Interview with East Broadway director Fay Ann Lee
by Angela Lewis, March 2006
Film director Fay Ann Lee puts Chinese America in the spotlight with East Broadway, a film about female investment banker Grace who has a sticky time when she dabbles in high society circles, while hiding her working class Chinatown roots. After an elite party brings the debonair Andrew Barrington (Gale Harold) into her life, events get very tricky indeed. Here, Fay talks to Angela Lewis about Asians in US movies, Gale Haroldís adventures with a Chinese dialect and East Broadway being one of a select band of films granted submission to the Tribeca Festival.
So Fay, who are you?
Well, interestingly thatís the question that is asked of my character, Grace, in East Broadway. But Iím guessing youíre just asking for a little background - born in Hong Kong, raised partly in Hong Kong and partly in the U.S. New York City is definitely where I call home.
Are you quite posh? Is it true that you went to school with Donald Trump's daughter?
Posh??? (lol) No, I wish I were as posh as the Trumps but Iím not. Just a first time filmmaker struggling to finish my first film. But the Donald, Ivanka and I do have The Wharton School in common. I believe even Donaldís dad went there. I wish that connection would inspire the Donald to give me finishing funds for my filmÖand no, I donít know Ivanka otherwise she would be in the movie as one of the "ladies-who-lunch" that Grace so wishes she was.
Tell us something about your acting career in the years before East Broadway. You have been on Broadway, right?
Yes, I was on Broadway in Miss Saigon. It was actually my first job right out of school so I got very lucky. After that, I did a lot of regional theatre in different parts of the country as well as shows internationally. I also guest starred on prime time shows and had two recurring but marginal roles on All My Children and One Life To Live.
Is it true that every actor in New York at some point ends up working on Law and Order SVU? When did you appear on it and what was that like?
Well, Iíve never appeared on L&O SVU, but I have guest starred on the regular Law & Order (the one with Sam Waterston) as well as L&O: Criminal Intent. I guess many manyÖmany actors in New York have been on these L&O shows - Lots of on-air crime to cover. Both times I got to work with the stars of the show - played a lawyer in court opposite Sam Waterston and had a pretty great experience working with Vincent DíOnofrio on his show.
Is it still difficult for Asian actors to get roles on Broadway and in Hollywood? Are the roles still quite stereotyped? What about the situation for Asian directors? How have things changed do you think, in the last five years, especially in independent movies?
I think it really is still quite difficult for Asian actors. There just arenít enough roles written for us. Itís great to see Asian characters on a huge hit show like Lost but they really are few and far between. I think the casting people I know really do make a concerted effort, but they can only do so much if roles are not being written.
The good news is there appears to be more and more Asian writers/directors. Having jumped head first into the indie world of filmmaking, Iíve gotten to befriend some of them - like my pal, Michael Kang who had his film, The Motel, at Sundance, and my friend, Georgia Lee, who also had her feature, The Red Doors at The Tribeca Film Festival last year. So, it appears that there are generous financiers out there supporting burgeoning filmmakers like myself.
What difference does it make (if any) as a Chinese person writing a film that includes Chinese characters, as opposed to a non-Chinese who is directing Chinese characters? We are used to seeing films like Rush Hour and Memoirs of a Geisha, but how can a Chinese behind the camera and/or writing the script alter what is portrayed? How often have there been opportunities for Chinese females to direct films in a reasonably large budget in the US? You seem to be in a special, pretty unique situation.
Wow, you ask some tough and thoughtful questions. Let me see if I can be articulate about this. My initial answer to your first question would be that as a Chinese person, I know in my gut what a Chinese character would do in a scene vs. what a non-Asian director might think a Chinese character would do. For eg., there is a scene in my film where my editor (I should say my wonderful editor, Michelle Botticelli, because sheís been amazing) and I would have a completely different take on a scene. She wanted to see Grace be more loving to her father, but I was quite insistent that Grace would never be that openly affectionate because both father/daughter would be embarrassed by that gesture. Many things are unspoken in a Chinese family. Having said that, I do believe that a great director can help him/herself get to that place of authenticity. Look at Ang Lee and Brokeback Mountain. Heís an incredible director, but it takes a lot of work, research and experience to get there. I know itís difficult because I ended up having a much tougher time figuring out my non-Asian characters.
