How Crazy Rich Asians Went from Book to Movie

During a college creative writing course, Kevin Kwan wrote a poem entitled “Singapore Bible Study”. The poem was about a study group — but there was more gossiping and showing off new jewelry than studying. A few years later, he began rewriting that poem into a scene. That scene ended up being chapter 2 of Crazy Rich Asians. 

It was that chapter that gave Kwan the momentum to write a novel. Yet, it was a story he was brought up to never talk about — at least to avoid sharing with those on the outside. He was unaware of his status. With a wealthy family tree that had roots all the way back to the year 946, Kwan lived a privileged childhood, although not to the extent of those characters in his imagination. And it wasn’t until he moved to America that he understood what luxury he came from.

In 2010, his father passed away — and Kwan felt it was the right time to reconnect with his past. It was perhaps a morbid reason, but Kwan, who was currently working as a creative consultant in New York, didn’t know how much time he (or anyone) would have left. 

It was through heartbreak and history that emboldened Kwan to write Crazy Rich Asians — and ignite the flame for Asian American authors and filmmakers for the coming generations. This is how Crazy Rich Asians went from bestseller to blockbuster hit.

The Novel

Kevin Kwan’s families consisted of three major clans: the Hus, the Ohs, and the Kwans. They had a hand in inventing Tiger Balm, founding Singapore’s oldest bank (the Overseas-Chinese Banking Corporation), and establishing the Hinghwa Methodist Church. Among many accolades, his paternal grandfather was even knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his philanthropies. In addition, they lived in some of the grandest homes in Singapore including an estate previously occupied by the sultan of Johor, the ruler of Malaysia.  

During this time, wealthy Chinese families were educated in English colleges and universities, and that included Kevin Kwan himself. He studied at the Anglo-Chinese School, and didn’t speak a word of Mandarin, and neither did his parents, who worked as an engineer and a pianist. 

Kwan’s family was indeed wealthy, but the old money that had been trickling down for generations had mostly dried up by the time Kevin was born. While he was privileged, he was not on the same level as some of the characters in Crazy Rich Asians. Nevertheless, he remembered his home in Singapore when growing up. It was on a hill with a panoramic view. From his bedroom, he could see for miles. Sadly, that estate that housed multiple generations of Kwan’s family no longer exists. As Singapore’s development expanded in the 90s, Kwan’s family home was demolished and four separate homes now occupy the property. 

At the age of 11, his family, along with his two older brothers, immigrated to Clear Water, Texas. Kevin Kwan missed many aspects of his Singaporean lifestyle, but there was one key person that he missed the most: his journalist aunt. It was his aunt that invited interesting characters to the house: painters, sculptors, and writers. She also had regular lunches with fascinating people such as royalty, business people, and art collectors. It was she that brought Kevin into that world and opened his imagination. 

This perhaps encouraged Kwan to pursue the arts. After graduating from the University of Houston-Clear Lake with a BA in Media Studies, Kwan moved to Manhattan and earned a BFA in Photography at Parsons School of Design. Afterward, Kwan was employed by Andy Warhol’s Interview Magazine and Martha Stewart Living, as well as working at — famous graphic designer, Tibor Kalman’s design firm — M&Co. In 2000, Kwan opened his own creative consulting company which served high-profile clients that included TED, Museum of Modern Arts and The New York Times. 

When his father was diagnosed with cancer, Kwan took 18 months off work and returned to Texas to take care of him. He had to drive his father back and forth to daily doctor appointments in Houston. There the two of them spent the time while commuting recounting old family memories and the days back in Singapore. It was during those conversations he realized that there was so much he didn’t know about his family’s history. To contain all his thoughts, explore his ancestry, and mourn his father during that emotional time, Kwan wrote.

In two years, he completed half the manuscript, but it was his literary agent Alexandra Machinist that encouraged him to write the ending with a timeline of 2 months. Kwan was able to accomplish that and the timing could not have been better.   

He noticed there was a gap in contemporary Asian literature. Most of what he saw on the market involving Asian culture was historical fiction or Asian-American identity. Asia had changed a lot since the 20th century. There has been a lot of financial reports in magazines such as Forbes announcing that there are more billionaires in Asia than anywhere else in the world. While reports may show the numbers, Kwan wanted to show the family aspect, or as he puts it, he wanted to tell the story of the Downton Abbey of Asia

The challenge was to make the story approachable to an American audience. He didn’t think it would be a book people in Asia would be interested in. He said, “They have their own stories, this is old hat for them.” That was how Crazy Rich Asians focused on an Asian American visiting Singapore. Telling the story from the eyes of Rachel Chu, a New York university economics teacher and an Asian outsider allowed him to bridged the gap between worlds. An Asian American may think she knows what she is getting herself into, but she has no idea.  

