on for myself.
APA: What was your response to those who said that the movie needed Caucasian actors over Asian American actors? Do you think that the movie would have been such a great success had you cast Caucasian actors?
Lin: If it were cast with Caucasian actors, I would have definitely had a huge budget for it. It probably would've been easier to enter the marketplace and it probably would've made more money, but that's not why I wanted to make the film. I labored for a year to write this movie and that's not the movie I wanted to see. I understand the business side, but I think that as an artist and as an Asian American artist, those are choices I have to make. If other Asian American filmmakers went the other route, I would never blame them. That's their choice. But it was something that was very important to me.
I think it would've been a very different film. I think that a lot of the issues that I wanted to explore obviously would not be there. It would be seen in another context. But I do feel that in retrospect, there is an audience for it. It has to start somewhere. The seed has to be planted. I feel that as a filmmaker, I'm lucky enough to do what I want to do. I don't have to go and chase where the money is, even though that might be the easier route. I think that if I can do what I want then that's living my dream and everything else will come.
APA: Under the assumption that one of your missions with this film was to shatter stereotypes, such as Asian Americans being model minorities and Asians being goody two-shoe students, etc. Why was it so important for you to give the message that Asians don't always play into these stereotypes?
Lin: It's more than that. I don't think that anybody plays into any stereotype. A lot of times, people say, "Well, you're Asian American, therefore as an Asian American filmmaker, you'll make Asian American films." But my experience is very different from your experience even though we're both Asian Americans. I'm an immigrant. I came here when I was eight years old. I grew up in Buena Park. I grew up with a working class family. Actually, when I was growing up, I could relate more to the Chicano community more than I could to the Asian American community because all the Asian Americans I knew were upper middle class.
Right now we have this discussion. We do have this dialogue and I think that it's healthy for you to ask that question and for me to have an answer for it, but I'm hoping that five years down the line, we won't have to discuss this anymore because by then hopefully we'll have twenty-five films of various Asian American perspectives. I think that's what's interesting. I think that's when we can say, "Okay, here's a body of work and these are Asian American works." One might be from someone with a working class background or one might be from someone who is gay and together that is how you make Asian American cinema. That is cinema; a body of work. Right now I think that we are still very early on so it's important for me or for you just to be able to voice it and to be artists and to not have restrictions. Down the line, hopefully we will have that body of works to be able to have a new level of dialogue.
APA: How do you feel about shows and actors who do play into the Asian stereotype?
Lin: Now that I've been in the industry for over a year, I've learned a lot. One of the things that I can say is that you really can't blame the actors. I applaud the actors that will actually say no to those roles, but it's a tough profession. They're trying to make a living and unfortunately, those are the only roles available. I blame the creators of those roles. But at the same time I go into rooms and I say, "I don't understand. Why do you have this one-dimensional Asian American role?" And they say, "Really?" They don't even understand that there's another perspective to it. I think that it's good for me to get into those rooms and to start those dialogues so that they can understand that. That kind of dialogue will hopefully be ongoing and hopefully that will be the dialogue soon.
We can sit here and we can complain and I am just as pissed off as anybody to see that onscreen. But it's also up to us because I don't' expect some middle-aged white guy sitting in a suit to say, "Hey, let's change the way people are perceiving Asian Americans." I think that it's up to us to go and create those roles and to struggle and to make those films. We can change it ourselves.
When I was growing up in the 80's, this was the same dialogue that people were having about African Americans. They were saying that all we see are drug dealers onscreen. Then Spike Lee came along and he made his films and whether you liked them or you didn't, they were very three dimensional with complex human beings. That slowly opened the door and now you do see African Americans in characters that are three-dimensional. I hope the same will happen with Asian American characters. But like I said, I don't expect anybody else to do it but us.
APA: Do you plan on making more films about the Asian American culture? Or being that you've successfully told a story within that genre, do you plan on branching out into other cultures?
Lin: I've been very fortunate in the last year and a half. Doors have opened for me that have not opened for other people and I am definitely not taking that for granted. Now I have a company and an office and I'm working with some great people and we're developing numerous projects. We're working on eight projects right now. Some of them do have Asian American characters, some of them don't, but the way that I look at it is that it doesn't matter what kind of movie I make, it will always have an Asian American perspective because that's who I am. But I am excited. I do feel like I work with a group of very talented actors. I have a project where I'll be working with them again and it will be very different than Better Luck Tomorrow.
