Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Our Way Home - Alle Hsu Interview

Photo Credit: Nathan Lau Photography

Alexandra Hsu is a director-producer, born and raised in Orange County, CA. She fell in love with film in high school, and attended the USC Summer Film Program to test her interest. Film was a perfect fit for Alexandra - a combination of her parents’ careers - father was an engineer-entrepreneur, mother was a artist-fashion designer.

Alexandra received her BA from Scripps College, double majoring in Media Studies and Asian Studies. Her undergraduate thesis was a documentary film, "Women: Cultural Revolution to Capitalist Revolution” which received the Media Studies Award and the Pomona College Museum "China Insights" Exhibit Grant. Alexandra graduated from NYU Tisch School of the Arts with her MFA in Filmmaking.

Alexandra has directed short films in Asia, Europe, and USA. Her short film, “Sophie,” shot in Hong Kong, screened at twenty film festivals worldwide, including Oscar-Qualifying Festivals such as Austin, Foyle, LA Asian Pacific, and HollyShorts. Alexandra is in post-production on two of her short films - “POP!” and “Rencontres Paysannes.” Her most recent short film, “Our Way Home” had its World Premiere at HollyShorts. Alexandra is currently developing a feature film based on a 1960s family story focused during the New York World’s Fair.


Was there a particular event or time that you recognized that directing was not just a hobby, but that it would be your life and your living?
It was the movie Crash that inspired me to go into film, when I was in high school. I was my sophomore class representative, at the time. I planned and eventually produced my first project where I lead a team of fellow students who were artists, filmmakers, and to create a film for the school. The high school was only 5 years old, so prospective students didn’t know what it was like there. The film was used to share with the incoming freshmen classes. To test my interest, I enrolled at the USC Summer Film Program over one summer in high school. It was an incredible experience. I shot my first narrative short film on 16mm film.

Film was the perfect fit for me – a combination of my parents’ careers – father was an engineer and entrepreneur, mother is an artist and fashion designer. My parents have always loved art, theater, architecture, and photography. Most recently, I learned of my father’s love and fascination with film. When I was a child, my mother could already tell that I was going to be a director. Because I grew up going to plays, operas, and musicals at the Laguna Beach Playhouse and the OC Performing Arts Center, I frequently created my own one-woman shows in our family’s living room – and of course, created the tickets and programs for my shows.

What do you hope for people to be thinking when they watch OUR WAY HOME?
I hope that audience members who watch Our Way Home will recognize and acknowledge that representation matters. With the success of movies Crazy Rich Asians and Searching this year, it’s important that more Asian and Asian American focused stories get told. I feel that many minorities can relate to the story that’s told in Our Way Home. Asian and Asian American stories haven’t been told, especially stories from pre-1980s. As mentioned in various articles, it’s remarkable that Joy Luck Club was the last studio-made movie starring an all Asian cast before Crazy Rich Asians.

What was the most magical thing that happened during the production?
The most magical part about our production of Our Way Home was how the whole film came together in the very end. For most of our pre-production, we were nervous that the film would have to change quite drastically from the original script. It was a challenge finding the vintage cars in Long Island, and it was expensive to ship the cars from NYC. My entire team – the cast, crew, and my family were all incredible and extremely supportive. One of our producers knew how much the location of the school meant to me, and knew that the school which we shot at was the perfect location for us. She ended up putting in some of her own money, to ensure that we shot there.

What was the most difficult scene in the movie to shoot?
The most difficult scenes to shoot were the driving scenes. I know that Guillermo Del Toro had issues shooting with the vintage cars in his most recent film, Shape of Water. The first scene they filmed was a scene with Michael Shannon, and the car ended up rolling forward into a lightpost. We had similar issues. The cars are old – around 70 years old. The battery in the red car in our film would often die, and we’d have to stop shooting at least once every shot. I created problems with our filming schedule. One benefit from this was that it helped our whole team be more precise in both performances and behind-the-camera. This made the experience feel more like shooting on film.

