In anticipation of the June 20-26 NYC Theatrical Premiere of “A Picture of You”, CineVue interviewed AAIFF alum and Director J.P. Chan on his process of filmmaking. “A Picture of You” is a  film about Kyle (Andrew Pang ) and Jen (Jo Mei), estranged siblings, who travel from New York City to rural Pennsylvania to pack up the home of their recently deceased mother (Jodi Long). While there, they make a discovery that turns their world upside-down.  

    Join us for a special screening co-hosted by ACV this Saturday June 21!

    Join us for a special screening co-hosted by ACV this Saturday June 21!

    CineVue: The film is essentially about memory and how someone is remembered, how someone is rediscovered even if she passed away. Was it meant to address a personal yearning to have known more about those you have lost?

    J.P. Chan: It’s one of the main ideas I wanted to explore, definitely. All the sides of a person that you will never know, even with the people you’re close to. Especially as children relate to their parents. The point where you start to understand them as regular human beings who happened to pop you out instead of as vessels of a cosmic destiny that
    reached their epitome with your birth is pretty fascinating.


    CV: As a fictional story, it also has a totally surprising, quirky revelation. How did you create the story? Did you take inspiration from personal experiences and add the dramatic elements and wry humor? How did you find a cast with great chemistry? What are your tips for successful humor/comedy?

    JC: The movie is not autobiographical (thank goodness) but I tried to capture all the ups-and-downs I felt grieving for my Mother after she passed and the change in family dynamics that followed. The comedy in the story reflects an essential part of that experience because when you lose someone you love dearly, you’re not crying 24/7. Sometimes you’re crying and then suddenly laughing out loud thinking about the funny stuff you experienced together. I wanted the movie to be that kind of roller coaster. It would have been dishonest to the experience otherwise.

    In terms of knowing whether the comedy would work, it was easy in the writing and easy in the shooting, but hard during the 13-month editing process. About half-way through I couldn’t tell what was funny anymore because I had no perspective left. Even with a few private test screenings under our belt, I wasn’t really sure until our premiere at Bend Film Festival in October 2013 that the movie was as funny as we hoped. The first laugh in the film is around five minutes in and I was really sweating standing at the back of the theatre during those minutes, watching the first public audience to ever watch the film. Thankfully, that first joke got a big laugh and things kept rolling after that. 


    CV:  You have been publishing feedback from the audience. And the ones that have the most responses are still probably about the question of whether or not an Asian American should make a film that is explicitly “Asian.” That is both frustrating and funny to see that even today we have not moved beyond those stereotypes. I guess you wanted to play with it a little bit in the film with some reference there. But how did you feel when someone really did not “get it”?

    JC: The movie has been doing festivals for eight months now, so I’m kind of used to dealing with this issue when non-Asians encounter the film. The vast majority get that this is primarily a family story that happens to have Asian American characters. But some folks just can’t get beyond the color barrier, even when they dig the movie. At one of our screenings, a (non-Asian) woman asked afterwards if the film had been shot entirely in Japan. Now, there’s nothing whatsoever in my movie that suggests that it’s taking place anywhere except the United States during present day. I mean, they’re driving cars with New York license plates! But the fact that the main characters are ethnic is still so atypical that when you do see them, the default expectation is that the ethnicity must be a primary aspect of the story and of their characters. We still have a long way to go in this regard. 


    CV: The launch of FRESH OFF THE BOAT has just made a splash. Is it the more the better for Asian representation in mainstream media, or is it the way the story is told that matter more? Seems like there are a lot of hurdles here. One is visibility, and the other is the stereotype. Sometimes it feels like fighting stereotypes also follows a stereotypical pattern.

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    JC: Both, I think. You wouldn’t want all the Asians on screen to be in immigrant stories, because that’s not the only thing in our experience. But you wouldn’t want them to be all to be 100% assimilated Ivy League professionals also, because that’s not true either. Above all, you just want to see Asians widely and in something great, no matter what the character or the story. 


    CV: What are the most challenging and rewarding parts of making a feature film, compared to making shorts? And as for the choice of style, the film’s interior scenes are very much like a play, and the outdoor shots have a somewhat voyeuristic feel, low angles, or wide shots with lines/patterns (trees, or slopes, or window panes etc) within the frame. Was the visual style pre-decided in order to accommodate the conditions on the set?

    JC: The best part of doing a feature compared with shorts is that you get to stretch out and fill in parts of the story that wouldn’t fit in a short. This is also the worst part, because you can easily lose sight of being concise because you now have the luxury of a longer running time. Subsequently, the movie can get too fat if you’re not careful. A big part of our long editing process was making 100% sure that nothing overstayed its welcome. I’m particularly proud that we have a very tight 83 minute movie. The earlier 90+ minute versions of the film were not nearly as good.

    I knew while the writing the story that we would probably shoot in the house that you see, so I was able to write scenes specifically for different spaces in the house and in the surrounding area. It was definitely a conscious decision to juxtapose the sometimes claustrophobic interior scenes with exteriors that show off the beauty and life of the rural setting they were in. 


    CV: How long did it take for you to finish this film? How did you manage to make this feature film literally in your spare time? And how does it feel now to do more self-distribution of your own film. How did you manage your energy level to go through all these steps? What are your suggestions for independent filmmakers like you?

    JC: I started writing this script in summer of 2011 and we shot it in July 2012. We picture-locked and premiered at the Bend Film Festival in October 2013 and now we’re starting our self-distributed theatrical in June 2014. I’ll still have to actively work this movie for another six-to-nine months because in the fall we’ll have VOD and then student and community screenings starting up. 

    I have a full-time day job so all this was done on my nights, weekends, and vacation time. It’s been exhausting and stressful but I’m really proud of the film and we’ve been lucky to have strong audience responses so far. I’ve learned a ton of lessons that I can’t wait to apply to my next movie.

    As far as advice for others who are considering the same path, my main suggestion would be to expect that everything will take three to four times longer than you want and to be OK with that as long as you are protecting the movie and giving it everything it needs to be its best. Kind of like raising a kid maybe?

    For me, a lot of the anxiety was unrealstically thinking that it would take a lot less time than it actually did, so I always felt like I was behind schedule and doing it all wrong. But I eventually realized that I was comparing my process to others who had the benefit of working full-time on their films, with access to much more money and help. We had very little money so we couldn’t afford much help, so instead we needed that extra time.

    In the long run, if you’ve made something good nobody is going to care that it was finished six months or a year later than you wanted. Only you and your collaborators will really know (or care) what the process entailed. The world only sees the movie. Which is as it should be anyway.


    Main image: Poster for Special Screening of “A Picture of You” this Saturday June 21 at AMC Village 7. Feature image photo credit of “A Picture of You” Kickstarter.

    Get Tickets HERE.

    To honor the film’s theatrical release from June 20 to 26 at AMC Village 7 ACV will co-host this special screening with our friends at Asian American Film Lab and Project by Project. Groups of 25 PEOPLE OR MORE receive a DISCOUNT of $1 off. Send group names to info@asiancinevision.org. In celebration of the #AAIFF14 website launch happening THIS FRIDAY 6/20, we’ll RAFFLE OFF #AAIFF14 tickets at the screening. 

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