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Tze Chun, “Children of Invention”: Pyramid Schemes, Herbalife and Collaboration

Tze Chun, "Children of Invention": Pyramid Schemes, Herbalife and Collaboration

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

From the Sundance catalog: “In his feature film debut, director Tze Chun explores this age-old perception through the eyes of a Chinese American family in suburban Boston.Single mother Elaine Cheng struggles to support her two young children, Raymond and Tina, by juggling various sales jobs. When another one falls through, the family finds itself homeless and must seek refuge in an unfinished apartment building. This latest predicament seems all too familiar to precocious Raymond, who dreams of taking care of his mother and sister with the fortunes garnered from his inventions. Little Tina, however, remains oblivious to their troubles, thanks to her mother’s careful protection. Meanwhile, lured by promises of easy cash, Elaine finds herself drawn into another pyramid scheme, one that will jeopardize the welfare of the two things that matter the most: her children.”

Children of Invention
Sundance Film Festival American Spectrum
Director: Tze Chun
Screenwriter: Tze Chun
Executive Producer: Dan Cogan
Producers: Mynette Louie, Trevor Sagan
Coproducer: Dave Saltzman
Cinematographer: Chris Teague
Editor: Anna Boden
Music: T. Griffin
Cast: Cindy Cheung, Michael Chen, Crystal Chiu

Please intorduce yourself…

Hi, I’m an American filmmaker living in New York City. I was born in Chicago. My family is from Hong Kong/China/Singapore/Malaysia. I grew up outside Boston. I’m 28 years old.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I started making movies in high school. I’d done a lot of painting before, and I still do (I painted the poster for Half Nelson, and I’ve got a few drawings in the winter 2008/2009 issue of Filmmaker Magazine). I got attracted to film because it was a young art, and I felt like there were still a lot of things that hadn’t been done with the medium. Maybe it was because it was a young art (less than 100 years old at that time!) and it 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 movies.

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. As for other creative outlets, I wish I were talented musically, but I’m tone-deaf, for real.

“Children of Invention” director Tze Chun. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How did you learn the “craft” of filmmaking?

I didn’t want to go to grad school. 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 one of them got produced. I don’t know that I learn that well in an academic environment. I basically learn by doing (read: failing in a lot of varied and unexpected ways).

How or what prompted the idea for “Children of Invention” and how did it evolve?

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, 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.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

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. I find wearing sandals to be helpful in staying calm, though my producer Mynette generally forbids open-toe shoes on set. She’s got a point: Trevor, our other producer, followed my lead and his big toe got crushed by an air-conditioner on the third day of filming.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

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. We’ll see about distribution. I feel that this film has an emotional appeal for a broad audience. Our two kids, Michael and Crystal, 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.

What are some of your favorite films, and what are your other creative influences?

There’s films I aspire to, though maybe they aren’t stylistic influences. I’m a film nerd at heart. Fanny and Alexander, Andrei Rublev, and Deer Hunter are my three favorite films. Recent movies that I’ve loved are Maria Full of Grace, Sugar, and There Will Be Blood. My favorite writers are Wally Lamb and Kazuo Ishiguro.

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

I define success as a filmmaker as being able to have a long and varied career. The one thing everyone kept on telling me when I was on the writer’s strike line was “It’s a marathon, not a sprint.” I want to continue making films and making better films as I gain more experience. It’s sounds like a simple plan, but most of the time I feel like it’s the simplest plans that work.

What are your 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. I hope that will be my next project, but we’ll see. It would shoot in Malaysia. I am also working on two scripts that take place in the U.S., hopefully to be finished by this coming summer. I’m currently interested in stories about youth and makeshift families. I also have a writing partner, Mike Weiss, that I work with. We’re finishing up some scripts for film and television.

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