Christine Chen wants you to finish already.
Director of Funemployment, Ya-Albi, and The Earth Below opens up to me about her first filmmaking mistakes, what draws her to individual projects, and the problems plaguing the indie market within our city.
Before I was a filmmaker I worked in a real job - I was consulting - an IT consultant. Back in 2009. And I made a conscious decision that I wanted to do films and I wanted to do Business in film. So I was looking for film schools that have a great MBA program but have a great FILM school attached to it. NYU was one, and UT was another. I ended up at UT. That's kind of why I I'm in Austin. It was the draw of R.T.F. and the UT program that made me come here. The reason I've stayed here is because, business wise, it's been really good. There are a lot of startups here. I'm doing a lot of work with UT. So it's kind of locked me here, and the fact that the cost of living here is not bad is why I haven't made the move to LA or whatever.
So far it's been purely practical?
If I recall, you dropped everything to fund and film your first feature film: Funemployment. Do you wanna describe that process?
Sure. I knew I wanted to do a feature. I knew I could only do it very cheaply. This was gonna be my first big film project since undergrad. I was going to make a lot of mistakes, and I didn't wanna make those mistakes on other people's money, that I couldn't pay back - basically. I knew I needed something that was very specific. Usually you can market something that's niche a lot easier than something for the masses. Business school was something for startups so Funemployment utilized that as well. It was also about my journey - starting my own company - downsizing and living in my friend's living room. I knew I had $5000 that I had saved up. I didn't know any actors. Anybody really. Funemployment is where I met everyone. Cause there were so many roles in here that were cameos. And I wrote roles because I met so many actors that I love - couldn't cast anywhere - and so I added roles because I want to use them. There are 50 people in this film. Shot in various locations in Austin. Because I was utilizing that landscape to bring up production value, because I had zero production. Looking back at it I don't know we were able to finish this film.
Well you just finished post right?
It's been picture locked since the beginning of this year. It's been stuck in mixing; which I have no control over. But it will be done this year. But yeah it would be a, "hey are you free these weekends?" type thing, and then slowly working away at it. So a lot of the story - though written - was rewritten basically during shooting. Half the dialogue became improved. Because like I said - I'm not the best writer. So I learned that actors really made it their own. So that was insane. I lost so much weight during the process. We would shoot really late, then I would have to make sure all the batteries were charged. I was also catering so I would make food the night before. It was the craziest thing ever. I was so thankful that the lead actors - who have now moved to LA and are doing huge things were willing to take a chance on this project. I don't think they knew how crazy that was. That undertaking. Now they would be like "Hell no." but at that point they were also kind of starting in their career, so were like "sure." That's how I met the majority of the actors that I now approach for other projects.
Did you learn any kind of lessons from that experience?
I was like any other beginning filmmaker: Caught up on production value. When I had a dolly or something I wanted every single damn shot to be a dolly shot. I remember my DP being like "Are you wes anderson? Why do you want this to have a dolly shot?" And I'm glad he told me that because every subsequent film I actually understood why I had certain movements. I wouldn't have gratuitous movement just to have gratuitous movement. So I learned to ask "why" about every decision. With Funemployment I didn't storyboard shit. And I should have. That's part of why it took so long. So I learned the value of pre-planning. That film was where I learned to be a filmmaker. Before that I was doing sketches. So when you watch funemployment you realize a lot of the scenes almost seem like mini - sketchs. I didn't understand how to transition between scenes. And I had to fix that by doing reshoots. I also learned how to tell an encompassing long form story. I just learned about preplanning, about motivation, about scheduling, about everything. It's funny - if I was where I am now - and someone asked me to do a film like that I would be "no." [laughing]
Why do you think it succeeeded?
Because I was so. This was so new and I was so "gung-ho" about it that I made it work. I'm gonna be like Robert Rodriguez, and make this on my own money because he did and I can do it to. So I forced myself to make it work basically. And I'm glad. Because it made all my other films so much better after that. I learned so much on this. Subsequently - it made me not afraid of anything after this. Every mistake I possibly could have made was made on this film. I learned everything about what not to do - to the point where everything else was a piece of cake.
Was it scary?
