Sunday, April 8, 2012

Q&A with 'Keye Luke' Director Timothy Tau

Feodor Chin as Keye Luke
A new short film about the life of pioneering Asian American Actor and Artist Keye Luke will premiere at this year's Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival.

Directed, Produced and Edited by Timothy Tau from a screenplay which I co-wrote, Keye Luke will be presented as part of a shorts program that combines projects from UCLA's Video Ethnography Workshop and Visual Communications' Armed with a Camera Fellowship for Emerging Media Artists. Keye Luke was an Armed with a Camera Fellowship film.   

Click here to see the trailer on Vimeo.

Fans of old Hollywood and the Black and White Film Noir era will best remember Keye Luke as playing the original Kato in the 1940s Green Hornet film serials and his role as "Number One Son," Lee Chan, in the 1930s-40s Charlie Chan films.

However, Luke was also the star of numerous films including Phantom of Chinatown (1940) as Detective James Lee Wong, Agent Ah-Fong in Universal’s Secret Agent X-9 (1945), Captain Wing in The Adventures of Smilin’ Jack (1942), Surgeon Lee Wong Howe in MGM’s Dr. Gillespie (1942), and as Tal Shan in Universal’s Lost City of The Jungle (1946) .

He was also one of the early members of Hollywood's Screen Actors Guild (SAG) after working on numerous films in the 1930s including The Painted Veil (1934) with Greta Garbo.  When SAG started publishing its own magazine, Luke was asked to help out by providing caricatures of other actors for some of the very first issues.

Luke would go on to later act in over 100+ TV shows and films, including Miami Vice, M*A*S*H, Perry Mason, Dragnet, Hawaii Five-O, Kung Fu (as the blind Master Po), Charlie’s Angels, Magnum P.I., Remington Steele, T.J. Hooker, The A-Team, The Gremlins movies (playing shop-keeper Mr. Wing), and his final film was Woody Allen’s 1990 Alice (where he played Dr. Yang).

He also contributed his voice talents to a number of animated shows including Space Ghost (voice of Brak), The Chipmunks, Jonny Quest, Scooby-Doo, and his early work in the Charlie Chan films came full circle when he  finally voiced Charlie Chan in the 1972 animated series The Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (which also featured the voice talents of Jodie Foster as one of the Chan kids).


Keye Luke screens on Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 7:00 PM as part of the festival's “VC Digital Posse, Ver. 2012” Shorts Program at the Directors Guild of America.  

Tickets go on sale, Friday, April 13th, for more info, visit the website at: http://laapff.festpro.com/films/detail/keye_luke_2012

I recently had a discussion with the film's Director Timothy Tau about his inspiration to bring Keye Luke's story to modern audiences .  (Edited and modified).

Ed Moy:  So the first time I had Keye Luke film script conversations or exchanges was with filmmaker Arthur Dong and actor Howard Fong, who is related to actor Benson Fong, one of the original Chan sons. It was May 24 2008; I had just gone to the Hollywood Chinese documentary film press conference and met them the week before.  

But I think the first time that I contacted you about Keye Luke was around 1/11/11.  I was down in L.A. doing some Hollywoodland headshot pics and we got an exchange going about your black and white short film The Case and 1950s Film Noir -- and then I sent you my Keye Luke script, which had been sitting around since 2009... at several points in between I had tried to get other producers and directors interested and had thought about directing it myself...  as I recall we had a few discussions and exchanged a lot of emails but then we both kind of went off to different projects until early 2012 when you picked up the Keye Luke script again.

Timothy Tau:   Actually, Keye Luke was always in the back of my mind ever since you first sent me the script...to be exact.  I expanded the idea into a bigger feature involving not just Keye Luke, but also other luminaries of his generation, including Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn - the film would revolve around these four as the main “Pioneers”...and that idea was the treatment I submitted to the Visual Communications "Armed With A Camera" Fellowship program, when they were taking submissions.  They initially rejected me because it was "too ambitious" or "way too much to cover in 5 minutes"...but then some of the fellows dropped out, and they gave me a call, asking me if I'd be interested...my idea was still, at the time, a 5 minute film about Keye Luke, Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong and Philip Ahn...way too broad and a lot of material to cover in 5 minutes... it was possible...but it would definitely looked rushed. I was also talking to other Actors who I envisioned in these roles like Brian Tee, Michelle Krusiec, Randall Park and Lanny Joon, but I really thought a five minute film would not fully do the story about these pioneers justice. So, I decided then to re-focus the idea back into Keye Luke and your original script/idea...just focus in on Keye Luke’s “world” and the people in his life (his family and the Actors he collaborated with) and tell his story. This all came about at the end of last year, 2011 (when I was notified about getting a VC “Armed With The Camera” Fellowship) and then at the beginning of 2012, I started working on the film.

Ed Moy:  So VC selecting you for the Armed with a Camera Fellowship was actually as a replacement. Wow!  This project might not have happened if those other fellows didn't drop out?  I do remember getting those emails late last year, too. I bet when The Artist won several Oscars that might have been a big inspiration too, right?