Our Way Home is a story about racism in America in the 1960s towards a Chinese American brother and sister. On our last day of shooting, we encountered a moment of racism, as a team. It truly felt like art imitating life, life imitating art. We were shooting the daytime driving scene, right after the brother, JAMES picks up his sister, BARBARA from school for the Thanksgiving holiday. And we were chasing light. Our actor Anthony Ma who plays JAMES also had to catch a flight back to Los Angeles later that night. A family literally held us hostage for about a half hour, until our producer, a Caucasian woman saved our team.

What were your inspirations for the character development?
The characters of Our Way Home were inspired by an old family photograph taken in the same year that the film is set in. The photograph depicts my father sitting on the hood of a blue 1960s Ford Falcon, his sister standing behind the car, and a young family friend of the family leaning against the car in the foreground. It was never my intent to make a film based on this photograph. After showing the photograph to several Asian friends of mine, I realized that I had to make a film based on this photograph. People’s reactions were visceral – people would follow-up and ask me questions like – “who are these people?” “what are these people doing?” “where was this taken?” “There were Asians in America in the 1960s?” I realized that there had never been strong Asian characters represented in film and entertainment from this time period. The film’s story is fictional, but was based on my family’s recollections of racism during the time period.

Are there actors that you’re excited to engage/work with?
I was very excited to bring this group of actors together. I had never worked with any of them before, but I was friends with all of them. In Los Angeles, the Asian American entertainment community is the largest in the country. However, it’s relatively small and very tight-knit. I know many people in the community, and have connected with them over the last seven years. Since I was based in Singapore for 3 years, I wasn’t able to collaborate and work with those connections. The collaboration went very well. And I tried something new with my directing process – I worked with the actors for about a month before the script was written, and we workshopped and improvised scenes based on their characters.

What is it like working on actual sets?
It depends what kind of set you’re working on. In terms of the productions I’ve directed and will direct, I’m passionate in creating a collaborative environment for the whole team. And I also treat my team with the utmost care and respect. They are there to support me and the vision that I’m trying to convey in my film and story. However, I’m also not the type to throw money into my productions to have all the visual effects and the most expensive camera equipment. And I also haven’t made something that’s ultra-low budget either. I land somewhere in the middle, in the films that I’ve directed.

In terms of my sets, my teams are usually creative and scrappy, but highly professional and hardworking. We usually shoot on location and dress the set and production for the film. Most people don’t realize the work involved on productions. Since we were shooting on location, we shot the diner scene during off-hours, and our production design team had to adjust the space to fit the film and clear out anything was post-1960s.

For those who are unfamiliar with your film OUR WAY HOME, how would you introduce it?
Our Way Home is a film about a Chinese American brother and sister on their way home for the Thanksgiving holiday in the early 1960s. They have a racist encounter at a nearby diner. As they leave the diner and continue back on the road, they suspect they’re being followed, and realize in the end that it’s not someone they expected.

What are some of your current and future projects that you can share with us?
I am currently developing a couple projects to be made in the next couple years. I’m developing two features, in hopes that one of them will be my first feature. The one I’ve been focused on most recently is about another family story set in Queens, New York in the 1960s. I was recently accepted into the San Francisco Film Society SFFILM FilmHouse Filmmakers Residency, to further develop that film, currently titled QUEENS. My writer, Jake Lee Hanne and I have been focused on that script over the last several months. We’re currently working on our second draft of that script. The second feature I’ve been developing is with another writer, Su Ching Teh, called NOODLES, which is about Chinese and Mexican illegal immigrants working in a Chinese restaurant in Santa Ana, California. The location is based on a restaurant that my mom and I would eat at, when I was growing up in Orange County. The cuisine is a fusion between Chinese and Vietnamese food. I have also been developing a narrative limited series with my collaborator Anthony Ma, the actor in Our Way Home on the historically significant, Michigan-based Vincent Chin case in the 1980s. My writer, Jake is also working on the pilot episode for that project.

