Interview with Yen Tan – Sundance/SXSW 2013

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Yen Tan is a graphic designer [Mr. Tan’s Website], screenwriter, and filmmaker based in Texas. After two feature films and numerous shorts made while living in Dallas, Tan is a recent addition to the blossoming Austin film scene. His third feature, Pit Stop, was an Official Selection of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival in the NEXT Category, where it had its World Premiere; it also competed at the 2013 South By Southwest Film Festival in March. The film, which stars Bill Heck and Marcus DeAnda as two gay men moving cosmically towards one another in a repressive Texas town, has received significant acclaim since its World Premiere. Mr. Tan, on a phone call from Austin, spoke with Sean Malin of CineMalin: Film Commentary about his supportive filmmaking community, earning his bread-and-butter in a cutthroat industry, and what relationship his film has to queer cinema.

Sean Malin: In Austin, there’s this group of filmmakers that you’re associated with [sometimes called the, “Austin Mafia.”] As someone who first lived in Dallas before moving, how did you come to be associated with this group?

Yen Ten: I’ve only lived in Austin for a little over two years. Texas filmmaking is a very tight-knit community, so we do run into each other quite a bit. At film festivals, at Sundance, at SXSW…chances are, we’ll be working on projects together in different capacities. So over time, even when I made films [2002’s Happy Birthday and 2008’s Ciao] in Dallas, I was already making films with people like [Pit Stop co-writer] David Lowery and [producer] James M. Johnston, who’re in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. When we all collectively started taking work to festivals, I began to meet Austin filmmakers, like [writer/director] Bryan Poyser and [writer/director] PJ Raval. It was the easiest transition to start working with them when I moved to Austin. Diving in was not an issue at that point.

SM: What’s most astounding is that almost every person in this group is a multihyphenate. Someone like Andrew Bujalski or Amy Seimetz will direct just as readily as they will star in work. Or even Jonny Mars, who co-stars as “Russ” in Pit Stop – I mean, how many movies was Jonny in at Sundance?

YT: *Laughs* I think…six. Maybe more.

SM: When you work with actors like Mars, who also produce, write, and direct, does that help or hinder your process as a director?

YT: I really think it helps. There’s a shorthand, and everyone gets it. I also know that, here in Austin, there’s a level of modesty or humility that allows filmmakers to be doing different things on different films. We can direct something, or someone can be the lead in something, while simultaneously working as an extra in a friend’s film. Or craft services! In my case, I usually design posters for other films.

SM: Oh wow. Did you design the poster for Pit Stop?

YT: I did, yes.

SM: Well done. That’s a particularly lovely poster.

YT: Thank you. I also designed the key art for Andrew Bujalski’s Computer Chess (2013), which also premiered at Sundance.

SM: So does that make poster designing your bread-and-butter?

YT: Pretty much. I freelance as a graphic designer. A majority of my work is designing posters for other films. Not just regionally, either. I work with Columbia University’s film school students quite often, and there are a lot of indies from Los Angeles and New York, too.

SM: Has that association ever parlayed itself into a working collaboration on their films? Like, will someone say, “We love what you did so much with our posters and we know you’re also a filmmaker. Any interest in working with us in another capacity?”

YT: Totally, when it fits the bill. Title design being one of them, and I’ve been asked to design props. I was asked to be an art director on a film by Clay Liford two years ago called “Wuss,” which premiered at SXSW. One of the perks of this kind of work is that I get to interact directly with the directors or producers, and you get to know these people very well. You wouldn’t think about that happening through designing posters.

SM: I think having that relationship to filmmakers – being one yourself and also working to help films market and look good, as a graphic designer – sounds particularly rare. In fact, I cannot think of another filmmaker of any notoriety with a similar relationship to the industry. Is there anyone whose career path you’re trying to follow or whose work you look up to greatly in this respect?

YT: To be honest, I haven’t met anyone like me yet. Now I’m trying to think…there’s got to be someone *laughs*. I do admire really great key art designers, people like Saul Bass, Neil Kellerhouse, Kurt Volk and Sam Ashby. Those guys take it to another level.

SM: You can laugh, but I’m serious! I think you have a very unique relationship to filmmaking.

YT: Yeah, you might be right. For me, graphic design and filmmaking are mutually inclusive. I don’t think I’d be able to design for other filmmakers if I was not a filmmaker. One of the things I run into a lot is being asked to design for a film whose current designs are not working. Most of the time that work has already been done by a professional graphic designer, someone at an agency for instance, and oftentimes they have not designed for films, specifically. These filmmakers are learning that being a graphic designer and being a graphic designer for films are two completely different things. One has to understand the medium very well and attempt to capture the film’s essence in a single frame: the poster.

