18th BFI Future Film Festival, 2024
"The Last September helped me realise that I’m interested in exploring how narrative influences the way we conduct our lives."
Under the stress of applying to college, an Asian-American high schooler begins to see his Black-American best friend—and himself—in a whole new light.
Hi Sophia, thank you for talking to TNC. How does it feel to have The Last September part of this years BFI Future Film Festival?
Thank you so much for speaking with me! It feels amazing. I’m really honoured to be screening alongside my peers on an international stage. I had thought that the subject matter of my film might only play to audiences in the United States, so it’s gratifying that it resonates across the pond as well.
You’ve had a great festival run so far with The Last September, what has it meant to you to see your film get such a great response?
The Last September touches on the complicated issue of affirmative action. I didn’t know how the film would be received, because this topic is of as much personal interest as it is national debate. Between our first and second film festival, the U.S. Supreme Court banned affirmative action in college admissions. I was worried that festivals would suddenly find the film obsolete and decline to include it in their programming. But the ongoing festival support has shown me that the film contains merit beyond its nominal subject. In fact, I read a recent article about students applying to college this year who still feel like they have to “check a box,” which is an important visual motif in The Last September.
The festivals it has played so far have had great community outreach, and they have affirmed to me what filmmaking is really about: connecting with other humans and giving them an opportunity to reflect. I’ve opened up meaningful conversations with my friends who have seen the film; I’ve also been able to meet strangers who feel seen or moved by the work, all of which makes the hardships of filmmaking feel worth it.
What was your experience like at New York University on the Stern-Tisch Dual Degree programme, and how much did this time help guide your filmmaking journey?
Initially, I matriculated into Tisch as a film student. In my first year, I quickly realised that an understanding of business was as vital as a creative aptitude to sustaining a film career. I applied to the dual degree program and was accepted.
The Stern-Tisch Dual Degree is not an interdisciplinary program. That is, my Tisch classes were squarely about film while my Stern classes followed a general business curriculum. This structure happened to work for my brain, because I could independently integrate the two fields in a way that made sense to me, reinforcing my learning. For example, I took an entrepreneurship class in which I realised that launching a start-up is analogous to producing a film. I then was able to apply that framework to producing.
I also gained an overview of business principles that can be applied to any field. Having that background helps me navigate the entertainment industry and calibrate it against what I see in other sectors, which is especially useful during this period of change.
How important are festivals like Future Film Festival in creating a platform for short films and emerging filmmakers?
For an emerging filmmaker, it’s incredibly encouraging to have an organisation as significant as BFI express their confidence in your work. Focused festivals, like Future Film Festival, are also able to provide programming and support to address needs that are specific to younger filmmakers. I’m really excited to attend the sessions at the festival.
What more can be done on a local/national level to offer short films more visibility to audiences outside of the festivals circuit?
I think it would be great if distributors screened a 5- to 8-minute short in front of their feature-length films, much like Pixar does with their animated shorts. It would expose audiences to the medium, introduce them to emerging talent, and help to normalise shorts as a legitimate art form in themselves.
Reviews in major media outlets could help raise their profile—maybe a regular roundup of sorts, or a curated collection of art that relates to a feature article.
Can you tell me how The Last September came about, what inspired your screenplay?
I was struggling to land on a story for my final film class. My professor advised us to “make something that causes a revolution of the heart.” And a corollary jumped into my head: “…even if the only heart that is changed is your own.” As I searched for a subject that I wanted to change my perspective on, I hit upon my college application experience. Even though I had been nearly 5 years removed from that period, it still gave me agita whenever I thought about it. So I decided to figure out why.
Throughout school, I pursued activities that interested me. But when it came time to summarise my experiences on paper, I was disheartened to see that those experiences—coupled with my race—made me look stereotypical. It was the first time I saw and evaluated myself through the eyes of others. College applications are supposed to represent you as a whole person, yet I felt like I had to curate my image in an effort to fit (or subvert) someone else’s expectations. This transformation was at the heart of my discomfort.
I was also aware of the discourse surrounding affirmative action, especially how students of different backgrounds are viewed. A lot of this discourse is generalised and takes a “top-down” approach. I wanted to contribute to the discussion by focusing on these characters and their relationship on an individual level, “bottom-up”.
