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PakBuzz Q&A: Michael Kang on “The Motel”

Motel poster
“The Motel” poster

Michael Kang (whom viewers of Greg Pak’s short films may recognize as one of the stars of “Asian Pride Porn”) directed the award-winning feature film “The Motel,” which opens theatrically at the Film Forum in Manhattan on June 28. Read on for an in depth interview with Greg Pak in which Kang reveals how he worked with his child actors, what challenges he faced in making the film, and where to find his favorite motels.
Greg Pak: Give us the quick rundown on what “The Motel” is about and what kinds of audience members will particularly love it.
Michael Kang:
“The Motel” is about a kid who is growing up in a seedy hourly rate motel owned by his family. It’s basically a story about the worst possible place to go through puberty. I think it will act as a healing force for anyone that had a terrible time going through those formative years (which is most likely all of us). It’s a dark comedy in the vein of “Welcome to the Dollhouse.” It also stars Sung Kang so I think teenage girls will really like it.
GP: Any special events around the opening that people should know about?
MK:
In addition to our big premiere party being hosted by ImaginAsian, we are in the planning stages of working with groups like MK on throwing after parties every night. Basically, we think that after people see the movie, they will want to get drunk. The best way to find out about the venues and locations for these are if people sign up on our MySpace account at http://www.myspace.com/themotelfilm. There is also a podcast series of phone conversations I am having with key members of the film being hosted on the Film Forum website. We have a lot of fun stuff planned for the two weeks. Really, the best way to keep up is to sign up on MySpace or on our email list at The Motel website at http://www.themotel-film.com.


GP: Independent features tend to rely a huge amount on word-of-mouth and volunteer street teams to get folks to theaters — what can people do to help spread the word and whom should they contact if they have time to volunteer?
MK:
It is definitely a challenge with a small indie like ours to get the word out. We have a respectable-sized distributor Palm Pictures, but they are not the machine of a studio. The biggest key is getting people to talk about the film and let their friends know that it isn’t one of those boring artsy-fartsy indie films. They don’t need to fear being alienated by hyper-intellectual themes; it’s about puberty and how much puberty sucks. Also despite it’s setting in a sleazy motel inhabited by hookers and johns, the film is actually very sweet and funny.
If people want to get involved, they should write us at pubertysucks@gmail.com
Otherwise, they can check out these sites:
http://www.themotel-film.com
http://www.myspace.com/themotelfilm
http://www.pubertysucks.com

Jeffrey Chyau
Jeffrey Chyau as Ernest Chin in “The Motel.” Photo courtesy of Tom LeGoff.

AAF: “The Motel” deals directly with questions of sexuality among adolescents.  How did you approach working with young actors on those kinds of scenes?
MK:
The key in working with kids is working with the parents. I never hid anything from the parents. Together we would discuss how to approach the subject matter. It was slightly different with each actor. Some of the older kids knew more stuff than I did. Alexis Chang who played Katie (8-years-old) knew nothing and most of the time we didn’t explain things she didn’t need to know. But with Jeffrey who plays Ernest (12-years-old at the time), he was right at that age where all your friends are giving you lots of misinformation about sex. With him, his mother was glad that I was there to act as a mentor (his father works overseas, so if it wasn’t me, she was going to have to tell him stuff). Needless to say, his mother was relieved that I was there to explain masturbation, sex, girls, etc. My answer to Jeffrey’s mom was that I was fine with those uncomfortable conversations but that I would never lie to him. If he asked anything, I would tell him the truth no matter how horrifying it is to a 12-year-old mind. I had to build up the trust in our relationship from the get-go and I had to maintain that.
GP: You’re an actor yourself — was there ever a point when you were tempted to cast yourself in a role in “The Motel”?  Whom would you have played?
MK:
I learned my lesson with my first short “A Waiter Tomorrow.” I vowed I would never act in anything I directed again. I had to that first time because I got to play with guns, but it was way to difficult to focus on both jobs ultimately. I was never tempted to cast myself in “The Motel” for that reason. The story was way more important to me than my own hammy acting needs. Though as an actor, if I heard of another director making “The Motel,” I would have killed to play the part of Sam Kim. I’d have to lose about 30 pounds and grow about five inches for the part, but I think it is a really unique character for an Asian American actor to play. That became obvious when it did come time to cast the film too. I had a really strong reaction from actors on both coasts trying to get the part. I think for most Asian American actors, it’s rare to get to play a part that isn’t “exposition guy” or “gangster #2.” The role of Sam Kim was a complex character with many layers. Basically, a three dimensional character. And so much of the role relies on the actor doing a lot of internal work. Because the film is from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old boy, I wanted to shoot the film true to how we perceive the world at that age. A lot of the story had to be told through the eyes and not be overstated because at that age, nothing is ever explained to you.
GP: It’s a big transition to go from working on short films to making a feature.  What was the biggest challenge for you?  The biggest surprise?
MK:
The mechanics of shooting a feature are the same. I was glad to have had the training doing shorts to know what the difference between a gaffer and a grip is, but in terms of storytelling, features are completely different beasts. I had never spent more than two-weeks editing any of my shorts. But with The Motel, we really took our time trying to get it right. It was a long editing process for features, but I knew that I only had one chance to do it right. We spent over a year working on it. By the end, I could confidently stand behind every edit and every choice made in the film. With shorts, you can get away with some broad strokes and even some bad choices because the film is over quickly and usually, you’re just trying to tell one good joke. The thing I learned from my mentor/producer Miguel Arteta was that if you leave one false moment in the cut, then you will lose the audience completely.
GP: What’s the most memorable experience you’ve had while taking “The Motel” to film festivals?
MK:
We’ve been really fortunate with our festival run. In addition to the
awards, the film has been programmed as opening, closing or centerpiece slots in most. It’s been great seeing a lot of the people that have been supportive of me as I was coming up as a short filmmaker. Each one has been uniquely fun and exciting. I would have to say that one of the highlights though was bringing the film to The Pusan International Film Festival. It was like returning to the motherland. And the audiences there are amazing. They are generally younger and seriously hardcore about films. They sleep on the floors at all night saunas just to afford a week of attending the festival and they treat the directors like rock stars. They really love film. And I have to say, they had the most interesting questions at the Q&A’s. In America, Q&A’s tend to devolve into people asking how much your film cost, what you shot it on and how you raised your financing — all of which really translates as “how can I get my film made?” In Korea, they were asking really probing questions about characters and themes.
GP: “The Motel” keeps winning awards — what do you think makes the film resonate so strongly with audiences and judges?
MK:
I think everyone can identify with the underdog. Ernest Chin is the ultimate underdog. I think also there are no clear cut good and bad guys in the film. I think it reflects life in a refreshing way that you don’t normally see on film. When I was at NYU for Dramatic Writing, we would get pounded with this idea of archetypes. In real life, we are all good and bad. I think my desire to show all the characters as fully realized people with faults and virtues is what audiences connect with.
GP: What do you wish you knew back when you were starting work on “The Motel” that you know now?
MK:
I don’t think there is anything I could have known that I learned while making “The Motel” without having gone through the process. When we finished the film, I felt like Neo in “The Matrix.” All of a sudden, I could see all the binary code that the world was made of.

