The Women Behind Red Doors: An Interview with Filmmakers Georgia Lee, Jane Chen and Mia Riverton
What happens when three bright, beautiful Harvard graduates pool their intellectual and creative talents? An unstoppable force called Blanc de Chine Entertainment, and an endearing bijou of a film titled Red Doors. Blanc de Chine Entertainment is a triumvirate composed of Director Georgia Lee, co-producers Jane Chen and Mia Riverton, who also plays a role in the film and wrote some of its music.
Red Doors Director Georgia Lee is a native of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the eldest of three girls. Her parents immigrated from Taiwan and met in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania.
"I grew up in, around, and all over New England and always at a crossroads of two very different cultures - one was the very homogenous white suburban towns of New Jersey, New York, Massachusetts, and Connecticuit contrasted with the other - the intensely Chinese world of my immigrant family. For most of my formative years, I grew up in Waterford, a small town in Southeastern Connecticuit, where the major industries are nuclear power, pharmaceuticals (my father is a chemist at Pfizer), and up to a few years ago, submarines. I grew up (as what many NY'rs now fondly call themselves after much expensive therapy): an insecure overachiever. My parents piled on piano, violin, flute lessons along with ballet, tap, and jazz classes in addition to the ice skating, tennis, horseback riding and Chinese school. They made sure I had no time to get into trouble or to go on a date. The irony is that all that 'cultural enrichment' was not intended necessarily to nurture artistic stirrings but rather to help create the perfect resume to get into the best college."
Georgia Lee's Blanc de Chine bio tells the story of a budding filmmaker's career taking shape. "After graduating from Harvard with a degree in Biochemistry, Georgia Lee worked for management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. While at McKinsey, Lee was selected by Martin Scorsese to apprentice on Gangs of New York after he saw Lee's first short film, The Big Dish: Tiananmen '89. Her subsequent short film, Educated, showed in over 30 festivals around the world. Lee's first feature film, Red Doors, won the Best Narrative Feature Award in the NY, NY Competition at the 2005 Tribeca Film Festival. Red Doors has gone on to win the Special Jury Award for Ensemble Acting at CineVegas, as well as the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Award for Screenwriting at Outfest. Lee has been a juror for both the Sundance Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival."
Producer Jane Chen is also a native of Philadelphia, the elder of two children, who graduated cum laude with a Bachelor's degree in East Asian Studies from Harvard University. For the Red Doors production, Jane says, "I spearheaded the fund-raising and the business operations on set." However, this was not Jane Chen's first foray into filmmaking. In 1999, she was involved in the production of Georgia Lee's short film Bloom, and in 2001, Jane co-wrote and co-produced the short film Educated. She also served as Executive Producer on Georgia Lee's most recent short Diagnosis.
According to her Blanc de Chine Productions biography, "Jane Chen was most recently Vice President of Strategy at American Vantage Media, the parent company of Hypnotic (producers of The O.C.) and YaYa (video game developer). Prior to AVM, Jane was Director of Research at
Producer Mia Riverton is a native of Columbus, Ohio, the elder of two children. According to Mia, "My mother immigrated from Taiwan when she was 24 and met my father when they were both in grad school for chemistry at Michigan State University. My dad is from Kansas originally and is of Irish and Cherokee descent. They are now both scientists." After 12 years of prep school, Mia went on to attend Harvard University for a degree in Economics, which she earned in only three years.
Mia Riverton's Blanc de Chine resume features an impressive list of accomplishments. "Mia Riverton has worked in film, television and theater as both an actress and producer. Feature film acting credits include 13 Dead Men, The Last Race, Recoil and CEO, by acclaimed Chinese director Wu Tian-Ming for Beijing Film Studios. Recent TV appearances include One on One for UPN and Strong Medicine for Lifetime. Mia has also performed on stage in New York, Los Angeles, and Boston; recent work includes Voices We Remember at the Geffen Playhouse, Street Psalms at the American Repertory Theater, and the Ovation Award-winning musical bare, currently running Off-Broadway. As a producer, Mia has created and/or worked on a number of programs and features for Fox Entertainment, including Malcolm in the Middle, Son of the Beach and The Crasher. Her cross-media producing approach has been featured in Variety and the Los Angeles Times. She is also the founder and president of Harvardwood, a nonprofit arts and entertainment association. Originally from Indianapolis, Mia attended Park Tudor School and was honored as a Presidential Scholar in her senior year. She graduated cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa with a Bachelor?s degree in Economics from Harvard University."
When asked about her role in the production of Red Doors, Mia responded in delightful detail. "My official credits on the movie are as actress, singer-songwriter and producer. The latter title, of course, encompasses many, many different responsibilities, especially on an independent film! I oversaw the casting and musical elements of the film. On set, my responsibilities were many and varied -- acting, catering, driving, dog-wrangling, monk-wrangling, basically pitching in wherever I was needed. I discovered a love of power tools and sandbags, which made me useful to the art department and G&E (grip and electric). Actually, I don't know if I helped them at all or if I was just a source of amusement to the crew.
