Interview with Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, Director of “Almost Perfect”

By Timothy Tau, Guest Contributor

I am here with Bertha Bay-Sa Pan, whose feature film “Almost Perfect” (2011) (which she wrote and directed), starring Kelly Hu, Edison Chen, Ivan Shaw, Christine Chang, Tina Chen and Roger Rees, will be screening at the 2011 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF) as the Festival Centerpiece Presentation. As a fellow Taiwanese American filmmaker also with a film screening at LAAPFF, I got the opportunity to have Bertha answer some questions about her film and her filmmaking career. Make sure to like the film on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and vote for it on IMDb to help bring it to a theater near you! The Official LAAPFF Site for “Almost Perfect”, where tickets can be purchased, can also be found at: http://laapff.festpro.com/films/detail/almost_perfect_2011

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T: Congrats on all the success of “Almost Perfect” touring the festival circuit, and the great reception that the film had when it premiered at the San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival (SFIAAFF) earlier this year. Congrats also on the film being featured as The Festival Centerpiece Presentation for the 2011 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF). Did “Almost Perfect” start as a short film like your previous feature “Face”, or was it always conceived as a feature-based project? How did you initially conceive of the idea and what was the genesis of the story, or was it something you have been thinking of doing for awhile?

B: Thanks for the kind words Tim. I first got the idea for ALMOST PERFECT on a flight back to NYC after attending a friend’s wedding in Mexico a few years ago. The backdrop for the original concept was different back then, but the story was always about how every member of this girl’s family genuinely believed they knew what was best for her and that all their intentions were out of love; meanwhile they were so busy projecting their own demands on to her that they couldn’t recognize how she already had what they’d been lecturing her to get all along; in the end she realizes it’s not their fault if she just spends all her time running around for them rather than speak up for herself.

I wanted to make it a romantic comedy, since it’s always been my favorite genre (that and sports movies – which I will hopefully be doing next.) But I wanted to make a good one that’s grounded in reality, fun, sexy, funny, universally relatable and heartwarming — and where both leads happen to be Asian-American. Not as some kind of self-important goal to break new grounds, just to capture some kind of truth that happens quite a bit in real life but doesn’t seem to happen that much in movies I’ve seen — one Asian-American falling in love with another Asian-American.

So I wrote a few drafts, got occupied by other projects; two years ago decided to revisit it, did a few major rewrites, then started official pre-production with my producing partners and casting directors.

T: The premise of the film sounds engaging in that its an urban romance film about a thirty-something protagonist, Vanessa Lee (played by Kelly Hu) who runs a non-profit and has to deal with somewhat of a dysfunctional and lets say “eclectic” family — high-maintenance fashion designer sister (Christina Chang), surf-bum slacker brother (Edison Chen), over-intellectual mother (Tina Chen) and a father going through a mid-life crisis (Roger Rees). However, the film appears to be a “NY film” and is decidedly New York and also set there, and almost seems to be a homage or love letter to the city and the locale. What made you to decide to set it in New York? What was your inspiration behind writing the script? Can you describe your writing process and maybe how it started or developed? Was there anything in particular (films, other work, literature) that influenced or inspired your writing process?

B: I guess it’s just writing about what I know — these fascinating characters who were all so flawed yet irresistibly lovable; and set in NYC due to its visual richness as what I see every day.

My writing process is usually dictated by characters — I feel like most of the time I’m just following them and trying to keep up.

T: One thing that really stands out about “Almost Perfect” is your exceptional selection of leads, a Cast that includes Kelly Hu, Edison Chen, Christina Chang, Ivan Shaw, Roger Rees, Tina Chen, and Kristy Wu (who previously starred in “Face”). What were some of the motivations you had behind casting those specific actors? How was the experience of working with each of them, and is your directing style more conducive to inspiring improvisation from the Cast, or did you want them to be more focused on their specific character roles. Were you surprised, intrigued by the product of their acting work after shooting? Any performances really stand out?

B: I love working with good actors, and getting to capture some truth in them on screen that is maybe different from how they’d been seen by the general public. Most of the times when considering accomplished actors, instead of looking at their previous work, I prefer to watch them in live interviews or candid situations to see if there are traces of their essence that echo the characters.

It’s been such a privilege to work with the cast of ALMOST PERFECT — each and every one of them not only beyond professional, experienced, talented, and incredibly hard working, but also genuinely kind and generous human beings, as well as fun and funny. So even though our shooting circumstances were not always easy, between the tight schedule, limited funds, and sometimes harsh weather — there were always a lot of laughter and support all around.

