One of the most dynamic female documentarians today, Jessica Yu, has made the big jump into narrative features with the Asian American-led comedy, Ping Pong Playa'. The film is about a carefree guy named C-Dub, who would rather gripe about his missed basketball prospects than get a solid job or take up the family sport of ping pong -- that is, until his mother and brother are hurt, and he has to save the family's honor at the ping pong championship. Cinematical got a chance to chat with Jessica, after the world premiere of the film, about how she got into narrative features, what it's like to make a ping pong movie, and what's next on the docket.
Cinematical: How are you enjoying the fest so far?
Jessica Yu: Oh, it's been great.
Cinematical: Is this your first TIFF?
JY: Yeah... I had a short here a long time ago, but it was a short...
Cinematical: Sour Death Balls?
Yeah, I think it was Sour Death Balls. Yeah, I'm pretty sure that was it. So anyway, it's nice to be here.
Cinematical: You used to be on the US National Fencing Team, but you ended up doing a film about ping pong. Can you tell us a little about that?
JY: Why I turned my back on my fencing brethren? Well, I think that there's just something about the idea of a less-than-marquis sport. For a while, I wanted the film to be about badminton. Thank god it's not about badminton, because trying to CGI a badminton birdie... We didn't have to CGI Jimmy [Tsai]. He trained like you wouldn't believe, so he could really play. But for some of our other actors, we had to CGI some stuff. If we had a birdie... forget it. I'm glad it didn't turn out to be that.
Cinematical: How did you get involved in the project?
JY: Cherry Sky Films, which is our production company, had helped me with a documentary a few years ago called In the Realms of the Unreal. We had just hit it off, and had this idea that we could collaborate on something. Joan Huang, who is one of our two producers, approached me about the idea of doing a comedy, an Asian American-themed comedy, about ping pong. And I was so excited by that idea, and I had seen a couple of years ago that Jimmy had made these fake commercials for a sportswear company he started. I just thought his character was so great – he was hilarious and more than a little obnoxious, but also smart -- sometimes playing the race card, sometimes not. I thought he was a really rich character, and I thought: Well, we've got to put that guy in this story. That's how it started. Jimmy and I wrote the script over a period of... I guess it was probably like 6 months, or 8 months or something.
Cinematical: This is your first narrative feature, and your first, full-length screenwriting collaboration. How was it collaborating on the script and then directing a full feature?
JY: You know what's weird is that it was so strangely smooth. I mean, not that there weren't challenges along the way, but the biggest thing is like working with Joan, Jimmy, and then, we had a lot of J's, our executive producer is Jeff Gou, and then Anne Clements is our other producer. Just this group... We only had to answer to ourselves, and so all of the decisions, the difficult ones, we didn't have to please anybody or get our casting past somebody else. I've done some TV directing, so I've worked with actors through that. It was just really fun, and I'm a big believer in like... Um, the first time you do something, it usually works out okay. I don't know, because you kind of don't know where you're going to mess up, and you do your homework maybe almost a little too much -- you know, just trying to anticipate anything that can go wrong. So, the actual shooting was really smooth, and fun, and we had too much of a good time sometimes. It was really great.
Cinematical: Asian American film, especially a comedy, is pretty much non-existent in the States, at least for a full cast. Did you have certain goals you wanted to accomplish with this film?
JY: There were a couple of things, just thematically. We didn't want it to be an Asian American-themed comedy, where only Asian Americans would get the humor. But we also didn't want to cater too much. We didn't want the film to be explaining humor to anybody. We wanted it to be funny on its own terms. It just has to be a comedy first. So, we didn't push a lot of the cultural humor, but it comes out anyway. I think that there's a certain point, probably with every minority group, where, you know, in terms of movies and things, where certain things should happen. We should be able to have a really obnoxious main character, not someone who has to be like the Asian American superman. But also, I think we wanted it to be faithful more to Jimmy and I – what our upbringings were like, and have that play mainstream without having to really change things too much. Again, like I said, to cater to one audience.. So that was the main thing, but we'd also just like it to play for a large, general audience – and that was what was so fun about showing it here. Just a nice, big, general audience, and we had such a wonderful response.
Cinematical: Jimmy mentioned that he played against some kids before, in real life. Is there anything specific from your life that you added into the film?
JY: Oh... Well, my dad, although he used to do this shirtless... But there's the scene where dad's frying SPAM, and he's singing Chinese opera at the top of his lungs -- my dad used to do that. Only, he would do this like, and frying with SPAM without a shirt on is probably not something I'd recommend, but when we brought guys home or whatever, we'd just be guaranteed that my dad would be singing Chinese opera, and walking around with his shirt off. Being like the, you know, remote, strange Chinese dad guy.
Cinematical: Protagonist was a very stylized documentary that has interviews and remembrances mixed in with puppets and Euripides, and you then went to a plain sports comedy. Was it a challenge not to have that artistic spin on things?
JY: Not really. I think mainly because each film is going to have its own parameters. You know, there's just the way you need to make that story work, so I don't feel like it was... Obviously, it was a big adjustment, but it wasn't a huge conflict, or anything. And I didn't feel like there was any, you know, "Oh, I've got to put some arty spin onto it." Protagonist, like you said, is very stylized, but its very classic storytelling in a lot of ways, and so with this, it's also classic storytelling, just in a completely different vein.
Cinematical: One of the strongest parts of the film is definitely the group of kids. Can you talk a little about the casting process and the kids themselves?
