Monday, August 31, 2009

Take out TAKE OUT from your video source of choice; Q & A with filmmaker Sean Baker

One of the most won-
derful (but seldom used) aspects of movies is the ability of filmmakers to put us in touch with people we see around us daily to whom we give little or no thought -- except in how they can serve our momentary needs. Last summer the DVD release of Steve Barron's Choking Man put us in close touch with an undocumented Latin American immigrant to New York City who works in a Queens' diner. Now comes another film, made several years earlier and finally making its DVD debut tomorrow, that does something similar, this time with a Chinese illegal who works as a delivery boy for one of New York City's ubiquitous Chinese take-out restaurants. TAKE OUT, the surprisingly fair-minded, carefully detailed look at a single day in the life of young immigrant Ming Ding, heralds the collaborative effort of filmmakers Sean Baker and Shih-Ching Tsou, and a very fine movie the pair (shown below) has made.

That this particular day has been chosen by the filmmakers with an eye to drama and conflict adds immense pressure to both Ming Ling's life and the viewer's enjoyment of what, otherwise, might have been an ordinary session of non-stop food preparation and deliveries. But so well researched, cast and performed is Take Out that the film rarely fails to fascinate at every step of the way. Who'd have thought that a roster of delivery clients could be so interesting? Baker and Tsou allow just the right amount of time to be spent with each so that the individual and the way s/he interacts with Ming Ling is specific and meaningful, without -- praise be -- falling into more than minimal cliché.

The main character's co-workers are also well perceived and fleshed out; each actor is excellent but the standout is Wang-Thye Lee as Big Sister, who handles everything -- from order-taking to cursing out a cus-
tomer in Mandarin -- like a pro. In the leading role, Charles Jang (shown at right) could hardly be better. He makes Ming Ding's enor-
mous reticence fully understandable and by film's end has won our hearts ten times over. Watch the DVD extras to discover what a well-spoken and alert young man Mr. Jang can be, then watch his audition (shot, as all the auditions were, on the street) to understand why he got the role. On the DVD's Extras, in the Q&A with filmmakers and cast, Jang, who speaks fluent Mandarin, reveals an interesting biographical note that, had it surfaced pre-audition, might have cost him the role. (These interviews, by the way, are among the best I've seen made for any film, no matter what its budget.)

My single caveat with Take Out has to do with its finale. Suddenly every coincidence missing from the rest of the movie seems to surface in a single delivery. It was too much for me, but the film has accumulated such viewer good-will by this time that you'll probably let it pass. In any case, the denouement helps remedy the situation, and you're left with a movie that, once watched, will ensure that you look at your next (and next and next) Chinese restaurant delivery man with open eyes, more respect and -- one hopes -- a bigger tip.

So impressed with Take Out's combination of small budget and big brain & heart was TrustMovies that he contacted co-writer/director Sean Baker (shown below, with camera) for a quick Q&A via email:

TrustMovies: Why did it take so long -- five years -- between the finished film and this video release?

Sean Baker: Actually, it took three years for the film's theatrical debut and another year for the film's DVD release. The film was shot in June 2003. Cavu Pictures picked up 'Take Out' at the tail end of its festival circuit run in mid-2005. A number of factors led to its three year delay in getting to the screen. I was busy co-directing one of the 'Greg the Bunny' incarnations for IFC. Plus, Cavu was busy with a couple of other theatrical releases and we were in a holding pattern. Then money became an issue, as Cavu needed time to raise funds for the release. Finally we set the date for June 2008. When it comes to independent film (at least my independents), the pace is glacial. I had even gone ahead and made my new film Prince of Broadway while waiting.

We did not have a DVD distributor locked down when we did our theatrical hoping that a successful run would result in a DVD distributor being interested in the home entertainment release. Although the film ran for 9 weeks in NYC and had moderate play in Los Angeles and San Diego, DVD labels didn't come running because of the state of the industry right now. It's still quite a gamble to release an alternative art-house film without household names in the cast. So it took the Independent Spirit nomination to truly legitimize the film in the eyes of some distributors. It was at that point that Don at Kino Entertainment expressed interest. In my eyes, being released by Kino is a badge of honor. They have released the classics that have been such an influence on my career -- plus their American Independent division is top-notch. We're in the company of directors like So-Yong Kim and Azazel Jacobs. So once we signed with them, I needed a couple of months to pull together the DVD extras.

How long did the screenplay take to write, and how long did it take to shoot the film?

The screenplay took approximately a month-and-a-half. It transformed when we were on set because the actual employees of the restaurant gave us input and suggested dialogue. Production lasted approximately 30 days. However, the shooting schedule was very unconventional. We were shooting in a working restaurant so we could not dictate our hours. Some days were 4 hours and others were 14.

What was the collaborative process like and how did you divide the duties?

Shih-Ching and I wrote the script together in English. She then translated the dialogue to Mandarin. We set it up in a way that I could keep up with the actors by having both scripts on set. I could follow them line by line so both Shih-Ching and I could judge the actor's delivery and the scene's pacing. On the technical side, we were forced to take on the responsibility of camera and sound because we couldn't afford to hire a crew. Shih-Ching and I handled sound relying most of the time on wireless mics so that we did not have to boom. And I covered the camera.

As far as working with actors goes, we gave our actors as much freedom as they wanted. However, there wasn't much improvi-
sation in the Mandarin language portion of the dialogue because of the fact that I don't know the language and wouldn't have been able to keep up. However, my favorite scene in the film is an impro-
vised scene between Charles (above, right) and Johnny (above, left). In the scene, Johnny gives Charles advice on smiling when he makes a delivery. I had no idea how good the scene was until afterwards, when Shih-Ching translated it for me. Charles Jang, the film's lead, became a vital part of the filmmaking team once the film was completed, aiding us in poster and website design.

I notice, via the IMDB, that you’ve collaborated as a writer on two films but as a director on only one. And now, with Tsou again on Left-Handed Girl. Do you want to talk about this new film at all? Is there any chance that Prince of Broadway will appear on DVD ori n theaters anytime soon?

Yes, 'Prince of Broadway' has had a great festival run. I've traveled the world with it. It will get a theatrical release sometime in the new year (2010). And the next film, 'Left-Handed Girl' is a family drama that takes place in Shih-Ching's hometown of Taipei, Taiwan. We will once again use an urban setting as a character in the film. More specifically, the chaotic, colorful nightmarkets of Taipei will be the backdrop.

What was your budget for Take Out? (I realize that this was back in ’03.)

We made 'Take Out' for $3000. When the film was finally moving forward with a theatrical release, we were granted an extremely generous favor that allowed us to master and color-correct the film properly for no cost. My guessimate is that this service would have cost us $15,000 at least.

If there’s anything else you’d like to soapbox about, feel free….

Well, Shih-Ching and I are very grateful for everybody who has been supportive over the last five years. It has been a long road but it proves that perseverance pays off.

No comments: