This month, Cinema Asian America on XFINITY On Demand presents the second feature film by Los Angeles-based director Tom Huang, “Why Am I Doing This?” An ensemble comedy that reveals sometimes not so pretty insides of making it in Hollywood, Huang’s latest film dives deep into the experiences of a circle of friends striving and dreaming and finding their way in a world that seems to be stacked against them.
Lester (Anthony Montgomery) is trying to be the next Seinfeld… except everyone wants him to be Martin Lawrence. Tony (Tom Huang) is trying to be the next Tom Cruise… except everyone wants him to be the Chinese delivery boy. Amber (Emma Caulfield) thinks she should be the next Julia Roberts… but isn’t. Against all odds, they chase the Hollywood dream, while juggling inter-racial relationships, crazy families and the feeling that they’re never going to make it.
Huang discussed the making of “Why Am I Doing This” – how the multi-hyphenate director/writer/actor works, and why he decided to make a film, about making films.
The question that your film asks, and which its main characters, an Asian American actor and an African American comedian, struggle with in Hollywood, is one that I imagine you yourself must ask, as an independent filmmaker. All of these professions are built on a lot of sweat and rejection. Can you talk about making a self-reflexive film about the film business?
TH: Can I talk about it? Oh man, don’t get me started….
Basically, I’ve found the most interesting stuff I’ve written and what I’ve seen on the screen from other people, are ones that are personal, and this is one of the most personal for me. On one hand, the film is about the business of trying to make it in Hollywood… sure, it’s through the lens of being a minority in this town, but really, it’s tough for anyone trying to make it, whether you’re an actor, director, writer, whatever. But really, the heart of it is about how much you’re willing to go through to make a career of doing what you love… and how those original ideals you had about your dream twists and turns as you struggle to the point where sometimes you’ve forgotten why you’re doing it in the first place. It’s what I struggle with daily, now, as an indie filmmaker. I think, really, if you want to be considered a filmmaker or an actor, or whatever, it’s just a matter of doing it, no matter what capacity.
How did you develop the script for the film? Was it based on your own experiences, and those of individuals whom you know?
TH: I started writing the script during my free time while writing for network TV sitcoms. Being a TV sitcom writer is a great gig if you can get it, but unless you’re also lucky enough to get on a really good show, your writing is still tied to network sitcom conventions and trying to make something funny rather than real, and usually just involving Caucasian characters. I just needed to work on something on the side where I could explore real conventions and real people, as well as work with something with a diverse cast, so I started writing this. After I finished a draft, I was surprised at the positive response I was getting from people, so I thought, hey, I should just shoot this.
And it’s loosely based on my experiences and especially those of my actor and comedian friends I know who are all talented and still having to fight the good fight in trying to make a name for themselves. I think the movie really exemplifies my frustrations in dealing with being an indie filmmaker and all the sadness, anger, jealousy and sometimes happiness that I’ve been through… It’s the story of the struggling artist.
In both of your feature films, 1999’s “Freshmen” and “Why Am I Doing This?,” you take on multiple roles – director, writer, actor and more. What does taking on multiple roles in the making of a film allow you creatively and professionally as a director?
TH: It can be a juggling act at times, especially during production, but creatively I get a lot out of it… Especially being having written and directing it, I think it helps me create something that has a unity of vision, where I understand exactly where I want to go with it from when I write to when I’m working with the actors to create the characters that were initially intended. I think in general, films with writer/directors have a stronger feel, artistically, to them. And acting myself hopefully allows me to understand my actors better and meet their needs. Since I enjoy all those aspects of filmmaking, it was great fun and I had such great support and talent, from my producers, crew and actors, that it allowed me to take on those multiple roles. Without them, I wouldn’t be able to stay focused.
Professionally, it just allows me a few more options to find work. Having had a hand in everything, I’ve also been hired in all different capacities, whether it be a writer, director, actor or producer. I think it has allowed me to stay in the business just a little bit longer until I get my “big chance.”
Your cast also includes a number of recognizable faces to independent film watchers, including Lynn Chen (“Saving Face”), Sheetal Sheth (“The World Unseen”) and Anthony Montgomery (“Grey’s Anatomy”) as well as smaller roles by a number of Asian American veteran actors, like Tamlyn Tomita and Clyde Kusatsu. What was your approach to assembling all of the talent cast in the film?
TH: My approach to assembling the cast was basically try to find actors who best personify the characters I wrote. I would see certain actors in something, and I would think, “hey, that person would be great,” and then I’d know someone who worked with them or knew them, and I’d pass along the script through them, and then be pleasantly surprised to find the actor would interested in the role. I’d say 75% of the cast was found this way, I was pretty grateful people wanted to be involved. I had some great help from my casting director and my producers Jeff Lam and N.D. Brown to get in contact with people I didn’t have ties with and it all went incredibly smoothly for the most part. It’s also a tribute to my actors, who were all gung-ho to support a little indie film with diverse characters. I also just know a lot of great actors, so I that helped… It’s the first film where I’ve made where I didn’t go through a long audition process.
What are you working on next?
TH: I’m looking to shoot my next indie feature, “Dealing with Dad”, about a family trying to figure out what to do with their depressed dad, whom everybody hates. Yeah, loving family film. I’m excited to get it shot, we’ve just started casting it. Also, I’m putting out a supernatural web-series, “Unusual Targets”, in the fall. You can see a preview of that HERE.