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Interview: Tigertail’s Alan Yang

by Leora Heilbronn

Alan Yang is perhaps best known for his Emmy award-winning work on Master of None as well as for Parks and Recreation, Apple TV+ anthology series Little America, and directing the Moonlight music video for Jay-Z. The moving film Tigertail, which is now streaming on Netflix, is Yang’s feature debut as writer and director. The film is loosely based on his parents’ story of emigrating from Taiwan to the United States and its visual style was influenced by the works of luminary directors Wong Kar-Wai and Terrence Malick.

In the film, a Taiwanese factory worker, played the incomparable Tzi Ma, leaves his homeland in Taiwan to come to America, and has difficulty finding balance between his newfound responsibilities and his family.

In our lively phone conversation, Alan Yang was really friendly and open to discussing the fascinating background of certain components of the film, and exclusively revealed how his parents reacted to viewing his stunning film.

The following is a condensed and edited version of my spirited chat with the incredibly talented writer-executive producer-director Alan Yang.

Brief Take: Congratulations on the beautiful film, Alan! I cried throughout the movie and really related to Christine’s character’s arc, myself being a daughter of a very emotionally closed off immigrant father as well. It’s such a universal story of love and family and I think many people will relate to it.

Alan Yang: Oh thank you so much! That means a lot to me. People have been reacting so positively, it really means me feel happy and gratified. I appreciate that.

BT: You’ve worked on this film for four years now. Watching the film now, is there a moment of which you’re most proud?

AY: Yeah, for sure. [laughs] You know it’s a difficult question to answer because every scene was like a child. I love the ending, I don’t want to spoil it for people, but the whole montage at the end gets me every time because it reminds me of my own experiences. I love the scene where young Pin-Jui and young Yuan are dancing, the first time we meet them when they’re young adults. There are so many! The montage as Pin-Jui gets older, when he’s working at the store…yeah, there are a lot of moments with which I’m very happy and of which I’m proud.

BT: You mentioned the final montage in the film and I was struck by the closing shot of the film. Can you talk a little about constructing that scene as a writer and director?

AY: Obviously this is all spoiler territory, but I think one of the messages of the movie and one of the themes is how we pass on how we’re raised to our children. Pin-Jui is told as a young boy, when he’s missing his mother, he’s told by his grandmother not to cry and to be strong, the implication being that stoicism and denying your emotions and concealing them is stronger and braver than expressing them. So he carries that lesson with him all the way to America, and for the rest of his life it causes him a lot of pain. I think there’s some beauty in the fact that at the end of the movie, he has all these regrets and he has a lot of longing for the past, and yes, he’s redeemed and he’s able to express himself to his daughter for the first time in his life. The way he does that is by sharing that past, that is so painful, with her. So it’s kind of a culmination of all the stories where he’s using what was so painful to him to reach out and try to connect with his daughter.

BT: You also mentioned that the dancing scene was one that you were most proud of. I’m curious about the choice of record and then also the choice of Otis Redding as the artist that Pin-Jui and Yuan bond over.

AY: Yeah, absolutely! So it’s two very different stories – one is the Yao Su Rong song that plays in the bar when they dance. That was me researching and trying to find the perfect track for that environment. I wanted something that signified East meets West because obviously they’re in this bar in Taiwan but he has these aspirations to go to America because he loves Western pop culture, he loves American movies, he loves rock and roll. And so I found this rock song of a female singer who sings in Mandarin over it and it’s really unlike anything I’d ever heard before – the tempo, the instrumentation, the singing – all combined to make this beautiful and the right kind of tone for that scene, so that was a pick very early on. And then the Otis Redding scene was quite the opposite because that was just a song that my Dad liked. My Dad liked Otis Redding, so that’s a personal touch from him, so I just put it right in there. There’s something kind of magical about these two young lovers singing a song that was written and produced thousands of miles away from them and still connected with them.

BT: Speaking of your Dad, what was it like working with him on the voiceover for the film?

AY: [laughs] It was incredible! That was one of the high points of the movie because at that point the movie had been shot and cut and you’re in post production. It was just an idea I had, I wanted there to be an omniscient narrator, even though it’s technically one of the characters, I wanted the feeling of a little bit of detachment and like he’s telling a story. So I had the idea of bringing in my Dad, I knew he would speak in this lovely voice because he has this amazing timbre to his voice, and I so I brought him in and he did it and it worked really well! My editor immediately wrote back to me, after he laid it in, and said “you know, I don’t speak Mandarin but it just works really well. Your Dad did a really good job.”. So I thanked my Dad for doing it and he said “any time, it was the highlight of my year. I got to go in to a booth and get directions by my son, who’s a movie director now.”

BT: Has he seen the finished film? Did he give his approval?

AY: Yes! So finally, finally I sent him a link to the movie a few days ago and he said he would watch it that night, and then I didn’t hear anything. [laughs] I was a little nervous! I thought maybe he didn’t like it or was disappointed. So I waited until the next day, I gave him some time, and then I kind of tentatively reached out and asked him if he had seen it and what he thought. And immediately he said he loved the movie, he watched it three times, and he wants to watch it ten more times before it comes out. So it got the seal of approval. I said to him “well why didn’t you tell me earlier?!”, instead of making me sweat it out! [laughs] But no, it’s all good. [laughs]

BT: And I loved the story that you wrote about your grandmother coming to the set in Taiwan and being bored by all the setting up for the car scene. That was adorable!