On June 11, 2013, Crazy Rich Asians was published and received overall positive reviews. A New York Times review claims, “Mr. Kwan knows how to deliver guilty pleasures.” Yet, it was not the Asian community that initially embraced the novel, and Kwan somewhat anticipated that. He claimed that Asian Americans were so used to being disappointed by anything portraying their culture that they naturally approached anything as such with suspicion. The title, of course, didn’t help either. 

It was the fashion industry and the community in the Upper East Side of Manhattan that became an ambassador for Kwan’s novel. One strategy implemented was to leave copies of Crazy Rich Asians on every seat of the Hampton Jitney, a charter bus service for Manhattanites who don’t have private planes, as Kwan puts it. 

Perhaps the most notable promotion for Crazy Rich Asians, was when Anna Wintour, the editor-in-chief of Vogue, published an excerpt of the novel in an issue of the magazine. This brought the novel to new heights. Crazy Rich Asians will continue its rise from there. But not without some friction.

The Movie

As the story was gaining interest in Hollywood, Kwan remembered a movie producer reaching out with a proposal for a movie deal and a request to turn the main character, Rachel into a white girl. Kwan never responded. 

That wouldn’t be the only offer for Kwan. The calls began to pour in. One of the first was movie producer and investors of Snapchat, Uber, and Warby Parker, Wendi Deng Murdoch who received an early manuscript from Vanity Fair editor, Graydon Carter. 

Then there was this surreal “beauty contest” day in 2013 that Kwan and his agent remembered well. A creative consultant that worked with Oprah Winfrey and Kate Spade flew them to Los Angeles where they met with executives from major studios such as Fox and Lionsgate.

But in the end, it was producer Nina Jacobson that won over Kwan with her passion and acquired the rights to adapt Crazy Rich Asians into a film.  

In 2007, after Jacobson was terminated from her role as president of Disney’s Buena Vista subdivision, she partnered with Brad Simpson to start an independent film studio, Color Force. Up to this point, Color Force’s most notable releases were the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series and the Hunger Games series, two other literary adaptations.  

At first, Jacobson considered financing the movie outside of the American studio system. This would give them the freedom to have an all-Asian cast, but the risk of doing so may cause the movie to fall out of relevancy and be unseen. Luckily, by 2014, Ivanhoe Pictures have signed on with Color Force to fund the picture. Previous productions for Ivanhoe Pictures include: Kite Runner, United 93, and MoneyBall — as well as other foreign pictures from Asia. 

President of Ivanhoe Pictures, John Penotti had little doubts about signing on. It was what Ivanhoe Pictures was all about. While other studios were worried about an all-Asian cast, this was the type of movie that he and his organization were eager to make. Greenlit and ready to go with a budget of $30 million, the two studios set off to make North American cinema history. 

Screenwriter Peter Chiarelli, known for The Proposal and Now You See Me 2, was hired to script Crazy Rich Asians. He was brought on before a director was hired. It took until May 2016, until the studios entered negotiation with director Jon M. Chu, who had directed the sequel to Step It Up, Jem and the Hologram, and Now You See Me 2, where he worked with Chiarelli. 

Incidentally, Chu was loosely mentioned in Kwan’s novel, as Kwan knew Chu’s cousin Vivian and passingly regarded them in the book as the Chu’s of Silicon Valley. But that wasn’t the reason Jon Chu won the job. Chu gave a presentation to Color Force and Ivanhoe Pictures describing his experience as a first-generation Asian-American. His presentation included a picture of himself as a little boy and his family. His dad owned a renowned Chinese restaurant in Palo Alto and as Jacobson recalled, he and his four siblings were all dressed like the Kennedy’s. Identifying as an American but having the visual knowledge of Asia, Chu got the trust of the studios and for the first time as a director felt as though he would be working on a project that will bring his name to the forefront. 

One of the first action Chu took once getting the gig as the director was to hire a writer of Asian descent to go over Chiarelli’s script. Adele Lim, Malaysian-American screenwriter, who spent most of her career writing for television, including shows such as Las Vegas, One Tree Hill, and Dynasty, was considered perfect not because of her writing experiences but rather her life experiences: Lim’s parents live in Singapore and her husband is caucasian. Chiarelli was said to have focused the script on the plot while Lim added specific cultural details to the story. 

It was this distinction that ended up causing a divide between her and the studio, who were paying Chiarelli significantly more than Lim: at a rate of approximately 8 to 10 times more. The studio claims that the rates are based upon industry standards, which evaluate the experience of the writer. To make an exception for Lim during the negotiation for the Crazy Rich Asians sequels was to set a bad precedent. Lim took it as a slight from the studio, viewing her contribution to be merely “soy sauce” on top of a meal, and declined the partnership with Chiarelli again.

