Better Luck Tomorrow
It's Three Dimensional
Interview with Justin Lin
interview by Cynthia Fuchs, 25 May 2003

Justin Lin sits at the head of a conference table. He's game to laugh, and obviously getting used to this interview business, telling the same stories he's told elsewhere, and talks like he's in a hurry. He's been in a hurry since his first feature, Better Luck Tomorrow, ignited a "controversy" at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The film concerns a group of Asian American high school students -- including Ben (Parry Shen), Virgil (Jason J. Tobin), Han (Sung Kang), and Daric (Steve Cho) -- who give up their "mode" behavior for more exciting and less predictable behavior: cheating, drugs, and gang violence.

A disgruntled screening attendee complained that the film offered "negative" images of Asian American kids, and Roger Ebert Himself stood up to defend the film. The stir caught the attention of several distributors, and the thirty-one-year-old Lin suddenly found himself the prize in a bidding war: "As soon as we got into Sundance, the phone was ringing off the hook, and it hasn't stopped ringing. And these are the same people that would not even return a call before." When he went with MTV, he also received cash enough to tweak his $250,000 movie, made, as he says, "by credit cards." He tightened up the editing added new scenes, and "toned down" the ending that, apparently, some viewers thought "too cynical."

But it's not all about accommodating expectations. Lin, a UCLA School of Film and Television grad, has learned a lot about the business in these few short months. And he feels mostly equipped to handle himself: he's turned down a $20 million film he found "offensive as an Asian American," in order to take up projects where he's working with Spike Lee and Christine Vachon, among others. And he remains committed to projects that will challenge assumptions and complicate judgments.

Cynthia Fuchs: It appears that Sundance changed your life.

Justin Lin: We had fun, but it was so overwhelming when I was there. It was all about trying to find a good home for the film, which was nerve-wracking. When the Ebert thing happened, it was actually kind of nice, because while I was there, I almost lost track of why we made it. And we made it because I wanted to deal with youth, and these issues, from a specific perspective. That was one of the Festival's genuine moments.

CF: And that moment raised the question of the "model minority."

JL: My thinking on that hasn't changed. We have to redefine a couple terms. First, what "positive" means: it doesn't mean you see only perfect people on screen, and that leads back into the model minority myth anyway. Being positive is to have characters with flaws, however big or small, fully developed. Cinema is behind the times, because when you see a person of color on screen, they're there just for that reason. If they're Native American, the movie needs some "spiritual" thing; if they're Asian American, it needs a tourist. That needs to change. For me, it's only negative if the characters are one-dimensional. But there are expectations: the guy who stood up at Sundance wasn't Asian American, but there's judgment coming from inside too. But that's okay. We knew we were trying to start discourse. This is not a feel-good

And the second term is "Asian American." When people hear that, "Asian American film," they think it'll be preachy or educational, or academic. We can redefine that, there are other portrayals that can be three-dimensional, whether they're kids in high school or doctors and lawyers. I didn't start here because I had an agenda; I started here because I was already working with the youth and I wanted to explore it.

CF: And "youth films" brings up another issue. It's an experience that most filmmakers forget by the time they have the wherewithal to make a film, and so they romanticize and follow formulas.

JL: I was concerned about that. And I caught myself by the second draft, in that my politics and even the romanticizing were overtaking me. I wanted to be truer to the characters, and not write a "movie youth" film, but one that was realistic. The wordings and gestures, I had to let it all out, let them breathe, before I could move on. 

CF: When you say you want to be "true to the characters," what does that mean?

JL: I wanted to really develop the characters and understand them. I would do passes through scenes, where I'd just work on one character at a time. Once I understood the background, the relationships with the parents, his anxieties, whatever, then I could write. That took a lot of time.

CF: I imagine, as you have so many characters in play.

JL: That became the fun part, to complicate the role of Stephanie [Karin Anna Cheung], who could have just been the Pretty Girl. I had just done a documentary on Korean adoptees from Minnesota, and I thought, "That's an interesting identity that I want to explore."

CF: BLT challenges some prevailing stereotypes, for instance, the asexual "Asian American male."

JL: Yeah, it is bothersome, and obvious, especially growing up as an Asian American male. Working with the youth, I see that it affects them and why they want to be gangsta, to overcome that stereotype by carrying a gun. This film is not a counter-comment on those stereotypes. It's three-dimensional, not opposite.

CF: Did you work with the actors to shape the characters?

JL: Yeah, I did. These are the pros and cons of not having money. The negative is that you're struggling; the positive is that people come on for the right reason. Some are working actors, but others, like Karin, this is her first role. I got to spend the time to learn their tendencies and rhythms, and it became a collaboration. I had five weeks to work with them, which I'm finding out now is a luxury! To me, rehearsal wasn't about learning your lines.

