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indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Georgia Lee, director of “Red Doors”

indieWIRE INTERVIEW: Georgia Lee, director of "Red Doors"

Director Georgia Lee‘s “Red Doors” follows the lives of the Wongs, a “bizarrely” dysfunctional Chinese-American family living in the Connecticut suburbs. Ed Wong is nearing retirement in less than a month and plots to escape his mundane life by fleeing to a Buddhist monastery; however, the madcap lives of his three rebellious daughters change his plans. The film won the best narrative feature prize at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival in addition to prizes at CineVegas and Outfest. Lee shares with indieWIRE her own upbringing, making the big money and then leaving it all behind, and catching Martin Scorsese‘s attention. Polychrome Pictures opens the film in limited release Friday.

Please give some background information, where did you grow up, and how did that impact you? Did you work before becoming a filmmaker?

I was born in Philadelphia where my parents, recent immigrants from Taiwan, were in graduate school. I grew up in, around, and all over New England and always at a crossroads of two very different cultures – one was the very homogenous white suburban towns of NJ, NY, MA, and CT contrasted with the other – the intensely Chinese world of my immigrant family. For most of my formative years, I grew up in Waterford, CT – a small town in Southeastern CT where the major industries are nuclear power, pharmaceuticals (my father is a chemist at Pfizer), and up to a few years ago, submarines. I grew up (as what many New Yorkers now fondly call themselves after much expensive therapy): an insecure overachiever. My parents piled on piano, violin, flute lessons along with ballet, tap, and jazz classes in addition to the ice skating, tennis, horseback riding and Chinese school. They made sure I had no time to get into trouble or to go on a date. The irony is that all that “cultural enrichment” was not intended necessarily to nurture artistic stirrings but rather to help create the perfect resume to get into the best college.

I never questioned what had been planned for me, so I dutifully went off to Harvard to study biochemistry with the intention of going to medical school. If I were really rebellious, I might go to law school. Well a fascinating thing happened to me at Harvard. When I was a child, my mother always borrowed old films from the library for my sisters and myself to watch. Musicals, screwball comedies, melodramas, animated films, etc etc. I had always loved films, but it was in college that I discovered that it was a very deeply held passion. Rather than study for organic chemistry exams, I would often run off to the Film Archives and watch their brilliantly curated series. It was always a wonderful, mysterious sense of fate and expectation as I entered the building – it could be “Strictly Ballroom” playing one night and “Woman In The Dunes” the next. So I fell IN LOVE with film in college but could not possibly conceive of pursuing it as a profession. So i did the next best thing: i refused to apply to medical school and instead moved to New York after college and worked for McKinsey & Company – a management consulting firm that specialized in advising executives of large corporations on business strategy. At first my parents were mortified, but then they slowly got used to the idea that McKinsey was a respected, safe, and lucrative career path.

At McKinsey, I learned a lot about what makes businesses work and what makes them fail. But I remember being on a flight back from Paris- my life seemed completely set: I was 23, making six figures, traveling first class around the world, getting used to the expense account life, etc. But I realized that if this were the rest of my life, I would be miserable. I already knew that I loved film but had no idea what to do about this latent passion. So I arranged to take a leave of absence from McKinsey and spent a summer taking a film production class at NYU. Long story short (too late, I know): my first short film “The Big Dish: Tiananmen ’89” found its way to Martin Scorsese’s desk. He watched it and invited me to be an observer on his upcoming film “Gangs of New York” which was filming in Rome, Italy at the fabled Cinecitta Studios. It was a dream come true for me. I took a leave of absence spent about five months on set observing Scorsese at work. It was absolutely amazing to go from my little short films where I was loading the camera, carrying the sandbags, setting up lights, etc. to a full-blown Hollywood production. Watching Scorsese work with the great craftsmen in cinematography, in costumes, set design, and with such great actors as Daniel Day-Lewis etc was the best film education I could ever have hoped for.

I returned to New York and continued working at McKinsey, all the while dreaming of making films. I continued to make shorts on the side but then headed off to Harvard Business School in the fall of 2003. Again, i was trying to please my parents, and more importantly, I was afraid of leaving the brightly lit, safe path. But after one semester at HBS (up to my eyeballs in valuation spreadsheets, etc) I took a leave of absence and left to finally make my first feature “Red Doors.”

Do you practice any other creative outlets?