There was indeed something empowering when working on this movie. A Hollywood romantic comedy with an all-Asian cast was the first of its kind, but filling the roles was not easy for Chu. Before casting began, Chu offered up a dream list or what he called “The Avengers of Asian Actors,” included on the list was martial arts legend, Michelle Yeoh most notable for her role in Crutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; rising star of British television series Humans, Gemma Chan; Silicon Valley’s Jimmy O. Yang, Daily Show correspondent, Ronny Chieng; and Fresh Off the Boat’s Constance Wu. 

In 2016, Constance Wu auditioned for the role of Rachel. Jon Chu as good as offered the part to her, but due to a scheduling conflict with her television series, Wu was put in a tough position. Contractually, she would have to turn Crazy Rich Asians down. But Wu didn’t give up — how could she? She remembered 10 years of her life waitressing in order to make ends meet. She now played an important role for Asian American actors on television — as Fresh Off the Boat was the first American sitcom with a core Asian cast — and couldn’t simply pass on an opportunity to experience the same impact on cinema. 

Wu wrote a letter to Chu expressing her connection to the character of Rachel. “Dates are dates,” she wrote, “and if those are immovable, I understand. But I would put all of my heart, hope, humor, and courage into the role.” Her passion wasn’t ignored by Chu, who would go on and delay production of Crazy Rich Asians by approximately 5 months to April 2017. And with that, the role of Rachel was cast. 

Next was to find someone to play the male lead, Nick Young. This was a major challenge for Jon Chu. After looking through all the finalists in a Los Angeles and China audition, he wasn’t able to find someone who could deliver Nick’s British accent as described in the novel. Chu was beginning to feel the pressure, so much so, he decided to launch a social media campaign to not only fill the role of Nick Young but also for all the Asian characters in the story. Candidates from around the world posted a two-minute video audition on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube with #CrazyRichAsiansCasting. Thousand of videos were submitted and once again we see that Crazy Rich Asians was a movie that intended to break away from traditions, in an effort to remove the gatekeepers that were holding many Asian actors back. 

Perhaps it was this reason that made it so upsetting to many when Malaysian-English actor, Henry Golding was cast in the lead role of Nick. Golding was brought to Chu’s attention by the production company’s accountant: Lisa-Kim Ling Kuan. With minimal experience in the industry and zero Hollywood credit on his resume, all Golding could do was charm Chu with his personality and accent — which he did. 

The criticism was simple: for a movie that was claiming to go all-in with an Asian cast, with a critical role, they decided to pull back and fold. To many, Golding was not Asian enough. And it’s fair: Golding was biracial, there was no hiding that. Many felt that casting Golding was simply to make the movie more digestible for an audience that was used to white actors on the screen. 

Japanese-English-Argentine actress, Sonoya Mizuno who earned the role as Araminta Lee, would also face the heat for not being full Asian, meanwhile, Korean-born actress, Jamie Chung, who was declined a role in the movie for not being ethnically Chinese made everyone wonder where the line was being drawn. 

As hurt as Golding was about all the comments concerning his legitimacy as an Asian, he acknowledge the validity of the criticisms and encourage more conversations around the topic. Whether you agree with the casting or not… whether you think Henry Golding is Asian enough to play the role of Nick Young or not, all Asian actors can agree that it was one small step for Asians; and one giant step for Asian-American cinema. Because of Crazy Rich Asians, many Asian actors are working that wouldn’t have been otherwise. 

Much like casting, one of the most pivotal decisions Chu and the studio had to make was regarding the distribution rights. In late 2016, Netflix began aggressively bidding for the worldwide rights to the project, including the sequels. They offered full “creative freedom,” and an upfront seven-figure-minimum payout for all the stakeholders. Such an offer was hard to ignore — because everyone involved would be instant millionaires. But a Netflix exclusive release, would ultimately diminish the impact of the all-Asian movie. 

Sure some Netflix movies do get theatrical releases, but since it’s streaming at the same time, few theatres would put it up on screen. In the end, in order to make any cultural impact, Crazy Rich Asians went with Warner Bros. to bring the movie to the theaters.   

On August 15, 2018, Crazy Rich Asians was released and grossed $174.5 million in the US and Canada, and $64 million internationally. This ended up being an incredibly profitable gamble for the studios. However, the reception from the Chinese audience was lackluster, much to the disappointment of Warner Bros. The Chinese didn’t find novelty in seeing Asians on screen, they watch Chinese dominated entertainment all the time. Additionally, the plot surrounding those with excess was off-putting to many movie-goers in China. 

Then there were the critics, who were not all on the same page. While many celebrated the film for making history, for being visually appealing with its glitz and glamour, and for stand-out performances from Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong; and rapper-turned-actress, Awkwafina — others had problems with the movie. 

Some said it was a cliche North American rom-com with all the same tropes and archetypal characters. It wasn’t bad per se, but it’s about as revolutionary as 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding.

