"As filmmakers, we create what's really in our hearts; and it just so happens that our stories might be a little bit foreign, but still American."- Joey Min
So last week, we showcased two Lady films from the Art School Dropouts team.
It's amazing that there is so much talent out there and with these short films, there's a glimpse into the future of action cinema, be it; future stars, directors or storylines.
So, Terracotta had a chat with the films heroine, Stephanie Pham and director Joey Min, about the Lady character, female representation in action films, who Art School Dropouts collective are, inspiration and who'd they like to work with.
Who are Stephanie Pham and Joey Min?
Joey - I'm one of the heads of Art School Dropouts alongside Stephanie Pham! The original founder and handle all things creative. So, I write all the scripts, choreograph the fight scenes, and edit all of the projects. Stephanie handles the business and marketing and dabbles in the production planning to assist me.
So who is Lady? What's her story?
I watched Lady 2 first and by contrast to the first, you developed a really good story, It would make a great feature. What was the process like making both films and what did you learn?
Joey- Lady is Stephanie's concept, which would lean more towards a darker tone, than the light-hearted action comedy we usually do. The first “Lady” was more of a mood board than a fully realized pitch video, because even in our little Youtube channel, we still make pitch videos of concepts to see if things are worth pursuing, haha.
Lady 2, however, had more of a narrative to it, slowly building up the universe and lore of Lady. Despite all of that, Lady 2 wasn’t a satisfying result to us, both in production and final build. It was as if that short film should have never been made. Booked locations suddenly weren’t available for us the day of the shoot, despite months of scheduling in advance and last minute cast and crew changes, because of unprofessional people that litter the indie filmmaking scene.
Looking back, how do you feel about the films now?
- We’re proud of what we made as we learned how to deal with literal production-ending problems, haha. Definitely learned how to spot and prevent future problematic people. What’s amazing here though is that Stephanie managed to round up a new location, a new set of stunt guys, and actresses within a day. Steph is the true badass of this production!
As the director Joey, how do you go about choreographing your fight sequences? And where do you take your influences from?
Joey- I think in my very core, my influences have always been a mix of Lau Kar Leung for his heavy kung fu shapes, Yuen Woo Ping for the pacing and narrative elements in fight scenes, and Sammo Hung for modernizing quick-cut action.
What films sparked the initial ideas for you both? I want to say Michelle Yeoh in Yes Madam and In the Line of Duty and Cynthia Rothrock Any film from the late 80s - early 90s.
Joey- Films that influenced Lady? Hmm, that’s actually a hard question to really answer. While I think it’s easy to compare Yes, Madam heroines like Yeoh and Rothrock to Steph, simply because they are women, the direction wasn’t there at all. If anything, I wanted Lady to feel more like Rorschach from The Watchmen. The bleak, hard-boiled noir nature of the character and her world is a far contrast to Steph’s cheery persona...and both of us fell in love with that idea.
Steph- Lady is a character that I wanted to play with in terms of inspiration and testing different themes and ideas. I didn't want to limit ourselves with female lead films as inspiration, but all films. With Lady, I wanted to prove that we can have a female action lead without having to lean towards skimpy clothing or sex appeal.
Are there any plans to continue Lady, as a series or a feature film perhaps?
Joey- After making our third short, Lady From Nowhere, I believe there is a universe for us to explore; and while we did make a third Lady film, it wasn’t planned to be the actual “third” film in the series. The pandemic shut down that production before we even got to start...and it seems like Lady has dealt with a lot of obstacles both in story and production, haha.
There’s definitely something special in Lady’s future and we still have our “third” script in the vault so.....only time will tell :)
Steph- It seems like people are really interested in a longer film of Lady. Personally, I don't think there will ever be a feature film. And I am only saying this because I really enjoy the creativity we have with Lady and her world, using this character to test out more ideas. A feature film is just a tad hard for me to see, as I think the character is very stoic and cold and there isn't enough struggle for her to have a compelling and interesting story for a lead.
But that's for now, who knows what will change in the future.
You made it a point to say female lead action film. Would it be fair to say, you feel women are underrepresented in cinema or at least action films? And do you think it goes as far as ethnicity? So, Asian women in action films.
Steph- I think women are still underrepresented in films and especially action films, at least in mainstream cinema in the US. I think we have progressed over the years with characters like Black Widow, or films like Atomic Blonde. But honestly, I feel like there has been more hope in the East to portray badass women without relying on sex appeal. Back then, there was Angela Mao, Yukari Oshima, and Moon Lee just to name a few. In recent years, you have films like Furie. I would like to see that type of progression in the West for female leads, that are not reliant on a popular comic or sexual hype.
