Lynn Chen is a true ace of all trades. The actress has made guest appearances across numerous popular programs such as Silicon Valley, NCIS, and Law & Order. More notably, Chen has been a leading face within independent Asian American cinema for well over a decade. Having leading roles in Saving Face to more recently in Go Back to China. All the while setting a different kind of bar as an award-winning blogger and influencer on her spare time.
Chen adds full-fledged director and writer to her long list of accomplishments with I Will Make You Mine. Her feature debut also doubles as a sequel to Dave Boyle’s Surrogate Valentine and Daylight Savings. The two SXSW darlings follow real-life musician Goh Nakamura as he navigates a fictionalized version of his life, even coming across fellow real-life musician Yea-Ming Chen. With the last film being released in 2012, the Surrogate Valentine trilogy seemed like it was never going to be complete. Chen took it upon herself to finish what Boyle started and successfully crowdfunded the third entry in 2018. I Will Make You Mine, like the two before it, was chosen to premiere at SXSW this year before it was forced to cancel due to the ongoing pandemic.
We were lucky enough to sit down with Chen post-SXSW cancellation for an exclusive interview. We talk the origins behind I Will Make You Mine and the lessons learned as a first-time filmmaker. She explains why her sequel was shifted to a more female perspective while getting candid on her industry experience as an Asian American woman thus far. Even though progress has been made, Chen sees room for growth within Asian American cinema.
DF: I Will Make You Mine is a very peculiar film. It’s the finale to a low budget indie trilogy that’s been in the making since the late 2010’s. You previously starred in the series, but this time you actually take on both screenwriting and directing duties. Your film ties together basically a decade’s worth of storytelling, and it does so beautifully. Can you talk about the passing of the baton from Dave Boyle and the challenges you had in bringing this all home?
LC: When Dave came up with the first and second one, they happened one year apart from one another. So it happened so fast and there was a lot of momentum. Both movies went to SXSW two years in a row and he always said that this was going to be a trilogy. Because the movies were so low-budget, it felt like it would just be really easy to bang them out. Finish the story, the end, you know? Seven years had passed and nothing was happening with these movies. Dave had moved on, he made Man From Reno and some other stuff. Goh moved on with his life and I moved on with mine along with everyone else. But it was always in the back of my head, what happened to Goh and these women? It just broke my heart because I loved making these movies. They’re so intimate and small and I just wanted to know what happened. He left it at such a cliffhanger!
I was Marie Kondo-ing my house one day and found the old DVDs. On the DVD, it says the “Surrogate Valentine trilogy”. I remember thinking, “Hey, he should finish this”! I should talk to him about this like – we’re not doing anything right now! Let’s just make this thinking that I would just be in it. I approached him while we were hiking one day, I brought it up very casually, “what’s happening with it?” He right away just said, “Nothing’s happening – It’s never going to happen”. I was like, why? He said that Goh had talked about maybe rewriting it, but that was years ago. They sort of felt like there were no stories to tell.
I don’t even know where this came from, but I said kind of jokingly, “Well, what if I make it happen?” I guess I meant, what if I take a stab at writing it or what if I helped produce it? Not having done either of those things by the way. I’ll just try to help make this happen. I’ve been in this business for a long time. I’ve hosted a podcast. I can make things happen! (laughs)
He said to me, “Oh, sure. I’ll let you have it. You can even direct it. I love you”. When he said direct, my mind went to a place that I didn’t even know. The fact that he said he would help me – I knew what a rare opportunity that was. Dave is a very accomplished filmmaker who really makes things happen. He doesn’t say things lightly even though it sounds light. I knew that if I took him up on it, we would actually follow through.
So the next day we went home for Thanksgiving. I was on the plane and opened up my laptop. I wrote the first scene and I got really excited like I’ve never been before. I wrote half of the script on that flight there, finished it while I was in Boston for Thanksgiving, and then fine-tuned it on the flight back. Once I got back, it was roughly four days later, I sent it to both Goh and Dave and said, “Hi, what do you think?”
They were all really surprised and couldn’t believe that I had done it that fast. That I was also so serious about it. They were like, “This is pretty good. Let’s keep talking”. A year later basically, we raised the money. There was always this drive within me. It was coupled with the fact that I had Dave and the rest of my team championing me, but it was also something within me that just really wanted to finish this story. It felt like a moment in time that was very precious and special. I had to grab it and that’s why I did it. That’s why I put so much of myself into it. I knew if I didn’t do it now, it was probably never going to happen. I couldn’t let another seven years pass. I couldn’t say that I was going to do something and then just not have it happen, letting the series die.
DF: This is your directorial debut, but it’s not every day that someone’s debut is the ending of a trilogy. It’s basically unheard of. Now you’ve been in the entertainment industry since your youth, but you’ve never been behind the camera like this.
