With the 2019 Dallas International Film Festival in full swing, I had the chance to sit down with Plano native Alex Chi to discuss his most recent film with Gook director Justin Chon. Chi produced Ms. Purple, a tender depiction of the reunion between two siblings at the height of their father's terminal illness. On a warm Sunday afternoon in the lobby of the Canopy Hotel, we discussed the film's heavy themes, the nuances of producing, and the importance of elevating Asian American stories.
LT: Like the moderator mentioned on Saturday, Ms. Purple touches on a lot of different themes, sex work being one of them. I'm curious as to how you all decided to make sex work the means of which Kasie earns money.
AC: In Korean, it's called being a domi. That's something that a lot of people don't know about, but in L.A. and Korea that's something that's underground. In showcasing L.A. and making the story set in Koreatown, we felt like that job not only shows the toxic masculinity that the movie addresses, but something that's still prevalent in Los Angeles. It's something we want to change, but it's something that's still part of the culture there as well.
LT: From being mistreated by her boyfriend-not-boyfriend to grappling with the thought of putting her dad in hospice, Kasie obviously endures a lot throughout the movie. We see her finally reach her threshold with that intense scene in the bar. Why does seeing her new coworker being harassed push Kasie over the edge as opposed to already being mistreated by those men in that room?
AC: We wanted to show that her character throughout is very isolated. Obviously, having her brother come in was important because one of the topics we wanted to talk about is that you're not alone. But as you see throughout the film, while she's working at the karaoke bars, she doesn't reach out. She doesn't talk to anyone else. It doesn't seem like she has any friends and she's in it by herself. So having the character of Cathy, the person who's in the room with her beforehand and asking questions, that sort of relationship and dynamic was important. It wasn't that she was okay with being mistreated by the guys. She understands that's part of her job. And that's the thing with toxic masculinity that we brought up, a lot of the male characters in her life—like her boyfriend—take advantage of her and she kind of just lets it happen. So here, seeing someone else get that kind of abuse, that was a trigger moment. And having all those girls rush in, that was important. When Justin talked about the film, that was the pivotal scene. We wanted to show the support that she had for Cathy and that the other girls had for them because at the end of the day, they're doing this to make a living, to survive. Who knows what their actual story is? But in Kasie's case, it's to provide for her family.
LT: Yeah, and I think that was an important scene because in the beginning, when all the women line up and they're picked one by one, they're trying to outdo their coworkers. Seeing everyone rush in for support despite that competitive atmosphere was really powerful.
I read that you were a soccer player at Harvard. I like to pretend that I'm an athlete, but really, I don't have any moves. How long did you play soccer for, first of all?
AC: (laughs) No worries. I've played since I was 5 years old. I played here in Plano actually. And then I played throughout college, so until senior year. It was something that carried me throughout my life in terms of what my passion was, and afterwards it went from soccer to film.
LT: Do you carry any skills or characteristics of playing soccer into filmmaking?
AC: I would say a big part is teamwork. Soccer is a really important team game for not a lot of rewards. It's not like basketball, where there's a lot of points, a lot of goals scored. It's a very different game. But filmmaking is just as important in terms of building the right team. There are so many departments, so many machines that make a film possible. We're fortunate to work with a lot of good department heads, a lot of people who are good at their specialized jobs. A lot of the Ms. Purple crew were the same for Gook. It's not only building our team, but me and Justin especially are very loyal to the people that we work with and we want to further their career as much as ours. We have the same DP, same composer, same editor, same costume designer, same second AD, co-producer. A lot of the people who made Gook possible made Ms. Purple possible as well.
LT: Wow, that's really cool. I had read about your relationship with Justin and how y'all met, and so would you say that the kinds of projects you take on are more based off having trust in that person you've already worked with or more the substance of the film itself, like what they're proposing?
