Guest correspondent Timothy Tau recently met with fellow filmmaker Erin Li at the 2011 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival (LAAPFF). Erin’s film, L.A. Coffin School, which stars Elizabeth Sung, Michelle Krusiec, Jerry Ying, Megan Lee Angela Ai and Danni Lang, had the rare honor of being selected as one of the ten films sponsored by a Visual Communications “Armed With A Camera” Fellowship for Emerging Media Artists. All ten films screened as part of the “VC Digital Posse Ver. 2011” Program on May 1st at the Director’s Guild of America. Here, Erin answers some questions about her film and what’s next for her down the line.
T: Congrats on having your film “L.A. Coffin School” being selected as one of the films sponsored by the Visual Communications “Armed with A Camera” Fellowship. Can you tell us more about the VC Fellowship and maybe its underlying purpose or mission? How did the fellowship inspire or influence the production of your film?
E: Thanks, Tim! Creating L.A. COFFIN SCHOOL with the support of Visual Communications’ Armed With a Camera (AWC) Fellowship was a fantastic experience. The fellowship supports up-and-coming Asian Pacific American media artists and selects about 10 fellows each year based on their past work, exhibition and production experience, and screens the films at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival. The fellowship created a supportive environment for the fellows to make our films and provided structure and a sense of urgency to meet deadlines. The industry veterans who came to teach the workshops did a fantastic job. VC also provides the fellows access to facilities and equipment and a grant to create our short films. You could feel that the VC staff, our mentor and instructors really cared about the program and the fellows, and everyone wanted us to succeed and complete our films in the best way possible. This year, we got to screen at a 600-seat theater in the Directors Guild of America, which was absolutely amazing. It was surreal! A million thanks to Shinae Yoon, Abe Ferrer and Kennedy Kabasares at VC, our mentor, Ann Kaneko, and to my fellow AWC fellows.
T: One thing that really stands out about “L.A. Coffin School” is your interesting and stellar cast selections. The film stars Elizabeth Sung, Michelle Krusiec, Angela Ai, Jerry Ying, Danni Lang and Megan Lee. What were some of the motivations behind your cast selections? Michelle had a great hilarious role, and Elizabeth, Jerry, Angela, and Megan really delivered some incredible dramatic performances. How did you like working with each of the cast members?
E: I was extremely excited to work with such a talented cast. I received multiple recommendations and referrals from people to contact Elizabeth Sung for the lead role of MING. She was open to reading the script and I was ecstatic when she decided to come on board. Elizabeth referred me to Jerry Ying, a former student of hers who will soon be appearing in FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, and Megan Lee, a talented actor and young music sensation. Coincidentally, Jerry had played Megan’s father in another project, so the fact that everyone knew each other already really helped during the short rehearsal process. Danni Lang, who plays Ming’s daughter-in-law, the rest of the “family,” and I had a lot of fun with improv. I always wish I have more time for rehearsals and improv; I love working with actors and seeing them bring the characters to life.
SAVING FACE is one of my favorite films, and I had met Michelle at Sundance last year and kept in touch with her. She recently created a one-woman-show, MADE IN TAIWAN, that will potentially be adapted into a sitcom. Kara Sullivan, my casting director, found Angela Ai for the role of the instructor, Danni Lang as the daughter-in-law and Craig Tsuyumine as one of the featured coffin school students. Angela recently moved from New York where she performed in Avenue Q on Broadway. Robert Ryu, a talented young up-and-coming actor not only played one of the porters, but also cast all the extras in the coffin school scene.
T: The premise of the plot/story sounds extremely engaging, compelling as well as ironic with a fair share of dark humor. It revolves around a once-renowned Chinese painter (played by Elizabeth Sung) who, after being kicked out of her son’s home, enrolls in a controversial school that claims to teach people how to start life anew. How did you come up with this very interesting script idea? Was it based on any personal experiences?
E: With this and my last film, I’ve been exploring the themes of death and rebirth. This is partly influenced by a drastic career change that I made. After several years of working in finance in New York and Hong Kong, I felt like it wasn’t the right fit – I didn’t spend my free time reading up on the trades like some of my colleagues did. For many people, to really succeed in an endeavor, and to be happy, you really have to love what you are doing. I’ve always felt a calling for the arts and finally decided to pursue my passion; I also jumped in with both feet because I didn’t want to ever regret not having tried. That being said, I am extremely thankful for my business background. I’ve found it to be incredibly useful as a director and producer, especially in the current world of DIY marketing and distribution. My years in finance built a strong work ethic and expertise in fundraising and project management, which are essential aspects of directing and producing. Hollywood and Wall Street are more similar than many people realize.
Given my ethnic background, I’ve also always wanted to tell a story about a first generation Taiwanese American family and having to navigate two different cultures. When I came upon a blog about coffin academies in South Korea, it sparked the idea for L.A. COFFIN SCHOOL. From there, I wrote a treatment and submitted it to AWC. I worked on numerous iterations of the script, as my AWC fellows, mentors and friends know… It was fun to collaborate again with Dana Kendler, a talented writer who I met while at Radiant Productions.
E: The DP, Russell Bell, and I ultimately agreed on the Canon 7D; some scenes were shot with a rig and some without. The cliff scenes were shot handheld.
T: How do you feel your background as a Taiwanese American filmmaker and artist informs or influences your work? Were there particular themes or ideas (particularly involving generational conflict or spirituality themes) that were really tied to more overarching cultural themes or experiences or things you’ve experienced first hand?
