Interview with filmmaker and Sundance alumnus Tanuj Chopra, who returns to SDAFF 2010 with two films
Q&A by Lee Ann Kim
LA : Congrats on getting not one, but two films into our festival this year! So great to see you back since we screened your Sundance film, PUNCHING AT THE SUN (SDAFF 06). How have you changed as a filmmaker and artist these last few years?
TANUJ: thank you guys for screening the new work. SDAFF was one of the best experiences on the ‘06 circuit for me so it's rad to be back.
Regarding the question: It's hard to articulate your own growth especially when you feel like you are still in it. As a filmmaker I think I'm focusing on parts of the craft I couldn't attend to before for whatever reason. I think I'm developing elements like production design, lens selection and lighting as much as theme, story and performance these days. I'm also interested in exploring genre films and looking to mine quieter moods and subtler moments.
I think as an artist I'm a little more thoughtful and much more patient. I think I value doing things right vs just doing things. In a lot of ways I'm still the same cat.
LA: Your two short films, PIA and CLAP CLAP are very different stories, yet have the same woman as the lead in both. Can you tell us about working with her?
TANUJ: My collaboration with Tillotama Shome started with a short film titled Butterfly that was on the scene in 2003. It was filmed in New Delhi in an extremely India-hot summer.
I think starting with that film, Tilly and I knew that we had a lot of similar goals with the medium. We also shared a respect for each other's creative strengths. I'm grateful that the last two years has produced not only one but two new pieces of work featuring her. She is a joy to work with. She invests herself very truthfully in her characters and process.
She is a totally honest actor. The performances she gives you are very genuine and authentic. It's not acommon disposition in this world and it makes her valuable. I think she will continue to deliver nourishing work throughout a long and rewarding career. I look forward to the next piece we get to do.
LA: Your film PIA, is part of a series called FutureStates, and your story is set in San Francisco circa 2063. What inspired you to do a love story?
TANUJ : I feel like I always do love stories. I guess you end up writing what you know.
In the case of PIA, I was interested in warming up a genre that's usually perceived as cold, scientific and inaccessible.
I think science fiction is super cool space to work in creatively but I wanted to do a sci-fi where the audience could feel emotions that are traditionally absent in the programs. I wanted to give people who are generally turned off by robots and future projections something familiar they could connect with and that took the form of a love story.
LA : CLAP CLAP is another love story, which stars SDAFF fave Sung Kang (Better Luck Tomorrow, The Motel, Fast and Furious). It's not often that you see an interracial romance between a Korean and South Asian (although i did find out there's a facebook page dedicated to mixed race Korean/Indians!) Was this intentional, or a result of casting?
TANUJ : I certainly didn't have an agenda to advance the Korean/South-Asian interracial romance society however I am rolling to a wedding of those demographics right after SDAFF in San Diego.
Maybe it's a bigger trend than I realize. Regardless, casting for Clap Clap was just a lucky chance I had to put three of my favorite actors in a film together. It's more a film about really hot people than a film about race and cross-cultural love. I do like that it's a couple we traditionally NEVER see in commercial entertainment but the story was written for Sung, Manu and Tillotama versus a casting process that resulted in these three actors. Sung Kang is such a natural presence on screen and one of the best in my opinion. Manu Narayan is pure star who has headlined Broadway, movies and TV for years. It was a gift to work with all three of them.
LA: What else are you working on these days?
TANUJ : I shot a few music videos and short pieces for artists like Chee Malabar and Vijay Iyer. I'm teaching a filmmaking workshop for youth in East Palo Alto in an initiative called new Voices. I've got some feature scripts and doc projects I'm developing. I got a few other goodies. I'm mostly working on being a better person to my fellow man and opening my heart to all of god's children.
LA: Do you think the tide is changing for Asian American artists in Hollywood? And how do you think festivals like SDAFF play an important role for indie filmmakers?
TANUJ : No I don't think the tide is turning at all. A few people have created some nice opportunities for themselves but generally the tide is not changing and I'm almost convinced that it never will.
I still see the same marginal characters and stereotypical roles redone and re-articulated. I think we are making some decent indie work but we need to do even better. I think the spirit is strong in the community, but the direction of the industry is not concerned with the type of change I wish was happening. There are too many talented folks who are still not getting chances and if you run the numbers on percentage of Asian Americans in the WGA and DGA you will get a very pathetic low single digit figure. Too many Asians still hear how they are not Asian enough or are told they are too Asian and there are not enough Asians in positions that make those assessments.
I think the hopelessness I see with our progress in Hollywood is WHY SDAFF is so important.
This is the place where breakthrough work is appreciated and showcased. This is where independent risks are rewarded and respected.
This is a space where young filmmakers can find their start and older filmmakers can return. This is where Asian American cinema is celebrated, publicized and encouraged. We need a place that values all the things we find important in our stories and we need a place that congregates the talent in our community.
I think SDAFF is important because it motivates us to make new media without caring about the Hollywood tide. Plus the karaoke party is rad.
LA: Finally, if we look into the future of Tanuj, what do you hope to see in 20 years?
TANUJ : I hope to have a beach house and a dog. I hope I have a classic car. I hope I can do 50 push-ups in a row. I hope there is a string of well made movies in a section with my name on it. I hope my friends still love me. I hope we learn if neolithic structures on Mars exist. Mostly I hope I am sitting at the grown-ups table at the SDAFF awards gala.