Timothy Tau as James Wong Howe in "Keye Luke"
Timothy Tau:  Yeah...definitely am trying to ride the wave of The Artist, which has brought back the whole stylishness of Hollywood’s “Golden Age”...but I think you came up with the idea years before The Artist, and we were talking about the idea years before The Artist as well...and also, Tim Burton’s 1995 film Ed Wood was a big inspiration...Ed Wood’s style (as a Director) was also a big influence on a previous short film I did, The Case, which was additionally shot in Black & White and a homage to different cinematic styles, but however set in the future.

Ed Moy:  True... I recall we discussed Ed Wood when you made The Case.  I even had some ideas about doing a feature version of Keye Luke in which the Warner Oland character would be like Bela Legosi's in Ed Wood.

Timothy Tau: That would be a great idea. I also wanted to show truthfully the story of these Actors, not to judge or critique or understand, but just to show. With The Case, I just have this obsession with lensing Asian American Actors in black and white, because usually you don’t see them in this way, maybe because you don’t normally associate “historical period pieces” or B&W pieces with Asian American Actors. But in the 1930s-40s, the Charlie Chan films were really the first opportunities for Asian American Actors to play who they really were, Asian Americans sons and daughters - instead of inscrutable, exoticized villains, or pidgin-speaking servants. And although today you may think that Warner Oland and Sidney Toler playing Charlie Chan in "Yellowface" might be offensive or racist, the Asian American Actors back then I don’t think really cared as much and they were just grateful to get the roles. The Charlie Chan films were immensely popular and successful...there are many interviews where Keye Luke shows his outright support of the films especially in spite of the “Yellowface”, just because they had such a great reach, really across all age/race boundaries and so on, just extremely popular films. Luke’s character, the “Number One Son” Lee Chan was also a very, very American character, you would see scenes of him wearing a college sweatshirt with his friends or competing in American swim meets, stuff like that. I think this was a “first” for Hollywood also in that Asian Americans actually portrayed 100%  authentic Americans speaking accent-less American English, and were not “foreigners” or “the other.”

Ed Moy:  Especially, during World War II when Keye played heroic Asian characters that supported the Americans rather than playing one of the villainous Japanese characters that filled the majority of war films. I think, Keye mentions it in an interview somewhere that he was proud to have played mostly positive Asian characters, which is the opposite of actor Richard Loo’s career.  Loo had stern facial features and was often cast as vicious Japanese soldiers in pictures like The Purple Heart (1944) and God Is My Co-Pilot (1945) and later played similar typecast stock characters on TV....  Actually, before I came up with the idea for a Keye Luke film, I had been shopping around the story of Hazel Ying Lee, who was one of the first Asian American women to fly planes for the U.S. Military during World War II.   I had pitched the idea around after seeing the documentary film about Hazel’s life, A Brief Flight, but had only passing interest.  I found some producers felt “period-piece” films were a hard sell.  Eventually, actress Julia Ling, who played Anna Wu on the TV show Chuck, expressed interest in optioning that story.   Nothing has happened with the Hazel Ying Lee project since, but with the recent success of the Oscar award-winning film The Artist and the release of George Lucas’ Red Tails,  I think interest in old Hollywood and period-piece films has increased and we were very fortunate that the Keye Luke project got this opportunity through Visual Communications at the right time.

Archie Kao, Burl Moseley, Robert Factor, Becky Wu, Hedy Wong
Timothy Tau: That sounds like an awesome idea, and yeah, I agree. Also, Keye Luke was sort of unique in that he played heroic roles, “good guys”, sidekicks, lawyers, doctors, secret agents, detectives - whereas MANY of his colleagues and other Asian American Actors (including Sessue Hayakawa, Anna May Wong, Philip Ahn , and Richard Loo, like you mentioned) were stuck with playing the “Oriental Villain” / “The Yellow Peril” - mainly Japanese Villains during the WWII era. I think Anna May Wong even played Fu Manchu’s daughter at one point. In the film, Keye Luke, I try to cover his heroic roles - the “Number One Son” in the Charlie Chan films, Kato in the 1940s “Green Hornet”, Agent Ah-Fong in Secret Agent X-9 (1945), and Detective James Lee Wong in Phantom of Chinatown (1940). Also in Phantom, Luke was also the first Asian American Actor to play the typically White-Actor-in-Yellow-Face role of “Mr. Wong” (often referred to as the “Mysterious Mr, Wong” - usually played by Boris Karloff). This, as noted by sources like ThrillingDetective.com, was definitely a Hollywood first and a rarity, although that was the last Mr. Wong film ever made.  For more about James Lee Wong see www.thrillingdetective.com/wong.html

Ed Moy:  Tell us about your casting choices for Keye Luke.  You chose to cast Feodor Chin as Keye. I think he was a great choice. He has a terrific voice much like Keye Luke.

Timothy Tau: Yeah, Feo was always on my mind as the perfect person to play Keye Luke. He just has a very American quality about him, can’t really describe it, almost a very 1950s classy American aura to him, and is probably one of the most eloquent son-of-a-guns I’ve ever heard talk.  He also has great strengths in both comedic and dramatic acting and does in fact have a “golden voice” like you mentioned, e.g., he does do a lot of audiobooks and actually recently did one about Jeremy Lin, around the time we were doing the ADR for the film. This also worked for Keye Luke because Luke also had a great, articulate voice (an accent-less American voice from an Asian American Actor being even more of a rarity back then) and did a lot of voice work for cartoons like Space Ghost (he voiced Brak), the Amazing Chan and the Chan Clan (voicing Charlie Chan), Scooby Doo, Jonny Quest, you name it.