It was definitely challenging to have both on and off-camera responsibilities on set. As an actor, I'm used to being very subjective and selfish (creatively), only worrying about how to deliver my performance for the director. But as a producer, you have to constantly resolve crises, scan the horizon for other potential problems, make sure everyone else's needs are being met, etc. It kind of made my head spin at times, but it was a tremendous learning experience!"
A Filmmaker Is Born
Regarding Georgia Lee's road to destiny as a filmmaker, she says, "I never questioned what had been planned for me, so I dutifully went off to Harvard to study biochemistry with the intention of going to medical school. If I were really rebellious, I might go to law school. Well a fascinating thing happened to me at Harvard. When I was a child, my mother always borrowed old films from the library for my sisters and myself to watch. Musicals, screwball comedies, melodramas, animated films, etc etc. I had always loved films, but it was in college that I discovered that it was a very deeply held passion. Rather than study for organic chemistry exams, I would often run off to the Film Archives and watch their brilliantly curated series. It was always a wonderful, mysterious sense of fate and expectation as I entered the building - it could be Strictly Ballroom playing one night and Woman In The Dunes the next. So I fell IN LOVE with film in college but could not possibly conceive of pursuing it as a profession. So i did the next best thing: I refused to apply to medical school and instead moved to NY after college and worked for McKinsey & Company - a management consulting firm that specialized in advising executives of large corporations on business strategy. At first my parents were mortified, but then they slowly got used to the idea that McKinsey was a respected, safe, and lucrative career path."
She goes on to say, "At McKinsey, I learned a lot about what makes businesses work and what makes them fail. But I remember being on a flight back from Paris- my life seemed completely set: I was 23, making six figures, traveling first class around the world, getting used to the expense account life, etc. But I realized that if this were the rest of my life, I would be miserable. I already knew that I loved film but had no idea what to do about this latent passion. So I arranged to take a leave of absence from McKinsey and spent a summer taking a film production class at NYU. Long story short (too late, I know): my first short film "The Big Dish: Tiananmen '89" found its way to Martin Scorsese's desk. He watched it and invited me to be an observer on his upcoming film "Gangs of New York" which was filming in Rome, Italy at the fabled Cinecitta Studios. It was a dream come true for me (and my parents thought it was an absolute disaster). I took a leave of absence from McKinsey and spent about five months on set observing Scorsese at work. It was absolutely amazing to go from my little short films where I was loading the camera, carrying the sandbags, setting up lights, etc. to a full-blown Hollywood production. Watching Scorsese work with the great craftsmen in cinematography, in costumes, set design, and with such great actors as Daniel Day-Lewis etc was the best film education I could ever have hoped for." And a filmmaker is born.
"I returned to New York and continued working at McKinsey, all the while dreaming of making films. I continued to make shorts on the side but then headed off to Harvard Business School in the fall of 2003. Again, I was trying to please my parents, and more importantly, I was afraid of leaving the brightly lit, safe path. But after one semester at Harvard Business School (up to my eyeballs in valuation spreadsheets, etc), I took a leave of absence and left to finally make my first feature Red Doors."
A Film Is Born
In response to the question, "When did the film take on a life of its own, that 'Ah ha!' moment when Red Doors was born?" Georgia Lee remembers, "The original conception for the film (when it was still a story completely focused on one character - Samantha Wong) happened around 2002. But the idea for Red Doors, a story about a family finding itself, took hold early 2004. From that point on, it took about two to three months in rushed pre-production, 23 days to shoot, and about seven to eight months in post production. We premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2005. And here we are at the theatrical release in September 2006. But from conception of the 'family' element to physical completion of the film, I would say about one year and three months. But from initial conception to theatrical opening: over four years!"
Georgia goes on to reveal, "Red Doors is an incredibly personal story that was inspired by my own family and friends. I am the eldest of three girls, and my father always threatened to run off to a Buddhist monastery when we were kids!I wanted to tell a story about the growing pains of a family as it transitions from everyone under one roof to everyone dispersing geographically and emotionally as the children grow up. Red doors is very much a coming of age story about a family as it tries to reconnect with each other.
I had originally written the script many years ago to be centered around the eldest daughter, Samantha Wong and her journeys through love, family, and career. The early versions of the script reflected my own struggles in my romantic and professional life. However, I began to realize that the seemingly "secondary" characters of the sisters, father, and mother were just as compelling, if not more so than the character based on my own experience. In addition, many of my friends who graciously read the script delicately hinted that the other characters deserved more air time as well. So the idea came to me sometime early in 2004 to turn the film into an ensemble story with the family as the main character. I realized that deep down this was the story that I was trying to convey - the tender, bittersweet, sad, funny, frustrating, wonderful thing that is "family".