As for my directing style, it is important to me that every line, every emotional beat, every moment in the script are hit precisely — otherwise they shouldn’t be in the shooting script to begin with. But when rehearsing I like creating specific scenarios for the actors that are NOT in the script and ask them to improvise, so that together they can create a history for the scenes that ARE in the script. Sometimes while watching them, these actors are so brilliantly raw and real that I’d get goose bumps, or the scenes would get so intense I’d feel like I’m intruding by being in the room.

I’ve watched this movie countless times by now, yet still – every single time when I see it – especially when projected with an audience – I’d notice something new that the actor did that was so subtle yet amazing, and I’d fall in love with them all over again. I don’t mean this in a narcissistic way, as this is truly credited to the actors themselves. Besides the ones you listed, also Lisa Werlinder (who’s a big star in Scandinavia and plays Edison Chen’s estranged wife here), Ruth Zhang & Diane Cheng (they were both in FACE, and for whom I’d written the two hilarious auntie roles after having dinner with them one night), Natalie Gold, Alice Callahan, Zach Page, Chris Meyer, Allison Mackey, Stephen Hauck — all thanks to our awesome casting directors Kerry Barden & Paul Schnee.

T: I understand that you grew up in Taiwan before moving to New Jersey. Can you describe briefly your experience growing up in Taiwan? How do you feel your background as a Taiwanese American filmmaker and artist informs or influences your work? Do you feel your background growing up in Taiwan often finds itself (either consciously or unconsciously) winding its way into your narratives? Were there also particular cultural themes or ideas (e.g., generational conflict, dysfunctional families, spirituality) that you feel were tied to cultural themes or experiences you’ve experienced firsthand as a Taiwanese American artist that you really wished to convey?

B: I was born in New Jersey then moved to Taipei to start first grade in Chinese school. It was quite a culture shock going from idyllic suburban American life to the bustling capitol of Taiwan under martial law — at six-and-a-half years old. We had to wear uniforms, sing the national anthem and raise the flag every morning, bow to the teachers before and after each class, sing military songs while marching etc. Once we reached 7th grade all the girls had to get the same short haircuts – no layering, no bangs, no perming allowed; the officers would come and measure with a ruler to see if your hair was over the amount of centimeters allowed below the ear. Of course I would always sneak in length, layers, and bangs — and end up in trouble. Thankfully my parents were pretty liberal thus supportive through my various forms of rebellion.

Even though so far none of my films have had direct portrayals of my Taiwanese background, I went to so many schools growing up – all drastically different in culture and class – each time I started out in a new environment, I would study my surroundings and observe the characters to figure out how to best fit in as quickly as possible. Guess it turned out to be good training for making character driven movies? Also growing up in cosmopolitan Taipei, there was always so much life happening in front of you every day, which probably contributed to my fascination with human stories.

T: As a related question to the prior one, it turns out that several of your lead actors, among them Christina Chang and Ivan Shaw, for example, also consider themselves “Taiwanese American” and are from Taiwan as well. Christina Chang (known to most for her roles on TV shows such as CSI: Miami, 24 and Private Practice) was born and raised in Taiwan, and I understand you met her when you both attended Taipei American School. How did that experience lead to your collaboration?

B: I met Christina Chang when I transferred to Taipei American School in 11th grade. As far as I remember she was already a huge talent back then: singing, dancing, acting, playing musical instruments; but what stuck with me most throughout the years were her extraordinarily sharp wit and ingenious physical comedy.

When we reconnected as adults working in the same industry, I found it puzzling that all her acting roles were so serious and straight, although she’s always great in every role, I wanted the world to see how brilliantly hilarious she also is on top of her beauty and brains. So when we started casting for ALMOST PERFECT, Christina was the first person I thought of for the larger-than-life Charlene — a character who is funny because she thinks she sees clearer than anyone else while everyone else can see through her except for herself. I was so happy when Christina said yes!

T: Ivan Shaw was also born in Taipei – did you know him from Taiwan, and was there something compelling about his previous work, performance style and/or cultural background that led you to cast him as the romantic male lead in “Almost Perfect”?

B: Ivan Shaw was introduced through Kelly Hu as they’d been friends for years. When Ivan came in to audition for the lead role Dwayne, he was so natural in the scenes with his breezy confidence and mischievous spark, you could literally sense the entire room melt while watching him — exactly how I imagined Kelly Hu’s character Vanessa would feel — along with the audience rooting for him.

T: Were there any influences from any other films, literature, cinematic/literary styles or other work on “Almost Perfect”? For instance, because it is decidedly a New York film, did you find New York directors like Scorsese, Spike Lee or the late, great Lumet (or any other iconic NY filmmakers for that matter) to be an influence on your work or the mood/tone of the film? Or did you find your work to be inspired by more European films? Also, in general, what are some other artists, films, work, styles, literature, etc. that inspire your work or your artistic style or vision?

