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The Best Time a Production Team Caught Itself Being Racist — And Fixed It

The Best Time a Production Team Caught Itself Being Racist — And Fixed It

Hulu’s “RocketJump: The Show” offers a unique look at the world of film production: Each week, the young team of the RocketJump production company can be seen hard at work creating an original short film, and grappling with the difficulties of, say, working with horses for a “Fast and the Furious”/Western mash-up, or flipping a school bus end over end. For those who love the nitty-gritty of filmmaking, it’s a candid look at the process, executed with a lot of humor and heart thanks to the team headed up by YouTube veterans Freddie Wong, Matt Arnold and Desmond Dolly. 

READ MORE: Freddie Wong on the Future of TV, and Other Takeaways From the Set of Hulu’s ‘RocketJump’

This week’s episode, though, featured a challenge beyond a sick actor or losing the day’s light. “Freddie’s Vlog” tracks the production of an elaborate fantasy short starring Wong as “himself,” filming his first-ever vlog in the quest for one billion subscribers. 

One sequence in the short, as originally conceived, was a seemingly innocuous bit featuring Freddie leading a mob in revenge against an evil lab facility. However, once on set, concerns began to arise that the joke of the scene was based on the appropriation of Polynesian and tribal culture — or, as head writer Anthony Burch eventually said: “It occurs me now to ask, is all of this incredibly racist?” 

These sorts of things can be subjective, but RocketJump’s answer was yes. As a result, the RocketJump team not only decided to reshoot the sequence but examine the factors that led to it happening. 

You can watch the episode now on Hulu for the full story, but to get more details, Indiewire spoke with Burch via phone to learn why the RocketJump team made sure to include everything that happened in the process, what it cost them in terms of production time and why those reshoots were totally worth it. An edited transcript is below. 

So it seems kind of redundant for you to tell me the story of what happened here, but tell me about when you realized this would be a part of the show?

We always wanted to be really honest about what the process of filmmaking or creativity is like, because a lot of the things you see about the process are based around big screaming arguments or whitewashed to make it seem like happiness. I think we wanted to find somewhere in the middle. So, I think around the time that Matt and Freddy were like, “This needs to change” — and part of me thought that’s bad, and then part of me thought that’s going to be really good. Part of me was worried that we’d have to reshoot, but part of me was excited that we could talk about race and our own internal biases.

In the episode, it’s basically portrayed that you’re the first people to raise your hand and say, “Are we being super racist?” How long did it take you to come to that realization? 

Way too long. Like I said [in the episode], I was in a costume for about six hours and that shot we’re in where I say, “Hey, is this racist?”, it’s literally the last shot of the day, where it’s way too late. But for me it just sort of goes to show — I would consider myself a relatively conscious person. I spent a year or so working on this show with my friend Soha and Nina on this diversity mission for video games called “Plz Diversify Your Panel.” Get more women, and marginalized people and people of color on video game panels. So I like to think people are aware about that stuff, but when you’re in the rush of production and focused on getting stuff done, and when you feel like you’re surrounding by all these other people… We were about six hours in and I was looking at this big sea of white faces wearing brown paint on them and our grass skirts, it was like, “Oh. Wait. Shit. This might be racist.” And even then I wasn’t sure, within the show. We all talked about it after the fact and came to some consensus on it, that we’re all a little bit casually racist and that’s okay, because that what it is to be a human being and to be aware of your own biases and privilege.

In the episode, it’s said that one week later the decision comes down that the scene has to be reshot. Can you talk to me about anything that happened that week that made that come together?

It was basically just a matter of getting all the shots. There’s the tendency to not judge anything too quickly because you want to make sure everything seems in context. When the scenes cut together rhythmically you’re not even going to see the characters that much. Will it not feel right? There’s a lot of wait and see what we’re looking at here, and then we make a decision.

It wasn’t out of malice. It wasn’t out of any implicit hatred of anyone in particular. You make mistakes. It doesn’t make you a shitty person. You just have to be aware of it. The thing that I really like about the episode and the conversation we had — the one thing that really upsets me when this happens is some director or some celebrity will get called out on doing something shitty and their immediate reaction will be that you’re wrong, and “let me explain to you why you’re wrong for feeling offended at this thing.” If there were fewer people going like, “No, you’re wrong for being offended,” and more people going like, “Shit. I fucked up. How do I not fuck up?” there’d be much fewer upset people.

I think the interesting thing with this is that, when you have filmmakers who refuse to acknowledge that they may have tread across a line or so forth, I feel like that belongs to an older generation of filmmakers. And you guys represent this very young, homegrown, group of up-and-comers. 

