"100% THE LIVING ROOM SCENE WHEN THE UNDERTAKERS ENTER THE HOUSE. IT'S A CRUCIAL MOMENT WITH SUBTLE SHIFT IN TONE, THE 1ST TIME WE INVITE THE AUDIENCE TO LAUGH A LITTLE."
Shorts Programme 2
Undertakers wait on a family's final farewells as one son struggles to say goodbye to his dead father.
Hi Julian thank you for talking to TNC, how have you been holding up during these very strange times?
Relatively well. I am privileged to be healthy, safe, and working. Obviously there’s been rough patches, but ending 2020 with the Sundance acceptance was mind boggling! Getting that call was one of the happiest moments of my life.
Has this time offered you any new creative inspiration?
It certainly gave us time to edit the short. My partner / our producer Brianna Murphy and I spent the summer at her parents’ home in Washington and it gave us a lot of peaceful space and time to reflect on the film and slowly refine the edit. We also visited the coast of Oregon which gave some inspiration for a feature I am writing.
Congratulations on having Raspberry Premiere in the Shorts Programme at Sundance 2021, what does it mean to be part of such an amazing line up of short films?
Honestly, it feels really surreal. Sundance is one of those all-time filmmaker dreams and I’m speechless that it happened for this film, which is so personal and important to me. The cast & crew contributed such beautiful work and I am so proud of them. I’ve watched the other shorts in our program and man, there’s some great work in there. To be amongst so much talent is an honour.
How did Raspberry come about and what was the inspiration behind your screenplay?
My dad died almost 3 years ago from brain cancer and my family and I watched him take his final breaths. It was such a surreal moment and surprisingly anti-climactic. I’m not sure what I was expecting... I just found it so strange, so hard to describe with words, that the only way I knew how to express what I was feeling was to try and create something experiential. I remember really wanting to start a film with this moment, to capture the completely banal feeling of watching a human die in real time, and force you to reckon with death in a really blunt way. *Spoiler* The raspberry itself was a joke between Brianna and I that I initially wrote in as an easy punchline, but it became evident after Raymond Lee and Turner Munch read the script that it symbolised complex emotions really simply and beautifully. We ran with it and I just kept being inspired with every new team member’s ideas about the film.
As well as writing and directing Raspberry you also produced and edited your short film, how do you manage all these creative roles on a project like this?
I always thought editing WAS “directing” when I started out so there’s a part of me that doesn’t view them as separate things. I imagine the edit when I write, and when I shot-list. That being said, you run the risk of tunnel vision doing these 3 things, so I am constantly bouncing things off the team - sharing updated scripts, updated cuts… a lot of the edits I made were based on their ideas and feedback.
What was the hardest scene for you to film?
100% the living room scene when the undertakers enter the house. It’s a crucial moment with a subtle shift in tone, the 1st time we invite the audience to laugh a little. We didn’t shoot the typical coverage you would want to give yourself options in the edit. We just wanted it all in the wide shot. It was really challenging with so much action in the frame to follow, and it was so important to get the blocking and timing perfect with all those actors, and being intentional while looking completely natural and spontaneous. It was our first shot of the day, so we were nervous about getting behind schedule, but if we didn’t get this perfect I thought the short would fall apart and our morale for the rest of the day would tank. It took many takes but the actors eventually nailed it perfectly. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge how amazing this cast was.
*Spoiler* I will say going in, I thought we’d have the hardest time trying not to crack up at the raspberry moment on set. But what Ray pulled off was so grounded, so rooted in real pain and emotion, it was NEVER a problem. I was nervous about getting the raspberry moment right and was utterly stunned at his performance.
Should filmmakers push the boundaries of the films and stories they want to tell?
Absolutely, although it’s not really my strength as a filmmaker. I’m into telling a good story with simple shots and straight cuts. No flourish. But I love to see others pull it off. I just watched another short playing at Sundance called To Know Her by Natalie Chao, and the techniques she uses to tell a really powerful story of loss just blew my mind. When I see work that makes me go “my brain could never have done that”, I get really inspired.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking?
It took off mostly in college, at film school. For my 1st short film, my professor suggested as a reference Playtime by Jacques Tati. That inspiration still exists in Raspberry. Also all the films coming out in the late 2000s: Pan’s Labyrinth, Hot Fuzz, Children of Men…that’s when I started really paying attention to craft.
You are a second-generation Vietnamese American filmmaker, what were some of the films you saw growing up that really left an impression on you?
I didn’t grow up watching Vietnamese films, unfortunately. I’m trying to reconnect with that. It’s a silly answer but my all-time favourite film is The Transformers: the Movie, the 1986 animated film. They killed a LOT of long running characters in that movie and as a kid, seeing cartoon robots die was really my first introduction to death and the idea of impermanence.
Are there any up-and-coming Vietnamese American filmmakers you've been following you could recommend?
I’m also still working on expanding my horizons with Vietnamese American filmmakers, but 2 great ones I admire are Viet Nguyen and Qui Nguyen. Viet wrote a really fun freewheeling horror comedy called Crush the Skull that introduced me to an actor I now love working with, Tim Chiou, and Qui Nguyen wrote the AMAZING play Vietgone, which our lead Ray starred in. They both make pretty irreverent work and I feel a bit of a kinship in that sense… I don’t know if that’s a Vietnamese American “thing”, but I wouldn’t be mad if it was.
As a Vietnamese American how important is representation behind and in front of the camera to you?
Really important. Again, this is still a work in progress for myself, and for our industry. On low budget indie stuff, you tend to want your friends involved who you trust, so I think the first step at this level is diversifying your friend group. It’s about opening yourself up to new and unique friendships, unconditionally. And I think when the time is right for you to put the team together, your network will be full of great diverse options and it will feel effortless.
"Find people you love collaborating with and above all, respect them and respect their artistry. "
Has your approach to your films changed much since your debut short?
It’s not that different. It’s actually stylistically and tonally very similar to the first short I directed in 2007, Laundry Day. Then I spent 13 years making completely different stuff. It was all great and I worked with wonderful people but this felt like a real re-centering for me... like I finally got to make the film I’d been trying to make ever since I started all this.
Do you have any advice to offer a fellow filmmaker?
Be honest, generous, and genuine. Find people you love collaborating with and above all, respect them and respect their artistry. I really believe that will take you further than anything. The right people will gravitate to you.
And finally, what do you hope audiences will take away from Raspberry?
I’m looking for conflicting emotions. If someone finds themselves uncomfortable and thinking “am i supposed to laugh?” I would consider that the highest honour.