Imagine that you are listening to a record. It’s a good tune, one that you really savored during a particular time in your life. Then you return to the song. You didn’t realize how embedded it was in your psyche and soul, but you start to notice something is missing. The male voice is dominant, and the female voices are scattered. The words of these women are beautiful, but faint. You want to hear–really hear–more of those female voices, all the notes. That is what Lynn Chen did in her directorial debut, “I Will Make You Mine”.
Lynn’s stand-alone film follows “Surrogate Valentine” (2011) and “Daylight Savings” (2012). The first two films were co-wrote and directed by Dave Boyle, centered around the musician Goh Nakamura (played by himself). In Lynn Chen’s “I Will Make You Mine”, which she also scripted, we follow the women who have complicated romantic histories with Goh: Rachel (Lynn Chen), Professor Erika (Ayako Fujitani), and Yea-Ming (Yea-Ming Chen).
First-time filmmaker and long-time actor Lynn Chen (“Saving Face”) walks me through her road to becoming a director, and how important it was to tell the story of not one, but three Asian American women in a film. It’s not about someone discovering the story of their ancestor, or some action karate flick. It’s a film about three real women who happen to be Asian American, all of whom have had their hearts broken, and who find themselves through the broken pieces. “I Will Make You Mine” is available to stream On Demand on May 26, and you can pre-order the movie here.
REBECCA MARTIN: I know that you started in the business young. Can you walk me through your journey toward becoming a filmmaker?
LYNN CHEN: I grew up in New Jersey. I’ve been performing for as long as I can remember. My Mom was an opera singer at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, and she was in the ladies chorus. When I was a kid, even before kindergarten, I participated in the children’s chorus. One of my earliest memories was stepping out on that stage. The bright lights hit my face. I just have never known any other life. Performing is something that comes very natural and it feels like home to me.
I always loved watching movies, it was my outlet to the world. My mom was very specific about what I was allowed to watch. She wanted me to watch only PG or G movies. I started to become obsessed where I would watch those movies over and over again. When I watched these films I saw myself playing in them.
MARTIN: Where did you go to college?
CHEN: I went to Wesleyan in Connecticut, which is actually an amazing film school. I met my husband in college, where he was a film major. Their film department is very strong. I didn’t take any film classes, and I didn’t even take any theatre classes. I was a music and women’s studies double major.
MARTIN: That makes sense with the way you use music in the film, and highlight the female characters. That’s so great.
CHEN: It’s really funny though because I didn’t do anything with my degree, until “I Will Make You Mine” [laughing]. I knew for a while that I always wanted to act. I really went for it, I did the whole thing. I waitressed, I doubled down on my jobs, I went to my open casting calls. I’ve done the whole struggling actor thing, and many different types of acting.
I was really happy as an actor, even though people would say to me you should write, you should produce. People were always pushing me to produce because I know people, and I like to help fix films. But I was like, “No, I just like being in front of the camera.” I just know it’s really hard to make a movie. For me, I don’t necessarily want to start all the way from the beginning of the production process. I know what it’s like to be a struggling actor, I don’t need to be a struggling writer or producer. I don’t need to add those other things to my resume. I’ve worked this hard and I know where my lane is. Or so I thought.
As I was approaching the age of 40, my career had been very much up and down. I always had this nagging in the back of my head, that warning that ‘you’re an actress approaching 40. You better think of something else to do. You don’t want to let yourself be left out in the cold.’ I definitely felt it, and I just wanted to open myself up to the idea to do other things I liked to do. I wasn’t sure what that meant, but I thought while my back is still strong, let’s explore different options that fall into my lap. I thought, ‘Let’s not just say no to things, because I have the energy to do it now.’
I was in “Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings”, two movies written [co-written with Goh Nakamura and Joel Clark] and directed by Dave Boyle. Those were the two movies in the trilogy that “I Will Make You Mine” completes. Since I was an actor in both of these movies, and I played the love interest in them along with Yea-Ming Chen and Ayako Fujitani who were also in the sequel [“Daylight Savings”], I always wanted to know who Goh Nakamura ended up with, as each film ended with a cliffhanger.
Years passed and I went hiking with Dave, and I said to him, “Hey, when are you going to finish that trilogy? When are you finally going to do that?” He looked at me like, “I can’t believe you’re bringing this up. Why are you bringing this up? Never, we’re never going to do that.”
CHEN: I was so heartbroken when he said it. I felt bad not only for myself–I wanted to act in it again–but I also felt bad for the story, this legacy that was supposed to be finished, but was never going to be. So I said to him, “What if I did it?” I don’t know what I meant by that, but I was just like, “What if I keep this ball rolling?” He looked surprised, and said to me, “You can have it, I’ll even let you direct it. I’ll give it to you. I’ll even help you make it.”
MARTIN: You’re like, ‘thank you.’ [laughing]
CHEN: When he said that I told him, “I know you’re only half-serious. But now I’m going to show you.” I knew at that point I was ready for this. Somewhere down the line, in the past ten years, I had become a food blogger-
MARTIN: Oh really?! That’s so interesting.
