From ‘American Knees’ to ‘Americanese’: A Conversation with Eric Byler

Eric Byler’s “Americanese.”

This month Cinema Asian America on Xfinity On Demand presents the long-awaited re-release of Eric Byler’s award-winning 2006 drama, “Americanese.” After winning the audience award at the SXSW Film Festival and receiving acclaim at film festivals nationally, the film, adapted from Shawn Wong’s beloved novel “American Knees,” disappeared from circulation and was never released theatrically. With an all-star cast, including Joan Chen (“Lust, Caution”), Oscar-winner Chris Tashima (“Visas and Virtues”), Alison Sie and Sab Shimono, “Americanese” is ready for rediscovery.

In “Americanese” Byler hones in on the delicate dangers of the inertia that can set in after a romantic break up and explores the complex intersection of race and intimacy. Raymond Ding (Tashima) is middle aged, divorced professor, and in the throes of yet another failed relationship. Aurora Crane, his younger ex-girlfriend (Sie) is doggedly trying to move on with her life.

AMERICANESE explores the ripple effect that this period creates on their futures as well as the futures of those around them. As Raymond tentatively tries to move forward by dating co-worker, Betty Nguyen (Chen), Aurora, who is bi-racial with a white father, decidedly dates a “non-Asian” man named Steve (Ben Shenkman) in hopes of a safer more familiar type of relationship. The story examines the purgatory of romantic separation with an uncomfortable honesty that is bald but not judgmental. “Americanese” is a gently cautionary tale; the actions taken in our most vulnerable state often lay the emotional groundwork for our future.

Byler, the director of “Charlotte Sometime,” “Tre” and the documentary “9500 Liberty” discussed the making of “Americanese.”

When did you first encounter the novel “Americanese” and what impression did it make upon you during your first reading of it? What was about it that drew you to it as source material for a film?

EB: Producer Lisa Onodera-Spence brought it to me not long after “Charlotte Sometimes” came out in 2003. There was a particular chapter in the book called “Pathology” that really hit me. It was so sad and true. I later learned from Shawn Wong that it was the most personal chapter in the book and the most painful to write. It is about absence, the absence of someone who was there before and not knowing how to go on without them. I decided to begin the movie at that point in the story and include things that happened prior to that chapter in flashback. Raymond and Aurora drift between their present day lives and the reflections and dreams they have about each other, until a present-day encounter allows them to understand why they are no longer together. They say goodbye. The resolution they had been seeking, and the forgiveness they afford one another, free them to commit to new relationships. They are still haunted by their past, but in a different way. Enter Joan Chen, etc.

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Can you discuss the process of adapting Shawn Wong’s novel for the screen? Did you collaborate with him on this process? What were the stakes for you, to adapt such a well-known and influential novel? Was fidelity to the source material a driving force and were there cases where this was not in the interest of a film adaptation?

EB: I actually did not work with Shawn on the adaptation. He is not credited other than “based on the novel” although it is often misreported that we collaborated on the screen adaptation. In retrospect, I wish I had worked more closely with Shawn during the writing and making of the film. Later, during the film festival circuit, I learned what a wonderful, funny, intelligent and insightful man he his. We became great friends. But at the time I thought I knew everything. The producers arranged a meeting after Shawn read the first draft of my adaptation. I remember he told me I was a good writer, and that he was sorry that I left out so many of the funny parts. Shawn had written his own adaptation years prior that was more faithful to the book, especially in that sense. The film I made focuses on the parts that most spoke to me at the time — the darker shades, even though Sab Shimono and Michael Paul Chan’s characters bring a lot of humor to the film. If I’d gotten to know Shawn better and/or worked with him on the adaptation, it would be a different and probably better film. I’m not sure if those funny parts would have made it though….

Your films are known for their psychological depth. The combination of your screenplays which interrogate the grey areas of race and identity and how you work with your actors elicits a certain, very identifiable inner complexity and emotion. Does this fairly describe your process and intentions?

EB: Yes. All people have complexity and emotion and all of those things including contemplations about race going on inside their heads. A lot of movies don’t acknowledge this for whatever reason. When truth is the goal, you have to acknowledge this. When entertainment is the goal, you really don’t need to do that. A series of violent and/or traumatic actions carry the film, and the characters become interesting in their reaction to this. With my first three films, I challenged myself to make films that are about extraordinary characters in pretty much ordinary circumstances, rather than ordinary characters in pretty much insane circumstances.

Your leads Joan Chen and Chris Tashima are as iconic to the Asian American community as the novel “Americanese” is. Did you have them in mind as you developed the screenplay?

EB: Joan yes, Chris no. It was hard to cast Raymond because the vast majority of Asian American actors are much too young to play that role — just as I was too young to direct the film. We all got into the film industry when things weren’t so difficult, when the racism in Hollywood became less infuriating. Chris had the fortitude to make a career for himself even though there were almost no roles for Asian American leading men. There were more and better roles for women, but in Joan’s case there was no one else I even considered.

What are you working on now? In recent years, you’ve taken a break from filmmaking to focus more on politics, but have also found ways to bridge these two areas.

EB: It was during the making of “Americanese” that I began to wonder if I should spend my most productive years in the world of make-believe. Hurricane Katrina and our federal government’s disastrous response, we were learning that there were no WMD’s in Iraq, the Department of Justice was being corrupted by lawless partisans, etc. At the same time it was becoming clear that demographic shift and the advent of social media was making it more possible for the American people to finally live up to the ideals of our founding documents. My fourth film was a documentary about the intersection of race and politics called “9500 Liberty”, and my current film (“Story of America”) expands that theme to involve history, and how historical struggles over race and equality still dominate our political process today. Both films concentrate in the South, where the political and cultural fault lines of America are more pronounced.

Click here for more information about “Americanese.”

The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Comcast.

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