Yeah it was scary. I remember when I was sitting on the floor in my best friends room and was like, "everybody has a job. A big bonus six figure job and I'm about to do something completely opposite." I was scared of the "what ifs". What if I'm homeless? What if this doesn't work? It was so opposite of what my experience after undergrad. I had money, my first job, I was spending money left and right - and this was like living in her dining room. My parents didn't understand it. They thought I was insane. I just wasn't sure if it was going to work. But I think because I was pushed into the ocean and forced how to swim, I learned faster, because it was sink or survive. Luckily it came out ok. But yeah it was scary.
Would you recommend this for someone else?
Oh yeah. I would tell them to do that. I would tell all filmmakers - I actually have said - save the money on film school put it into your first shitty feature film. Because you're going to learn everything on that.
Why do you make films?
I have a lot of stories that I want to tell. Things that I find fascinating about the world. Or things that I want to say something about. I've always found that I connect better with people through films than in person. I'm pretty awkward in real life. I have something to say for some reason, I'm able to through films. I think media is very powerful. New technology is creepy because of a sci-fi film. World problems are made - brought to awareness because of film. I dunno. I just really love it.
Are there specific things that draw you to projects?
A good story. A good message. People who are going to work on it. I will work on something if I see someone specific I've worked with before. Something different that I've never done. Right now I'm still learning so I'm not like I only want to do dramatic films or I only want to do - I'm writing a sci-fi right now. I've done the disney film with Two Roads. I've done a horror thriller with a A Bird's Nest. I've done a drama with Ya-Albi. It's just trying different things. Learning something new. With A Bird's Nest my goal was - for every movement that was in the film - asking myself why. Having a purpose for everything I did - camera movement wise, to tell the story. Two Roads was how can I make something that looks like it has a huge ass budget. Ya-Albi was bread from watching a lot of short films. I noticed the oscar short films didn't work because they had fancy camera moves or fancy crazy stories or something. They were super simple stories told very very well. That was my goal this year. Was how do I tell a very simple story...so well that people would love it. I feel like I accomplished that with Ya-Albi. I don't know what my next year goal will be yet.
And you have learned a lot. You've been a director, DP, all these different things. As a director, what is a happy film set? Or a functioning film set? A good one?
I've been on a union film set and it was not fun at all. The people make a huge difference. So if you bring in really good people who have no attitudes and will do anything to make it work. Having a good DP that can communicate and they can also bring stuff to the table. Having actors that are brave and willing to engage and ask the questions that make the project better. That's great. I really feel that the director - though they have a vision - is not a dictator. Shouldn't be a dictator. That's why having people who are open to having a conversation is important. That's what makes a happy set. Everybody is collaborating. Everybody is learning from each other. Hiring people that are better than you. It's really the people. It's funny. When I first started making films I thought it was the equipment. My first short film ever was awful because I thought it was the equipment. I hired people because of the equipment they had. And it was the worst set in the world because I hated the people I was working with. That can make or break a film. The people.
What is the best way for the cast and your crew to interact with the director?
For the cast, I want them to be interacting with me before they get on set. I want them to be emailing me questions. I love the actors who are messaging me on facebook about questions on the scene and wanting to talk about it. And sitting down for coffee to discuss this stuff. I think that's important. That's the actor's talent. They're able to pick apart this character and ask the right questions that make the director think and adds to the character itself. For crew I understand on a bigger set you can't ask the director everything because that would be very difficult. But I've luckily been working with fairly small sets. I think the most people I've had was fifteen people. I've always loved small sets because people can ask me directly. I would be interested in revisiting that question when I've worked with a much bigger crew. For now I love when people ask me questions, but I can see on bigger sets how stressful that would be.
So what do you feel like your job is then, in that sense, what is the director's job in your point-of-view?
I think it's to have a really clear vision when so many things are happening. When there are so many decisions that have to be made. If you have a really clear vision it's easy to answer those questions. If you don't then it's easy to be sidetracked or to be confused or to not know. I learned that on funemployment. I didn't have good vision. I could be swayed in multiple ways that may not necessarily be best for the film. Because you're going to get a million questions on set. If you're not sure what the character is going to be like then you're going to say, "Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, sure. Do that." when if you had a clear vision, you would know yes or no easily.
