Tuesday, March 20, 2007

2007 SFIAAFF—Q&A With Director Justin Lin and the Cast & Crew of Finishing The Game

In broad farcical strokes, Finishing the Game skewers stereotypes in an effort to level the playing field. It's the kind of fare that's perfect for an opening night feature, demanding nothing less than enthusiastic anticipation.

As Taro Goto synopsizes for the festival program: "In 1973, Bruce Lee died suddenly at the age of 32, leaving behind footage intended for his dream project The Game of Death. Not one to miss an opportunity for profit, Hollywood executives cast stand-ins to double as Lee in a rewritten script which took advantage of 12 minutes of Lee's real footage, including his now immortal fight with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in his iconic yellow-and-black jumpsuit. …[D]irector Justin Lin returns to his roots with Finishing the Game, a rollicking comedy spoof about this egregiously exploitative search for Bruce Lee's stand-in. Documentarians capture the absurd, hilarious and sometimes disturbingly true-to-life (but decidedly fictional) audition process as a motley assortment of candidates vie for the role: a former-TV-star-turned door-to-door salesman, a Bruce Lee knockoff named Breeze Loo and some guys who don't even look Chinese, much less like Lee."

Finishing the Game had its world premiere at this year's Sundance Festival where Cinematical's Scott Weinberg found Lin's "confident and consistently amusing" mockumentary to be "a pretty funny little diversion."

"Completely fabricated and admirably on target," Weinberg writes, "Finishing the Game takes square aim at the ways in which Asian performers spent decades pigeonholed into 'delivery boy' roles, full-bore 'chop socky' caricatures—and pretty much nothing else, really."

Variety's Justin Chang didn't like the film much, describing it as "a rice-paper-thin spoof that tries to poke fun at the endangered Hollywood species that is the Asian male actor." Then again, one gets the sense that Chang doesn't care for Lin's work period, mentioning that Better Luck Tomorrow was Lin's "novel if over-appreciated look at Asian-American teenagers in Orange County suburbia."

"Lee himself is rarely shown," Chang mentions, "though his very absence haunts the picture; perhaps the best thing that can be said for Finishing the Game is that the martial-arts icon comes across as genuinely irreplaceable."

Lin was insistent about not repeating the mistake of using posthumous Bruce Lee footage. As he told MTV News, "[Lee's] presence is better felt by not addressing it directly, because . . . it's really a comment on being Asian-American, you know: The best you can do is being able to just stand in."

Justin Lowe's review at The Hollywood Reporter is decidedly more generous. He writes: "Lin, an experienced documentary-maker, expertly duplicates the narrative and stylistic characteristics of the form even as he gently ridicules them, from the earnest interviews and shaky handheld camerawork to the 'balanced' reporting technique. The re-creations of '70s sitcoms, cop shows and chopsocky martial arts movies are spot-on, down to the specific tropes of each genre, even though Lin insists the film isn't really a mockumentary." He singles out Candi Guterres' production design, Annie Yun's period-evocative costumes and Brian Tyler's funky score.

Kimberly Chun interviewed Lin for the San Francisco Bay Guardian and Ed Heede explored Lin's decision to apply a digital intermediate process on the road back to Sundance.

Nearly the entire cast and crew of Finishing the Game joined Justin Lin on stage after the screening to talk about the film with the audience, including MC Hammer, Sung Kang, Dustin Nguyen, Roger Fan, Leonardo Nam, McCaleb Burnett, Julie Asato, and Mousa Kraish, just to name a few.

Yul Kwon kicked off the discussion by asking Lin where the idea for Finishing the Game came from and why Lin decided to use the comedy genre? Lin responded, "I remember when I was about 12 years old I saw Bruce Lee for the first time. When I was growing up in the suburbs, I was actually exposed to all the Bruce Li movies first so when I saw the real Bruce Lee, it blew me away. [Bruce Lee] was really complex and empowered. I wanted to see all his movies so I went to see Enter the Dragon, I got all the movies, and then I had Game of Death and I was totally confused. I didn't know why [Bruce Lee] was there and then this other guy was walking around. It's been with me for all these years and it just felt like the right time to explore it. …I had had this big learning experience going into the studios and I felt that was inspiring me so I called up Josh [Diamond] and we drove to Davis and started writing [Finishing the Game]."

