Memoirs of a Superfan Volume 13.12: “For Izzy” – an interview

Life doesn’t have to be perfect for us to make the best of it, after all!

CAAM co-presented Alexander Chu’s For Izzy at Frameline this year. For Izzy is screening Friday, August 3rd in NYC at the Asian American International Film Festival. In the film, the daughters of two single parents struggle with mental health issues (one likely has Autism spectrum or sensory issues, and the other has issues with addiction). All the characters come to the table with relational needs and issues. The daughters also spit spoken word verse! Somehow, they make it all work. Life doesn’t have to be perfect for us to make the best of it, after all!

I chatted with director/writer Alex Chu, and actors/producers Jennifer Soo, Michelle Ang and Jim Lau were able to have the following exchange in an online Q&A.

—Ravi Chandra

I so loved this film—you bring together themes of family, relationship and mental health so well. Tell us about how the ideas for your movie came to be.

Alex Chu: Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it! The seed for this film started over bowls of ramen when Jenny Soo and I were just catching up and talking about wanting to work together again along with both Elizabeth Sung and Jim Lau (all three were lead actors on a previous feature I had directed). I have character sketches and snippets of story ideas that I jot down and accumulate, most of which is based on composites of my own experiences and those whom I know and/or have observed – and FOR IZZY came about from that place of piecing together elements that were compelling. Michelle Ang came on board shortly thereafter when we were looking for an actor to play Dede. And it was from there that the story emerged organically. You mentioned how relationships are important to the film, and it’s those very relationships that I have with actors that helped shape the story as well, as I would have them over at my place to read through various iterations of the script (in all, we went through about ten revisions).

Alex, I complimented you at the Frameline Q&A for making such a warm, positive film in such dark times. You replied that the film is a contrast to your own pessimistic bent, that you wanted to provide a sense of love and connection in your film. Where does your own pessimism come from, and how was your film a means of working through that pessimism?

AC: I was developing the script in 2015-16, and we shot it in the summer of 2016—well before we knew or anticipated how dark our current environment would become. The warmth, connection and union of these broken characters to form a family was for me coming from more of a personal place rather than a direct counterpoint to our current time of seeing families being ripped apart. As for pessimism, I’ve naturally gravitated towards pessimism for some reason ever since I could remember. But through that, I’ve learned to be vigilant about the difference between pessimism and cynicism. A pessimist will see it through, while a cynic will give up or not bother trying at all. And especially in this time and place, there isn’t a lot to be optimistic about – but that doesn’t mean one should give up either. When you’re feeling down or pessimistic, you’re looking for something to uplift you, not to make you feel worse! So for me that’s what draws me in creatively, and the timing of the film seems to serve as a counterpoint to what’s going on today—we want to see the best in other people, and that’s what the film is ultimately about.

The common ingredient in all the characters is this quality of “overwhelm.”  One of the favorite concepts I learned in my Compassion Cultivation Teachers’ Training was that we all have a comfort zone, surrounded by a growth zone, surrounded by an overwhelm zone when we are triggered to a point of frustration and emotional and cognitive overload.. When any of us gets into overwhelm, we need to rein it back in to comfort and hopefully growth as well. Perhaps each of you could comment on this in the context of how you understood your characters and the overall narrative.

Jennifer Soo: This is a really interesting idea! As you mentioned, the overwhelm zone is pretty clear with Laura. I’m an introvert, and I’m probably more sensitive to high stimuli environments and stress than most, so that was something that I immediately latched onto quickly with Laura. However, what I didn’t expect was what you identified as the growth zone. I consider myself a fairly independent, and at times stubborn, individual, but at the same time, I grew up the baby of the family. So there has always been a push and pull between wanting to make my own way, but also a fear of stepping out on my own. While playing Laura, this push-pull became a crucial part of her story-line. I have a very specific memory of setting up in between takes for the dinner scene where someone was telling me exactly what I should do, and I felt this strong internal resentment that surprised me. It was the end of a long day and a long week, but when I was processing it later, I realized that a lot of it had to do with the fact that Laura is constantly being treated like a child, and she’s not. That frustration is something I related to on a deep level that I didn’t clock at all during pre-production. And all of a sudden, a lot of things fell into place for me. The stakes of her friendship with Dede, the nuances of her relationship to Dede, and the entire back end of the film were all realized in a deeper, connected way.

Jim Lau: I like that term “overwhelm.” For Peter, the accountant who has a daughter with autism which needs special care, stability is probably his favorite word while seclusion and routine are the elements which form his comfort zone.  Change, although inevitable, is not a good thing to Peter. In fact, it represents a threat, which is something he fears and would be overwhelmed by. Hence, his protectiveness for Laura as a father and as a sole guardian is obvious but the fact that he’s also guarding for himself is perhaps less clear. His biggest problem, however, lies underneath the loneliness within himself.  And when Ana came in to his life, he was facing a different kind of challenge in which change, not only is inevitable, is required. This time, he’s also overwhelmed by joy from a new relationship and a romance which may complicates his comfort zone.