One of the things we worked on was creating their relationships with their parents, even though you never see them on screen. You could feel, at a certain point, it just clicks. This relationship between them and the characters is so powerful. And we earned each other's trust. I was very open with them and they weren't afraid to speak up. Certain scenes, I thought, just go for it, and they came up with some great material that I couldn't write. It was a journey of trust.

CF: Why did you decide not to show the parents?

JL: I want their presence to be felt, but wanted the focus on the kids. Even the framing would suggest the parents, but you wouldn't have to see them. Some of the kids' decisions are based on anticipating their parents' reactions. And on the narrative level, we wanted to play beyond what you'd expect. So you're wondering, when the credits are rolling, "What's gonna happen to these kids?" We wanted to give the audience credit, and spark questions.

CF: And how were you thinking about structure?

JL: Well, I'm a film-school geek, and the filmmakers who inspire me really use cinematic elements. And I wanted to make a film that would accommodate the style of "today's youth." In a way, I wanted to make an "MTV film," but I didn't want it to be empty in the way that that suggests. I didn't want it to be cool just because it's jump-cutting or we're changing speeds. I wanted to have reason behind those decisions. Even the lens choices, I put a lot of thought into that, to incorporate the style but be clear about meaning behind it. In a way, that's my guilty pleasure. Writing is the most painful thing. But for style, I get to be the geek and play around.

And I'm so lucky, because usually when you see low budget films, like Clerks, it's out of necessity that they use a wide-angle lens because they only have one depth of field and one shot. I was lucky. I met this guy [Patrice Lucien Cochet], who makes a lot of money doing commercials because he's a great focus-puller. The first day we were shooting, it was the hotel scene, and the depth of field is only like an inch and a half. And he was doing it by eye. And I was so scared, that, even though we didn't have any money, I said, "Let's just use another credit card and print this, so I can see what we did." We went to the lab, and he was hitting the eyeball the whole time. It liberated me, because I realized, I can use the lenses I want, the camera moves where I want.

CF: And you chose the vocabulary words for thematic as well as stylistic purposes?

JL: Definitely. I wanted to bookmark each segment. And I remembered, when I was in school, I was horrible at SATs. My math was fine, but studying the vocabulary drove me nuts. I had to do it all visually, to see the words.

CF: And the decathlon? What a stressful experience.

JL: (laughs) I hung out with different groups when I was growing up. And the honors kids were so bottled up. The jocks could let loose when they partied, but the smarter kids had to have an excuse to go out, a community activity. When they let go, they just go crazy. The decathlon gave them a perfect excuse.

CF: Speaking of letting loose, there's a striking sequence toward the end that cuts between some brutal violence and what seem Ben's fantasies of Stephanie, so it's not so much a standard mix of sex and violence, but more a collision of different sorts of romance.

JL: Ben has grown up, as many of us do, with some images that we strive for. Looking back, I don't know why I was driven by certain images. And here, the film's overriding theme is that, if you're not careful and don't let your identity develop as itself, and adopt some identity, it can overtake you. Because you have no understanding of why you're where you are. That's what troubles Ben: he has goals, but he doesn't know why.

CF: Stephanie asks, "You know how you make decisions, but you don't know why?" But she has a handle on the "whys" that Ben doesn't.

JL: Yeah, and the basketball is about that too, for Ben. It kind of played off when I was in high school: my brother and I were the only Asian-American kids playing. And I was the hustler kid. I dove for the ball, threw my body, did whatever it took. And I remember someone was talking to my assistant coach, and said, "Those Lin brothers, they really hustle." And he said, "Oh yeah, that's because they're Chinese." Like it was in my genes. Ben's like that: even when he's doing the best he can, he's still getting boxed in. I wanted to look at the affirmative action thing in high school, which is more a microcosm than the world.

CF: But the system is easy to manipulate.

JL: Exactly. When I was in high school, people were scamming so much, it was so easy. I was positive the teachers knew about it. It's interesting that the structure doesn't really change, even though everyone knows that it's not working.

CF: And then there's a moral judgment cast on kids who cheat, even though the system is designed so they can and sometimes they feel they have to. And that leads to this: how were you thinking about the class distinctions among the kids?

JL: We wanted to play with cliques and class, even within the power dynamics of the group. Han is the working-class kid, and Steve is definitely way above that. And while race is the most obvious thing to talk about, but class, so much of the conflict comes from class. And no one talks about it, because we're so preoccupied with race.

CF: I was struck by the way that his sense of privilege grants Steve a sense of possession, even over Stephanie. That one shot when they're at the party, and he has his arm over her in a proprietary way...

JL: That was the scariest shot to do: it was a four-minute shot and I didn't cover it. It had to all happen there, and was all contingent on their performances.

CF: You're fond of editing.

