by Melody Chen & Joshua Jiang
We sat down with Tanuj Chopra to talk about his film CHEE AND T, which screened at the 2017 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. Executive Produced by Visual Communications, CHEE AND T will be released online on Tuesday, August 1st on Playstation, iTunes, Google Play, Steam, and other online platforms. Read on below for Tanuj's thoughts on his film, Asian American advocacy, and Visual Communications.
CHEE AND T is a hilarious and heartwarming story about everything going wrong for a pair of burnt out debt collectors who are tasked with getting their boss' lit-up nephew ready for his engagement party.
Where did you get the inspiration for your film?
CHEE AND T was inspired by my great friendship with the extremely talented artist Chee Malabar. We've been sharing stories with each other for over a decade - I think we got to the point where we felt we should put some of them on wax. Our stories always revolve around misadventures, embarrassing moments, mistakes we've made or things we’ve seen our friends do. We created characters with little pieces of ourselves and started putting them in compromising situations. What resulted was the script for CHEE AND T.
Why did you want to put this story out there?
I wanted to make the kind of film I wished studios were making if they thought a little more outside the box. I wanted to create something that starred multiple Brown folks that’s funny and also a pleasure to watch. Hopefully a film like this can spark the imagination of what's possible on screen in terms of casting.
How is your film unique?
I think our casting is unique. It's not common to feature this many Brown folks in an American feature film. There’s also a way people talk, a rhythm, a language that comes from the script. The jokes are specific and real - I think the film has humor and heart. I think there’s a perspective in there that isn’t always given a platform.
What did your family think of the film?
It’s funny because my mom hasn’t seen it yet! I want her to watch it as it comes out, to see it play through a subscription service, see it on iTunes, see it on Google Play. My dad saw it and I didn’t see him after the screening so I thought that he just walked out, but it turns out that he was really proud and really happy. He visited me on set and was surprised that it was such a big production. But my family loves me no matter what I do. I think.
How does this film compare to your previous films?
I think this film, more than others I've done, is working hard to create the space for actors to shine. I stepped away from a more kinetic/grabby directing style so on-screen talent and writing could lead the narrative more. Perhaps it's called "getting out of your own way"... whatever it is, it's a directing choice I made that I don't always make.
I was going for a more composed, classic effect where the frames are really just stages for actors to do their thing. I think there's more dignity in the style and I felt we were worth it. It still features all the jokes and heart in films like PUNCHING AT THE SUN, “Nice Girls Crew” and GRASS but my goal was for people to not think about the direction - which is not as easy as it sounds.
If people could take one thing away from the film, what would it be?
I really hope people find one thing, one line, one moment that makes them laugh. Everyone's sense of humor is so different but this film features jokes from so many angles - we have all kinds of styles. Physical humor, witty writing, punchlines, improvised moments - I think there's something funny for everyone.
Tell us a little about your history with VC, how did you find us?
VC programmed my first short at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) in 1999, a black and white film (shot on film and cut on a Steenbeck) titled “Uljhan” about three kids who crash their parent’s car and spend the day walking around in fear. In a way, it was the first CHEE AND T.
I got out to LAAPFF and I played “Uljhan” at the DGA and it empowered me as a filmmaker. I got to see my work on screen. You never really complete a film until you get to see it with an audience so you can see how it plays. Linda Mabalot, David Magdael, Abe Ferrer, and Leslie Ito - they all just included me. As a younger filmmaker it made me feel like I’ll always have a place, I’ll always have a home, I should keep making films because I’ll always be able to put them out in front of an audience. It gave me confidence to keep making work. VC gave me my first stage and a reason to keep making.
Since then, VC screened pretty much everything I directed, including: “Big Brother,” “Butterfly,” PUNCHING AT THE SUN, “Clap Clap,” “PIA,” “Nice Girls Crew 1 and 2,” GRASS, and now CHEE AND T. I might be forgetting something...but I ride or die with VC.
How did you hear about VC's Film Development Fund?
The Film Development Fund was an incredible opportunity that VC provided for filmmakers. I’ve never seen a grant of that size from an organization given to a filmmaker to make a narrative feature. It was an incredible opportunity.
I think at the time, VC was interested in providing opportunities to give up-and-coming filmmakers a chance to step onto the bigger stage. Out of the five scripts that were pitched by different filmmakers, only two were chosen: Wong Fu Productions' EVERYTHING BEFORE US and my script for CHEE AND T.
How did working with VC staff help to make your film into a reality?
VC staff is great in that when I needed space in the process, they gave it to me, and when I needed support, they gave it to me. Films go through so many iterations and seasons and VC did a good job of understanding where I was and what I needed in specific moments. That's not always the case with collaborative partners. I was never micro managed but never left alone. To me that's the win-win.
How do you think we (as a community) can improve resources for Asian American artists/ filmmakers?
I think we can do a better job of looking inward for our entertainment. While it's important we have a dialogue with Hollywood and raise our voice around issues of marginalization, white-washing and terrible representations, we also have so many artists who have been making such cool work for so many years now.
I'm always surprised by how many Asian Americans haven't heard about landmark films like ROBOT STORIES, FACE, COLMA: THE MUSICAL, EVE AND THE FIRE HORSE, IN BETWEEN DAYS, FARAH GOES BANG, ADVANTAGEOUS, JOURNEY FROM THE FALL, SAVING FACE, CHILDREN OF INVENTION, CHUTNEY POPCORN, THE GRACE LEE PROJECT, the lovely SPA NIGHT, and even GOOK, which is current and making tons of noise. The list goes on...
I think we can do a better job of watching independent work and showing up for each other. Maybe not everything is for everybody but I wish people took more pride in just knowing what Asian American filmmakers in the community are making. That's how every community creates power and opportunity in this rat business.
In terms of art and expression, how does your experience of being an Indian-American artist/filmmaker, fall in line with Asian American advocacy, when Asian American advocacy is more centered around East Asian activism in media?
I’ve always felt our greatest political power is when we’re united - East Asian, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Pacific Islander. To me, being a part of this community is about building the strongest possible platform.
CHEE AND T, distributed by Comedy Dynamics, will be released Tuesday, August 1st, 2017 on Playstation, iTunes, Google Play, Steam, and other online platforms. It was made in part with VC's Film Development Fund (sponsored by Comcast). Watch the trailer below, and click here to visit the film's website.
Melody Chen is a student at UCLA majoring in Asian American Studies and minoring in Food Studies. With interests in the arts, community organizing, media, and food, Melody strives to utilize arts activism as a way to stir up dialogues within and across communities.
Joshua Jiang is studying Computer Science and Comparative Literature at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He really likes dogs. Connect with him at joshjiang.com