Q: Why did you choose to make a film about Chinese food?
A: Just after grad school my best friend and I were on our way to Iowa to shoot “King Corn” [his first film]. We stopped at a Chinese restaurant in a small town — middle of nowhere America — in the middle of the night and ordered General Tso’s chicken. It made us wonder, who is General Tso, and why does he have chicken everywhere in America? That’s something we wanted to chase. The idea simmered on the back burner for a few years, and then we teamed up with Jennifer 8. Lee, a nonfiction writer, who has a chapter in her latest book about General Tso.
Q: What’s your favorite thing about making film?
A: Probably my favorite thing about documentary filmmaking is meeting remarkable, smart people in interesting places. Every film is an adventure in its own right. On a film like The Search for General Tso, we wandered into Chinese restaurants all across America and were welcomed into people’s back kitchens to hear their stories about how they came to America, or how they got into the restaurant industry. Even though putting a camera in front of someone’s face changes the interaction, the filmmaking process challenges people to value their own stories. You knock on someone’s door saying, “I want to share your story with the world,” and they take a certain pride in their own life and adventures.
Q: Right, people tend to act differently when they know they’re being filmed. How do you deal with that difficulty?
A: The question is, do you acknowledge that, or keep the camera around long enough that people forget that it’s there? Documentary filmmakers take lots of different approaches to the “truth” question. In some cases it has made sense for me to be in films, to be the narrator, but in others, fortunately, I was not present. I was in the Viola Question at Yale, which was a lot of fun, and prepared me for acting. One of the guys in the group, Jeff Miller, was the editor of “King Corn.”
Q: What’s the most challenging thing about making film?
A: Fundraising is always a challenge, but that’s a boring answer. With this film one of the challenges was balancing the whimsical premise of the film with the stories of immigration, assimilation and repression that were very much a part of the Chinese-American experiences. We heard stories relating to the 1882 Assimilation Act, countless episodes of discrimination that Chinese-Americans have faced in coming to America.
Q: What was your first experience with filmmaking?
A: I did a lot of photography at Yale. I got one of those art grants from the residential colleges that allowed me to buy rolls of film, and I would ride around New Haven at night on my bicycle and take pictures of the stars. It wasn’t until after I graduated forestry school that I starting making film.
Q: Do you have a mission as a filmmaker?
A: I’d be reluctant to say that I have one core agenda that permeates all of our projects. I do try to make films that are entertaining enough that people will want to watch them, educational enough that people gain something from them and beautiful enough that people enjoy sitting in the theater. But the goals change with every film, and the story you want to tell shifts with every film. Each film is a three-year adventure into entirely new territory, and that certainly presents a lot of challenges because there’s a steep learning curve. I always have to learn new material and call upon knowledge from college classes I never thought I would need. But also, each adventure is incredibly rewarding because you meet people who become your lifelong friends or collaborators. We wanted to make “King Corn” because we wanted to tell the story of America’s broken food system; that’s an agenda. But in making that film, our sense of how to tell that story changed dramatically. I didn’t know anything about Chinese-American history when I started making General Tso, then in the process of making and researching, it became clear that we had an opportunity and a responsibility to tell a larger story than one just about chicken.
Q: What topics are most interesting to you?
A: I’ve spent much of the last decade working on films and projects related to food and agriculture, and their effect on their environment. Food is inherently a very interdisciplinary subject — it can get you into politics, chemistry, history, etc. I’ve also had a lifelong interest in the planetary sciences. I’m halfway through a journalism fellowship at MIT, so I’m spending the year auditing classes there and at Harvard, and talking to scientists about their work. I think that’s really crucial for understanding contemporary global issues like climate change.
Q: Do you have any advice for people who want to make film?
A: I did not specifically train in college and graduate school to be a filmmaker, but I do find that in documentary film I call upon all sorts of things I learned throughout college. Documentary filmmaking is a big umbrella, and if you’re prepared to put some long hours into grant writing and fundraising and being broke for a while it’s a really rewarding way to explore your interests. In many ways, it means inventing a job for yourself. It’s a path we’ve had to clear.
Q: Do you consider yourself to be an artist? An activist? A journalist?
A: I would say documentary film is a combination of activism, art and journalism. I got into journalism because of my interest in the topics I wanted to explore, and I had a desire to make some form of art. The combination of art, activism, advocacy, storytelling and journalism makes documentary filmmaking a good job for me.
Q: Thoughts on Yale?
A: I think that Yale was supportive of my interdisciplinary interests. I majored in EP&E and was able to take a lot of classes at the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies. I didn’t feel like there was a prescribed program that was perfect for me, but Yale gave me the space to invent it for myself. That’s been a really helpful foundation moving forwards with my career. I continue to collaborate with many of the people I met in college — one of my old roommates does the sound tracks for all of our films. I know this is corny, but the people I got to meet were really what college was about.
Q: Was there another career you thought you’d pursue before filmmaking?
A: [Laughing] You’d imagine that I was thinking about having some sort of job, but for the life of me I can’t remember what I wanted! I just thought I would figure it out and that I would make it one way or another. I’m still paying off my college loans, but I do think I’ve figured out how to balance my outlandish interests by making films that get funded and get produced.
Q: So, do you feel like you’ve “made it” as a filmmaker?
A: Whenever a documentary filmmaker tells you that they’ve made it, you should be skeptical. I do feel like I’ve been really lucky in being able to make a number of the films that I’ve dreamed up. None of the films have brought huge financial reward, but they have brought opportunities for me as a person, and I consider that success. But that’s definitely a struggle and a process, and I’m still trying to make that work.