Your last film was the big budget movie The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, Yul Kwon continued, and now you've chosen to do a smaller, low budget indie movie. Why did you choose to follow up a big commercial hit with an indie? "I had been going on set for the last few years," Lin answered, "and to buy lunch I would spend more money than [the budget for] Finishing the Game or Better Luck Tomorrow. As a filmmaker, [I'm] trying to achieve a balance. I've been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to try different things. Whether I've succeeded or fallen on my ass, whatever, to have the opportunity was very important to me. At the end of the day, I feel it doesn't matter about the budget. It's about the story and what you're passionate about. Making independent films are very different than when you make studio movies. That's the balance for me that I'm trying to achieve. Fast and Furious was that one movie that put me in a place where I didn't have to worry about how I was going to pay rent and I really wanted to enjoy that so I called up all my friends and we went and made a movie."

Addressing the actors and the crew, Yul Kwon wondered what it was about Finishing the Game that compelled them to participate in making the movie? McCaleb Burnett, who played Tarrick Tyler (the guy who doesn't "even look Chinese, much less like Lee") spoke up first. "Justin asked and we came for the most part. I know a couple of us had the parts written for us in mind but the great thing about this is . . . this is why we do it. Working with someone like Justin in this kind of movie is why we went into this business. It couldn't be a better job. We shot this film in 18 days and it was one of the best jobs of my life. I think we can all say the same thing. …He says and we come running, no matter what the paycheck, and it was huge for me…."

Roger Fan ("Breeze Loo") commented next: "What's interesting about working for Justin and the rest of this crew is the tremendous amount of purpose and inspiration behind the work. A lot of us who have worked in Hollywood for quite a long time, a lot of times it's about survival and just doing stuff where you have to compromise your aspirations. For Justin to go from Annapolis to a $100,000,000 Fast and Furious movie and then all of a sudden he picks up the phone and says, 'I want to do something meaningful' is interesting to me. All of us are here because of one thing: to make a difference, and also passion. When you get into a project like Finishing the Game, you feel like you're really making a difference, that you're actually doing something significant. For me it's like moving forward. This is going to be a tremendous year. Hopefully, everyone here—being part of the Better Luck Tomorrow family—and now moving into Finishing the Game, hopefully we'll have a great release later on this year and really make a statement across the country. This is all Justin so thanks, man."

Mousa Kraish ("Raja Moore") added, "I just did it 'cause I got a job. It was a great opportunity. I got a chance to not play somebody who has a bomb strapped to him." The audience laughed and applauded knowingly. "It's good to have filmmakers," Kraish continued, "like whoever's in the audience here who are filmmakers, to write those type of roles beyond the [stereotypes]. Go further. That's what Justin did."

At this stage Yul Kwon opened it up to questions from the audience. The first was how Lin went about choosing his interracial cast? "For me it was very important," Lin replied, "Talent is not the issue because there are a lot of very talented people out there. It does get a little frustrating sometimes in the studio world when you're casting for roles and automatically they cast Asian actors just for Asian reasons. [Finishing the Game] is one where we opened it up and we just had a lot of fun. This was not as much of a casting process as my other movies because I feel that if you can get to the point in your life where you can work with your friends who are talented, that's the dream. I was very fortunate. Like Roger Fan, it's been five years since Better Luck Tomorrow and we've grown together and it's great to meet new members. I feel like it's this little family that keeps growing. Every day we're growing. For people to share this experience is very important."

Lin was asked where the inspiration for his characters came from? Lin fielded to the script writer Josh Diamond. Diamond said, "This was an opportunity for us to pull from all sorts of ideas, things we had seen, heard, felt, experienced, and to pull it together. This was a unique experience too. Justin had had this idea a very long time ago so many of the characters were born with the faces of many of the people on stage and that's an incredible opportunity because—as we're writing together—we're able to visualize Roger or Sung or any of these guys saying these things as they are doing it. Actually it really helped and made the process a lot more fun. A lot of these [ideas] had come to Justin as an inspiration from a very long time ago so for us to be able to then find the form and find the situations to put them in was a real gift. So often you have the basic scenario and then you have to flesh it out with the characters but in this case a lot of times the characters came first."

"It's basically this kind of therapy for working in Hollywood," Lin quipped.

Lin was asked how he achieved the delightful retro look to the film with its attention to details, hair styles, costumes? Lin shouted out to Candi Guterres and her production design. "It was a tough one," he added, "because, again, this was going back to doing independent film and also an Asian American independent film. You are not able to make these films on an equal playing field. To do a period piece is very hard. We're very fortunate to have the relationships with Universal. They kicked in. We were grabbing everything. They were giving us all the props and all the wardrobe for free, basically, from the relationship from the studio movies. We had very little money but Candi and Annie [Yun] and everybody was able to squeeze it out, like Akiko [Matsumoto] doing hair, I've never seen that many wigs in one room in my life!"