Feodor Chin, Archie Kao and Kelvin Han Yee in "Keye Luke"
Ed Moy:  You also added the characters of Keye’s brother Edwin, his father Lee and their family dog, who I didn’t have in my original first draft version of the script.

Timothy Tau: That’s right. Edwin Luke, who is played by recurring collaborator Archie Kao, is sort of an extrapolation, but Edwin was also an Actor and had a role as the bookworm-ish “Number Four Son” Eddie Chan in the Charlie Chan films as well. Archie definitely knocked that comedic role out of the park, and I had to step out of the room several times, afraid I was about to laugh too hard and mess up the sound. There is just this great “unspoken subtext” of Keye Luke never mentioning his brother Edwin in any of his interviews or acceptance speeches, so I created this underlying current of competitiveness (could be fictionalized, could be real) between the two brothers that you definitely see in the film - sort of an unspoken sibling rivalry.

Lee Luke also was an authentic character, a real person, and I thought Kelvin Han Yee would be the ideal person to play that role. 

Actually, I had to do quite a bit of research to actually find out what Keye Luke’s father’s first name really was. I wanted to make the character as AMERICANIZED as possible - he is an Artist who owns an Art Shop in Seattle but also lived in San Francisco for a long time. He is a foreigner, but at the same time, he is trying to do everything he can to fit in and adapt to American culture. In other words, I didn’t want him or anyone else in the Luke family to speak any Chinese or act like traditional Chinese people, I wanted them to act AMERICAN as possible. And Kelvin definitely does that, and more.

I also hope I do recurring scenes with brothers, fathers and sons, because that is the type of family environment I come from (I have a younger brother and come from a family with a pretty dominant father), so expect that to show up in my later work as well - I guess some of this showed up in that one scene with Feo, Archie and Kelvin.

Louie Han Yee, Kelvin Han Yee’s Bulldog, I wanted to add because Louie is such a great, natural Actor. Very well-behaved as well and would stay still in his spot for all of the takes. Kelvin came up with his nickname “Guai Low” on set (referencing the fact that he is a “white” Bulldog) and I thought that was brilliant. Also, this is a partial tongue-in-cheek reference to The Artist’s “Uggy” although we all know Louie is way more talented and that Uggy rides his coattails.

Kelvin Han Yee and Louie in "Keye Luke"
Ed Moy:  That’s hilarious. I love the Luke family dog’s name. You also made further changes to my original version of the script with the addition of the Benson Fong character played by David Huynh.

Timothy Tau: That’s right. I thought David Huynh would be perfect for Benson Fong, because both Actors embody that younger look and might be typecast for younger roles for that reason, but both have the phenomenal talent to play a wide, diverse range of different roles. So Benson Fong plays the Number Three Son, Tommy Chan, in the film (who has a competitive relationship with the Number Two Daughter, played by Marianne Quon, but I decided to swap Archie’s character in for that role). There is a very comical scene that Feo, Dave and Britt improvised that I wanted to keep in, its going to be in the extended cut for sure. Feo and Dave also have a working relationship from Juwan Chung’s Award-Winning film “Baby” (2008), where Feo and Dave play arch-enemies, and which Dave also won a Jury Prize for “Best Emerging Actor” at the 2007 LAAPFF. Both of them also show up in my Web Series, “Quantum Cops” which we just wrapped the pilot for.

Also, Benson Fong plays the Japanese “Mad Scientist” character, Dr. Hakahima in Secret Agent X-9 (1945), a segment featured towards the end of the film, but the character in my piece is sort of a hyperbole (the real role in the film was much more subtle and sort of duller). Dave took it all the way though (maybe assisted by the fact that the bartender at the bar we shot at was freakin’ pouring all these free drinks to the cast members), and I’m glad he did.

Ed Moy:  I love that you had the actors improvise and make the characters more fun to watch.  Tell us about the numerous female roles you added to the film.  I didn’t have many females written into the original script, but you found a way to add a bevy of wonderful Actresses including Elaine Kao, Mei Melancon, Jennifer Chang, Becky Wu, Hedy Wong, Jennifer Field, Jolene Kim, Narisa Suzuki, Cyndee San Luis, Jessika Van and Ina-Alice Kopp to the film.

Timothy Tau: Ah yes! The women of “Keye Luke.” Amazing, super-talented, drop dead gorgeous and also brilliant Actors. Let’s maybe cover them and their roles in order here.

Elaine Kao (who you’ll remember from Bridesmaids as part of the couple that walks into Kristen Wiig’s jewelry store) is an amazing Actress, and her role is Marianne Quon, who is also known as “The Technicolor Movie Queen of Hong Kong” / Lai Yee because after her brief career in the States, she went on to be the Actress that made the most color films in HK. Definitely one of those fascinating figures you find in your research, and I wanted to focus more on her character (maybe in a separate film). She played the Number Two Daughter, who has this ongoing competitive relationship with the Number Three Son (Benson Fong), but I swapped him out for the Number Four Son (Edwin Luke - Archie Kao). I thought it’d just be interesting if both the Kaos (no relation) played on-screen brother and sister and wanted to see how that would play out. It played out well, and humorously.