Michelle Ang: I like the concentric spectrum of emotion illustrated in this theory. I think Dede is perhaps opposite to both Peter and Laura in that she constantly lives in the overwhelm zone, but copes with it by self “medicating.” She’s never hesitant to push herself and her boundaries but the reason she does that is that she’s seeking to find some external comfort instead of perhaps going inward and finding her inner comfort zone with herself as as the source. I also love the dynamic between Dede and Laura where Dede really encourages Laura to step past comfort zones in order to grow- and the process of doing that allow Dede the sanctuary of healthy growth too.

AC: From my standpoint it’s more of a story craft issue—stories, particularly feature films tend to be about characters at a major turning point in their lives, and/or when they face crises (external or internal). It’s putting them in peril or maximizing the stakes for the characters, and for the audience to see how they respond (the characters either grow into a new person, or they regress further backwards) – that’s the heart of narrative drama. As unconventional as the film may be in terms of structure, visual styles and so forth – this is one principle of storytelling that I tend to abide by when developing stories. As for what those stakes are for the characters, that’s a function of the characters themselves —which as a writer/storyteller comes down to how well you know the characters you’ve developed, and how dimensional they are. And if you’ve developed the characters with enough depth, the characters themselves can whisper what they are most afraid of, and as a storyteller you then make them face those fears for the audience to see!

Jennifer, Michelle and Jim, how did you come to understand your characters’ lives and emotions? Particularly relating to spectrum disorders and addiction, and also how families cope?

JL: Having a friend with a Down Syndrome child helped a lot. I’ve always noticed parents of children who needs special care are special people themselves. They have to be tough and kind at the same time. They also have to have some kind of special quality—such as patience, endurance, attentiveness, tenacity, and strength—if not a bodhisattva like compassion in order to become a parent of children who needs special care. Going back to your question of how to understand our character’s lives and emotions, I have to salute and take my hat off to both Jenny and Michelle who really did their things as their characters would seem to require a lot more detailed study as compared to mine. I’ll let them continue.

JS: I took a deep dive into research. I watched a bunch of docs including How to Dance in Ohio and Autism in Love. I read books like Neurotribes and Look Me in the Eye. I connected with some local communities like F.A.C.T., The Miracle Project, and Exceptional minds. I was also able to interview a number of people who work with young people on the spectrum, as well as a couple of really generous, wonderful young women on the spectrum. In parallel to research, I poured over the script very carefully in order to understand and fill in the gaps of who Laura was as an individual, what drove her, what scared her. I didn’t want the character to be defined by the label of autism, so I wanted to make sure that I was bringing a lot of myself to the role. A lot of Laura’s idiosyncrasies and tics are actually amplified versions of my own.

MA: I watched an episode of This is Life by Lisa Ling; it highlighted the closeted epidemic of prescription pill addiction, particularly in the US. I was shocked to learn how mainstream it was and how much of a “middle class problem” it was. Ohio had the highest rates of addiction due to the heavily Christian religious background, making it difficult for sufferers to share their plight without being judged. I’m from New Zealand, so this idea of lackadaisical prescribing or aftercare was a very new concept for me. I think right from the get-go, we wanted to make sure this wasn’t some glamorized Hollywood story of an addict, so this new understanding of how people succumb to addiction through almost no real fault of their own was important for me to not judge Dede. And then of course, the hard road of recovery. I sat in on NA meetings and ALANON meetings to understand what the real-life experiences were like. It’s so easy to find Dede intolerable, but once you really understand how strong addiction can be, you realize how quickly the true integrity of a person can be overwhelmed by this stronger urge. It made me really sympathize with Anna a lot too, understanding how much hurt can be caused when you love someone who, in many ways, doesn’t love themselves enough to fight the demon of addiction.

Thanks, Jenny—I really appreciate that concept that people who have an identified ‘disorder’ are really expressing variations on what we all experience. The idea of neurodiversity is important, and of course, that everyone has something to offer no matter their obstacles—if we can only understand ourselves and each other better! And Michelle—I really appreciate how your coming to this role as a “Kiwi” allowed you insight into American culture. Fear of judgment might affect those addicted—and an overly moralistic view of the problem might lead prescribers to care less about the effects of overprescription or poor monitoring. Interesting to think about how belief systems might affect our many crises…Jim—allowing ourselves to be affected by suffering is really powerful and transformative. Resistance to emotion and feeling must play a role in the perpetuation of so many problems…

I really loved your film because I see in my practice (and life) the downstream effects of not having love and connection—I think we can all relate to that. What’s really so profound for me is that everyone basically has to slow down to take care of Laura, who not only gets overwhelmed (into paranoid, practically psychotic and hostile states) very easily when she gets triggered (she doesn’t get her way, or feels unsafe, untethered, disconnected or sensorily overwhelmed). But they do slow down, eventually, and make all the right turns when they could have made left turns. SUSANELAND at CAAMFest was filled with examples of left turns, so your films form a natural dialectic, actually. Also, Laura really pushes everyone to focus on the one thing that’s most important to her: relationship!  How has FOR IZZY shaped how you approach “overwhelm zones” in yourself and relationship with others?