Then there were those that felt the movie didn’t help the Asian reputation, stating that the movie, right from the title, reinforces the stereotype that “Asians are rich, vulgar and clueless.”

Lastly, others deemed Crazy Rich Asians to have committed the ultimate sin. Hypocrisy. With a story that was meant to bridge racial divides, the movie might have done otherwise simply for some laughs. Singapore is an ethnically diverse country with not only those of Chinese descent, but also those from Malaysia, India, and many more regions of the world. In the scene where Rachel and Peik Lin arrive at the mansion, they get frightened by some Sikh security guards. This scene has no explanation and was a clear glossing over of a troubled racial political climate in the country, where Indians are marginalized. In the novel, the guards are described as some of the finest warriors in the world, but in the movie, they were relegated to comic relief at best. 

It might not have been a grand slam, but it was at least a triple with two runs batted in. Crazy Rich Asians did a lot right. For one, it increased tourism to Singapore, particularly to a few on-screen locations including the Marina Bay Sands and Raffles Hotel. Next, it increased book sales for Kwan’s novel by over 300% in 2018 after the release of the movie. And lastly, since 1993’s The Joy Luck Club based on the novel by Amy Tan, there hasn’t been a modern movie with an ensemble Asian cast that captured the attention of the North American public. 

The adaptation of Crazy Rich Asians happened at the perfect time during a cultural shift. What the world needs now are more Asian artists in all fields to feed off the spark that had been ignited. Unlike The Joy Luck Club, Asian creators cannot wait another 25 years for another at-bat. As race continues to be a hot button in Hollywood and the rest of the world is eager and watching, Asian artists need to bring everything they have to the table, because whether others agree or not, they are now in the game thanks to Crazy Rich Asians. However, the question remains: Is Crazy Rich Asians a trial blazing movie? Or is it an outlier? 

What are your thoughts on the cultural merits of Crazy Rich Asians? Do you think it helped the public perception of an all-Asian cast? Or was it just another cookie-cutter movie, albeit a fortune cookie? Let me know in the comments below. 

For more in the series of adaptations, please check out this YouTube playlist here.

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How “Life of Pi” Went From Book to Movie

While Pi Patel might have spent 227 days trapped on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger, executive Elizabeth Gabler and producer, Gil Netter spent 11 years bringing the impossible story from page to screen

Life of Pi was published on September 11, 2001, perhaps the worst day to have a book launch. Nevertheless, it sold over 10 million copies and won author Yann Martel, the prestigious Man Booker Prize. It was a huge success. 

Yet, it was deemed an impossible movie to make — and the 11 years in between publishing and the release of the movie directed by Ang Lee is a story about the complexity of adaptation. 

Life of Pi is arguably my favorite book. I remember reading it as a teenager and feeling like I had a choice in what to think. Not often a case for a high school student. I remember my teacher asking me: which story did you think was real? The one with the animals, I responded. 

I loved that book, because it wasn’t tarnished by a movie. My imagination wasn’t skewed. It would not have been my favorite book, if I saw the movie first. Yet, it might have became my favorite movie. This is the first in a series about adaptations: the story of how a book becomes a movie. It’s not about which is better, it’s about how such a feat is even possible.  

In 1990, Yann Martel read a review by John Updike for a Portuguese book that has recently been translated into English. This book was called Max and the Cats by Moacyr Scliar. It was a negative review and Martel never read that book. Still the premise stayed with him: a boy trapped on a boat with a man-eating jaguar. 

Reeling from the disappointing reception of his first two published books, Martel in the midst of quitting a work in progress about Portugal, travelled to India for inspiration. This was 1996 — five years before Life of Pi was published. It was during this trip that it all came together. 

By 2002, Yann Martel had become a household name. Winning one of the biggest prizes in literature will do that. In addition, Life of Pi spent 61 weeks on New York Times BestSeller. While Martel received criticism for not acknowledging Scliar, eventually all that faded, when he stated it could not be plagiarism of any form, if he had never read Scliar’s book. When put side-by-side, most critics failed to see many similarities between the two: structurally and thematically. 

In the same year, at the height of Life of Pi’s popularity, 20th Century Fox Pictures Executive, Elizabeth Gabler was on maternity leave, where she saw the novel everywhere. All the other studios had passed on Life of Pi, so when producer, Gil Netter called her and pitched the project — she recognized the complexity of the story: it takes place predominantly on the Pacific Ocean, it’s highly spiritual, it’s not a superhero sequel and it’s not easily summed up. These were all concerns.

Still, Gabler saw a lot of potential in the story, so she made the deal for the film rights with Yann Martel a little over a year after the novel hit the shelves. 