How do you find the balance between the collaboration and not swaying on decisions.
That one is very specific to the director obviously. For me - I feel like the actor knows the character the best. Give them a few guidelines. You don't have to stick to the script as long as get the gist of it, you can say it as naturally as possible, but that's just my style. I know a lot of directors who are not like that. They have to stick to the script. It may be because of my documentary background. I kind of know the look and framing. Usually I don't budge too much on that. Now if the DP is like, "well this is why I don't want to do this shot." OR "this is why I think this other shot is better." I'm very open to hearing that for sure. But I usually need to know why. Because visually I'm pretty set on what it should look like. But the acting portion I'm very open and flexible to.
Have you ever hired someone and you never felt like they were getting the character? Can you get them back or direct them?
Yeah. The person was not the character at all. The actor would be like, "this is not how I would react" but I had a very clear vision of what the actor should be like...
Was it a script thing?
It was a personality thing. Their personalities were so completely different that they way they wanted to act was so different from the way the character should act. It was polar opposites.
So how do you fix that for the future?
For the future I did a lot more rehearsal. We had zero rehearsals for [that project]. We were going cold for everything. On Ya-Albi We had a month of rehearsals to get it to that point to where the actors had comfortable - had time to ask questions and everything to figure everything out - that really helped a lot.
I do think that young filmmakers don't value rehearsal. They don't understand the importance of it. Speaking of which. As far as the Austin Film Scene and young filmmakers. Is there anything wrong with the film scene that you see? What are things that you feel like you could improve?
A lot of time it's a lot of organization. Not enough pre-production. A lot of things fall apart because it's not organized. People underestimate the value of food arriving on time. Food is such a huge motivator. Whatever problems they had kind of disappear. People underestimate that. Don't have pizza all the time. The logistics - knowing where the bathrooms are - parking - a lot of sets forget about that. If you can't provide them [monetary] compensation you better make sure the conditions - the basics - are there. Value people's time. I think being a good producer is understanding what's valueable to people that may not necessarily be monetary. Asking "What do you want to get out of this?" and trying your best to adhere to that. In Austin [the problem] is that people don't finish their stuff. I think there's a lot of value finishing your work. I've gotten so many people who wanna work with me because I actually finish my stuff and it actually goes somewhere. That's a huge thing. I didn't realize it was such a huge thing until I got a lot of people wanting, asking me personally, "can I work with you?", and I'm like - I haven't really been able to pay people, but the fact that my stuff has distribution. My stuff is getting into festivals. It's finished. That's huge. I think that's a huge problem in Austin is that a lot of people start these projects that never get done. When you finish stuff naturally people come to you. I have writers who are now sending me scripts saying please consider this because we like your work. Which I've been very thankful for.
What kind of advice are you constantly giving other filmmakers?
Do your homework. Play through each day multiple times trying to bullet proof it. Have backup plans. Know if something falls through - three other people you can call. Cause things will always break or not work out. Just have a backup. Don't be so tied to what you have to have because those will change. I think it you're unwilling to budge on stuff and not be flexible you're setting yourself up for failure. Unless you have the luxury to. So if you don't have the budget be flexible. If you have a budget then you have the luxury to NOT be flexible. Do your homework. Hire good people. Finish your project.
Is there anything that excites you about the future for yourself or for Austin in general?
Every new story that's in my head excites me. Austin - I'm really hoping they figure out a way to bring back tax incentives. I know a lot of people who are leaving because of that. I know a lot of big productions that have left because of that.
Anything else you wanna talk about?
My mentality has always been a NIKE just do it. Making it work. Being flexible. People are paralyzed by having to have everything perfect and I don't think that's a realistic expectation. You're not always going to have the equipment you need. Your project will always have things you can improve on, but you should just get it out there. It no longer becomes, is it going to win an academy award? It's more just like that it's finished and it's done as well as you can. And I think you underestimate that. They want it to be perfect or they want perfect environment to start something. You just have to do it with what you have. Don't worry about what you don't have.
Original Interview, September 26, 2016. To listen to the full audio interview, consider becoming a patron.