  • 1) To watch a film and a story that is innovative and never seen before 
  • 2) To watch Chinese American siblings in the 1960s. 
  • 3) To see the beautiful old cars depicted in the film 
  • 4) To watch a personal story that’s inspired by recollections of racism of the 1960s 
  • 5) To see our brilliant and talented actors – Anthony Ma, Jennifer Soo, Gareth Yuen, and Noam Shapiro. 
  • 6) To see the visual design created by myself and my amazing team – Enrique Unzueta, Claire Elika Wiener, Ruochen Liao, David Quateman, Oliver Rush, and Jason Chua. 
  • 7) To watch a car chase scene, to be thrilled to the edge of your seat 
  • 8) To watch a fight scene amongst characters of Asian-descent 
  • 9) To feel and remember the work by Quentin Tarantino – to walk into a “dream” sequence with a character you might not expect 
  • 10) To remember that there are so many untold stories from American culture and history
If you could be born into history as any famous person who would it be and why?
My great-grandmother. I would’ve loved to see the world through her eyes. She’s an inspiring individual – to rise above and through the pain and heartbreak from archaic marital traditions in China. She overcame incredible odds, and became a successful executive at the first women’s bank in Shanghai and was a founder and manager of one of the most successful apparel companies in China. Her name is Zhang Youyi.

What are you most passionate about today?
I’m passionate about telling and sharing true and personal stories that are universal. I’m passionate about increasing the representation of those who have been marginalized and whose voices who haven’t been heard. I’m drawn to history across the world and individuals who have changed the conversation for their time.

What is the weirdest thing you have seen in someone else’s home?
An art piece – a sculpture of Ai Weiwei, lying facedown on the floor after a long night of drinking. This was the most fascinating “crazy rich Asian” experience. The home’s interior was designed to look like the Guggenheim Museum. There were numerous art pieces that could be coined the “weirdest thing you’ve ever seen in a person’s home.”

Have you ever stood up for someone you hardly knew?
Gemma Chan recently said on a panel discussion that she wanted to play characters who weren’t the winners – characters who have been considered the underdogs. Over the years, I often gravitate to those who are considered underdogs, those who have been considered “uncool” in various social groups. I’m a very open person and I’m a great listener. And I often stand up for them. I hate to see when they get bullied for just being them, or having an awkwardness about themselves.

What was your favorite childhood television program?
I was a fan of Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Family Matters, Full House, and Home Improvement.

Which incident in your life that totally changed the way you think today?
I had an incident on a film production last year, that completely changed my perception and opinions on how a director carries themselves. From that production, I learned what it means to be a leader – a leader who actually cares about the well-being of their entire team.

Tell us about your team. What are the standards you create when putting together your team?
From the production of our film Our Way Home, I felt like I finally found my core team. While I went to NYU Tisch for the graduate film program, and will always support my fellow classmates and colleagues, I felt like I found the core team I want to continue working with and bringing onto my future projects and productions – this includes, and isn’t limited to – producers Ashley George, Rebecca Shuhan Lou, and Sophie Luo, cinematographer Enrique Unzueta, production designer Claire Elika Wiener, editors Aashish J D’Mello and Zekun Mao, posthouse Tunnel Post, sound mixer Kym Lukacs, sound designer Jose Chipi Estrada, musicians Mukund Ambarish and Leo Bomeny, and the amazing stunt team. Something that I’m passionate about, as a director, is to find people, not based on gender or race, but to find the best people who can work with the others on the team, and who are the best for the film.

We open on the end of our story. James is driving Barbara. Barbara’s bruised and her shirt is blood-stained. James’s knuckles are bruised. He tries to hide them. The beginning of this story starts off where James is picking up Barbara from college for their Thanksgiving holiday. They think they're being followed. They have to outrun whoever is after them. This ends with a group of white kids in the other car, who throws a burger at their car. James and Barbara think they're safe. They pull over to a gas station, where they encounter a well-intentioned woman, who claims she's never seen an Asian person before.

