One of the perks of working in film is that most of the people I end up knowing are also filmmakers. And while it might seem obvious — most lawyers know tons of other lawyers, for instance — it’s always a kind of surprise and delight for me to know people who make movies. I’ve decided to start a not-so regular feature here of interviewing some of the filmmakers (directors, dps, producers, technicians, writers, etc.) that I come across — as much for my own edification as anything else.
Michael Kang is the writer and director of The Motel. The film, a Sundance selction and winner of numerous awards including the Humanitas prize, premiered in New York recently and is slated to make its LA premiere July 28th. It’s also starting up a run at the ImaginAsian in New York tomorrow. The beautifully realized film stars Jeffrey Chyau as 12 year-old Ernest, the heir of a seedy motel somewhere in Jersey. The good reviews keep rolling in, so visit the film’s official website for any of the nuts and bolts.
The interview was conducted on a bright Summer afternoon and via one week of emails, but, really, I’ve been trying to get inside Mike’s head for some time now. Stay awhile and meet the director, I’ll be doing my best Elvis Mitchell impersonation, and trying not to bung things up too badly.
RR: Your first feature film, The Motel, is out in theaters. Tell us about how you started making films?
MK: I went to NYU for dramatic writing. That’s the only program that had playwriting and screenwriting. I was writing and I was doing a lot of performance art and new theater and stuff, and I decided that if I wanted to direct I would just have to start directing. I was always afraid of production and I kept alternating through school. I was like should I go to film school? Or should I stay in the writing program? And actually I’m glad that I stayed in the writing program because it grounded me in making sure that my scripts were good. I think there are two things that get overlooked in film school which is the writing part of it, and also working with actors.
RR: So did you perform in theater?
MK: Yeah, I used to be in a performance group. My first short film, A Waiter Tomorrow, was one of the performance pieces that I adapted for the screen. It was a John Woo take off — two sushi waiters that have a gun battle with the customers doing this whole John Woo kind of ballet. I tried to make the film as technically difficult as possible so that I could learn everything on that one shoot. I had a special effects team, special effects make up, fight choreographers, just about everything that I thought, “ok, these are the technical elements you need to know about filmmaking.”
RR: Did you immediately do another short after that?
MK: I took what little money I had left and invested it in an editing system and got a camera and I started making digital shorts. This was right before the web imploded and there were still people hiring people to do content and so I had a couple of different websites hiring me to do documentary shorts.
RR: On the other hand, you wrote the screenplay for The Motel, so where did that come in all of this?
MK: After I did A Waiter Tomorrow, another guy in the performance group had written a short story about his life growing up in a dirty motel and it was really just inspired by that premise. I was thinking, “well how can I write something that’s small enough that takes place mainly in one location but also is rich enough that you can really expound on a lot of things: sexual issues, class issues, and race?” A motel just seemed like the perfect setting so I asked him if I could use that premise, and he said yes. Years later his short story would become a novel that’s called Waylaid, and that’s why on the movie it says that it’s based on this book. Really at the core, they’re both based on the first two chapters of his book. But then I kind of ran with it and made it my own, and all of the characters that exist in The Motel don’t exist in Waylaid. And so at the same time I was doing all of these shorts and stuff, I was also working on this script. It took me about three years to get to a first draft. And then I didn’t know exactly what to do with it from there. I had read the She’s Gotta Have It book, and I was thinking [The Motel] has to be at least super 16mm so it feels like it has that film look – people just react differently to it. Then I put the script down for nine months, I didn’t even touch it. There was this screenplay contest at the Asian American film fest in New York, and I sent it in, kind of on a lark, and it ended up winning. I felt like, oh maybe I’m being a little hard on this script.
RR: How did the Sundance thing happen?
A friend of mine who had done the Sundance Labs asked to read the script. She handed it off to Sundance, and they accepted it. Then I realized how Independent films actually get made, and a big thing is just having people vouch for you. It’s like the mob, you have to be like Donny Brasco, “it’s ok, he’s a one of us.” [The labs are] where I met Miguel Arteta who became my producer. He was my adviser there and took me under his wing and said basically, “He’s a goodfella, he’s one of us.” And he was able to raise the financing and put it all together.
It was also at the labs that I realized, because I think I had been doing so much guerrilla filmmaking and so much one man band shit, that I was really spinning my wheels and going crazy. I was pumping out stuff, kind of factory-like, but there was no joy in it anymore. The labs helped me focus on what was really important in filmmaking.
RR: Did you produce another draft through the labs?