When an author options their story to a production company, it is not always clear how much they will make. They may make a deal for as little to nothing with a promise of a percentage of the budget of the film (if it ever gets funding), or they may get an upfront payment for film rights all at once, perhaps $500,000. It’s hard to predict how much exactly Martel made from optioning the rights for Life of Pi, but one may wonder if the lengthy duration it took to make the film and the trouble it will soon have with the budget work for or against him monetarily. 

In February of 2003, Gabler had officially acquired the rights to Life of Pi and pre-production began. Screenwriter, Dean Georgaris, known for Manchurian Candidate, Triston and Isolde, and Laura Croft Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, was hired to write the script. 

M. Night Shyamalan — yes, M. Night — was first to partner with the project as the director in 2004. He had just finished with his movie The Village and Life of Pi was tempting, after all, Shyamalan grew up in the very city, the character Pi did, Pondicherry. However, he would back out of the project worried that the twist ending in Life of Pi would be affected if he was to direct it. People will be anticipating the twist the moment it began. That would hurt the story, and so, Shyamalan would sacrifice himself and begin work on his next movie, Lady In the Water. 

The project went in and out of limbo at this point. As of March of 2005, Alfonso Cuaron was rumored to have signed on to direct it — but stepped down to work on Children of Men. 

In October of the same year, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, director of Amelie was hired by 20th Century Fox to take on the job. Jeunette jumped on the opportunity — after backing out of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix not long before — and began working on the screenplay with his partner from Amelie, Guillaume Laurant. Things were working great, Jeunet had a script that the studio liked, he built miniatures of the lifeboat, and even started location scouting in India.    

Then a major problem materialized: the budget. For an Indian boy in open waters with a lion, the project would cost an excess of $85 million. According to Investopedia, the average cost of a major studio movie in 2007 was $65 million. So the mission was to get the budget to $60 million, however, that simply wasn’t going to happen for Jeunet. In frustration, the heads of Fox told him to produce the movie himself. 

For 2 years, Jeunet had been working on Life of Pi. Suddenly the movie was at a standstill as the producers sought new solutions. Then time ran out for him. Jeunet did not want to spend the rest of his life working on Life of Pi and four months later he had a script for a new project, MicMacs. Life of Pi was once again without a director. 

At this time, Life of Pi was getting a reputation as being an unfilmable movie. It was getting riskier and riskier for 20th Century Fox. With no marketable star and every money-sucking challenge imaginable for a filmmaker, the adaptation of Yann Martel’s Man Booker Prize winner seemed impossible. 

In early 2009, almost eight years after the novel was published, the fourth director for this film was hired, academy award winner, Ang Lee, best known for his diverse resume including Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Brokeback Mountain, and Hulk. 

Screenwriter, David Magee, known for Finding Neverland, was personally hired by Lee to write the screenplay, working closely together. Writers, if you ever feel like giving up on a project, remember everything Life of Pi went through… In three and a half years of working on the movie, Magee and Lee wrote 170 drafts of the script

Life of Pi was a story that is told primarily from the mind of the character. Pi alone on a lifeboat with a tiger. How can they translate it to the screen? Lee and Magee dove deep into the project: speaking with those who have survived at sea, visiting holy locations in India, and even setting out in a boat during harsh weather themselves to gain the personal experience. 

Once again, it felt as though the movie was back on track. Yet, there was still the issue of the marketable lead. Finding a young Indian boy to play the role of Pi — a huge responsibility — was challenging and lengthy. It required a worldwide search with Lee auditioning 3000 actors. In the end, he found Suraj Sharma and placed him in a setting as daunting as a lifeboat with a tiger, his first impossible Hollywood movie. 

Lacking a familiar name on the bill continued to be a concern for the studio, at least for the North American audience. At a time, Tobey Maguire, the original Spiderman himself, was cast as the author interviewing a much older Pi Patel, but Lee later felt that having a recognizable face would be more of a distraction than a benefit — much like having M. Night direct the movie.

On top of that, there was another worry for the studio. Yes, the same concern that troubled them a few years ago: budget.  

In 2010, Jim Gianopulos and Tom Rothman, two chairmen of 20th Century Fox called Elizabeth Gabler letting her know that they were going to withdraw from the project — ending funding completely. Life of Pi the movie was on life support about to have its plug pulled. The proposed budget was simply too big of a risk for the studio. 

Gabler called Ang Lee to deliver the bad news. Fox is off of the project and Lee was free to shop the film to another studio, a mammoth task to say the least — which may stall the film for another decade. Gabler was as disappointed as Lee. There was nothing else like it. Yes, it wasn’t the conventional movie with heartthrobs and superheroes, but that was what made it worth fighting for. 

To her surprise and admiration, Lee did not give up. Before the call ended, he told her he will make his way to LA to discuss the matter in-person. With him, he had Suraj Sharma’s audition tape and a pre-visualization scene of the shipwreck, the pivotal moment in the story that left the character Pi stranded at sea. In addition to those two selling points, Lee was willing to accommodate with the expenses. Gabler was impressed and she bought it to Gianopulos and Rothman. Together, they cut $25 million from the proposed budget. This was helped by filming many portions of the movie in Taiwan. 

