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Director Quentin Lee and producer Stanley Yung discuss their newest project, the tense psychodrama "Ethan Mao," which had its world premiere at the 2004 AFI Film Festival.
You might want to think twice before you mess with someone like Ethan Mao. He may look harmless, but don't underestimate the intense power behind suppressed rage and frustration that has been seething for years, just waiting for an excuse to explode. Add on a self-imposed psychological inability to love, some unresolved family-revenge issues, a touch of apathy, and, of course, that handy-dandy gun everyone seems to carry in their back pocket--and crazy things not only can happen, they do happen.
Writer-director Quentin Lee's film is part thriller, part character-drama, and it tells a story of an 18-year-old boy, Ethan, who is kicked out of the house for being gay. With no place to go, Ethan turns to hustling as his chosen nomadic lifestyle, where he meets Remigio, a trusted friend whom he asks to help break into his father's house while the family is gone for Thanksgiving. He is caught when they unexpectedly return early, and chaos ensues as a panicked Ethan holds the entire family hostage and haphazardly unleashes his wrath. Will the much-needed confrontation help the family purge their hostility and pride, making way for a mutual respect? Or will the pain and trauma overcome them all and lead to bitter tragedy?
Ethan Mao is the most recent collaboration between fellow UCLA film school alumni, Quentin Lee and producer Stanley Yung. They had previously worked together as the director/producer combo in Shopping for Fangs, which was co-directed by Justin Lin, of Better Luck Tomorrow fame.
Born in Hong Kong, Quentin moved to Canada while he was in high school, and later graduated from UC Berkeley and Yale, earning both a Bachelors and Masters in English. Then came UCLA Film school and some award-winning, critically admired short films that segued him into feature filmmaking opportunities. After Shopping for Fangs came his second feature Drift. Clearly one to take matters into his own hands, Quentin is also the founder of Margin Films, the company through which he distributes not only his own films but also other great finds in diverse independent filmmaking.
Although Stanley Yung sports his producer's hat for Ethan Mao, he is also a writer-director himself, most notably for Shadow Dancer, an installment of The Black Scorpion television series. From his hometown of San Francisco, his filmastic journey has taken him to UCLA and then onto Roger Corman's "School of Film." In addition to Ethan Mao, Stanley was also the producer of Catfish in Black Bean Sauce.
APA talks to Quentin and Stanley about working the film festival circuit, breaking Asian-American stereotypes, and overseeing the behind-the-scenes action of Ethan Mao. -Ada Tseng
Interview with Quentin Lee and Stanley Yung
November 11, 2004
Interviewed by Chi Tung
Transcription by Chi Tung
APA: First, introduce yourselves a little bit for our audience.
Stanley Yung: Hi, I'm Stanley Yung, I'm a graduate from UCLA film school and I'm the producer of this movie Ethan Mao.
Quentin Lee: I'm Quentin Lee, I'm the writer/director of Ethan Mao, and I also graduated from UCLA film school.
APA: How important is it for your film to receive top billing at a film festival as influential as the AFI Fest? What other film festivals has the film been screened for so far?
Q: Well, it's a world premiere, so it's actually the first festival we're starting up with. The other question, how important is it to be placed at an important festival--that's pretty much a crapshoot. Sometimes you get placed in bigger festivals, sometimes you don't. So regardless, you still have to try to sell the movie. It's something you don't have that much control over, unfortunately. It'd be great if you get taken by a big festival, but it's not horrible if you get taken by a small festival--you can still go through all the Asian film festivals. You do what you can.
APA: So in the larger picture, you don't think it has too much impact as far as the magnitude of the film festivals your film is being screened at?
Q: I think it matters but you can't really control who takes your film. Once you make the film, you can't control..."well, I have to be at Sundance, I have to be at Toronto," you still have a good shot, but at the end of the day, you still might not get in. And so you make do with what festivals you have and I think as a filmmaker, you have to have a strategy so that you know if you go to big festivals, you know what to do, or if you don't have any festivals at all, what will you do. So you have to have these plans thought out and not just be, "oh, if I don't get into Sundance, it's the end of the world."
S: I just have to say that AFI 's been a really great festival for us. Really supportive; it's a festival that really doesn't have a hierarchy in terms of who's the bigger name filmmaker or who're the smaller guys like us. They've been really supportive. It's the biggest festival in Los Angeles and we feel fortunate to be part of it.
APA: So you definitely think as far as different film festivals are concerned, there's a hierarchy that a lot of them adhere to?
Q: Yes, it's like going to schools, the difference between going to Yale or Harvard or Cal State Fullerton. It's a matter of brand name. But that doesn't mean that if you go to Cal State Fullerton, you can't be as successful in society. As a student, you're gonna apply to a bunch of schools. You cannot have any control over, "I have to be at Yale, I have to be at Harvard, Princeton"--you may not get in. So what if you're not at Princeton--you're at UCLA, you're at Berkeley, does it make you a worse person, not as successful a person? That's not true. But certainly at better schools they have more resources, but the law is that you make the school, the school doesn't make you. That's the way you should look at it.