"There are elements of the film that didn’t rear their heads until the night before shooting, or the fifth cut."
When writing a screenplay like this how much do you draw from your own life and experience when crafting your characters?
Because the film is informed by a real, complex system that continues to influence people’s lives, I wanted this story to have as much fidelity as possible. While I have never been in the exact situation depicted in the short, I do share the emotions that both characters experience. I’ve been in Daniel’s shoes and in Benjamin’s. I also was inspired by my younger brother’s experiences applying to college, as he had just gone through the process when I wrote the screenplay.
How much flexibility do you allow yourself and your actors with your screenplay once you started shooting?
Because filmmaking is always a race against resources, I plan ahead as much as possible to maximise efficiency. I like to build in rehearsal, so when the cameras roll, we are as prepared as possible. But I also allow us to try different approaches on the day of shooting, because you never know what will inspire you in the moment.
What was the most challenging scene for you to film?
The second library scene proved to be the most difficult to write, film, and edit! Fun fact – the character Benjamin (played by Eric Lamont) used to be in this scene. I had initially planned a dolly tracking shot in which Benjamin had to walk behind Hannah (played by Emily McNally) at a specific moment in Daniel’s (played by Krishna Doodnauth) dialogue. However, we ended up abandoning the dolly altogether because the coordination was too physically difficult. It doesn’t affect the final product at all, which taught me that simplicity is sometimes the best policy. And then, when we were in the edit, we realised that having Benjamin in the scene made it feel heavy-handed, so my editor Nicholas excised him entirely.
Now you can be reflective what would you say has been the most valuable lesson you’ve taken away from making The Last September?
I have learned to trust the creative process. Observing the development of The Last September from the first draft to the final film was very instructive. There are elements of the film that didn’t rear their heads until the night before shooting, or the fifth cut. At the same time, there are visuals that survived from the first draft, but I couldn’t explain why I chose them until much later. And there are plenty of ideas that came from other people on my team. E. L. Doctorow once said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I think that principle can be applied to any creative endeavour.
Have you always had a passion for filmmaking, and what filmmakers have served as inspiration for you?
I’ve always had a passion for being creative. When I was younger, I dabbled in music, dance, design, prose. I taught myself how to film and edit for a school assignment and realised that filmmaking was the integration of all of these art forms that I enjoyed.
I really admire Wes Anderson’s command of style, Yasujiro Ozu’s quiet camera, Nora Ephron’s effortless dialogue, and Christopher Nolan’s ability to make cerebral ideas cinematic.
How much has your approach to your film projects changed since your debut short?
I tend to start with an idea/theme, then build out a story and characters from there. Sometimes, it can feel too much like an intellectual exercise. For my next project, I’d like to start with a character and see where they take me.
What does The Last September say about you as a filmmaker and the stories you want to tell in the future?
My friends have told me that the film feels very “Sophie-like,” which I think translates to a precise, intentional, and contemplative tone. The Last September helped me realise that I’m interested in exploring how narrative influences the way we conduct our lives. I’m also drawn to characters that have difficulty communicating their inner selves and/or discover their agency.
In general, I want to tell stories that explore questions that I don’t know the answers to. That was another lesson I learned from making this film. I think the exploration ensures a unique, considered, and insightful outcome. If the artist makes a transformation through the filmmaking process, chances are the audience will too.
Do you have any tips or advice you would offer anyone wanting to get into filmmaking and what has been the best advice you’ve been given as you started your own filmmaking journey?
If you’re just starting out, and don’t have a huge budget, I would recommend writing to your strengths and resources. Choose locations that you know you will be able to access. Minimise your character count. Write stories at a manageable scale. Down the line, your production team (which will likely include yourself!) will thank you. These constraints might even force some unexpected creative decisions.
The best advice I have received is to find joy in the work. Fame, money, and auspices are a function of luck, timing, and opportunity—none of which you can control. What you can control is how you approach your craft every day. That attitude is what will sustain you.
And finally, what do you hope you audiences will take away from The Last September?
To me, the film is really about a bittersweet and universal aspect of coming-of-age: becoming aware of how others perceive you. I wanted to acknowledge and articulate the complicated feelings one has during this fraught experience. I hope that audiences will empathise with the characters. Most of all, I hope that people who identify with the characters are validated in their emotions.