PakBuzz Q&A: Producer Karin Chien on “The Motel”

Motel poster
“The Motel” poster

Karin Chien produced Greg Pak’s films “Robot Stories” (with Kim Ima) and “Super Power Blues.” Her latest two films, Michael Kang’s “The Motel” and Chris Chan Lee’s “Undoing,” hit theaters this week. Read on for Pak’s interview with Chien about “The Motel” theatrical release, what a producer does, and just why the heck she’s worked with so many Korean American directors.
Greg Pak: Congrats on all the recent success! Tell us a little about what you’re doing to prepare for “The Motel” opening this coming Wednesday in New York. What can people do to help?
Karin Chien:
Bring as many people as possible to see the film when it opens on June 28 at the Film Forum, and then tell everyone you know how much you love THE MOTEL!!
But, seriously, we are working with Palm Pictures on the marketing campaign, and are also doing a grassroots campaign, which involves spreading the word, via events, posters, parties, merchandise and the internet, throughout the indie film and Asian American communities. If you’re part of an organization or school or a very large family, you can invite us to speak to your group, or screen a trailer, or put up posters, or write us up in your blog. Every little bit of extra exposure helps.

GP: What makes “The Motel” a special film for you?
I think the experience of making “The Motel” was extra special for me. Many of my closest friends and collaborators today came from that set. We had such a good time making this film that everything else that followed — the awards, the Sundance Film Festival premiere, the acquisition by Palm Pictures — has been icing on the cake.
GP: I hear there’s good news regarding “Undoing,” the Chris Chan Lee feature film you produced.
We are very excited to be premiering “Undoing,” the second feature film by Chris Chan Lee (“Yellow”) at the Los Angeles Film Festival on June 24. Please come out and see the film if you are in LA. We have three screenings scheduled — June 24, 27, and 30. I guarantee this will be unlike any Asian American film you’ve seen before — “Undoing” is a stylish, character-driven neo-noir set on the mean streets of Los Angeles’ Koreatown and starring Sung Kang (“The Fast and the Furious 3,” “Better Luck Tomorrow”) and Kelly Hu (“X-Men 2,” “Scorpion King”).
GP: So you were a producer on “Robot Stories,” directed by yours truly; “The Motel,” directed by Michael Kang; and now “Undoing,” directed by Chris Chan Lee. How did you end up working with three different Korean American feature filmmakers in a row?
I’m still wondering that myself! Little did I know that once I started working with you, I would soon be introduced to every Asian American filmmaker in the country! “Robot Stories” led me to Michael Kang and to Chris Chan Lee. I think in all three instances, I was won over by the originality of the scripts and the visions of the filmmakers. It just happened that all three directors are Korean American men.

Motel poster
Karin Chien (second from left) on the set of “The Motel”

GP: I know the question’s become a kind of cliché, but people still want to know — what exactly does a producer do? Tell us a bit about what your role’s been on your various feature projects.
This is a good question and a hard one to answer in one paragraph. I sometimes wonder what certain producers do too! I’m a very hands-on producer. Which means when I get involved, I get completely involved. So whatever the project needs, I do — if it’s raising money, or making script copies, or roping in a high profile actor, or making sure the crew is happy, or helping to distribute the film (as in the case of “Robot Stories”). It’s a big job, which is why it almost always takes more than one producer to make a movie. Bottom line: a producer is someone who is ultimately responsible for the film and the process that went into making the film.
GP: What’s the one big thing you wish you could hammer into the head of every film director you’ve worked with?
Each director is so different, but here is something that I”ve made my mantra, and something that every director should remind themselves of constantly:
Appreciate the people you work with. Work with people you trust and who you know will elevate your own work. Choose your collaborators wisely.
GP:What do you look for in a project? What makes you say “yes” to coming on board?
The script. And the people. I have to feel compelled to want both in my life forever.
GP: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered in producing independent Asian American feature films?
Having to prove there is an audience for them. The only way to finance and sell a movie, and thus get the money to make the movie, is to convince someone that somewhere there is an audience for it. It’s an uphill battle for any independent film.
GP: What kinds of challenges do you want to tackle next as a producer?
Producing any film is an ongoing challenge in and of itself! But seriously, I would love to produce films by and about women. Working with foreign-language filmmakers is also a goal of mine – I love Asian, European, Middle Eastern aesthetics of film. I’m looking for permanent producing partners to work and grow with. A more long-term plan is to build a retreat for filmmakers, writers, women, people of color, and all of the above. And of course, keep producing Asian American films.
GP: How did you get involved in filmmaking? What’s your background, training, etcetera?
I had started working at a mortgage finance firm and on my second day, had a small epiphany that I wanted to be a film producer. It was a natural place into which my political ideals, love for story, and more practical-minded self could converge. I have no formal training or education in film. I studied English literature and worked in mortage finance for 2 years. And those things gave me a strong foundation in story and in business. Once I earned enough money to stop being broke, I quit my finance job, got a job as an intern on a film production, and worked my way up into producing.
GP: Any advice for someone interested in becoming a producer?
Work with the right people and choose good projects. You’ll need a strong base of knowledge in story, business development, and people management skills. It’s almost impossible to be a producer if you cannot travel or work your ass off for long periods of time, so the more supportive your friends and family, the better. And mistakes will happen everyday – just make sure to always learn from them.