Hello Asia editor Johnny Au catches up with Philip Wang and Wesley Chan from popular US film making group Wong Fu Productions. YouTube celebrities, event organisers, music video maker, Asian diversity activists and now film production are all part of the package of what makes up Wong Fu Productions. The crew was in Sydney and Melbourne to premiere their debut full feature film Everything Before Us. Philip and Wes takes us into the making of the film and the innovative funding method used to finance this full length feature. We also chat about the role Asian Americans play in shaping culture as well as the new YouTube Premium series Single By 30.
Wong Fu Productions
Philip: Well the concept we first pitched in March 2012, around the time we last came to Australia. We didn’t start writing until basically December 2013. So it was almost a two and a half year turnaround, but I feel like it could have been faster because we still have to run our YouTube channel so that takes up a lot of time. So we were never actually fully focused on writing the feature, it was always on top of other projects, so that’s why it took that amount of time.
How much of Everything Before Us was based on your personal lives?
Wes: A lot of people ask that. There’s no specific story and it’s not one to one. Ben’s story isn’t one of out stories, but there’s moments that are reflective of our personal lives.
Philip: I think with this film we’ve probably attributed, well we’ve probably taken something from our personal experience and put them into each character a little bit. From the young couples to the more mature relationships, being on both sides of the heartbreak or being the heartbreaker, we’ve kind of all seen it so we put it all in there.
How did the idea for the Department of the Emotional Integrity come about?
Philip: Well we were thinking what if you could know everyone’s history and also what if other people also knew your own romantic history, relationship history etc. How would that affect how you would live your own life? Would you be more careful about what you do? Would you be more honest? Would you judge people? It just started from that concept, and turning into this institutionalised thing. I guess it gave it more of a fantasy aspect and we were trying to show it in a fun way.
Wes: There was always the question of whether something like that would be better for society. If things were monitored, would that actually control how people lived. Would it be more productive for society or would it be some kind of detriment? I always through that if you treat it like when people are heartbroken, if you treat it like they’re actually disabled, then something like this is meant to prevent heartbreak. It would prevent weaknesses in this society and it would be a more oiled machine. But obviously there’s setbacks.
Tell me a little about the two couples in the film – Ben & Sara / Seth & Haley?
Philip: Ben and Sara – they’re the older of the two couples that are in the film. They’ve had a previous relationship before and they’re reconnecting again. After they’ve been separated for a while they have to settle some discrepancies in their DEI score. Ben is this kind of stubborn, very driven guy and I think he’s very emotionally immature. He doesn’t really know how to handle his feelings. And Sara on the other hand I think is a little bit more practical. She has her own dreams of starting a bakery and I think she is ready to move on past this relationship and when she’s drawn back in through Ben, meeting him again and all that nostalgia, old scars kind of get opened up again. That’s kind of where the drama happens
Wes: Seth and Hayley are the ideal high school couple. The love each other to every extent and they believe in each other. They’re innocent, they’re naive. At times it’s almost unbelievable. I think that’s what makes it so heartbreaking when things fall apart because we see how things erode and they realise that there’s more to a relationship.
Philip: I think our goal with these two couples, I mean we’re older too but we’ve been through this young love and now we’re in this more mature stage of our understanding of our emotions. We really wanted people who watched to be able to see themselves in that younger couple and be like “I remember when my boyfriend or girlfriend was my entire world and I thought that was it and that was forever”. We wanted people to be able to relate to that, compared to where they are in their own lives now. That’s kind of where Wong Fu Productions has been doing for many years now through our YouTube channel, telling those stories that are very relatable in terms of relationships.
Talk to me about how you cast the roles for Everything Before Us
Philip: Casting was quite a challenge actually. We made a conscious decision to want to cast Asian American leads. That’s because the landscape in Hollywood, it’s not that accommodating to Asian Americans that are actors. We’re always the sidekicks, we’re always the quirky friend in movies. So for an Asian American to have a lead role where they get to have real emotions, they get to be flawed, they get to be loved, that’e very rare and we wanted to make sure our film kind of helped the community by creating this story and showing that we have this side of us that most of Hollywood doesn’t really show.
So we had a casting call, we had a casting director that was specifically looking for Asian Americans. It was an interesting challenge because the talent that’s out there is actually very limited. I think culturally Asian Americans aren’t encouraged to go into acting, so when you start looking for people to be in your movie there’s not actually that many to choose from. And that’s not to say there’s no good Asian American actors. I think it’s just that this move has so many different characters and they have to all fit perfectly chemistry wise, there’s a lot of moving pieces to find in the couples.
Wes: We intentionally made it very difficult for ourselves, in making a movie about two couples instead of just one. Like Phil said, everything had to fit. So even if we imagined one actor to play a certain role, they would have to fit in the whole ensemble. For that reason we got very lucky because Brandon (Soo Hoo) and Victoria (Park), their look and ages fit perfectly with Aaron (Yoo) and Brittany (Ishibashi). If it were anyone else it would be like I don’t believe they’re in high school, compared to this guy whose clearly in his 30’s pursuing a design job. It all had to make sense visually too.
How do you think Australian audiences will react to Everything Before Us? What do you want them to take away from watching the film?
