Short Film Corner 2022
One Small Visit
May 23, 2022
The story of an immigrant Indian family who unexpectedly passes through the tiny Midwest hometown of Neil Armstrong in the wake of the '69 moon landing and the civil rights movement and ends up on the doorstep of the Armstrong home.
Hi Jo, it’s great to get to talk with you, how have you been keeping after everything that’s been happening, have you been able to remain positive and creative at least?
Yes, in this crazy Covid era where we live between variants and physical wars, ideological and cultural ones, it’s hard NOT to despair isn’t it? I was lucky that from December to March, I was deep in the post-production of One Small Visit so that became a lifeline to take me away from the barrage of enraging and depressing daily news.
I have an amazing community of creative friends who inspire and buoy me up whenever I need it. On Boxing Day, I fractured my kneecap which kept me house bound for a month so I started picking up piano again, reading a ton of poetry, catching up on films and TV series. It forced me to slow down and be patient.
When my knee healed, Hong Kong got hit by the worst phase of the Covid crisis, something they had staved off for the past two years. That was really frustrating. I started doing daily hikes. Being around nature and sitting under magnificent trees really helped to calm and recharge me.
What does it mean for you to be in the Cannes Short Film Corner with One Small Visit and what do you hope to take away from this experience?
I’ve always wanted to come to Cannes during the Festival so I’m really here to meet fellow filmmakers, creatives, buyers and just soak it all in. I’m trying not to have any expectations or specific outcomes so I can just be open to anything.
How vital are platforms like Cannes SFC in championing and supporting independent short filmmakers?
Filmmaking is a tough slough so I think knowing there’s support of like minded people who champion this format is so encouraging.
Can you tell me how One Small Visit came about, what was the inspiration behind this film?
One Small Visit is based on the true adventure of my dear friend Anisha and her parents in 1969. I first heard it over a dinner party more than a decade ago and it was just such an incredible story that always stayed with me—the surprises, the joy, the kindness, and the unlikely connection.
How did you discover this true story and what was it about this families adventure that connected with you as a filmmaker?
We all know or have heard about the ’69 Moon landing. I loved retelling such a global, historical event from this intimate perspective, especially from a group rarely seen in Western mainstream media. The image that completely captured me was these Indian women in their finest saris walking down a street in Middle America. The visual juxtaposition of that, how they must have been so alien in such an environment. I’m a Chinese Canadian and grew up around the world-Asia, Africa, Canada and the U.S. I’ve long been fascinated with themes of race, identity, and belonging and I thought this was the perfect chance to explore them.
During the writing of your screenplay what was the strangest fact you discovered about this families experience in Middle America?
We were so lucky to have unfettered, direct access to Anisha’s parents. Auntie Nirmala is one of the best storytellers I know. I had read about segregation in the South but thought the Midwest was a lot more open and tolerant. But in the 1960’s even though the area was legally integrated, it wasn’t socially. Uncle O.C. would tell me how, as a grad student there, he rarely ventured beyond campus in Iowa because it wasn’t worth the suspicious stares and hostility he would encounter. For instance, he never dared step into a McDonald’s and only ordered via the drive thru.
As a filmmaker how flexible did you allow yourself with your screenplay once you start shooting One Small Visit?
When you are an indie film you have so many constraints—time, budget, weather. We only had 6 days to shoot over 7 locations so we were constantly improvising. It was the most intense period of thinking on my feet, coming up with instant solutions to problems, I ever had. We were working with period rental cars that wouldn’t start, a child actor of 18 months who was exhausted by the middle of the shoot and often just didn’t feel like participating. We were laughing that I might as well have added a dog to the mix and complete the trifecta of things you should never work with on a film-animals, children, vintage cars. During the shooting I often found myself thinking could the writer have made it any harder to realize this-what an idiot! After the car stopped running the first day, I had to completely change the ending. And the original climax of the film had to be abandoned because our little child wouldn’t stop crying the day we shot that. There were no contingency or makeup days as we had set time and budget. We got what we got.
What is the message you want to convey with One Small Visit and do you think you have achieved this?
I want to convey taking leaps of faith, being bold, the small acts of kindness that make all the difference, shared humanity and connection if we just allow seemingly different people to come together.
Has your background as an actor helped prepare you for writing and directing this short film?
