“Do. Or Do Not. There Is No Tripe” Says Screenwriter Collin Chang
Originally from Honolulu, Hawaii, Collin Chang began his writing career as a advertising copywriter Unsatisfied creatively, in 2006 he moved to Los Angeles, CA, where he pursued a career in screenwriting. He sold his first feature pitch to Atlas Entertainment, a thriller called Meet Jane Joe, and later that year he had an independent horror movie made based on an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe’s The Fall of The House of Usher. He’s since sold another feature script, and worked on dozens of rewrites and polishes. In 2014, he became the creator, co-executive producer and writer on the HBO Asia original series, Halfworlds, which ran for two seasons.
As an Asian-American writer, what is your unique take on storytelling?
To be honest, none, really. I mean, I’m encouraged that Hollywood, and, in fact, the worldwide film market values diversity in a way it never has in the past. But I’ve always believed that storytelling is storytelling, no matter where you come from.
In terms of story, is there a distinct Asian flavor vs American flavor in films?
I believe story is story. However, when push comes to shove, I will say this: Asian stories tend to be very family-oriented. Not that they’ve cornered the market on that. But, just in general, Asian culture puts so much emphasis on family, that it’s hard for that leaning not to come out in the storytelling.
Do you identify more as an Asian or American writer?
As an American writer, to be honest. Although, ironically, I’ve lately been getting a lot more work from the Asian sphere. Also, I’m originally from Hawaii, which stands at about 40% Asian now, and I’d have to say that growing up in the islands, somewhat isolated from the rest of the world, has certainly had an effect on me as a screenwriter.
As an aside, I may have an opportunity to tell some Hawaiian ghost stories in an upcoming project, and the ghost stories from Hawaii often have an Asian sway. Fingers crossed!
Does globalization of the film and TV industry involve cultural compromises to make content more palatable to a wider audience?
No. On the contrary, I believe the more we export our cultural heritage worldwide, the stronger our heritage will be as we begin to see just how much we are all the same. Heavy, I know. 🙂 For example, they’ve recently announced the film adaptation of Shang-Chi: Master Of Kung Fu with Destin Daniel Cretton directing — shout out to a Filipino boy originally from Hawaii! — And I cannot wait for it! First of all, I think Destin is the perfect choice for the material, and, secondly, I think it’s going to kill! If they cast it right, we could possibly have another global Asian superstar on par with the late, great Bruce Lee.
What makes a great screenwriter?
A voice. To be more specific, having something to say. Look at luminaries like Quentin Tarantino or Aaron Sorkin, or one of my all-time favorites, Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton). If you watch pretty much anything they’ve created, they’re always saying something about us as humans; who we are, what makes us tick. And, having a great voice means you ask the tough questions. For example, look at a wonderful writer like Lisa Joy, who’s responsible for the thought provoking Westworld. I believe she started that project with one question in mind: “What is it, exactly, that makes us human?”
What makes you stand out from the writing pack?
I have a shaved head because I began losing my hair when I was about 28. 🙂 Actually, it’s probably my willingness to push the envelope with my characters.
What is your unique take on the world?
That they’re all out to get me!
Do you have a writing brand?
I’m willing to push my characters to their extreme limits. For instance, in a spec I wrote titled Sloane, the lead is a poor, young girl growing up in Nogales, Arizona. Well, her mother’s always pounding it into her head that before she judges a man, she ought to walk a mile in his shoes. So, one day, when she’s 11, she comes home from school and finds her mother on the floor, beaten up, nose broken, and her P.O.S. (piece of shit) stepdad sitting, passed out in his La-z-Boy recliner, a half-drunk bottle of Jack Daniels in his hand. So, she kneels, takes off his size 14″ shoes, straps them on her little feet so they fit like clown shoes, then steps out of the house, and walks out to town, then back. A mile. She’s just walked a mile in his shoes.
Then, she steps back into the house, clown shoes still on, takes a shotgun from the closet, and proceeds to blow her stepdad’s fool head off. Which sends her to prison for ten years. It’s when she gets out that the story really starts. In my opinion, it was my pushing the envelope with that character that landed me a huge writing gig with HBO Asia a few years back.
Character work pays off. Know your characters. And don’t be afraid to take them to deep, dark places, no matter how uncomfortable.
How do you define a screenwriting voice?
Having a secret you’ve been holding in for years, and years, and then, miraculously, someone puts you in front of ten thousand people, and says, “Go on. Tell ’em what you think.” And then you get to shout it out to the world.
What is the most exciting aspect of your job?
Going for a jog around my Altadena hills at nine in the morning and knowing the rest of my day is all about making things up.
What inspires you?
To be honest, I’m often inspired by music. When I jog, I’ll have ear buds in, and I’ll be inspired by the music flowing through my head. Lately, I’ve been listening a lot to a band named Julie Plug, who were popular in the Bay area and beyond back in the late 90s and into the 2000s. Well, I’ve rediscovered them lately, and I’m truly digging it. Best news this year: They’re having a comeback, 20th anniversary concert this June in SF, and I cannot wait! Julie Plug. Google them; best band you’ve never heard of.
What are the opportunities for Asian writers that weren’t present a few years ago?
To write Asian characters that are real and not stereotypes. No more over-sexed dragon ladies and no more under-sexed, computer programming nerds. Thank God.
How do you feel about popular movies like Crazy Rich Asians being marketed more in terms of the Asian cast rather than story?
I’m fine, for now. It took, literally, decades for someone like Jordan Peele to get to the top of the mountain that says “I can do what I want, and the color of my skin doesn’t matter.”
Who’d have thought a guy who started as an African American comedy sketch writer would grow to become cinema’s leading horror meister? And now he casts mostly people of color in his films. And you know what? NOBODY CARES! And, I have to say, I love that it’s an “Asian Century” at the moment. Asians are making their mark on the cultural conversation, bar none!
For example, I’ve got a caucasian friend with a fifteen year old caucasian niece who’s so giddily in love with that Korean Boy Band, BTS, she’s learning Korean so she can someday have a Korean boyfriend. Wow! More power to Asian men!
How do you maintain cultural authenticity and sensitivity in Asian-themed films?
Write a character who is true to where he or she comes from. I honestly think the rest falls into place. As for sensitivity? It’s storytelling, people. And stories aren’t any good unless they shake you up. If you aren’t getting at least one person mad, you’re not doing your job.
Discuss your interest in Asian mythology
What I love about Asian mythology is that, worldwide, it’s expanding from your typical dragons and kung fu death grips to real people tackling real problems. And, as stated above: Shang-Chi, yay!
Do you have any thoughts on how emerging screenwriters can improve their chances of breaking in?
To paraphrase one of my favorite galactic mentors “Do. Or do not. There is no tripe.” Write what you love, and don’t worry if others think it’s tripe.
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