Her Blanc de Chine Director's Statement offers Georgia's own insights into the film. "Red Doors weaves some of my own home video footage from the past twenty years into a fictionalized narrative about a contemporary, dysfunctional Chinese-American family. For the Chinese, to paint one's front doors red is said to bring good luck, fortune, and harmony to the household. The term 'Red Doors' is therefore an ironic counterpoint to a family that is emotionally distant and struggles to communicate. The film reflects on how it is often most difficult to connect with those nearest and dearest to your heart.
Red Doors seeks to examine and challenge the paradigm of the modern American family and the extent to which those traditional conceptions are relevant today. Ed, the disaffected father, deviates from the Asian 'model minority' stereotype by suddenly abandoning his family on the day of his retirement. One daughter falls in love with a lesbian celebrity and brings her home while another daughter expresses her own emotional solitude through a series of dangerous pranks in her high school. Samantha, the eldest, is living out the so-called American dream and yet is the most unsatisfied of all.
While my Asian heritage intimately informs my work, I have decided not to place the cultural card front and center in this film. Even though the Wong family is Chinese, I believe that their emotional frays and struggles are universal amongst families of any background. By portraying the characters first and foremost as complicated individuals grappling with real life issues, I hope to present a more human face in place of the often stereotyped image of Asian Americans in mainstream western media.
I grew up in a house filled with music and dance, and those two elements are a continuing motif throughout the film. From Samantha's dreams of ballet to Julie's tango lessons to Katie's hip-hop performances, dance and music underscore the generational and cultural divide between the characters but also ultimately provide a common ground for their reconciliation.
Before Ed disappears, he slowly re-visits his history through old VHS footage of the family. The stark contrast between the happier past and the colder reality of the present compel Ed to leave home. By incorporating documentary footage into a fictionalized narrative, I hope to examine the fundamental themes of the film and video medium itself: our continuing attempts to document and therefore preserve our lives and experiences. As Ed and finally Samantha re-discover and re-experience their 'pasts' via home videos, we also explore the interplay of documentation, storytelling, and the creation of collective memories. Ultimately, Ed's disappearance compels each daughter to examine her own understanding of the role and connection she has to the family. At the same time, the Wongs learn to live their own lives outside the invisible fences of their home."
The Blanc de Chine Triumvirate is Born
When asked how Georgia, Jane and Mia came together to form Blanc de Chine Entertainment, Mia Riverton responded, "Georgia and Jane graduated from Harvard a few years before me and went off to Wall Street, where Georgia took her summers off to make short films. Meanwhile, once I graduated, I moved to L.A. because I got a part in a film. I then continued acting full-time for about three years before deciding I really wanted to pursue behind-the-scenes work (writing and producing) as well. I persuaded Georgia to drop out of Harvard Business School after one semester and move to my house in L.A. so that we could make movies together. We decided to shoot a feature film that summer (2004), and convinced Jane to quit her job to produce it with us. Jane and I developed the script with Georgia, who spent most of February and March rewriting as we started the fundraising process.
We hired a New York casting director and saw actors on both coasts, one of whom (Rossif Sutherland) also wrote and performed some songs for them film. We had a wonderful music supervisor (Susan Jacobs) who found us great songs as well as our beloved composer, Robert Miller."
Of the production itself, Georgia speaks with unvarnished candor. "Red Doors was an incredibly difficult film to get made. In the financing stages, studio execs who loved the script wanted us to make the Wongs a Caucasian family, or make the lesbian couple heterosexual, in order to have more commercial potential. So Jane, Mia, and I made Red Doors on our own terms: completely outside of the Hollywood system. We raised our own financing, maxed out our credit cards, and called in favors in order to create our labor of love.
Also, Red Doors does not have a marketing budget to buy expensive TV commercials or billboards. The first weekend box office determines if a film will sink or swim. Independent films like ours are left to fend for themselves each and every week. Red Doors is scheduled to open in three cities: New York on September 8, 2006, and Los Angeles and San Francisco on September 22, 2006. The opening weekend numbers in New York (at the Angelika and ImaginAsian theaters) will determine how wide and how long our film lives.
So, we have only the power of community and grassroots outreach. Supporting independent films like this one is like voting in an election. You are voting with your feet and your dollars. If you are interested in seeing more diverse cinema, the best way to let the system know is to buy a ticket. If enough people vote for change, then the system will ultimately take notice."
When asked if she has a favorite symbol or metaphor, Mia Riverton's response was the perfect summation for the production of Red Doors, "I always tell Georgia and Jane that we're on a train heading to a certain destination, and we're going to get there regardless of who else may or may not get on board. Though, of course, we are happy when people choose to join us in our journey."
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Published on 8/14/06