Almost exactly a year ago, Jessica Yu‘s Ping Pong Playa premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. Her first foray into feature fiction filmmaking after documentaries such as Academy Award winning short, “Breathing Lessons: The Life and Work of Mark O’Brien” and last year’s “Protagonist,” “Playa” is about an Asian-American boy who dreams of playing professional basketball. “Playa” will open on nine screens Friday in the New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. indieWIRE talked to Yu about the film and its release.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
I started as a PA on a few commercials, where I got to do glamorous things like arrange frozen noodles on forks and re-park cars (which was not what initially attracted me to filmmaking, by the way). When I started working in documentary I became more and more intrigued by the process. And I was lucky to have that rare thing, Asian American parents who encouraged their kids in the arts. There’s always a point in the process where I’m a bit flummoxed, and that keeps it interesting. Are there other aspects of filmmaking (either on the creative side or industry side etc.) that you would still like to explore? I’ve longed to make totally frivolous documentaries… about, you know, an Esperanto convention or something (ooh, I can see the emails now…). But I’d also love to make a fully animated feature someday, preferably a comedy.
Please discuss how the idea for “Ping Pong Playa” came about.
A few years ago, I was finishing a documentary called “In The Realms of the Unreal.” Cherry Sky Films came in to help with its completion, and I became friends with the producers who started the company, Joan Huang and Jeff Guo. Later they approached me, along with their prod uction accountant, Jimmy Tsai, to ask if I was interested in working with them on a comedy. I immediately signed on, as the thought of working on an Asian American-themed comedy with people I knew and trusted was almost too good to be true. Joan had the idea of setting the comedy in the world of ping pong, which immediately made me think we needed to put C-dub in the film. C-dub was a character Jimmy had created for a series of mock commercials for a sportswear company he had started. I had seen the spots at a screening years ago and thought the character was hilarious and different: provocative, faux-political, amusingly flawed.
It seemed to all of us that the time had come in Asian American cinema where we could have an obnoxious main character. So Jimmy and I started working on it together, and he stars in the film as C-dub. It’s the only accountant-turned-leading-man story I know of out there. Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project? We’d seen a lot of good dramas in Asian American cinema out there, but we all felt there was a gaping void in one area: superficial comedy. So we approached this as a bit of public service.
Actually, while our primary goal wa s to make a film that was purely entertaining, we knew the humor needed to be a bit subversive, because that’s how C-dub’s character operates. Jimmy and I both grew up culturally aware but steeped in the mainstream, and I think “Playa” reflects that. We felt we could have a comedy rooted in the kind of Asian American experience we know, but appeal to a wider audience. We didn’t stress too much about who would “get” a particular reference; we felt that if we could get the characters right the audiences would laugh in the right places. And they have, bless ’em, or we might have ended up with just a really pricey home movie.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
It’s very tough right now if you don’t have a big name actor on your poster. If you have an unknown (sorry Jimmy), and that unknown happens to be a minority, then it’s really hard. I mean, you look at a movie like “21,” which was based on a true story in which the main characters were Asian. But when it gets to the big screen, they’re… not so Asian. It was a great gift to be able to have the cast I wanted, even if it makes it harder at the other end. The reaction to the film has been really enthusiastic, though, from all kinds of audiences, so we’re counting on some good word of mouth to support IFC’s release.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
Jimmy and I are writing another comedy. I’m also working on a drama that would be set in China. I always have a doc in the works; the current one is about a school for the deaf in Los Angeles that teaches hearing-impaired adults who have had limited or no language teaching. And I’m just finishing a half-animated short about misconceptions about misconception. So, you know, the usual.