Mei Melancon in "Keye Luke"
Mei Melancon (Psylocke from X-Men: The Last Stand, Jamie Chen in “The L Word,” Dr. Catherine Ivy from “Pathology” and the other “Girl In Car” alongside Maggie Q in “Rush Hour 2”) is not just an amazing Actress but also a very talented Artist overall (she also Directs and Writes). She really nailed the role of “Lotus Long”, really performed a detailed study of Lotus Long’s work, did in-depth study and analysis, and truly immersed herself into the role, plus the amazing Wardrobe from Bao Tranchi just took it the extra mile to make it truly authentic. There are side-by-side screen shots where I compare Lotus Long with Mei Melancon and the resemblance is just UNCANNY. I knew Mei was perfect for the role because both Lotus Long and her share mixed Japanese ancestry (Lotus Long changed her surname to avoid internment, she is actually of mixed Japanese and Hawaiian descent, not Chinese descent). Also, what’s crazy is that Mei told me the role that really inspired her to get into acting was wanting to play the role of “Tokyo Rose” (Iva Toguri). Turns out that Lotus Long was the ONLY Actress to ever actually play Tokyo Rose in the film Tokyo Rose (1946) (Keye Luke was also in that film as Charlie Otani). Just one of those moments that sends chills up your spine on how DEAD-ON the casting is, and how maybe fate or destiny may be involved.

Jolene Kim plays “Suzanna Kim”, an Actress known for her roles in films like “The Good Earth” (that Keye Luke was also in) - there’s this great historical photograph of Keye Luke in glasses painting the bathing suit of Suzanna Kim (very easy to find online) - and I’ve always imagined some type of hidden subtext or undercurrent here, e.g., were they in a romantic relationship? What was going on? I think that was the scene you originally wrote about Keye Luke painting a star, but we just couldn’t paint on the suit so we had to improvise. George Shaw’s music here is also killer, and is just a very heart-wrenching piece.

Feodor Chin and Jolene Kim in "Keye Luke"
Jennifer Chang (who plays “Iris Wong”) is also another incredible Actress that is in a scene that is more or less a “historical recreation” (you can actually see the clip it was based on up on Youtube). She did an amazing job, and Toni Chiang (our Hair/Makeup Artist) did some amazing work with her hair, I think it defies gravity somehow, but it looks awesome. Her role (Iris Wong / Choy Wong in the Charlie Chan films) is actually a recurring love interest of the Number Two Son, Jimmy Chan (played by Victor Sen Yung, which James Huang plays and nails as well), and her rendition was really dead on. At the same time however, it was something new and fresh and modern. What both James and Jennifer (and also Robert) did with that scene was really great.

Becky Wu (you might have caught her on multiple recent episodes of ABC’s “Desperate Housewives” as “Amy Yamada”)  plays “Florence Ung,” the Actress who in turn plays the Number One Daughter, Ling. That role is also sort of an extrapolation/creation, because there is very little evidence in the Charlie Chan films to go off of. It is supposed to be sort of a maternal role because she is the eldest daughter (and the female equivalent of Keye Luke’s role) and Becky did an awesome job in creating that tone with the character as well as running with it. Hedy Wong is also in that scene, who I met on a project called “Chinatown Squad” about 1890 San Francisco Chinatown that Feo wrote. She plays “Frances Chan”, the spunky, younger sister of Ling, and brought exactly the energy I was looking for.

Cyndee San Luis I’ve collaborated with before on previous films (she was also in “The Case” as the Femme Fatale role). Her role as Lenore “Casey” Case (a coincidence that I did not plan), the secretary of Britt Reid / The Green Hornet (Gordon Jones, as played by Chris Cusano) is also somewhat of a creation, although partially inspired by Anne Nagel, who played the role in the 1940s version (Cameron Diaz played the role in the 2011 Rogen/Chou/Gondry version and Wende Wagner played the role in the 1966-67 Van Williams/Bruce Lee version). The hair from Toni Chiang was also amazing, and the set-up I had - the two thugs holding Cyndee hostage - was very similar to “The Case”, you might even say it was the 1940s version of that scenario I had in “The Case.”

Cyndee San Luis with Mark Armes and Devin Finch in "Keye Luke"
Ed Moy:   You also have Jessika Van, who is an Asian American Actress playing a White Actress playing an Asian role in the film within a film, Secret Agent X-9 sequence, which was a great addition on your part.

Timothy Tau:  Yeah, I’ll talk about the Actresses in the Secret Agent X-9 (1945) section now: Jessika Van, Narisa Suzuki, Jennifer Field and Ina-Alice Kopp. Jessika’s role is interesting. So in Secret Agent X-9, a White Actress / legendary Character Actor named Victoria Horne plays Nabura, this Japanese Spy that is the main villain. But I didn’t think that was interesting enough, and the role to me was pretty bland, so Jessika Van’s rendition is definitely my “take” on that role, filtered through my own lens/cinematic influences - an eye-patch wearing villain like Dr. Acula from “The Case” or Elle Driver from Tarantino’s “Kill Bill” - there’s an action scene that will probably be in the extended version where she gets to man a Tommy Gun. But, yeah, it’s interesting because Jessika is an Asian American Actress playing my take of a White Actress playing an Asian role in a 1945 film updated to my contemporary cinematic sensibilities, so sort of layered in that many fourth walls were broken.

