After making the rounds on the festival circuit, Tze Chun’s “Children of Invention” will open theatrically in New York and Los Angeles on March 12. The film follows the trials of an Asian-American family struggling to make ends meet. When their single-mother becomes entangled in a Pyramid Scheme and is subsequently arrested, her two young children are forced to fend for themselves. Chun discusses how his own family’s experiences with get-rich-quick schemes informed the film and why he believes it is even more relevant today than when he first conceived it.
Tze Chun making introductions…
I’m an American filmmaker living in Brooklyn, New York. I was born in Chicago. My family is from Hong Kong/China/Singapore/Malaysia. I grew up outside Boston. I’m 29 years old.
I started making movies in high school. Before that, I wanted to be a painter. I still do a little painting — I did the poster for “Half Nelson” and I’ve done some drawings for Filmmaker Magazine. I got attracted to film because it was a young art (less than 100 years old at that time!) and I think that felt less intimidating to my 15-year old mind. Every afternoon, I’d get dropped off at Barnes & Noble, and I eventually read through their entire film section. I used my family’s camcorder and roped my friends into acting in some kung fu or action movies. Most of my teenage years were spent trying to figure out how to make a toy gun look like it was firing a bullet (hint: put a firecracker in the barrel).
I wrote and directed two features and a bunch of short films in high school. And luckily they had a tape-to-tape editing station that I could use when no one else was using it. A couple times my high school security caught me editing in the middle of the night. Then I’d have to call my mom and have her pick me up from school at 3AM.
I didn’t want to go to grad school. I don’t know that I love the academic environment. After graduating from Columbia undergrad in film studies, I decided to make a schedule for myself. While I was painting portraits on commission and doing random videography work, I would also write and direct a short film every six months and write a feature screenplay every nine months. I made eleven no-budget shorts before “Windowbreaker” was accepted to Sundance in 2007. Soon after that I pushed forward on a couple screenplays, and “Children of Invention” got produced.
On where the idea for “Children of Invention” came from and making the film…
I spent a lot of my youth going to pyramid scheme seminars with my mom and little sister outside Boston. I saw a lot of desperate people get swindled while trying to achieve some version of the American dream. We ourselves lost money a bunch of times. We did Amway. When Amway fell apart, we did NuSkin. When NuSkin didn’t work out, we did Herbalife. And so on and so on. Our basement was always filled with samples—skin cream, shampoos, and miracle products. At one point we had dozens of satellite TV dishes stacked by the washer-dryer.
When I wrote the film, I was writing a personal story about the world I grew up in – a subculture of Americans trying to get-rich-quick in order to get themselves out of a financial hole. I didn’t foresee the current financial crisis. But with the economy tanking now and foreclosures going through the roof, it seems like everyone’s living through some version of what the Chengs go through in the film. It’s definitely strange to see your film get more timely day-by-day.
I like to think I’m pretty collaborative. I try to listen to everyone’s opinions while keeping in mind what I had imagined when I wrote the script. Also, as much energy as I’ve put into production, I’ve put just as much energy into trying to stay calm and collected through the entire process. I find that if the director stays cool, he/she is able to think more clearly, and the possibility of on-set drama is very low.
The writing/development/shoot/post-process went remarkably quickly and smoothly. I finished the first draft of the script in March of 2008; we got financing in April, shot in July and August, edited in September and submitted to Sundance in October. Our two kids, Michael Chen and Crystal Chui, were a couple of real finds. They brought an immediacy to every scene that I’d never imagined. People always warn you against working with kids, but I feel like the biggest problem I faced during production was making sure I didn’t underestimate their abilities.
One nice thing about playing and attending as many festivals as we have is you get a pretty good sense of what people like about the film. People respond most to the kids’ and Cindy’s performances, as well as the family dynamic. Most people like the humor mixed in with the drama and vice-versa.
On his inspirations…
Children of Invention kind of falls into the category of movies about kids but for adults, so the movies I thought about most during the writing and production were films from that genre: Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander,” Edward Yang’s “A Brighter Summer Day,” and Mira Nair’s “Salaam Bombay!.”
…and future projects…
My feature “You’re A Big Girl Now” was actually supposed to shoot first, before “Children of Invention.” It’s a script based on my mother’s childhood growing up in a brothel in Singapore. Over the last couple years I’ve traveled back and forth from Singapore doing research with my family. It was financed but then got put on hold, as these things do. My producer Mynette Louie just brought the film to the Sundance Producer Labs, and we’re working on bringing an Asian production company on board, since it would shoot in Malaysia.
As far as finished projects, I’ve got a sci-fi short film “Silver Sling” that is premiering at SXSW 2010. It’s part of the FUTURESTATES series funded by ITVS. Other directors include Ramin Bahrani, Greg Pak, and Tanuj Chopra.
On the writing side, I’m writing a supernatural drama that takes place in the Pacific Northeast, a no-budget sci-fi feature, and co-writing a thriller with two writers out in LA, all of which I’d direct. I also have a writing partner, Mike Weiss, that I work with on film and television (we were staff writers on ABC’s Cashmere Mafia together in 2007). We just went out with a big-budget studio spec that I wouldn’t direct, and so we’re doing meetings, rewrites, and pitches based on that.