James looks up, and sees a car, the same one that was following them on the road. They're not safe. Barbara is nowhere to be seen. James looks around looking for her, finding her in the arms of her boyfriend, a Chinese-American guy.

Barbara isn’t the victim in this world, she's more empowered, changed. James realizes he doesn’t really know his older sister.

At first, there was a photograph. The photo was taken in 1962. In the photograph was my father, a young teenage boy, sitting on the hood of a Falcon. My aunt, my father’s sister was standing behind the car. And a family friend leaning against the car. At first, it was just a photo. As I started showing more people the photograph, the photo began to hold more meaning. And then, the announcement came to my attention for the HBO APA Visionaries Competition with the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Without having created anything as a director, for over a year and a half, I was swept with inspiration, creative energy, and the urge to make something for this competition. And this photograph wasn’t just a photograph anymore. It was 3 young Chinese Americans growing up on the east coast and living an American life. I’ve directed comedies, family dramas, dramedies, but wanted to push myself to try something new - with a thriller. This is how DRIVING OUR MOM’S FALCON came to fruition.

ANTHONY MA ― James Chou ― Brother
Anthony Ma is a Taiwanese American actor, writer and filmmaker from Arcadia, CA. His most notable work includes a recurring stint as a villain hacker on ABC's "Scandal", a guest star as a young drug dealer on the CBS action series “S.W.A.T.”, the leading role in the LGBT Revry original series "Before I Got Famous", as well as appearing on other shows like"Dear White People", "Mom”, “NCIS: Los Angeles", "Castle", "The Mentalist" and "Shameless".

JENNIFER SOO ― Barbara Chou
Born and raised in New Jersey, Jenny moved to Los Angeles after spending her early twenties in NYC performing in small theaters on the Lower East Side and in Brooklyn. Despite being an EastCoaster, she has been completely seduced by the palm trees, beaches, and the thriving theater scene in LA (but is still looking for a worthy bagel and slice of pizza). Favorite theater credits: Hot Cat, D Deb Debbie Deborah, Dry Land, and Gloria, which was recently mentioned by the LA Times as one of the best of LA theater.TV: Parks & Rec, LA to Vegas, Reverie. Her passion project, a feature film FOR IZZY is currently doing the festivals: BFA: NYU. MFA: A.R.T./MXAT Institute for Advanced Theater Training at Harvar

Gareth’s career spans film, television, radio and theater produced in the United States, New Zealand and Australia. 

Numerous TV credits as lead and series regular roles include creating a new rendition of the iconic cook ‘Hop Sing’, in “The Ponderosa” (PAX TVs revisionist prequel to “Bonanza”); and roles in legendary Aussie series “Kath & Kim”; “Neighbours”, “Underbelly” et al. A graduate of Australia’s prestigious Acting Degree at NIDA, Gareth’s work has been seen globally by generations of kids in his role as ‘Dax Lo’, the ‘Blue Ranger’ in the inimitable US action adventure series “Power Rangers: Operation Overdrive”. In stark opposition to that world, Gareth played a compassionate pimp and love interest in the acclaimed feature film, “The Jammed”, that was presented at the United Nations to highlight the global issue of human trafficking. Most recently he shot the pilot reboot of “L.A. Confidential” for CBS.

Born and Raised in New York City. Noam studied acting at The American Musical and Dramatic Academy and The Pearl Conservatory. His teachers included Jason Chaet, Ray Virta, and Dan Daily. Noam has played war vets, music producers, construction workers, robbers, restaurant workers, drug addicts, and writers. Noam was previously a member of Hip-Hop group, Futuristic Lingo.

Started in September 2017 by directorproducer, Alexandra Hsu. Alexandra House Productions, LLC is a production company that currently specializes developing and producing short films and commercials. The company will grow and expand to focus on feature films and TV shows. Alexandra House Productions, LLC focuses on telling global stories from unique perspectives, and strives for equality both in front and behind the camera.
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