Originally published for Frameline: San Francisco LGBTQ+ Film Festival 2019
All Darren wants is to propose to his longtime boyfriend. What could possibly go wrong?
Hi David thanks for talking to TNC, how is everything going?
Thanks! Things have been going really well. I’m excited to keep sharing ENGAGED with the world.
Congratulations on ENGAGED being selected for Palm Springs & Frameline film festivals, what does it mean for you to share your short film at these amazing festivals?
It’s an incredible honour. I played at Palm Springs in 2013 with one of my previous short films GROTTO, and I love that festival because it feels like no other – this community of filmmakers buzzing around for 5 days, mixing, talking shop, in such a gorgeous location. It’s like a film conference mixed with summer camp. Screening at Frameline has always been a career goal of mine. Ever since film school, I have dreamed of playing there, and especially in such a historic theatre like the Castro. It also means that these communities of diverse audiences are exposed to the film, which is what making films is all about.
The reaction to the film has already been incredible did you imagine you would get this type of reaction for your film?
I had hoped for it, but really it’s hard to say. Making an independent short film is already such an achievement, and when we finally finished it, it was this deep exhale – we finally did it. We premiered in March 2019, and in just a few months have already played at over 16 film festivals. It’s so heartwarming to hear the things people have said about it too, either in person or over social media, where people have been great about connecting with us.
What has been the most surprising compliment you've gotten for Engaged?
One person said that out of 14 years of attending the ‘Fun in Boys Shorts’ block at Frameline, Engaged was the best film he had ever seen. He particularly commented on the fact our film features a black and Asian-American couple, which is just everything – it means people are getting the film, the elements of it are reaching and affecting people – because that’s not a “plot” point. The film is about a couple trying to get engaged, and the fact it’s an Asian-American lead dating an African-American, that’s just the background, that’s just life. And that was something I really wanted to do with the film, just make it a movie, not something where every diverse aspect needed to be justified or have some “purpose.” That’s just how life is! Now tell me the story.
How important are film festivals that shine a focus on LGBTQ+ films, filmmakers & stories?
These festivals are integral because for years – and I mean decades – many of these festivals have been the primary outlet where these films could be seen. It’s sad to say, but not too many years ago, diversity wasn’t exactly championed. Outside voices were seen as that – outside the mainstream, not worthy of something to be programmed – or maybe only one or two a year would break through, and the rest? That’s why these types of film festivals were and still are vital because they have helped create a space for voices like mine. They have created visibility, they have created a platform, they have created – and sustained – an audience. For many of the people I’ve spoken with during our first screening, Frameline is an annual tradition – seeing the Fun in Boys Shorts block the weekend before pride, or for many, coming on Pride Sunday and seeing the block – it’s a staple of their SF Pride. I can’t get over how inspiring that is.
When you're at a film festival are you able to relax and enjoy the whole experience or do nerves ever step in and make the whole thing tense?
Like the protagonist in the film, I’m all nerves. Watching the film in a theatre, I find myself more-so watching the audience: when do they laugh, when do they gasp, when is it silent and the air gets sucked out of the room (in a good way I hope!) But it’s rewarding to connect with people after the screening, because then I have a chance to breathe and say – the projector didn’t break halfway through, ah, and be present in the moment and talk with the audiences. That’s the best part.
How was your approach to ENGAGED different from your previous award-winning short GROTTO?
I love GROTTO so much (now available to stream on YouTube!) The major difference is that Grotto is a 6 minute short that all takes place in one location, and Engaged is a 17 minute short that takes place practically all over the island of Manhattan. We shot over 4 days in late August which is hot, and we had this huge challenge to achieve – we had 9 locations, interior, exterior streets at night, during the day fighting crowds, we even shot in a moving car! So logistically, it was this tremendous challenge, and I have to shout to the crew, who really helped us tackle everything, and helped us pull this off.
Did you develop any 'bad habits' during the making of GROTTO that you knew you needed to break?
I’m really not sure! The only thing is – based on the comments on YouTube – I knew I shouldn’t throw anyone’s cell phone into a pool. The commenters on there are really curious about what happened to Marco’s phone. Should we make it a hashtag? #ButWhatAboutThePhone
Can you tell me a little bit about ENGAGED, what was the inspiration behind this film?
This film is very closely based on my own life. I’m in a long-term relationship, and as many of my friends began getting engaged, they would ask me when I was getting engaged, and I would always respond viscerally like – no way, that’s not for me, what are you talking about? Eventually, I started wondering why I was responding like that, and I began to realize this reaction was actually stemming from a place of fear – a fear of being seen, a fear of being judged, and almost this second “coming out” years after I had already come out. It was that realization where I began grappling with this idea of “micro coming out,” which is highlighted in the film and becomes a major obstacle for our main character. Sometimes, as people in the LGBTQ+ community, we have these small moments each day where we are just fighting to be seen as ourselves, and respected for that, and sometimes that’s our entire daily battle.