JL: I'm used to going from conception to the final cut: in film school, you do everything. It's a bad habit to cut in your head as you're shooting, but we had to do some shortcuts like that in this film. I had to establish a style early on. Hollywood films are typically shot with so much coverage, because it's the safest thing for the studios: the editors can take over and remake the film.

Making films is such a schizophrenic process: I'm in my room, writing, then I'm working with actors, where you try to be as organic as possible, then when it's all over, you're in this small room again, playing with these pictures. The great thing is that I did have certain ideas going in, and by the time I got to editing, these ideas had matured.

CF: Are you imagining that with the larger projects, you won't have this same sort of control?

JL: I'm lucky because I found a good agent [CAA] and lawyer [John Sloss], but I'd be lying if I said I knew exactly what I was doing, but I'm learning. I did find a few projects that I like. One is an adaptation of this book [Brad Meltzer's novel, The Tenth Justice, about a conspiracy involving the Supreme Court], which I'm really happy with. The whole process is brand new to me: you're basically an employee.

The other project, with [Spike Lee's] 40 Acres and HBO, gives me a little more freedom. And then, I'm working with Christine Vachon on a totally independent film. Every week, it seems like one of them will take the lead. I'm glad to be working on that level where you can actually pay people. But I know with that comes new agendas and new headaches, and people doing it for different reasons now.

CF: And how did you come to know that you wanted to make films?

JL: I actually didn't know until late. I grew up in Orange County, and all they played there was Commando and Commando II, so I wasn't really that interested in it. I was convinced I was going to play in the NBA. I was pretty good, but obviously I stopped growing. And then I saw Coppola's Tucker [1988], and it blew me away. [Vittorio] Storaro shot it, and it had enough style that a kid could watch it and see that he was telling the story just a little differently, like when he moved the camera through the walls. It intrigued me. So, when I went to college, blindly, I applied to film school, which starts junior year.

And then, it was great. In our second year, when we got to make a thesis film, I became an addict. It was like basketball, but to the next level. You're like the point guard, dealing with all these egos. You have to make sure everyone is running the play and everything's in line so you can achieve the vision. That's what excites me. I barely know anything, and I just want to get better. But it's so expensive: even the lowest budget is more money than I've ever seen. I want to respect the process. If I can, that's what drives me.

In a way, my old Orange County sensibility is still part of me. I saw Jackass for the first time a couple of weeks ago in a hotel. I thought it was going to be just lame, but I actually enjoyed it, because it wasn't trying to be what it wasn't. When they were laughing offscreen, they were enjoying themselves. There's so much truth to that. I'd like to experiment, to try different genre films.

CF: On that tip, what kind of experiment is it for BLT to feature Asian American characters?

JL: Well, there are a few ways to think about that. One, I remember when I was a kid, in the '80s, and Denzel was just starting to come up, and "studios" were nervous because they thought audiences wouldn't relate to an African-American lead. And now, every other weekend, you see African-American films opening. Two, if it's "universal," it doesn't mean it's not Asian American. This film has to be Asian-American, upper-middle-class, and honor-roll, teen males. But there are certain concerns that everyone can relate to, like I can relate to Goodfellas. If it's marketed as "universal," people are seeing the characters as human beings. I didn't want the characters to have to explain why they exist. I don't feel like I have to do that.

CF: There's also a repeated pressure for the "breakthrough" film. Wasn't Joy Luck Club the "breakthrough" a few years ago?

JL: It was very successful, and now they make a Joy Luck Club every couple of years. Again, it goes back to why do I want to make this film? Not to bust it open, but because these are the issues and perspectives that I want to explore.

CF: Do you feel you can take advantage of a range of venues to get your work seen?

JL: It's still a business, no matter the festivals or the cable outlets. You have to make a profit to be able to make your next film. That's the tricky thing. There have been low budget Asian films made in recent years, ranging from like $10,000 to $1.7 million. None of these films have made money; that's bad because the people who invested in those films won't invest in another Asian American movie. The reality is that the studios own 99% of the screens. It is good to support films at festivals, but you have to support them at the box office. I know there are some Asian-American films that they tried to four-wall, but it's not a realistic model for making a profit.

That's the struggle for anyone who's trying to make movies outside the studios: you have to go through the studios, in the end. It's daunting. The structure is set up for you to fail, as an independent film. That's the hypocrisy of the system: less money is put into marketing an independent film, but they expect you to do so much more, because you're on fewer screens. As a cinema, there hasn't even been an Asian American film made for over $2 million. And low budgets are usually considered $5 million! This film doesn't have to make that much money because it was made for so little. But I'm confident that more projects will be greenlit now.

CF: So, you're representing in the end, no matter what you do.

JL: That's true. That's why ethnic politics and ethnic cinema cause clutter for filmmakers. As a community, we have to grow, and not be afraid what people think. We need enough -- in numbers and variety -- so that we can have a cinema.

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