So, what do you think the differences are then, between western and eastern cinema in terms of culture and how they view women?
Steph- The West relies so much on sex appeal or already large existing franchises to really highlight women. Not to say that these films aren't good, I just feel that it is the "norm" when it comes to western cinema. It has created this notion in the minds of the audience that the men are the dominant leads that can carry a story in an action film and the women are often the silent, kickass sidekicks to these men or eye-candy, wearing the most ineffective outfits for combat.
Women empowerment can be defined in many ways and is different for every woman, but I think there are so many ways you can empower a woman. I just feel that most of the times, it is shown in one light and I am just calling for more variety.
Were you both born in the US or did you migrate? I ask, as I would like to know your views on the portrayal of East Asian people in western media. Therese Chen (Silver Harvest) said in Australia, Asians are underrepresented in the media. How do you feel the Asian Disapora are represented in the US?
Joey- I moved to America when I was around 12 and like a lot of people of color in the States, yes, I definitely think we’re under-represented. While the shift is happening and there are a lot more diverse roles for both Asian men and women, it will still take a bit of time for it to become the norm.
Steph- I was born and raised in the US, but yes, I feel like we are still underrepresented. In western media, we see a lot of the Asian stereotypes and actors being typecast. As an actress, I have been on a set where the director changed my character the day prior to shooting and asked if I can do a Chinese accent. I think it is also our responsibility as talent to stand our ground and help pave the way for future Asian talent. Needless to say, I told the director no. There have been some moves to better represent Asians, but I still think we have a long way to go.
If you are the majority, will representation always be will be biased? Interested to know your thoughts Joey as an Asian and director, because of the backlash about Minari being put into foreign language category at the Golden Globes. One could argue, its a very American film, in front and behind the camera.
Joey- Isn't that the problem, that immigrants are never perceived to be part of any home land? We aren't accepted as the standard for the new country we immigrated to, despite gaining citizenship or how long we've lived here, nor are we considered natives of our birth country, as we don't lived there anymore. The stories we try to write and create are for those who are for first to third generation immigrants; memories of the old country presented with the new. Our experiences are different, even while living in the same country. While I feel a certain way about the categorizing Minari as a Foreign Language Film, I 'somewhat' understand the ruling...even if it is a bit archaic.
I think it's a bit funny that in 2021, there are a lot of kids and older folk watching Korean Dramas and Japanese anime on Netflix, ordering South American dishes, then rocking out to K-Pop groups. I'd like to think that we're going towards a more accepting future but antiquated rules like, "American films should only be in English," draws a stark divided in the experiences of all citizens here in this country.
This questions is for Stephanie. What style of martial arts do you do and how long have you been studying? Also, what made you want to get into action films?
Steph- I have only studied Taekwon-do. I am a 4th Dan black belt in ITF Taekwon-do and competed quite a bit when I was younger. I started when I was 7 years old and really all due to my dad. He loves martial arts films, so he exposed me and my brother to a lot of films that we would get at a flea market. From watching so many of these films and wanting to become an actress after college, I naturally leaned more towards action films.
In an ideal world, who would you like to work with and why?
Since you mention Cynthia Rothrock earlier, we’d love to have her on board for a film one day! I think she still has the chops to throw down for a little bit of choreo and we’d love to have her in front of our lens! There is a lot of really great talent out there, that it would be hard to ask them to take part in our silly Youtube videos. We’re honestly down to work with a lot of the great talent over in the US, West Coast, if they are so willing, but we’ll see! Not to mention the amazing work that we’ve seen on the other side of the globe from Singapore to Australia! Lots of talent out there and we’d be honoured to work with the lot of them!
Any other films or shorts our audience should know about? Be it your own productions, friends or someone else's.
Steph- Oh boy! Well, we have a ton of sketches, short films and web series on our YouTube channel, Art School Dropouts. Just to name a few...
We have our feature film, My Asian Auntie: Yes, Auntie! A true thank you to our fans who have been asking for another season of Auntie.
We have our Nerf Assassin web series full of nerf gun action comedy.
And a ton of others like Hand.Gun and The Forgotten Kingdom: A Kung Fu LARP Story.
We had 2 In-House Grindhouse Short Film Showcase events featuring short films from content creators around the world. In total, we had over 60 films submitted and I recommend any and all of those creators and directors.
People can find you how?