Opening "Red Doors" in Asian American Family

Susan Gerhard September 19, 2006

Georgia Lee’s “Red Doors” is a film about family. And that’s why felt there might be no better person to interview her about the film than a member of her own extended family, Frances Chang, who lives in San Francisco with her husband and two daughters. The film played the SF International Asian American Film Festival as well as Frameline30 last spring, and has already won a number of awards on the festival circuit, including Best Narrative Feature at the Tribeca Film Festival’s “Made in NY” competition, a Special Jury Award for Ensemble Cast at Cine Vegas, and the Screenwriting and Audience Awards at Outfest. It opens here at the Clay Theater this Friday (with appearances by the director, co-producers, and lead actor throughout the weekend, and an opening night party for ticketed filmgoers Friday night).

Chang says the film is a charming and slightly subversive dramedy that portrays a suburban family’s efforts to deal with retirement of Dad (Tzi Ma) and with each of the three sisters’ searches for connection and perhaps love. Mom (Freda Foh Shen) provides a steady, if somewhat uninformed, calming presence through all the tribulations, says Chang, and those tribulations are contrasted with old home movies of the family in happier times. The Wongs’ struggles are apparently resonating with audiences nationwide, but they’ve found a particularly special place in our interviewer’s heart: As it turned out, Georgia used her very own family’s home movies to represent the Wongs’ better days.

Frances Chang: I loved ‘Red Doors.’ It’s such a lovely, personal film. In fact, my eyes teared up at the end during the old movies that showed Ed and the girls. What I find so interesting is that this film has touched so many people, but in such different ways. What have been some of the more surprising responses to the film?

Georgia Lee: At the beginning, we were just so thrilled that folks other than our immediate family actually watched and enjoyed the film! ‘Red Doors’ is an intensely personal film about my family and close friends. The characters are all based on people I know very well, so I didn’t necessarily expect many other people to directly relate to the film. As we have taken the film around the festival circuit, I have been overwhelmed by how may Asian Americans have come up to me afterwards and said that it reminded them of their own family. It has been so great to know that the film resonates with so many folks, but I was frankly surprised since I always thought that I grew up in a very bizarre and rather unique family. Apparently, my family has not cornered the market on dysfunction! The most surprising audience response has been that the characters and their relationships seem to have transcended traditional lines of race, class, age, and sexual orientation. One of the most rewarding moments for me was when an elderly Long Island Jewish gentleman came up to me after a screening and said ‘I am Ed Wong.’ He thanked me for portraying an aging man coping with retirement, loss of purpose, distance from his children, and an existential angst.

Chang: Some of the inspiration came from actual aspects of your family life, including the stereotypical pressure on Asian-American children to follow certain pre-defined paths. How has your family reacted to the film?

Lee: Well, Kathy (my youngest sister) is in the film! I think she really had fun with her role. She was playing a younger (more trouble-making) version of herself. I think the film has been a kind of catalyst for my family. It is often so difficult to express emotional disconnection and frustration within a family. So the film has become a kind of prism — a refraction of my actual family and its dynamics. And by laying out the dysfunction in a fictional family and in a more dramatized format, it made the conversation in my own family a little easier.

My parents were truly scandalized when I quit my job at McKinsey and then dropped out of Harvard Business School to make ‘Red Doors’. They slowly came around. But even after we won the award at Tribeca last year, I returned from the stage clutching the trophy, and my father leaned over to me and said: ‘Good, now you can go back to Harvard Business School!’

Chang: I’m very excited that San Francisco is one of the first cities to run ‘Red Doors’ after the opening in NY. (Los Angeles is the other city.) I get to see it again! Why did you choose San Francisco?

Lee: We played ‘Red Doors’ at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival this year and were so inspired by the overwhelming support and interest in the film. I think that San Francisco is a great place to launch any indie film since the population is very sophisticated and truly appreciates art-house fare. In addition, since ‘Red Doors’ centers on a Chinese American family and features a lesbian couple, we hope that the Asian American and LGBT audiences will come out and support the film.

Chang: Let’s talk about box office, and ‘Red Doors’‘ amazing performance on opening weekend — number one in per screen receipts! You used some interesting methods of drumming up interest in ‘Red Doors’. For example, the web-site and blog have done a wonderful job of bringing us inside the birthing process for ‘Red Doors’ and letting us hear your voice and those of your co-producers, Jane Chen and Mia Riverton. How did you come up with some of these ideas, and do you think that non-traditional marketing will become a bigger part of the independent film scene?

Lee: I was really blown away by our opening numbers in New York. We had a miniscule marketing budget (just enough to buy the tiniest ad in the New York Times) and only our own manpower (womanpower?) to spread the word. So we turned to the web. We started with our own rag-tag website: where we keep a blog, have downloadable music, photos, podcasts, etc. And then we created a myspace site:

After creating our two main sites, we then emailed all our friends and families telling them about the film and asking them to please tell their friends and so on and so forth. It was really a case of on-line word-of-mouth.

I think that the web really has the power to inject some life into the indie film scene. Prior to the internet, it was very costly to get the word out to audiences. Now, you can reach people by a click of the mouse.

Also, we wanted to share the wonderful and painful process of making an indie film and then getting it distributed in theaters. There were so many hard-won lessons that we struggled through in making ‘Red Doors’ that we thought it would be great to save any other aspiring filmmakers from the same pain! So our blogs and our podcasts cover many of the nitty gritty details of pre-production, production, post-production, festival strategy, and distribution process.

Chang: ‘Red Doors’ addresses universal issues that can apply to anyone, but with central characters that are retirees, Asian, lesbian, etc. I know that some in the Asian community have criticized you and the film for casting non-Asians in the romantic co-starring roles. You and your co-producers have addressed this specific issue in many forums, but what are your thoughts on a filmmaker’s responsibility to society at large, or to specific groups represented or affected by a film?

Lee: There is a very small but vocal minority of individuals who have criticized the film for not casting Asian American males in romantic roles in the film. The producers and I certainly empathize and agree that Asian American men are under- and mis- represented in mainstream Western media. However, the romantic roles in the film were cast race-blind (and by the way, Samantha doesn’t end up with either man in the film). We did, in fact, originally cast two Asian American males in the roles of Simon (Katie’s nemesis/love interest) and Alex (Samantha’s ex-boyfriend). Yet, I did not cast them because they were Asian. I cast them because they were the right fit for the parts (one is actually a singer/songwriter in real life, and I had cast the other actor in a very similar role in one of my shorts, also opposite Kathy). As ‘Red Doors’ was a very indie production with very limited resources, we were only paying our actors scale (almost no money). Both of these actors had other opportunities come up and dropped out at the last minute forcing us to recast at the eleventh hour. In our re-casting sessions, no Asian American actors showed up. Again, we are very sympathetic to the issues raised, but there are also very real budget and schedule constraints to making an indie film. I think that the focus of much of the dialogue around this topic has been misplaced. The real issue in my mind is that there need to be more Asian American films, TV shows, etc. that present a multitude of voices and perspectives. And increasingly there are from Mike Kang’s ‘The Motel’ to Greg Pak’s ‘Robot Stories’ to Ham Tran’s ‘Journey From the Fall’ and many more. There is not one representative portrait of the Asian American experience. I would encourage anyone who wants to express their own ideas to pick up a pen, load a camera, and go write a book or make a movie. I guarantee it will be a more productive and empowering experience!

Chang: Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts and good luck with ‘Red Doors’.