A leading voice in the new wave of American independent filmmaking, New York-based filmmaker and artist Tze Chun is fresh off of the critical success of his first feature film “Children of Invention.” After its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival, the film has screened around the world, racked up over a dozen awards and catapulted Chun into a filmmaker to watch by critics nationwide.
This month “Children of Invention” is available for viewing on XFINITY On Demand and also on xfinityTV.com.
In an economic milieu which strikingly resembles the world many have encountered the past several years (the film was written in 2007 and 2008 while the recent recession began), two siblings, Raymond and Tina, find themselves in a situation where the adults in their lives can no longer look after them. When their mother falls prey to a pyramid scheme and soon disappears, their lives are shaken up and home becomes a mixture of model showroom apartments and the streets of Boston. What the two discover that they can rely on, however, is each other, and their natural senses of innovation, creativity and invention. With a fresh voice, subtle humor and finely tuned, naturalistic acting, “Children” offers a perspective on the world around us too rarely heard from.
You’ve said that the story in “Children of Invention” is partly autobiographical. Can you tell us a bit about your interest in capturing a part of your own childhood on film (and a period that was quite trying) and sharing it with the rest of the world?
TC: I think when I was writing “Children of Invention” I was just thinking about something that moved me and that I thought would move other people. But then when the movie shows in festivals or comes out on VOD you end up feeling kind of exposed with people porting your childhood into their living rooms. It was really gratifying to see how many people connected to the film, but I’m going to take a break from writing anything auto-biographical for a little while. Or maybe the solution is just not to tell anyone that the movie is semi-autobiographical. Though, when they see a Chinese kid with a bowl cut on screen it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to know who it was based on. I guess the best way I can sum up the experience is it was a really fun and gratifying but also super intense, like streaking through a group of potentially very judgmental people – probably okay if you’re pretty confident, but not good for the first time you’ve put on running shoes.
“Children of Invention” is your first feature film, and for it, you took on a number of challenging parameters. In it, you work with non-professional child actors, shoot in many locations, including outdoor, urban spaces that are harder to control and to use multiple languages. Were these restrictive, or perhaps conversely, creatively liberating?
TC: Compared to my short films, on “Children of Invention” I had about ten times as many crew and many, many times the budget, so it seemed totally doable to me. I mean, I felt like James Cameron just because I didn’t have to stop shooting so I could run and pick up pizza to feed my crew. So, all in all, I felt like the production itself was not super-challenging. My producer Mynette Louie will probably disagree, since she was the one who had to find all the locations and work everything into our schedule, haha. Also, another person who would disagree is our footage logger, who spent two weeks in the closet of the model home we shot in.
Most feature films use a distribution strategy of festival screenings, followed by theatrical distribution, and then other platforms, like DVD, online and television. You chose to experiment a bit with this and take a more nontraditional approach – can you tell us how you worked outside of the box to allow your film to reach more audiences?
TC: It’s kind of a long story, but you can read about our trials and tribulations on www.childrenofinvention.com. I will tell you that we ended up turning down nine distribution offers. But, because we did distribution ourselves, the film ended up being seen by more people and ended up seeing more return for our investors than it would have otherwise. We also have to give great thanks to the festival audiences, Facebook friends, bloggers and the mainstream press that championed the film.
“Children of Invention” is in some ways a follow-up to your award-winning short film “Windowbreaker,” in which a string of break-ins creates a wave of paranoia in a racially-mixed suburb. In both, we can see a real sociological attention to place and race, and how the two interact with each other. Can you tell us about the kinds of stories you are interested in telling and the kinds of people which inhabit these worlds?
TC: I guess, to me, if a movie can’t place a person in a specific time and place and show how that environment influenced them, the movie feels hermetically sealed and doesn’t allow you to say anything about the world at large or the way we live now. I also think I’m just interested in capturing the details that give away where and how someone lives and how that influences the decisions they make.
You’ve also made a wonderful short, science fiction film called “Silver Sling,” for an online initiative started by the Independent Television Service (ITVS) called “FutureStates.” The film can be seen online here; can you tell us a bit about the concept behind this film?
TC: The movie takes place in a polarized economy of the near future, where corporations offer financial incentives to their high-ranking female employees to pay for chemically accelerated surrogate births. The surrogates, for the most part, are people on the lower end of the economic spectrum — often immigrants or people looking to make their rent. One can only undergo three surrogate births before becoming sterile. “Silver Sling” follows Lydia, a Russian immigrant in her late 20s, as she tries to decide whether or not to agree to her third surrogate pregnancy.
Lastly, what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
TC: I’m directing a thriller called “Eye of Winter” in September/October, and I’m casting a feature called “You’re A Big Girl Now” that I’ve been working on for a couple years. And I just started sending out a new script this month called “Nowhereville,” which is set in the world of rock music. I’m also one of four directors attached for the adaptation of Will Eisner’s “A Contract with God,” which will hopefully shoot sometime in the next year.