I am very lucky to have been able to write, produce and then direct my film. Itís certainly not a huge budget film at all. It is definitely a low budget indie romantic comedy, but nonetheless, Iím lucky it got from page to screen . The only Chinese female director I know that has helmed a big budget film is Joan Chen (Autumn in NY w/Richard Gere and Winona Ryder). But the good news is, there are definite up and coming female Asian directors like Alice Wu (who did an amazing job in Saving Face), and Georgia Lee (Red Doors) and hopefully, East Broadway will afford me more opportunities.
Moving on to the film, it seems that East Broadway has been a long time in gestation! Briefly tell us something about the background to its evolution. What is it about? Who is the other writer, Karen Rousso? And was it always a romantic comedy, or previously something harder-edged?
I finished a first draft of this script 7 years ago. So yes, it has been a long time coming. EB is about a woman from Chinatown who is not comfortable in her own skin and wants badly to be part of the elite Upper East Side socialite world. At a fancy party, she gets mistaken as a Hong Kong heiress and decides to play along. She meets and falls in love with one of the most eligible bachelors (Gale Harold) in NYC which complicates both his and her lives. Karen Rousso is a friend of mine who during a period of early re-writes stepped in and offered some great ideas and eventually co-wrote a few scenes with me. She was also the person who came up with the name "Social Grace" which also seemed like a great title at one point, but because Iíve done substantial rewriting which re-focused the story back to Graceís Chinatown family, I thought going back to its original title, "East Broadway" was ultimately more appropriate.
Where exactly is East Broadway, and what does this area represent in your mind?
East Broadway is one of the biggest streets in New York Chinatown. Canal Street is the famous tourist street that everyone has heard of but I view East Broadway as the street that represents the pulse of authentic local Chinatown.
Last summer we heard that there were some re-shoots of East Broadway, which was the first time we knew that BD Wong was not involved anymore. What happened?
Well, B.D.ís vision of the film was ultimately different from the vision of the producing team. As you know, this can happen in any creative process. There is no right or wrong in art. It was just a matter of artistic difference. Thatís really all it is.
And you ended up directing the film? What was the reason behind that?
Because I was the original writer of East Broadway who was also responsible for much of the rewrites, the producers asked me to direct the film as well. As an indie film, we had barely enough money to finish and realistically could not have been able to afford to hire anyone. Frankly, I think it was out of necessity that my producers asked me to direct.
How challenging was it being both the director and one of the main actors?
It was definitely challenging especially since I was constantly editing, writing and shooting. But I did two things that really helped me out as a director/actor. The most important thing I did was that I workshopped more than half the movie on digital camera first - meaning I actually shot many scenes on my cheap little mini-d.v. camera with my friends (some actual cast members, some stand-ins) before shooting the scenes on film. I had my editor cut the d.v. footage into the movie to make sure that I was going in the right direction. This is why it took me so long to complete this film. Some scenes I shot 3 or 4 times before I was satisfied. I did not want to spend my investors money and shoot on 35mm until I was certain I knew what I was doing. The other thing I did was when I actually did get to shoot on film, I hired my acting coach, Brad Calcaterra, to be on set with me for some of the re-shoots to keep a keen eye on my acting. It made me feel more secure.
Margaret Cho who plays Grace's pal is well known already, Ken Leung, the guy who is Grace's brother is in X-Men 3 and Gale Harold is in three new television shows this year. You must feel pretty fortunate with your cast.
Definitely. Very lucky indeed. I wrote the part of "Ming" for Ken Leung and I am very grateful that he accepted it. Ken is one of the actors who ended up workshopping all of our scenes on digital with me. So, yes, I feel incredibly grateful. I think he should be a huge star! And there is no doubt in my mind that Gale will be a household name very soon.
