Last weekend in New York City, the number one grossing film on a per-screen basis was a movie with no marketing budget, no formal PR campaign, no major stars, directed by an unknown female director. That movie was Red Doors, by Georgia Lee.
Red Doors is a narrative about a contemporary, dysfunctional Chinese-American Family. For the Chinese, to paint one’s front doors red is said to bring good luck, fortune, and harmony to the household. The term “Red Doors” is therefore an ironic counterpoint to a family that is emotionally distant and struggles to communicate. The film reflects on how it is often most difficult to connect with those nearest and dearest to your heart.
Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Georgia Lee. We have a lot in common. Both of us were raised in Asian households (I’m half-Asian), both of us grew up with the expectation that we would not only go to college but excel in our chosen careers (careers our parents approved of, of course!), and both of us grew up eating around a dining room table that had a large lazy susan in the middle of it.
After graduating from Harvard with a degree in biochemistry, Lee worked for management consulting firm McKinsey & Compnay. She then dropped out of Harvard Business School to pursue her dream of film making.
When I watched Red Doors (my review will follow in a separate post) I could definitely draw parallels between my own family and the family onscreen, but it wasn’t because I was half-Asian. It’s because the family’s struggles and the issues of the three female leads are universal, and that’s the number one thing the movie gets right.
Red Doors is currently playing in New York and opens in San Francisco and Los Angeles on September 22. Note: Lee encourages people attend these screenings to show Hollywood that there is a demand for Asian-American films.
Stefania Pomponi Butler: So what exactly did you parents say when you told them you were leaving Harvard Business School to make movies? I love that you said your mom “stopped taking you to potlucks,” that is just so typical!
Georgia Lee: (laughs) I know. Sometimes when I tell people (this anecdote) and it’s a primarily asian audience, asians laugh.(Potlucks are) the social forum for Asian-Americans. It’s a bit of a show off session. People practice “faux humility” while bragging about their children. It’s a way to boast about your child’s accomplishments. I did something so egregious by quitting Harvard that in my mother’s mind I had fallen off the face of the earth. What would she tell people? The truth is I never liked going to those potlucks so I was glad when she stopped taking me.
To make Red Doors, Lee formed a production company, Blanc de Chine, with her Asian and half-Asian college friends. One of whom, Mia Riverton, stars in the movie.
SPB: You mentioned that when your partners’ parents met your parents
for the first time they chalked up your “unconventional career choices
to being too spoiled.” What do you think your parents meant by that?
GL: They didn’t mean we were spoiled by material things. They were more than happy to spend money on education and classes, but if I wanted an Esprit shirt...
They meant that they were too lenient, too “open-minded.” Even though my mother was conservative, in her mind she was incredibly progressive. To them spoiling meant “induging their (children’s) passions.” My parents were immigrants. My dad came over (to the US) with $200 in his pocket. He wanted to make sure his children were okay, not “bag ladies.” (My parents) followed the typical American dream. In their mind, they We have food and shelter and we want something more spiritual.
Lee was mentored by Martin Scorsese. She spent five months in Rome apprenticing with him while he shot Gangs of New York.
SPB: You really just sent your film to Scorsese and he contacted you? How did that unfold?
GL: When I was at NYU film school, I made a movie called The Big Dish, an experimental short inspired by one of Martin Scorsese’s films about Vietnam. I actually sent to his fan mail address in Beverly Hills. I had no idea that his office was really three blocks away from where I was working at McKinsey. He watched it, I think, because it was 3 minutes. I’m still amazed that he watched it at all. It was a confluence of luck and karma. I still can’t believe that it happened. (Being on-set with Scorsese) was my defacto film school. I watched all of his interactions with actors, lighting people, everybody.
SPB: With Red Doors, you are telling the story of a family that happens to be Chinese. Their family struggle is universal, but at the same time, what do you want people to know about life in a Chinese-American family?
GL: I’m not sure I set out to be prescriptive about life in a Chinese-American family. I’m trying to tell a story about my family and the fact that we are Chinese-American certainly colors and influences all of the characters and their belief systems, but I wanted it to be more organic. Almost that you aren't even aware of it. Folks from all backgrounds have said “this is my family.” It was meant to be universal.
SPB: Life in an Asian family can be very isolating at times. Did you feel that way growing up? How was love expressed in your family? (Note: Lee’s mother died during post-production on Red Doors.)
GL: Growing up, my mother was always the affectionate one. She was very outwardly loving. She wanted to try to be American and Chinese at the same time. In Asian culture you dont say, “I love you.” She would say “I love you” and hug us to help us assimilate...be “American.” She was very emotionally connected. My dad was more emotionally distant. Whenever I hug him he remains stiff with his arms at his sides. You just don’t do it (hugging). I’ve finally gotten used to saying “I love you” to my dad on the phone. He grunts. After watching the movie he did ask me and my sisters, “Is that really how you view me?” My sisters and I nodded. That has forced us to examine how we interact with our dad...He is trying to be more emotionally available.
SPB: How about disappointment? How was that expressed?
