Director Liann Kaye is tired of how Asian American Pacific Islanders have been represented in the media and film. To be more specific, how they've been represented in comedy over the years. Instead of them being the butt of the joke, she wants to see them being the ones creating the jokes. Liann Kaye is a film writer and director who is flipping the script on AAPI stereotypes in the comedy films she makes, putting them front and center. Today, the Global Spotlight talks with Liann about all things representation, comedy, directing, film festivals, and more.
When did you start writing and directing films?
I guess when I stole my mom’s camcorder from the 90s. My sister and I would always be making little plays or re-enacting movie scenes on DV tapes. I got a 2003 mac laptop in high school and discovered iMovie. That was it for me.
Once I learned my first linear editing software, I never looked back.
Your short film The Blessing was submitted to many film festivals, even winning in the Best Comedy category at the New York Short Film Festival. What was your experience like attending all these different festivals?
I had some wonderful experiences and met some wonderful organizers and filmmakers. I also had some mediocre experiences, with lazy, clueless, racist festival organizers.
Overall, I think it’s a very important experience to go through for anyone making their first film to through! But it’s important to know that it’s never a sure thing and that the festival circuit is not the only avenue to getting your work seen.
The Blessing is a short film that is able to combine AAPI representation with comedy. Not a lot of comedy films I’ve seen over the past couple of years have been able to do this very well, sometimes the comedy seems like it holds more importance than the representation. What advice can you give to filmmakers who want to make a comedy with representation that doesn’t put that representation at risk with its comedic aspects?
I think that the Instagram account @subtleasiantraits does a great job of showing how Asians are down to laugh at ourselves on our terms!
In the past, comedic representation of Asians has been so painful because the jokes were being written by white writers (Sixteen Candles, The Hangover, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Pitch Perfect) and people weren’t laughing in recognition of the inside jokes of Asian culture, non-Asian people were laughing at Asian people. The comedy was centered around exaggerating stereotypes and encouraging ridicule. I want to see more Asian characters that are making the jokes, not being the punchline.
In one of your TikTok videos, you talk about how despite your film’s win at a festival nobody seemed to want to pick it up to turn into a more feature length film. Do you think film festivals follow a certain stigma when picking which winning films get to move on to be adapted into something bigger?
Well, we’ve all heard that story of Damien Chazelle making Whiplash as a short film that went to Sundance. Then, after people saw it, he got financing to make the feature.
I think a lot of emerging filmmakers dream of that happening to them, but also I’ve come to realize that having a long-term career in this business isn’t about winning the lottery. It’s also about how you pivot when things don’t work out and how you keep going if you don’t win the lottery, because you probably won’t! Hence: The web series!
Going back to the topic of AAPI representation in film, what about AAPI representation behind the camera. Do you feel that AAPI filmmakers are getting just as much representation today than the little to none gotten in the past?
No! We are underrepresented in every facet of media! There simply are not enough of us and
we are nowhere near equal. Think about camera departments alone, how physically and technically intensive those jobs are, and how few women are in them in comparison to men. How rare is it still to hear about a female cinematographer, let alone a POC one? Or an editor? A gaffer? A key grip? We have a long, long, long way to go.
Even as I move forward in conversations about my first feature as an emerging female writer/director, everyone thinks that the risk they are taking is on ME and that I need an experienced, veteran crew to support my directorial debut. I agree, of course, and want all the support and expertise that I can get, but it’s also true that the veterans who have been working for years and years are predominantly white men and only in the past five years have the gates opened up to POCs and women, so a lot of us are just getting our first opportunity right now. I hope this changes in the coming years, but in order to get veteran women and POCs on our sets, someone needs to give them their first shot! Right now, people are still afraid to do that.
You yourself are both an AAPI and female filmmaker. Can you tell me more about how your identity has affected your place in the film industry?
I feel very lucky that I’ve come onto the scene at a time when the industry is either hungry for or being shamed into finally telling diverse stories. I have no problem leaning into that, as my personal experiences are the ones most interesting to me. That said, I always try to remember that “luck” is when preparation meets opportunity. Circumstances out of my control probably helped me along, but when I finally got in front of the people I needed to, I had all my stuff ready: six short films, missions statements, marketing plans, budgets, spreadsheets, pitch videos, and future ideas ready to go. I’m lucky in many many ways, but I also work really hard.
I always try to channel the words of Megan Rapinoe when she won the USA World Cup. She didn’t apologize or deflect her success, she just shouted, “I DESERVE THIS!” That’s the energy I admire. I don’t feel it all the time, but I try!
What made you decide to turn The Blessing into a web series after everything it had been through?
I honestly just wanted to make something I could share with people easily. And I love the internet. I was inspired by Issa Rae’s Awkward Black Girl, Rachel Bloom’s music videos, The Lonely Island, High Maintenance, and a ton of other creators who just made stuff for the love of it and let the public/ studios respond appropriately.
Are you currently working on any future film projects?
Yes! I’m currently pitching multiple projects with AAPI protagonists to whoever my managers
set me up on generals with. One, two or all of them are going to move forward!
What is something you’d like to say to other non-white, non-male people trying to find their place in the film industry?
I would say that there was probably a time when being different made you feel very depressed, anxious and like crawling out of your skin or under a bed. Write about it. Today I look back on those experiences and feel so grateful for them because they gave me stories to share.
And as adults? No one wants to read a book or watch a movie about the popular person who never struggled, met the love of their life easily, made a lot of money, and got everything they wanted. No, they want to hear about the outsider who overcame adversity, then found joy in their individuality.
You are more creative already because of your struggles and these days when I go through hard times, I actually do think, “At least I can write about this.”
IF YOU'D LIKE TO SEE MORE FROM LIANN AND HER SERIES THE BLESSING, YOU CAN FIND HER LINKS HERE
THANK YOU FOR YOUR CONTINUED SUPPORT. WE LOOK FORWARD TO BRINGING YOU THE VOICE OF MORE INSPIRING ARTISTS AND CHANGEMAKERS IN 2022.