Justin was asked what t.v. shows he watched to correctly replicate the visual and aesthetic effects? "The first thing that we looked at," Lin outlined, "was actually Pumping Iron." That drew an appreciative laugh from his audience. "And we watched a lot of Police Woman [and] Mannix."

With regard to the comedy, one audience member wondered how much an influence Christopher Guest had on the script? "Obviously doing comedy is a collaborative effort more than any other genre," Lin responded. "As much as you can stay in the room and come up with ideas in writing, it takes the actors to come in and bring [the words] to life. But the thing is we didn't have the luxury of a lot of time because we didn't have the budget. Working with people who are talented and skilled at their craft was very important. Knowing when to hit those beats. It was important not to overcut, which means that a lot of the cutting was done inside the scenes. The actors delivered the beats. I had the pleasure of working on this project because the agenda for this project was just to work with very talented people. With other films there's sometimes other agendas involved and you're just trying to glue things together."

One young woman was curious about Josh Diamond's ability to capture an Asian American experience not being Asian American. "Josh is more Asian than you think," Lin countered. "He's like my fourth brother. Really." She asked if Josh was a banana but Diamond argued that wouldn't be accurate because that would mean he was white on the inside and yellow on the inside. He determined he would actually be an egg; yellow on the inside and white on the outside. As for how he achieved an Asian American sensibility, Diamond offered: "It happened organically. Many many years ago at the beginning of film school Justin and I met and began collaborating with each other. It happened by osmosis; it's a form of diffusion, right? It wasn't like an agenda. We've been working together and we do have a community that happens to be primarily Asian American, but I have to tell you I haven't experienced any reverse racism here and it doesn't really play a big role in terms of people saying, 'You're white. You don't get it.' It's something that happened naturally and we're together. Racism is racism and it's completely unacceptable. I think [Justin and I] relate to the big important issues and that's the thing about Justin and I; we view the world quite similarly. Injustice is injustice and we relate at a deep level. I don't think [my being white] has prevented us from being brothers."

At this point MC Hammer interjected, "Being a minority and understanding the experience of minorities in this country, we all can relate to oppression, segregation, [and] being culturally divided. The beauty of this film for me was that—as Justin and Josh dealt with stereotypes—they dealt with [them] in a way that would cause you to have an uncomfortable laugh. So you would laugh because it's funny but then—if you're one of the people who support racism—then you know the joke's really on you and that you need to learn to respect the history of the past brothers. I thought this was brilliantly done. [The film is] funny but at the same time there's some great messages in this film that I think at this time in this country we need to see. It's time to get rid of all stereotypes. We might laugh at certain things but we also understand that we've come a long way and we have a long way to go."

In light of movies like Crash and Babel, the same young woman queried after Lin's vision for Finishing the Game? "Growing up watching movies, especially in the suburbs," Lin answered, "as an Asian American I can relate to the characters who aren't Asian. The three-dimensional aspect of it is what makes [filmmaking] universal. We didn't make this film in mind for just one group of people. We do hope to be able to share this with everybody. The issue of racism is inherent. It's real. That's part of life. You can either sit there and complain about it or you also work it in."

One fellow wondered what the reasoning was behind not having any actual footage of Bruce Lee in the film—was it artistic or otherwise?—and he inquired after a previous project he'd heard about where CGI was to be used to insert Bruce Lee into a film? Lin confirmed that project was dead. On his part, he explained, "it was a conscious choice. [Bruce Lee's] presence is still around. To be able to make a movie [about him] and not ever see a frame of him but still feel his presence, that's how strong and how present he still is with us. I have this push and pull relationship with Bruce. As a kid, [Bruce Lee] was the one figure I looked up to. I'm proud. And then you walk down the street and people are calling you Bruce. It will always be a part of me. The exercise was to try to do this movie without seeing him and yet at the same time feeling his presence the whole way through."

The final question revolved around Justin Lin's future projects. "I have a few projects in the works. Some of them are in the studios but I also have a small independent film, a comedy about two brothers called Crickets, which I'm really excited about. I'm working with a very good writer Alfredo who's in the audience. The other thing is I want to focus on and enjoy the process right now and at the same time take care of this movie because—when we made this movie—I didn't want to go through the same experience. As a filmmaker, a lot of times you make the movie and you hope that someone will come and pick it up and then take it to the world, which is the way to go but at the same time I feel like we're in this position right now where we can pick it up ourselves. We're in the process of partnering up with the right people so that we can take out this movie the right way. A lot of times distribution/exhibition as a filmmaker you have no control over. That's something that I'm looking forward to and exploring more."

Cross-published at Twitch.