As an actor I write with characters in mind-what do they want, what are their struggles, motivations, secrets. I ‘play’ each role. It was such a joy to hear other actors read the parts aloud during the very first reading because for 2 years it was just me playing all the parts myself!
I know how to talk to actors because I am one. I know what’s enough to stoke their imagination rather than prescribe it. One of the joys of acting is the research, delving deep into the backstories. I made sure the actors playing the Abrahams could interview the real Abrahams and ask any question they needed. And for the Armstrongs there’s such a wealth of background on public record it was easy to compile all those links for them.
I had a 70 + page ppt with all the imagery, research links, references to other scenes in movies. I really wanted them to see what was inside my head, what I envisioned. And I cast the most gifted, deep thinking actors who understood the material on such an intrinsic level. We really didn’t need to do much rehearsal because they knew both the stories and the scenes so well. We talked a lot beforehand so on set I just let them run with it and would only modify here and there just to have options. They took the characters beyond what I could imagine and elevated my words. They were true collaborators who took my sketch and filled it out with colour, life and nuance to make it a vision.
What would you say has been the most valuable lesson you have taken from this experience?
To be bold, like Elizabeth George, the grandma in One Small Visit. When I started I knew I needed the film to run at 30 minutes. So many people wanted me to cut it in half so I would have a better chance of getting into more festivals. Believe me if I could, I would. But then I would just have an anecdote and not a story. So I stuck to my guns. It needs the time it does for audiences to feel invested. A year ago, I had no idea how I was going to raise so much money to make the film. But Elizabeth’s whole outlook on like is that you don’t know unless you try so I’ve been so inspired by that and let it carry me through. Every time I encountered a no, a set back, a challenge I found myself thinking 'what would Elizabeth George do?' There will always be naysayers, haters. But for every 10 there’s going to be 1 champion. And I’ve been so blessed with such supportive ones. You know how the K-pop group BTS call their fans The Army? Well, we have our OSV Army.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
I’ve always had a passion for storytelling. I’ve always wanted to be part of a great story whether it’s playing a role in it or making it myself. It’s funny I look back at my 8th grade yearbook entry when the question was what do you want to be when you grow up. And I had said, journalist, actress, and director. So I fulfilled two out of three without really planning that out. It just kinda happened.
Now that you have your debut film under your belt are you looking froward to getting back behind the camera?
Funny you should ask. I just finished acting, producing and co-directing a reading of a play in defence of abortion rights in the U.S. It was a benefit to raise funds for the abortion clinic that’s a defendant in a case that’s being decided in the U.S. in the next month, the one that will most likely overturn Roe vs. Wade. It was essentially a Zoom reading but in the edit I tried to take advantage of the medium and supplemented sections with effects and archival footage as if it was a film.
"Find the best possible producer you can. I completely lucked out in finding Morgan. I knew she was the one for me when I found out her nickname is the "Morganizer"."
Do you have any tips you would offer anyone thinking about making their first film?
First, you need to truly love and believe in your story. It has to be your baby because you’re going to spend at least 2-3 years developing, making and then marketing it. So it better be something you’re utterly passionate about to carry you through the inevitable setbacks. Second, you’re only as good as your team. Filmmaking is such a communal, collaborative process. Make sure you vet every single one of your cast and crew. Ideally people you’ve worked with before. Your DP and Production designer should not only share your vision but your sensibility, the same taste level or eye. Because you want to be making the same consistent visual. If you don’t know them, they should come with recommendations, and you interview them thoroughly. Trust your gut. If something doesn’t click in that first interview, there’s any hint of a red flag it just gets exacerbated later on. Find the best possible producer you can. I completely lucked out in finding Morgan. I knew she was the one for me when I found out her nickname is the "Morganizer". She literally shares my brain and my heart. I found out the hard way, the First A.D. is essential. We didn’t give ourselves enough time or budget to hire the right one who would partner with me. When it came to crunch time I felt he was often second guessing or battling me rather than supporting. But every body else was really part of the family. We’ve become so close and still keep in touch almost daily since the film wrapped 7 months ago.
And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from One Small Visit?
There’s these lines that our Neil Armstrong says in our film. “These borders between countries, these lines that divide us. From space you see that they don’t exist.” Fundamentally, we have so much more in common than we differ. I hope that, like the two families in our film, we can find chances to bridge divides, still connect, especially in these polarized times.