filmmaker Greg Pak has been entertaining film festival audiences around
the world for ten years with his quirky short films like All
Amateur Ecstasy, Asian
Pride Porn, Cat
Fight Tonight, Fighting
Penny Marshall Project, Po
Mo Knock Knock.
Stories' Filmmaker Greg Pak
by the short stories of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury, Greg
is a brilliant storyteller whose enthusiasm for the medium of film
and love of science fiction is evident in his body of work, which
span several genres. Engaging, intelligent and perceptive, his path
to movie making has been an unusual one.
from Yale with a degree in political science, the writer/director
was on his way to becoming a politician when a stint in film directing
while studying history at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship focused
his vision on his true passion-filmmaking. Back in the States, he
enrolled in the graduate film program at New York University and
combining his diverse interests in photography, writing, drawing,
and acting -- all talents he’d pursued since childhood -- he set
about honing his skills in the craft of filmmaking. During his first
year at NYU, his first short film Visiting Aunt Sue was accepted
at the Asian American International Film Festival in New York. He’s
never looked back.
1998, I saw Mouse, Greg’s hilarious 11-minute short
film about a guy trying to escape a conversation about pregnancy
with his girlfriend by chasing a mouse around his apartment at the Asian American
International Film Festival in New York. As I laughed out loud,
I remembered thinking…this filmmaker is one to watch!
addition to making his own movies, Greg edits two film related websites
FilmHelp.com and AsianAmericanFilm.com.
He was the cinematographer of "The Personals," an Academy
Award winning short documentary, and was featured on the cover of
Time Magazine Asia for his work in digital filmmaking.
caught up with Greg in New York to talk about his passion for filmmaking,
his love of movies, and what it was like to be in production with
his first feature Robot Stories, a “science fiction from
the heart” series of four short films about love, death, family
and robots in the midst of the September 11th attacks
on the World Trade Center. Robot Stories, winner of the Best
Screenplay Award at the 2002 Hamptons International Film Festival
has the coveted closing night spot at the San Francisco International
Asian American Film Festival and plays on March 13th
at 7p.m. at the AMC Kabuki 8 Theaters.
is the SFIAAFF important to you?
All of the Asian American film festivals are important to me
because they’ve all been amazing to me as a filmmaker. I’ve had short
films kicking around these festivals for ten years. These Asian American
film festivals have always been homes to my films. The folks who run
them have always been supportive. It’s been a great experience to
screen my films at these festivals. To be opening or closing night
has always been one of my dreams. The SFIAAFF is particularly exciting
to me because they’ve stepped up and Robot Stories is the closing
night film. That is huge to me. They are giving it a really good
spotlight. The SFIAAFF is a great festival-it is really well run.
They tend to sell out a lot. The audiences are great. It’s just
an exciting place to be. San Francisco is a great movie going town. The
audiences love independent movies. There are so many festivals in
San Francisco and they seem to do really well. Some of my short films
have played five or six times at different festivals in SF. I’ve
had a bit of luck. It feels like a friendly town. I’ve got my fingers
Where did you go to film school?
I went to NYU grad film and several of the short films that I made
there did pretty well. Fighting Grandpa got a Student Academy
Award, played on Cinemax and PBS and a ton of festivals. And I made
a short film called Mouse, which played a ton of festivals
and won a lot of awards. I’ve done about ten short films over the
years. More recently I made All Amateur Ecstasy and Asian
Pride Porn, short porn spoofs that have done incredibly well
at AtomFilms.com. Asian Pride Porn stars Tony Award winning
playwright David Henry Hwang as a celebrity pitchman for progressive
pornography featuring smart Asian women and sexually empowered Asian
men. I’m always kind of surprised at how many people I bump into
who tell me they’ve seen that one.
My mantra coming
out of NYU was that I just wanted to keep working –just keep working
no matter what. Like most struggling filmmakers, I didn’t have a
lot of scratch. So I made digital short films. The films I made
while I was at NYU were on 16mm. But 16mm is expensive. So I started
doing digital shorts as the technology became available. It was
just a way for me to keep working, to keep my name out there, to
keep going to festivals and to keep learning by continuing to be
a filmmaker. All the time I was trying to raise money to do a feature.
