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Sundance Women Directors: Meet Jennifer Phang – ‘Advantageous’

Sundance Women Directors: Meet Jennifer Phang - 'Advantageous'

Jennifer Phang is a San Francisco-based filmmaker with more than ten years of experience (Half-Life, Crazy Beats Strong Every Time, Glass Butterfly). The Berkeley-born daughter of Chinese-Malaysian and Vietnamese heritage, Phang is a graduate of the MFA Directing program at the American Film Institute and holds a BA in Media Studies from Pomona College. (Press materials) 

Advantageous will premiere at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival on January 26. 

W&H: Please give us your description of the film playing. 

JP: In a near-future city where soaring opulence overshadows economic hardship, Gwen and her daughter Jules do all they can to hold on to their joy together, despite the instability surfacing in their world.

W&H: What drew you to this story?

JP: I originally wanted to create a classic, intimate story about how we all deal with each other as we try to survive, but I wanted to set it in a different time and to explore how we have and have not changed at all. What excited me most was the opportunity to tell a story about women and men’s place in society, and class struggle. I drew inspiration from novels by Jane Austen, Henry James, and other Victorian-period novels, but I wanted to project these stories into the future. I also was interested in the many ways people try to gain power through expert manipulation, which is something you read a lot about in those kinds of novels.

In our writing process, [co-writer] Jacqueline [Kim] and I drew from observation and our research into the challenges of becoming a parent. I also had memories of watching my mother raise my brother and me. I was inspired by the opportunity to externalize the changing personal challenges we all face through different stages of life – -using futurism as a platform. I also welcomed a chance to really gaze at how societal values have shaped modern life. I suppose this has been a chance to gaze back at our society’s gaze.

W&H: What was the biggest challenge in making the film?

JP: We were committed to achieving a particular kind of near-future world. After principal photography, I immediately went into collaborating on the design and expansion of our story’s environment with a group of artists, and that took a lot of focus and resources. At the same time I was working on the edit. Because of all the work going on at once ,it felt like I went through about three productions and three post-productions — sometimes simultaneously.

W&H: What do you want people to think about when they are leaving the theatre?

JP: We were trying to make a film that has a lasting impression. I hope people get to know our characters enough to think through the choices they made and are on their way to understanding the reason behind the choices.

W&H: What advice do you have for other female directors?

JP: We really do need to support each other. Too many times I’ve been led to believe that my direct competition was other women, as if there can be [only] a handful of successful female filmmakers a year. That conversation, that perception, needs to change. Women are the people who have helped me make films I love, and I want to be that kind of strength to other women.

However, when you have your chance to make a film, don’t focus on pleasing everyone. I think the goal is to live in that sweet spot where you focus on making a good film and you have fun with your collaborators, but you don’t waste your energy chasing approval every which way. When you have a vision and a good story and you’ve managed to raise funding, it is your approval as a director that everyone should be seeking. It’s very simple.

Also, there are many social pressures on women, depending on your upbringing. Women can be pressured to be perfect in many ways. And in our efforts to be “responsible” in every way, you might lose time and energy. If you truly want to direct, you may have to let go of pleasing everyone on a consistent basis.

W&H: What’s the biggest misconception about you and your work?

JP: I am committed to creating a vision of the world that reflects how I believe it is: diverse. It is, in that respect, not an effort to diversify media representation, but rather, it comes out of the world I have grown up in.

The reason I’m interested in alternative worlds and near-future settings is that it allows us to look at our own limitations in our worldviews. These settings allow me to explore how our world might evolve if we allow individualistic kinds of success to remain our primary value. I’m not trying to be overly bleak, and I don’t feel bleak or sad about our world.

I’m looking for a way to restore our value in heroic and noble instincts in people who are keenly aware of the world’s dynamics and stakes. To be more plain about it, I want empowered and educated people who understand a lot about the world’s challenges to strive to be noble, rather than cynical. I think we still need more champions out there.

W&H: How did you get your film funded? Share some insights into how you got the film made.

JP: I was fortunate to have a producer who believed and invested in my vision from my first feature to my sophomore film. I have also actively contributed to and developed a strong community within independent filmmaking, so we were able to attract both additional investors and crowdfund via Kickstarter.

W&H: Name your favorite woman-directed film and why.

JP: After the Wedding [by Susanne Bier] really surprised me. I love films that test cynicism and inspire you to do better in your dealings with your family and with strangers. The Top of the Lake series [by Jane Campion] blew me away because I finally felt that there was a home for the most raw, real concerns of women all over the world. There was a home — a place of solace and protection — for the suffering in the characters in that series, and a home for viewers who could relate to that pain.

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