E: Growing up with parents who had emigrated from Taiwan, I wanted to tell a story that touches upon some facets of the Asian American experience and some of the generational conflicts and acculturation issues that often arise within immigrant families. I also wanted to create L.A. Coffin School in part to shed light on the elderly Asian American community, in particular elderly Asian women, which is a demographic group with one of the highest suicide rates in the US. L.A. COFFIN SCHOOL touches upon the story of just one of these women. Although the film sounds heavy, I did try to inject humorous moments into the characters.
While conducting research for this film, I came across numerous articles and studies that shed light on the high suicide rate among elderly Asian women in the U.S. The causes range from acculturation stress and language barriers to poverty, illness, weakened family support and social isolation. Asian Americans as a whole are the least likely demographic group to seek treatment for mental illness. Shame and cultural stigmas against acknowledging mental illness play a major role. Interestingly enough, there are actual “coffin academies” in existence. Companies in South Korea often enroll their employees in coffin academies as part of their orientation activities. The experience is supposed to help students view life with a new perspective, force you to confront what really matters and cherish your life when you “graduate” from the academy. This may also be one method that they are implementing to remedy and address the high suicide rate in the country. I’m currently adapting this project into a feature film and plan to enroll in a coffin academy to experience the process firsthand. It should be an interesting experience and I’m looking forward to it!
T: Were there any influences from any other films or literature on “L.A. Coffin School”, and what are some other artists, films or work that inspire your work or your artistic style?
E: I love intense colors and often use them in my artwork and wardrobe, and I was excited to incorporate dramatic colors in this film. The DP and I worked together to create dramatic, monochromatic hues for certain sets. One of my favorite scenes, visually, is the L.A. Chinatown scene with Ming and her son – the environment really reflects the chaos in her life. What inspires my work the most is traveling to new places and experiencing new things… The Milford Sound, Isle of Skye and Ilha Grande are some of my favorite places in the world… Galapagos is next on my to-go list. Zorbing and black water rafting are some of the more random “extreme” sports that I’ve tried. Meeting people who are really passionate about what they do and those who are happy, wherever they are in life… Being around other artists; I absolutely loved the few weeks I spent studying at La Llotja School of Fine Arts in Barcelona – I sometimes painted for 8 hours straight and time flew by, surrounded by other students doing the same thing. You get so caught up with the work that you forget to eat! Filmmakers whose work I admire are Yasujiro Ozu, Ang Lee, Spike Lee and Julian Schnabel…fashion, music, theater, I could go on and on.
T: You also directed another short film entitled “Who Is Candy Bernardino” that was well-received at a number of film festivals. How did you first get involved in filmmaking, what has been your training, and what are some other interesting projects you have been involved with or helmed in the past?
E: I’ve always loved the fine arts and pretty much started drawing the minute I could pick up a pencil. It’s in my blood. I continued to study the fine arts up until college, where I studied business administration and drama at Carnegie Mellon University. While at CMU, with the encouragement my professor, Shirley Saldamarco, I had the opportunity to produce several short films in conjunction with PBS / WQED. I also directed and wrote a documentary short, my first film, and loved the process. That’s when I knew I wanted to pursue filmmaking. It wasn’t a direct path, but after working in finance in New York and Hong Kong, I eventually moved to Los Angeles where I gained film development experience at Radiant Productions and Plan B Entertainment.
T: What’s in the pipeline for you down the road?
E: Given the positive feedback after the screening, I’ve decided to go ahead with the feature adaptation of L.A. Coffin School. VC has already submitted the AWC films to select film festivals for consideration and I’ll also be submitting the short to some festivals. In the meantime, I’m associate producing THE GIRLS IN THE BAND (http://www.TheGirlsintheBand.com), a feature documentary about female jazz instrumentalists helmed by Emmy-nominated director, Judy Chaikin. I’m excited about the film because it will re-introduce to the world numerous talented women musicians and their work; many didn’t receive the acclaim they deserved during their career or lifetime. I’m also directing a music video, a fashion lookbook and commercial for a designer, as well as a web series about up-and-coming artists of all disciplines in Los Angeles.
BIO OF ERIN LI
Erin Li has directed several narrative films, an experimental film and a documentary. Erin was recently selected to be a directing fellow as part of Visual Communications’ Armed with a Camera Fellowship. VC sponsored her film, L.A. COFFIN SCHOOL, which premiered at the 2011 Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival at the Directors Guild of America. Her previous film, WHO IS CANDY BERNARDINO?, has been selected to compete at several international film festivals and has screened in Los Angeles, New York, Cape Cod, Illinois and Idaho. She is currently developing a feature adaptation of L.A. COFFIN SCHOOL as well as several music videos and a commercial.
Erin’s fine arts work has been exhibited in New York, London, Pittsburgh and New Jersey. She graduated from Carnegie Mellon University where she studied drama and business administration and also produced several short films in conjunction with WQED and PBS in Pittsburgh, PA. She gained film development experience while interning at Radiant Productions and Plan B Entertainment. In addition, Erin is an associate producer on the feature documentary, THE GIRLS IN THE BAND, a look at the struggles and triumphs of female jazz musicians from the 1920’s to the present. Trivia: She skydived in Queenstown, New Zealand to raise funds for UNICEF. Her favorite ice cream flavor is mint chocolate chip. Mango comes in at a close second.
More exclusive video clips from L.A. Coffin School on the Facebook page: www.facebook.com/LACoffinSchool
Timothy Tau is a writer, filmmaker and attorney specializing in Intellectual Property Law. His short film “The Case” (www.facebook.com/thecasefilm), a hybrid between Film Noir, Sci-Fi, Horror Camp and other genres was an Official Selection of, and made 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 film project. He is also working on several other documentaries, short films, fiction pieces, stageplays and screenplays.