A Producer’s Life
The Paper Tigers production consisted of approximately 45-55 people on set divided amongst the camera, production design, grip & electric, transportation, and production office departments.
We were looking at a 28-day shoot schedule that would take place in various locations around the greater Seattle area.
“What the hell does a producer do anyway?” you wonder.
Anything and everything.
At the indie film level, you as the producer make sure that the production operates like a well-oiled machine while staying on budget.
Priority number one is to make sure the cast and crew are taken care of. Understand that these are long working hours — twelve-hour minimum days that could stretch into overtime. We want everyone to be happy as well as working safely and efficiently. Nothing comes before food and safety.
First week jitters include a producer’s insecurity of not doing enough. Add to that our need to provide Asian-level hospitality for everyone on set.
It wasn’t uncommon to receive a 2 a.m. call about a crew member getting locked out of their Airbnb. Sometimes to protect your team, you’ll even have to go out and fight off meth-heads trying to steal from your camera truck. It’s a 24-hour job.
If you had the privilege to watch our cast and crew work, you’d understand why we didn’t hesitate to fight off meth-heads. The chemistry we had was like a symphony orchestra.
With a single call on a walkie, lights were moved, props were flying in, and special effects make-up was applied. The buzz of talent could be felt all around the set.
Most notably, it was an honor to see our three lead actors transform into the Three Tigers. It’s an amazing feeling to see characters on a page of a script come to life before your eyes.
One of my most memorable moments during production was building a kung fu school from scratch. We had hired a production designer named Wing Lee (Three Season, Stoker) from New York. Wing had an MFA from the Yale School of Drama. He always stood out to me from day one. He’s an older Asian American gentleman with a hardcore Brooklyn accent.
In our first production meeting, Wing set a large envelope on the table. One by one, he pulled out pages of reference photos he had printed out of research images for our kung fu school. These photos dated back as far as the Qing Dynasty in the 1900s to classic kung fu schools in the ’80s and ’90s.
As I scanned over each photo on the table, I had flashes of my childhood: being glued to the TV watching Wong Fei-hung movies and mimicking flashy kicks in the backyard. I felt my eyes welling up with emotion realizing my childhood dream was coming true.
I was making a kung fu movie.
It was a powerful moment to see different generations of Asian American men geeking out about a genre of film that is supposed to be a stereotype of our people.
It was important that we took ownership of not only our story but also our identities. As teenagers, martial arts was our version of basketball practice after school. It was my outlet to not only express myself artistically and physically, but it was an activity that made me feel closer to my heritage. My parents don’t give a shit about what “double dribbling” means, but they surely understand the importance of the sound of a snapping kick.
Our camera department and action team comprised of some heavy hitters in Hollywood who just so happened to be close friends. We enlisted Shaun Mayor (Jojo Rabbit) as our director of photography. Action director Ken Quitugua (Unlucky Stars) designed a special grounded style of fighting for the Paper Tigers, similar to the olden days of Shaw Brothers films with a modern twist.
Ken’s team included stunt coordinator Kerry Wong who has done work for G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Black Dynamite, as well as stunt coordinator Sam Looc who designed the action for blockbusters such as The Mandalorian and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.
The Final Leg
The last week of our shoot, we finally locked down the elusive rooftop location that overlooked the downtown Seattle cityscape that we’d been looking for all production long.
The good news:
Our art director, Jasmine Cho, and the production design team prepared a plan as to how we could secure the rooftop so that it was safe for the crew and action teams to work.
The bad news:
The plan required us to install over 100 sheets of plywood plus dozens of rolls of roofing felt on a five-storied rooftop.
A two-day setup was the rough estimate, but that would push us into an extra day of shooting. We lacked the time and especially the man/woman power to accomplish this feat. I looked at our bank account, our shoot schedule, and then back to our bank account.
We were fucking doing this in one day.
There was an inner anger that came out of me at that moment. I realized that there was no way I was going to allow a rooftop to sabotage what we’d been working on for all of these years.
With whatever strength we had left after 24 days of shooting, all of us producers rolled up our sleeves. With the help of our truck drivers, we loaded up the rooftop with all of the roofing materials needed and even installed all of the plywood.
Eighteen hours later, we had a completed rooftop with props and set decoration completed. A total team effort.
The last days of production were nothing less than magical. The cast and crew would work through the night, even weathering an epic giant thunderstorm finale at 6 a.m. on Monday, September 9th.
The cast and crew made it out safe and alive. The producers weren’t as lucky. Yuji Okumoto and I ended up checking into the ER. He suffered from a migraine from hell, and I had busted out in shingles from that “inner anger” during the rooftop fiasco. My neck looked like the terrain of a red moon, and my eyes were swollen shut.
Yes, $4 million from a studio probably would have saved us from going to the ER, but what’s an indie film without a little adventure? The odds were against us, but we never allowed any data to determine our future.
We had a story to tell and we believed in each other to make this movie together. We are merely at the halfway point of our filmmaking adventure with The Paper Tigers.
Once post-production is done, we aim to get into film festivals and ultimately a movie theater near you. I don’t know what the future holds for us, but here’s what I know:
It takes a village, some faith, a lot of tears, a trip to the ER, and a bit of luck to make a feature film.
For more updates on the film and to get involved, please check out The Paper Tigers website.
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