Maybe. I’ve run into a fair share of young people who also are problematic and don’t seem to find things wrong about being transphobic or being casually racist or anything like that. It’s one of those things that society grows more progressive as time goes on and I think a lot of people who look at… Inevitably, when you look at something that’s shitty or something that’s regressive and you call it out, there will be a group of people going, “Oh, you’re just being politically correct. You’re being a cry baby. You’re being— whatever.” And I think those are the people that in fifty years look back and say, “Oh, weird how that was the majority of America at the time — those incredibly racist, transphobic people, instead of respecting people’s identities and the way they’d like to be treated.” 

It’s a thing where even if you consider yourself progressive — I think a lot of people at “RocketJump” do, at least I do — there’s still going to be gaps and there’s still going to be holes and you’re still going to fuck up. The thing that we learned about this is how you deal with the fact that you fucked up. It’s about trying to not fuck up. You will fuck up. And when you do fuck up, how do you unfuck up?

Was there ever any conversation of not mentioning this aspect of production, in the making of the show?

No, there was never a single moment that we weren’t dead sure this was going to be interesting. In general, [“RocketJump: The Show”] is kind of weird. The show is a documentary about ourselves making our shows. It’s this real meta thing. So, every time something happens, you deal with it in the moment, and then there’s a different meta part of your brain that says, “Okay. How will this work in the documentary portion? Will this be interesting?”

And then the second I realized this was going to be racist, I didn’t tell Ben [Waller, the director] because I didn’t want to upset him. But this is going to be the most interesting documentary I’ve done so far, because it’s about race in America. We made a little stupid short story of a guy on his phone, but if it’s going to turn into a story on race relations, that’s awesome.

That is awesome. I forget if you specifically mention it in the episode, but how much did it cost you guys in terms of time and money to do the reshoot?

I don’t know in terms of money, but in terms of time it was a day of shooting. One more day of shooting to get most of those reshoots shot. Ultimately, I think we’re really happy we did it. Certainly whatever cost it was, it was outweighed by the good it did, in terms of we would be taking a much larger hit to our likeability and credibility as a brand, if we had left this racist thing in, than if we spent the extra days and the extra dollars to fix the damn thing.

It’s so interesting that you say that. There’s the tricky balance of, yes, you want to do the right thing because you want to do the right thing, but you also want to do the right thing so people don’t yell at you about doing the wrong thing.

Like Matt says in the episode, “Filmmaking is all about communication.” If someone gets angry at something you’ve done because it’s regressive or it’s racist, it’s not so much that they do get angry. They get angry because you fucked up. They’re not choosing to get angry. There’s a lot of nonsense about “outrage culture” — people just going out of their way to be offended by things. And I completely disagree with that. I think that culture is now just becoming aware of the ways we are dismissive and horrible to one another, and what you see is hard to not see everywhere. 

Ultimately, I think this episode is about, if a group of people finds something to be messed up, that’s not them choosing to be sensitive, that’s them correctly identifying the mistake they made as a communicator trying to get their ideas across. And it’s your fault for not getting the ideas across. And I take responsibility for that, by the way. In the shooting script, my descriptions were not detailed enough and were wrong in many ways. It should’ve said “futuristic.” It should’ve said all this stuff, and it didn’t and that’s my fault. We just have to hope to avoid a mistake like that in the future.

So you’re saying the world “tribal” was in the script?

I don’t remember specifically.

But the content of tribal…

I don’t know if it said tribal specifically, but it wasn’t specific enough to get away from what our original was. It should’ve had a really detailed description of what we ultimately shot. I think it was probably just too generic in the way that it was described so that what they saw in my description was, “Oh. Maybe it could be more tribal.”

I imagine you’re happy with the final product?

Oh, yeah. I’m extremely happy with how it turned out.

In terms of the rest of the season, what other kinds of issues related to filmmaking can we expect?

We’ve got what it’s like to be tasked to direct something that you don’t believe in. We have a short about one of our directors that is tasked with directing a horror short. And we switched out on him a couple times and it became a comedy short. He wasn’t prepared for that. It’s like learning how to deal with something that you weren’t prepared for. Do you walk away or not? A cool short about a female spy where a director wants to do everything on his own. Learning to ask for help. Being on a team isn’t a sign of weakness, but instead strength. There’s another one about a really dumb idea that doesn’t turn out so dumb. Nothing as racially hardcore as “Freddie’s Vlog.”

New episodes of “RocketJump: The Show” can be seen every Wednesday on Hulu. Watch the final version of “Freddie’s Vlog” (racism-free) above. 

READ MORE: This RocketJump Film School Video Essay Breaks Down Our Complicated Love-Hate Relationship With CG

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