CHEN: Yes, I was a food blogger before people were taking photos of their food. I had done all of these videos for Buzzfeed. I’d done a lot of scripted content, so I knew the secret to making things happen. The secret is that you just have to say that you are going to do it, and do it.
A week later, right before Thanksgiving, I sat down and opened my computer and I just started to write. And the script basically wrote itself. I wrote that first draft during that week when I was home for Thanksgiving, and on the plane ride back. When I got back and I showed it to Dave, he was pretty surprised, and he realized that I was actually pretty serious about this. So we did a few more drafts, and I ended up Kickstarting the movie. And one year later, right before Thanksgiving, we had the movie in the can.
I honestly feel that it was so much of a group effort. And I want to thank everyone involved because without them I wouldn’t have been able to do it. There was a piece of me that knew that the only reason why it happened was because I kept pushing for it to happen. There was a moment when it could have just died, but I was determined to finish what we had started. I wasn’t going to let this be another example of a film that never got finished. I pushed it through, and here we are. The film will be coming soon to On Demand and streaming.
MARTIN: That’s amazing and impressive. For people like myself who’ve only seen your film, and not the previous two films, is there anything we need to know? I honestly didn’t know about the other two. This film is great on its own.
CHEN: Thank you. Yes, it was meant to be a stand alone film, but what I did was that I took the female characters from the two films and I told the story through their perspective seven years later. Goh was the lead in the first two films. They were definitely like “dude movies”. Two smelly guys hitting the road and talking about chicks, and who’s going to end up with who.
MARTIN: You flipped it, I love that!
CHEN: These women in the movie were so freakin’ cool. They come in and they say the perfect things, they look beautiful, they are all mysterious, and then disappear. I was always like, “What is she doing? It’s not fair!”
MARTIN: Right! You want to know more about the characters.
CHEN: In the previous films, you don’t see the women when they are not around Goh. And for me, it was satisfying my curiosity, just for myself as an actor to tell their stories. I wanted to answer the question, what is this woman doing when she is not in front of him? Is she as cool in front of him as she is when she’s not? The answer very clearly was, no! In fact, she is very uncool. It’s all a facade.
I was really an extension of all of these characters before I started writing them. I realized all three of these women are aspects of myself that I wanted to play before in the past. As an Asian American woman, we never get to be in a film with other Asian American women. I wanted to show that there are different sides of us. We can exist in the same film and at the same time we can be very different and very American. We don’t have to talk about our Great Grandfather coming in from China, and no one has to be doing karate, we’re just Americans. That’s what I wanted to make. I wanted to make a movie that I wanted to be in and that I wanted to see. I knew because it was so low budget that I could do it. There was no studio or producer that was going to stand in my way and say, “Let’s make her white” or, “I don’t know if a white audience would go for that.” Because the risk was so low, I could really go for it.
MARTIN: I appreciate that so much because I love seeing women onscreen that I don’t see that often. I felt also that I could relate to all three women in the film and I’m not an Asian American woman. It is so important to have that representation onscreen and have characters that are relatable. I want to thank you for that.
CHEN: Thank you for saying that.
MARTIN: Thank you! Also, music seems to be such a powerful element to the film especially with Yea-Ming. Could you comment about the role music takes in the film?
CHEN: The first two films was Goh playing a version of himself, the musician. So all of the music were his songs, with the exception of two original songs by Yea-Ming in the sequel. In previous films, we got to hear her play a little bit. But I knew for this movie I would focus the music through Yea-Ming. The reason why the movie is called “I Will Make You Mine” is because of the song. Her song “I Will Make You Mine” [Yea-Ming and The Rumours] already existed. I just went down a list of her songs and started to say them aloud. I asked myself, ‘What sounds like a good movie? Which movie would I want to go see?’ And “I Will Make You Mine” sounded good, so I just chose it. It was so strange because there are lyrics in it that totally make sense in the movie. I wasn’t trying to force that, it was totally organic, it just happened to make sense with the storyline. Maybe subconsciously I was thinking about it, but for the most part it was just natural.
I remember when I was writing the scene of them singing the song. I was just like, “Wow, it just writes itself.” All of the songs were not original for the film, except for two, “Hold on to your Humanity” [Goh Nakamura] which is the last song during the credits, and Yea-Ming wrote the song “Eskimo Eyes” [Yea-Ming and The Rumours]. Other then that, all of the songs already existed.
That part of it was really helpful as a filmmaker. As I said, I was a music major in college along with women’s studies, so music is part of how I process things, how I express things. Having the soundtrack already in my head while I was writing helped direct me on what the mood would be in each scene. It helped me write.
MARTIN: What was the reason for the choice of the film being in black and white?