Narisa Suzuki is also a stellar Actress (she was saying no-one has ever cast her as a “bad guy”/villain role but she plays it so well) and her role is also an interesting one because in Secret Agent X-9, her role, Takahari, is actually played by a dude, Clarence Lung. I thought it’d be more interesting to have an Actress play it and add some visual zing to it (thanks to Bao Tranchi’s awesome Wardrobe designs). She also speaks an authentic line of Japanese in the film, which I wanted, because this final scene is also my interpretation of Secret Agent X-9 through the lens of Seijin Suzuki and his Yakuza/gangster/crime pictures...and no accident that she also shares the last name of one of the Director Gods I worship.

Jessika Van, Narisa Suzuki, Jennifer Field and David Huynh
Feo came up to me while we were shooting (after looking at Jessika/Narisa’s outfits) and said to me something like “forget Ed Wood being an influence on you, I think Russ Meyers is.” Russ Meyers of course being the legendary Filmmaker known for awesome, sexualized exploitation flicks like “Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!” that feature strong but also sexy leading women characters. I think he was right.

Jennifer Field (who is actually of mixed Korean Ancestry and the Hapa character on “K-Town Reality Show”) is also a brilliant, kick-ass Actress that plays a lot of roles that capitalize on her stunning good-looks, so I just wanted her to play a nerded-up 1940s scientist. The role (Dr. Raymond) is mentioned and discussed in the film (basically the person that knows the secrets to Element 722) but never appears, so I thought it’d make things more interesting to have sort of a hostage situation where she is being held captive.

Finally, frequent collaborator Ina-Alice Kopp plays Jan Wiley, who in turn plays Agent Lynn Moore in Secret Agent X-9 - a blonde actually, while Ina is a brunette. Sort of a very stylish “hero’s entrance” she is in, alongside Chadd Stoops (Danny Turner from "Surrogate Valentine" and its sequel, "Daylight Savings") and Feo, who is Keye Luke playing Agent Ah-Fong in the film. In the extended version, there will be more Action scenes where you will definitely see more of these great Actors.

Ed Moy:  Another major change to the original script was the addition of Burl Moseley in the role of Mantan Moreland (who played the Chan’s chauffeur Birmingham Brown) with Britt Prentice as Warner Oland (who also played Babe Ruth in an episode of Wizards of Waverly Place) and Robert Factor as Sidney Toler (who replaced Oland as Charlie Chan in the later films).  Tell us how you were able to cast these iconic roles?

Timothy Tau: Burl Moseley (who you may remember as Abo from 24) I think I first met at a play from Jennifer Chang’s theater company, Chalk Rep, and was just impressed by his major Acting talent. I thought he would be ideal for the role (which is sort of a polarizing “caricature”-like role sort of similar to Charlie Chan, with both fans and detractors, but a very historically interesting and iconic role as well). Burl brought a fresh interpretation to it, and also made it funny. The mystery music used throughout this scene composed by George Shaw works really well with the performances of Burl and the other Charlie Chan Actors, very moody, even Park Chan-Wook/Oldboy-esque, but historical at the same time, and George actually named the piece of music (“A Tough Case”)  after an improvised line Burl comes up with: “Boy, I tell you, this sure is a tough case.”

Britt Prentice (in addition to playing Babe Ruth was also recently in LMFAO’s “Sorry for Party Rocking” Music Video), I met on that historical 1890s Chinatown Squad Project I was telling you about earlier, and he is just so dead-on as Warner Oland it scares me. He also is able to find a way to add humor to his portrayal, and improvised some great lines I ended up using, so just some amazing work from him. Robert Factor I’ve met at previous Asian American Film Festivals, and he was solid as Sidney Toler. I think he has actually worked with a good number of these Actors before (e.g., Becky Wu in a short film called “Pleasures” Directed by Lillian Ng and that screened at a prior LAAPFF), so it’s great that they got the chance to work again on this film.

Feodor Chin and Chris Cusano in "Keye Luke"
Ed Moy:  I think your addition to the script of The Green Hornet sequence with Chris Cusano as Gordon Jones/Britt Reid aka The Green Hornet was brilliant.  You also cast Chadd Stoops (Secret Agent X-9 sequence) in the film.  Tell us about their roles and how they got involved in this project.

Timothy Tau: Chris Cusano, who plays Gordon Jones / Britt Reid / The Green Hornet I also met on the set of that 1890s Chinatown Squad project that Feo wrote. If you watch Feo’s Drama Reel (on Vimeo or online), there is a mustached cop at the very beginning who plays the main nemesis (or hero of the series, the leader of the Chinatown Cop Squad) to Feo’s Crime Boss character, Pistol Pete. The mustached cop is Chris, and I thought it would have been interesting for them to play allies (as The Green Hornet / Kato) instead of enemies in this film, as there were a lot of very intense face-offs and beat-downs in that historical Chinatown project that they both had to endure as arch-enemies.

Josh Murphy (Bennie Chicoban from “Quantum Cops” and also Burt Reynolds from Feo’s “Golden Boy”) I initially wanted to play the role because he has such great on-screen chemistry with Feo (and they were college buddies ever since UCLA), but he dropped out due to a scheduling conflict. In the extended version, I may have him play Warren Hull (the “second” Britt Reid / The Green Hornet) in the sequel to the 1939 serial film, “The Green Hornet Strikes Again” (1941), where Keye Luke still played Kato.