SM: Let’s get specific. If you can, put into words this concept in relation to your poster for Pit Stop [pictured above.]

YT: Okay, absolutely. For the poster of Pit Stop, we have the ensemble nature of the story. That’s a big part of the film’s structure, as it has to do with several story lines anchored by two leading men [Bill Heck, as “Gabe,” and Marcus DeAnda, as “Ernesto”], so you see how their heads branch into the supporting characters in their lives. The “floating heads” concept in film posters is overused these days, though. You don’t usually resort to floating heads unless you have Jim Carrey in your film or something.

SM: Seth Rogen in Knocked Up. [Poster below].

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YT: Exactly. So in this case, using that design, the sizes of the bodies/heads are determined by how big their part is in the film. This is very subtle, and it’s only noticeable on the blown-up poster, but Gabe’s dog and Ernesto’s cat are in the design, too: the dog buried in Gabe’s beard-line and the cat in Ernesto’s hairline, and they’re looking directly across each other on the poster. *Laughs* And at the bottom of the poster is the skyline of the small town [the film takes place in.]

SM: The actual town in which the film takes place is never identified. Did you have one certain inspiration for the “pit stop” in Texas the characters live in?

YT: The inspiration of the location was the small towns surrounding Austin. When you’re working with a low budget, you have to plan to shoot at locations that do not require a lot of traveling. So our strategy was always to keep the town unspecified. I believe the only hint you get of a nearby big city is a shot of the Austin skyline when the two guys [Gabe and schoolteacher “Les,” played by Corby Sullivan] go on a date. It’s always implied that the city is not too far away, but in Texas terms, “not too far away” could be anywhere from forty-five minutes to two hours away. We shot all of the interiors in Austin, and the exteriors were in different small towns outside Austin, including Bastrop, Lockhart and Dripping Springs.

SM: You mentioned there your budget restrictions. Where does the money come from to make a project like this?

YT: In this case, we were very lucky that a chunk of our budget came from grants sponsored by Austin Film Society and Vilcek Foundation. We also did a crowd-sourcing campaign on United States Artists, and raised the balance from private investors.

SM: How long did it take to you to find some investors that would bite? How long have you been running around with this script in your pocket?

YT: I started writing the script in 2003, basically ten years ago. I made other films in the interim because there was just no interest in Pit Stop. I basically shelved it…I didn’t even think about revisiting the project until I submitted it to the OutFest Screenwriting Lab in 2009, where I received a lot of encouragement from my mentors. I realized then it would just need a little more work to get the script to a better place. If I hadn’t done anything with it at that point, all those years would have been wasted.

SM: Around when in this process did David Lowery become involved with the script?

YT: David was always involved in reading earlier drafts and giving me notes from time to time. It was only about a year before we were planning to shoot it that I came to terms with some of my limitations as a writer. I’m ESL [a speaker of English as a second or non-native language], and in the context of this very Texan film, it was particularly important that these regional dialects and the way people spoke sounded authentic. At first, I wanted David to help me polish the dialogue, but in that process, we also came up with new scenes and subplots. By the time we were done, his contribution was significant. It just made sense to credit him as a co-writer.

SM: Help me track the timeline following your submission to the OutFest labs. You submit in 2009, then start the crowd-sourcing…

YT: In 2011, I began applying for grants in Austin and we were raising money through mid-2012. We started shooting Pit Stop in June of 2012, and we had the film ready for the late deadline [for Sundance] in September.

SM: That seems like a bit of a rushed schedule.

YT: Oh, totally. We pretty much had the first cut done within three weeks of wrapping production. Then we did four test screenings right after we had our first cut, and fine-tuned it further. We wanted to submit a cut to Sundance that was as close to finished as possible because rough cuts, regardless of what festival programmers tell you, can have a huge effect on your chances of getting in.

SM: Though it was many years ago now, I remember reading about Vincent Gallo’s rough cut of The Brown Bunny (2003) screening in Cannes, and [Roger] Ebert shredded him.

YT: Right. They can really hurt you when it’s not ready.

SM: You were saying about test screenings. Did they go over well?

YT: Yes and no, but I would say no for the most part. One of the great things about filmmaking in Austin is all the resources that are available to test-screen your film. There are so many talented filmmakers here, many of whom are editors. We conducted test screenings for both filmmakers and non-filmmakers, just to get a good idea of what was working. Test screenings are excruciating because you are essentially asking people to tell you what’s wrong with your film. And most people are gonna come in with a loaded gun ready to fire off with their opinions. It could be anything, even the smallest detail, like maybe you don’t like the color blue and there’s too much blue in a shot, and you’re going to tell the filmmaker that you hate that shot because the color drives you crazy. That’s a really extreme example, but I’d get a lot of “personal preference” notes like that. At one screening, someone was confused by the story lines, because they felt like Gabe and Ernesto looked too much alike, which is baffling, or there was another time when I was told that a particular scene should have been shot handheld, and I should consider making it more handheld in post. If you’re not prepared to handle these opinions, it can really mess with your confidence. I told myself I was gonna be open to their thoughts and not fight them. In hindsight, I think I was so wide open that it made me completely vulnerable to every single opinion. By the time we were done with our last test screening, I convinced myself that the film wasn’t working. I thought I had failed.

