I’m going to my first movie screening in LA this week, and what makes it doubly special is that I’m going to support someone and something that I’ve been keeping my eye on for years now. I’ve blogged about Ryan Matthew Chan and how he in his early 20’s created Acceptance, a film that introduces the “Third Culture Kid” perspective, something I wish I saw more often in theatres. Derek Ting is also someone who seems to have a knack of creating movies that depict the stories I know are true/exist/can relate to, but ahead of his time and for a broader audience. Needless to say, I’m inspired by both of these gentlemen as they 1) really wanted to do something and 2) went and did it in a big way- maybe/technically without “credentials,” or “experience’ but with a solid team and vision to see it through.
I first came across Derek Ting when I saw the trailer of $UPERCAPITALIST, the first independent US-China co-production. This financial thriller is about a young and ambitious hedge fund trader from New York, who is sent to Hong Kong to orchestrate a mega deal. Think Wall Street meets The Firm out in Asia. I first discovered the trailer in 2012, when I saw and had friends who started to get immersed in the world of Finance, something that was unfamiliar to me.
Fast forward a few years later and Derek’s latest movie Always, the romance drama I’m seeing this week, is quite different.
Sounds pretty straightforward- a movie is a movie just watch it, right? Well, besides the fact that Derek has accomplished something by creating this movie, we both spent some formative years in New York and we both have made considerable changes in our life… if anything, I had to ask some questions.
When someone asks what you do- what do you say? You are Actor/Writer/Producer/Director?- which is your favorite role?
Filmmaker because every position is essentially playing a role in the making of a film. I fell in love with acting in my last year at Cornell University (where I studied Statistics), when I took an introductory class as an elective. I remember my final class performance was exhilarating and I knew in my heart it was something I wanted to do as a career, I just didn’t quite know how. I didn’t get serious about it until the 9/11 terrorist attacks. That’s when I decided life’s too short to not pursue your dreams, so I methodically broke down what it took to become a working actor. After a few years of good milestones: representation, classes, national commercials, bit parts, I realized the only way for me to achieve my dream was to write and create my own roles. Producing, writing, and directing, are roles that I have discovered, developed, and enjoy in the process.
Describe what the movie Always is about in a sentence:
We explore the conflict between fate vs. family when Hong Kong’s international vortex unites Liam Chan, a successful lawyer in Hong Kong, and Yan Li, a Shanghainese heiress to a hotel empire.
(Watch the “Always” Trailer below)
What is the biggest difference between Supercapitalist and Always?
The story telling. Supercapitalist’s is a classical( but complicated) plot driven single arc hero’s journey. It’s structured as a superhero in the finance world. Always, is a character driven multi-character multi-arc story.
Supercapitalist took 6+ years to make. (Side note: I don’t think I’ve done anything for 6 years but that’s besides the point..) How long did it take for you to make Always from start to finish?
It took us less than 3 years. It could have been shorter, but I took breaks in the middle to let the project breathe and fine tune the process. I also had to bootstrap the movie. I raised only enough to produce the movie at the risk that I was self directing. I had a lot of anxiety on set that I had not properly shot each scene and that we didn’t have enough shot. After seeing the rough cut, our Executive Producers all agreed that they liked the movie and wanted to finance the post production.
Where does the inspiration for your movies come from?
I like to listen to my surroundings, the people I meet. I think about what hasn’t been done before, so if I hear or think of something that intrigues me and is unique, that story goes into my list of ones to tell. If it’s highly relevant and fits with my career, then I pursue it.
Always is a love story, but it says a lot about today’s society. Liam is a successful “loser” in that he’s worked all his life to get to a prestigious law firm, but when he’s reached his goals he discovers he’s even more lost than ever. Yan is a Shanghainese heiress to a hotel empire searching for a way out of her destiny of running her father’s company. Asia is growing rapidly, and I am seeing it first hand, so this story was chance for me to tell the story of these future leaders, what are their core motivations and struggles.
I think we all don’t lack ideas for movies. The challenge is finding something relevant, forward thinking, and pushes the boundaries of originality. At least, those are my requirements for a movie idea to be really worth pursuing. Finally, I test the idea, the script, the rough cut with people I trust. If they don’t think it’s strong, or get excited, or are lackluster about it, you know something has to be fixed, or put it away for another time.
What do you look for when casting? How do you approach that process?
The traditional model for films nowadays is to cast a big name first. In this case we were looking for a needle in a haystack: an English speaking beautiful smart Chinese woman. We cast in Hong Kong, Beijing, Los Angeles, and New York. Ultimately, we decided to cast Danni Wang because she fit the role the best. It wasn’t an easy decision because of business implications of not having a star (knowing full well I’m not a star either…), but ultimately, we feel a movie is a product, so you work with the best fit person, not the best person to market the film.