Philip: I think ultimately I want them to feel proud of us and Wong Fu Productions. I think the last time we came to Sydney we might have even mentioned that we wanted to make a movie. It’s great that a few years later we come back and still have 700 people come out to support us, it’s incredible. To know that we have fans that sticks by us and support what we do really means a lot to us. But there is also pressure to create things they like and enjoy. I hope when they watch it they see a little of themselves in the characters and that draws them into the movie more. I hope they feel proud of the fact that we made the movie and will watch our next movie when we make it.
Wes: There’s two aspects of watching this movie. One is to enjoy the story for what it is and enjoy the characters. The second part is how it pertains to Wong Fu Productions and our journey. This has been a bookmark in our journey and it would not have been possible without the support of our fans.
Everything Before Us was financed through a crowd funding campaign. Were you surprise by the amount you raised at the end of the campaign?
Philip: We were really nervous at the start of the campaign because we have never asked for any direct monetary support from our fans before. We weren’t sure if our fans understood the business side of making a movie – it costs a lot of money to make a film. The amount we targeted for was in fact quite low even for independent film standards, but in everyday terms it was a high number. So we were nervous about how we would be perceived and if our fans would be turned off by it. But we were extremely grateful that everyone got behind it. At the beginning, even though we didn’t have much to show regarding the concept of the movie our fans trusted us. I think that’s the most amazing thing, our fans took our body of work over the past ten years and believed that we will deliver. That means so much to us.
Do you think future Wong Fu Productions
Wes: I wouldn’t say no. I think its a great way to get more people involved. Its a great resource because its the people who care the most. But probably not for the next film, we won’t finance it this way.
Philip: Thankfully as Wong Fu has been growing over the past few years and especially during the screening of the film, we’ve had third party companies that has shown interest in what we were doing. They wanted to be part of the production right from the beginning. So with this in mind I don’t think we would be crowd funding in the near future.
Part of the appeal of Wong Fu Productions is seeing Asians and Asian American depictions in media and culture. What is your current view of Asian Americans in US mainstream media?
Wes: The good thing is that it is the best its been so that means we are still progressing. I think we are very lucky to have a few shows with Asian American families and people in roles like Arden Cho in Teen Wolf so there’s lots to be proud about. What we’ve noticed is the community support and that’s what we want to change. People in the industry are working their butts off to try and get these roles and they have been for a very long time. Now its up to everyone else to watch and support and show that we are behind them and there is a hunger and demand for these roles.
Philip: Its exactly a supply and demand cycle where there are a lot of Asian Americans or Asian Australian consumers who don’t feel they are part of the narrative. Hollywood needs to do a better job but they don’t realise they are part of the formula. If they go see a show and support it, it will show the studios there is a groundswell of people out there who want these types of shows. Consumers need to be aware they have the power to contribute, help and shape culture and if that’s with more Asian Americans on TV then its steps to a bigger grander scheme of making progress to mainstream. At the same time it is also on the writers, actors and producers to support and uplift Asians in the media. So there are two sides that play their part.
Do you think you will ever hold an International Secret Agents event in Australia?
Wes: We would love to! When International Secret Agents first started in the states it was very new and with Far East Movement we were the first to bring together YouTubers to put on shows. Now there’s shows like VidCon and YouTube FanFest with the entire community of YouTubers and social media come together. With Asian American stars there was a lot of shows that came after ISA. We would love to hold one in Australia but I think the troops are busy with their own projects so it will be hard to get everyone together. But will Australia want it? (laughs)
Wes: That will be awesome!
Philip: Its funny because with all the artists we’ve featured on ISA, they have all individually come to Australia. We love to put one on but the scene is different here. You have other people doing shows and YouTubers touring here on their own. We can’t forget its also very expensive to do a ISA show in Australia. That’s the bottom line.
Wes: Maybe there’s a sponsor out there who’s reading this that wants to put their brand on ISA?
What’s next for Wong Fu Productions? What’s on the horizon for you guys?
Philip: Things are pretty exciting for Wong Fu. 2016 is already shaping up to be a pretty busy year. YouTube has started its original programming and its a really exciting time for them. Its a new way of running their business and they picked up one of our pilots to become a series. Its part of their premium content so we’re excited to be part of that select group of creators chosen. We made the pilot early 2015 called Single By 30 and it stars Harry Shum Jr and Kina Grannis. Its going to be a six episode season that’s coming out this year. Its the longest videos we have ever done – its close to three movie’s worth of content. So that’s going to take up the first half of this year. And as I said earlier there are several companies who asked what our next movie is and this model of releasing digitally to fans is working really well. We’re lucky to have fans who support this and we have a lot of ideas we want to make happen. We’re still very passionate about making free quality content on our YouTube channel for our fans who want stories about comedy, romance or whatever.
Or doing BIGBANG dances?
Philip: Yes! BIGABANG dances from our second YouTube channel is a lot of fun. Christine Chen is a big part of that and pushing the growth of our second channel. Its a new way for us to connect with fans and we want to do more with that. Basically everything! 2016 and the future of Wong Fu is everything!
Philip and Wes its great to have you in Australia and thanks for your time today
Philip: Thank you. Good to see you again.
Wes: Thanks Johnny!
Everything Before Us is available online at everythingbeforeusmovie.com
Catch up on the latest Wong Fu Productions news at wongfuproductions.com
Special thanks to Soulmanna Live for the interview opportunity