The Family Circus
A Vietnamese-American family’s plan to cover up a drunk driving accident begins to unravel when their emotional baggage spills out in front of the police.
Hi Andrew, it’s great to get to talk with you, how’s everything been going?
Things have been going well. 2023 is off to a good start.
How does it feel to be back at Sundance 2023 and having the World Premiere of your latest short The Family Circus?
I couldn’t be happier. I’m honoured to be part of the festival. I’m thrilled for our cast to be here as well. I know they’re all very excited.
You had an incredible run with your previous short film I Know You From Somewhere, winning Best Narrative Short at deadCenter Film Festival, what did it mean to you to get this type of recognition for your film?
I’ve self financed all the films I’ve made so far. I make a living as a television editor, live frugally and put all my savings towards my movies. My initial feeling after spending all of my money over the course of three or four days shooting a short film is usually “This movie is going to fail and now I’m broke. I could have bought a really suped up Corvette or something. This was a giant mistake.” So to have the film recognized in the end helps put some of those thoughts to rest.
Did winning the award add any additional pressure on you?
It didn’t add pressure. Awards for artistic endeavours are always subjective and only kooks make movies so they can win them, but I’d be lying if I said that stuff doesn’t make me happy. Like I said before, I come away from making things with a fair amount of self doubt, so the recognition chips away at those feelings and allows me to be a more confident filmmaker. Shout out to deadCenter Film Festival.
Can you tell me how The Family Circus came about, did you have any apprehensions about drawing inspiration for this film from your own experiences?
The film is loosely based on an actual event my family and I experienced some years ago. Before writing the script, I spoke with my brothers and my mom and dad to make sure they were okay with it. They are all very supportive of what I do and encouraged me to make it. Still, I was a bit apprehensive - basing a character on myself and casting doppelgängers of my family seemed really self indulgent and I kept telling myself that it’s an asshole thing to do. But I think what I was really feeling was fear of exposing myself. My other movies have been personal in various ways, but this one dealt with themes around my relationship to my mother and being Vietnamese - things that aren’t typically at the forefront of my mind, but very meaningful to me. So what started as wanting to make a simple suspense film became a pretty emotional experience for me. In the end, I’m happy I did it.
Once you start shooting do you like keeping close to your screenplay or do you allow yourself and your cast some flexibility?
I write and rewrite until I feel the script is as tight as it can be. I plan pretty intensely and prepare as much as possible in order to make sure that if we’re able to execute the plan, the film will at the very least make sense and work on a technical level. Once we start shooting, I try to create an environment where everyone - cast and crew - have room to build off that foundation. That’s when surprises happen and the movie takes on a life of its own. For instance, Linh’s speech at the climax of the film wasn’t scripted. It came about after two days of shooting and feeling the movie was missing something. So Elyse and I spoke a great deal about what we needed to do and came up with her speech. It changed the entire movie.
What was your favourite scene to film?
I don’t have a favourite, but filming the scene where John, Bill and Linh concoct their plan was really cool to watch come together. As the actors all loosened up and started to fall into their rhythms, you could really see them start to look and sound like a family- like people who’ve known each other forever.
The Family Circus has such a classic noiresque vibe, beautifully captured with Ali Helnwein’s music and Sing Howe Yam’s cinematography, what was the experience like working with them on this to achieve the look you wanted for your short?
This is the third film Sing and I have worked on together. I’ve been very fortunate to have him as a creative partner. Our tastes are pretty well aligned and we have a shorthand that allows us to work very efficiently without too much discussion once we’re on set. Ali and I met a few years ago and have been wanting to collaborate for a while. Ali is another true artist. His work has so much character and the Herrmann-esque score I was looking for was right in his wheelhouse. And though this movie was very much inspired by noir films, Sing and Ali’s work transcend simple homage to the genre. They have a deep understanding of story and brought the movie to a pretty unique place.
There have been some pretty amazing shorts turned into features recently, Emergency being one of them, would you ever consider turning The Family Circus into a feature?
I don’t think so. I approached the short as if it were a feature, story-wise. I think in the end it works. So in theory, I shouldn’t be able to stretch it out or add any more to it - it fits inside the format. I have feature scripts written that take better advantage of the scope a longer narrative provides.
Where did your passion for filmmaking and storytelling come from?
It’s come from a wide variety of places but I’d say Martin Scorsese, skateboarding, Jim Jarmusch and the movie Five Easy Pieces made me want to make movies of my own.
Looking back at making The Family Circus, what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you have taken from this?
Don’t hide from self expression. If you can learn to articulate your thoughts and emotions, new ideas are created and you evolve on a lot of different levels.
How much does your background as an editor help to influence your filmmaking approach?
Being an editor is the reason I’m a somewhat competent writer/director. Editing teaches you how to craft a story with pictures and sound. When you know how to do that, you know what you have to go gather in the writing and shooting phase of the process.
"The heads of studios and production companies can’t just tick off boxes on an ethnicity checklist and keep making the same stuff."
It is not often we get to see a multi-ethnic Asian-American family represented on the big screen and for many audiences The Family Circus will be one of a few opportunities to see this type of representation. What more can be done to continue opening the doors in Hollywood and beyond to more varied Asian-American stories and experiences?
Though it’s really important to get more varied faces on movie and tv screens, I think it’s equally, if not more important, to shake up who gets to decide what stories get bankrolled. Otherwise, it can all turn into tokenism. If it’s not genuine, it’s kinda worthless. The heads of studios and production companies can’t just tick off boxes on an ethnicity checklist and keep making the same stuff. The flip side is that stories can’t be driven by identity issues alone. I think people can get burnt out pretty quickly when they feel like they’re getting hit over the head with cultural messaging.
What are your top 3 tips for emerging filmmakers?
1) Figure out how to deal with disappointment.
2) Every tool needed to make a movie is at your disposal - learn to use them all.
3) Your initial idea is rarely the best - keep digging.
And finally, what would you like audiences to take away from The Family Circus?
Always listen to your mom.