B: If there are any cinematic or literary influences in my work it is not anything I am consciously aware of. I find the most fascinating characters and stories are always in the real world — in experiencing life, in studying human behavior, and in keeping one’s eyes open for beautiful images that tell engaging narratives or reveal compelling moods.

T: How did you get involved or inspired to start your career in filmmaking? You also have a MFA from the Columbia Film School in Directing. Especially from your first feature “FACE”, and your experience Directing “Almost Perfect”, do you feel there are a lot of things you simply can’t learn from film school that you had to pick up and learn the hard way from the gritty truth of the real world? What were some of the things you’ve learned after the experience of filming and producing “Almost Perfect”?

B: I started working in the entertainment industry as a teenager back in Taiwan. As to my decision to become a filmmaker, I guess that came in two parts: at first it was in college when I couldn’t commit to one major since I wanted to explore so many different things: music, photography, psychology, literature, traveling etc., then discovering that film was the one medium where I could combine all of my interests. My second conviction came later on when I recognized the influence pop culture had in the world — its ability to break through barriers of race, culture, class, religion etc. — and how I would like to try and make some kind of a difference by communicating truth via entertainment.

Columbia Film School was pivotal to me as a filmmaker because of the great teachers who taught me storytelling and character developing. I was working as a sales executive in film distribution at the time so was already in “the real world” before starting school. After my first year at Columbia, I also freelanced in film production, which definitely prepared me to be a more well-rounded director when I got to make my first feature.

As to gritty truths I had to learn the hard way — I feel I’m still going through them on a regular basis.

I like my producing partner Derrick Tseng’s “golden rules of producing” which i think apply to pretty much all aspects in life — Assume nothing; Always have a backup plan; When in doubt – ask, there are no dumb questions.

As for what I learned from the experience of ALMOST PERFECT — since it’s still ongoing I’m learning something new every day.

T: What are some projects you are currently working on now, and what are some projects that lie in the horizon that you want to (or are at liberty) to talk about?

B: For the projects I’m at liberty to speak of, all detailed information is listed on my company’s website: www.slewpictures.com

I am also working on a few projects in Taiwan so will probably be spending more time there for the second half of 2011.

Last but not least — please support ALMOST PERFECT by “like”-ing our Facebook page: www.facebook.com/almostperfectmovie, following us on twitter: www.twitter.com/apmovie, and voting for us on imdb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1249158/ — by doing so you are helping increase the chances of getting the movie to play at a theater near you.

THANKS from the whole ALMOST PERFECT family.

BIO OF BERTHA BAY-SA PAN:
BERTHA BAY-SA PAN / 潘貝思 (Writer/Director) received her M.F.A. from the Columbia University Graduate Film School in 1997 while working as an International Sales Executive in film distribution. Pan’s feature film directorial debut “Face”, starring Bai Ling, Treach, Kieu Chinh, Kristy Wu, Will Yun Lee, Ken Leung, and Tina Chen, co-written with Oscar nominee Oren Moverman, co-produced by Derrick Tseng and Jonathan Shoemaker, and featuring a score composed by Leonard Nelson Hubbard of the Grammy Award winning band The Roots, premiered at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival in Dramatic Competition. Face received the Audience Award at the GenArt Film Festival, the Critics Award at the CineVegas Film Festival, and the Grand Jury Award at the Urbanworld Film Festival. Pan was nominated for the prestigious Open Palm at the Gotham Awards, and received the Premio Speciale Prize at the International Women’s Film Festival in Torino. Face was released in theaters in 2005, garnering positive reviews from major publications including The New York Times (a Critics’ Pick), Entertainment Weekly, and The Hollywood Reporter.

CONTRIBUTOR BIO:
Timothy Tau is a writer, filmmaker and an attorney specializing in Intellectual Property. His short film “The Case” (www.facebook.com/thecasefilm), a hybrid between film noir, sci-fi, horror camp and other genres is an Official Selection of, and will be making its world premiere at the 2011 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, a Visual Communications Production. A short story he wrote entitled “Land of Origin”, a love-crime tale about a Taiwanese American ex-pat who goes back to Kaohsiung and gets mixed up with betel nut girls and the gangster underworld, won Second Prize in the 2010 Playboy College Fiction Contest. He is currently adapting the piece into a feature-length screenplay and film project. He is also working on several other documentaries, short films, fiction pieces, stageplays and screenplays. He has the privilege of covering other Taiwanese American filmmakers and actors whose films will be screening at the 2011 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival for TaiwaneseAmerican.org.

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