Chadd Stoops (probably the most hilarious part about Dave Boyle’s Award-Winning Indie film “Surrogate Valentine”) really does an incredible job as Lloyd Bridges / Secret Agent X-9. The role is sort of this exaggerated “Cliff Notes” summary version of the character, but at the same time, a very respectful homage, and Chadd did stellar work about balancing that and also added a nice, humorous touch. The lines we ended up deciding to use were also ad-libbed and improvised by Chadd, which was great.

Ina-Alice Kopp, Chadd Stoops and Feodor Chin
Ed Moy: One interesting casting choice you made was to put yourself in the film as James Wong Howe, the legendary Asian Cinematographer, who won two Academy Awards for The Rose Tattoo in 1956 and Hud in 1963.

Timothy Tau: Yeah, that part is sort of my veiled homage to what Scorsese did in “Hugo” (casting himself as a photographer or cinematographer back in the day). I also wanted to be James Wong Howe because back in those days, the 1940s, I think he was the closest thing you could get to an Asian American Director or Filmmaker. As a legendary Cinematographer, he basically did MAKE the films and his Vision was all over them, but I guess due to the racial politics at the time it may have been very difficult for him to actually Direct or be a Director. He did Direct some shorts and TV shows, but he is mainly known as a Cinematographer. I think at last year’s VC Fest (2011), they did a retrospective on some of his most notable films.

In the abridged version of the film, I take out any reference to James Wong Howe, so the character I play could be anyone really - maybe an Asian American Director/Cinematographer working in obscurity back in the 40s, or maybe me if I had a Time Machine to go back to the 40s, playing myself.

Ed Moy:  Probably the biggest change that occurred in the script from my version to your final film was the scene you added with Keye Luke, his wife Ethel Davis Luke and James Wong Howe taking their wedding pictures.  Although I had mentioned it to you in our pre-production script discussions when I first pitched the project to you, I was surprised to see you created a scene about them in the short film, especially given that Ethel was a Caucasian woman married to an Asian American man, which was as far as I know illegal during that time.

Elizabeth Sandy and Feodor Chin in "Keye Luke"
Timothy Tau: Yeah, Elizabeth Sandy (James Huang’s wife) was incredible, and plays Ethel Davis Luke in that one scene where I (as JWH) am taking wedding photos of them. Although she has no lines and we shot M.O.S., her actions were really great, all of them were just so graceful and amazing and warmed your heart, and she played off of Feo’s actions and reactions beautifully as well. The wardrobe that Bao Tranchi & Co picked for her also just wowed me. It looked beautiful, so period-piece accurate and also showed up very cinematic on camera. One of my favorite scenes of the film, hands down.

The marriage thing was also an issue I wasn’t able to find a conclusive answer to during my research. All materials I came across said they were married in 1942, but anti miscegenation laws (outlawing marriage between members of different races) were lifted in 1948. So either Luke had the cajones to illegally marry her and just keep it on the down-low, or they just waited until ‘48 to tie the knot or to have it legally recognized. My theory was the former, since I thought it’d make for a more interesting story, so the subtext in that one scene is that Luke’s friend James Wong Howe is quickly taking their pictures in his studio discreetly before the authorities find out. I think JWH also married outside his race too (to American Novelist/Poet Sanora Babb), so maybe this is another unconscious reason why I had JWH be in the scene, helping a brother out with a plight he knows all too well.

Interesting bit I found on Wikipedia: “Babb met her future husband, Chinese-American cinematographer James Wong Howe, before World War II. They traveled to Paris in 1937 to marry, but their marriage was not recognized by the United States until 1948, after the law banning racial intermarriage was abolished. Due to the ban, Howe’s studio contract “morals clause” prohibited him from publicly acknowledging their marriage. They could not cohabit until married, so they had separate apartments in the same building.” I am thinking Keye Luke went through a similar situation. 


Ed Moy:   Much like in The Artist, music plays a key role in the film. Tell us about your collaboration with Composer George Shaw on the film’s score.

Timothy Tau: George is the man! I just have to say, music just adds a whole DIFFERENT dimension to the piece, especially if its coming from a Musical Genius like George Shaw. So, I basically finished a rough cut of the piece with no music and sent it to George. My feelings about the piece at that time were sort of mixed and my VC/AWC Mentors sort of tore it apart.

But after the music and Feo’s ADR went in, wow. I was blown away. The film sprung to life before my very eyes, and it just became something else entirely. Most likely because George specifically composed the music according to the time-scheme of the film, so all the cues happened at exactly the right moments. It was a bit insane seeing that version. Just a great feeling witnessing the many phenomenal talents coming together for this one project (George Shaw as composer, the super-talented Cast, Rick Darge’s RED EPIC Cinematography, the Writing, the Wardrobe) and seeing beautiful 1940s-esque cinematic magic being created, something very hard for me to say about my own work, but after I saw that cut, I was sold.

