Justin Chon is no doubt one of the most talented, rising Asian American actors of his generation, having been in films such as Twilight (and other entries in the series), Revenge of the Green Dragons and 21 & Over, as well as hit independent films like Seoul Searching, Innocent Blood, and Hang Loose. Belonging to a generation that also includes Miles Teller (who he starred alongside in 21 & Over), he showcases strengths that extend to other endeavors, such as filmmaking. Man Up (2015) is Chon’s first feature film, which he directed, co-wrote (with Kevin Wu), executive produced and stars in. It made its premiere at CAAMFest at the beginning of the year, and will now screen at the 2015 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival this Sunday, April 26th: Tickets. The film was also recently acquired by Lakeshore Entertainment’s recently formed "Off The Dock" studio, and will see a digital/VOD as well as a limited theatrical release this Summer. I got the chance to sit down and talk with Chon, who discusses various aspects of the directing craft, why he set the movie in Hawaii, and how he saw The Farrelly Brothers’ Dumb and Dumber (1994) – a major influence on his film – at least seven times, in theaters, when it first came out.
So you decided to set the film in Hawaii: could you talk about the inspirations behind setting in there and the basic idea(s) behind the film?
I really wanted to make the movie for my 12 year old self. The reason why I set it in Hawaii was because Kevin and I are obviously Asian American, and Hawaii is predominantly Asian American, but Hawaii is one place where Asian Americans feel like they belong or are the majority. There, being "Asian American" is not really an issue – so I wanted the film to be more about the characters than their ethnicities.
Hawaii is also beautiful. I love Hawaii and if I could live in Hawaii, I would, but I have to work in LA. Because this movie comes from more of a teenage voice – when you’re a teenager, everything is really, really important – everything is of a paramount, utmost importance – and because Hawaii is so beautiful, there are a lot of contrasts. For example, around these kids are some of the most beautiful locations on Earth – I wanted to show that you can have a lot of wideshots of very beautiful landscapes – but these settings can still be used to tell a story about the most mundane things. So, the dimension with these beautiful surroundings was an inspiration for the storyline. Even if some of these kids in the film deal with problems like getting themselves pregnant, the message is that you have to take a moment and appreciate what you’ve got instead of what you don’t have.
Did you and Kevin work together to come up with the story/screenplay?
Yeah, so at the time [of writing the screenplay] I had broken up with a girl who had a kid, and Kevin told me how he had dated a Mormon girl back in high school. So we thought about what would Kevin’s life be like if he had gotten that girl pregnant. Therefore, the inspiration behind the screenplay was autobiographical and personal from both of our ends.
How was it your first time directing a feature film?
I’ve done a lot of short films before, plenty of short films that no one has ever seen, including some that I hope never get out because they are horrible. To be honest, I like the short form. It forces you to have to get to the point of the story, or what the film/story is really about. Making a feature was definitely a challenge and a lot more work than I thought it was going to be, but it was also extremely fulfilling.
Did you have any influences you drew from, either from past directors you worked with or filmmakers you admire?
I think for every director that I’ve ever worked with in the past, there was something I admired about the way that each of them worked. Whether it was talking to actors, or even post-production e.g., how they put everything together for the finished product. I feel that I’m not really close to the level of some of the directors I’ve worked with, and directing my own feature has been very humbling, but the amount that I’m able to learn from the directors I’ve worked with is really infinite. Our budget was also just $200k, so everything had to be really practical. I’ve also been inspired by directors like Michel Gondry, Jim Sheridan, The Farrelly Brothers and others; there are just so many directors that I love.
I also noticed that the film was a throwback to sort of the buddy comedies of the 90s?
The film is 100% a throw back to buddy comedies, my main inspirations being Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (1989) and Dumb & Dumber (1994). When Dumb & Dumber came out, I saw it in the theaters 7 times.
Amazing. Maybe later on you and Kevin can do a buddy cop movie or something.
That’d be awesome.
How did your experience as an actor influence your directing style?
We did a lot of rehearsal before. A lot of people think that we did improv for most of the scenes, but everything was actually scripted. Probably over 90%. We just rehearsed it a lot, and rehearsal was just an important thing. After making my own movie, I feel directors have the hardest job, because I can see how difficult it is to have to focus on so many things at once. Sometimes you are really supposed to be focusing on what is in front of the camera or the actors, but there are always so many other things to worry about. If I do direct another film, I think I would just do a lot more rehearsal.
Are there any plans for you to direct more in the near future?
Directing more movies is definitely where I want to go, but the question is if people want to see them, which is sort of the thing. Anyway, my main job is acting, so it’s hard to just drop everything and direct a project. If I can figure out a way to balance my acting with other projects better, I would definitely love to direct more.
Technical details: how long did it take to shoot? What cameras were used? What did you use to edit?
The shoot itself was 22 days, so over a period of 4 weeks. We also shot on RED EPICS. We shot wide camera for a lot of it but 2 cameras for some of it – for 2 cameras, the lighting gets tricky e.g. ,lighting for both sides, so we would often do a close and a medium at the same time. We also edited on Final Cut Pro. A lot of the film I edited myself – we had an editor that sort of went through a first crack then we spent the rest of the year screwing with it. I’m also better at FCP than Adobe Premiere. As for post-production, I had Jay Hanamura and Gabriel Yanagihara do some VFX on the titles, and effects people like Lana Dang and Kenson Lee do some of the animation in certain segments. They were lifesavers.
What are your thoughts – having been both behind and in front of the camera now – on the current landscape of Asian American media, film, TV, etc.?
Its really opening up now. At this year's LAAPFF, I got to see Wong Fu’s first feature film and a feature version of K-Town Cowboys, which started out as a popular web series. I also feel that there’s an audience for all of these projects – I think the main motivating factor behind making “Man Up” was to tell a story that was closer to my own real-life experiences, and seeing that up on the screen. I feel our generation is a generation of go-getters that will just go and do it, versus waiting around with excuses. Especially with digital, we can do that. So I think there will be more and more Asian content creators to make the diversity, quality and quantity of content grow. I think watching the next generation below us develop will also be very exciting.
Any dream projects?
There is a project I would love to do or help develop based on a group of teenagers who leave the States to join a Libya rebel army. As for being in certain movies, there’s not really a checklist for me, whatever at the moment is exciting that I feel I would like to do is always changing – maybe something action-oriented would be cool.
What’s next for you?
I am writing something else. I will also probably be doing a movie every month from May until December. I don’t want to disclose any of the details to distort people’s expectations, but I can say the majority of them are indie films, and one of the indie films has a sizable budget – technically, an indie film with a small studio budget.
What’s next for the film?
“Man Up” will have a limited release in theaters during the Summer. There will also be a digital/VOD release soon. Also, make sure to catch it this Sunday 4/26 at LAAPFF 2015. Ticketing information.