MK: I had tried many different endings and they never worked and after two weeks in the screenwriters lab it totally clicked – the ending. They really pushed me to ask, “if you’re going to make a feature film, what are you trying to say with this thing, what is the story you’re trying to tell?” I think I was trying to force happy endings on it, or force abstract endings on it that didn’t resolve anything. So it was them saying, “What is this story? What are you really trying to say?”
RR: How much of the film did you cut out during editing?
MK: There was one scene that was cut out that was kind of heartbreaking to me, which will end up on the dvd, but it made things too black and white. It was in there for the longest time, and when it was gone it was like, yeah it makes sense that way. It was just overwritten. You can have a string of really great scenes, and then it’s just a terrible film, which I think it was at one point during the cut. It’s a totally different approach to editing [from writing]. You can’t just focus on “that line is great and it’s really funny” because maybe it effects the rest of the story, the mood, or the pace. It took a long time to figure that out.
RR: The Motel was shot three Summers ago. As a director, are there things that you do in between projects to keep yourself sharp? Or is it a riding a bike sort of scenario?
MK: I think that I am lucky to have a background in theater. When I can, I hone my skills there and keep up my craft. It hasn’t been so much recently because the business of film tends to take up so much time. It’s been a while since I’ve really delved into a script with an actor, so with this new film, we’ll see if it is like riding a bike. Or if I should prepare for a mouthful of pavement.
RR: You mentioned reading Spike Lee’s film book for She’s Gotta Have It. Are there other film books that have influenced your approach?
MK: There are books that have nothing to do with film that I think really helped me out in terms of inspiration and approach: Augusto Boal’s “Theatre of the Oppressed,” Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War” and Julia Cameron’s “The Artist’s Way.” I think one of the most influential in terms of my approach to content, though, was a former professor of mine Donald Bogle’s book “Toms, Coons, Mullatoes, Mammies & Bucks.” Before I read that, I had not really thought about the semiotics of film and the power of subverting stereotypes.
RR: One would hope that as time passes minority artists won’t have to bear the cross of being the conscience of race relations, and yet it continues to make for entertaining and engaging media (Dave Chapelle, anyone?). How important do you feel identity politics is to your work?
MK: I think it is and will always be something that interests me. Growing up in America makes it impossible not to have race be a part of the landscape of any work. I think even with mainstream filmmakers, it is part of the film language even by omission. I embrace that aspect of my writing. There were times that I had to cut out lines or re-write scenes when I found that I was being too didactic about the race politics and not serving the story. My goal was to have it be seamless in its infusion into the story. That is what I learned from Donald Bogle; in mainstream film, often ignorant racist ideas are infused into the semiotics of films and often the filmmakers and even the audience don’t realize it. With The Motel, I was trying to do the same, but with a positive spin since I was very aware of all the race identity politics. I think that will probably always exist in my work.
RR: Because film is so tied up in people and technology and scheduling, is there a point where the artist naturally kicks in and re-imagines the film as the new parts are put in place?
MK: From making The Motel and having observed many of my friends make their own feature films, I realized that no two films have ever been made the same way. The most important thing a director can do is maintain flexibility. The director’s job is to maintain the intent while incorporating each new element whether it be budget, schedules, actor’s methods. The director needs to try to exploit all of the positive aspects of each to get the essence of the film they are trying to make. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting it to be exactly as it was written, rather than look at the bigger picture. I am amazed that films get made at all with how many places things can go wrong. It’s complete chaos theory in action.
RR: Are you at a point now where you feel that you know something about capturing images (“I’ll teach you a thing or two about pointing a camera, Buster”), or how much learning is still happening?
MK: I think that after making The Motel, I had an awakening like Neo in the Matrix. All of sudden I saw all the numbers and codes that make up the world of filmmaking, but I don’t know if that is something you can teach. It is like a rite of manhood. You just have to go through it to understand it. You can prepare all you want, but there is that moment when you have to go in the woods alone, eat peyote and find a spirit animal and no book or teacher is going to be able to prepare you for that.
RR: I’m all for more aphorisms on film. Sun Tzu style, in ten words or less, is there one theory or stratagem you stick to above all others?
MK: Try to be nice to everyone and always say thank you.
RR: Lastly, are there any juicy bits you can tell us about your upcoming project?
MK: It’s a Korean gangster film set in Flushing Queens. There will be kimchee. I guess I do have one superstition about film, I don’t actually believe it is going to happen until you’ve finished shooting (and even then I am not so sure). So I try to not talk to much about what I think the film will be until it’s done. Thanks for the interview. This was fun.
The Motel will be playing at ImaginAsian in New York this weekend.
The film is opening in LA and Pasadena on July 28 and will be hitting other cities soon.
For more information about The Motel, or to find out if it’s playing in your city visit the film’s official website.