update 3.14.15: Acceptance is now on youtube for your viewing pleasure. Enjoy. Original post written 5.13.14
Last week I went to the NYIFF- the New York Indian Film Festival for the very first time. I was on Eventbrite doing something for work, when I started clicking around and this caught my eye:
WORLD PREMIERE AT NYIFF 2014
Synopsis – “Acceptance” is a 50-minute international film directed by Ryan Matthew Chan based on a true story about a scholar from India who lies about getting into Harvard. It’s a story about ambition, self-doubt, competition among friends and facing failure. It takes audiences into the world of elite international schools comprised of the world’s richest and most goal-bound kids.
Directed by Ryan Matthew Chan
Feature Film, 51 minutes, English
Cast- Vinesh Nagrani, Ethan Song, Ann Mayo-Smith, Nathan Hartono, Pierre Cassini and Clay Burell
There will be a Post screening discussion with the director
Intrigued by the trailer, (watch above) I canceled whatever plans I had and paid $16 to go watch a 50 minute film that I had never heard of with actors I was not familiar with. Even though it was unknown to me, I just knew it was going to be worth it. Just the idea of a post screening discussion was promising: this guy- still in school but made a film? What? How? I had to see it and find out more.
I thought it was just going to be the screening of Acceptance, but it was actually presented after two Indian short films- Skin Deep and Corner Table. When the theatre went dark and Acceptance finally flashed onto the screen, my immediate first impression was: it does not look like a student made film. Sure, there were some character details I wish they had developed further, but given the running time I was duly impressed. The (first-time) actors were selected well, the soundtrack accompanied the film perfectly and the story was intriguing. All in all it was a professionally made film that successfully reeled the audience into the microcosm of an international school during college admissions. Even though the movie takes place in high school, I could easily relate. The universal topics of ego, societal and cultural pressure and of course the dual meaning of acceptance, are applicable in any life, any country. Surely you know exactly what I’m talking about. Besides its aesthetic, what impressed me was that the movie felt real and personal and it should, since it is based on a true story. (I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of the movie but if you’re interested you can read more in this interview).
As promised, there was a post discussion with the director Ryan Matthew Chan and co-writer Vishnu Hari. Their friendship, synergy and maturity was evident in the way they answered questions together. Turns out that they’ve been friends for years and that they worked on the Acceptance screenplay for about a year and half via Skype with Vishnu studying at the University of Toronto and Ryan at Yale. If that’s not impressive, I don’t know what is. I mean let’s face it. Spare time in college is usually spent killing brain cells so the fact that these two spent time working on Acceptance instead, is praiseworthy.
Naturally, I had to go congratulate them and say hello. I felt like I already knew what kind of people they were because of the movie. Besides, I appreciate anyone who pursues what they love, especially if they are my peers. Recently I had the added opportunity to sit down with Ryan and pick his brain.
When did you first get into film?
I started with animation when I was about 8 or 9. I was inspired by flash cartoons on the Internet (pre-Youtube revolution). I was just fascinated by the idea that you could make these “things” do whatever you want so I began drawing on the computer a lot. As I got older, animation naturally morphed into filmmaking. I got more serious in high school because as my co-writer Vishnu Hari mentioned, the Singapore American School, my high school, offered a lot of film resources which gave us the luxury to experiment.
You’re a double major in film studies and economics. Is that because you wanted both a creative and business understanding or because film studies doesn’t “really count” as a major like economics does?
The major was more about being able to describe myself quickly. Your major sort of follows you for the rest of your life. I love film studies but I’m also fairly quantitative. The second major definitely stretches my comfort zone. That’s how I know I’m learning.
Acceptance was based on a true story, the story of your high school and a lie you experienced firsthand. Would you say your inspiration for characters comes from people you meet?
Vishnu and I use the term “Scholar” to describe original and captivating personalities we meet in real life. It’s sort of like a membership to a club of lovably flawed human beings like everyone you’ll see in Acceptance. I have difficulty inventing characters from thin air. I have to construct them from people who’ve left a mark on me.
When was the first time you showed the final movie?
The first time we showed the final product was August 5, 2013. We had just finished the film the night before. As a matter of fact we were transferring the final film overnight via Amazon Cloud. The morning of, I woke up and realized that the Acceptance file transfer had failed because lightning had struck the house and zapped the Internet. We received the digital copy of Acceptance 2 hours before we had to showcase it to 500 people.
That’s crazy. What was the response like?
I think the audience really related to it, especially the parents. The good thing about the topic of Ivy League admissions is that it’s multi-generational. While younger people relate to the film on a much more personal level, a lot of these parents share similar hopes and dreams for their children so the film naturally becomes relevant to them. The response has been very very good. Of course, how i feel about the film is different than from how the audience sees it- I’m always ten times more critical about my own work than everyone else but overall the response has been surprisingly positive.