Motel poster
Michael Kang at the front office of “The Motel.” Photo courtesy of Tom LeGoff.

GP: You’re a filmmaker who’s consistently worked on unabashedly Asian American projects time and time again and had great success in getting your work in front of wide audiences.  What do you see as the biggest challenges for Asian American films and what do think are the most promising strategies for getting them out into the world?
MK:
I don’t know if I am so unabashed about it. I write about things I don’t usually get to see and that I’d like to see. Often that incorporates Asian Americans. But it’s not solely that as inspiration. I think if it were that limited and didactic, it would fail. Ultimately, I want to tell interesting, entertaining stories. The only way I can gauge that is by how interested and entertained I am by the material. I don’ t think “The Motel” relies on race identity politics to be valid as a film. I hate making statements like this, but the story is universal. It’s about puberty. Who hasn’t gone through puberty?
Often, I feel like there are two major mistakes made by Asian American filmmakers. The first is that they let the politics of their story get in the way of actually telling a story. You could be saying the most important thing, but if you don’t say it well, nobody is going to be listening. The other mistake (which is not relegated solely to Asian American filmmakers) is that people often rush to make their films before they are ready or finish too quickly. There is a first-time filmmaker panic to get their film made, but I think that actually hurts them in the end.
GP: You’ve just spent a year in Los Angeles with the ABC / DGA New Talent Directing Program.  Can you tell us a bit about the program and what you’ve learned from doing it?
MK:
Basically, I get paid to learn. I bounce around from TV show to TV show observing other directors work. I never have to pick up cable or anything. I get my own headset and usually a chair by the monitors. And most importantly, access to some really great TV directors. I have been on the set of “Lost” where I got to meet Yunjin Kim whose career I’ve followed since “Shiri.” I also got to make a cameo on the Disney Channel show “Hanna Montana” as Billy Ray Cyrus’s hip young sound engineer. I was inspired to apply for the program because my mentor Miguel Arteta has made a livelihood over the past few years by directing TV in between his feature films. It takes so long in between feature films to get projects going that working in TV seemed like a perfect opportunity. I can continue to work on my craft and be on set by doing TV and at the same time work on getting my feature films going.
GP: Word on the street is that you’re in pre-production now for your next film. Can you tell us anything about what it’s about and when you’re planning to shoot?
MK:
I don’t want to jinx it right now. But yes, those ears you have on the pavement have heard rumblings. I have been working with Teddy Zee who produced “Saving Face” and “Hitch” on my next script which is about Flushing Korean gangsters. It’s a bit of a departure from “The Motel” stylistically, but I think at the heart of it is a compelling drama about characters we don’t normally get to see. And that is always interesting to me.
GP: What advice do you have for filmmakers planning their own first feature films?  
MK:
I think I covered this already, but I think it is worth saying again. Make sure your script is ready. I am so bad at citing quotes, but I think it was Orson Welles (or maybe my friend Woody) that said something to the effect of, “You can make a mediocre film from a great script but you can’t make a great film from a mediocre script.”
GP: Any advice for folks as they head into the film festival/distribution stage of their journey?
MK:
Don’t compare your experience to anyone else’s. Try to surround yourself with good people. It’s hard in this industry but not impossible.
GP: Where’s your favorite real-life motel and what makes it so awesome?
MK:
It’s so hard to choose just one, but I would have to say that I was most impressed by the motels in Pusan, Korea. They have great flat screen TVs with a wide assortment of quality adult entertainment as well these back driveways that have plush velvet curtains to hide your license plate as you pull in.
This interview has been crossposted at AsianAmericanFilm.com and Greg Pak’s Film Talk.

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