In 2012, Life of Pi was released to rave reviews, earning the film 11 Academy Award nominations, including a nomination for screenwriter, David Magee for best-adapted screenplay and producer, Gil Netter for Best Picture, along with Ang Lee and David Womack. The film ended up winning 4 Oscars, including one for Ang Lee as best director. Not only was it well received by the critics, to the delight of the studio, the movie turned out to be a commercial success, grossing over $500 million worldwide, with a final budget of $120 million. 

Ang Lee claims it was the hardest movie he had ever made, taking him nearly four years. 

Not every adaptation will be deemed impossible or receive critical acclaim and be a commercial success. Yet, every adaptation will have their own unique story. Is there a movie based on a book that you are curious about how it got made? Let me know in the comments below. 

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Can hypocrites save the world?

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via The Wolf of Wallstreet

DiCaprio gets heat for extravagant privileges while preaching eco-friendliness

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formally published in the Other Press. March 9, 2016

When Leonardo DiCaprio won his long-awaited Oscar for his role in The Revenant, we all cheered for his deserved award. But it was the subject matter of his long speech that caused some people to roll their eyes. DiCaprio has been a long-time activist. Time and time again we see him appearing on screen—not dressed in a tuxedo, but in a “regular” jacket or sweater, in boots, with a rugged beard—talking about the destruction of our environment.

His most notable cinematic contribution to that cause is his producer, narrator, and writer roles in the environmental documentary—an unofficial epilogue to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth— The 11th Hour.

We don’t need movies or movie stars to tell us about the environment. We all feel the change. This has been one of the warmest winters of my life. I’m concerned, but I don’t have time to be both an advocator and fulltime employee, making money to live. Many people feel the same way and are insulted when big shot celebrities rub it in. And when the Best Actor winner, some big shot multi-millionaire, is only talking the talk instead of walking the walk, people have the right to be angry.

DiCaprio was specifically called out for having a 16,000-horsepower private yacht, the Topaz. For someone who cares so much for the environment, sailing the seas on a luxurious, diesel-gas-guzzling vessel is surely counter-productive, right?

Now, I could go on about how DiCaprio is a hypocrite—and how the movie The Revenant did nothing to improve the lives of First Nations people, the very people DiCaprio sought to empower, but in fact marginalized them more—but I won’t. Because, as rich and arrogant as I’m sure Leo is, he is at least putting his free time into advocating good. Is he good? No. He’s a hypocrite. But I would rather take a hypocrite actor over one who is a woman-beating bigot. What can I say? I have low standards for my celebrities.

There are many bad traits in the world, and being hypocritical is a minor one. With that being said, is there any more DiCaprio could do without giving up his fortune? Probably. But why should he? He’s not God. He’s just a servant of God. Sure, in the grand scheme of things, he is doing very little, but he is still doing it. When you are one of the most powerful actors in the world, you can merely sit back and accept awards, or you can use your clout to announce a concern. Some people choose racial equality, other chooses gender equality, but Leo chooses nature conservation.

DiCaprio is not committing to his cause 100 per cent, we can all agree on that, but he is dedicating some of his time to it. That is more than what I can say about me… or even you. How much have you committed to saving the world, or any other cause?

Take a look at yourself the next time you criticize someone for wanting better in the world. The old idiom “Do as I say, not as I do” is one every parent has once evoked if not said. If the heart is in the right place, then the person is moving in the right direction. We humans are not perfect, and that is the very reason why the world will end with a hopeful whimper, or like The Departed.

White is the new black, yellow, brown, and all the other hues, really

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It’s 2015, and still whitewash casting in movies exists

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Dec. 9, 2015

Ethnicity in the film industry has always been a problem. In an attempt to reach the broadest American market, the film industry often omits the idea of diversity and simply casts well-known (white) actors. Think of an actor, any actor—odds are, that person is white. The Jake Gyllenhaals, the Johnny Depps, and the Christian Bales dominate the industry. It’s not a bad thing. They are phenomenal artists and they deserve to work. However, when they are taking the role of some Middle Eastern, Asian, or Aboriginal actor, then there is a clear problem.

I would also understand if these actors were stretching their acting chops. But they aren’t. They are just wearing a costume. So a movie that depicts Egyptian gods now has American actors with spray tans. And it’s all because the studios fear people of ethnicity with power, even when it is in the fantastical realm of film.

This problem is rotting the core of entertainment. It eliminates whatever artistic value the film actually has, discredits all the hard work thousands of people do, and makes it a power move that keeps the minority outside the gates of legitimacy.

