Grace Lee’s latest film, “American Zombie,” screened this past week in the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, hailing from other fests like SXSW. Lee takes her crew into zombieland to watch the process of acculturation, and finds, contrary to popular opinion, they don’t eat humans, nor do they drag their feet. In fact, they look relatively normal and harmless, just pale. Can’t we all get along? Yet this living and living-dead coexistence seems too good to be true, even in such an inclusive town like Los Angeles. By weaving the making of the faux documentary movie into the movie itself, Grace Lee continues to explore themes of identity and nonfiction. We caught up with Grace Lee in San Francisco to talk about the personal horror movie genre in “American Zombie,” the everyday ethical dilemmas documentary filmmakers face, and how too much trust in your subjects can sometimes be, well, inconvenient.
SF360: How did the idea for the project originate? Y ou’ve admitted you’re not particularly a big fan of the [zombie] genre?
Grace Lee: Well, I didn’t set out to make a documentary about zombies, it just happened. Basically, [me and] Rebecca Sonnenshine, who was my co-writer, were trying to come up with different projects to work on. And Rebecca [who is] a very normal, mild mannered person, happens to have really violent dreams (laughs), so then she’s describing one of them to me one night; I was disturbed by them, and one of them was about this girl zombie trying to bite her, and then I just blurted out ‘Hey, maybe you’re just part-zombie,’ you know? Where does this come from?
SF360: Which is the basic fear behind all the zombie scares.
Lee: Yes, so where is this strange [thing] coming from? As a documentary filmmaker, which is my background, I’m interested in motivations — or even as a director — why do people act the way they do and I thought, ‘Well, maybe you’re just part zombie, it’s part of you.’ Then it just occurred to me, ‘This might be a great character:’ someone who on the surface seems so normal, sweet and nice. But underneath, like Lisa, who’s angrier, she has something she has to deal with; it started from there. I said ‘This would make a great documentary,’ I would love to make that film.
SF360: How did you approach doing this film as a documentary, given the [‘serious’] reputation of that genre?
Lee: Well, and I have a reputation, [too]. I made a documentary, a personal documentary two years ago, ‘The Grace Lee Project,’ which a lot of people know about. I’m in it, and it’s also about the stereotypes surrounding Asian American women, and the stereotypes surrounding Grace Lee, and I thought, ‘Oh well, that Grace Lee who made that film would naturally be interested in another marginalized community, and other issues of identity,’ so we sort of took that idea and ran with it, ‘Oh, Grace Lee, of the Grace Lee Project, she’s a socially consciously filmmaker.’ It’s like discovering another community that nobody knows about, and you want to give voice to them. I love personal documentaries, and in the ‘Grace Lee Project,’ there’s a lot of humor there too, and a lot of self-mocking qualities, and so I felt like OK you know, it’s also in ‘American Zombie’ as well, and just wanted to explore the personal horror film (laughs).
SF360: Did you identify a little with every Grace Lee you interviewed?
Lee: Yes, definitely.
SF360: To what extent did you play yourself? You appear a lot [in the film], yet you keep a certain distance —
Lee: It’s the film’s Grace Lee philosophy of filmmaking: ‘We let the subjects tell the story’ while my co-filmmaker, John, is the complete opposite; he wants something horrible to happen. Somebody wants someone to get eaten! (Laughs.)
SF360: Why did you incorporate Grace and John bickering in the film about the form and the content of the documentary?
Lee: That was intentional; we also wanted to show that we were a part of the story, and it’s a documentary conceit that people do a lot, to put themselves in the film, and Grace Lee, to a fault, thinks ‘We need to put ourselves in the film’. But why? It’s about the zombies.
SF360: Tell me about the visuals: The look was very muted, especially the urban images. And yet the style of the doc is very upbeat, especially in the first hal — it’s excited to showing you a community.
Lee: I think that like zombies, the film turns into something else; in the beginning we wanted to really use the portrait of a community: [as in] ‘They’re vibrant, they’re here, they’re dead; get used to it.’ There’s something about Los Angeles that’s very different from San Francisco, [in L.A.] it’s kind of drab and dusky. Like not everything is what it seems, and we definitely wanted a look that wasn’t Hollywood. We were an independent production trying to look like an independent documentary, and we shot with the cameras Grace and John would have, you know, DVX 100, and John’s little camera. That was always the intention, to make it feel gritty and real. We did shoot in a lot of real locations, trying to seamlessly appear like a real documentary.
SF360: Although we get really close to these [zombie] characters, almost identifying with their plights, I noticed that that there was still a palpable divide between you and that ‘other’ [represented by the zombies], that simply can’t be bridged.
Lee: In a way, it’s like with my own experiences making documentaries, even with a subject a benign as Grace Lee, Asian American women, the nicest people around; there’s always somebody that’s going to turn on you, and you’re never quite sure; and that’s the fear and the tension of the film. [Like] Grace, sometimes documentary filmmakers are so trusting sometimes, there’s an earnestness that [while good to have,] can sometimes backfire.
SF360: Near the end, with John’s situation, you put yourself in a uncomfortable position. Could it be a projection of the fears involved when getting too involved with the subjects in documentary filmmaking, or does it obey the conventions of the zombie genre?
Lee: I don’t know, what do you think? I’m curious to see how people react.
SF360: It was creepy because the [zombie] genre convention tells you that it doesn’t matter if it’s a loved one, you just have to let go, or else he’s going to eat you. You had mentioned in a previous interview, talking about [a dilemma near the end of the film], that it’s one you would hope never to face as a documentary filmmaker.
Lee: Well, yes. That would be ultimately the horrible one; you’ve got to kill your partner! (Laughs). It’s an impossible choice: It’s interesting to fictionalize some of the ethical problems that you could face, but not having to actually go through them. When we were doing the scenes, I felt really bad. I mean, he’s my friend in real life too, and he was like (stern face). But then, at the same time, would you kill him? We’re not that bloodthirsty, right?
SF360: Unlike the private investigator [hired by the zombie’s living relatives to trace their whereabouts].
Lee: Yes, and that’s why I don’t like to call it mockumentary, because I feel it’s too jokey. That’s why I liked more the ‘personal horror film’; for the documentary filmmaker it would be just the worst choice ever.
SF360: For me one, of the best parts is when [you and your crew] go to a sweatshop-type textile company, and the boss you interview is an Asian man, and talking about the ‘immigrants’ working there like ‘who cares [about long hours], they never sleep anyway’. In moments like that, the zombie genre crosses over with social criticism. You chose to make the owner an Asian man; where you worried about stereotyping?
Lee: No, because they exist, and they do take advantage of people.
SF360: And nowadays, there’s First World in the Third World and Third World in the First World….. In closing, what do you hope for audiences to get out of your film?
Lee: I hope they’re entertained. It is a zombie movie, in a way. So I’m not expecting any great social awareness. [Although] I feel there’s a lot to chew on. It’s always fun to make documentaries or fictional documentaries for the crew and the cast, but I hope the audience has fun too, because we really had a great time making it.
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