Ed Moy:  Tell us about your collaboration with DP Rick Darge on the film’s look and using the RED EPIC camera . You two worked previously on The Case

Timothy Tau: Yeah, Rick Darge is great, he is definitely like the Christopher Doyle to my Wong Kar-Wai, and deeply understands how to get the best shots, although sometimes my requests annoy or perplex him. When we shot “The Case” he lit it precisely enough to attain that great “Film Noir” lighting that worked so well in the Office scenes. He also shot another film that is still in post, “Incentivus” with Archie Kao, Cyndee San Luis, Jessika Van and Mei Melancon - and with that too the lighting and the image quality were just spectacular. Cinematic gold, really.

The man also won an Emmy for his Cinematography work, so I know everything I shoot with him will be the utmost highest possible quality. We shot on the RED EPIC too (the same camera used to shoot The Hobbit, the latest Spiderman movie and the last Pirates of the Caribbean movie), so after he gave me the footage I just fell in love - fell in love with the images and the stills and the story that those images were telling. If you really want to be a great Director I feel you really have to LOVE images and how images are framed and arranged and lit and tell a story, and Mr. Darge knows exactly how to get the images I am after or that I dream feverishly about. The quality of the RED EPIC is also so crisp and sharp! Its crazy! So I was very pleased with the quality of the final cut, which comes up as quite beautiful and cinematic. It definitely has to be seen on the BIG SCREEN to be fully enjoyed. 

Feodor Chin as Keye Luke
Ed Moy:  Also, I have to give you and the crew credit for capturing that whole era from the hair and makeup to the costume design and sets for the film.  Where did you get all those great period costumes?

Timothy Tau:  That would be my AMAZING Wardrobe Department of Bao Tranchi (Head Wardrober/Costumer), Anthony Martinez (Asst. Costume Designer) and Stephanie Pearl Minas (Costume Asst) for really taking the historical authenticity and accuracy of this 1940s period piece to a whole different level. I met them on the set of that 1890s Chinatown Project I was telling you about earlier, so I was very impressed by their work from that. I gave them reference materials/links and not only did they do such detailed analysis and study of the period, but Bao also had her own creative ideas about certain looks and things to try that really ended up making the Wardrobe/Costumes look AMAZING, like we stepped into a 1940s time-wrap. And there were also many hard-to-find Wardrobe pieces from the 1940s that we were able to get from the Warner Brothers Costume Department on their Studio Lot, which Bao has connections to (and which I had to fill quite a bit of paperwork to get access to, but it was certainly worth it). There’s just this great on-set picture someone took of a bunch of shoes from the 1940s that they arranged in a large U-shape. As soon as I saw that, I knew that everything about the costumes and wardrobe for this film would be 100% legitimate, and it would LOOK and FEEL like we were really in the 1940s. Best Wardrobe Department Ever. Really brilliant and talented team.

Toni Chiang also is an INCREDIBLE Makeup and Hair Artist and really goes the extra mile in making something look real and legitimate. For instance, mustaches. She will HAND-CRAFT a mustache by first pasting long hairs and then cutting them down to the desired length, so it just looks like real facial hair. Just incredible devotion to her craft. And the hair she did for many of the Actresses (Jennifer Chang, Elaine Kao, Cyndee San Luis) just nailed the look of the Actresses from the 1940s so much it was just uncanny. Really grateful to be able to work with such a talented Hair/Make-Up Artist. I also met her on the set of that 1890s Chinatown project, so was definitely convinced of her great work from that as well.

Finally, shout out to my ADs Rock Chang and David Elkin, who really kept the pace of the shoot on schedule (as much as possible) and helped me manage the structure of a chaotic shoot that involved 4-6 Crew Members, 4-5+ different Sets and  22+ Actors, including a dog.

Feodor Chin, Britt Prentice and David Huynh
Ed Moy:  Truly amazing work from cast and crew.  Tell us about the locations used in the film.  I think originally we discussed your using stages at East West Players but there were some scheduling issues.  And you were forced to come up with alternate places to film?

Timothy Tau: Yeah, there’s a great story behind that. I was initially trying to secure the EWP Stage / David Henry Hwang theater but that didn’t work out due to scheduling and budget constraints. But the theater that I ended up getting I think worked out so much better, and it was actually a theater owned by the son of Charlie Chaplin, called the Chaplin Stage at the El Centro Theater. Charlie Chaplin. Doesn’t get any more Vintage Hollywood or Iconic than that. The stage was also just literally down the block from the Gower Street entrance to Paramount Studios, so that really gave me the feeling that the Gods of Hollywood were smiling down on me and giving this project their blessing. 

Also, the scenes we shot on the Charlie Chaplin stage with Feo doing a monologue really sent chills up my spine (wish I could have used more of those scenes in the 5 minute version, but there will be more in the extended cut). The way that the Chaplin Stage at the El Centro Theater was positioned, and how I could control the lights worked out phenomenally well. Don’t think I would have been able to get the same angles/lighting in the EWP theater, so I always think it was just “meant to be” that we shot at the Charlie Chaplin stage.

 James Huang and Jennifer Chang recreate original Chan film scene
Ed Moy:  That’s awesome that you got to film near vintage Hollywood studios.   Tell us about the reaction you’ve received from those who have seen the early cut of the 5-minute version of the film that audiences will see at the LAAPFF premiere.

Timothy Tau: The reaction so far has been pretty amazing. I believe the first person I showed it too was my DP Rick Darge. I didn’t hear back from him for awhile, so I was feeling pretty shitty, but then he texted me back and said “Tim this is your best work. Great job!” - So respect and admiration from him (and other who I respect) is really all that matters to me.