There are so many struggling ethnic actors working their asses off for minor roles. They are as skilled in the craft as any Academy Award nominated actors. All they need is a break. Change cannot happen from the outside. Criticisms about casting choices have almost zero effect on the overall decision of the film.

In Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, he perfectly illustrates the fight ethnic actors have with the industry, and how powerless they feel. In an episode entitled Indians on TV, Ansari’s character, Dev, combats the decision to take on a role that would further his career, while also furthering the stereotypes that hold other Indian actors back. It’s a conversation about race, but more prominently, it’s a conversation about money and success. If he doesn’t do it, someone else will.

So it goes in the film industry. Someone else will always sink low enough for the scraps, and they’ll call it luck. It doesn’t matter what race the actors are, the studios will follow through with their plans. It’s not the actors that need to change. It’s the overall way of thinking. But the movement needs to happen internally. White actors need to stop accepting roles that are clearly not designed for them. And ethnic actors need to stop being swayed by the power of money. They need to band together and condemn stereotypes with the same discrimination the industry has shown for them.

Don’t tease me

Opinions_trailersWhy I prefer to not see trailers, previews, or teasers

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. Sept. 9, 2014

First things first: I understand that movie trailers and television previews are marketing tools, used to create hype, excitement, and anticipation. They’re a hook to get viewers like yourself to engage with the entertainment, to let it into your home, and allow it to consume anywhere from 30 minutes to three hours of your life. Movie trailers are essential to the industry, but I don’t care for them.

How many times have I been suckered into watching a movie strictly based on the appeal of the movie trailer? I’m looking at you, Cloverfield,and every Superman movie ever. You got me! And how many times have I disregarded a movie based on its uneventful, lacklustre trailer—or one that essentially gave away the whole story.

But how will I know what the story is if I don’t watch the trailer or see the preview? My answer: a movie or television show should unravel as you watch it—you don’t need snippets here and there to propel the plot forward. The plot can do that all by itself. If you are engaged in a show, say, The Walking Dead, I don’t need to know which characters’ lives are jeopardized in the next episode. I can naturally assume that they are all in danger. The same way I would not want someone telling me the ending to a book, I don’t need someone highlighting aspects of the movie for me before I even grab the popcorn.

I get it. Your time is valuable and you want to be in control of your entertainment. Fine. But know this: some of the best movie/television experiences of my life began with absolute unfamiliarity—no hype involved, just brilliant storytelling. Trailers are misleading. They sell celebrities, special effects, and dramatic performances, but they don’t prove the worth of the movie, the same way a commercial does not prove the worth of a product.

For comedies, trailers ruin the jokes. For romance, trailers cram the key relationship into two minutes. For action flicks, trailers showcase spurts of explosions, car chases, and fight scenes that only someone with severe attention deficit disorder would find alluring. For dramas, trailers present a potential Oscar nominee crying out of context over a soft melancholy soundtrack. Gee, I wonder what to expect. Commonly the trailers tell you how to feel before you even buy the ticket. And I believe it’s that no-surprise marketing philosophy that is hindering the movie experience.

The fewer trailers you see, the less likely your perception will be altered when you watch the movie or show. You’ll be surprised to see a familiar actor appear on the screen. You’ll be surprised by the plot twists as the story unfolds before you. You wouldn’t want a magician describing the result of their magic trick before it’s performed, right? So don’t be angry because the theatre experience lacks the movie magic you expected. It might be impossible to avoid trailers altogether, but don’t get too hyped or disenchanted by them.

Sacred cinema

The bible shouldn’t be Hollywood’s only source for religious inspiration

By Elliot Chan, Opinions Editor
Formerly published in The Other Press. April 8, 2014

I belong to a growing demographic of non-religious North Americans. Although I came from a Buddhist heritage and live in a country with a large Christian population, my curiosity stems further than my beliefs, my family’s beliefs, and my neighbour’s beliefs.

I have always been a sucker for stories, even if they have a moral at the end, and some of the greatest stories ever told are locked within sacred text: the Bible, the Qur’an, Sanskrit, Torah, etc. Tapping into these ancient texts will open our eyes to a world we are often ignorant of, and I believe that will be a significant step toward global tolerance.

We North Americans enjoy watching comforting movies, stories that we’re familiar with. But exploration is equally as entertaining. Noah offers a lot of epic scenes that make the job for the marketing team easy, but I also know that there are millions of other stories based in other religions that could contain the same amount of drama, special effects, and even Russell-Crowe-in-sandals scenes. As someone who has no defined religion, I’m more inclined to see a movie about an unfamiliar story than one constantly used in analogies.

I don’t believe religious movies are meant to convert someone’s beliefs. I believe that they’re simply created to entertain, earn a profit, and start a conversation about something that is losing effect in Western culture.

Religion turns a lot of people off these days, which is upsetting since religion is a significant part of the human identity. We should embrace it. Not just one religion (Christianity), but all of them. If we want to be a global community, we should explore all cultures, heritages, and of course, religions.

Harmony needs to start at home, and movies have always been a medium to bring people of all classes and beliefs together. Hollywood has made many weak attempts in telling stories from foreign sacred texts; that’s because they always try to find a Western perspective. It’s true, casting Keanu Reeves in a story about Buddhism is a recipe for chuckles. The key to adapting a story properly is honesty. Instead of catering to an audience, the filmmaker needs to simply tell the story the way it’s meant to be told, while finding the cinematic appeal.

Hollywood needs to team up with those of other cultures to create these impactful movies. They have to find the soul of it—the heart of the religion. By communicating the essence of those stories, the audience will be able to see how unique tales can shape so many different people from all reaches of the world. In our own comfortable way, we will be enlightened. It might not change our mindsets, but for a brief moment we can see from another’s point of view, and isn’t that what filmmaking is all about?

How the Sacred Movie-watching Experience Survived the First Round of Extinction

When I graduated from film school in 2008, the landscape of the entertainment industry was changing, morphing with the technology and trying to catch up to new innovations.

Young filmmakers, like myself, anticipated the expiration of television and were just starting to accept all that YouTube had to offer. Meanwhile, grand cinematic spectacles were calling attention, i.e. Avatar in 3D. Yes, it seems as though there was going to be a whole spectrum of viewing habits.

But will movie watching experience be as sacred as church? Or was it going to be a secular pastime, one we try to catch up on like talking to an old friend at a party or a novel on our nightstand?

Inspired by the recent Oscars, I give you the five nominated movie-watching experiences as voted by me—nope, not movies, but movie watching experiences.

NETFLIX

For a while Canadians were reluctant to subscribe to Netflix, mostly out of envy—subscribers from the States were getting more than three times the content—but the on-demand-movie-and-television service suggested that if more people join Netflix, the more content it can generate, both by hammering out legalities through traditional licensing models and by producing their own shows.

House of Cards, Orange is the New Black and Arrested Development won many viewers over, and once they got hooked to the binge watching lure of Netflix—it’s not so easy to quit.

TORRENT/STREAMING

The pirated movie and television distribution market is competitive market, albeit an illegal and risky market. With memories of Megaupload still fresh in many downloaders and streamers’ mind, this well-known paradigm is still one that most are treading lightly on.

While many consider this method to be a hassle, others consider it the most reasonable. Viewers are paying by sending traffic to the hosting sites, dealing with pop-up ads and the occasional glitches in download and streams. “Just let it buffer!”

The “no honour among thieves” mentality lives on in this movie watching experience that have existed since the dawn of the digital era. As long as the leaches and seeders continue feeding off of each other, this category will not disappear anytime soon to the chagrin of the big media companies.

APPLE TV and WEB-ENABLED TELEVISION

Bridging the gap from your phone and computer to the television—this relatively new all-in-one model is bringing viewers back to the couch. At least that was the plan.

Unfortunately I don’t know many people who use Apple TV, or even consider getting it. The living room battleground is a tough one to win, even for a trusted brand like Apple. After all, just look at all the different boxes and consoles you have under the television. Needless to say, there is still a lot of convincing needed to prove that cable is obsolete and that the video game consoles won’t suffice. But I think that is just a matter of time.

REDBOX

Since the closure of many video rental stores, Redbox have been the alternative. Standing tall, proud and unobtrusively at a grocery store, the video vending machine offers hot new DVD releases the same way ol’ Blockbuster used to. Comforting to many and laughable to some, Redbox fulfills a service that is still in demand.

As a result of having a secret Santa that no longer cared for the physical medium, I received an arm full of DVDs and BluRay last Christmas. I still relish the nostalgia of DVDs. Seems like just yesterday my family was arguing whether to buy a HD DVD player or a BluRay player, I’m still not sure if we made the right decision. Unlike VHS, DVDs have a bit more to offer in terms of bonus features. And they are compatible enough to remain an impulse buy. But being compared to VHS is never a good thing.

MOBILE

We watch movies everywhere: in bed, at work, on the bus, at a coffee shop, on the john and even in the movie theatre waiting for the movie to start. Personally, I can’t watch a three-hour movie the same way I check my Tweets. But content on the go is what the public wants.

Last year’s study by Motorola Mobility’s Fourth Annual Media Engagement Barometer showed that 55% of smartphone or tablet owners have downloaded and stored movies and TV shows onto their devices. There is so much content in the world that if we were to spend every living moment watching something new, we would not do anything else. Mobile devices are fostering that challenge and allowing people to consume on the go, in addition to hoarding content.

As much as filmmakers want to get people into the theatre, they must also consider the other audiences, and choose to whether nurture the new platforms or not. We’ve come a long way in five years—who knows where we’ll be in another.