Director Justin Lin‘s “Finishing the Game” revolves around the unexpected death of Bruce Lee, a world-wide phenomenon and established movie star who passed away at the zenith of his popularity. Having already shot scenes for his upcoming movie, “Game of Death,” studio heads decided to complete the film by launching a search for his replacement attracting hopefuls from all around the world. Finishing the Game” is an action-packed “re-imagining” of that casting process for Lee’s replacement and examines the leaps and bounds Asians have taken in media representation…or have they? Lin received a Spirit Award nomination for “Better Luck Tomorrow,” which he co-wrote and directed in 2004. IFC First Take opened the film in limited release Friday, October 5.
Where did you grow up and how did you take up filmmaking?
I grew up in a working class family from Buena Park, CA. I went to UCLA film school and got my B.A. and M.F.A. there. I loved film school because it was a time where I got to really try things and develop ideas. I worked on as many student film sets as I could and volunteered for whatever crew position I could get. I got my start editing and directing documentaries for a museum in L.A. and a couple for PBS. It was interesting working in the non-profit world but I learned it was not for me. I made my first feature with my friend Quentin Lee while still in film school. He had gotten a grant from the Canadian government and we canned it for 40 K. Then while still working at the museum, I wrote “Better Luck Tomorrow” with my friends Fabian Marquez and Ernesto Foronda.
When we felt the script was ready I called up all my friends and we all quit our jobs. People were flying in from all over the country to help. It started as a credit card movie but eventually I needed private investors to finish it off–the final budget was 250 K. The film got into Sundance 2002 and changed our lives–it got acquired by MTV Films and Paramount. From that point I wanted to really explore different ways to make film in the industry and had the opportunity to make a couple of studio films. Those two films allowed me to get out of heavy debt and has allowed me, for the first time in my life, to be creative without worrying how I’m going to pay rent next month. It was in that space that I got to reunite with a lot of the talented folks that I love and go back into the no-budget indie world to make “Finishing the Game.”
How has the attraction of filmmaking evolved for you personally?
I loved playing basketball as a kid. I also wrote a lot of creative essays just for fun, but wasn’t really into films because back in the ’80s the only movies that played at the multiplexes was big Hollywood fare. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the studio films, but just not all the time. Two films that made it into the multiplexes that changed the way I saw films were “Do the Right Thing” and “Tucker.” Those two films really opened my eyes to a different approach and style in filmmaking. Shortly after I blindly decided to apply to UCLA film school. It was there that I was able to watch a lot of the masterpieces from the likes of Kubrick and Altman. But it wasn’t until I made my thesis film that I realized that filmmaking was something I really wanted to pursue. Making a film reminds me a lot of playing basketball. It’s a team sport but it also needs direction. Directing films is a lot like playing point guard. After that thesis project I was hooked.
Are there other aspects of filmmaking that you would still like to explore?
Definitely. I feel like I’m just getting started. I’ve had the opportunity to work in a non-profit, independent, and studio environment and it gave me a perspective of what it means to be a filmmaker today. Creatively I don’t even think I’m hitting my stride yet. It’s the ultimate juggle of financing, content and distribution. I’ve either gone no-budget or made studio films. Both have its own price. I think the goal ultimately is to get to a place to have more opportunities and choices. By accumulating a body of work and making relationships along the way, I feel I’m closer to achieving that goal.
Please give some insight on how the idea “Finishing the Game” came about…
When I was 10, I was actually introduced to Bruce Lee through this imitators (Bruce Li, Bruce Lei, etc.) on Kung Fu theater. When I finally saw the real Bruce, I was blown away by his presence, fearlessness, and complexity. I ran out and rented all his films, and as a ten year old, I was really confused when I watched “Game of Death.” I had no concept of a body double and didn’t know why there’s Bruce Lee for like 12 minutes of the film and then 70 minutes of this other guy that looked like him walking around. As I got older I found out the story behind it. In the middle of shooting his passion project, Lee had put the film on hold to go make “Enter the Dragon” for Warner. After completing that film, he passed away. The studio was left with “Game of Death” footage and decided to finish it with a body double and make some money. Ever since I found out the backstory I’ve always been fascinated with who that guy was and how he got the job.
Elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
I think my goal is to first find the point of view of the project. From there I try to use each formal element and help achieve the beats within the scenes. I like to plan and talk to all the department heads and convey the essence of what we’re trying to achieve. I feel if I can be successful in doing that, it empowers everyone and the film will be better for it.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
The state of financing and distribution right now is just plain depressing. I get really annoyed when people who are making and constructing independent films have to use the same model as that of a studio film. Independent filmmakers should be able to embrace their “independence.” There’s a reason why one has to make film independently. They should be able take chances and go after it. With “Finishing the Game,” I had to make some choices upfront that determined its path.
First, I had the opportunity to make it at a boutique studio, but quickly I realized if we had taken that route, the film would have to be a martial arts film, which is fine but was not the film I wanted to make. Also the reality of a predominate Asian American cast (that doesn’t involve high kicking martial arts) is that it’s deemed “un-sellable.” So we made the film on a shoe string budget and the only way a film like that can potentially secure distribution is if it gets into one of the big film festivals. We got into the 2007 Sundance Film Festival and its there that the buyers were able to see the film. We were then able to find the right partner in IFC Films.
How do you define “independent film,” and how has that changed since you first started working?
I used to think “independent” meant making a film outside the Hollywood system. But the reality is that “independent film” has been co-opted by the system. Even in private equity situations there are a lot of interference. At the same time, some great filmmakers have been able to get financing and make their films inside the studio system. So considering all that, I feel a true independent film is one that [allows] the filmmaker gets final cut. I know it sounds simple but that’s usually not the case. When outside parties enter any agreement usually other agendas also get into the picture. Final cut is a privilege and one worth fighting for.
What are your interests outside of film?
Sports. Basketball and baseball. I’d love to run a team one day.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
I’ve been through film schools and hung out at a lot of film festivals. I know and have experienced the angst and pressure of trying to be a filmmaker professionally. My big advice is simple… Do what you love. I’ve seen so many people through the years calculate and speculate on what films to do in order “to make it.” And every time those projects crash and burn. I think when young filmmakers make films trying to impress the industry, they usually won’t work. I think the people with the power and money actually want to work with filmmakers that have something to say. And at the end of the day, if the film is made for the right reasons, then there’s no failure. You live or die by your voice.