What were you looking for in a leading man - the person who is the Andrew Barrington figure? And does Gale deliver the goods?
I imagined Andrew as someone who was intelligent, worldly, slightly aloof and even uncomfortable with his privileged background, but deep down a really good person. I would say that Gale brought out all those qualities in the film, so yes, he definitely delivered the goods and more. Gale brings a certain intensity to the character that gives Andrew depth. Heís very interesting to watch because heís not predictable at all.
Can Gale really speak any Cantonese, as he tries in this film?
Gale was such a trooper when it came to speaking Cantonese. I think he really enjoyed his "Chinese" scenes. And he speaks it with the most perfect "guiloh" accent. Very charming and funny. The audience loves it.
This film portrays a mixed race relationship. How do Chinese people feel nowadays about mixed-race relationships on screen?
I have to say I wasnít sure if I was going to offend Asian people with Grace ending up with Andrew in the film. But having been to China earlier this year to Tsing Hua University where I screened a rough cut of the film to Communist Chinese students, I was relieved to know that they were not only accepting of a mixed race relationship, but welcomed it.
Is there much concern among American Chinese about loss of identity, their place in a multicultural society, etc?
I think there is always some concern about the loss of oneís ethnic identity. In the United States where White Americans still unquestionably dominate in almost every field, if one wanted to really fit in and rise in society, one must assimilate to the culture of the dominant. But whatís great about America is that if you work hard enough, and are ambitious enough, and happen also to be lucky, you get the feeling that anything can happen. That American dream really can come true. That, I do believe in.
Going back to Gale, did you know he had a big fan base due to QAF when he was cast?
I must admit that I didnít really know who Gale was during casting. Of course I knew of Queer As Folk but I didnít subscribe to Showtime at the time and so I had never seen the program. But Billy Hopkins had Gale on the list for Andrew as someone to pay attention to. When he first walked in the room in our first meeting, he had a full beard because he was working on a movie that required it, and I had no idea that "Gale Harold" had just walked in since he looked nothing like the headshot I had seen. But his energy was different than anyone I saw that day or that entire week. He completely stood out and I canít even explain why. He has "IT."
What was he like to work with? He seems incredibly quiet, private, sensitive and a little bit intellectual. And did I mention gorgeous?
Gale was great to work with and cares very much about his work. He is all those things you mentioned. I think our work relationship was not your typical director/actor relationship because I was also his co-star. Because of that, I involved him in lots of the re-write. He really represented the character for me and his input was invaluable. He is definitely a very private person but he is also very candid and honest which made my experience fun and challenging at the same time.
When can we see the trailer?
Very soon weíll have something on our website www.EastBroadwayTheMovie.com. It's currently under construction.
How hard is it to get a film into Tribeca? And what can people expect of the festival experience?
I am guessing it is pretty hard to get in. There were over 4,000 films submitted this year, so yes, I am incredibly lucky. I think Tribeca is a great festival because it's kind of low-key but highly respected. I was at my friendís screening last year and it was really fun and exciting to see his movie debut there, and to see him get on stage and talk about the film.
How crucial are all these festivals in the process of getting East Broadway picked up by a distributor? What is the likelihood that East Broadway will be shown on screens in different cities?
Tribeca is certainly the first door opener in terms of getting East Broadway in the consciousness of distributors. I have a feeling that getting a distributor will be more difficult than getting the film made and that was pretty damn hard, so I know what my full time job is for the next year. I think East Broadway will be a film that ultimately is a word-of-mouth film.
When can people buy tickets and will they have an opportunity to talk to you in person at the festival?
Please go to www.tribecafilmfestival.org for screening times and ticket information. I will definitely be at the screenings to talk to anyone who is interested.
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Thanks again to Angela for sharing her wonderful exchange with Fay. Feel free to link to this page (I encourage it), but please do not copy or reproduce any part of this interview elsewhere without permission. Thank you!