CHEN: The first two films [“Surrogate Valentine” and “Daylight Savings”] are in black and white. For the first one, “Surrogate Valentine”, the director chose to do black and white because he just wanted to make it run and gun. When he did that, he really liked the look of the black and white, so he decided make “Daylight Savings” the same. Because the first two movies were in black and white, for a split second, me and Bill Otto, who is also the DP in the first two movies, had a conversation that maybe we should make it in color because the film is from a female perspective, and it is a stand alone film. I thought maybe it could be like “Wizard of Oz” when she opens the door and everything looks different. But at the same time I said, “We have to tie it to the first two and also I feel like I’m never going to get the chance to make a movie in black and white, at least without seeming unpretentious. So let’s do it!”
We decided to shoot on the RED monochrome camera, it was David Fincher’s camera, the one that was designed for him. There are only a few of them in the world. We were able to access it because Bill is a professor at Utah Valley University, and in order for him to be able to take time off to shoot the movie, he had to learn a new skill. The new skill was learning how to use this monochrome camera. That helped out with our budget to have a camera the school was basically paying for, so that was an easy decision.
With each movie, you progressively see the cinematography get more beautiful. I think in a movie that is about aging, it was perfect to end the trilogy with gorgeous anamorphic lenses. It was important because you see this maturity and this growth from the previous two.
MARTIN: I recently watched “Saving Face”, and you were terrific in it. That film also features an Asian American cast. Were there any past roles that influenced your approach in directing “I Will Make You Mine”?
CHEN: I think every film I’ve ever done has impacted the choices I’ve made in storytelling. “Saving Face” was the first feature film that I had acted in. I had the gift of doing an incredible movie for my first film. I thought all movies were going to be like that one, that followed with a wake up call. I realized that “Saving Face” was special, with the story and the directing.
MARTIN: It’s such a special film, I love it.
CHEN: So special! I really wanted to cultivate that theme, that same special feeling on my set. I know when you show up to a set as an actor you may be like, “Oh we’re just here to work”, then it’s really not fun for anyone. Especially when you are doing a film for no money. I really took that to heart with that movie and all of the other indie films that I’ve done. I do it because I love it, love the story, and love the people. I really made an effort to make all of my actors and crew feel like family. You gotta make it fun. You’ve got to make it special. You’ve got to make it feel like we’re working towards something. We’re not making a movie to just make a movie. We’re doing it to tell a story. You have to make sure everyone involved feels like we’re in it for the same reason.
MARTIN: Through the filmmaking process, were there any new things you learned about yourself?
CHEN: Obviously there were some technical things, but the thing that surprised me the most was the emotional component of it. Directors really have to put on their game face, especially for their actors. You can’t trust anyone who looks like they’re in charge of a sinking ship. When everything seems to be going wrong, the director still needs to look like they are holding everything together. The director needs to encourage their actors to go out and give it their all.
I used to see directors that way, like they are all together and super stoic people. I, on the other hand, would sometimes be crying behind the monitor and getting completely emotionally invested. When it was all over, I felt this enormous sense of postpartum. I had been with these people for a year and a half, from the beginning to end. We spent every moment together, and by the time it ended we knew so much more about one another. And I had let go of all of them. It was so sad. It was like I didn’t want to re-enter my old life. As an actor, I’m used to letting go of my character, but it was different than letting go of 15 characters. It was hard on me. It was really hard on me. I was really scared that I wasn’t going to have a sense of normalcy again. I talked to other directors, including other directors who directed me in the past, and they said, “Oh that’s normal.” Well why didn’t anyone tell me? That would have been valuable information [laughing].
Now that I’ve gone through it, I’m a lot less scared of most things in my life. I know how intense that feeling was and I got through it. So now I feel like it’s going to be all good, it’ll be fine.
MARTIN: Do you feel the industry is changing for womxn?
CHEN: I think things have definitely changed. The reason I say this is because in the past, when people have asked that question, there was a real hesitation, there was a real sense of, “Have they? Sure. Maybe?” And then really searching for a positive outlook on things. I don’t feel like I have to fish for examples anymore. That said, I think the road before us is long, it’s very hard, and I do think if we are able to keep the momentum going, we have to support one another.
The whole way of thinking in the past has to change. Like there is only enough for a couple of us. We have to know that there is enough for all of us. We have to support each other. You are your own special unique person. Your voice as a storyteller is unique. Therefore nobody else can do it as well as you can. You might as well champion each other and help uplift one another because if you do, you help uplift yourself. There’s no point in cutting someone else down to get something or somewhere, if they were the ones that were right for it.
I think this way of thinking is happening, but at the same time, it’s happening slowly. In order to continue this momentum, you really have to be conscious as women and as filmmakers. We should be transparent. Be transparent about how much you’re making, transparent about how hard it is, and not try to put on this tough face, and be like ,“I got it.” We need to show our vulnerability, and realize that there is strength in our vulnerability. I think it helps more people understand that’s a process because men in the past have shown that stoic face and that’s how they do it. That’s even changing now. Men are showing their emotions more, showing the cracks a little bit. I think that’s great. The more we can show the different sides of things, the more we as humans can make stories that relate to more people.