I’ve also shown Actor (and fellow Berkeley alum) Will Yun Lee (from Hawaii Five-0, Die Another Day, Total Recall) a cut and he said “Great Job! Loved It!” - I also showed some of my Cast Members, swearing them to secrecy, and when Mei Melancon saw it she said it was “fresh” and “overall it’s going to be a crowd pleaser - plus, its funny (but not campy, just an overall positive vibe to it). I’m sold.” Another Actor I showed it too, Lin Oeding, a Stunt Coordinator who coordinates the stunts for major movies like Inception, Man of Steel (forthcoming), The Dark Knight Rises, Pirates of The Caribbean, Real Steel, Star Trek, etc., said it was “Badass” and my SFX/VFX guy Michael Chang at New Blue Vision called it “Awesome.”

The feedback really means a lot, since I feel I had to go through a lot of shit and take ALOT of flak to make this film (my VC AWC Mentors initially didn’t “get” the piece, didn’t know what it was about, berated me for making it too big and aimless and ambitious, but it was their tough love and feedback that ultimately shaped the film to what it is today). That and my parents keep giving me a hard time and ask me when I will quit filmmaking because they think it will ruin me. I think I need to show them the film. ;-) 

Ed Moy:  I hope your parents come to the premiere.  I’m glad everyone was able to contribute to to this project.  I applaud you, the cast and crew for all the work you’ve done getting this film ready for screening at LAAPFF this year.  I never imagined my short script and idea would turn into this.  When can we expect to see the full Director’s Cut version of “Keye Luke”?  I’m really look forward to seeing that extra footage. Hoping we can also get Keye Luke into HIFF here in Hawaii … maybe the fest can do a Charlie Chan retrospective alongside the film?  What other festivals will you plan to submit to?  I’d love to see Keye Luke play at a major film festival like Sundance, Toronto or Tribeca...

Chris Cusano and Feodor Chin in "Keye Luke"
Timothy Tau: Well, except for the additional Green Hornet footage, I do have all the footage I need to make the extended cut, and I probably should be done with that maybe end of May, early June and start submitting that wide to other Film Festivals as well, Film Festivals of all types and kinds like you mention, because I feel EVERYONE really needs to hear this message about who Keye Luke was, what he did, his contributions. And I think people in general would be interested in this era of Hollywood/American Cinema, especially after the success of films like “The Artist.”

“Keye Luke” is the second film in my “Monochromatic Trilogy,” with “The Case” being the first one. “The Case” was set in the future, “Keye Luke” was set in the past, is a 1940s period piece (“The past is never dead. Its not even past” is a great quote from William Faulkner that resonates with and summarizes a lot about this film). And I am planning a third one, set in present-day (Los Angeles probably), tentatively entitled “Golden Land” that is sort of this commentary/satire on Hollywood. It will be sort of influenced by Godard, Jim Jarmusch, etc., and I plan to work with my frequent collaborators and possibly some new faces. For now, I am picturing Archie Kao playing either a Director (me) or a fictionalized version of me, trying to get a movie made.

As for the Feature version of this idea, like I mentioned before, I would love to do a Feature about the generation of “Pioneers” of the 1940s-50s, the very first Asian American Actors, and that would be: Keye Luke (Chinese American), Sessue Hayakawa (Japanese American), Anna May Wong (Chinese American) and Philip Ahn (Korean American). Just a range of different ethnicities and genders covered by those four, and each of their “worlds” definitely will provide enough material for painting something bigger on the more epic canvas of a Feature film. Furthermore, I plan to give it maybe like a Tarantino-esque “Pulp Fiction” structure where one person’s story might bleed into the other’s and so-on, but the script and plot is still in its very early stages (in other words, it hasn’t even been written and is still an idea in my head). 

Comparing the original with the short film
I really made this film to remind people about the contributions of our predecessors, the pioneers that paved the way for us back in the 1940s, the very, very first Asian American and Minority Actors and Entertainers who broke new ground. The Headliners. The Opening Act. It just surprised me when I would ask anybody, even those people I thought were pretty knowledgeable about Asian/Asian American films, “do you know who Keye Luke is?” They would answer “no” or a look of confusion would register on their faces. 

In a day and age where these Youtube Mega Stars are all the craze (many of whom are Asian American), I feel now, more than ever, we have to be aware and conscious of our roots. Not just these Young Artists on Youtube, but everyone - every Asian American Entertainer, Actor, Filmmaker, Director, Artist, Writer - from every green-nosed novice to every seasoned veteran of the stage and screen, we all are indebted to the pioneering work of Keye Luke and his generation.  So, my ultimate hope is for people to be more aware of Keye Luke and his peers, what they did and what they stood for, and to understand the past so as to better be able to forge the future.

So, I hope this 2012, and at this year’s Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, you will join me in remembering those who came before us and who blazed the trail that we now walk on.

Keye Luke screens on Sunday, May 13, 2012 at 7:00 PM as part of the festival's “VC Digital Posse, Ver. 2012” Shorts Program at the Directors Guild of America.  

Tickets go on sale, Friday, April 13th at 12 Noon, for more info, visit the website at: http://laapff.festpro.com/films/detail/keye_luke_2012

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