JY: Sure, sure. Well, I actually have to tell you -- I was scared about whether we were going to find the kids that we needed, because kids in general... There are a lot of good Asian American actors out there, but when you're talking about kids, there's not a lot of Asian families who really push their kids towards acting. I was worried. When we cast those three, actually, it was very close to when we started. The three of them came in on the same day, and we were like: "Oh, My god!" I mean, we were so worried. We were thinking about whether we'd have to change the age of some of the characters. But, you know, it really worked out. Part of the thing with casting kids is that you cast them close to what their personalities are. And these kids -- there are definitely elements of the characters in them, and they just totally made it their own. Kids, they kind of come in, and it sounds natural coming out of their mouth because they make it sound like them. But you know, also with Jimmy, that this is his first role ever.
Cinematical: So you have Jimmy in his first role ever, kids, ping pong balls flying around the community center. Were there any challenges to shoot something like that?
JY: Oh, gosh. The biggest challenge actually was in the whole tournament sequence, because it's about 20% of the film, and so much had to happen. There were all these different beats when he is in direct elimination, and then the fact that, you know, it's low-budget and we don't have a lot of extras -- I was just trying to make it feel full. And, I was trying to get the angles we wanted. I think I drove the poor script supervisor crazy, because I just said: "Put all of these shots under like scene 112," and she's be like: "but it keeps changing!" and I'd say: "Don't worry about it, we'll fix it later." But it was definitely hard -- just time-wise, people-wise, and resources-wise. Luckily, Jimmy could actually play ping pong.
Cinematical: C-Dub's friend, JP Money, speaks Chinese. Does the actor really? Or just in this movie?
JY: Khary Payton is a very talented actor who does NOT know Chinese, and Jimmy made him tapes of the lines and everything, and he studied. You know, you could just feel the guy sweating on the day, and it was really, really hard for him because Chinese, and I actually don't speak Chinese, so I feel... Actually, okay, the worst thing... This is like a terrible story, but... So, he comes out, and he's got to say these lines, and he's just having a really tough time, and we filled up the stands with all these Chinese ladies who are all giving him advice. He's trying to speak, and one woman looks at him, and there's this line in Chinese that says: "You know what I'm saying?" And woman goes: "No, I don't. That is all wrong." And she totally went like, off the page. And he looks at me, asking for help. I got the worst case of the giggles, and I had to just go and laugh because that was my past, being in Chinese school and not knowing what the hell was going on, and being the lame person who could not pronounce stuff. But then, I recovered. But he really tried. It's just a very very hard thing to pull off.
Cinematical: Since you don't speak Chinese, did Jimmy help you with the newscasts and other things that were in Chinese?
JY: For some things, like the newscaster, there were lines that I had written, and he had a friend who could translate them. But a lot of times, you still have to bring it to the actors, because Jimmy... You know how he was in Chinese school and all this stuff? Still, when it comes to writing and everything, it's like a whole other level of complexity. But the actors still need some chance to make the vernacular work for them. Like: "Oh, this line, actually, I wouldn't say it like this, it's too formal." Of course, we would just defer to what sounded right to them.
Cinematical: I definitely have to ask about the strategically-placed basketball thunks. Usually, you don't go into a film fest movie and have it already edited for profanity.
JY: Yeah, well, you know, the thing is I think... Audiences are sophisticated enough that we just don't believe the character should swear if they're not actually swearing. We were like, how do we get around this? And I didn't want to have conventional bleeps, because I think that just takes you out of the world, so I just had this idea of having the basketball thumps. I did the swearing editing first, and then people said: "Well gosh, you know, I wonder how kids are going to feel about the swearing?" And I said: "Well, it's all bleeped." And they replied: "It is?" No one could hear it, so we had to extend those a little bit to get the swear words out. But, we decided not to second-guess the whole ratings thing at this point.
Cinematical: You're not a ping pong player, and Jimmy learned, so did you just wing it, or did you have someone around to check accuracy?
JY: We decided that we had to be absolutely authentic. So this was cool -- we actually had this fantastic husband and wife team, Diego and Wei. Diego's been a consultant on Balls of Fury -- everything from Forrest Gump to Balls of Fury. And his wife, she was the Chinese Olympic champion. They were the nicest people on earth. We were scoping out the different ping pong places, and everyone said: "You guys have got to talk to Diego and Wei." So, that's how Jimmy learned. Diego was also in the film, in a bit part, to help Peter Paige, who plays the nemesis. He didn't play, but he would learn a few strokes to try to look convincing. But Diego was amazing -- not only through training Jimmy, but then he was helping with all of the choreography, and also through all the CGI. Thank God, he knew after effects, so he would do a tracking of the ball, that the CGI guys then could use to make sure everything looked like it was the right speed, that the ball was the right size, and all that stuff.
We got really lucky, but it was funny. Jimmy was spending like 5 hours a night at the seniors center in Pasadena getting his butt whipped by all these senior citizens. And that's the kind of sport it is, where you can really... If you have the technique, you can beat other people who probably could beat you at basketball, which is what Jimmy would say: "Well, I could wipe 'em up on the basketball court!" And I was like: "Jimmy, that's not the game at hand right now."
Cinematical: You've covered Darger, you've had kids sucking on really sour things, you've brought together wildly different violent stories, and then tackled ping pong. What is your next project?
JY: Well, I have an episodic job coming up, and then in November, there's a couple of ideas that I'd like to start working on. And, Jimmy and I have another project that we're just starting to work on. I don't want to make a big switch just to narrative features. I'd like to keep going back and forth, but there are a couple scripts I'm excited about.
Cinematical: How about documentaries?
JY: I actually have a documentary I'm working on right now, but it's kind of something that's evolving. It's about a place in LA. It's a deaf school, so it's not something that has a hard and fast time-line. I'm continuing to work on that along with other projects.