LC: I’ve never been behind the camera period.
DF: Right. There are two films before yours. I’m pretty sure you studied them enough because you were actually in them, but can you talk about the stylistic choices you wanted to bring to the table that were going to be new to the series?
LC: We had a long talk about whether we should shoot this movie in black-and-white. Also, if we should have it just be truly standalone. I wanted to be able to still sell this movie at the end. Who’s gonna buy a black-and-white film full of Asian faces? I just didn’t think it was going to happen. Then I decided that I needed this movie to have a through-line with the others, because they’re pulling the female perspective. I needed it to still have a tie to the first two. The first two are so like buddy road trip movies. There’s a lot more comedy. The vibe of it is just completely different. This one has people thinking about aging, it’s a lot more serious, and there’s death along with real-life problems. That is sort of the theme of the movie, looking back at your past and realizing that you didn’t do what you wanted. There is some seriousness to that.
I felt like the black-and-white would ground and tie us to the other ones. I had a long talk with Bill Otto, our DP who shot the first two movies. He’s been teaching in Utah and took some time off to help us make this. We talked about wanting these anamorphic lenses to make it look super cinematic. These characters have grown up now. Whereas like the first two movies, we were shooting on a completely different camera. Now we’re shooting on RED cameras. We really just graduated to a completely different level and that goes along with the fact that we’ve all grown up, all of us. Yet, we’re still very much coming from the same cloth.
DF: I would agree because this is ultimately a tale of vulnerability and our inner workings. The black-and-white really helps capture the bareness of it all, especially from your actors. It feels more vulnerable, more open, more exposed. It really does help what you’re trying to get through in the end.
LC: I’m glad! I also knew this was going to be my first film, but when else am I going to do a black-and-white film? I can’t make like six or seven films and then be like, “I’m going to do a black-and-white film now” and have everyone be like, “Oh, this girl”.
DF: Good point.
LC: I was like, this is my chance! I have to do it. I have the trilogy to blame if people are telling me that I’m being pretentious.
DF: That’s a nice thing to fall back on! This trilogy is famous for being a love letter to indie music as a whole. Now Goh and Yea-Ming have made music for the series before, but given that you take these characters to new places – can you talk about how the musical process adapted?
LC: A lot of the music was actually written before this movie was made. The song I Will Make You Mine, Yea-Ming had already recorded years before. A lot of Goh’s music is his old stuff. There are only really two new songs in the whole movie and they wrote them specifically in character for it. Otherwise, all the music already existed. We were inspired by their music while editing and even while I was writing. Honestly, the reason I chose I Will Make You Mine was because I was going down a list of Yea-Ming’s songs and thought, “What would make a good title for a movie?” I just started reading out names and then I Will Make You Mine made us stop a few times.
When we listened to it I thought, “this could be the theme song”! As I listened to the lyrics, they sort of magically fit. It’s not even like I manipulated the script to work around the theme of the lyrics. She says Goh’s name in it. She says, “I’m trying to let you go”. She’s talking about how he left her with her things. None of this was written because it was written in the lyrics. It just happened to fit. There were a lot of moments in this film that were just magical. They just fit into place.
That’s why I felt this movie was very, very special. I’ve been on a lot of sets and I’ve been asked by journalists, “Did you know when you were making it that this was special?” A lot of times you answer no because you’re caught up in making a movie. But I have to say, there were so many moments full of so much magic when making this movie. The fact that we were able to get everyone together, people from San Francisco, Ayako had just had a baby. These crazy things were conspiring to make this a very difficult thing. But that’s why making it was such a special experience. I wish SXSW had been where we premiered it.
DF: It would have definitely been special.
LC: It would have been super special. I’m sure there’ll be something else. But that’s been the theme with this movie.
DF: Everything you’ve just said… it almost feels like the trilogy was destined to close. It was always meant to be three. Good on you for taking it upon yourself to actually see it through. Because otherwise, this movie magic wouldn’t have seen the light of day.
LC: It’s true. Especially because after the first two movies, everyone involved with was straight-up asking, what else? What is there left to say? Honestly, nobody else could have told the movie from the female perspective besides me because I have been in all three. Like even if Mye (Hoang), who produced the second one and this one as Dave’s partner, had done it and she’s a filmmaker – she still wasn’t involved with the first one. None of the other women had been there in the first one. So it really was up to me and I felt to that. It just happened to be the right time. I happened to have nothing else going on and was willing to give it a shot.
DF: This overall is a story of reconciliation and coming to terms with your past. It’s universally human. I myself have not lived the lives of these characters, though I was contemplating my own past and treasured relationships long after the film was over. A lot of personal drama comes back to you. “I’m probably still not over this or that”. Most of this works because it’s a female story told from a female perspective. Can you talk about the responsibility of bringing that authenticity to your film?
