EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling directors of films nominated for the John Cassavetes Award or Best First Feature Award at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards.
Shih-Ching Tsou’s film Take Out is nominee for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2009 Independent Spirit Awards.
From the Independent Spirit Awards website: “Take Out” is a day-in-the-life of Ming Ding, an illegal Chinese immigrant working as a deliveryman for a Chinese take-out shop in New York City. Ming is behind with payments on his huge debt to the smugglers who brought him to the United States. The collectors have given him until the end of the day to deliver the money that is due. After borrowing most of the money from friends and relatives, Ming realizes that the remainder must come from the day’s delivery tips. In order to do so, he must make more than double his average daily income.
Please introduce yourself.
My name is Shih-Ching Tsou. I was born and raised in Tapei, Taiwan. After getting my bachelor degree in Taiwan, I came to New York to get my master degree in Media Studies at the New School; where I met Sean Baker and made my first feature film “Take Out.” Prior to “Take Out”, I worked on a featurette for the DVD release of Rosemary Rodriguez’s “Acts of Worship.”
Right now, I am working as a graphic artist in an advertising agency.
What were the circumstances that lead you to become a film maker?
I love watching films and truly believe a good story is the most important element of a good film. When I first heard the heart-breaking struggle that almost all the Chinese delivery men share, I was determined to make “Take Out” no matter how hard it would be.
Please discuss the project that you have been nominated for a Spirit Award for. How or what prompted the idea for the film and how did it evolve?
I heard one of the stories of a Chinese delivery man and it triggered me to research the subject. We read several books on human smuggling and tons of news articles related incidents. Because of the common language, I was able to talk to quite a few Chinese delivery men and got more stories from them. Once we found the filming location (an actual Chinese Take Out at Upper West side in Manhattan), we did one month of on location pre-production. I bonded with the cooks and they kindly shared their life stories with me. Ms. Lee, the only non-professional in a leading role, was another huge help with script consulting during the actual shooting.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?
The biggest challenge in the beginning was finding our location. Because the new Chinese immigrant community is pretty closed community, breaking in and gaining trust was hard, but once I connected with them, they were very helpful and optimistic.
Please describe your experience of finding out you were nominated for a Spirit Award?
I am thrilled! After 5 years of working on getting the film distributed and then getting nominated is exciting and mind blowing! All the hard work has paid off!
What were some your favorite independent films of 2008?
Let the Right One In, Slumdog Millionaire,
How do you define “independent film”?
As far as I know, independent film means no studio involvement.
And we certainly had none and worked with extremely low budget. Through the process of making “Take Out”, I touched all aspects of production, from writing script, shooting, lighting, sound, editing, to subtitling…and I certainly learned a lot too.
What’s next for you?
I am working with Sean Baker on my second film “Left-Handed Girl”. The story is about a 5 year-old girl. Her family owns a small stand in a nightmarket in Taiwan. It’s a family drama that explores human duality and the struggle of being a woman in the male-dominant society.