GL: If you want to destroy me, just have my parents say “Georgia, we’re so disappointed in you.” All kids want to please their parents. We don’t want them to stop taking us to potlucks! (laughs)
SPB: So how did you actually tell your parents, “Hey, I’m quitting Harvard. I’m going to make movies.”?
GL: First I needed to find the courage to disappoint my parents. My parents simply would not accept me turning down Harvard so I created a twelve page Powerpoint presentation using everything I learned at McKinsey—complete with waterfall charts and pie charts—to make my case. They sat patiently and listened quietly then said, “That’s nice, but you’re still going to Harvard.”
SPB: You’ve said in reference to your film that “there is a much better way to advance any sort of minority agenda than beating people over the head with it.” Do you feel put in the position where you have to stand up for all Asians or Asian women? Are you interested in advancing any minority agenda and if so what is it?
GL:I am very interested in forwarding the Asian-American and feminist agenda but I feel like the best way to do that is not to try and tell a specifically Asian-American story. The Joy Luck Club specifically focused on being Chinese and the immigrant experience. I’d love to see us move in the direction that African-Americans have moved in the media. There is a diveristy of character types that happen to feature African-Americans. We just need to portray stories about real and complex human beings. When we can relate to them, and the faces happen to be Asian, then we can overcome the stereotypes.
SPB: What is holding Asian-Americans back? Is it fear of not being taken to potlucks anymore?
(Note, to illustrate my question, I briefly mention my collaborative weblog, Kimchi Mamas and how we formed in order to give voice to our issues as Korean and married-to-Korean women raising our children. I tell Georgia that the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive with many Asian women in particular thanking us for telling our stories.)
GL: I don’t know why we are behind the curve. I think that traditionally it is “the Kimchi Mama effect.” We don’t want to disappoint our families and there is no one telling our stories. I had to fight really hard against my parents—we struggled for years and fought viciously about it—to be a film maker. And my parents are “liberals.” I think Asian-Americans have not been pushed to follow careers in entertainment, arts, or to be polititians. We are heading into a critical mass of people who want to speak out and share the Asian-American experience. I’ve met a lot of Asian-American journalists and TV personalities that are on that path. It’s starting. Janet Yang, a Joy Luck Club producer, said that she hoped it (JLC) would usher in a renaissance or revolution in the same way that African-Americans had with Spike Lee films. It didn’t happen then, but I think it’s about to happen now.
SPB: So you feel we are on the cusp?
GL: I’m hopeful. The demand is there.
SPB: You talk about wanting your film to help people “see their own family members as other people.” This is something I think many people struggle with—it’s so hard to see your parents, especially, as people with their own wants and desires. Can you comment on that a little bit?
GL: Its interesting because the film started as my story, the story of Samantha Wong (the eldest sister). Then friends gave me feedback onthe script and I realized that it was a film around the family story, perhaps even centering around the father. It wasn’t until I started working with the parents actors (Tzi Ma, Freda Foh Shen) about the backstory—they wanted to know: “Why does he feel this way?” “Why would she act like that?”—that became more aware of the parents’ perspective. My parents are more than just my mother and father they are people, too. Working through the process of making the film made it a much more balanced perspective. That helped me view my own parents as more than just my mom and dad.
SPB: Why was it important for you to tell this story? What message do you want to convey?
GL:For me that point in my life was 4-5 years ago when script was being written. I was addressing themes of empty nest feelings for parents, dislocation, a family that is both geographically and emotionally removed from each other. The first dinner scene is full of awkard chatter. Everyone is talking but no one is listening to each other. The father is most aware that things aren’t right. It’s an expression of what my family was going through at the time, and Samantha’s journey related to me. It was a nostalgia for a time when our family was all together. Even though things werent rosy-perfect, I was wanting to recapture a unique period in time.
SPB: What is the advantage of being a woman in Hollywood?
GL: Are there advantages? I think it’s a huge disadvantage.
SPB: I was trying to focus on the positive...
GL: It’s still a disadvantage. There are very few female directors in hollywood. Five percent is staggeringly low number. It’s much more male dominated than any other industry. Directors are traditionally men, being a woman had not been traditionally embraced. It is changing with women like Sofia Coppola, Nancy Myers, Penny Marshall...the problem is that you can name them all.
I suppose that having a women’s perspective is a positive thing.I finally realized that I have to stop apologizing for being a feminist. We naturally bring a different point of view, we see things differently and that is helpful. People are always looking for a new perspective and that is an advantage.
SPB: What is your next project?
GL: It’s called Forbidden City. It’s a surreal film noir set in modern-day New York City. It’s about a young woman who loses her mother and explores—in a Charlie Kaufman-esque way—the experience of love, loss, and grieving. I’m currently writing it.
SPB: Do you read any blogs?
GL: (laughs) I’m embarrased to say...no. Should I? What should I be reading?
SPB: Well, I could certainly fill up your inbox with suggestions! Thank you so much for talking with me, Georgia. Continued success!
[Cross-posted from Blogher.]