Ultimately, is this person the best actor for the job? What does that mean you ask? it means: 1. are they good actors who study their craft, do they fit the role? Do they want the role badly enough? Are they easy to work with? How well do they complement the rest of the cast? I also evaluate actors on how well they promote themselves. I tend to reuse actors that help promote the film. A lot of actors don’t know how to do this.
Why did you choose to act in your own movie?
As a producer and director I have to be honest with myself. So I ask myself if I am the best fit for the role, if I’ll work the hardest not only during the shoot, but throughout the whole process. I had to pitch our investors that I was doing so many tasks, and they all approved. Thankfully, they had more confidence in my abilities than I did.
Would you say that filmmaking is a very personal endeavor or an escapism of sorts? I was watching an interview with Ang Li and he described filmmaking as a spiritual journey.
During the process, you learn a lot about yourself because you make a million choices just to finish the film. You also realize that a lot of things are out of your control, and you can’t fight that. You pray for the best outcome. Any venture or project that is so competitive, so many moving parts, will test you mentally, physically, and spiritually. I guess that’s why all the veterans tell me it’s a miracle we even got 1 off the ground. Now it’s 2!
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from all of this and how do you feel whenever you present your work to people?? Is it an exhale or bundle of nerves?
I actually get overly excited to share it with people. However, there are a lot of negative people who want to see you fail.
The truth is in the results. $upercapitalist had financial experts (Forbes, Dealbook NY Times, etc) saying good things about the film and we have sales to show that reception from a variety different types of audiences. North America to China, to countries like Germany, Turkey, and Spain (Supercapitalist is in more than 20 countries now).
How do you feel about premiering in LA?
For LA, we are looking to have an awesome time, and it’s really for our supporters. We’re bringing them to an awesome place to celebrate: Arclight Hollywood and it will be a once in a lifetime experience.
What’s the intention you had with Always? What’s the message you want the audience to walk away with?
I miss the creative spirit of the movies. There is something very manufactured nowadays. So, I think if you walk away feeling something, I’m happy.
Asians are becoming more prevalent in mainstream media. What do you think is the biggest challenge and biggest opportunity for Asians in media? What do you hope to see change?
I hope that Asians realize we aren’t entitled to anything in mainstream media. It’s a shame we get overlooked, misrepresented, stereotyped…but it’s only up to Asians to do something about it. The biggest opportunity is that our stories and perspectives are new and relevant, and fewer in supply. You want to have a product where there’s demand. Fortunately, we have a unique perspective having lived in Asia for 10+ years but a Western upbringing. It allows us to take a very balanced professional approach to filmmaking.
Some fun questions:
Fill in the blanks: In business I am myself in life I am myself.
What actor/director/person would you like to work with someday: Josh Whedon. He’s ahead of his time. Watch Firefly, the characters were mixing mandarin and English together on a major TV show 15 years ago.
What are some movies or directors that have inspired you (or people who inspire you in general)?
George Lucas! Did you know that Brian De Palma(Scarface, Heat, etc.) said Star Wars was crap after he saw the rough cut?…Of course, I’d love to work with Brian de Palma too…
Tony Gilroy: Michael Clayton…
Best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten?
When I asked a pastor if he thought it was possible for me to achieve my dreams, he calmly remarked, “Nothing is certain”.
What movie or project do you have in mind next? Where do you see yourself in 5 years as a filmmaker?
I’ve been building towards action/sci-fi. I see myself doing big blockbusters, and small indie films, and having the choice to pick and choose projects that I think will push and challenge me.
Who or what could you not have done all of this without?
My wife, family, investors, friends sponsors, the list is very long.
What’s something about you people would be surprised to know?
I’m an introvert, I don’t like dressing up, and I’m naturally lazy.
Something you wish you knew when you were 24?
Be honest with yourself with what you want to do, and then quit wasting time doing everything but what you were born to do.
Congratulations Derek on your 2nd film. A film where every last dollar was stretched and every drop of your soul was poured into.
I’m looking forward to being a part of the LA event, now that I’m here on the west coast for my own LA adventure.
I haven’t watched a movie in theatres for awhile, and to watch Always- be taken on a journey, with characters I care about and identify with, to see and share new perspectives… and to support you in your own creative journey while I carve my own….means so much to me.
Cheers to those who end up doing things almost opposite from where they began,
For some more inspiration, watch Derek speak at TEDx Happy Valley. (An oldie but a goodie and quite frankly everything I’m experiencing now. )
The LA premiere is now sold out (you can join the waitlist here), but if you’re in NY get your tickets in advance for the premiere happening on September 15th here:
And for those who can’t make either.. it’ll come out on video on demand in October. Stay tuned!
What do you think? Will you be at the premiere? Let me know in the comments
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