¡Fo Reels, Yo! (...and for rants, and for other things too.)

May, 2009
HANGIN' w/DIRECTOR SHIH-CHING TSOU took a month off from our Rants to instead celebrate our one year anniversary.  We did so with filmmaker Shih-Ching Tsou.  Along with directorial partner, Sean Baker, she was recently honored at the Independent Spirit Awards where their feature, Take Out,was nominated for a John Cassavetes award. 
Tsou sat down with us to talk about their critically acclaimed movie and walk us through how it all happened.

BkA:  Let's start at the beginning.  How did you first get together with Sean Baker?
Tsou:  We met at the New School while I was getting my Masters in Media Studies, and he was taking an AVID editing course.

BkA:  How was the idea for Take Out conceived?
Tsou:  As students here we both wanted to make a "New York" film.  Since Chinese delivery-men biking everywhere is as New York as bagels and pizza, we thought it would be a very fresh and unique to see the city through their eyes.  After we started doing more research and interviewing them, we realized their stories needed to be told.

BkA:  Can you specifically name other films on immigration which may have inspired you?
Tsou:  There is no one specific immigration film that inspired me, but Lars von Trier's Dogma 95 inspired me to enter the world of filmmaking.

BkA: Personally speaking, what was your immigration experience like?
Tsou: I was lucky that when I came to New York, I came as a student and had two years in school before having to experience the reality of hard everyday life here.

BkA:  How long did it take to go from script to set?
Tsou:  It was pretty fast.  We started writing the script in April and found the shooting location (the take out restaurant) at around the same time.  By May we were pretty much camped in the restaurant, talking to the real cooks and customers while thinking about how to capture the movie's look and feel.  By June we were shooting.

BkA:  Did you know Charles Jang, your lead, before shooting?
Tsou:  No, we first met though casting.  We placed casting calls through Craigslist, and put a listing at the NYU Taiwanese Student Association.  Charles answered the Backstage ad, was great, and almost immediately later, we were shooting.

BkA:  You had a very small crew.  Aside from directing, what other jobs did you two have to do while on set?
Tsou:  The crew was basically Sean and I most of the time.  Because the restaurant was very small, and always in business while shooting, it would have been nearly impossible to have a big crew involved.  So in a way we were lucky not to have one.  While Sean was handling the camera, I would do anything else that needed to be done on the set.

BkA:  Your budget was only $3,000.  Where there any freebies that made Take Out possible to make?
Tsou:  We got a lot of help from our friends and family.  My brother worked on set for a few days and lent us his car to shoot from place to place. A friend provided the post facility for the final color correction and sound mix.  All the actors signed the defer payment agreements while the restaurant owner didn't ask for any payment.  There was also other help from people all around which of course we greatly appreciated.

BkA:  You shot in a restaurant, often while open, how did you get the owners to agree to do this?
Tsou:  The owner Mr. Lin is a very generous man.  He used to provide cheap rent for Chinese students studying at Columbia University.  When we approached him, he understood how difficult it is to survive in New York and agreed to it right away.  We really appreciate his support!

BkA:  Can you talk us through some of the difficulties which arose while shooting in an active restaurant?
Tsou:  It was pretty tough.  We couldn't interfere with the business and therefore had to be as inconspicuous as possible.  When shooting in the small kitchen, the crew was just me and Sean.  We took care of all the technical aspects on our own.  We prepped in tight quarters, making sure Sean's camera would catch the real cooks only from the neck down to keep those shots usable.  By the way, the actors wore the same uniforms as the cooks and the customers too were often actual customers who we later got to sign release forms afterwards.

BkA:  What was the single greatest horror story to have occurred during shooting?
Tsou:  Thankfully, aside from some barking dogs messing with our sound, there really weren't any disasters. Filmmaking can be tedious but still it was a smooth shoot.

BkA:  Did you have any strange encounters with the general public while shooting?
Tsou:  There is one story but it's more funny than strange.  In a scene that was cut from the film, Sean played a careless New Yorker who opens a car door on (Charles Jang's character) Ming Ding as he is biking past, causing an almost dangerous crash.  In the scene, Sean doesn't apologize for the incident.  Somebody witnessed this from the sidewalk, thought it was real, then scolded Sean for being so heartless.

BkA:  Looking back now, what would you have done differently during shooting?
Tsou:  There is very little we would have done differently.  Perhaps some of the dialogue was too expositional.

BkA:  What turned out to be the luckiest moment of shooting?
Tsou:  There were countless happy accidents.  One that comes to mind is that Charles' bike got a flat tire while we were shooting. We decided right there and then to work that in to the film.  It turned in to an entire scene for us.

BkA:  Can you talk about your proudest moment while shooting?
Tsou:  We are happy with the mugging scene.  We shot it close to 15 times really concentrating on the realism of the moment. The two guys who play the thugs are anything but so we were proud that we were able to get these amazingly threatening performances out of such nice guys.  

BkA:  Take Out made its premiere at Slamdance in 2004, but didn't get its Indie Spirit nomination until 2009. Can you explain the long road you took on the festival circuit during that time? 
Tsou:  It's harder to sell a movie than make one, I can't stress that enough.  We spent 2004 on the festival circuit and then it became a long waiting game.  It took 5 long years to finally get a theatrical release.  Cavu Pictures had to raise the capital to put this film into theaters... Obviously a very expensive undergoing. We thank our lucky stars it finally made it to the screen and now on to DVD by the prestigious Kino Entertainment label.

BkA:  What were the Indie Spirit Awards like?
Tsou:  I knew it would be huge, but it's even bigger than I imagined.  Stars, famous directors, and important producers everywhere, I am honored to have been there, even though we didn't win the John Cassavetes award.

BkA:  Can you talk about your next project?
Tsou:  Our next project called, Left Handed Girl, takes place in a Taiwanese nightmarket.  It's about a 5-year-old girl who lives with her mother and grandmother and is centered around the role of woman and their struggles in a male-dominated society.

BkA:  What's the biggest piece of advice you can offer to future directors in terms of shooting?
Tsou:  I would say to just go and make you film even if you have only three thousand dollars.  Unless you have Hollywood connections, the process can be extremely slow. So the sooner you move, the better.

BkA:  What's the biggest piece of advice you can offer them in terms of finding a distribution deal?
Tsou:  Perseverance.  It took us years to find a good distributor.  And Sean is currently trying to get distribution for his new film which has done very well at film festivals.  Unfortunately, the quality of a film often has nothing to do with whether it can land a distribution deal.

Shih-Ching, thank you for the sitdown.  We know that only about 10% of all indie features ever find distribution, and who knows, maybe 1% of those ever make it to the Indie Spirt Awards!  Congratulations to you and Sean and best of luck to you both with Left Handed Girl!*