LC: Well, I feel like these women are all versions of myself. I’m still used to playing very one-dimensional characters. And no offense to Dave, but he knows this – his writing of Rachel, Erika, and Yea-Ming were all done through Goh’s perspective. We didn’t see what these women were doing when they left him. They would always just say something awesome and then just disappear. We didn’t know what was going on with them after that. So often I feel like women, and this is from the feminine perspective here, we are so used to putting on a mask. We literally put on makeup every single day, walk out there, and show other people a version of ourselves that has nothing to do with the version of us that woke up.
I wanted to show that we have all these different facets of ourselves. We all have these different parts of ourselves that we don’t normally get to show. On one hand, you can feel overwhelmed by your age and weighed down by all of those demands. But at the same time you can feel like, “God I’m only this age and I still haven’t accomplished everything I wanted to. My time is running out”. You can feel both of those things at the same time. Me writing these three characters is a way of expressing these different sides of myself. They don’t usually get to see the light of day because I’m too busy trying to sell a movie or play someone that is a lot more one-dimensional.
DF: It feels like a breath of fresh air because not only is it female driven, but it’s also POC driven. But again, it focuses on the every day. These natural, yet complex feelings that everybody can experience – but from an Asian point of view.
LC: I was really, really adamant about making this an Asian American movie that had really nothing to do with us being Asian American.
DF: It seems like the majority of POC-driven films that get greenlit have to be specific about something from their culture. This is not the case here and we need more POC driven films along this line. Having made this film, what are your thoughts on the current state of Asian American cinema? How do you think we can push further?
LC: I’ve been asked this question for some time now and most years I’ve been able to just not feel like there’s anything moving forward. I can tell you now, I feel a palpable shift that’s happening, since probably Crazy Rich Asians. I definitely see more opportunities, more people willing to take chances. But having said that, I feel like there’s even more stereotyping going on. There are even more auditions where they want me to play somebody who does karate or has an accent. I think what they’re trying to do is appeal to a wider audience. Meaning like selling the film in places like China. Even though we have made so many strides forward, and I still get to audition for parts that are leading roles and are normally what I wouldn’t have gone in for – I still feel like we aren’t quite there yet.
I don’t think we’re going to be quite there until we stop highlighting the fact that there have to be a lot of cultural differences in the script. These differences are important because I do want to see myself and my experience reflected. But for the last twenty years, we have seen the immigrant story of the parents who came here trying to make a better life for their kids. The culture clash that happens from having those parents. We’ve seen that story done to death. I want to see different stories. I’m fine seeing these stories as long as we’re seeing other ones too. But if that’s your presence that most people are still seeing, that to me is not a step forward.
That feels like it’s boxing us in even more. My hope is that with movies, like the one I made and those I see at film festivals, they get a bit more attention. All we need to do is see somebody acting the way we act and if they happen to be of a different race, that’s when we start to solve these problems a little. Being able to see people not as the other. Not in terms of, “Well, they eat that kind of food and I eat this kind of food so we really don’t have as much in common”. More so of like, “Oh yeah, that’s Rob who works in accounting. Rob and I hang out all the time and we’re totally fine. That’s Rob’s family and I get it, it totally makes sense”. I just want to see more examples of that and I feel like we’re still a ways away from that.
DF: We couldn’t agree more. I myself am Mexican American and a majority of the films that I see about my culture have to do with either immigration or celebrations like Day of the Dead. Don’t get me wrong, this is not totally a bad thing. But like you just said, we need to start getting rid of the line between the other and me because it’s more about us.
Now this film has a reputation for almost not getting made. You’ve already touched upon this, but you ultimately made it happen through crowdfunding. Unfortunately, many upcoming filmmakers also have no other means to get their funding. With I Will Make You Mine, you successfully crowdfunded a film that feels cinematic and worthy of a big screen. What advice do you have for filmmakers when it comes to finding resources through crowdfunding?
LC: You have to surround yourself with people. The reason why my movie looks as good as it does is because we had the best of the best working on it. Those who are willing to help me. We even had people donating locations. If you truly believe in something the way that I truly believe in this story, then don’t be afraid to ask. But you only get one ask. Like I’m not going to be able to keep making a bunch of kickstarted movies after this. That’s not going to happen because this was special for that reason. I believed in this movie for that reason and that’s why I felt like I could ask. That’s why I think other people wanted to help, because they saw how important it was to me.
So if you’re making something just to make something, I don’t think you should be pulling in all those favors. You have to wait until the moment is right. When the moment is right and you ask, everyone will come and support you. That will help elevate your project to a place where you don’t feel weird asking people because you believe in it that much. They just want to help you.