AC: As for Susaneland (which I saw at LAAPFF and loved!) I think it’s also a matter of tone and genre. Humor can more often be found in imagining the worst possible response a character could have – and then taking it just a step further that it becomes absurd (the behavior is so wrong but still rooted in emotional truth). Do that too much in a drama (but dialing the outlandishness back a notch), and it quickly becomes grim enough to be a tragedy – which is certainly a creative choice, but not what this film is about. For a drama to have some redemptive tone, you want the characters to struggle, but to struggle to do the right thing, especially if that’s what the characters seem to be pointing towards. This again comes down to story craft – the kinds of levers you have at your disposal to tell the kind of story you want to tell (or to figure out how you want the audience to feel).  To me, storytelling and filmmaking can be deeply personal by taking elements of my own inner life and personal experiences and then transposing it onto characters, but through the lens of narrative – without story craft, it then just becomes a personal journal, or a therapy session (which are fine in their own right, but not the same as storytelling anymore than anguish over a painful breakup is synonymous with a great love song).

JS: Playing Laura, for me, often meant taking off the public filter or mask that we all learn to put on from a young age. Even physically, I felt like Laura would not wear any sort of makeup and would be fairly practical in nature on hair and clothing. I consider myself a fairly simple, low maintenance person, and I also consider myself someone who is sensitive and not afraid of that quality. But, I was surprised at how uncomfortable I was initially at how naked I felt playing Laura. I didn’t realize how much I rely on these created images of charm and humor, taking them away was extremely vulnerable. Sorry—not totally related to your question!

MA: I was drawn to play Dede because I’m a fairly passive person in real life. That is to say, I’m highly tuned to other people’s comfort and am extremely wary of pushing them out of it- even if it would benefit them!! E.g You HAVE to come to my place. I’ll cook you dinner, it’ll be FUN. So it was attractive to live in that zone whilst wearing Dede, and it really felt different. This freedom to turn down the sensitivity to others a bit, to say exactly what was on your mind. I sometimes had to double hat as a producer during the shoot and i’m certain this quality proved useful. I’d like to think it has rubbed off and I’m now able to continue to turn this on/off in real life… but that’s not the case. I’ll have to wait for something like Age to return that power to me hehe.

JL: This has been such a fascinating experience for me personally on so many levels. I don’t know what I did to deserve such a fortune to be in almost all of Alex’s film as this is my fourth collaboration with him. I’m also overwhelmed I’m working with three of the best Asian actresses who not only know their crafts and make my job easy but are beautiful human beings. I feel very comfortable in life as well as in character with them and I feel I really know these people. it doesn’t matter whether I’m talking to Jenny the actress or Laura the daughter, Michelle or Dede, Elizabeth or Ana. They are one and they make me feel I’m one of them. I don’t know whether I make any sense or not. But I do know we’re connected by something much deeper—it’s hard to pinpoint but we do trust, respect, and admire each other! Good stuff!

Alex, I think your concept of narrative is important—even for therapy. All therapists have to be narrative therapists—but movies such as yours help us all see past the surface into private, interior and family moments. Jenny, Michelle and Jim, I think it’s critical for all of us, especially in the world today, to “get naked”—and really consider the essence of our humanity – beyond surface appearances or political beliefs. But once you get there—how to encourage others to keep that space in consciousness? I think about that a lot. Maybe film and art like yours can help do that—just help people experience humanity and emotion and think a bit more deeply. As well as have their hearts warmed in a masterful way! Thank you all so much!

AC: Thank you for giving us the opportunity to talk with you!

JS: Thank you for watching our film and continuing the conversation with a larger audience!

MA: Thanks for posing such interesting and insightful questions and for sharing our film to new communities! Hope the word spreads and we can share FOR IZZY with more people soon.

JL: Yes, Thank you. I like what it says on your (personal) card: “The only instruction is kindness.” You are very kind indeed!

Aww, thanks. Our true selves are kind, I believe. It’s all too easy for us to get derailed, though, if we don’t get the right nurture—or we get “overwhelmed.” Thanks for nurturing your audience with your work!

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Note: Elizabeth Sung, who played Anna Cheung in the film, passed away in May. Read Alex’s tribute to Sung, a prominent actor and really wonderful person, on the film’s website. Visual Communications has set up a memorial scholarship in her honor.

Ravi Chandra, M.D. is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His full-length nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won the 2017 Nautilus Silver Book Award for Religion/Spirituality of Eastern Thought. He just found out Thich Nhat Hanh won the Gold – so he can’t really complain. His photography/poetry project “36 Views of San Francisco” will debut August 6th. His latest longform essay on gun psychology, Guns Are Not Our God! The NRA Is Not Our Church! is available now. He also leads compassion and self-compassion workshops. More MOSF posts can be found here. You can sign up for his occasional newsletter, or follow him on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram.