In This Issue: AAPI Heritage Month, Chloé Zhao on Multitasking, Exploring Exposition, Top Fives: Memorable Asian-American Characters
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AAPI Heritage Month // Chloé Zhao on Multitasking // Exploring Exposition // Top Fives: Memorable AAPI Characters
Dear Writers,

In the States, we recognize May as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This got me thinking about the ancient traditions of visual storytelling throughout Asia—from Japanese painted handscrolls to elaborate illustrated manuscripts from India—and how these may have influenced the rich cinematic culture that thrives across the region today.

One of the most prolific and celebrated Asian-American writer-directors is Ang Lee, who was born in Taiwan to Chinese parents and has been based in the US since his early twenties. Lee told Taiwan’s Central News Agency that “no matter where he shoots a film, it is a Taiwanese film.”

But how could that possibly be? What is Taiwanese about a family drama pulled from classic English literature (Sense and Sensibility, 1995) or a love story between two American cowboys (Brokeback Mountain, 2005)? Lee’s career trajectory may be the quintessential representation of the diaspora experience: the constant negotiation of weaving your own cultural background into that of your adopted land.

With Lee’s example in mind, I invite you to take a look at your own screenplays. What can you draw from your background and experiences that would enrich the story you’re working on now, even if it's set somewhere entirely different? Or, what qualities of your cultural background are so universal that they transcend man-made boundaries?

Meanwhile, read on below for insights and writing tips from the storytellers of the Sundance network.

See you on the page,
Director of Content
P.S. To hear words of wisdom from Asian and Asian-American filmmakers on Co//ab, check out videos featuring Karyn Kusama, Nanfu Wang, Justin Chon, Nisha Ganatra and more.
Maggie Cheung in Center Stage
Throwing Muses
Writers on their sources of inspiration
Contributed by Eliza Lee, Co//ab Advisor (A Beautiful Lie, Angelica)
Happy Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month! Growing up, I was walking distance from a repertory theatre that programmed Asian cinema once a week, and so I was blessed to see myself represented on screen regularly. Bollywood, Shaw Brothers, animewe were the heroes of our stories. From time to time, the theatre owner slipped in something from the Hong Kong New Wave, and I was introduced to the works of Ann Hui, Mabel Cheung, Wong Kar-wai, Stanley Kwan, and so many more. I even excitedly went to Chinese school as a kid to learn Cantonese, so I didn't have to chase the subtitles.

One film from that movement that remains my inspiration is
Stanley Kwan's Centre Stage (1991), which is based on the very short life of China's silent film star, Ruan Lingyu. This is no traditional biopic. Kwan told this story through a seminal moment in Ruan's life, that was at once personal and political. Its structure is a blend of narrative and documentary, re-enactments and original footage of her films. And through these constructs, he gave Ruan a voice. Before I start writing any screenplay based on a life story, I inevitably think about Centre Stage, as it will forever be my touchstone.

Getting Unstuck
Answers to common writing questions from Co//ab experts
Q: How do you separate your role as writer if you’re also directing or producing your work?
A: For this question, we turned to Chloé Zhao, who is known for wearing multiple hats on her projects, such as the recent Oscar-winning film Nomadland, on which she is credited as Writer, Director, Editor, and one of the Producers. In her webinar on Finding Your Way as a Filmmaker, she shares that she doesn’t tend to separate these roles as "It's almost impossible in small films because you try and write something that you can pull off." What she means by this is that, if you know your budget constraints, you can write a movie that is more likely to get made sooner. According to Zhao, you have to ask yourself, "Do I want to wait four years for someone to give me money, or do I want to make this film in four months?"

One example of how to put this into practice is working with non-professional actors, as Zhao has done in multiple films. Instead of waiting for a budget that supports A-list talent, she suggests that you can "write your scene so this [non-professional actor] can be a version of themselves and give you the more authentic performance."

Brady Jandreau in The Rider
Non-professional actor Brady Jandreau in Zhao’s ‘The Rider’
Working this way doesn't mean that the story should suffer or that you shouldn't have a strong emotional arc for your characters. In fact, Zhao uses it to her advantage. "Limitations are my best friend," she asserts. "When I don't have limitations, I'm completely lost." She says at the beginning of her process, she writes down some of the limitations regarding cast, location, or crew and keeps them in mind while writing. No matter the parameters, "There is a good story in every situation. There's a human story in every situation. I think it all depends how long you want to wait for your masterpiece to come out. I’m impatient."

Read more:
Let Your Career Catch You Off Guard: Chloé Zhao on Navigating the Film Business

Showing Up
How do you get yourself in the space to write?
Contributed by Kim and Mai Spurlock - The Spurlock Sisters, (Down in Number 5, Livin' The Dream)
When we hit a roadblock in our writing, we try to find ways to make our minds receptive, quiet. Aimless walks help to tune out the daily noise so that we can tune in to our own voices. Since so much of our storytelling is intertwined with family lore, we commune with our Vietnamese and Appalachian forebears, grand storytellers in their own right. Sometimes we stand in front of the family altar (a Vietnamese tradition) and speak to them directly.
Photo of two women walking on a wooded trail
We describe the story we are trying to tell and then offer them a space to participate. Sometimes memories or images come quickly to mind. Sometimes they come a little later. I’ve had ideas arrive in a dreamt voicemail from my mother, who passed away 25 years ago. It’s like a kind of meditation. The key is to have patience and a quiet mind.
Top Fives
Writers describe their favorites from categories across the screenwriting world
Contributed by Brian Shin, Co//ab Advisor (The Good Doctor, Big Dick Asian)
Memorable Asian-American Characters
Kumail - The Big Sick
Kumail - The Big Sick
2017, Screenplay by Emily V. Gordon, Kumail Nanjiani

Played by Kumail Nanjiani. I love how passionate he is about Pakistan and cricket, despite it being painfully obvious no one else is.

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
Harold and Kumar - Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle
2004, Screenplay by Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg

Played by John Cho and Kal Penn. These characters represent the first time I saw myself on screenmore with Haroldbut I chose both of them because I got a little bit of both in me: Harold's yearning to drum up the courage to talk to that pretty girl in the elevator, Kumar's spirit of fun, adventure, and irresponsibility.
Devi Vishwakumar - Never Have I Ever
Devi Vishwakumar - Never Have I Ever
2020, Various artists

Played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Finally, an Asian character with an anger problem! I love how brave the writers were in making Devi such a flawed character that not everyone's going to like. I aspire to wear my heart on my sleeve the way she does (and to have John McEnroe narrate my life).
David Kim - Searching
David Kim - Searching
2018, Screenplay by Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian

Played by John Cho. Yup, another John Cho character! I could've made this list five different John Cho characters. Spending two hours with David Kim was an emotional journey for me for a simple reason: I've never seen an Asian-American father in a film who's devoted to being a father without martial arts or triads or Mortal Kombats involved.
Marcus Kim - Always Be My Maybe
Marcus Kim - Always Be My Maybe
2019, Screenplay by Ali Wong, Randall Park

Played by Randall Park. Another groundbreaking character for Asian-Americans on screen because hey, we can be slackers who just want to keep it real and make minimum wage and kick it with our girl and never leave our hometown. If you've seen the film, you know Marcus's arc is about challenging this mindset but there's something about the core of who he is that reminded me that it's okay to just be who I am.

Montage image of people's faces
Writing Promptly
Sparks to deepen your relationship with your script
Contributed by Ioana Uricaru, Co//ab Advisor (Tales from the Golden Age, Lemonade)
Exposition is tedious but sometimes we need to get it out of the way. If you have a scene where you feel that characters are simply talking to each other to deliver background information, consider changing the scene into a situation where providing information is expected: an interview, an interrogation, a first date, a breakup, a formal reunion, a bureaucratic questioning. Then, try to make your character reluctant to provide the information, and maybe they are even caught lying!

Things to think about:

  • Look for everyday situations that usually go unnoticed. The first time at a physician's office or enrolling a child in daycare or hiring a real estate agent are opportunities to reveal much about our characters.
  • When characters avoid answering or outright lie, it tells us just as much as characters who answer the questions truthfully.
  • You may discover that you don't need to give out quite as much concrete background information since we come to understand the character so well through their behavior in this scene.

For more prompts in a live setting, join our free Writers’ Cafe each Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

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