AC: We just want to tell honest Asian American stories. Justin is an amazing storyteller and filmmaker, so trust is very easy to have with him. After Gook, people were like, "Oh, why don't you do something bigger?" but we still wanted to focus on the Asian American story, so we did something for the same budget as Gook. When we decided to do Ms. Purple, it was a no-brainer. Obviously, the process wasn't always the same, but in terms of the confidence I have in Justin as a filmmaker—it's very easy to have trust in him. So, it's a lot of trust but he's such an honest and raw filmmaker that the substance is always there. That's the most important part for him. As we continue working on similar projects and growing our company, that's our focus too: making sure that no matter what, we stay true to telling minority-centered films and bringing other personalities and characters to the forefront.
LT: That's great. With Gook and Ms. Purple, the themes in both films are really tied to his life. His dad had a shop that was looted in the '92 riots and I had watched the Kickstarter promotional video, where he talked about his own sibling dynamic. So, when it comes to working on a film that is so personal to someone else, how do you collaborate and offer feedback without stepping on their toes?
AC: It's not like we have so many higher-ups that say, "You have to do this, you have to have this scene, this actor, this actor." We can do what we want. My job as a producer is to support him. Obviously, the main issue that I have to talk to him about is budgetary stuff. On the creative side, as you can tell with the past two movies, it's not like I have to go back and forth with him too often 'cause a lot of the stuff that he does, I agree with. He knows what he's doing and we have the luxury of being able to make the movies we want, end it how we want, tell the stories that we want. I, as a producer, support him and make sure he has everything he needs to tell his story.
LT: On that note, you had mentioned that most of what you talk about is related to budget. Did you have any logistical or technical obstacles when producing Ms. Purple?
AC: Ms. Purple was so much harder than Gook. Logistically, it's just locations. Gook was mainly just in one spot in the shoe store. This film had so many locations, so many different characters. Putting that puzzle together was crazy. And being a low-budget film, we can't control all the locations. Like, most people control shooting at a restaurant or shooting at a karaoke place or their house. There were a couple places we had free reign to, but a lot of the places—like the PC room—a lot of the K-town places let us shoot there but it was during their business hours, so we had to be very cognizant of that. That was very difficult to figure out. We had many situations where we had to come back and get it the next day. When you don't have money, you gotta figure it out schedule-wise.
LT: You went straight from majoring in Economics and playing soccer at Harvard, which you had mentioned was your passion, to the film industry. Did you move to L.A. right after college?
AC: Well, I've always loved film and TV, but at Harvard I took film classes as electives and they ended up being my favorite classes. That's what made me pivot and change what I eventually wanted to do. After I graduated, I spent six months in Korea. I worked at a television company over there. After that, I moved back to Dallas. I found an internship here because I had no job experience. Obviously, L.A. was the goal but I wanted to prepare myself as much as possible. I found a production company here that I interned at, that I ended up working at for about a year and a half before I made the move to L.A.
LT: On your IMBD, the credits revolve around production and producing. Is this what you're set on or do you want to venture into other roles?
AC: For me, producing is what my skillset best supports. I love doing it even though it's very difficult. It's like putting together a big puzzle, so that's always great. I also want to tell stories, so maybe dabble in writing down the line. But right now, I like where I am in terms of the production aspect. I've met so many great filmmakers. Working with Justin has been great, but our job as producers is to find the next filmmaker, the next Justin, the next people who want to keep telling minority-centered stories, supporting them in any way. That's why I come to these festivals. At Sundance I met so many different filmmakers, and I just want to keep helping the industry grow.
LT: Considering today's film and television landscape, when it comes to Asian American stories, what are some that you'd like to see that you haven't seen yet?
AC: Obviously, the dream is to have an Asian superhero. I know it's coming out soon, that'll be cool. There aren't specific instances like, "Oh, I want this story to be on TV." I just want people to keep highlighting Asian American stories. Searching was a great movie and the characters didn't need to be Asian, but they were. It's not like that changes the story or the dynamic of it. For me, I have stories I want to tell based on my life. Other filmmakers want to tell their stories. Our job is to find those gems and find a way to support them and highlight them. In terms of specific stories and narratives, I just want—sure, more things like Crazy Rich Asians, that's great as well. But we need to also have more indie films because it's not only the writers and directors, it's also the actors and giving them opportunities to star. In this, we had Tiffany Chu and Teddy Lee. This was Tiffany's first film and this was Teddy's first big film as a main lead. You know, giving them the opportunity to grow their careers. It's important to have indie films for breakout stars to come out. If not, it's the same actors playing these big roles.
LT: And with the lack of representation in the industry, it's crazy how small the Asian American film community is. I had looked up your Facebook—full disclosure—to find out more information about you, and then I landed on Tiffany's profile. I found out that we had 19 mutual friends. And it's odd because when I watched the film, these people you see on screen feel so distant. They're in another world, so when I found that out, I was like, "Whoa." This is a really small world. It's like Asian Twitter.
AC: Yeah, especially in L.A. The community is very supportive. I just feel like we're in the industry at the right time, the movement is coming. People just need to keep putting in the work. I know a lot of filmmakers there. It's great because they're hustling, they're grinding, they're doing their thing, while we're doing our thing as well. And everyone supports each other. That's why we had Kickstarters, that's why we do so many events in L.A., because it's important to make sure that people are putting in the work and are supported.
LT: I majored in film at UC Santa Barbara, but my day job is a designer because I love design and tech but I also love film. As someone who wants to make a film about my coming out process and what it's like to be a queer Asian American woman—just because I feel like they're nonexistent in media—do you have any tips on how to get started?
AC: To be a filmmaker, the most important part is perfecting your craft. That story is very personal to you. Eventually, when you want to tell that story, you need to be ready. It's great to have that story, but it's important to keep telling other stories. Justin told me he did as many shorts as he could and he would help out with his friends' stuff as much as possible. You want the story you tell to be the best possible. As a filmmaker, you want to keep getting better, keep learning how to tell stories, know how to direct. I don't know if you want to write or direct. What exactly is it you want to do?
LT: If it's my coming out story, then I want to do the directing and writing. But when it comes to other productions that are the babies of other people, I'm more interested in being a DP.
AC: Yeah, I would say try to find as many stories as you can to be a DP on. Just learn, watch the director, work with them. That would be the most important part for yourself, as someone who wants to direct her story, that would be the best advice. Keep working on that story, keep writing it, send it to friends, get notes on it. You can always have it on the back of your mind. When you're ready to tell the story, you can do it. It's important to be patient because you want to take your time, but at the same time, just go out and do it. That's our mindset. If that doesn't work out, then tell another story. Just keep telling stories.
LT: I think it's a balancing act. I have so much respect for people who play the long game and I'm quickly learning that this is the long game. I'm watching these films and everyone is like, "I spent two years writing this." I'm like, "TWO YEARS!?!?" They've been in production for so long, and now is when you're finally seeing it.
AC: Yeah, and there's nothing wrong with that as well. At my first production company in L.A., it was the same. We had a lot of projects and it was a typical Hollywood system. Movies kept getting delayed, actor availability, location, money. When I left and started working with Justin, that's what I loved: the urgency of him wanting to tell these stories. For both Gook and Ms. Purple, from when it filmed to when we released at Sundance, it was less than a year. Gook, we filmed in 2016, came out 2017. Ms. Purple, filmed last year, coming out this year. We're just going to keep telling stories and keep grinding.
LT: Okay, last one. Since you're a Plano native, are there any community organizations you want to shout out, who you were involved with during your time here?
AC: Definitely Eyecon Video Productions. I got my internship over there. I learned all the facets of production. Shooting, editing, that's where I got a lot of my technical knowledge. A lot of our work was commercial work, but they were great for being the first to support my dream of being a filmmaker and making it out in L.A.
This interview has been edited for clarity.