SM: Too many flowers, too many dogs, and just like that, it’s over. That’s awful. You go through these screenings that you yourself have set up and people tell you your film does not work. So where, or when, rather, is the process in which you fix yourself after culling together four test-screenings worth of negative energy?

YT: Most of the time, it’s not actually [the audience] telling you the movie doesn’t work – it’s them telling you what in the movie doesn’t work for them. In my head, I’d be like, “I don’t know how I can fix this or that, because if I cut this out, a later scene won’t make sense. And if I cut too many scenes out, the movie ends up about half an hour long.” What’s also troubling is the fact that you can’t just reshoot when you have no money left, so you have to decide precisely what to fix or remove. Thankfully, I had a really good team – my editor was Don Swaynos [Pictures of Superheroes (2012), Cinema Six (2012)] and my producers [Johnston, Jonathan Duffy, Eric Steele, and Kelly Williams] were all very level-headed. I needed that balance. They’d sit me down and talk through issues that may have been raised in two or three screenings, or work through one that was only mentioned by a single person. Which means if something was an issue to many people, then we have to address it, while the “personal preference” notes are usually ignored at the end. We went down the list and hacked things away until I thought, “Oh my gosh! It’s not as bad as I thought.” Having said that, even though I felt good about the cut we submitted to Sundance, I never stopped doubting myself.

SM: The film I saw at Sundance was the completed version, correct?

YT: It is, yeah.

SM: How was the berth for the completed film at the festival screenings? Did you find yourself with a positive reception?

YT: The entire experience was very positive. I thought the screenings all went quite well. The Q+A’s, and particularly the conversations I’d be having with people after the screenings, were very reassuring. I’d been working on the film nonstop from pre-production in May 2012 through finishing the film for Sundance in January 2013. By then, the film was stale to me. I’d watch it and have no emotions. It’s a little unnerving then because I’m still hoping that the film touches people when they’re seeing it for the first time. I was definitely not having a great time at Sundance up until my first screening. Anticipating our premiere on Monday afternoon [the festival began on Thursday, Jan. 17] was like being constipated for all those days leading up to it. And then I finally took the shit on the screening, you know? *laughs* It’s exactly that sense of relief, of letting go.

SM: If I may, I’d like to return to the film itself, since it had a big impact on me when I saw its Press and Industry World Premiere at Sundance this year. Specifically, I detected in the story an underlying sense of brutality or violence towards the gay gentlemen. In my mind, there seems to be a suggestion that discussing or exposing their sexual interests could cause them harm, or perhaps the loss of their job.

YT: While I think that’s a valid interpretation, I don’t believe the circumstances in the film are nearly that extreme. It was never intended that the characters are in danger of violence from the community or the people around them. This is something I observed from talking to gay people living in small towns in Texas – there’s a sense of live-and-let-live. Nobody makes a fuss as long as you don’t throw it in their faces. However, that still forces gay people to dance around the lines of visibility and invisibility, and when you’re not entirely out, there’s an extent of paranoia of letting too many people know, and everything is internalized and amplified in your head. While I wanted to suggest that paranoia in the film, I was also consciously staying away from the narrative cliches of these scenarios, which is when gay people get their asses kicked in these environments.

SM: To me, the presences of the actors – Heck and DeAnda – suggests this violence. These are tall, brooding, good-looking men whose characters are also particularly repressed and hugely sensitive. When big, burly men of their kind play characters like these, the suggestion seems to be: if they can’t be free with their sexuality, who can?

YT: Right, right. I can see that.

SM: Certainly not Shannon [Gabe’s former lover played by Amy Seimetz]. But her relationship with Gabe is a peculiar one. In your mind, were these characters once married?

YT: Yes, they may have been married, separated, or divorced. It’s really up to your interpretation, but yeah, they’re exes.

SM: Shannon, a heterosexual woman with whom Gabe has a child [Cindy, played by Bailey Bass], still has some unquenched feelings for Gabe. Is he so repressed in his sexual expression that Shannon may not have been able to entirely absorb his homosexuality?