AY: Yeah! It’s hilarious, man. She’s so funny. She’s really with it and fit, she plays golf, she wears Kenzo and Gucci, she’s just a really funny character. So she came to set, I thought it would be fun to show her around a set, and she was like “all you guys are doing is setting up lights”, and I was like “yeah, that’s how you make a movie”. [laughs] It was just us setting up lights for five hours.

BT: Has she seen the film yet?

AY: I don’t think she’s seen it yet, no. They gave us a limited number of links, so my Mom and Dad and sister have seen it, but I’m assuming grandma will see it on Friday when it comes out.

BT: What did your Mom think of the film?

AY: She loved it too! She was so cute about it. She wrote me a really sweet message and said she and her husband both loved it. She said her husband was really impressed by how historically accurate it was and how much I knew about Taiwan. She texted me today and said they’re listening to the music from it, they looked it up, and said Yao Su Rong was a very popular singer in their time – I didn’t even know that when I wrote it into the script.

BT: I’m curious also about the score of the film as it really captured the changing tones of the story. Can you talk a little about collaborating with Canadian composer Michael Brook to get the score of the film just right?

AY: Yeah, I’m really specific about music; music has been a big part of my life, as depicted in the movie. I played piano growing up, as did my sister, I picked up a guitar and played in a punk rock band, so I’ve been obsessed with music my whole life. We had a very specific target that we wanted to hit, so Michael Brook, the composer, you know he’s such a talented guy. I would go over to his house, where he records music, and just kind of work with him. We wanted the tone to be bittersweet, we didn’t want it to be over the top sad and tell the audience how to feel, and obviously we didn’t want it to be too upbeat or happy either, so we had to find this perfect tone and have that lyrical and melodic, but not saccharine, sound. I think he did a great job and I love some of the pieces that he wrote, especially near the end of the movie when the source music kind of drops out and there’s more score. He did a fantastic job!

BT: Another Canadian that I was happy to see on screen here was Hayden Szeto. I thought the entire ensemble was just phenomenal, really.

AY: Yeah, he’s great. He’s an amazingly talented actor and you’ll be seeing a lot more of him. Everyone nailed their part so well and you don’t always get that lucky with a cast. I feel like Tzi Ma and Christine Ko, who played the American roles, older Pin-Jui and his daughter, those scenes are so emotional and powerful. Then you go to Taiwan and you talk about Kunjue Li and Yo-Hsing Fang and Kuei-Mei Yang, it’s just so many great performances down the line. It was all about meeting the cast in person and getting a read on them and having them audition. I had Christine and Tzi audition together, I had Hong-Chi Lee and Yo-Hsing audition together, and just seeing what the chemistry was like – that was a big part of casting them and I think it really paid off.

BT: As interviewers we tend to focus on the acting talent and not the crew. Are there people that you worked with on this film that you’d like to give special kudos to?

AY: Many, many, many! My production designer, Amy Williams, she’s worked with me on so many projects and did an amazing job. She came to Taiwan and worked with a Taiwanese crew to design all of those beautiful sets. Nigel Bluck, my cinematographer, who worked with me to create the look of the older scenes compared to the present day scenes. We shot on 50mm film and that was an idea we were really excited about and it really transforms the movie and adds that beautiful grain and saturation and vividness to the past. Olga Mill, the costume designer – if you look at some of those scenes with young Yuan and young Pin-Jui, and he’s in that white t-shirt and she’s in that iconic dress, that’s all Olga. She designed those dresses and drew the patterns and gave them to the seamstresses in Taiwan to make. Our editor, Daniel Haworth, who spent way, way, way too many hours with me in the edit bay and dealt with all of my crazy ideas, my re-cuts, and my new ideas about the structure of the movie. It was like having another writer and director in the room because he’s that talented. There are so many more people, I mean I could go on and on, but those jump immediately to my mind.

BT: What was your experience like filming in Taiwan and being surrounded by family history? You had previously mentioned that you filmed at the sugar factory where your Dad used to work.

AY: Yeah, it was pretty unbelievable. I remember taking photos of it on my trip with my Dad there, and then none of the sugar factories that we were looking at seemed exactly right and I said “well let’s go take a trip down to the real thing and see what it looks like and see if it can work out for us!”, and it did. I’m grateful to the cast and crew for going down to that small town and living in a little inn nearby and making the movie there. I think it really, really looks great on screen.

BT: During this time of self-isolation, what have you seen lately that you’ve really liked?

AY: I always watch a mixture of old and new, so it’s crazy but I’ve been catching up on old Jean-Luc Godard movies. I watched Breathless the other day, but you know I also watch reality tv. [laughs] Look, I watched Love is Blind and Tiger King just like everybody else. [laughs] You know it’s a mixture, you’ve got to do both.

BT: What do you hope viewers take away from this film?

AY: As you mentioned, we’re all a little bit isolated right now and I think a lot of people are feeling alone, so I hope this is a movie that people can watch with their families, either together or separately, and I hope it makes people want to pick up the phone and call their parents or call their kids and just connect because ultimately, the movie is about connection. It’s never too late to connect with the people you care about.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=i8lp_eI78ZM]
Tigertail is now streaming on Netflix

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Brief Take