I’d written a number of features. And had gotten agents and felt
like things were going to happen. But it was really tough. The features
that I’d written required more money than most companies want to
give to first time filmmakers. After several years of this kind
of struggling for attention, I wrote something that I could produce
for a lot less money. The kind of money that I could scrounge up
from family and friends. That was Robot Stories.
We went into
preproduction in July 2001. We went into production on Sept 10th,
2001. We were shooting in Brooklyn on the 11th. Finished
shooting in October, did a sneak peek at the Visual Communications
Film Fest in Los Angeles in May 2002, and had our world premiere
in October at the Hamptons International Film Festival where, Robot
Stories won Best Screenplay Award.
Since then we’ve
been at a number of festivals -- in January, we played Slamdance,
which is sort of the little brother festival to Sundance. It happens
at the same time in Park City. Now we’re on the verge of going
to a ton of pretty amazing festivals in March and April. We’re
kind of bugging out, frankly. Cinequest in San Jose, South by Southwest
in Austin, TX, Florida, the Santa Barbara Film Festival and then
we’re the closing night at the SFIAAFF. Which I’m hugely excited
about because it’s really amazing to be the closing night film at
a festival which has shown so many of my short films over the years,
supporting me so much. It’s like coming home.
Then we’re the
opening night film on April 4th at the Chicago Asian
American Showcase. That’s also stupendous.
We’re an independent
film, so right now we’re trying to build an audience so that there
are a lot of people that are passionate about the film and will
come see it when it goes to theaters. And to get a distributor
- that’s the dream. You try to get an established distributor to
pick you up and take you out into the world theatrically.
talk about your first feature Robot Stories….
Almost all of the leads are Asian American. The movie is actually
pretty multiethnic. There are folks of every ethnicity in it in
important roles. But the leads are all Asian or half-Asian.
death family and robots are the themes. It stars Tamlyn Tomita,
Sab Shimono, Wai Ching Ho, myself, and a bunch of other great actors
Cindy Cheung, Tim Kang, James Saito, Ron Domingo, Julienne Hanzelka
Kim, Bill Coelius, Eisa Davis.
The movie is
science fiction. It’s four stories - they are all kind of Twilight
Zoney in a way. Each of the stories is about 20-25 minutes long
and each one of them has some kind of twist. Each one of them has
some kind of crazy robot thing going on. But a special kind of science
fiction – we’re calling it “science fiction from the heart” or “domestic
science fiction.” Essentially the stories are all about couples
or families struggling with life crises. Struggling with human
stories that couples and families struggle with.
of the inspirations was Ray Bradbury’s short stories. I grew up
reading Ray Bradbury. Ray Bradbury was born on Aug 22; I was born
on Aug 23. I remember being incredibly happy when I found that
out. That kind of vision of using fantastic themes and fantastic
elements to tell a deeply human story has really stuck with me.
I think that’s a good guideline for any kind genre movie making
or storytelling in general. An action movie, a costume drama,
a pirate picture, whatever – it’s only going to move you if you
care about those characters.
Tomita in Robot Stories: My Robot Baby
Baby: stars Tamlyn Tomita and James Saito as a couple that
want to adopt a baby. But before they can adopt a human baby they
have to take care of this little robot baby. And of course something
goes terribly wrong.
and Greg Pak in a scene from Robot Stories: Machine Love
Fixer: stars Wai Ching Ho and Cindy Cheung. They play
a mother and a daughter. The son has been hit by a car and is in
a coma. The story is about this mother’s struggle to come to terms
with the fact that she never knew her son. He’s one of these eccentric,
introverted geniuses who nobody ever really knows. She’s in denial
about all of that and becomes obsessed with finishing the toy robot
collection that he kept from his childhood. As if by finishing
this toy robot collection she’s somehow going to be able to reach
Love: That’s the one that I’m in. It’s about a robot office
worker who’s programmed to interact with people in the office he’s
assigned to so that he can learn and adapt and be the perfect co-worker.
The problem is that he gets assigned to this really dysfunctional
office where nobody wants to interact with him. Everybody treats
him badly. What he ends up learning is that he too needs love.
Bill Coelius plays the woebegone tech support guy who’s in charge
of dealing with the robot and Julienne Hanzelka Kim plays the female
robot in the office across the street.