What’s the message that you wanted the audience to walk away with?
I would say the power of honesty and forgiveness
Putting your work out there for everyone to see is a very vulnerable endeavor. (I mean, there’s people who get offended when people don’t like their instagram photos). Being creative and creating something is being vulnerable. That being said, how do you feel whenever you present Acceptance to an audience?
Because I’ve presented Acceptance a number of times already, I can foresee the audience response. Of course, while I was editing Acceptance, I was incredibly nervous. I wasn’t sure whether it would make sense; whether it would have an emotional impact or whether it would seem totally amateur. I work very hard to suppress these negative thoughts on a daily basis because fear is the biggest enemy of good creative work. In addition, because I’ve been making films since I was a little kid, it sort of became part of my personality and my character like “Ryan does these little films and he shares them.” With Acceptance the biggest fear I had was that if the audience didn’t enjoy it, they would pity me and the team. I think that’s the part that would make me feel uncomfortable. But intuitively I know that this is not the right fear to have. It’s too easy to push things off into the future when “I’m better.” I need to fail now. I need to keep failing. Just less each time.
Do you think your age- being 21 and the fact that you’re a student- has helped you or hurt you?
It helps a lot. The younger you are, the more forgiveness you will get. People are much more willing to work for free and make room for mistakes. Pretty much everyone on the Acceptance cast and crew was in his or her late teens or very early twenties. Also – narratively speaking – I think there’s also a huge benefit to being not-so-far removed from the whole international school experience that defines Acceptance. The stakes of the characters still matter to me because it happened so recently. This really gives me the fire to forge a compelling and brutally honest universe. The scary thing about getting ready to make the film was that I knew the stars were aligning. I could see them. I knew this film gets made now or never. Because there was a tremendous risk that five years down the road the memories of Singapore and all its enchantment would fade. The soreness in my heart would have been lost and the idea of lying about getting into Harvard wouldn’t seem like THAT big of a deal. The moment the character’s objective seems frivolous to you, that’s when you fall out of love.
Where do see yourself in 5 years as a filmmaker?
I really hope to bring the TCK (Third culture kid) mentality to cinema. That means not dividing people according to geography or race. It’s about having a global perspective on stories. It’s about going to countries that haven’t had that much media attention and finding these really brilliant stories that are timely, sincere and DIFFERENT. I’m a little annoyed when I see Asia being portrayed as a place where only abuse, poverty and misery exists. Certainly there is a time and place for “social issue films” but they must originate from the heart rather than a desire to win a film festival.
Whether you realize it or not, you have people looking up to you. People who have always wished to do and make things that are different than what they are doing now. People with secret dreams. What do you have to say to them?
Firstly, I’m really privileged and lucky to have a family that is very supportive. I’m also really lucky to have come from Singapore and a supportive government that is willing to promote the arts. Because I’m not working yet, I feel like it’s so difficult to offer anyone fair advice. Financial pressure is a huge reason why people have difficulty switching careers or committing to the arts. I would surmise that youth is the best window of time to pick your path because that’s when you’re really building the foundations of your “being.” Once you begin climbing the tree of life, its very hard to leap to another tree. Sure, you can try out a few new branches, but a whole new tree will take an appetite for risk. Is it possible? I think so. Is it easier when you are young? Much. So right now this is the stage where you are truly deciding what kind of person you want to be. I really believe the world would be a better place if people followed their hearts just because when you do that, you’re not thinking about things like money or fame, or anything that is remotely materialistic. You’re really doing it because it is your life.
Who do you admire?
I took a class on Martin Scorsese and we watched every single film he did, from his first all the way up to The Wolf of Wall Street. The amazing thing about Scorsese is that he popularized the italian mobster and no one has been able to do it as well as he did. He lived it. He experienced it and he managed to make a group of people into a total genre film. I see him as an ethnic filmmaker and I think that is a big part of what i do too.
Another person I admire is Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of Singapore. He built a nation that was at once nothing but a pirate bay filled with opium, gangsters and no natural resources. When you see the stunning wide shot of the Singapore skyline in Acceptance (see above), you’re looking at Lee Kuan Yew’s lifelong work. He famously said, “whoever governs Singapore must have that iron in him,” and I think what he means is that great leadership starts with great belief. His vision for a multi-national, 21st century digital city came into being after a life time of persistence. I really admire his clarity of thought and his unbiased approach to leadership. He knows how to get things done and, moreover, with impeccable taste.
Has anything changed ever since Acceptance?
I feel like people understand me better as a person. The work is so personal that you can almost kind of get to know my world. In some way it makes it easier to talk to me.
You made this film when you were 19, and naturally a lot has changed since then. How have you evolved as a filmmaker?