YT: There is a moment in the film where the two of them are on the couch, and Shannon’s drunk and she kisses him. And he allows it to happen – he does not push her away. This was a way for us to show how sometimes, when you have a history with someone, even though you may not be attracted to them anymore, you still nonetheless have a history together. You lived with a person and had a kid together. You’ve been sexually intimate with this person before. There comes a moment in every relationship where you are not doing things for the first time anymore. You still love this person, and you feel like they need some form of consolation from you. So, as an ex-husband still spending a lot of time with her – and we’re also suggesting his remorse in leaving the relationship – his conflict is: “How do I fulfill my obligations to this woman I still love?” And in this case, he feels like this is something he could sacrifice. That’s one of the discussions I had with Bill and Amy for that scene. It’s written and performed in such a way that if Shannon had wanted them to make love, he would have gone through with it. He would have done it because he knows she needs that validation, and he still cares for her very much.

SM: And poor John Merriman [who plays Shannon’s co-worker and love interest, Winston]! He chooses NOT to sleep with Amy Seimetz’s character on the first date.

YT: That was definitely a running joke for us. And it is also a way to confound expectations. Winston, physically, is not a match for Shannon, so logically, he’d be all over her when she throws herself at him, but he’s ultimately a very sweet and noble gentleman. He respects Shannon too much to take advantage of her when she’s intoxicated. That makes us like him more, even if it bothers Shannon at first. It makes us root for him also, and believe that there’s actually a chance that he and Shannon could be together.

SM: It sounds to me that confounding expectations for queer film in your script and your performances was a strong goal for you. What films or segments of pop culture were you veering away from, specifically? For example, there’s a scene in Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005) where Jack Twist [played by Jake Gyllenhaal] is brutally attacked.

YT: Right, right, anything like that, certainly. I shied away from blatant homophobia, but more importantly, anything where characters are presented in a one-dimensional way, and we’re not acknowledging the idea that people are complex and conflicted. I wanted to explore characters where you can dislike them in one scene and completely empathize with them later. A good example is a scene where Shannon goes out to dinner with Winston. Winston reveals that he is the godfather to the son of a gay woman, but when Winston can’t come out and say that she’s a lesbian, Shannon jumps the gun by blurting, “What, is she like a dyke or something?” Shannon using the word “dyke” is so jarring in the context of her having a gay ex-husband that she’s still on good terms with. We understand that ultimately, she’s a gay-friendly person, but Amy’s interpretation of that scene has Shannon still going through a lot of buried resentment that her ex is gay, which is completely understandable. Amy raised a point that just because Shannon is gay friendly doesn’t mean she’s politically correct. You can be gay friendly in this small town and still be that person who uses the word “faggot,” for instance. And you can’t just dismiss that as homophobia… it’s a bit more complicated than that. It’s also another way for Shannon to cover herself, or to test the waters with this person she’s getting to know. She assumes Winston is not going to be open minded about her relationship with Gabe, so she jumps the gun on someone she assumes may be intolerant by using a word that expresses intolerance. But then, he surprises her by being offended, and she proceeds to throw herself at him in the following scene in the car, because she realizes that this may just be the person who’s able to accept her and her situation.

SM: Now that Pit Stop is making the festival circuit and you have received some positive notice, what’s next on the agenda?

YT: Currently, we’re negotiating a deal for Pit Stop, so here’s hoping we’ll be making an announcement soon. I’m also trying to figure out what to tackle next, including projects I may have felt too intimidated by before, like a remake or an adaptation. God forbid it’d take me another ten years. I also have to ask myself: do I want to make another gay film? This is one of those questions that I don’t think most filmmakers have to ask themselves if they were not gay filmmakers making gay films. When I make gay films, I don’t intentionally plan on making gay films. I’m not trying to put a tag on it. But I also don’t want to fall into the trap of denying the film’s sexuality. I remember reading some of Tom Ford’s interviews for A Single Man [2009] and felt like he was trying really hard to suppress the gayness of his film. Or sometimes you read reviews and the critics say something along the lines of, “This doesn’t seem like a gay film,” with the implication that it must be so terrible if it were [a gay film.] It is something I completely understand from a marketing perspective. However, there’s also something self-hating about that approach, like you need to hide the “gay” because it’s bad, shameful, or lame. It remains something I struggle with from time to time, because I ultimately want to make films that resonate with me personally, regardless of its orientation. I’ve always believed that when you make something very specific, and it can revolve around gay characters, that it ends up becoming something very relevant and universal.

This interview has been edited, compressed, and transcribed from audio for publication. It also includes segments and information from a secondary conversation with Mr. Tan. With questions or comments about the content, please e-mail sean.l.malin@gmail.com All comments regarded appreciatively.

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6 responses to “Interview with Yen Tan – Sundance/SXSW 2013

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