Ho in Robot Stories: Robot Fixer
Stars Sab Shimono as an old sculptor who’s dying. But this
is in a world in which nobody dies. Instead, when you reach the
point of death, your memories are scanned into a computer and essentially
you live forever. It’s a story of this old man who has to decide
between natural death or digital immortality. Ron Domingo plays
the son. Eisa Davis plays the wife who was scanned years before
and sort of lives in this strange digital world where once you’ve
become scanned, you attain this perfect peace and this zen-like
calm -- which is unsettling for the old man.
and Eisa Davis in a scene from Robot Stories: Clay
kind of response did you have at Slamdance?
Great! Packed houses, great reactions. Before we started going to
festivals, I felt like we had two core audiences. One was fans of
smart science fiction. The geek vote. Folks who grew up reading
Ray Bradbury, who love thinking about these kinds of things and
are just waiting for the next smart science fiction movie.
had a core audience with Asian Americans. The same kind of folks
who go to the film festival and have been supporters of my films
for years. Second and third generation Asian Americans.
we’re seeing that the film is really tapping into a third important
audience -- older, mainstream moviegoers who are looking for emotionally
compelling work. We’ve gone to places like the Hamptons, an older,
less ethnically diverse place, and the film went over incredibly
well. That traditional art house film audience has really gone for
the movie. Because while it has this crazy genre thing going on
and a quirky sense of humor, it’s also grappling with real life
issues about families. Two of the main characters in the picture
are in their 50’s or 60’s. That’s exciting. I am hoping that the
film will bring these varied audiences together.
informs you when you are developing subject matter for your film?
Greg: At the time I did Mouse, I realized that there
were not many movies being made by Asian Americans which didn’t
have anything to do with so-called Asian American issues, but which
starred Asian Americans. I think that’s really important. It’s
also important to make films explicitly about race. But when I roll
out of bed everyday, race is not the first thing in my head. The
first things in my head have to do with love, sex, and family -
very basic human emotions. Race becomes this kind of substrata on
which all these other things play out.
One of the things
that I’ve been doing is just telling stories that deal with emotional
problems that interest me and casting just the way I see them. And
not making apologies for it. That’s what we did with Robot Stories.
The fact that
we are playing so many big mainstream festivals means that these
kinds of images are getting out to people that would never see them
otherwise. It normalizes it. In this day and age it is important
to normalize - there are still folks who question the Americaness
of Asian Americans. Purely because of race. In some small way, just
by depicting people as just normal people with normal problems…I
think in some small way, movies can make a difference.
you shoot Robot Stories in digital?
We priced out a number of options and shooting digitally was the
only way that it would make sense. I’d seen a lot of stuff that
looked terrible-feature films. I knew that we could do better-my
cinematographer’s great. His name is Peter Olsen. We went to NYU
together. We spent a lot of time doing tests, coming up with strategies
and working on ways to insure that the film could look as good as
it looks. We shot digitally. We shot DV cam and we shot Pal, the
European standard, which gives you more lines of resolution and
ultimately a better image. When you blow it up to film for theatrical
release, you have more information to put on that film frame. The
film looks better than I ever expected it to when it is projected
on film. If you are in the business and you are used to seeing
video transfers, you’ll be able to figure out that this was shot
on digital. For civilians, you want people not to be distracted.
You want people to lose themselves in the fantasy of the movie.
And not be wondering about my technical issues.
started shooting Robot Stories on Sept 10th of
2001. You were actually shooting on 9/11 in New York. What was
On the 10th, our first day of shooting, it rained.
We were shooting in Central Park. It was a beautiful day. Clouds
rolled in and it rained on us in the afternoon. There was this big
scramble. With the first day of shooting, we were dealing with
-- Are we going to keep shooting? Are we going to stop? We decided
we were going to do it. We shot the scene. The shot that we shot
in the rain was the climactic scene of the Robot Fixer, which
was a very emotionally charged scene. It turned out to be perfect
that we shot it in the rain. Of course it was raining. It had to
rain for that scene. We felt like we had this huge challenge on
the first day. Now we can do anything.
course the next day was 9/11. That morning-we had a driving rig. For
the first time I was going to direct a scene in a car which was
going to be pulled on a rig. That was the technical challenge of
the day. We were rehearsing the scene. We heard that a plane hit
the World Trade Center. I thought it was a Cessna or something like
that. I had no idea it was a jetliner. Or that it was terrorists. It
just seemed like this terrible accident. We ended up shooting the
scene we were working on and then the towers started falling and
ash started blowing. We ended up walking into the holding area and
watching television shell-shocked.