APA: Where did you get the inspiration for the film from? Source material?
Q: My sister was kicked out of my parents' house when she was 19, so that incident affected me a lot. It was just over a silly quarrel over a pet rabbit; my stepmom slapped her, she ran off, there was just a lot of trauma. And also I've been hearing from a lot of friends that the reality now is that a lot of young gay teens get kicked out because they're gay. So from that it was sort of the turning point of the story. I kinda wanted to make a rebel, a teen rebel, I always loved teen rebels, like The Outsiders and stuff like that. I don't think gay teens have any icons to look up to, icon/images as a character.
APA: On that same note, you were talking about the protagonist Ethan Mao being an icon or an outsider figure. Are you ever afraid though that audiences might misconstrue his character to be, um...
Q: All gay asians are crazy?
Q: That's great. If you remember Basic Instinct, there was a lot of protest about Basic Instinct and portraying lesbians as murderous lesbians with ice picks. From a radical people's perspective, it's great, you know what, don't fuck with us, we'll kill you. I like that perspective.
APA: So you don't shy away from that?
Q: No, movies are a way to explore different passions, different worlds, different realities. Why would you want to make a movie about boring people sitting around? You want to see movies that're exciting, do crazy things, bring you out of your reality, so that's part of it. But on the other hand I understand that minorities have a fear of being misconstrued,so being a minority filmmaker, you sort of understand you have to go against the stereotypes for sure, but at the same time, you have to be responsible in not reinforcing other stereotypes. So that was obviously something that was in my framework but as an artist and as a filmmaker, you make films you wanna make. You're not suposed to make safe films, safe films are usually boring films. Like, you know...I'm not going to say whose films. All other films [laughs]
S: And the Asian model minority image has been so well entrenched already in popular culture that I think it's important for films like Ethan Mao and Better Luck Tomorrow to break out and show that Asian Americans are multi dimensional characters, they're not perfect, they're flawed just like everyone else and it's important to show that theyre' humans.
APA: I think it's interesting because films in the past that have primarily dealt with Asian American characters tend to play it a little bit safer, whereas with your film, it's not just one thing you're getting at, you have multiple taboos. Is that something you consciously try to do, or did it just develop that way naturally?
Q: You know what, if you're maybe talking about the Sarah character, she's definitely one person who's pretty out there. But I have to say my mom is pretty out there. So is my stepmom. So between the two of them, they're actually quite real, character-driven to me. They see things in the old world and they have a pretty fixed opinion about it. I just think as long as the characters are created in an interesting way that has a certain consistent level of personality, that's a good character.
APA: See, I noticed that the other characters in the film begin to come around as the film progressed, whereas the stepmom didn't. The other characters have more redeeming qualities in the end. So the stepmom seemed more pure evil.
Q: Everybody thinks my mom is really cool, but wait till you live with her as a son, it's very difficult. That's sort of coming from the point of view of the audience--I think that I enjoy writing her as a super bitch. Why not? We have these stereotypes of Asian women being submissive and she isn't, she sort of tries to be in control of her life, but the tragedy of it all is that she isn't, but she still tries to insist on this control, so that's sort of how i see it. I think there's this movie, there needs to be some sort of antagonist, the movie starts off as the father being the antagonist, kicking out the son, but in the end, it turns out to be the stepmom. And it's more genre, less thriller, the type that you need to have an antagonist. And I don't think that anyone should have to come around.
S: If you watch Quentin's other films, even his short projects from school and everything, his mother is a recurring character.
APA: How do you think this film compares to your others? Is it more ambitious, is the style different?
Q: I don't know, I just think I've evolved...what do you think, Stanley?
S: It's definitely Quentin's most accomplished work. He's definitely grown with each film, each has topped the other one, they've grown in budget as well as depth and yeah, it's his best film to date.
APA: Did you guys meet at UCLA film school?
S: Yes. We were there about the same time, same classes, we crossed paths, and I worked at Shopping for Fangs.
Q: We were both a part of APAC. Asian Pacific American Coalition in film and television at UCLA, that's sort of how we met. We started the first Asian American film festival at UCLA. I don't know who's running APAC now...
S: It was a good organization...we hope it's still there.
APA: Where did you find your cast members? Did they audition for you, were they friends of yours, people you wanted to work with?
S: We had a really good casting director in Joan Hua and we basically did what usual productions do, got a lot of submissions and I think we were really lucky, finding Terry and Jun Hee, this was basically their first film, like their breakthrough roles before they go on to bigger things. We were able to get the attention of Raymond Ma and Julia Nixon, we'd seen them in smaller roles in other films, so were just happy that they were interested in the project. There wasn't a lot of money involved, everyone who came on board because they believed in Quentin and the script, so it was really a labor of love, not only for us, but for everyone involved.
APA: The whole concept of the Asian family structure is explored at great length in the film. Do you ever feel like some Asian traditions or values suppress the need for communicatrion or being able to freely display your emotions?