I'm hopeful that there will be another very positive edition to the body of work that we talked about earlier. At the same time, I've been very fortunate to be offered other films with other issues, other perspectives, and other characters. I'm having a good time just exploring that too. I feel like as a filmmaker, that's all I can ask for because it's so hard to find anything that you're passionate about and that you want to make. We'll see.
This is an exciting year. I definitely will be going into production later this year, but it's also a balance too. When I work with the studio and make a studio movie, obviously you can't make a Better Luck Tomorrow in the studio system;You have to make that outside of it. So we have projects that we are developing and I am going to be switching back and forth. I think I'm lucky enough to have those opportunities and I want to explore them. I'm gonna fall flat on my ass, I'm sure more than once but I just want to keep on trying and hopefully grow and be a better filmmaker.
APA: How has life changed for you after Better Luck Tomorrow?
Lin: When we were making Better Luck Tomorrow, I was literally for three months eating oatmeal straight, at every meal. That's all I could afford. So, it's nice to actually have money for once in my life and to not have to worry about rent the next month. That's actually very new to me and as an artist that's very new to me. So, I'm enjoying that and at the same time, I do have opportunities for projects, and to work with different studios and to see how that is like.
Every day I feel like I'm learning something new. That's what excites me. But a lot has changed. I am inspired. I think that every day that I get new projects, that I get to talk to other people, or get to actually help other filmmakers, or just to have that discourse, that's my dream. When I got into film school, I actually didn't know what my dream was. Now I realize that I'm living it and that's very rare and I don't want to take that for granted.
APA: You signed to do a film with MTV. Can you tell us about that?
Lin: Actually, I'm going to have a 'first- look' deal with them, so I'm going to be making a lot of films with them. They've been great. I have to say, when we went to Sundance, it was the same reservations coming from a lot of studios--they liked the movie and they wanted me to make other movies for them, but they weren't sure about distributing a movie with Asian American characters. The one company that stepped up and said, "We believe in you and we believe in the movie," was MTV. Even though other studios might have offered more money, and even as the movie was in theaters, they were the ones playing spots on their channel and they really supported the movie. I'm very loyal and I know what they did for the film and for us and I'm not going to forget it. They're great people. I look forward to making more movies with them. There have been various projects that we've talked about, but I haven't really settled on one yet, but I'm looking forward to working with them.
APA: Future plans?
Lin: I will hopefully be making an independent movie and a studio movie and switching off. But right now we have projects that are moving very fast. We're also dabbling into making TV shows. That's my future. I don't know exactly what, but I will be continuing and I'll have other opportunities and that's all I can hope for. Today, I can tell you that one project is ahead of the others, but the thing that I've learned is that everyday, another project pops up. But I'm just glad and excited that for the next six months I'll be behind a camera and shooting a movie.
APA: Within the context of your dream, is there a particular goal, or message, or movie that you want to have accomplished? In other words, where do you see yourself five years from now?
Lin: Five years from now, I just hope that I'll have more opportunities to make movies and to help other filmmakers. There are some dream projects and I think that I've been very fortunate because a couple of those have already surfaced. One that I've wanted to do is about my intrigue with the whole Chinese American experience with the railroads. I'm working on a project with that background and characters, but there's a lot. The day that I have achieved everything I want to do, I should just quit. But I'm not even close;I'm just starting. My dream is just to be able to work and that's all I'm doing right now literally, just non-stop.
APA: Could you give us a little taste into some of the story lines you're working on?
Lin: Right now we have anything from a romantic comedy, romantic tragedy, a broad comedy, a sports movie, to an improv movie. The story lines and stuff are hard. I'm not good at pitching things, but it goes across the board. It goes from very edgy, dark and independent to very broad studio friendly movies.
I realize that when you look at the slate of films, it kind of defines a little bit of who I am. I grew up in the suburbs and they didn't have any independent movies. It was all Commando or Commando II. That's all they showed and there's a little part of me in that. But at the same time I'm very attracted to Stanley Kubrick and Scorsese -- a lot of the auteurs. I'm still trying to find out who I am as a filmmaker and what excites me and what it means to make certain types of films. So that's what I'm doing now and those are the films that we're working on.
APA: All right, well thank you very much for your time.
Lin: Thank you.
Date Posted: 4/23/2004