What a difference an indie blockbuster makes. The last time I spoke to Better Luck Tomorrow writer and director Justin Lin, he was energetically doing the grassroots festival rounds, beating the shrubbery on the importance of Asian Americans making Asian Pacific Islander films with empowered, complex characters. Yet judging from the craft, ideas, humor, and humanity that went into Lin's compelling final product, luck was only one part of it. Rather, it was a game of wit, tenacity, and persuasion that archetypal overachiever Lin excelled at (he'd already made one indie, 1997's Shopping for Fangs). It probably seemed like gravy, with rice noodles on the side, when the MTV Filmsreleased Better Luck Tomorrow broke new ground during its 2003 opening weekend, earning almost $400,000 in 13 theaters, averaging $30,650 per screen and thus beating the averages of other MTV releases such as Jackass: The Movie.
Now, five years after I first talked to Lin, he has paid off the quarter-mil credit card debt he'd accrued in financing Better Luck Tomorrow and parlayed his success into studio work: 2006's Annapolis and The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, a sequel that attempted to correct the damage done by the first film's rewrite of Asian car culture. Lin is still one of the only API faces behind the camera in Hollywood ("At directors guild meetings you definitely stick out," he confesses with a chuckle), but in the process of gaming the studio system, he's been able to return to what he calls "passion projects." In fact, earlier in the day of our interview, he'd just completed Finishing the Game his imagined retelling of the making of Bruce Lee's posthumous cash-in deathsploitation flick, Game of Death a comic take on Asian American masculinity, Hollywood, and the stories we tell ourselves to make it through the next scene.
SFBG How did Finishing the Game come to pass?
JUSTIN LIN The idea has been with me since I was a kid. It's funny because as a filmmaker, there's the journey you kind of dream up, and there's the reality that hits you. You take out 10 credit cards and are in six-figure debt it does affect your choices. I was fortunate. Better Luck Tomorrow opened up avenues, and one of those was to make studio movies. In reality, not many people get those opportunities, and it's a whole different set of challenges and rules. It's insane. Walking on set on a big Hollywood action movie, I would think, "$250,000 was the budget of Better Luck Tomorrow here you spend that buying lunch."
SFBG Is it harder to get films with Asian American narratives and Asian American characters made?
JL Yeah, even for a $250,000 budget movie that's still tons of money, as far as Asian American film goes, and it's all about gross profits and getting the films out, distribution and exhibition.
It's funny when I get into the studio world, I go to marketing meetings and meetings that most people don't get into, and I've learned it's all about numbers. Better Luck Tomorrow proved there was an audience, and it crossed over. But with Finishing the Game, the conversation always went back to Better Luck Tomorrow, because as far as Asian American films go, that's the only thing they have to refer to, and it's a challenge to prove it's a valid business model for investors. I hope to conquer that with Finishing the Game you can't be treating these films as if they're big-event blockbusters. Hopefully we are building our community with shared experiences.
SFBG You made Finishing the Game independently?
JL I approached studios early on. But I could see them wanting to develop it into a kung fu movie.