It’s one of
those crazy things because when you are working in independent films,
there is this “by any means necessary” mentality. It’s so hard to
do it. You are doing it on limited resources. A soldier mentality
-- do it no matter what.
There are stories
from 9/11, filmmaker Sydney Lumet was shooting all day. It was crazy
but at the same time you gotta respect that. Once that ash started
blowing over we shut down for the day. Who knows what was in that
ash? We just had no idea. We were just freaking out -- just watching
those televisions like everybody else. What the heck was going on?
At the same
my producers Karen Chien and Kim Ima and my assistant director Curtis
Smith were thinking ahead. We’ve got this rig on the street -- how
are we going to deal with that? How are we going to get everybody
home because the bridges and tunnels were closed? What were we going
to do tomorrow and the day after that? How are we going to deal
with this? It was unprecedented. You always expect something to
go wrong on a film shoot. But this was beyond the pale.
We ended up
coming back the next day. It’s become a cliché but it’s become what
people were talking about. That whole thing of ‘if we don’t, they
win.’ Cindy Cheung and Wai Ching Ho were my actors in this scene
for The Robot Fixer. I was so happy they were the actors
I had. It was huge to me. It was important for me to keep shooting;
it was emotionally valuable and vital for me to keep shooting and
just working with them. Being able to go every day. We were working
on a story where a mother was dealing with the death of her son. It’s
totally high stakes. Deeply emotional material. It gave me a way
to get through every day. It was also a way for us to deal with
all of these emotions that we were grappling with. My cast and crew
were just amazing. They really wanted to keep working. It was a
great thing to be able to work with them at that time.
you think 9/11 affected your storytelling in any way?
I never changed any dialogue. I didn’t react consciously. I didn’t
address it in any way in the filmmaking. The strangeness and the
rawness of the time. That uncertainty informed the production and
informed the performances. We were all so raw. It reinforces our
reasons for doing the movie. It clarified why telling these kinds
of stories are important. These are stories about people who are
struggling to find each other. And struggling for meaning and struggling
for connection in some way. These are flawed people who are trying
to connect with each other. That act of human connection.
something like 9/11 happens -- what’s really important in this world?
My father was having some health problems during that time. I remember
talking to him. It was really terrible. He came to terms with what’s
really important are his wife and his family. Just like the people
who you love. Finding some way to reach them or to be true to them.
do your parents do?
My dad is a research physician who has done a lot of work in the
study of calcium and bone disease and developing drugs for that.
My mom taught English early on but became a homemaker when she had
kids. I have an older sister and a younger sister. My older sister
is a surgeon in San Francisco. My younger sister is in a PhD program
in linguistics in Philadelphia.
your parents supportive of your decision to pursue filmmaking?
Yes. They are great parents and they only want what will make me
happy. They believe in the work. It’s helped that the work has done
well and that they like it. Robot Stories meant a lot to
my father too. He really cared about the stories. I would send him
cuts while I was working on it. It was important for me to make
the movie. The movie became important to him too.
next on the docket?
Karen Chien who co-produced Robot Stories is co-producing
my next feature -- Rio Chino. It’s a western with a Chinese
gunslinger as the main character set in the old West. We’re trying
to raise money so that we can make that our next project. That’s
actually one of the dream projects that I have been working on for
years but couldn’t raise the money for before Robot Stories. Every
time something good happens with Robot Stories it helps us
with getting meetings to talk with people and getting this next
project off the ground. We’ve got our fingers crossed. Last October
I got the Independent Film Project’s Pipedream screenwriting award
for Rio Chino.
Rio Chino where do you see yourself in 5 years?
Five years from now I’m hoping that I will have made at least one
or two more features. I’ll have a little more financial security. I
just want to keep doing what I am doing. That is my goal. That I
can continue to write and make movies. And that I can get paid enough
to keep doing it.