Just to be ourselves, just to be comfortable in our skin, it isn’t something that we can take for granted and just existing sometimes is so controversial to others – it can really weigh on you. But what I wanted to explore in the film was this idea of self-shame, and how sometimes it’s not others who hold us back the most, but ourselves, based off of these other preconceived notions we’ve been told about ourselves. I really want this film to bring a positive light to LGBT relationships and show the struggles some of us might go through, as a way of potentially bridging gaps between communities and saying hey – we all have anxieties, we all judge ourselves and might be holding ourselves back – but that’s also how we might be able to conquer them and work to overcome those limitations.
As a screenwriter do you keep tweaking your script when you are shooting or are you able to leave them be?
I actually find I do most of my script tweaking in the editing room. I have edited all of my previous five short films, and I do so because as a writer – you have a story you want to tell, so you create the script. Then when you direct it, it’s all about maintaining tone – how do the characters react, where are the swells, when does it need release, and making sure that stays consistent from scene to scene, especially when shooting out of order, or adjusting to production changes on the fly. But last and most importantly is the editing room. This is where the film that you shot – not the one you wrote because they become completely different things – comes together. During this edit, I found myself taking out small lines of dialogue here and there, almost like a chef slicing them out, and trying to say the most with the least.
I tried to find the scenes that needed to be trimmed to allow the bigger moments to shine, and what needed to be said, or what the actors said with one look – so you could say, you know, we can remove that whole section, he just said it with his eyes. You can’t count on that as a writer, but when you have control over all 3 stages of production, you can see the film for what it is through the end.
"Just to be ourselves, just to be comfortable in our skin, it isn’t something that we can take for granted and just existing sometimes is so controversial to others – it can really weigh on you."
Does your own life and experiences find their ways into your screenplays?
Oh definitely. I find sometimes it’s subconscious, and then I’m talking about the film and realize – oh, that’s something I do and get all self-conscious. Other times it is more purposeful, like a film based around my own insecurities and anxieties. I think it goes hand-in-hand with being an artist, whatever medium you choose.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
Wow, I want to say all of them, and I want to say none of them. Every scene had its own challenges, and I could tell you so many stories about each scene. The one that comes to mind is the first scene of the film, in the restaurant. This is one of the biggest scenes and there were so many reaction shots, and it had the pressure of being the first scene of the film, so I knew it had to work, or else the whole film would be lost on an audience. Of course the major engagement party scene, with the game show, was huge, and despite that being a full day, and we had to race the final moments to get it before we ran out of time, I recall that day so positively because it was our last, and after we wrapped, everyone popped some champagne and all hugged and said goodbye to the actors, and it was an exhilarating race to the finish. Then, of course, there’s the last scene, where we shot in the street, and we had to fight the setting sun, but we couldn’t shoot too early or it would look like day. It had to be right at dusk, and racing a setting sun is one of the worst things to do on-set. And then people kept walking in or recognizing the actors, and the whole thing had to be one long take, a master shot, that’s how I envisioned it, and it took I think 8 or 9 takes and then the sunset, but in the last take, something magical happened, and the city froze, and no one crossed the street, and no cars cut in front, and we got the whole thing. That scene makes the film.
Has filmmaking always been a passion of yours?
Filmmaking began as a passion ever since high school. Initially, I started acting even younger in school plays and community theatre, which always seems like entry-level arts for young people. But then in high school, we had a film class, and being there showed me the film really blended all the creative elements I love – telling a story, setting a tone, getting an audience to follow and question and anticipate what’s going to happen. And to do it all visually, and to have it preserved once you do it, it’s one of the best things about the art form of cinema, and how it can be shared universally, but also so specifically. It doesn’t change like theatre (which I also love for that exact reason) but sometimes you want to tell a story once and perfect it, so it always holds that same message and impact for generations to come.
What is the one piece of advice you would offer a fellow filmmaker?
It’s a long journey. I am still on mine, but if I had told that to my younger self, I probably wouldn’t have believed it. It takes a lot of time, some people find success early and that’s okay, but it’s also okay to keep struggling and working to make it years after you thought you’d already had your first feature finished.
As a screenwriter & a playwright do you have any tips for a budding writer?
Writers have the thankless job of creating an original story, portraying real characters, attempting to capture life-like dialogue, and they have to make it all interesting and captivating for an increasingly attention-devoid public. That said, if you can do it, it’s the best feeling in the world. My advice would be to experience life. In order to be a great writer you have to have your heart broken, you have to travel to see new perspectives, you have to have life chew you up and spit you out again. That’s where real emotion and pain and life comes from, and if you can capture that, you’re well on your way to becoming a great writer.
And finally, what do you want your audiences to take away from your film?
I would love audiences to see themselves in this film, especially if they are someone who’s not in the LGBTQ+ community, or who haven’t been in this exact scenario before. I would love this film to feel familiar to someone from a different walk of life, and then if that changes their perspective, or opens their eyes to a new community’s struggle, that’s an added bonus. But foremost, I just hope it makes people laugh, that it moves them, and maybe even leaves them a little choked up at the end. For me, that’s all I can ask for. Thank you for your incredible questions, it’s been a pleasure.