Q: I think subconsciously growing up Asian, the Asian culture--I don't know what growing up with Asian American parents is like--but I think there's definitely a level for me that my parents don't emotionally communicate with me and I have never really learned emotional communication, which makes going into relationships difficult, sometimes just challenging. I guess me personally, my life's goal is to achieve more emotional connection, or having to re-learn what my family's taught me growing up, so I think this film definitely reflects upon that, not being able to express...the dad definitely is unable to express his feelings completely, which is sort of the tragedy of it all. And Ethan is sort of like a borderline character, he lashes out, and he has a lot of flaws but at the same time, he has a good heart and a strong attachment to doing what's right and doing what's truthful to him, and that's sort of what makes him the central character. And Sarah's a character who's really used to manipulating men, and that's her way of communicating. So this movie is about people not communicating and some of it is probably specific to Chinese American family and others are more universal.
APA: I noticed that it's considered a Canadian entry. Is that because...
Q: I'm Canadian. Also, the money is financed by Hong Kong/Canadian citizen, mostly private equities, so for that I would have to qualify as Canadian. Even with our first feature Shopping for Fangs, it was shot here and the only Canadian connection was me. And I got a grant from Canada Council of the Arts and the Inspector Canada of Toronto. I just think growing up in Hong Kong, you learn to not look at national identites as fixed, but fluid. It's like we say I'm Chinese North American, Chinese Canadian, Chinese American, where does this Chineseness come from, even though we don't live in China? As far as having these really fixed national boundaries, well this person does this, this person does that.
APA: What other kinds of organizations have you received backing or support from?
S: All I can say is I'm jealous of Quentin being a Canadian citizen, they're actually really supportive of the arts, but a lot of this is whatever we're put into as well.
Q: I think personally I've always been supported by Asian American film festivals and gay lesbian film festivals, and those are sort of like where I started off when I was 21 or 22--my first shorts--so those have always been very supportive. And then Canada Council for the Arts gave me two production grants in the past for my first feature Shopping, then second feature Drift, then also a travel grant for Ethan Mao so that i could go present my movie in Hong Kong.
APA: What is your filmmaking approach or process?
Q: I don't think there's one process, the filmmaking process is always very creative, but I think that I realize what I really admire filmmakers to have is discipline. You really have to have a lot of discipline. Because filmmaking, you're blowing a lot of money in a very short time, so if you don't have the discipline, you don't have the planning that goes into making a film, you may not make it. You may not be able to make a good quality part of it. That's where discipline comes in, and that's where all the work is put in. I think the most important thing is you have to work really really hard.
S: It's something that I admire about Quentin is that he knows exactly what he wants, he's very decisive and disciplined on the set, and something that I appreciate obviously as a producer. We were always on schedule, we never really shot anything that wasn't in the film that you see now.
APA: How long did it take to shoot the film?
S: Three six-day weeks. Two weeks we shot at the house in location on film and the last week we scaled down the crew to a smaller number of people and ran around different parts of LA shooting on video.
Q: And there were two days of reshoots, one day of reshoot after that.
APA: While you were making the film, was there ever a point when you were hesitant about anything, second-guessed yourself on, or were you pretty determined?
Q: Pretty much so. When you're collaborating with a lot of people, especially with actors who you haven't worked with, when you get to a certain phase, you sort of understand what they can or can't do. So in some ways, you have to adjust a little bit of your vision to the people who you have and what they can or can't do. It's sort of like getting the best performance or quality of work in the film. But sometimes you have to go into a script thinking, oh, this person doesn't play this role this way, or this DV doesn't shoot this movie this way--sometimes they could, sometimes they're not capable, sometimes they're not in the same line of vision so you have to keep compromising and somehow get across your vision as a filmmaker and at the same time, use the best quality of the actors at work and within their abilities.
APA: So you definitely see it more as a collaborative process?
Q: Definitely. But at the same time, somebody has to call the shots. And you have to make a decision right then at the moment, what to do.
APA: What kinds of goals do you have for the film itself, either commerically or otherwise?
Q: I think minimally, we want it to be a good limited release as an independent film, but if it does a little more business, it'd be great. To be honest, it's a little hard to gauge. But we've been getting really positive feedback, we know that minimally that if we do well with each film, then we do a full crossover to more audiences.
APA: What's next after this. What's in store?
S: We've been working on a couple script projects, I'm also a writer-director myself, and I've got a horror film that I've been trying to work on. Actually, Quentin's a huge horror buff too, and he's trying to get off a project called Campus Ghost Stories.
Q: That's probably next, Campus Ghost Stories, which was supposed to be shot before Ethan Mao anyways, but hasn't gotten off the ground. Then there's a couple genre scripts, because i've been trying to move into smart, character-driven, sort of genre movies, horror movies, something that I always loved as a kid.
APA: Thank you for your time.
Both: Thank you.
Date Posted: 11/19/2004