It’s made me more apprehensive just because I had no idea what my best effort would look like when I was 19. Now I have an idea. Of course I’m always worried about not being able to live up to it again. The thing that has helped me evolve is honestly finding people who are around my age who can give me honest critique, honest support. I love to give and I love to trade. It’s definitely made me a lot more selfless as a filmmaker and as I’ve aged.
In the credits it says you wrote, directed, edited and produced Acceptance. What’s your favorite role?
I co-wrote it. It’s really important that I acknowledge Vishnu Hari’s contributions because he is a masterful writer of dialogue and a gifted story-teller. I’ve seen many other student’s screenplays and I haven’t read anything quite like Vishnu’s so I just want to give him a shoutout. We work really well together because we don’t step on each others toes in the screenwriting department. In terms of favorite part of the filmmaking process, I would say the direction, just because my voice comes from the visuals and the director really is able to use the camera to make people feel a certain way without telling them anything whereas the screenplay evokes emotion through language. The beautiful thing about visuals is that you can create feelings that people have trouble describing and I love that.
Asians are becoming more prevalent in mainstream media. What do you think is the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for Asians in media?
A lot of people think it’s a market that we can’t understand. A market that isn’t strong enough. Asia is a new and exciting marketplace for American media. I know I’m taking the less commercial route by targeting groups that are not necessarily American, but I would rather have 100% of a small group of people- a loyal fan base that feels connected to the work- than do something general with hopes of appealing to everyone by being plain average.
Every creative who is really good at what they do has a unique perspective/style. Wong Kar Wai is highly stylized and visually unique… James Cameron is action packed and adventurous. What would you say is the Ryan Matthew Chan style?
Hmm. I have a very digital aesthetic. Sort of trancey and peaceful – almost like a perfected memory. I think I get that from my father. He’s an architect who was one of the pioneers of neo-tropical architecture in Singapore. It’s very modern, very minimalist, but very slick. Everything feels like it’s levitating and it makes you feel at peace. I like any film style that puts you in state of trance or hypnosis.
Some fun questions:
What is your favorite piece of film equipment?
I really like the dolly on wheels because you can ride it like a tricycle. You use your feet to basically run on the wheels like a treadmill and it propels you forward.
What’s one of your favorite movies?
I love The Social Network. It was one of those movies that addressed a very specific issue and it did it so well that it became universal. I also love the fact that it was one of the first movies to be shot digitally. I love the aesthetic and visually, David Fincher has inspired me so much. It’s also where I found out about Aaron Sorkin. What I liked was that everything was so tense from start to finish. I thought it was a great structural piece.
What actor would you one day like to work with?
I know it’s so cliche, but Brad Pitt.
Fill in the blank: in business i am generous, In life I am overly sentimental
What is a recent movie (within the last year) that you really enjoyed?
The Spectacular Now directed by James Ponsoldt (trailer above). He’s a Yale graduate and I once had the privilege of attending a talk and getting to meet him. I don’t know if you’ve seen The Spectacular Now but it’s probably one of most realistic, down to earth teenage romance movies I have ever seen. I could sense that the director behind it knew how to be vulnerable and I really liked it.
So what’s next for Acceptance? You’ve been sending it out to film festivals. What was that like?
It’s been very difficult. We got accepted to two and we got rejected from a lot of them. The weird thing is that judge feed back has been positive. I understand how our 50-minute time length makes it less amenable. We’re hoping to put it on netflix and itunes. That’s our goal.
What else can we look out for?
We’re working on a film called of the Magic of 2010. I can’t tell you much about it..except that it plays with the idea of home. It’s my senior thesis and it’s only 20 minutes, not as big as Acceptance.
After talking with Ryan, I have no doubt that this is just the beginning of a prolific career ahead. His passion, resourcefulness and commitment to excellence will take him far in business and life. Not to mention, his ability to follow through with his vision-create something out of nothing- will be helpful as an aspiring filmmaker.
What a scholar.
The future holds endless opportunity as the landscape of media changes, the image of Asians in media is redefined and more universal stories with broad global appeal appear (hello, Crazy Rich Asians). Needless to say I’m really looking forward to what’s in store for Ryan and I’m excited to see the third culture kid mentality become more prevalent.
For updates on the movie and where you can watch it, you can follow the Acceptance facebook page. Can’t wait? You can watch an interview Ryan did with Yale (even though its from a year ago it’s still good) or read a few other interviews.
Oh and the soundtrack I mentioned earlier? It’s completely original and awesome. You can listen to it here. (My favorite track is “Flares“). Even better, support the artists and buy the album on itunes.
Thank you so much Ryan for taking the time to share your thoughts with me! Congratulations on your world premiere and first film festival.
If you want to hear a bit of Vishnu’s (the co-writer’s perspective) take a look at this video!
All the best in business and life,
“Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”-Bruce Lee
Read related posts
Now I’m inspired to really work on that book I’ve always wanted to write…
You can always see what I’m up to via instagram and/or….