I am an extremely mediocre musician (and that’s being generous), a wannabe painter, an awkward but happy dancer, but a earnestly devoted writer.

How did the idea for “Red Doors” come about?

“Red Doors” is a dark comedy about the Wongs, a dysfunctional Chinese-American family coming of age in New York. Ed Wong, played by the peerless Tzi Ma (“Rush Hour“), has just retired and plots to escape his mundane life. We follow the madcap lives of the three Wong sisters as they juggle the chaos of their own lives with the growing pains of their family.

The film is inspired by my own family. Full disclosure: I am the eldest of three girls and my father often threatened suicide (for purported existential reasons) or to run off to a Buddhist monastery (for logical reasons that any man living in a house with four women would empathize with). So all of the characters and their stories are either directly drawn from my own family or from my very close friends and their lives.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced with the project?

It was an incredibly difficult film to get made. In the financing stages, studio execs who loved the script wanted us to make the Wongs a Caucasian family in order to have any commercial potential. So Jane, Mia, and I decided to make “Red Doors” on our own terms: independently and completely outside of the Hollywood system. We raised our own financing, maxed out our credit cards, and asked every friend for every favor in order to create our little labor of love.

And of course, I thought that making a film was the hardest thing in the world. I was in for another surprise. Thousands of films are made a year. A fortunate few hundred are selected for the top film festivals and then, an even fewer number are lucky enough to find a distributor who is willing to put it out in theaters. “Red Doors” had the added burden of being the minority underdog. Even though we had won the Tribeca Film Festival amongst other awards, many distributors felt that they could not take a gamble on an Asian American film. The industry feels that while the African American community will go out in droves to see “Barbershop 2,” Asian Americans are not interested in seeing “Better Luck Tomorrow” or “Saving Face,” but rather flock to “Spiderman 2.”

I have been asked if I think “Red Doors” is the representative Asian American film or the representative Gay/Lesbian film, and I am always hesitant to say that it is necessarily representative of any group in particular. It is a story of a family I know, of friends I know. The main characters of the family are predominantly Asian because that is my experience. But at the end of the day, their race and sexual identity are really incidental to the fact that these are real people going through real problems that anyone could face.

What are your biggest creative influences?

Well Scorsese always championed and encouraged “personal filmmaking”, so that is certainly one of the influences for my telling a story inspired by my family. I would say that Ang Lee is another influence and inspiration.

Creative influences in general: “Red Doors” is very different from my short films which run much darker, violent, and most importantly, more surreal. I think that my creative interests lie more in that space between what we think is reality and what is not. So folks like Bunuel, Lynch, etc. are very interesting to me. In fiction: folks like Borges, Angela Carter, etc. In the past few years, I have become an avid graphic novel fan and Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore are my new obsessions.

What are some of your favorite films?

My taste in film runs over many genres and just runs… well all over the map… off the top of my head, in a very unscientific survey of films that I love:

“Blade Runner,” “Spirited Away,” “Crimes and Misdemeanors,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “Doctor Strangelove,” “The Leopard,” “Tokyo Story,” “Sympathy for Lady Vengeance,” “Tale of Two Sisters,”
“Night Watch, “V for Vendetta,” “Brazil,” “12 Monkeys,” “Galaxy Quest,” “In the Company of Wolves,”
“Three Kings,” “City of Lost Children,” “Delicatessen,” “Real Genius,” Films by Monty Python.

Of current filmmakers, I will always watch anything by Neil Jordan, Curtis Hanson, Chris Nolan, Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, Hayao Miyazake.

What are your interests outside of film?

Sleep. Food.

And when I have had enough of the above two, I am very fascinated by astrophysics, cognitive science, and philosophy. If I ever gave up film, it would probably be to study physics. But I don’t think I have the math skills for it! Still, I am an armchair physics enthusiast. The kind that would love to have Brian Greene and Steven Hawking over at a dinner party but would probably be too embarrassed by my own lack of knowledge to begin a conversation with them. But “string theory” makes excellent cocktail chatter with mere mortals.

How do you define success as a filmmaker? What are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I agree that there are three mountains to climb as a filmmaker, each one a tremendous feat and success in its own right: making the film, finding distribution, and then ultimately finding your audience. We have slogged our way up the first two and are doggedly trekking our way up the final mountain. We hope that the film resonates with folks. If it does, I consider it a success.

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